Saturday, October 31, 2015

Memoir, Part 3

When students come into my class, they often come in thinking they know what memoir is. Trying to write one makes them question this assumption. I think the same thing would be true if it was a fiction class, and we were attempting short stories. You only begin to wonder about what these consist of at the word by word, brick by brick, molecular level, when you try to create your own. Maybe sports gives us a metaphor here, or any kind of performance—you can watch a pitcher throw a 90 mph fastball, and you know that you can throw a ball too, but when you try you find your fastball is a slow boat to China while that of a masterful pitcher is a clipper ship.

The biggest mistake beginners make is to forget that they are telling a story and merely laying down incidents and events with no linkage between them, no causality, without an arc that includes a conflict, rising tension, resolution, change. It is as if they are laying out the vertebra but forgetting the spine. This kind of fragmented and haphazard story is not really a story at all. While some would argue that this is more true to the chaotic and random nature of real life, to the very limited nature of our free will (this idea being au courant in intellectual circles, very Postmodern and world weary and cynical), it is not the way we understand life, and it goes against our instinctive understanding of what story is. In fact, we always find pattern, the warp and woof in the carpet, even if the pattern is not immediately apparent—we’re trained to do so, and neurologists tell us we are genetically programmed that way too.

I will often point out to my students that their pieces read more like appointment books than diaries. An appointment book lists the whats of life, the happenings, but the diary talks about the whys. Events without judgment and interpretation (which don’t have to be overt but implied, more shown than told, left to the reader to infer) are mere lists, collections of raw data. History, even personal history, is not just one thing after another, but one thing connected in an inevitable way to both what came before and after according to the interpretive vision of the author.

We really do know what story is some instinctual level. My nephew loved stories as a kid, and used to solicit me for as many as I could possibly produce for him. I would sometimes play with his notion of what story was, encouraging him to take the role of teacher and lecture me about it.

“Tell me a story, Mikey!”

“About who?"

"How about one about the lady who went to the supermarket one day to buy some ice cream, and in the parking lot…”

“Not about some boring lady doing boring stuff, tell me one about Superman.”

“OK, one day Superman gets up at 6 am, on a cold rainy day, and brushes his teeth and eats his Cheerios,”

“And then what?”

“He gets on the school bus.”

“And there are bad kids on the school bus.”

“No, just regular kids.”

“And the bus goes off the road, and…”

“No, it’s an uneventful ride to school.”

At which point the little fellow hi-jacks my story and puts Superman and the whole planet in great peril, a peril Superman can only defeat with the aid of my nephew himself, who also has special powers that are kept hidden by him until such crisis forces him to reveal himself…

Every kid knows what a story is. But an adult freezes up, over-thinks, perhaps does not know what to make of their own life, doesn’t trust what they do think about it, or thinks that this is journalism, or a research paper, where you keep yourself out of it. Without putting yourself in the memoir, there is no memoir.

Stories need a lot of evocative, sensory detail, ones that make your character(s) distinct, ones that drive the story forward. This is a talent that is not so easy to teach. If you are going to draw a character, no matter how exhaustively, you only can choose a miniscule fraction of all the infinite detail there is about that character, their environment, their experiences. To draw a compelling and appealing character, one that coheres and sticks in the imagination of the reader, creating a kind of living dream where we experience the memoirist’s life as if it was a movie, a vision in our mind’s eye—you start with detail and observation. Relevant ones. But picking the perfect detail, right words in the right place at the right time, is more art than science. I don’t make a point of it to my students, but there is a place where my teaching leaves off and the students’ talents begin. What we do is try to identify when someone has chosen detail well, in the hopes that the talent of that person can be learned, at least to a degree, by observation, by consideration of why the choices work so well.

And what of voice? Not style or diction but voice. To me, voice is our conception of the character of the speaker as given to us through his or her words, by what they say and how they say it, and even what they choose not to say. To create a true and clear voice readers will feel the need to listen to is also something that you must grope your way towards in the dark. I tell my students that you have a voice when you can have your piece, without your name on it, read by someone else and everyone in the class can tell it was written by you. This means there is a consistency to your voice, but a great voice is another thing entirely. Still, it is interesting and instructive to discuss what makes a strong voice, and a compelling one. Although it would be hard to come up with hard and fast rules for creating voice, students are able to distinguish pretty readily between pieces that really have a voice, and those that don’t.

Another kind of paradigm I use with my classes is my (fictional) Aunt Martha. I portray her as getting drunk and dropping the Thanksgiving turkey every year. The what is that she drops it every year. Of course, even this bare-boned a description implies judgment—was it every year? Was it characteristic of her to do this kind of thing? Or was it a fluke that happened once, but that you latched on to because of your own unexamined reasons, because you need to put her in an unflattering light?

Still, except for in the most minimal way, there has not been much in judgment and interpretation here. The why, the interpretation, the judgment, is the heart of the memoir. What is the spine that holds this little bit of vertebra on it? Are you a cursed family, and this is just another example of that? Is Aunt Martha the spinster being retrospectively scapegoated, being blamed for the failure of all those crappy holidays that everyone always hoped would be great, and never were?

Spinster— a loaded term, one word that carries much interpretation and judgment, and it is only a noun. A noun, much less an adjective or adverb— such powerful creatures are words. If the story has an argument, and they all do, you need to not just show your result, but the work you got to get there. If she is a scapegoat, if she really is, show how she takes care of grandma and grandpa in their fading old age while her sister, your mother, ignores them, and how your mother treats her like she was Cinderella.

And remember that interpretation is a process of infinite possibility. Maybe the story is about how you are more like Aunt Martha than you would like to think, or it is about how women of a certain time and place were denied opportunities they are not denied now, or maybe it is actually about how we are really in the matrix, in Plato’s cave, and none of it is real. Interpretation is endless in its possibilities.

With the above in mind, I reassure my students, who are almost always intimidated by the sheer size of the task they have undertaken. All those blank pages, and the huge English language, and you alone at the keyboard trying to fashion something that someone, anyone (even yourself) would want to read. It’s daunting.

Every journey must be accomplished one step at a time. And a memoir can be written scene by scene. And those scenes don’t have to originally be laid down in the order they will later appear, with the necessary linkages between them in place. Just write the scenes—75 of them should do (75,000 words, a decent sized book), scenes that have a logic and meaning, scenes that cohere in a way that we can say they somehow mean. Don’t even worry initially whether the scenes seem to have a common theme, or whether they can be made to cohere in some larger way. Just write the scenes. Ones that evoke emotion in you. We all have such scenes, but sometimes overlook them because we think they are not the right kind of scenes for a book.

What you care about is the best measure of what scenes you need to use. Don’t start with a meaning and look for scenes—remember the scenes, and look for the meaning. As you do so, connections will be made in your brain and on the page. We are creatures who look for meaning, for pattern, and I guarantee that as you write meaning will emerge. But you have to start writing first, I think. You can’t impose meaning from above, but work up to it from below, at the word level—get something you remember on the page, And then something else. You can’t go anywhere from nowhere. You can’t worry that you have started at the wrong place, because you can’t start in the wrong place when everything is connected, which it is.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, October 30, 2015

Assorted Thoughts

Well, here it is Friday morning, and I suddenly remember that I'm supposed to have written a blog post. I guess I'll talk about whatever has been on my mind for the past week.

Tomorrow night we set the clocks back. Fall is here for certain in Lambertville, the Halloween capital of pretty much everywhere. Gorgeous displays bedeck the yards of Union Street, Dolores Dragan's being the most spectacular. The leaves have turned, many have fallen. Everett was out yesterday with a big gas leaf-blower, blowing the leaves from the funeral home sidewalk into the street. The wind blew them all back again. Some things are hardly worth doing, though a good Halloween display is forever.

