Friday, October 31, 2008
The Ghost of Elizabeth I
This is such an honor for me, a ghost story writer, to guest blog at the Stiletto Gang on Halloween, the 3000 year old Celtic celebration honoring the end of harvest and the first days of winter. Later this evening, as the skies grow dark and cold, and the veil that separates the living from the dead grows thin, the spirits of the dead will once again walk among us. There was a day when the thought of ghosts made me nervous. There are some characters in history that should not be allowed to walk this earth again. The ghost of Jack the Ripper creeping through the shadows of my kitchen doesn’t appeal to me, but I guess you can’t choose your ghosts any more than you can choose your family.
If I could choose a ghost to haunt my haunts, I would choose the ghost of Elizabeth I of England. I first read a biography of Elizabeth I when I was ten years old, and I was mesmerized. The thought of a woman prospering, excelling, and conquering a man’s world appealed to me, an abused child, in ways that I could never put into words. “I will never be, by violence, constrained to do anything,” Elizabeth once said. It wasn’t her successful reign as Queen of England as much as her stubborn resistance to gender-based oppression that attracted me, even as a child.
Elizabeth I was born in 1533, the second daughter of the infamous King Henry VIII. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded three years later. Anne was Henry’s second wife, and when she failed to provide him with a male heir, he reacted in a manner that was to become his trademark response, exposing Elizabeth at a very young age to the undeniable truth of her times—it was, indeed, a man’s world.
Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England in 1558 when she was twenty-five years old. It was a time of great mystery and intrigue when enemies were poisoned and queens lost their heads. Elizabeth’s remarkable life was fraught with moments of intense fear that she could not outwardly show as it would have weakened her image and placed her in danger. I sometimes wonder if it saddened her to know she could never have a “normal” love relationship with a man. I wonder if it was, as some have speculated, a fear of a power struggle that kept her from making a marital commitment. “I may not be a lion, but I am a lion’s cub and I have a lion’s heart,” Elizabeth once said. She certainly was capable of feeling love, but perhaps she reserved her love for her people and never really longed for marriage as much as one might think.
Elizabeth I ruled over England for forty-four years, a surprisingly long reign. And it seems as if her familiarity with the daily routine of a ruler has kept her bound to Windsor Castle, the official home of British royalty. According to witnesses, Elizabeth’s spirit, dressed in black, still walks the halls, and occasionally the walls, of the castle. Elizabeth’s ghost has also been spotted at the Tower of London where she was imprisoned by her older, half-sister, Mary. Elizabeth spent many long, painful days in the tower staring out the windows, waiting for the soldiers to lead her to her death.
If I could speak with the ghost of Elizabeth, I would ask her where she found her strength. What was its source--ambition, fear, a love of power, or something deeper, spiritual, and personal? Perhaps it was faith in her self, in her belief that she was destined for something better. In this day and age when we rely on drugs, alcohol and doctors to give us strength and make our world seem brighter, I think we all could use a little faith like Queen Elizabeth’s.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
The 2012 Amazing Political Race
Political campaigns are too long and we don't get any real details about what the candidates propose to do until the last few months – if then. Let's do it differently next time. Each party gets four players. Plus there are "invitation only" slots (determined by an internet poll).
Instead of campaign speeches and rallies – I propose we require the candidates for the highest offices in the land to run...literally "run" a race and more. May the best man or woman win. (Point values would be assigned to each event – winner 5 points, runner up 4, and so on. Points would be cumulative.)
The first month – Endurance
1. Run a 100 yard dash or a 10K marathon – candidates' choice.
2. The next week we'd move on to bowling or golf.
3. Basketball or tennis next.
4. Balance beam or parallel bars.
The second month – Talent
1. Sing the national anthem in a football stadium.
2. Perform the Rumba and Jitterbug with a professional dancer.
3. Play a medley of Billy Joel songs on the piano, flute, or guitar – candidates' choice.
4. Whistle the theme from the Sound of Music.
The third month – General Knowledge
2. Trivial Pursuit
3. Do You Know More Than An Average Third Grader?
4. I also propose a few "must pass" multiple choice history, geography, and basic science tests.
The fourth month – Writing, Reading Comprehension, and Truth Telling
1. The candidates must sit quietly in a room, with no handlers, read and then write a 3000 word essay on the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights (extra points for good spelling). Maximum time allowed – twelve hours. Copies of the completed essays would be published for all to review.
2. One live "debate" with hundreds of questions will be conducted. Each candidate will be sequestered in a separate "cone of silence." Each would be asked the same question, they would respond to that question. If they don't answer a question, they would be eliminated from the contest immediately by the sounding of a loud gong. If they answer the question, they are returned to their cone. This process would continue until no candidate was left on stage. (Note – points are assigned based on correctness, creativeness, and amusing delivery.)
Points are totaled. Top three get to tour the nation for two weeks, giving speeches, running ads, and slinging mud. Then we vote.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Control Freak: A Life
My husband went to Cape Cod last week with his class of seventh graders for a week of whale watching, nature hikes, and science exploration. Me? I was home with the kids, who ate Elio’s pizza every night while I had a bowl of cereal and a glass of chardonnay. There’s a certain freedom in not having to cook a meal every night—not that Jim expects that—and by being able to put your pajamas at six thirty, just in time to see what our presidential nominees have said about each other that goes beyond, “nanny-nanny-poopoo”. (The answer? Not much.) Or what their running mates and constituents have said or done to help either candidate effectively lose the race. Say what you want about either candidate, but it ain’t easy being them.
Anyway, after two days of nighttime cereal and pajama wearing, I got bored. And when I get bored, things can take a seriously dramatic turn around here. And by dramatic turn, I mean furniture gets moved around. All of it. At once. By me. I don’t let anything like a lack of upper-body strength or the absence of professional movers stand in the way of moving any furniture, be it a wing chair or a heavy sideboard. When I decide I want something moved, by golly, it will be moved.
So I moved a bench from the hallway into the living room (looks great), a chair to a nice corner of the room and away from the television (perfect for reading), rearranged a few odd pieces, and voila—new living room. I was very happy with the way things turned out.
