Last Christmas Present

images-2In August of 1992, my mother was diagnosed with a virulent lung cancer. By early December, it was clear that there wasn’t much time left. I was living in Naples, Italy. My parents were in Austin, Texas. I’d arranged to come home in early January but wanted to send a Christmas present. In this circumstance, what?

I decided to give memories, to write everything I remembered about the house where we lived, happily I recall, from the time I was four until I was nine. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was not yesterday. Memories flooded in so thickly that I decided to do just the living room, beginning to the right of the corner that held our Christmas tree and working around the room until I came to the tree.

Astounding what is in the mind. The rusty brown rug (fortunately a color rarely used now) and all the games we played on it, the castles built, the human pyramids made, the books read, propped on pillows. The bookcases and their holdings, the Encyclopedia Britannica I used for homework, done on the attached table of the Danish modern (my mother’s favorite style) couch which she so often re-upholstered. The hours I spent on that couch (I was sick a lot). Holding my baby brother and sister for the first time on that couch. Having winter gloves and boots put on. The door to the kitchen, the stairs to the bedrooms, the games there. The fireplace and mantle, the objects it held. The Chinese prints of four seasons on the wall and how I dreamed of entering each one. Chairs and ottomans. Who sat there. On and on. In the end, I wrote ten pages, single spaced, with a page for the Christmas tree alone, the pleasures of decorating it and the gifts it sheltered, including a puppy for me when I was nine. The process was slow. I stopped often, overcome by the intensity of memory, sometimes by tears, often by joy and gratitude.

My mother was too weak to read the pages when they came, so my father read them to her. Bonding and strong emotions were difficult for her in later life, a little foreign. “I almost cried,” was all she said. As a daughter and—I admit as a writer—I wish she had overcome the “almost.” Still the process, the meditation, was a gift, certainly to me, to my father, and to her, I hope. She died two days before my flight home. But she had read my memories. She knew how much she’d given me in those precious years of childhood.

Posted in Just life

When a yak is not enough


I always had a romantic fondness for yaks, dating from my child’s anthology of literature which included the poem below by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated with a pen and ink drawing of a friendly yak carrying a little girl who looked (I thought) just like me. A yak would be just the thing for taking me to school, which was a long walk (through snow, dragging my lunch pail and so forth). Here’s the poem and doesn’t it make you want a yak?

The Yak

As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.

The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet.
And surely the Tartar should know!

Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature – or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)

Inspired by these immortal lines I asked my father for a yak. I knew for sure that he wasn’t “awfully rich” or even close, but I thought it worth a shot. No, he would not buy me a yak. Imagine. Winters can be cold in New Jersey, but he was immovable, actually didn’t even seriously entertain a conversation about yak-pet pros and cons.

My mother, however, did say that if I opted against a fancy wedding, they’d give me a yak for a wedding present. Sounded reasonable to a 7  year old.  Some years later when I was 20, I did get married, did have a very inexpensive wedding in my parents’ living room and did NOT get a yak. Or rather not a real one. On top of the wedding cake (German Chocolate, my favorite) was a paper mache’ yak  made by an artist friend. What a blow.

As it happened, the marriage was a huge mistake, ended not soon enough, and the yak was lost in the shuffle. But I still like yaks, or rather the idea of them. However now I live in Tennessee which is probably too hot for them.

What animal did you always want?

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Posted in Just life

Feeling good/bad about our species

imagesLast month we were in southern France and remarkably went to not a single wine tasting. However, we saw and climbed up to assorted castle/fortresses of the 12th C Cathar heretics, who so peeved the pope and king and adventure-loving knights that they were ruthlessly hounded down, tortured and burned, exciting a taste for these activities which morphed into the Inquisition.

I’ve got an armchair interest in anthropology and how humans came to be, so after the heretics, Maurizio and I went to the prehistory museum in Tautavel and wandered about exhibits of a subset of  Homo Erectus called the Tautavel Man which proved weirdly interesting. These people (let’s say) lived about 450.0o0 years ago in a cave they shared in off seasons with large animals (bears, mostly). They were pretty much the dumb-dumbs of pre-history.

While Homo Erectus in Africa and other hominids of the time had discovered fire, Tautavel didn’t. They chipped up rocks in the same way for 200,000 years and hunted/scavenged various animals, which they hacked to pieces and ate raw. They did pretty much the same with each other. Or rather, hacked up Tautavel bones were found in heaps along with mammoth, horse, wholly rhino and other bones. “Was Tautavel Man a cannibal?” the audio guide coyly asks. “We don’t know for sure.” Hum. Sure looks like it. The only issue is whether T Man waited until his friends and family were dead before eating or hastened the process with a sharp rock.

In 200,000 years Tautavel folks did not make one iota of technological progress. Chipped rocks from the beginning and the end of their cave dwelling are identical. No symbolic art or proto-art. No evidence of ritual. No: “Wow, all these bones lying around. Could we do something with them, d’ya think? Arrows? Needles? Knives?” Nope. While the exhibits discreetly show Tautavel folks clothed in skins, it’s unclear how they “sewed” or fastened them with stone tools.