Speaking of the weather, last night I showed up late at the monthly meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, having totally forgotten about it due to my absorption in Sunday's episode of The Good Wife. (You can see these on if you're willing to wait until Monday or later.) Luckily I didn't hold them up. Only one case was before the Zoning Board, that of a local electrician who sells generators. He needed permission to put an apartment over his place of business. I was kind of tickled to see him waxing nostalgic over Hurricane Sandy. We haven't had a hurricane since then, or any other major power outage that I can recall, so the traffic in generators has fallen off dramatically. Alan would like to see another good hurricane.

Change is in the air, if not hurricanes. Change of time, change of season. Last night I dreamed we were selling the house. A hot-shot real estate agent was showing me all around Lambertville in my dream, offering me other houses, big old Victorian palaces with English gardens. These days you can't get a doghouse in Lambertville for much under a million dollars, so I was eagerly awaiting the realtor's assessment of what our little hovel was worth, and thinking, we could move here, we could move there. Then I thought, wait, this is my house. Why would I want to leave it? And I woke up.

So you see, I'm perfectly happy with my life. I like my house, even though the neighbors are given to noisy drama. I have no generators to sell if the apocalypse comes, so I won't wish for it. I'm sorry the cat died, poor little booger, but they don't live forever, and now we can go traveling without feeling bad about leaving the cat. Because we don't live forever, either.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Police Story: Blackout Riots, 1977

The other day I watched an old movie on NetFlix, ‘The Summer of Sam’. It reminded me of my participation in the only full-scale riot I’ve ever been in. The Blackout Riots of 1977 enveloped all of New York City, lasting 25 hours officially or three straight days and nights, depending on who’s counting. No deaths were admitted to by officialdom as having occurred during the looting and arson, yet the event was second only to the 1863 Draft Riots during the Civil War in the scale of the insurrection and destruction to City neighborhoods.

July 13, 1977, started out very, very hot but had cooled off some by early evening when my girlfriend and I went to the movies. ‘Black Sunday,’ a thriller with Robert Shaw as a Mossad agent tracking Palestinian terrorists in Miami, was playing at the American, a down-at-the-heels movie house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a couple blocks from my apartment. It was the last chance to see the movie that had opened in the City in March; you didn’t go to the American otherwise, where the slightly tilted floor was sticky underfoot. Afterward, a few beers, then home since I’d worked an 8-by-4 Day Tour earlier and needed sleep.

At 9:43 p.m. on July 13, 1977, Con Ed’s power suppliers in New England and Westchester County got knocked out by lightning, causing, in classic domino effect, all the lights in NYC to go out and stay out. The city was in the midst of a heat wave when all the air conditioners failed, the subways ground to a halt, street traffic lights blinked out and the five boroughs were plunged into darkness. At that moment, I was in my apartment enjoying a cold beer. In the next hour, I heard over a hand-sized portable radio that looting had begun and was spreading in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Police Commissioner Michael Codd ordered all off-duty policemen to report for duty at their local precincts (big mistake), whereupon I went to bed.

My local Precinct was the 94th, dubbed by cops a “country club” for its law-abiding blue-collar Polish and Irish residents, in Greenpoint, at the northernmost tip of Brooklyn. It looked across the East River to the East 23rd Street Piers in Manhattan and over a puddle-jump bridge spanning the poisonous Newtown Creek to Long Island City (LIC), Queens. I wasn’t about to report to the 94th where I wasn’t needed; I’d head for the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where I was assigned and always needed. But first, I’d sleep awhile, being of little use to the NYPD in my present condition, exhausted and half-in-the-bag. I could expect my tour of duty to be of long, indefinite duration once it began.

At 3:00 a.m., I arose, dressed, checked the loads in my service weapon and off-duty 38-cal. revolver and started for the Bushwick Precinct, a mere four miles away. A quickie trip normally: cross under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, then straight up Morgan Avenue to pick up Wilson, then a short stretch to the turn-of-the-Century Victorian-style Station House looming over the neighborhood like a Norman Keep, at the intersection of Wilson and DeKalb Avenues. The only illumination came from my car’s headlights as I negotiated the eerily dark and silent streets; no traffic except for some souls sitting in cars parked at the curb with their headlights on.

The Precinct House was ablaze with light like Gatsby’s mansion on Party Nights. It drew me like a Beacon does a lost ship. Inside, Lieutenant Jones presided at the desk having been left over from four-by-twelve Tour as were the sixteen other policemen on duty when the lights went out. No one would be off-duty for the foreseeable future. Cops had responded to the SOS from Commissioner Codd en masse, most, unfortunately, ending up in the outer boundaries of the boroughs, closest to where they lived on Long Island and Upstate counties: all without uniforms or riot gear in neighborhoods where they were not needed. Not so in the Eight-Three; it appeared to my eyes that most, if not all, of the 130 cops assigned to the Precinct were present for duty “with hats and bats” (riot helmets and nightsticks). Everyone was in motion, as if the zoo cages had been flung open. No civilians were present in cuffs; the standing Order that had come down at the inception of the rioting was still in effect: “No arrests. Restore order.” (Please!!)

After a pithy briefing (“The shit has hit the fan, men”), I piled into an RMP with three other cops and we raced up Dekalb the three long blocks to Broadway, epicenter of the revolution.

Next Monday, Part 2: The Scene

© 2015 Robert Knightly

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Childhood and Adolescent Reading

I’ve been going through a book called The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them edited by Antonia Fraser. I love these kinds of books because I’m always curious about what other people read.

This is a wonderful collection of lovely essays. I don’t think I have a lovely essay in me right now but let me offer brief thoughts on some of the books I read as a child and adolescent.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew— Poor children are happy. Rich children are miserable. Rich children are made happier by getting to know poor children. My mother told me that I once came to her and asked if we were rich. She assured me that we were not. She swears I responded, “That’s good. Rich people are so lonely.”

Little House on the Prairie— I loved these books as a child but as an adult I couldn’t help noticing how paranoid Pa Ingalls was about the U.S. government. He also kept moving the family because there were just too many damn people around. No way was this guy Michael Landon.

“Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field— When every line of more sophisticated poetry that I have committed to memory has left my brain I will still be able to recite this poem. I was a morbid child at times. I had a similar fascination with The Bird’s Christmas Carol. In this Kate Douglas Wiggins’ novel, a wealthy but sickly girl is befriended by poor children (see Five Little Peppers above, also by Kate Douglas Wiggins).

In case you don’t know the Eugene Field poem, here it is:

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
    But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
    And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
    And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
    Kissed them and put them there.

"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
    "And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
    He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
    Awakened our Little Boy Blue—
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
    But the little toy friends are true!

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
    Each in the same old place—
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
    The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
    In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
    Since he kissed them and put them there.

Saint Thomas’ Eve— This is a novel about Sir Thomas More. Alas, I became totally distracted by the references to More wearing a “hair shirt.” No adult could tell me what it was. Hillary Mantel has a somewhat different take on More than the one you’ll find here. She makes sure to remind you that he burned heretics at the stake.

Two books from my adolescent years stand out:

Look Homeward, Angel— I loved this book when I first read it. Eugene Gant wanted to know everything and so did I. Alas, I read it a few years ago and wondered what I ever saw in it. The great Maxwell Perkins was Thomas Wolfe’s editor but he didn’t cut enough.