Jim called that night to see how things were going.
Me: Now, if you were me, you would probably have a complete melt down when I tell you this, but because you’re you, I’m hoping you don’t.
Jim (steeling himself on the other end of the phone line): What’s going on?
Me (inhaling deeply): I rearranged the living room.
Jim (exhaling loudly): That’s it?
Jim: Well, that’s better than what I thought you were going to say.
See, the thing is, Jim’s not a control freak. But I am. And if he had called me and said that he had rearranged the furniture in my absence, that news would have ruined my trip. I would fret the whole way home, an inner monologue playing out in my twisted brain: where did he put the couch? What about my mirror? Where will the three framed pictures of France go? And will they look good there? God, I bet the whole thing got screwed up! I hate change of any kind but that still doesn’t account for the iron fist that I impose on everything. Once, he had supervised a fence being installed in the back yard while I was a national sales meeting for my company. I kept him on the phone for at least forty-five minutes, hectoring him as he described exactly what the fence guy had done. Years later, I have no idea what it was that seemed so important at the time about the placement of the fence, but back then? It was about as important as one thing can get, and I’ve been through some pretty important life events.
What is it that makes some of us cling to things that really don’t make a difference? What makes us control freaks? I think it is a way to place order on a chaotic life—when I was working full-time out of the house, traveling the equivalent of three months a year, and was away from my family for far longer than I wanted to be, it was my way of imposing order on things or making it seem like I was involved or in control. I was definitely involved, but definitely not in control, which made me way to control things even more.
Things do not go more smoothly because I’m a control freak, and while I know that intuitively, it doesn’t change the fact that I have to have my hand in every single thing that happens in the house. And I also know the breath of fresh air that wafts into a room when I relinquish control of something. So why does the control freak persist?
Dedicated Stiletto readers: who out there is a control freak? Who’s a recovering control freak? And what advice do you have for this work in progress?
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Booksignings and Other Stuff
We just returned home from a weekend trip to Vegas to celebrate our 57th wedding anniversary. Yep, 57 years together--can you imagine? Frankly, I lived it and I can't.
No, we didn't go to a show or hit the casinos. We went to my sister's, she and her hubby took us out to a nice dinner. Afterwards we watched the latest Indiana Jones movie on TV and screamed out in all the exciting parts like we used to when we were kids. We spent the whole weekend with them and did a lot of reminiscing, watched home movies of when we were little, and ate a lot of good meals.
Sis and her hubby along with mine, accompanied me to a book signing at Cheesecake and Crime in Henderson. Though we didn't have a lot of people, the quality was great. Two of my cop friends from the Public Safety Writers Association came along with one of the wives, who is a fan of my Tempe series and the president of Epic came. These are two writers groups that I'm very active with. We had a great time talking writing and just talking. Oh, and I did sell a couple of books. And yes, I bought some cheesecake for our dessert that night.
While we were driving to Vegas I read David Morrell's book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, one of the best books I've read on the craft of writing.
We also had some white knuckle driving excitement. We took one of our grown grandsons with us who had never been to Vegas to a friend's for the weekend. (He did do all the things people usually do when visiting Vegas.) This friend lives right off the strip which meant we had to drive in all that traffic to both drop him off and pick him up. Thank goodness for our Magellan or we'd never have made it. The offramp we were supposed to get off on was closed--and people in Vegas are dare devil drivers.
We managed to get there and back unscathed--but it was pretty scary at times. Scarier than ghosts and haunted houses.
That's it--I'm going to watch Dancing with the Stars and go to bed!
Monday, October 27, 2008
The Glory of Grandparents
Charlie, my firstborn, was eight. His birthday present from my mother was an airplane trip with her to Smithfield, North Carolina, the small town where her brother lived. The breakfast menu, as astonished Charlie reported to his younger, envious brothers, had been approved by the same woman who had insisted on at least two vegetables at every meal when I was growing up. Years later, Charlie still talks about the magic of that trip, how special and grown up he felt, and how much fun he had with his Grandma.
I thought about that journey last week when Barack Obama left the campaign trail to visit Toot, his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham. He mentioned Mrs. Dunham several times during the campaign, but most poignantly during his nomination acceptance speech in August. “Thank you to my grandmother, who helped raise me and is sitting in Hawaii somewhere right now because she can’t travel, but who poured everything she had into me and who helped me become the man I am today. Tonight is for her.”
None of my grandparents were alive by the time I was born. Three of the four were immigrants and I always wished I’d had the opportunity to talk to them about their experiences coming to this country, leaving behind everything and everyone they had known. The heroism of their decisions is still staggering to me. As a creature of habit, I often have self-doubt that I would have had the courage to leave my parents and family at a young age, in full knowledge that I would never see them again. But of course, their bravery made my life possible.
Barack Obama credits his grandparents for raising him for much of his childhood. His experience is not unique. According to a joint study of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Brookdale Foundation Group, Casey Family Programs, Child Welfare League of America, Children's Defense Fund, and Generations United, “more than six million children - approximately 1 in 12 - are living in households headed by grandparents (4.5 million children) or other relatives (1.5 million children). In many of these homes, grandparents (approximately 2.4 million) and other relatives are taking on primary responsibility for the children’s needs.” It’s a growing problem.
Unconditional love and acceptance is the hallmark of parenting, but most especially of grandparenting. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who assume parenting responsibilities at a time when retirement looms. But to all grandparents, whose love and laughter enrich our children’s lives, we are eternally grateful.
The Hebrew expression, L’dor va Dor, means from one generation to the next. It refers to the generational continuity of traditions and knowledge, just like Madelyn Dunham passed on her values and work ethic to Barack Obama. This is what grandparents have to offer to our children. And for that, we say, Amen.
Please share a favorite story of your own grandparents.
Friday, October 24, 2008
Writing Like a Woman
When Wanda Nell Culpepper first introduced herself to me, I already knew her well. She’s very much like my late mother – stubborn, feisty, hard-working, loyal to family and friends. And she has a temper. Wanda Nell earns her living as a waitress in a small café, the Kountry Kitchen, and she has another job during the night-time hours at Budget Mart. She has a family to take care of, and since her shiftless ex-husband, Bobby Ray, got murdered in the first book in the series, Flamingo Fatale, she doesn’t expect help from anyone else.
