essays

Love, Grief, and Cookies

A character in one of my stories says, “Love and death sculpt our souls into shapes we couldn’t have imagined.” (Olivia, “Rain,” in Before Our House Fell into the Ocean: Stories of Love and Death.) It was true when I wrote it, and it seems especially true as holiday season rolls around again. We grieve our losses and celebrate our loves. We all know that grief never disappears. We never “get over” the death of a loved one. Grief morphs into an irreducible part of our personality. I weep for my parents. I weep for my son. But I am ever so grateful for the love of my family and friends. I’ve probably said it before, but I’m sure when the Grim Reaper comes calling, nobody thinks about how they or their friends voted, who sits in the White House or the Kremlin, what outlandish salary an NFL player is getting. We remember the love we gave and the love we received.

In that spirit, I’m remembering my mother Janice, and I’d like to share with you a cookie recipe she invented herself. Although these were holiday cookies and usually made their appearance on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, she could be persuaded to make them any time. They are a chocolate spice cookie she dubbed “Arabian Bites.” They’re for the Cookie Monster in you!

Ingredients:

¼ cup cold coffee

½ cup raisins

1 tbsp. shortening

½ tsp. baking soda

2 squares Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate

1 and 1/8 cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. cloves

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup chopped walnuts

The Process:

Add coffee, raisins, and shortening to a saucepan and heat until the raisins plump. Remove from heat, add baking soda, and allow to cool. In another pan, melt the chocolate. In a large bowl, mix flour, salt, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and sugar. Add the coffee/raisin mixture, the melted chocolate, the vanilla, and the chopped nuts. Drop by tsp. onto a greased cookie sheet (or Silpat). Bake 8-10 minutes at 375. Remove from cookie sheet and roll in confectioner’s sugar. (Over the years, we have substituted chopped dates for the raisins, and sometimes pecans for walnuts. It’s all good!)

Love you, Mom!

Here’s a picture of Mom and Dad

And here’s a picture of the front side of Mom’s recipe card. The coffee stains made it increasingly harder to read the recipe, and unfortunately we wrote over her lovely script many years ago, before we realized what a treasure it would be had we left it alone!

Art and Crime

I live with an artist wife, and Sharon never ceases to amaze me. She enters her studio (formerly, our dining room!) in “paint clothes” (of course, she’d be beautiful even dressed in rags!), starts blending different colors, and confidently approaches her easel armed only with a palette knife. Hours later, she emerges, the cutest smudges of paint on her nose and cheeks, and asks me to take a look at the initial phases of the piece she is birthing. (It seems appropriate that what she is painting on is called a “cradled birch panel.”) Her work staggers me. Here’s her website.

The Oxford Dictionary defines abstract expressionism as a development of abstract art that originated in New York in the 1940s and 1950s and aimed at subjective emotional expression with particular emphasis on the creative spontaneous act. Wikipedia says it put New York City on the map, eclipsing Paris as the new hub of art in the West. I don’t know about all that, I only know my wife’s work knocks my socks off. Here she is:

So why have I’ve called my blog “Art and Crime?” I don’t mean to imply that Sharon is in any way a criminal—far from it! But I write murder mysteries. As I’ve accompanied her to showings at the galleries that feature her work, I’ve learned that art galleries are far and away one of the best places to launder money! Oh, I thought, I can use that! And indeed I have.

Gallery of Gangsters is the final book in the Driftwood series (and one of Sharon’s paintings is on the cover!) If you click on the image below, you can read the first chapter. Let me know what you think.

The book will be released on August 24. Pre-order it now for only $0.99—a $5.00 savings. Here’s the link.

A Difficult Question

I’m going out on a limb here, testing the waters to see if issues like this can be talked about rationally without starting a fight. I wish to offend no one, just to start a different sort of conversation about this—a clinical discussion.

I’m talking about the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. Do I think promulgating this law was politically motivated? Absolutely, shamefully so. But—and this is a big but—there is some truth to the law. Please let me explain.

I worked for 37 years as a clinical social worker. During that time, I worked with thousands of children and their families. In my training, we were taught that all human beings go through psychological “stages” as they mature. Those stages have different names depending on which authority you consult, but they all look at the developmental tasks children must complete in their growth. Children from Kindergarten through grade 3 are focusing on relationships—learning to share, building empathy—and also learning foundational skills in reading, writing, mathematics, etc.