Advise and Consent— I knew nothing about homosexuality when I read this book as a teenager. No one I knew talked of such things. So when I read that a senator was in trouble because someone had a picture of him “with a man,” I was pretty puzzled. I re-read it just a few years and the matter still seemed to me to be dealt with obliquely. However, I did still find it quite entertaining.

Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Memoir, Part 2

If I am not sure I know what memoir is, I am also not sure if I think one with real transcendence and resolution and truth can be written. Didn’t the Greeks say that you can’t say a man is happy until he is dead? (You can’t know what the story is about until it is over). Then there is the problem of writing as propaganda, and writing as self-glorification, and also the problem of self-knowledge. Is anyone really capable of it? Even when we try to make a clean breast of things, don’t we, as Freud told us, always plead guilty to a lesser offense? And can’t even openness be used as a method of concealment?

And yet I keep thinking about the memoirs that I have read that smack of true insight. They are literary and psychological marvels. Maybe we are all forever in the process of writing our own story, even if we don’t write it down. Marion is right, at least in some cases: memoir can be a portal to self-discovery and it can reassure the disaffected and disenfranchised they are not alone.

The main lesson in my failed attempts at writing my own memoir, if there is one, is to not lose your nerve, to not give up (which I have not done yet). Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, talks about how long and labor intensive was her attempt to write her latest memoir, LIT: “I threw out over 1200 pages of my last memoir and broke my delete key changing my mind.” She talks about how long it took her to finally decide what all three of her memoirs were about, to find her true voice, which whispered to her while her idea of what a writer should sound like shouted. Karr finally found transcendence and change and a way to structure it all so that it made sense to the reader. Often, she felt at sea, and both the structure and her voice emerged from her subconscious so slowly that she didn’t notice she had figured them out until she suddenly noticed her writing had, seemingly by magic, acquired them, the way some people will struggle with a language that special moment when it seems suddenly they have been granted the gifts of both understanding and speech.
Karr does not try to vanquish doubt, but courts it as the acid test of the validity of her work. So I take heart. 50 or 75 or 100 rewrites and maybe my doubt that my emotionally Gothic childhood did not mean something, and I have not changed, will itself change.

From another vantage point, doubt can be the greatest enemy. My doubt that I deserve to tell a story about myself where I am not the loser or the villain is very strong. This is the way my parents and my depression taught me to think about myself, and so in a way speaking truthfully about it all is a monumentally disobedient act. I contradict Mom and Dad and my faulty brain chemistry all at once if I do so.

A lot of people in memoir class have trouble with this aspect of writing, their doubt and fear of their own vision, of their version of their own life. They feel others have more of a right to tell their story than they do themselves. This worry about getting it wrong is even stronger than the fear that people will be angry, litigious or hurt by what you have said. People often seem to be looking for permission to claim their own version, but I avoid granting it like the plague. It is not a decision anyone else can make for you, any more than I would tell you to go and tell your family everything you have been holding in lo all these many years.

Kathryn Harrison, in THE KISS: A MEMOIR, writes about how her father victimized her by luring her into an incestuous affair. Some people excoriated her for being the perpetrator and not the victim, and others for not keeping it all a secret. But she had the courage to speak her story which, at some basic level, is the courage to be who you really are, who you know you are, regardless of what other people need you to be.

Not that the tendency for everyone to paint themselves as a victim is necessarily good. Sometimes I think we are creating a society where status comes from how abused you are. A rush to the bottom is a rush to the top. But there are true victims, and truth in their stories. I think my real complaint is with those memoirists who seek refuge in the status of victim, instead of striving to re-take control of their lives. Should everyone be allowed to see themselves as victim? I think of THE SOPRANOS, wherein Tony goes to see Dr Melfi. He is rewriting his life in such a way that he gets to erase all the horror he has caused. Yes, he has been a victim, but also a victimizer. Which brings us back to doubt and honesty, the cornerstones of a good memoir. Yes, my childhood was emotionally Dickensian, pathetic, Gothic, with my mother fluctuating wildly between rage and disinterest, and my father’s bi-polar illness lending an absurdist quality to the whole thing, but I have to admit that for a time (just a time?) I became a self-absorbed, self-pitying jerk, an emotional abuser, a fist fighter ,a drunk, and what would be called a slut if I was a woman (which , contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily a happy condition for a man to be in).

Sometimes, as with the dueling banjos in DELIVERANCE, our stories of ourselves compete with those of others. For all of us, we are first defined, and our narrative begun, by our parents. They tell us who they are. So does the cultural context we come up in. Hence memoirs like Black Elk Speaks, The Hunger of Memory (Richard Rodriguez), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among others. For some of these writers, they are authoring themselves for the first time, an act of great personal and political courage.

In my family, my narrative role was both as loser and sinner—to Dad an all purpose dope, schlemiel, schlimazel, a craven coward, and to Mom a ne’er do well, an amoral, selfish narcissist with an eye only on the main chance, a sinner, malefactor, miscreant, and general all around bad actor. For a long time I took it for granted that all these things were true. My sense of irony was not yet developed enough to see that the pot was calling the kettle black. It was only in reinventing my role in therapy (there is a specific school called Narrative Psychology dealing with this) that I got some traction in my attempts to pull myself out of the narrative quicksand I was in.

People who confuse therapy and memoir also confuse criticism of their writing with criticism of their very selves. I try to be very careful to clearly make a distinction between the two.

Memoir can be a healthy endeavor, then (although it is also a refuge for propagandists and self deluded narcissists). Sometimes you need to overcome guilt and confusion in order to write one. Some memoirs seem to think that you can elevate yourself at the expense of others. This kind of zero-sum game thinking does not often make a good memoir. Karr, in Liar’s Club, does portray her parents warts and all, but she does the same to herself. And in the end, she finds a way to bless them, and herself, with acceptance and compassion. It is something I have not found the ability to do yet.

It is important to understand that memoir that is greatly therapeutic is not necessarily great memoir. And great memoir is not necessarily memoir that will sell, what with the publishing industry’s conviction that the sensational is more attractive than the thoughtful, the lurid more compelling than the nuanced, the memoir that shouts simple platitudes more worthy than one that whispers about complexity and nuance. Also, what is valued in memoir goes in and out of fashion the way skinny and fat ties for men do.

Not everyone writes with depth, insight and voice. But everyone can learn to write memoir, and like any other skill from shooting a basketball to singing opera, practice will make you better, if not necessarily world class.

It is comforting to know we are not alone, and fiction and memoir are one of the few places we get access to the secret lives of others. And yet we are fascinated too with those who, besides that bedrock humanity, are different. We are taken with the offbeat and the off putting, the odd, the eccentric, the outed and the outré.

It’s a rush, this access—when I read MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS, by Rhoda Janzen, I found her experience about as  far removed from mine as one’s could possibly be—that of a Mennonite woman growing up in a culture she often felt at odds with, both as a woman and as a Mennonite.  What do I know of the secret lives of Mennonites (besides the underwear)? Or the secret lives of any kind of woman, for that matter. Janzen rebels, and I can relate to rebellion, but she finds love and acceptance in her heart for the very people who made her life so hard. The dress and religion and family were way too tight a fit for her, but she made alterations and kept all three. She entertains and there is some instruction cleverly mixed in (like you mix medicine in with your dog’s food). If my students can do these two very deceptively difficult things, I count them successful. I try to hold myself to the same standard.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, October 23, 2015

What to do with Apples

There's nothing murderous I want to talk about today, so I thought I might give you my recipe for Apple Crisp. Apples are in season here in the Delaware Valley. A trip to the Homestead Farm Market, Sansone's, Solebury Orchards in Pennsylvania, or even Terhune's, a slightly longer drive, will get you crispy apples at the peak of flavor ripeness, right off the tree.