Writing about Wanda Nell, her family and friends, and the small town in Mississippi where she lives is like coming home for me. I grew up with these people, they’re my family, and I never have to stop to ask myself, what would Wanda Nell do in this situation? I just know. I know what my mother and her sisters or my dad’s sisters would do in a situation, or what my grandmothers or my great-aunts would do. You stick by your family, even when they’re dumber than a clod of dirt, and you help anyone who needs it. Those have been the themes of each book in the Trailer Park series. In the fifth book, Leftover Dead, due out in January 2009, Wanda Nell gets the chance to solve a thirty-one-year-old murder and achieve justice for a nameless young woman. I think my mother and all the aunts would approve.
Jimmie Ruth Evans
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The Party elders, understanding that Roosevelt was sick (but not sharing that information with the public) insisted that he replace Vice President Henry Wallace, who was feared to be too pro-Soviet, with a little-known hat-making Senator from Missouri, Harry Truman.
I don’t know why releasing complete, current medical records, if you’re running for President or Vice President of the United States, is optional. If you want to go to kindergarten or college; if you enlist in the military or want to be a professional pilot, you are required to undergo a physical exam and submit the results to the appropriate authorities. Why do we demand less of the candidates for the highest offices in our nation?
Senator McCain did release some of his records, but under such stringent circumstances that it was difficult for medical professionals to interpret them. Senator Obama had his doctor release a one-page, undated letter that declares he’s healthy. Senator Biden released a limited version of his records, but no information on whether there has been follow-up testing to the aneurysm surgery of 20 years ago.
And then we have Governor Palin who until yesterday refused to release any health records at all. No explanation had been given for her decision, except that a spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign declared that the media has been "unfair" to the Governor, therefore they wouldn’t release the files. Which is the moral equivalent of a “nyah, nyah, nyah, you can’t make me” response. A reasonable approach if you’re in preschool, but scarcely what we expect of our elected leaders.
Frankly, the failure to release the records only opens the door to intense speculation about what she is trying to hide (which may be nothing at all). The conspiracy theories are likely worse than the truth. Mostly it reflects poorly on her concept of being a passenger on the Straight Talk Express. Late yesterday, she declared that she would release her medical records, but we have yet to see them or see how complete they are.
I understand that everyone is entitled to privacy and that health records are extremely personal. I don’t have a right to know the intimate details of Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, Cindy McCain and Todd Palin’s medical histories. They are not running for office. But the top four candidates – I do think there is a valid reason for full disclosure.
I believe that all Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates need to be forthcoming about their medical histories. I don’t need to know if they have been treated for strep throat or what allergies they have or even if someone has an enlarged prostate (presuming it’s a benign condition). I do think that an evaluation of the candidates’ health records by an independent medical professional would ensure that no medical problems have been hidden or downplayed. The stakes are too high not to have all the information each of us needs before we cast our votes.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
As my children get older and begin to understand that we are indeed a very fortunate family in so many ways, not the least of which is financially, we talk a lot about giving back to the community, both small and large. Once every six weeks, as a family, we get together with another family and cook and serve a meal for anywhere from thirty to fifty people at a local church. It takes place every Saturday night and is free to anyone who attends the dinner. We have been doing this since child #1 was about seven and now that child #2 is nine, he is part of the program as well. We cooked and served the other night to a crowd of about thirty-five: men, women, young, old, families, and singles. It was a chilly night here in New York, and most of our guests made the trek on foot. One of our guests told us that he had spent the previous night sleeping outside. We made every effort to make sure he didn't spend a second night outdoors, directing him to a local place that is home to an group of Franciscans.
We are lucky that we have this opportunity to give back and to do it as a family. I know a lot of people who tell me that they would love to volunteer but don’t know where to start. Well, today, I have a suggestion. My good friend, Mary Beth Powers, works for Save the Children, and is the campaign chief of Survive to 5, a program that is dedicated to keeping children around the world healthy and free from what we here in the United States consider preventable diseases. Mary Beth wrote me last week with her latest initiative called Knit One, Save One. Here’s the information:
I am sure you and your children are all super busy, but I just thought I would give you some info on our crafting campaign and you just might find a reason to help your children make a cap or at least to write a letter to the President Elect suggesting that the next administration has an important role to play to reduce the unnecessary deaths of millions of children from preventable diseases… You can download a KNIT ONE, SAVE ONE kit at the website below (but it will ask for your contact info to keep you “in the loop” on the project).
If they are in a club or group that would be willing to participate that is even better! They can plan a knit-in and I could even help with press outreach! If you are a teacher or in a school, maybe we could create an event for interested students afterschool so many can help.
If you want to understand the project – we have a couple of videos on YouTube about “Knit One, Save One”. And some celebrity knitters will soon be on our website with their cool caps as well.
It is a nice way to get people and especially children engaged in an issue beyond our own borders and to reach across the miles and give a small gift and good wishes to a mother and a baby on the other side of the world.
Thanks for considering this request.
Are you a CRAFTIVIST? Be 1 of the 10 million people who take action to help us save a baby's life. To learn more and find out how you can help, go to file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/cgrasso/Application%20Data/Microsoft/Signatures/www.savethechildren/surviveto5.
I don’t think I could say it any better than Mary Beth. Although I’m not a knitter, I know people who are and I will do everything I can to get them involved. That’s my contribution. And it might just occur to one of them to give me free knitting lessons!
So, if you’re out there and you’re a “Craftivist” or just want to do something to give back, this is your chance. Knit a cap and save a life.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Mystery Conventions and Rules
The people who run these things can certainly make whatever rules they want. Bouchercon committee voted down what LCC is using to allow people to appear on panels.
Also, they've discussed the fact that some authors are just too pushy with their books. You know what, I've gone to all sorts of cons and I've never run into a pushy author. I've run into a few who are a bit on the "stuck on themselves" side, but that's all.