One school of thought refers to this period as “latency,” a time when sexuality takes a back seat to these other skills. Of course, children are “sexual beings” from the beginning of their lives, but sex isn’t the focus at this time. Certainly, they may occasionally “play doctor” or ask “where babies come from,” but good parents give brief, child-friendly answers and direct them back to other activities.

Sexual abuse at this time of life is particularly harmful because it pushes the child out of “latency” and “sexualizes” them—sex becomes the focus of their thoughts and behaviors. They may abuse other children as they were abused. Interpersonal relationships suffer. Academic skills falter.

Please understand: I’m not claiming that teaching these very young children in school about LGBTQ matters is abusive, only that it’s too early for them to process it, and it poses a risk of making sex a focus of their lives when there are other issues that need their attention.

I don’t mean to offend my gay, lesbian, transgender brothers and sisters. And I wholeheartedly celebrate diversity in our society and equality under the law. I just have doubts that teaching Kindergartners in school about these things is the way to go. I would love to hear back from some child psychologists and psychiatrists to fact-check whether I’m making any sense or not.

An Ode to Oysters

Had not my daughter insisted, I would have gone to my grave never having eaten a raw oyster, and I would have been much the poorer for that. During a trip to San Diego last year, she introduced me to them. On our trip last week, I knew she had changed my life.

I’m sure ambience is important, and there are volumes to be written about the atmosphere in Little Italy, a suburb rich in culture and glorious food. Our go-to destination has never disappointed us. Although no visit is complete without a classic Italian dinner at Buon Appetito on India Street, (this trip, it was the superlative Osso Buco on a bed of risotto), our seafood target is Ironside Fish and Oyster across the street. In fact, it was so good, we had dinner there one evening and went back when it opened for lunch the next day!

The restaurant itself is rather playful, with a giant octopus hanging over the diners and ship figureheads high in the corners. The entry on Yelp says that Michelin star chef Jason McLeod is in charge.

There were four of us eating, and my daughter ordered 24 oysters. There were half a dozen varieties of oysters to choose from, and she chose the two smallest kinds, which she considers to be the sweetest. The oysters were arranged in a circle on a bed of ice on a round plate with fresh lemon wedges and little metal cups of champagne vinaigrette and horseradish. My preferred method of eating them was with only a few drops of the vinaigrette.

Sipping an oyster from its shell is a wonder like no other—the fresh breath of the sea, the delicate taste of the oyster, the bright taste of the chilled Chardonnay afterward. Truly, it elevates a culinary experience to a spiritual one. The simplicity and the elegance evoke images of fine art and music. It is cuisine as poetry.

The master of letters, Ernest Hemingway, said it best in A Moveable Feast, when he wrote:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Our plans are to return as soon as we can!

Terminal Velocity: Musings on the Station Nightclub Fire

This week I watched a 48 Hours episode on CBS about the 2003 fire at the Station, a nightclub in Warwick, Rhode Island. One hundred people were killed, and another two hundred were injured. When I had first heard about the tragedy eighteen years ago, I remember telling myself, “If I were still living in Rhode Island, I’d be dead now.” Let me explain.

I moved to the little community of Riverside, Rhode Island, just south of Providence, in June of 1974, fresh out of graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany. My former wife and I rented a duplex on the narrow peninsula called Bullocks Point, and a few years later we purchased a house right on the banks of Narragansett Bay, where we remained until 1989, when we moved to Oregon.

The house was old but comfortable, and we remodeled it piece by piece over the years. A side porch was converted into a bedroom for two foster adolescents. The back porch became a kind of office/playroom with a wood-burning stove. A new deck in back became the best place to look out over the bay, breakfast coffee in hand, and watch sailboats in the summer and water fowl in winter.

Directly across the bay was the little town of Cranston, and south of that was Warwick. It was pleasant to watch the city lights on the water after sunset, and especially fun to watch the traditional party bonfires on the beaches up and down the bay on the night before the fourth of July.