But wherever you are, local fruit is best. Here's what I'm doing tonight with the Empire apples I bought at Solebury Orchards. (The Honeycrisp apples are for eating out of hand.)

Apple Crisp

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Take 8 medium apples, tart and crisp, your favorite variety for cooking.

Peel and core the apples. Cut them into one-inch chunks and spread them in an unbuttered two-quart baking dish.

Mix the dry ingredients of the topping together. You can do this in a food processor, and then process the butter too, but if you do you must be careful not to overprocess the butter.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

Cut a quarter-pound stick of butter into small pieces and mix it in. This is the only step in the recipe that requires nice judgement. If you make biscuits or pie crust you know the drill: cut the butter into the flour mixture using two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. The idea is to coat the little lumps of fat with flour but not to get it all pasty. If you're using a food processor, a couple of pulses or so should do the job.

Spread the flour mixture over the apples. Knock the baking dish on the counter to settle the crumbs. Bake until the apples are tender, 50 to 55 minutes. (Macintosh apples cook more quickly.)

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My Jesuits… the CIA and the Vatican…

One was tall, handsome, dark eyes that bore right into your brain.

The other, shorter, plain, mild but with eyes that bore right through your soul.

Reed Walsh, guestmaster at the Jesuit Residence in Manhattan, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency — the greatest spy force in the world.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit Cardinal from Argentina, now the spiritual father of 1.2 billion souls on Planet Earth.

Reed Walsh, you won't see on the nightly news… he lives in that magic world of the crime novel… he helps good guys find the bad guys…

Francis might well be on your nightly news… and in your daily paper… he lives in a little apartment in a big church in Rome. Helps the good guys recognize - and forgive - the bad guys…

The book man lives in my heart and mind.

The other guy came to visit my city, recently, and I swear he looked directly at my soul - right through my TV screen…

I felt I knew him - yet he was a man of mystery, as is the other guy…

Both are deep thinkers, deep feelers. Both are very, very complex men… don't be fooled by the smile and simple language.

You know a lot from the media about what makes the guy who was CIA tick… but you need to look quite carefully at this other unassuming guy… His inner machinery runs very deep… underneath all the quiet and unassumingness…

He is like a quiet giant volcano… what you see is only the tip…

He'll smile at you sweetly, say, "Please pray for me." And… "You try to put the Holy Spirit in a box… at your peril."

This quiet guy was a bouncer at a nightclub in Buenos Aires as a young man - he loved to tango!

This quiet guy has held some pretty heavy jobs: now the first Jesuit elected as the Pope!

Archbishop of Buenos Aires, President of the Bishops' Conference of Argentina, served as Jesuit Provincial in Argentina, got the second-most votes when the old Pope died in 2005.

Was active in political diplomacy and environmental advocacy
Trained as a chemical technician
Taught Lit and Psych in colleges
Got his Doctorate in Theology in Germany

No slouch, this little guy…
Don't be fooled by his meek smile…

As you know, the Jesuits are known as God's Soldiers, God's Marines, and The Company. No little club for the faint-hearted or meek or frail of heart!

The Society's commitment on earth is to accept orders anywhere and to endure any conditions. The Society of Jesus is also known as the papal "Elite Troops."

Jesuits have long been known as the trainers par excellence of lawyers and public officials. Jesuits priests often acted as confessors to Kings - and were noted for their intellectual ability and ability at debate among the European aristocracy.

The Nazi regime considered the Jesuits one of their most dangerous enemies! Many Jesuits were deported to concentration camps!

Maybe you wonder why I'm so devoted to the Jesuits?

Many years ago I was privileged to study the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at a Jesuit Monastery in Wernersville, PA, with a crack cadre of brains and souls…

I was deeply touched by the intelligence, character and dedication of the Jesuits there and the high level and quality of humanity has remained a deep part of my own life.

As I watched this new Pope, the leader of so many men and women on this fragile earth, I pray he is strong enough to carry the mission he has been given in this trembling planet.

A man with his history and experience in governing, studies and commitments worldwide, is no simple soul.

This quiet man is not so quiet… he is not a "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." If you look at him hard you see he is a rock of ages…

But all of us, whatever our faiths or non-faiths, should be encouraged by the strength this quiet man shows — right through the screens of world-wide televisions…

Thelma Straw

P.S. What is my message to crime writers today?

Infuse your chapters with multi-layered people with many depths of emotion and feelings…

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Memoir, Part I

I teach a class called Introduction to Memoir at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy NY. The class being about memoir, about the personal, the private, and the interior, I learn a lot about my students. I’m sure they learn about me too, even if I don’t use my own attempts at memoir writing as an example for them. In spite of this process of coming to know one another, I have been keeping one big secret from them: I AM NOT ENTIRELY SURE I KNOW WHAT MEMOIR IS.

Oh, I have some idea, but not a crystal clear one, like I think a teacher should. I can expound on the what, how and why of the memoir as literary genre, but if you asked me to give a definition that included all that is memoir, and excluded all that is not, I would not be able to do it. And I have a bone to pick with the ways that some people have defined it in the past. So my class is not so much a top-down lecture about the form, but an exploration undertaken as a kind of corporate venture to a New World of Truth, however provisional and contingent that truth turns out to be.

So let’s go with the ‘what’ of memoir first. It is not fiction, not history, but it appropriates approaches from both of those genres. It finds truth in what actually happened to a person, however fictional it may be in terms to being a selective and interpretive enterprise. It tries to find universal, general, abstract human truth in the particular and concrete experiences of a single person. In that sense, it is didactic. Hopefully, it is also entertaining. In fact, I think you can justify memoir on the basis of its mere entertainment value. I don’t read truly engaging stuff often enough. Funny and articulate and surprising will do for me.

My mentor, Marion Roach Smith, who teaches the more advanced course at the ACCR (and who authored the wonderful book about the craft of memoir called THE MEMOIR PROJECT: A THOROUGHLY NON-STANDARDIZED TEXT FOR WRITING AND LIFE) feels that memoir should tell a story with some of the standard elements of fiction: conflict, resolution, change, epiphany, transcendence. I don’t think all memoirs do this, and I know the one I am working on does not (at least not yet, but I am hoping perhaps the writing itself may somehow bring me the insight and change that I seek).

I think of a great memoir by Joe Queenan called CLOSING TIME, wherein he describes growing up poor with an alcoholic abusive father and a manic depressive mother. There is little to be learned, except perhaps the desperate nature of poverty, and that if you are a very bright and lucky poor kid, it might help you to read a lot of books (which he calls the siege weapons the poor use to breach the walls of the middle class). Queenan is the same wiseacre as a kid as he is as an adult. No transcendence. He does learn that the priesthood is not for him, and that suffering is more often dehumanizing than ennobling, but there is no great conflict or confusion, no journey of discovery, no triumphs, just a life so skillfully drawn, a life so desperate and yet so funny, that it is my favorite in the genre.

And besides, there is change of a sort. Sometimes the change comes in the reader and not the writer, when expectations are frustrated. I expected Queenan to make some pronouncements about poverty, about how he learned to overcome it, and about perhaps how society can eliminate it, but he doesn’t set his sights that high. He is content to tell us that he has no answers, that he was lucky to get out, and that the poor will always be with us. That is still a lesson, though implied.

I think of Chekhov as Queenan’s analogue in fiction. Think of his short story THE KISS. Officer Ryabovitch obsesses over a woman who accidentally kissed him at a ball and then disappeared, and we think that the story will end one of two ways—he will find her and be turned down, or find her and be united with her (or maybe find her and lose her, and win her and wish he hadn’t). We never suspect that all the obsessing will come to nothing, that he will never try to find her, that he will allow his life to be lived without any of it being resolved. And so we are changed, because our expectation was thwarted, and we are forced to face the idea that in real life a lot of things don’t get resolved.