Usually most authors have been absolutely delightful to chat with. Recently I had the opportunity to dine with and introduce David Morrell, author of all those wonderful thrillers including First Blood of Rambo fame. A most unassuming and delightful person.
I've been a member of MWA for years, but have decided that the discrimination against small press authors just goes against my grain too much. I won't be renewing that membership.
And back to mystery cons--I'll be sticking to those who only care about good books, not who published them.
Discrimination is discrimination no matter how you look at it.
This is my opinion and I'm sticking to it.
Monday, October 20, 2008
We know that the economy is in the tank and that it’s not just Wall Street Fat Cats who are suffering. The only thing grinning this Halloween may be the Jack-o-Lanterns. Our kids may see much lighter trick-or-treat bags. Gone are the days when neighbors distributed full-sized candy bars to the doorbell ringers. Look for mini-candy bars, one to a customer, but please, this is no time for raisin boxes. Chocolate-induced endorphins are definitely in order.
Until this economic downturn, Halloween has been a retailers dream. In 2007, Halloween-related merchandise sales were up 10 percent from the previous year, which had seen a record 22 percent growth from 2005. But now, we’re all tightening our belts and reconsidering our costume options. How about one of the fashion catastrophes from my closet, with a cardboard sign that says "Glamour Don't"? Jackets with shoulders that could have rivaled any professional linebacker – whatever was I thinking?
One retail executive suggested that “consumers who have been anxious and uncertain for the past several months may be looking at Halloween as an opportunity to forget the stresses of daily life and just have a little fun.” I sure hope so, but frankly it sounds like wishful thinking to me.
I’m not suggesting that we dress our kids in costumes of sackcloth and ashes. Surely, we need some fun, especially under current conditions. But this is an opportunity to scale down a holiday that seems to be getting out of control. So let’s focus more on the highjinks, and less on the over-the-top decorations. Let’s encourage our kids imaginations and help them make costumes, instead of buying them.
The economy has played enough tricks on us; but we can put the treat back into October 31.
What are you planning for Halloween -- and what kind of candy do you hand out?
Friday, October 17, 2008
Andy Sipowicz and the Case of the Fictional Detective
I have to admit, I have a love-hate relationship with fictional detectives. For every Andy Sipowicz, who was great, there are twenty-five or so who make me root for the bad guys. Sipowicz was very real to me. Dennis Franz, who played him on NYPD Blue must have hung around some of the people I knew because his attitude, his dress, everything seemed so dead-on.
Real life provides the template for cop shows and cop books, but it is only natural that cinematic policing bleeds back into the real thing as well. Some real cops try to act larger than life but few of them seem to be able to modulate their performance so that they come across as something other than a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough talking sleuth of fiction and television. One night I was hanging around the squad room in the Harlem precinct where I worked. We were the first officers on the scene of a fatal shooting and were giving statements to the investigators. It was close to 1 AM and the covering detective supervisor--a sergeant--had just arrived. He took over the squad room with his loud, opinionated demeanor. I had the distinct impression that the detectives were secretly carrying on their business in accordance with their routines while only pretending to follow his commands. During this episode, he received a call about another homicide from the 20th Precinct, which at the time had a significant gay population. As he spoke on the phone, his voice became louder and louder until it was impossible to ignore his contribution to the conversation. When he was sure he had everyone/s attention, he shouted to the detective on the line, "So whattya tellin’ me? Is it a homicide or a HOMO-cide?" As pleased as possible with himself, he looked around the room for approval. I could imagine Sipowicz asking the same question, but not playing it for laughs.
I want my fictional detectives to be more like my real detectives; fallible, vain, arrogant, self-centered, occasionally brilliant but more often instinctual and possessing a people sense that more than compensates for their fictional counterpart’s ability to see pillows arranged on the couch in such a way that it exonerates the housekeeper but implicates the gardener.
I want my fictional detectives to be less dedicated and I want them to have to deal with the vagaries of victims who hung their cloaks of innocence in the great coat check of life a long time ago and immediately lost the redemption ticket.
My fictional detectives can even be coldhearted racist, sexist pigs, if they have to be, in order to move the story along. I want them to spend all day and half the night investigating the fatal shooting of a young woman in a bar named Tres Marias, only to have one of them ask another if he wants to grab a drink after work and then reply, when asked where, “there’s a new place down the street called Dos Marias.”
I want my fictional detective to be a cynical and lazy malcontent who can be galvanized into action only when his city, the one he is pledged to serve and protect , is threatened by an evil presence so perverse and insatiable that soon housing prices will be affected. I want my fictional detectives to tell a slashing victim, upon seeing the jack o'lantern grin of a scar across his cheek , “Hey, chicks dig that.”
I guess, for me, most fictional sleuths are just too serious, too noble and too dedicated to suspend my disbelief. And I have no trouble with cartoon character detectives like Dirty Harry. They work for me because they don’t pretend to portray reality. Give me your overweight, your intox, your bitter veteran detective yearning to be free and receiving disability checks. Give me a detective trying to get out on the heart bill who calls from the recovery room and says, “I’ve got great news! I have a 70% blockage!”
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Who's Minding the Kids?
My employer gave me three months of maternity leave, unpaid except for my unused vacation. Not working wasn’t an option. We needed my salary. I was lucky to find a mother in the neighborhood who was willing to babysit, for essentially half of my salary. On my first day back to work, I pulled on a pantsuit with an elastic waistband, dabbed at the spitup on my shoulder, got in my car and cried hysterically while I drove to the office.
Get a group of working mothers together and inevitably the conversation turns to childcare. I’m willing to bet that 99 percent of moms are dissatisfied, to a greater or lesser degree, with their arrangements. For those with the resources to hire private nannies, the quality and cost of such care is a constant worry – hence the explosion of hidden nannycams. For those who opt for home or commercial daycare, there is the concern about a lack of one-on-one interaction, frequent staff turnover, and inevitably, a baby with a never-ending runny nose due to the constant exposure to viruses. Even if it’s grandma who is the baby sitter, there are often tensions between generations about how best to care for the infant.
We worry about our kids. We worry about our jobs. I often thought I wasn’t giving 100 percent in either place.