I confess, my tastes in music back then were quite juvenile. In fact, I was a bit of a metal head when the “hair bands” were so popular. I loved MTV and stayed up late on the weekends to watch Headbangers Ball. I saw AC/DC, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, and Great White in concert. (Another confession, I often “hired” a nineteen-year-old who lived down the street to accompany me to concerts. That way, if I got a ribbing that I was the oldest guy at the show, I could claim that I was just here treating my teenage neighbor in thanks for some good deed he had done for me.)

Bottom line, if I had been in Riverside in 2003, I would have gone to see Great White at the Station. It would have been a walk down memory lane, a tip-of-the-hat to a bygone decade, a little sip at the fountain of youth. I would have been right in the thick of it, hemmed in on every side, unable to escape when the terror erupted.

The phrase terminal velocity popped into my mind as I was thinking about all of this. That’s the fastest speed an object can attain if it’s falling to earth, because air resistance prevents it from accelerating further. A skydiver free falling from a great height reaches terminal velocity, about 120 miles per hour, in about twelve seconds.

But aren’t we all “falling to earth?” Perhaps terminal velocity can be applied to the arc of our lives. I wonder if the individuals caught in that holocaust in Warwick had lived long enough to reach their own personal terminal velocity. It feels like I was granted a reprieve, a stay of execution, by moving out west when I did. I was given the time—the grace—to reach my own terminal velocity. Have I used it wisely? As I remember the conclusion of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the older Ryan’s words haunt me.

And I know I’m falling as fast as I ever will.

Just a Bit of Fun

While walking in San Diego last weekend, we saw this gold Bentley parked on India Street. A white-haired Italian gentleman was sitting on the front porch of the yellow house in the photo. My wife introduced herself, and he said his name was Nick. When she asked him if he owned the car, he responded, “Anything gold must be mine.”

Later, we Googled the car and found an interesting story about Nick Pecoraro, who came to this country from Sicily in 1947 to make a better life for himself. Now, he is a famous fixture in the community, where he is sometimes referred to as “The Mayor of Little Italy,” or “The Godfather.”

We saw him again the next day. I commented that the police had not towed his car away yet, and he said, “I made them an offer they can’t refuse.”

The Last Update of 2020

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

                                           —The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats

I don’t know if there is a more perfect poem for 2020. If you haven’t read it in a while, I recommend a re-read. It’s easily available on the Internet and it’s truly riveting.

My intent here is simply to bring families and friends up-to-date on what’s happening in my little corner of the world. Although many good things have happened in my life, I’m almost embarrassed to mention them in the light of all the losses others have suffered. The fires that ravaged the Santiam Canyon left families without homes and sometimes without loved ones. The pandemic has touched the lives of everyone, taking a terrible toll in grief and loss of life. And, of course, politics have been so destructive of anyone’s peace of mind.

That said, my family has been blessed and I am very thankful. My writing has taken a different turn. I spent a lot of time this year doing free promotions, which resulted in more sales than I’ve ever had before, as well as many more reviews and ratings on Amazon. In addition, for the first time I solicited “professional reviews”—those done by experts in the field who work for a fee and never guarantee that the review will be positive. I’ve submitted my latest novel, Dungeness and Dragons, which I published in April, to Kirkus Reviews and US Review of Books. I’ve used one-sentence excerpts from them for “Editorial Reviews” on the book’s Amazon page. Click on those names if you’d like to read the full reviews.

The other news is that my narration of my short story, Eye of Newt, finally got released as an audiobook this week. It’s a hoot to go to the book’s page on Amazon, click the “Sample,” and listen to my own voice! The book is a little less than an hour long, and I have to admit, it was a pretty torturous process doing it. I have way more respect for audiobook producers now!  Will I try to tackle a full-length novel, which would probably be ten times the work I put into this little project? Maybe it’s a tiny bit like the woman who has just given birth saying “Never again!” and then she forgets the pain and has another child. We’ll see. If you’d like to check out that sample I mentioned, clicking on the title will take you there.

Finally, I’ve begun work on another volume of short stories, which I hope to publish in the spring—a little “cleansing of the palate” before I dive into the next Driftwood Mystery. Whitehorse has to do something about Volkov!

So that’s the news for now. I sincerely wish you all the blessings of this holiday season, and health for the New Year.