I tell my students honestly that in the memoir that I am writing, there is no resolution. At least not yet. Maybe there will be in time, if I find some way to make peace with my childhood, my life, of depression, OCD and anxiety. But I haven’t done it yet. This makes me wonder if the resolution in a lot of memoirs is forced. Maybe some of these people write in their journals and diaries with an eye towards a coherent story about their lives, but my old diaries and journals, which weren’t, don’t read that way. And the whole thing begs the question—How can I say that any version of my life is true if my own understanding of it is so fragile and malleable? If I write it pre-transcendence it is a much different memoir than if I don’t.

This makes me think of what Augustine’s CONFESSIONS would have been like if he was still enjoying the good life, placing body above soul, and generally having some fun when he wrote it. Less of a drag, I am sure.

Of course, he needs to strive towards the divine because he is writing less with an eye towards truth and more because he is propagandizing (another thing that calls into question how true any memoir can be). Augustine is using his life as an exemplum with which to win recruits to his version and vision of Christianity, his story of coming to God being the vehicle, just as Ben Franklin was consciously using himself as an example of America in The Autobiography of Ben Franklin (breaking from his brother and finding success in the same way the country breaks from England and through brains and hard work and a certain kind of godliness and purity finds success too). Shit, even George Bush, in DECISION POINTS, has an epiphany (God tells him to stop taking coke and stop screwing up one business after another and go screw up the entire county instead), as does Hitler in MEIN KAMPF, wherein he suddenly sees the truth about the Aryans and the Jews and his role as the one chosen to redeem the former and eliminate the latter.

So I find it hard to come by epiphany, and am suspicious of it as being a pernicious thing, and I don’t know if my life is an example of anything. If it is not, I don’t want to phony it up by writing it like it is.

Next week, more on the ‘what’ of memoir.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Horror! The Horror! Getting Rid of Books

“But however many bookshelves Crispin built there were never enough. The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves—they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs… You cannot have a taste for minimalist decor if you seriously read books.”

Say Amen, somebody! The paragraph above is from Linda Grant’s Kindle Single, “I Murdered My Library.” The rest of the essay goes on to consider things I’m not much interested in, but this bit struck a chord. I don’t have Crispin (the gentleman who built Grant’s bookshelves), I have Bob (the husband who bolted numerous canning shelves to our walls). Bob has a boyhood friend, an architect, who asks ever so gently, if we might want to put in something more attractive.

The answer is no. We will eventually be moving to a smaller place and we aim for sturdiness, not beauty. The shelves are bolted down because I am not always fleet of foot and I fall. What would happen if I grabbed a bookshelf and it fell on me. Bob has insured that I will not be maimed or killed by the objects I love so much.

When we moved to our current house 10 years ago, we were moving to a bigger place. Even then the books were an issue. The movers came to do an estimate.

They figured I had 90 boxes of books and that this would add an additional $1,500 to the move. Bob moved the books and I would get phone messages at work. “Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are in Collingswood.”

Since then, I discovered one click at Amazon and I still frequent book stores.

The Kindle has eased things, but I read old books that often mention other old books.

Kindle tells me I have “The Complete George Bernard Shaw” but it doesn’t include “Pen Portraits and Reviews” which other bookish people assure me is not to be missed. Many wonderful things are not available electronically. And there are so many pleasures in old books. The aforementioned Shaw volume comes from The Lancaster (England) Public Library. A little sticker in the front of the book tells me I can borrow it for two weeks, I must alert the library when I move out of the district and I cannot borrow books if someone in my home has an infectious disease. In a volume of Anne Fleming’s letters, someone has obliging included newspaper clippings: Anthony Powell’s review of the letters and the obituary of a Fleming relative. The letters are fun, by the way, but Fleming, I suspect, will always be known primarily as the wife of two famous men, Lord Beaverbrook and Ian Fleming.

A cozy mystery I bought (The Case of the Missing Book by Ian Sansom) included a gift note. The giftee was ill and the giver offered the book and any other assistance that might be needed. I rely on my Kindle but electronic books don’t allow for personal touches, though I am always interested to see what passages other people highlight.

I had intended this to be a little meditation on what books I’d gotten rid of and find that I’ve talked more about why I still need to acquire paperbacks, hardcovers and what Amazon calls “unknown bindings.” In the field of addiction there’s the concept of “harm reduction.” You may not be totally abstinent but your needles are clean and you don’t use as much. I used to get rid of 2 books and buy 5. Now it’s the other way around.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Black Mass

Growing up watching the Godfather movies, I always thought gangsters were Italian. The Irish in mobster movies all seemed to be flat-footed cops, like the ones that are always chasing Bugs Bunny in the cartoons and failing to catch him, talking in an exaggerated brogue and displaying the brains of turtles. The Italian bad guys were more interesting to me than the Irish good ones. Being Don Corleone was way more cool than being Eliot Ness or, God forbid, Sergeant Joe Friday. It wasn’t until THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), with Sean Connery playing Jimmy Malone, that I found an Irish Cop who was cool enough, charismatic enough, and tough enough to make me wish I could be him (if I could do it without risking being gunned down by Al Capone’s gunsels).

Maybe we all want to be that powerful. And that tough. Say what you want about the immorality of these guys, you can’t say they are wimps, or cowards. If they have any fear (the truly crazy ones don’t, perhaps, but if you are that crazy I don’t think you last long), they never give in to it. They don’t let anyone steal a cab from them, whistle at their girlfriends, or cut in line on them at the movie queue. What freedom that kind of toughness and courage could give you! When you are a mobster, you very rarely encounter a problem you can’t buy off or kill off (indeed, the longevity of your career often depends on how long you can keep buying off and killing off your problems).

James “Whitey” Bulger is a real life Irish tough guy mobster portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2015 movie BLACK MASS. And he’s Irish, a guy who grew up in “Southie” (South Boston) an Irish American neighborhood that has been around since before George Washington drove the British off Dorchester Heights during the Revolutionary War, those heights being where South Boston High School (ground zero for the melee over forced busing in 1974) now stands. Southie doesn’t get the same attention as Compton or Bed Stuy, but it is a ghetto nevertheless. An Irish one.

There have been portrayals of South Boston in the movies before. Matt Damon plays a tough kid from Southie in GOOD WILL HUNTING, and Casey Affleck a detective solving the disappearance of a young girl from the neighborhood in GONE BABY GONE. But Affleck, his brother Ben (who appears in the movie with Damon) and Damon were pampered rich kids not from the area. Denis Lehane, on the other hand, is from Southie (which is still among the poorest places to live in America, even with the recent rise in real estate values from the increase in demand resulting from the rehabilitation of the Boston Harbor area), and he portrays it with a chilling realism in his novel MYSTIC RIVER (later a movie directed by Clint Eastwood). Mark Wahlberg is from nearby Dorchester, and has a felony record from his gang activity as a youth.

Bulger has been portrayed before. In DEPARTED, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is loosely based on him. Costello famously tells someone early in the movie that he, like Lucifer in Paradise Lost (and Stephen Daedalus in PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN), will not serve, that he will not be a “product of my environment. My environment is a product of me.” James Woods, in the Showtime series RAY DONOVAN, plays Bulger as a ruthless old psychopath also (he murders his girlfriend when she lets slip with something that could remotely be thought of as perhaps leading to his being caught), but without the charm and intellect of Nicholson’s Costello.