Other nations seem to have figured out that fully paid maternity leave and better childcare are good for both parents and the economy. It means better worker productivity. In France, the government provides three-year paid parental leave with guaranteed job protection upon returning to the workforce; universal, full-time preschool starting at age three; subsidized day care before age three; stipends for in-home nannies; and monthly child-care allowances that increase with the number of children per family.
We’ve got to do better for our families. We’ve got to make it easier for parents to take care of their children, while also being productive members of the workforce. It’s a win-win situation for all.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
There Are No Special Occasions--Just Regular Days to be Celebrated
I’ve decided that special occasions are a crock of bull. And exactly what are we waiting for, people?
Case in point. My best friend from college—we’ll call her D.—used to come to my house right after Jim and I had gotten married. We would have pizza, beer and wine. Because we were young and broke, we would pull out our cheap wine glasses and serve our guests their beverage in those. D. would open up every cabinet until she found the Waterford—she, like me, is Irish-American, so she knew there was Waterford crystal hiding somewhere—and would pull out a heavy hock glass and proclaim that she wasn’t drinking out of any old cheap wine glass. She was to be served in the Waterford. I remember relating the story to my mother, the two of us shocked that the Waterford had been pulled out on Friday-night pizza night. But you know what? D. taught me a lesson. Mom always said that everything tastes better in Waterford, so instead of staring at it in our glass-fronted cabinet, we pull it out and use it every chance we get. (And with the amount of wine that is consumed around here on a normal weekend, they get used A LOT.)
Second case in point? Shoes. I own a lot of shoes, probably somewhere in the forty pair range which is a lot of shoes considering that I work in an attic and hardly ever leave the house. Frankly, I probably only need one pair of black pumps and a pair of sneakers, but really, what fun would that be? Most of the shoes I own fall into the $20-$60 range, most of them coming from either Target or Nine West. But last year, I fell in love with a pair of leopard-print, kitten heel pumps called “Fiona” (the name I had chosen for our dog originally but voted down the family). They were ridiculously expensive and completely impractical. I work in the attic, remember? But I lusted after them and talked about them incessantly until my husband finally said, “Just buy them.” The day after he said that, a friend sent me a 30% off coupon to the company that carries the shoe. It was destiny.
I bought them a year ago and have worn them exactly twice. I was saving them for a special occasion. But let’s face it: when you work in the attic, there aren’t too many special occasions that arise. Of course you have holidays and such but these shoes are so beautiful and a little fuzzy so you don’t want to wear them in rain, sleet, or snow, which is what we encounter on most of our holidays out here in the East. But last week, a strange thought came to me: what about if I wore these shoes a few times a week? They look as fabulous with jeans as they do with dressier clothes…what was stopping me from pulling them out and wearing them around town?
I got dressed for church this past Sunday and tested my new theory. I put on a pair of jeans, a cute sweater, and the shoes. I came downstairs and told my husband that the new me was not saving these shoes for a special occasion but was going to wear them whenever I felt like it. He looked up from his paper and gave me a nod. (See, men don’t get theories about shoes or proclamations of this sort. He was unimpressed.) I got so many compliments on the shoes that day that I was sold. I’m wearing them whenever I want. (Trouble is, they’re still not broken in. I’m hoping this new resolve to wear them more often will solve that.)
So all this to say: pull out that tablecloth, use the Waterford, and eat off the china. Drink that expensive bottle of champagne. Wear the expensive shoes with your favorite pair of jeans. Every day that we’re alive and healthy is a special occasion.
So, what are you saving for a special occasion? What prohibits you from using it/wearing it/drinking it? I’ll read your responses right after I finish this glass of seltzer in the Waterford water glass.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Some Useful Tips for Writers
David Morrell (First Blood, the introduction of Rambo and many other thrillers) was the keynote speaker for the dinner and he had some gems to share. He said that writers that go the distance are those who you can’t mistake with anyone else. There are two questions that a writer needs to ask herself: 1. Why do you want to be a writer? 2. Why must you be a writer? You should dig into yourself. Pay attention to your day dreams and write about them. Being a successful writer depends upon talent, discipline, determination, and luck–and he added, don’t understimate the luck. He ended with, “You can write the book you were meant to write or with what you want to write.”
Jerry Simmons was the luncheon keynote speaker and probably the most important thing he had to say was, “The worst thing an author can do is rely on the publisher to make good decisions about the book.” Interesting, but of course his emphasis was on the writer taking charge of the promotion.
He also described how the New York publishing scene is all out of whack. The whole publishing business runs contrary to supply and demand. Every author needs to learn to market effectively to get the word out about his or her book.
The whole conference was great–learned a lot and met many interesting people. This is true no matter how many writing conferences I attend, I always learn new information–probably because the publishing industry is changing so much.
Monday, October 13, 2008
The First Amendment
Writers understand that the first amendment is the backbone of our profession, and the foundation of a free society. We must be fervent supporters of the right to speak and write about those ideas we cherish – and conversely, we must accept that same right for those who promote concepts that we detest. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, there is a limit to protected speech. We don’t have the right to falsely yell fire in a crowded theater.
Almost by definition, election rhetoric skews to hyperbole. But that’s not what this last week has been about. These are difficult times and there are serious differences between the two candidates on how to navigate these perilous waters. Instead, sadly, at recent rallies the focus has been on fears, not solutions.
The candidates may not be responsible for what their supporters shout out in the heat of the moment, but they can't use rhetoric designed to whip the crowds up into a frenzy, tacitly encouraging their darkest fears -- and then be surprised when emotions dangerously spill over.
Here's what I expect. I expect a candidate to stop his or her prepared speech when someone in the crowd yells: “Kill him.” I expect the candidate to declare unequivocally, that we don’t have to be afraid of our differences, but we do have to fear violence.