Progress Report and Movie Review: Tenet

My apologies to friends and family. I haven’t posted anything on my website in many weeks. Lots of excuses, of course!

Anyway, here’s what I’m about. I haven’t done much writing recently. I have a new short story, “The Sword,” which will be published in November in the Northwest Independent Writers Association’s anthology, Escape. I’ve started another but I’m bogged down at the moment.

Most of my energy has been channeled into learning how to do my own audiobooks, and it’s a very steep learning curve! I’ve taken an online course (many times!) and I’m in the process of doing my short story, “Eye of Newt.” I’m sure you know that’s the second of the Driftwood Mysteries, epilogue to Seal of Secrets and prologue to Woman in the Waves. I decided to start small to learn the ropes before launching into a full novel. That was a good decision. Although the book is only an hour long, the editing takes many times that. I’m sure as narrators get more experience, the editing comes more easily, but I spent three hours doing five minutes of the book! Yikes! And after all that, it didn’t pass muster. (There’s a plug-in for the Audacity software called “ACX check” that analyzes the material and determines if it meets ACX criteria (ACX is the Amazon company that publishes audiobooks). The big culprit was “noise floor too loud”—geek-speak for too much background noise. What to do?

You must understand, my recording studio is my wife’s closet. Besides being surrounded by her noise-dampening clothes, I hung towels over her shoe rack and blankets over the door behind me. But I hadn’t taken into account the ceiling. Since necessity is the mother of a lot of nonsense, I suspended a mattress pad over my head. (Good thing I’m not claustrophobic!) That, along with an update to my editing instructions, solved the problem. My next version passed the test. But was it of the quality that devotees of audiobooks expect in their purchases? I sent an excerpt to two people who listen to a lot of audiobooks, and both said the quality was good, but that most narrators try to make subtle distinctions between the speaking voices of different characters. Oh, well, I thought. Not gonna  happen now. Until I realized I had made a critical mistake in the very first sentence!

OK. In for a penny, in for a pound. It takes me fifteen minutes to set up my sound studio, whether I’m doing a retake of a single sentence or redoing the whole book. So back into the closet. I redid the story, trying to achieve some differentiation between the characters. The recording now sits in my computer, awaiting the time I build up enough nerve to tackle the editing again. Stay tuned.

Next, I took a calculated risk and went to the theater yesterday. Recalling my movie-going before the pandemic, in my little town the theaters were often empty for an early weekday matinee ,and I’d get a private showing. Yesterday, there was one other person in the theater, so I thought it was probably safer than grocery shopping at Safeway.

Is Tenet worth the hype? Is it any good? Absolutely. Is it as good as Inception? Well, Inception sets an awfully high bar. It’s probably not that good, but it’s a worthy entrant into the Christopher Nolan canon, and well worth your time. I’ll give you the pros and the cons, cons first.

The Regal Cinema where I saw the film set the bass at earthquake level—I thought my seat might come unmoored from the floor. Should we start considering a class action hearing loss lawsuit against them? Sheesh! Secondly, Nolan is becoming the king of muffled dialogue. At first I thought it was my old-man ears, but I saw comments from others on the internet. Dialogue lost in background noise, poorly articulated by actors. WTF, Christopher! You can do anything on film. Why can’t you let us understand what your characters are saying? Finally, and this is only a minor quibble, there is no character development. The main character doesn’t even have a name—he’s simply The Protagonist. But hey, we don’t go to Christopher Nolan movies for in-depth characterization. We’re there for mind-boggling concepts and plot, and eye-popping special effects. On that score, Tenet delivers in spades.

The pros—what an idea! And I won’t give away any spoilers here. It’s a wildly inventive concept splashed across riveting action sequences that will likely blow your mind, or at least trip a few circuit-breakers. And the deeper you get into it, the more convoluted it becomes (in a good way!). I think I actually understood about 85% of it on a first viewing, which is pretty good for me. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t grasp the real significance of the title until I read about it afterwards. I should have figured that out. Speaking of which—see the movie cold, then read about it afterwards online. The pure nerdiness of the film is enough to blow anyone’s mind. (Ever hear of a Sator Square before? I hadn’t, but it’s woven into the fabric of the film.)