Depp’s Bulger has ice blue eyes, slicked back hair, and the emotions of a lizard—i.e. none, except for a kind of all encompassing hunger for more money and power. Indeed, except for playing cards with his dear old Ma (after he does nine years in prison as a young man), whom he lets win, while she tells him “didn’t they teach you how to play cards in prison?”, he shows almost nothing, with his sunglasses on or not. But his hunger, and the anger he feels when he can’t satisfy it, does show occasionally through, like when he kills members of his own crew and strangles the stepdaughter of one of his partner’s girlfriends.

I was thinking of a parallel with Tony Soprano here, especially when I saw that Depp’s Bulger did seem to really love his wife and kid, brother and mother. And he had a sentimental feeling for the IRA too (and not just because they pay him for guns). Tony was loyal to his family like Whitey (or tries to be, until he kills his nephew Michael and forfeits his soul). Tony would never be a rat. Bulger, on the other hand, would never try therapy. Tony does, to try and quiet the voice in his head that tells him there is no way he can ever square what he is doing. There is never even a consideration for what is moral for Whitey. He can’t lose his soul because he doesn’t have one.

Bulger early on is a rising member of the Irish mob in South Boston. He kills people on both sides in the Killeen-Mullen wars, and ends up head of the Winter Hill Gang. But the Patriarca family in the North End (a subsidiary of the Gambinos in New York), in particular the Angiulo brothers, are a danger, a threat, a cause of that hunger. So Bulger teams up with a grade school friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who has now become an FBI agent. In return for intel that will help bring down the Cosa Nostra, Whitey becomes immune from prosecution (as long as he commits no crimes—ha!) Whitey ends up getting more useful information from Connolly than Connolly gives to him (even some that leads him to “rats” he blithely executes).

In the end, people notice that Whitey now rules Boston, and new blood on the force brings him and Connolly down. Whitey, though, clever as a fox (and vicious as a rabid dog) flees and is on the Most Wanted list for 12 years, until 2011. Connolly gets forty years for giving Whitey information on who is ratting Whitey out, information on how to avoid prosecution, and for withholding information about Whitey’s criminal activities from his superiors.

Towards the end of the movie, there is a scene where Whitey, just before he runs, calls his brother William, a Massachusetts state senator, to say goodbye. It made me wonder why one brother turned out good, and the other not. That is, if you think being a state senator is better than being a killer. It’s close, I know, but the point is, I don’t think you can lay what Bulger becomes at the doorstep of poverty. Whitey talks about the oppression of the British, and even the Italians, during the movie, but he is the real oppressor of South Boston. He can’t be corrupted by South Boston because he was rotten from the start, and he corrupts it. The one thing you never do in Whitey’s world is rat, and that is what he did, even as he killed people for doing the same. Someone in the movie says “You can lie to your wife or your girl, but never to a friend.” Lying is betrayal, informing the worst kind of betrayal. But maybe that is what it takes to be a mob boss. Maybe I don’t want to be a gangster after all.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, October 9, 2015

Striking Gold

Yesterday was the 105th birthday of James Wilson Marshall.

Who was he? you say. And why should I care?

James Wilson Marshall
As you may or may not know, I am the senior docent at the James Wilson Marshall house, the headquarters of the Lambertville Historical Society. Nearly every Saturday between Shad Fest (the last weekend in April, or Malice Domestic weekend, for those of you who follow the mystery fiction circuit) and House Tour Sunday (October 18 this year, sometimes later) I can be found at the Marshall House between one and four in the afternoon, shooting the breeze about James Wilson Marshall, the California Gold Rush, Lambertville history, and whatever other topic the visiting tourists feel like discussing. So I'm sort of an expert on Mr. Marshall. Who was he, then? Mainly he was the man who discovered the first gold in California, back in 1848. You've heard of Sutter's mill. Marshall was building the mill for Sutter when he found the gold.

John Sutter
You probably didn't know that it was a Jersey boy who started the California gold rush. Little James came to Lambertville (then known as Coryell's Ferry) at the age of six, in 1816, when his father built the house on Bridge Street and set up to be a wheelwright and wagon maker. When he was fifteen he had a bit of unpleasantness with the old man that caused him to leave the house, vowing never to return while his father lived. When he was 24 his father died, and he came home to help his mother sell the business, since he hadn't learned it himself and there were no other sons. Then he went west, moving by stages to California, which was part of Mexico. Long story short, he fell in with Captain John Sutter, the Swiss national who became a Mexican citizen in order to buy obscene quantities of land from the Mexicans. After the war with Mexico Captain Sutter sent James Marshall and a crew into the hills to build the mill, and there he found the gold in the river. He changed the course of American history.

I've been writing historical fiction for a number of years now. People ask me sometimes why I don't write about the gold rush. Here's the thing. I've read a lot about it, I continue to read a lot about it, and I have yet to find anybody involved in those times and events that I like well enough to sit down with for the six or eight months it takes to write a book. Some of these people I actively detest. Captain John Sutter comes to mind. To begin with, he abandoned his wife and five children in Switzerland, leaving them in debt, taking enough money with him to buy a big piece of of California, and proceeded to enslave all the Indians he found on his newly-purchased land. He bought and sold little Indian children. After the gold was discovered, the rough, tough forty-niner claim jumpers ran him off his holdings. He lost everything, and it couldn't happen to a nicer fella, in my opinion.

John Charles Frémont
Marshall was a better person than John Sutter, though he drank all the time and had trouble getting along with other people. It's said that children liked him. It's said that he risked his own life defending the Indians from attacks by rampaging forty-niners. So he may have been a good guy, but I'm sorry, I can't warm up to a habitual drunkard.

Jessie Frémont
John Charles Frémont to me is the most interesting figure in the California gold rush days, intrepid explorer, impetuous military man, failed politician. Some of the deeds he did as a military man were so base that the rumor of them later disqualified him for public office. He made a huge fortune in the gold rush by virtue of owning seventy acres of gold-rich land and sharing the proceeds with the men he set to digging on it, but eventually his workers figured out that they didn't have to give him a share at all. I think I like him because his wife loved him so. He married Senator Thomas Hart Benton's daughter Jessie. She followed him to California, sailing to Panama, crossing the isthmus through fever-ridden jungles, sailing up the west coast to San Francisco to be with her man.

The stories are worth telling. I just don't want to tell them, not right now, when I'm deeply in love with other historical figures, people in other times that I'm working into a novel. Maybe I'll write about the gold rush later, when I finish the spy thriller.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Kind of Pantyhose Were They??

The Charleston Jail

I just returned from 10 days in the Charleston area. Land of sweet tea, palm trees and Rhett Butler - and ghosts. I knew about the first three but was unaware of The Holy City's (didn't know about that nickname either)status as bona fide ghost country. Ghost tours abound - cemeteries, jails and the sites of infamous crimes, including those of 27 year old Lavinia Fisher whose rap sheet and list of exploits has grown dramatically since she was hanged in 1820 - or did she jump from the scaffold in defiance of the hangman? Did she really wear a wedding dress and say “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me – I’ll carry it” ? Who knew that behind all that Miss Rosemary and Miss Becky (my pal) lay a tumultuous past?

We were there for a Habitat for Humanity build with a team my husband (Mr. Bruce) put together. Shout-out to Mark, Chip, Joe, Angela, Nicole, Maddy, Marianne and Laura, our fellow team members. I can't recommend HFH highly enough - great organization, great work and great fun with amazing like-minded people. The Sea Island Habitat office is on Johns Island, where we built and it was there that Miss Melissa posed the title question.