So now, Maurizio and I have a ready-made epithet for substandard things. “Sure looks Tautavel to me.”

On the other hand, they were on this earth far longer than Homo Sapiens with no global warming, no weapons of mass or minor destruction, no acid rain, no soil or water pollution. They ate each other, but never thought of an Inquisition. We considered this over wine in wonderful restaurants. It was a good time in France.


Posted in Just life

High Winds in Milos

imagesSome years ago, Maurizio and I were on our way home to Italy from  the Greek island of Milos, It was late August, the season of high winds, the sort that plagued Odysseus and prompted Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, fatally ticking off his wife, but that’s not my story.

We gathered at dawn at an airport scarcely larger than a garage, appropriate to the 12-seater we’d be taking to Athens. It’s a mixed bag: an imposing  German business man and wife, a nervous English couple, two hip LA types “in film,” us, two Greek teenagers, and a bearded Greek Orthodox preacher. Wind whipped our clothes, but we’d all called the night before, as instructed, and had been assured that our flight was on. Not so fast. The airport manager announced (smugly, I thought)  that our plane and pilot were two islands away, the wind rising, and our flight “probably wouldn’t go.”

I pointed out last night’s confirmation. “That,” he reminded me, “was last night. This is the morning.” The German said he had a meeting in Berlin. Shrug. The LA couple had a stack of connections. “You might miss them.” The English say nothing. This was before cell phones. The German asked for a phone to call about rebooking. No. The airport phone was for the airport. LA guy asked if there was a later flight. No, and furthermore, the wind might not let up “for days.”

Satisfied with our stricken faces, the manager said the decision was totally in the hands of our pilot. If he chooses not to fly, we don’t fly.  “Well then,” announced the LA guy, “I hope we get a cowboy pilot.” Just then, on cue, a tiny dot appeared in the blue sky, heading toward us over the choppy sea. Our hero. The World War I flying ace, Cary Grant bringing the mail over snow-capped Andes in Only Angels Have Wings. Ground winds rocked our tiny plane but she landed solid, precisely on mark. Yes! And out comes Central Casting’s take on Greek Cowboy Pilot: Luxuriant black hair, Marlboro man features, Italian shades, bomber jacket and, no kidding, knee boots. Cowboy Pilot surveys his anxious herd, and satisfied that we adore him, announces loudly: “Give me coffee and we fly!” Yes, oh yes. All our connections are safe.

CP throws back a Greek coffee (What a man!), signs some papers with a flourish for the suddenly servile attendant, and climbs back in the saddle. By tacit agreement, we let the priest board first. But he’s crossing himself. Is this standard procedure, we wonder, or a Sign? Not a good sign. We’re silent. The plane has three seats in the back and then four pairs, each divided by an aisle. We seat by couples, teenagers and priest in the back. Those on the water side look out on white caps; opposite windows face a wildly whipping wind sock. Is this really such a good idea? Are the connections, meetings, work starts that important?

The door slams shut on our little flying box. CP revs the engine, the wings rock wildly, and we’re off, looking down on endless expanse of not-welcoming seas. No wonder Odysseus didn’t hurry home. Suddenly the teenagers erupt in laughter. Eight heads swivel back. OK, youth feels immortal, but what’s so darn funny? Then we see what they see: German business types, LA hipsters, silent English, and us, all four couples holding hands across the aisle.




Posted in Just life

Hey, here’s a story you should write.

imagesAnyone who writes hears this often: “Hey, I’ve got a story you should write.” And you want to listen and do listen, because 1) why not be polite? and 2) story-sharing is good and also fun, and 3), but a remote #3, because this story just might become your next project. Since option #3 is so remote,  story-sharers probably feel some offense when they so rarely hear: “Yes! That’s it! I want that story, tell me more!”

But why is #3 so remote? I’m thinking about this lately while casting about for future book topics and have a few thoughts.

The Coincidence Problem. Weird hook-ups happen in real life that would feel just too forced in a novel/short story. There are many variants. Here’s one I heard: A soldier lies wounded/dying on the battlefield. A stranger carries him  through many dangers to a field hospital and leaves him there. There’s no chance to thank the stranger. Years later, they meet on a street in another country. Heart-warming, but wouldn’t readers write off the coincidence as “too unrealistic”?

The Life Story: As in “You should write my uncle/grandparent’s/ancestor’s story. H/she . . .” Sometimes the story is precious to the teller because of personal relationship. Or writers like me don’t want to do whole lifespan novels  but just want to focus on a few critical years. Or the “this happened and then that happened” is an interesting sequence of incidents or career moves, but not a connected, driving plot that can suggest a theme.

The Research Angle: The topic may be too remote to the writer’s life experience or interests. I don’t buy the “Write what you know” box but at least it should be “Write what you want to know about.” For a year at least, you’ll be researching and thinking about and immersing yourself in another world. I’m just not that into learning about computer electronics, or competitive eating, luge design, hired guns, demo-derby driving, managing a multi-national conglomerate or long distance swimming in hot, mucky places. I just don’t want to go there.