Aaron Sorkin wrote in one of my favorite movies, The American President, “America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
We need to focus on the future of our country. We need to find solutions to the crises of the economy, the environment, terrorism, and a host of other problems. What we don’t need is all heat and no light. What we don’t need are scurrilous rumors and baseless attacks. That's not what the first amendment is all about. America is better than that – we have to be.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Finding Myself Again
by Susan McBride, author of THE DEBS
As I write this, I’m on deadline for Book Three in my YA series for Random House, not even a month after THE DEBS debuted, and I’m gearing up for the Southern Booksellers convention in Mobile, AL, where I’m doing a panel and signing. Oh, and I’m celebrating seven months of wedded bliss (awww!) and thankful to have survived a flooded basement, recent landscaping, a TV appearance (fun!), and interviewing Sandra Brown for the County Library (she’s amazing!). Though I’m not quite on the hectic “travel and promote like a maniac for six months post book release” schedule I put myself through when I was writing my Debutante Dropout Mysteries for Avon, it still feels like there’s always more going on than I ever intended. How does a calendar that starts with such blissfully empty days turn crazy so quickly?
Is it just a woman’s duty to burn the candle at both ends? Are we born with this kind of driven DNA? Because I know my husband—and most of the males in my family, come to think of it—aren’t exactly Type As.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to shake things up, doesn’t it? While on two book deadlines during my breast cancer treatment in late 2006 and early 2007, I tearfully vowed to reprioritize my life. I’d taken on so many duties beyond my writing—like, joining tons of professional organizations, volunteering on boards, judging awards, and speaking at book clubs, libraries, schools, and mystery conventions—that I completely lost sight of myself and my original goals. At the peak of my multi-tasking, I met Ed, now my husband, after being selected one of St. Louis Magazine’s Top Singles, which required attending parties, being “sold” at a charity auction, and assorted other tasks. For awhile, it felt like I was squeezing in time with him between everything else. Not the best way to nourish a growing relationship.
This might sound weird, but I think it took the breast cancer to make me think, “Whoa! Something’s gotta give.” As scary as that period in my life was, it had a truly positive effect. I cut out all the extraneous activities I possibly could. I got off the Internet groups I’d submerged myself in for years. I learned how to say “no.” I put my health and my marriage first, refocused on my writing, and moved everything else off my must-do list.
Let me tell you, none of that was easy. After being so immersed in the mystery community—having made so many friends and acquaintances in that world—it felt more like losing a part of myself than finding myself again. But, little by little, I began to realize how full my real-life was and how much I’d missed feeling like a (fairly) normal human being instead of Stressed-Out Multi-Tasking Barbie. Ed and I established Saturdays as “date” days where I wasn’t even allowed to get on the computer. Instead, we stroll around the Missouri Botanical Gardens, stay over at a nearby B&B, or just hang around the house together. My writing—as opposed to book promotion—has taken center-stage in my career, and incredible projects have come my way.
I won’t say I’m all the way there: at the perfect zen stage where I truly know how to relax and breathe. I still feel like I’m juggling more balls in the air than I should, but I’m slowly learning what “having it all” means. And it ain’t running nonstop like a hamster on a treadmill, that’s fo’ shizzle.
I’d love to hear how y’all find peace in your busy lives! Other than eating chocolate, I mean (I’ve warned Ed that cookies are my Xanax). Oh, and thank you, Stiletto Gang ladies, for having me!
Susan McBride's YA series debut with Random House, THE DEBS, features four prep school seniors in Houston clawing their way through their debutante season. A Fall 2008 Kid’s Indie Next Pick, THE DEBS has been called "GOSSIP GIRL on mint juleps." The second DEBS book, LOVE, LIES, AND TEXAS DIPS, will be out in June of 2009, and Susan's busy writing the third. Susan has also penned five Debutante Dropout Mysteries for Avon, including TOO PRETTY TO DIE and BLUE BLOOD. She’s recently signed with HarperCollins to write a trade paperback women’s beach book called THE COUGAR CLUB, about three forty-something women who date younger men. Visit her web site at http://SusanMcBride.com for more scoop.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Mysteries for Kids & the Young at Heart
There are a handful of books from my childhood that will always have a special place in my heart. They are the books I read over and over: Across Five Aprils, Where the Red Fern Grows, Up A Road Slowly, the Irish Red books, My Antonia, and A White Bird Flying.
Recently my co-author and I have been discussing the possibility of writing a middle-school or young adult (YA) mystery. My favorite mysteries at that age were the Trixie Belden series, but I didn't have a clue what kinds of books were popular now – besides the Harry Potter books. As a first step in the process, this past week I've read a number of popular YA mysteries in order to understand the current market. I was surprised at what I found. Then I was surprised that I was surprised.
The themes in the YA books were very much adult themes – divorce, violence, and child abuse –all viewed through the eyes of the teen or pre-teen protagonist. Maybe I've just forgotten or maybe the reading material for twelve-year-olds has changed. Certainly today's typical twelve-year-old is more sophisticated in some ways than I was at that age. Television and movies have seen to that transformation. And I suppose that in order to interest today's teen or pre-teen reader, books will have to follow suit.
The YA books I read this past week included hardbacks and mass market paperbacks. The only things I found they had in common were the mystery element, a young hero or heroine, and a generally happy ending.
The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein
The Lost Boy by Linda Newbery
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Snatched (Bloodwater Mysteries) by Pete Hautman and Mary Logue
Mystery Isle by Judith St. George
Of the books listed above – all worthwhile reading, I found two were the best sources of information for my purposes: Lost Boy and Snatched.
Lost Boy is a beautiful, thoughtful book that both teens and adults will love. It will surely be reprinted for decades. Set in modern day rural Britain, a young boy, Matt Lanchester, and his family move to a new town and Matt tries to fit in. He learns to choose his friends wisely and rely on his own good sense. Matt's chance encounter with the spirit of a dead boy, a mysterious old man, and charming legends of lost boys fuel a wonderful tale.
Snatched is a fun mystery – a quick read that follows a traditional whodunit format with a lot of humor mixed in for good measure. Roni Delicata , an 11-grade reporter for the school newspaper, investigates the assault of a fellow student. When that student goes missing, the young reporter and Brian Bain, her unlikely sidekick (a freshman science geek) join forces. Since they are both suspended from school for breaking the rules, they decide to use their unexpected free time to break a few more in their search for answers about the missing student.
Lost Boy is a book I will aspire to write someday. Snatched is something I could achieve now.