It seems the church next door to the SIH office moved down the road. Once that happened the issue of what to do with the bodies interred in the church's cemetery arose. Some families wanted them to stay, others wanted loved ones removed to what was now the hallowed ground down half a mile away. Others were long gone and unavailable for comment.

Apparently the moving of bodies is not unusual in Charleston. Sometimes it's a function of much of the area being below sea level. On a bus tour we learned that Vice-President John Calhoun's body "crossed the road more times dead than alive." Reason? His family could not be traced back more than two generations so his status as a "native Charlestonian" was challenged. That required his removal from a Charleston only plot to another across the street. At some point this was reversed and… well, you get it.

But back to the church. Inevitably the day came when the exhumations were to take place. Do you watch? Say a prayer and stay back? Put it on youtube? So hard to know the proper etiquette.

One man's family was removed without his consent - and like John Calhoun - they had to be returned to their original resting places. Now, I don't have a lot of first-hand knowledge about caskets. Although I should. I took MWA's awesome Woodlawn Cemetery tour last fall, but I was more interested in seeing Nellie Bly's grave. And Miles Davis' so I must have missed the part about when coffins fall apart. But, you know, nothing lasts forever and I imagine some of the wooden caskets just rotted away over time. Need I tell you what happened? Bottoms fell out. Bodies fell out. I leave the rest to your imagination. And that prompted Miss Melissa's question - "what kind of pantyhose were they??"

Which, I suppose, lends a whole new meaning to the term, support hose.

© 2015 Rosemary Harris

Sunday, October 4, 2015


God's Own Country Musings…

Kaye Barley, a beloved Southern writer, is well-known to readers of Jungle Red and Meanderings and Muses.

As are her husband Don and their cherished dog, Harley Barley.

Many of us have walked along with her in remembrance of her dear mother's recent sudden passing. And today photos of the simpler life of North Carolina draw us all together in the beauty of down home, simple life in a wonderful part of our beloved country.

The photos bring back my own memories of happy years as a child in that state, so far from the world we see nightly on TV with jagged words and horrid verbal slings and toupee touching!

You will enjoy Kaye's trip too…

Thelma in Manhattan

Today has been a good day.

I drove to Newland to Cranberry House and was struck once more with just how lovely the drive is and how many interesting spots there are between here and there.

I would have enjoyed the trip to and from on visits to my mom, and I doubt I would have ever tired of the drive.


Since my mom is no longer there, I'm blessed to have made some friends who are there.

I will always think of Gigi, Kathy and Rhianon as “Hazel's Angels."

And because I didn't have a single place I needed to rush to, I stopped at almost every place I had been promising myself I would stop “one of these days." Today was finally that day, and it was nice.

And I am so happy I had my camera with me, which isn't really that unusual, but sometimes - sometimes I walk out of the house without it and regret it every minute I'm gone.

And I'm also happy there's meatloaf left over from last night's supper and I can fix myself a meatloaf sandwich.

Life is good.

But there's a lesson behind all this.

The lesson is this.

I've missed a lot of opportunities to take some time to stop whatever it was I was doing. I've missed some fabulous photo ops.

I'm lucky though regarding this trip from Boone to Newland and back.

It's close enough that I can get a “re-do" whenever the urge strikes.

Sometimes, though, we even pass up the chances for a “re-do."

I think it's important to remember that we really don't have to be doing something we think of as important or critical or necessary all the time.

Sometimes it's alright to just “be."

To just allow yourself time to stop at that little place on the side of the road and see if it's as interesting as you think it might be.

It's okay to pull off the side of the road and take a picture of the sky just 'cause.

And I'm going to try to remember to do these things more often.

I don't think we're put here on this earth to rush through life, or work through life.

I need to remember to sometimes allow myself to just be.

Here's a few of the things I took a little bit of time to enjoy today.

A few places I finally stopped at, and a few places I just wanted to photograph.

Life is good. I want to remember to live it.

Kaye Barley

Saturday, October 3, 2015


NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is a profoundly disturbing movie. The sociopath at the center of the action, Lou Bloom (played with an unctuous and creepy intensity by Jake Gyllenhall) does some horrible things, but it is the venality and complacency of the people and society around him that really got to me.

Bloom has no background at all. He comes into the story stealing copper from a construction site. He proceeds to whack the guard who catches him on the skull, take his watch, and then sell the booty to a contractor who turns him down when he asks for a job: “I don’t hire thieves.” Gyllenhall is more sensitive to the irony than the contractor, who does business with thieves but doesn’t consider himself one. And the contractor is not the only one in the movie who whines about the duplicity and depravity of others while not seeing those same qualities in him or herself. In fact, there is not one character in this movie that is not corrupted or proves to be non- corruptible.

Bloom apparently has no connection to anyone, lives by night and educates himself by day by surfing the internet. He is a 21st century self made man, an autodidact, a polymath, Frederick Douglas as Frankenstein’s monster, the American dream turned nightmare. He has got his eye only on the main chance. The idiom he uses when he is trying to manipulate or extort or deceive his way to the American Dream is a blend of Horatio Alger and Tony Robbins, corporate double speak that means nothing, all about communication and innovation and positivity , growth and negotiation, all those things corporate America holds out to us as the keys to our success, when we really know it is a con, a dodge, that it is not invention and initiative, innovation and hard work, that count, but deceit, cheating, and friends in high places. The vision of the world in this movie is a kind of inversion of the idea that a rising tide helps all boats—in this world, you only succeed by sinking the other guy’s.

And so Bloom sets out to do so. He stumbles across a new way to make money—driving around nighttime LA with a police scanner and a camera, collecting the most lurid images he can find to sell to the local news affiliates. He becomes pretty good, makes some of his own luck by committing a few felonies, hires a desperate guy named Rick he pays less than minimum wage (calling it an “internship”) to help out, and soon he is selling footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo) at a local news station. Nina cheerfully tells Bloom: “if it bleeds, it leads.” She starts out treating Bloom like a leper, but his stock goes up with the quality (i.e., shock and sleaze) of his work. Still, she sees him not as a real player, but another worker bee. Everyone who underestimates Bloom in this movie suffers. He extorts sex and a foot in the door of the news biz from her in trade for his footage. She at first feigns shock at his offer, but then he tells her he could just go elsewhere, and ratings week is coming, and he starts to look better and better to her.

We learn that not only if it bleeds, it leads, but if the crime happens to middle or upper class people it gets more attention. The strategy is to play on the fear suburbanites have about urban crime landing on their doorsteps (even if it isn’t). So when some people in a chic neighborhood are shot-gunned (it was about drugs, but the news station buries that, because that isn’t as scary as violent urban hoods tired of waiting on you at McDonalds stealing the family jewels, kidnapping the kids, and maybe even dating your daughter), Bloom scores big with bloody, and exclusive, photos.
It’s only going to get worse, and we know it. And there is no hero in this noir tale, or even an anti-hero. Bloom flouts the law (which is not fooled by him, but can’t bring him to heel), gets what he wants, gets away with it all. He even manages to rid himself of a troublesome employee and get the shot of a career at the same time (I couldn’t figure out if the way he did it was illegal, but it was one of the most immoral things I have ever seen a movie character do).

There is nothing redeeming about Bloom, although the movie plays on our expectation that there might be. He is a lonely guy, socially inept, living in a shabby apartment that is so devoid of any kind of hominess that you wonder if there ever could be a home for this guy. And people do treat him like he isn’t there. He’s poor, after all. But at the same time, he is bright, very bright, and maybe he will overcome it all. Maybe he is even a little autistic. Is there anything redeeming about him? Shit, even Hannibal Lecter had a kind of charm, and a code of ethics, kind of.