The Entitlement Issue: (related to the Research Angle) There’s a constant debate about whether someone who is not a member of a certainty minority, ethnicity, or other group should or can write about that group’s experience. Obviously if all writers were in lock-down with their own autobiographies, fiction would perish. I could only “do” mid-century, mid-Jersey suburbia. But the subject is worth personal soul-searching and careful thought before you go marching into somebody else’s world dragging your own world-view behind.

The Genre Fit: This is pretty obvious. Most writers stay in their genre. Mine is historical fiction. I’d flounder in mystery or westerns or contemporary relationship or things coming back from the dead.

Then what? The story would make a great joke, anecdote, or case in point, or inspiration, or “Wow! I didn’t know someone could do that!” or “What a creep/hero/mess-up/weird-o s/he is.” But there just isn’t enough there to sustain more than a few hundred words. Usually the issue is a lack of theme. The story isn’t “about” anything more than the event. You’ve got 80-100,000 words for the typical novel these days. If the story you hear while drinking a half glass of wine is maybe 500 words and makes its point very well, thank you, what’s the point of a novel about it?

So . . .

What does make that spark up the spine that says “Yes, I could go there!” For me it’s some nearly visceral connection with a character whose journey I can connect in some way, usually metaphoric, with my own. Something that tugs at you and doesn’t stop. As an example, there are thousands of good causes out there. It’s impossible to do good for all of them or to make a ranking of importance. Is groundwater pollution more or less important than nuclear proliferation, child welfare, education, global warming, election reform, any ism, AIDS or any other devastating disease? You pick the cause that touches you the most and let others do what touches them.

You go where you’re called, where you feel most alive. You wait for the spark. Perhaps it’s like a photographer wandering in a city, camera in hand. Then, a trick of the light, a play of angles, a quality of social interaction and the image becomes more than itself. It zings you.


Posted in Writing

So many orphans

images-1Pre-20th Century European literature is full of orphans. For good reason. Consider these statistics from the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society.

  • In 17th & 18th C western European, 1 out of 3 children had lost at least one parent.
  • 1 out of 2 children in 19th C Milan had lost a parent by age 20.
  • 1/3 of all boys in 19th C China had lost a parent by age 15.
  • In 19th C Sweden, 60% of children who lost their mothers before their first birthday died before age 15; while “only” 30% of those who lost their father that early were dead by age 15.
  • In 1915 Baltimore, nearly half the children whose mother died before they were two months old swiftly followed their mothers to the grave.

Do you know about “orphan trains” in 19th and early 20th Century America, carrying unwanted children from east coast cities to servitude in the needy Midwest? Christina Kline Baker’s Orphan Train is a fascinating and engrossing read.

FYI: all this orphan research came about in research for my upcoming historical novel, due out Spring, 2015: World War I, magic realism, shell-shock, a Prussian orphan and a castle in New Jersey.

Posted in WWWS

Not everybody does that?

UnknownIt can be a shock to think yourself pretty normal in X behavior and discover, well, maybe not. Or maybe it’s a writer thing. Here’s what happened.

There I am having wine with a good friend who is also a therapist. To specify: I know her only as a friend, although I know she is excellent and highly respected at her therapy work. Anyway, we’re having wine and Therapist Friend asked how I go about visualizing scenes for a novel. I was explaining how the revision process keeps presenting new sensory elements.

Apparently my “how” wasn’t that clear and I had the inspiration to connect the fictional scene-creation process with what I assumed to be typical, even universal behavior, To wit: driving down the road whilst inventing scenes from alternative past or future events in one’s own life. Dramatic, even melodramatic scenes, so vividly imagined, so wrought with emotion, that one ends up crying.

“Crying? About something you imagined? Not a real event. Real tears?”

“Well sure. Sometimes they’re very sad scenes. Or they’re funny and I’m  laughing,” I hasten to add. “Or scared. Depends on the scene of course. But they seem very real.”

“Of course.” Therapist Friend’s face takes on such a pleasant, non-judging, active listening aspect that I become a tad uneasy. “And this is mostly when you’re driving?” she asks mildly.

“Sure. Not in traffic, but you know, highway driving. Is the driving part important?”

“Well . . . maybe.”

And then it hits me. We are talking about a Behavior, and apparently a Behavior that is not universal. Something about the solitude and monotony of highway driving triggers this Behavior. Surely my friend, my good therapist friend does this. I ask her. No she does not. The fact that I do does not indicate a Problem, she adds quickly. It’s just not that . . .universal. Ah.

It is helpful in exercising scene-creating skills, or maybe it’s just a parallel expression of a quirk of the mind. But am I alone? Are there others who do this? . . . I’m hoping. Let me know.

Posted in Writing

Swimming in the Moon runner-up for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction.

Saturday, February 28, 2015. Workshop on creating better dialogue for the Knoxville Writers Guild

May 5, 2015: release of Under the Same Blue Sky. World War 1, magic realism, shell shock, Pittsburgh & pastries.

Recent Review
"A testament to the love and enduring bond between mothers and daughters, childhood friendships and adopted family, Swimming in the Moon is a must read for anyone who enjoys beautiful, richly drawn characters and a historical setting so realistic one would believe they had been transported into another time. A glorious, unforgettable novel. A+" Pittsburgh Examiner

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