Do you have some recommendations for me? What else in the YA category should I be reading?
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Toward a More Civil Union
It’s getting insane. And this lack of decorum, this lack of respect for others’ values, accomplishments, and opinions is all over television, cable and network alike. Today, I caught the slugfest known as The View. If you don’t know what this program is about, it’s basically five Democrats (an actress, two comedians, and Barbara Walters) and one Republican (someone who competed on a reality show) who argue incessantly, vociferously, and loudly about what’s going on in the news. Sometimes they interview an actor or actress who’s discussing their latest “project” (they used to be called “movies”) or they talk about the latest miracle skin cream or cellulite antidote. But generally, they sit around the kitchen table that they use as their bully pulpit and scream at and over each other about current events. And unless you’ve been living in a cave in Tora Bora for the last year, the news of the day concerns the presidential election with a little bit of the economy thrown in for good measure. But basically, they only discuss the economy in order to place blame at the feet at either the Republicans (the four Democrats) or the Democrats (the one Republican). Today, as with many other days, it got personal, the Democrats loading up on the lone Republican who kept chanting “consorting with terrorists” and “character matters” whenever the subject of one of the candidates came up (his name starts with Barack and ends with Obama) while one of the others intoned “Keating 5” or “deregulation” a thousand times over, as if that was a respectable counter-argument.
By the end of these segments, usually one or more of the women look like they’re going to cry, Barbara Walters is red in the face, and I sit and wonder how they’re going to talk to each other about the miracle cellulite cream if they’re not speaking at all.
At around seven o’clock every night, I watch Hardball. More yelling. More talking over one another. More “I know you are, but what am I?” verbal jousting. This is followed by Keith Olbermann, a man who can really turn a phrase, but who lets it fly when it comes to one of the candidates and not the other.
And don’t get me started on Fox News.
I also watch the Rachel Maddow show and have found that she is the only one of the lot who shows a modicum of class when it comes to discussing current events. Her foil is conservative Pat Buchanan and they go at it, but with dignity and a clear respect for each other’s opinions. It’s the definition of “debate.” Neither one hopes to change the other’s mind, but they listen to each other and respond accordingly. I really hope they can keep it up and that these other jokers on the other cable stations take notice. Civility increases ratings, at least in this house.
I have high hopes for the debate tonight but I know I’m just being silly and naïve. In reality, I don’t think it will be any more informative than The View, Hardball, or Keith Olbermann. Supposedly, this will be a “town hall style” debate. Does anyone even know what that means? I’m thinking that it’s the candidates, walking around with mics pinned to their suit jackets, doing folksy and “plain speak” to the people gathered, who supposedly get to ask the questions. But will they get answers? That will be the reason I tune in. Because for the life of me, I can’t understand why someone just can’t simply answer the question “What is your name?” without hyperbole, calling the other candidate’s record into question (or even calling them names), or calling themselves a maverick, patriotic, or an agent of change. Just answer the damn question. “My name is X. And we will do Y. That’s why you should vote for us.”
We’ve got less than a month until the election and my fear is that the level of discourse will sink even lower and that more mud will get slung. There will be more name calling, more supposed “skeletons” dragged out of closets that haven’t been open in twenty, thirty, or forty years, and more snarky sound bites.
And that’s just from the ladies of The View. I can’t even imagine where the candidates will take it.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
What I've Been Up To
I was supposed to have a booksigning in Ventura, but heard from the owner that it had to be cancelled. We had planned to visit the Reagan Library while we were there and decided to go anyway. We had daughters who live in the area so we always like to visit.
The Reagan Library is fantastic. We happened to go during an Abraham Lincoln exhibit with the Emancapation Proclomation on display. That was worth the price of the ticket. But there was much more to see: the Oval Office exactly as it looked when Reagan was president, Nancy's wardrobe including a note telling when she wore each outfit or gown, a replica of the White House Rose Garden and lawn and Reagan's burial site.
The highlight of the trip, though, was Air Force One. It is displayed on a pedastal in a huge area with a window wall looking like it's coming in for a landing. Everyone can walk through it and it looks like it did when Reagan used it, including the black box. Fascinating! The helicopter (or one like it) that flew the president from the White House to Andrews AFB is also on display, along with his limosine and LA escort police cars.
There's lots more to see--we were there from 10:30 a.m. until 4. After that, we had dinner at our youngest daughter's home along with her family and our eldest daughter and hubby who'd taken us to the Reagan Library.
Saturday, hubby and I attended a lovely party. We don't go to many parties these days, so this was a treat. It was held outside--it rained all morning so wasn't sure whether the party would still happen--in a beautiful garden. Tables and chairs were set up on the lawn with a wonderful spread of food and desserts in the patio.
The inside of the house was decorated with all sorts of scarecrows.
We didn't really know many of the guests. The hostess is one of my biggest fans and asked me to bring a copy of Kindred Spirits for her to buy--which I did of course.
Up to this point I hadn't found a place to launch Kindred Spirits in my home town. While sitting at a table with a local shop owner, Jenuine Junque, we got to talking and she is willing to clear out one of her rooms so I can have a book signing there. So, it does help to chit-chat with folks.
We did have a good time and solved a problem.
Next I'm off to the Wizards of Words conference in Scottsdale AZ.
Monday, October 6, 2008
It was a story with glamorous characters who hid nasty secrets. The red herrings were plentiful, but unbelievable. And it was only in the epilogue that you found a satisfying resolution.
Thirteen years to the day after he was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, "The Juice," Orenthal James Simpson, finally heard a succession of guilty verdicts from a jury of his peers.
Most of us over 30 can remember with embarrassment the circus that masqueraded as a murder trial, that long summer of 1995. It was as if Warner Brothers had cast a remake of Judicial Animal House, featuring the wacky Judge Ito, the rhyming Johnnie Cochran, the frizzy-haired Marcia Clark, the freeloading houseguest Kato Kaelin, and starring as the romantic lead, but without a speaking part at this televised trial, the handsome football hero who couldn’t possibly have committed such heinous crimes.