But in an understated yet great scene, we are disabused of the notion that he deserves any sympathy (which is exactly the amount he has for anyone else). Rick tells the boss he might do better if he understood people more. Bloom responds: “did you ever think it’s not that I don’t understand people, but I just don’t like them?” And Bloom does understand Rick, well enough in fact to make a bundle off of him and get him killed all at once.

I won’t give away the final scene, except to say that Bloom becomes a kind of demonstration of the Heisenberg Principle, not merely observing, but altering the thing observed. It is great and chilling stuff. And the whole thing made me wonder about markets, both those for goods and those for ideas. Is this what we get when both are free? News that is really pornography, intellectually nourishing only in the way eight bowls of Count Chocula would be? And is everything else we sell and buy the same (and everything is for sale in this movie) —unadulterated crap that makes a few people rich and the rest of our lives empty, hollow, and cheap? Perhaps hard news about corporate criminality instead of cartoons about urban bogeymen would serve us better, but that is not what a “free” market for ideas is giving us. The irony, of course, is that movies like this one could be the answer. Then again, this one went from the theaters to pay-per-view faster than you could say “Heaven’s Gate.” Oh, well. You’ve got to give the people what they want. Or do you?

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, October 2, 2015

How Much Food is Too Much?

“…I pounded some lamb steaks I'd bought for lamb cutlets. Dipped them in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs. When they were what Julia Child calls nicely coated I put them aside and peeled four potatoes. I cut them into little egg-shaped oblongs, which took awhile, and started them cooking in a little oil, rolling them around to get them brown all over. I also started the cutlets in another pan. When the potatoes were evenly browned I covered them, turned down the heat and left them to cook through. When the cutlets had browned, I poured off the fat, added some Chablis and some fresh mint, covered them and let them cook… I took the lamb cutlets out of the pan and cooked down the wine. I shut off the heat, put in a lump of unsalted butter, swirled it through the wine essence and poured it over the cutlets."

The crime novel this recipe came from was not something of Diane Mott Davidson's, not even a cozy. It was Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker, and it won the Edgar best novel award for 1977. It looks like a perfectly good recipe, if you don't mind fried food. I wouldn't do that to a good piece of lamb, myself, but that's neither here nor there. The question is, what place, if any, does a cooking recipe have in a crime novel?

I'm thinking, it depends on the novel. For a noir novel the recipe would have to be something doomed and despairing. Beans out of a can, maybe, or a dreadful stew of some kind. Stewed road kill. For a detective story, if your detective cooks, like Spencer, you can describe something quite delicious. If your detective doesn't cook, maybe you want to draw the cloak of charity over his or her activities in the kitchen. I once put a recipe in a Mother Grey book that I got out of a Polly Pigtails comic book long ago, involving crushed potato chips, tuna fish, and canned mushroom soup; Mother Grey doesn't cook. (Notice how I used the Oxford comma in that sentence, where Robert B. Parker didn't. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1977, and fashions in punctuation have changed.)

I can see by the covers and the titles that a lot of cozy mysteries include food, with recipes, presumably, though I blush to confess that I don't read them. Would you put a recipe in a classic thriller or mystery in the modern day, or would it stop the action? Rex Stout's stories about Nero Wolfe always featured marvelous food, but not detailed recipes for preparing it. Menus, rather. That would be one way to go. Or send your protagonist to a great restaurant and have him order what you would like to have yourself, if only you had the money. Readers like sensuous treats. Sometimes they even like to go on vicarious alcoholic binges. What do you think about it? Food or no food with your crime? (Maybe fava beans and a nice Chianti.)

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What You Can’t Make Up

Sheila York

I’m a Mets fan. It’s like being a writer. You spend time, love and hope on something that has every chance of breaking your heart. And it’s not like being a writer. In baseball, anybody with a keyboard or a cell phone and the talk show's number can declaim about you with the certainty of an expert. In writing, it’s anybody with a keyboard. 

But let’s get back to that time-love-hope thing. 

It’s been a long dry spell for a Mets fan. The last World Series they won – they’ve won only 2 in their 54 years of existence – was in 1986. They won a World Series in 1969, and lost in 1973 and 2000. And they got to what’s called postseason 3 other times, but not since 2006. (Of course, if you’re a Cubs fan, that sounds pretty good.) 

Then this summer, the team on which I have showered selfless affection through even the last several years of misery did more than I ever would have thought possible. 

The magical summer

In mid-July, the Mets were hanging on by their pitching staff’s fingernails to any chance at the postseason. Last Saturday night, they won the National League Eastern Division. 

They’re holding beer bottles because they sprayed
the champagne all over each other and the carpet.
I've never met a carpet I thought deserved champagne more than I did.
Photo credit: David Kohl/USA Today Sports

If you want to know how this happened, google Yoenis Cespedes Mets MiracleThis is the guy, after having launched another homer. Not sure what game. It happened a lot. 

Photo credit: Getty Images
On July 31, at the trading deadline – I mean, ten minutes before the 4pm ET deadline – the Mets announced they’d concluded a deal for Cespi (what we call him around our house). 

From that moment, the Mets went from 2 games behind in their division to win the East by 8.5 games over the experts’ favorite, the Washington Nationals. Google Papelbon Harper if you want to see what not living up to other peoples’ hype can do, and remember it when you’re tempted to say sports teaches teamwork. 

The Mets played .679 baseball. This means that in the last two months, they won more than 2 of every 3 games they played. Only one team in the majors (Toronto) won more in that stretch. 

My magical summer had one astonishing performance (please google Cespedes), but it was only possible because David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud came off the disabled list; the Mets acquired two solid bench players – Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson – and Tyler Clippard for the bullpen; and they called up Michael Conforto from the minors. The rest of the team managed to hang in before those guys arrived. 

It’s a story you couldn’t make up. Well, you could, but people would roll their eyes. 

I’d like to share my 3 favorite You Can’t Make This Stuff Up stories. 

David Wright is too good to be true. Talented, humble, mature. And the hardest-working gifted player you might ever see. Diagnosed early in the season with spinal stenosis, a rare condition in which the channel that contains the spinal nerves and spinal cord narrows, he was on the disabled list for most of the season, learning to treat the condition – it cannot be cured – all the while knowing he might never play again. And he came back. And in his first at-bat (see below), he hit a monster home run. Cue the exploding light stanchion. Our captain. 

Photo credit: Bill Streicher/US Today Sports

Jeurys Familia. My vote for team MVP. He’s the closer. This means he comes in in the ninth inning when things are bad, and makes sure the team wins. His best friend on the team, Jenrry Mejía, was last year’s closer. Then Jenrry tested positive (twice) for a banned steroid so old-school a breathalyzer could have found it (the winner in the "you couldn’t make up somebody this dumb" category). Jeurys filled the role with power and poise at a time (pre-Cespi) when if the Mets scored 2 runs, it was a bonanza. He has saved 42 games. 

Photo credit: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports
Wilmer Flores. He’d never known any other team than the Mets, with whom he signed on as a minor leaguer when he was 16. Rumors hit social media on July 29 that he’d been traded so the Mets could get a bigger bat. The Mets front office wins the “clueless about social media” award for not realizing such a thing could be leaked and spread. Wilmer found out from fans in the stands. He was captured on TV wiping tears from his eyes while on the field. The trade fell through. And on July 31, the day they got Cespi, Wilmer hit the game-winning homer into the night sky in extra innings, and flew home clutching the Mets logo on his chest. 

Photo credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The stuff you can’t make up has made up for a lot.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York