So Christopher Nolan has done it again—created a thinking person’s blockbuster that will leave you talking about it for days afterward. For me, entertainment that engages your mind as well as your emotions is what it’s all about. Yes, you have to work for it, and yes, you’ll have to see it more than once, but I’m onboard. Highly recommended.

My Two Cents

“Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Strange days indeed.”

–John Lennon

 

At 3:00 A.M. this morning, I couldn’t shut my brain off. I got thinking about all the money and energy being spent in taking down the offensive monuments that litter our country. I had seen a news feature earlier this week about how Italy has come to terms with its checkered past. It hasn’t demolished the Coliseum, where thousands of innocents were slaughtered, or the monuments to the Roman emperors who bathed the country in blood. It hasn’t bulldozed the plazas and buildings and statues that celebrate Il Duce, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Instead, Italians try to understand their history. I found myself wondering, “What if we had hired the most renown writers in the world—Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners—and had them write plaques to adorn every monument, explaining its context and what we can learn from it?

The truth is, if we try to erase our past—to repress it—the chances are good it will emerge subconsciously and taint the body politic. We are a nation steeped in blood, from the genocide of the indigenous peoples who were here before us, to the centuries of racism ever since. I believe we must accept the darkness within us—not deny it—in order to keep it at bay. Camus tried to tell us decades ago that we are all “culpable murderers.” Each of us is capable of unspeakable crime, but by acknowledging that fact, we can keep ourselves in check. As Kirk famously pointed out in a classic episode of Star Trek, we can decide “I will not kill today.”

It is a daunting task, recognizing the urge to destroy that dwells inside us. We watch toddlers playing with blocks, and we see immediately that they love knocking blocks over even more than they love to build with them. That same inclination has been evident in protests that turn violent (and self-defeating) under the pressure of “mob rule” and anarchy. There is a part of us that likes to destroy, to break things and burn things down, and we must remain vigilant to keep it restrained. There is also that urge to obey a “strong man,” to surrender our ethical and moral decision-making to someone who appears to be forcefully in charge. Hitler persuaded German soldiers to kill six million people. Stalin killed twelve million. Those of us who believe such atrocities are no longer possible in our “enlightened age,” mistake human nature for something it is not, and do so at their peril.

Every political system, every country, every religion, every philosophy is flawed because it has been designed by flawed human beings. This doesn’t mean we must despair. Rather, we must be attentive, forever mindful, forever alert. We must stay on point, on guard, against the personal darkness that would do terrible harm to advance an arrogant self-interest. Yes, we must pass humane laws. Yes, we must pursue equality for everyone in every possible way. But our pursuit of “political correctness” will not save us from the demons within. We cannot “defund the police” because we need them to protect us from ourselves.

I am reminded of the concluding pages of Camus’ insightful book, The Rebel. He says, “We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn.”

 

Book Review–White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo

In the forward to DiAngelo’s masterful treatise, Michael Eric Dyson says, “But whiteness goes one better: it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius. Whiteness embodies Charles Baudelaire’s admonition that ‘the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.’”

Sociologist DiAngelo proceeds to deconstruct everything we think we know about racism. She explains that racism is unavoidable and inevitable in our society, that its patterns are socialized into us from the earliest age. “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.”

She contends that the people who do the most damage in relationships with people of color are white progressives, who assert things like, “I’m color blind. My mother taught me to treat everyone equally. Some of my best friends are black.” We become exceedingly uncomfortable and take great offense at the merest suggestion that we have said or done something racist. There the conversation stops. In DiAngelo’s words, we have no “racial stamina” to continue. And we become complicit with the very system we say we oppose.

“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people.”

The author explores how race shapes the lives of white people today, often in ways that are completely unconscious. In so doing, she shines a much-needed light on the protests happening in countries world over, enabling us to begin to understand our troubled history. If you have asked yourself, as have I, “What needs to happen next? Where should I go from here?” DiAngelo gives us a place to start.

But make no mistake. White Fragility is a difficult book to read, not because of its lucid analysis of the most troubling events of our time, but because it makes us look in the mirror. The racist isn’t only the white policeman with his knee on the neck of a black man.

The racist is me.