And in the end, O.J. walked free, moving to Florida to escape paying millions of dollars in penalties when he was found guilty of these same murders in a civil trial a few years later. Over the last decade, we’ve seen OJ primarily on the front pages of the tabloids, as he continued his overindulged, entitled lifestyle, getting into brawls with new girlfriends and pirating satellite television to his mansion in Miami.
Like Al Capone who was finally convicted on tax charges, Simpson will spend time behind bars, not for the real crimes that most of us believe he committed, but for acting like a tough guy in Las Vegas. Like an Elvis impersonator who pretends to be the real thing, "The Juice" has fooled no one since that day 13 years ago in a California courtroom. He was a thug then; he is finally a convicted thug now.
May Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman rest in peace.
Friday, October 3, 2008
The Mystery of the Vanishing Dollar
Though most of us think books are as vital as oxygen for our existence, a shaky economy means that there is less disposable income. Books sadly become luxury items. Book buyers are becoming a rare breed, with fewer dollars to spend. I think the big publishers are less willing to take a chance on unknown authors who don’t yet have proven track records. Even worse, public library budgets are being slashed. And here’s the conundrum: According to the American Library Association, in the face of economic hardship, visits to libraries and circulation are on the rise…and yet, budget pressures are forcing many libraries across the country to scale back hours or close.
Despite the fact that Wall Street and Main Street are both struggling, I think the case can be made that now, more than ever, we need cozy mysteries. As the wonderful Carolyn Hart, author of the Death on Demand series, explained, she writes traditional mysteries (she loathes the term, cozies), because in her world, the good guys always win. While we deal with the practical, often dispiriting, issues of life, we need escapes that capture our imaginations and make us laugh. We need heroes and heroines who make sure that good triumphs over evil; that wealth and power don’t trump honesty and hard work.
I can't begin to fix this economy, but the Sullivan Investigation mysteries are Evelyn David's investment in the future -- our readers, ourselves. We believe that a world of books is the foundation of a strong economy - in dollars and sense.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Sometimes a Great Notion
I've been enjoying Paul Newman's movies for almost as long as I've been aware of movies. My mother was a big fan. As a nine or ten-year-old I can remember staying up late with her and watching The Long Hot Summer on television. The movie, based on a couple of William Faulkner stories, debuted in theaters in 1958 and was aired on television often during the 1960s. I adored everything about it: the multi-layered characters, the Southern setting, and the wonderful use of words- the movie has great dialogue. It's also packed with strong female characters. The Long Hot Summer introduced me to Paul Newman. It's been almost a 40 year, one-sided love affair. I believe I've seen all of his movies. Some I've seen many, many times. All were worth the price of a ticket.
This past Sunday I learned of his death. I offer my condolences to his family, friends, and all the people his life has touched – whether through his movies or his charities. The world is a lesser place without him.
Paul Newman may be gone but his movies will be enjoyed forever. These Paul Newman movies are my particular favorites. The characters he plays are all very different - an outlaw, a con artist, a cop, a Cold War spy, a logger, a freedom fighter, an aging husband, a mobster, and a house painter. Can you match the job to the movie? How long does it take you? More than a minute - then you need to break out the popcorn and rent some DVDs.
1958 - The Long Hot Summer
1960 - Exodus
1966 - Torn Curtain
1969 - Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
1971 - Sometimes A Great Notion (aka Never Give an Inch)
1981 - Fort Apache the Bronx
1990 - Mr. & Mrs. Bridge
2002 - Road to Perdition
2005 - Empire Falls
Answers in the comment section of this blog entry on Saturday.
Do you have a favorite Paul Newman movie? Tell us about it.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
The Mystery of the Not So Amazin' Mets
Why do we root for sports teams who break our hearts? Are we masochists? (Or is it sadists? I never get that one straight.) Or are we eternally optimistic? “This will be our big year!"
Well, as a long-suffering New York Met fan, our big year—our moment of glory, if you will—preceded my marriage to my husband by three years, was when I still had bangs, wore shoulder pads and mini-skirts to work, was eight years before my first child was born, and about thirty pounds ago. It was 1986. We were at a wedding in Massachusetts for two people who we saw maybe twice before they got married and never after. We were there when Buckner let the ball roll through his legs at first base and wondered if we would get out of Amherst alive. (It’s not all Emily Dickinson and poetry, at least not when the Sox are involved.) But we went back to the safety of our hotel room celebrated like it was 1999, as quietly as we could so that we didn’t get killed. Little did we know that that was our big break; although we went to the World Series in 2000 and faced the Yankees in a rare thing known as the “Subway Series” our hearts would be broken again. (I’m looking at you Armando Benitez.) Our hearts would be broken time and time again, starting with last year’s historic collapse (seven games ahead, seventeen to play) and followed up by this year’s kind of whimpering close-out of Shea Stadium, not exactly hallowed baseball halls, but a landmark for Met fans nonetheless.
My husband and I sat on the couch on Sunday, me suffering from a sinus infection (ever had one of those? Me either. They stink.), him suffering from Met fan syndrome, commonly called “chokus perpetualis.” We watched as they had chance after chance to tie the score, pull ahead on the scoreboard, put the whole thing to bed. Oh, but the Milwaukee Brewers had to lose, too, to make our post-season dreams a reality, so we watched the score in that game with baited breath knowing that one win and one lose would mean success or curtains, two losses or two wins would mean one more tie-breaking game.
It was not to be. But this time, instead of abject disappointment, all we felt was numb. Because you know what Mets? We’re onto you! We know you’re going to let us down. Like the guy who says he’s going to call and never does, like the box of color that promises cinnamon highlights and leaves you with spaghetti-sauce colored streaks from root to temple, like the water from the fountain of youth that tastes suspiciously like it came from our tap. We will not be had.
We turned the television off and went about our business: me, buying more tissues so that we wouldn’t run out (sinus infections require a lot of tissues—just letting you know), Jim getting another refreshment. I made dinner. But before we put the whole thing to rest, I asked him when opening day was next year for the new, beautiful, not smelly like Shea, Citi Field.
“April 13,” he said. “You watching?”
Of course I am. I’m a Met fan. I was annoyed that he even asked.Maggie