We have a thing for James Brown in our household, and I want to give the man a nod today because he’s dispensed so much joy to me and my family over the years. Like a screaming, dancing, cackling, “hey”-ing Pez container.
He’s made us sing, he’s made us shake our booties in a way white people don’t often do, and he’s made us laugh. Ok, I admit, we are kind of laughing at him sometimes. But it’s a laugh that comes from a good place – like the way I crack up when I make fun of my mother’s accent.
And that’s really what it comes down to with James and my clan. Because, yes, we love his music. Our children were potty trained to “Hot Pants.” But what it’s really about is that James Brown feels like a member of our family – my side of it, that is.
Like my crazy Czech family, he’s a gaudy dresser – glittering, brassy, ostentatious. Just check out this picture of James with Janet and Michael Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. He makes them look like country club Republicans.
Which brings me to my next point. James was a great fan of Richard Nixon.
If you’ve read COLD more than a couple of times, you probably know that President Nixon is to my parents what a Terrence Malick film is to most film-aficionados. Deeply misunderstood by the masses.
James’s Republican activism was sort of ignored in the recent biopic about the Godfather of Soul, Get On Up, and it’s a damned shame. James Brown was an American original, not some pretender who showed up at all the right events just to get a pat on the back. He loved Nixon and he loved Al Sharpton. That wasn’t a contradiction in his mind. And it wasn’t for sale. He loved Ronald Reagan and he loved Ray Charles. He truly loved black America.
There was nothing you could say or do that was going to get him to back-peddle on that. Or even try to make sense of it for you.
He had a kind of empirical purity that, to me, is the very definition of soul. Our souls, after all, are what make us unique, human, eternal. James Brown wasn’t going to bargain his soul away for anything.
In a world where everyone’s trying so hard to be loved by everybody, and is always going to great pains to say the right thing, isn’t that refreshing?
Of course his personal life was a technicolor mess. He enjoyed good liquor and bad drugs. He had a weakness for nasty women. The kind of gals who aren’t there when you wake up in the morning (or afternoon) and neither is your wallet. Sometimes he tied them up and wouldn’t let them leave. He rarely checked the birth dates on their IDs.
But he remained close to his first wife, Velma, until the day he died. He loved her.
When I think about other musicians whose work has moved me, been a part of the fabric of my life, I often have to make a conscious effort to chase the images from their personal foibles from my mind. The Mamas and the Papas come to mind, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, obviously.
But somehow with James Brown, I don’t mind his mug shots. I can take his life and his music as a whole without cringing or wanting to cry at certain parts. I can even look at the end of his life that way, despite the fact that he essentially died of self-abuse.
Maybe it’s the unbridled exuberance in his voice as it blares from my iPod. He had a runaway thirst for life that’s present in only a handful of public figures. Maybe it’s just because he was always gloriously and authentically James Brown – even at his worst.
My switch from non-believer to believer has been more of a slow evolution than a short, sharp shock. You know the kind of blinding light followed by the voice of Christ conversion that St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus – pictured here in a painting by Caravaggio?
Well, that’s not me.
First of all, my conversation with God began at the gym. And it was definitely one-sided.
I was lifting a ten pound weight, trying to beef up my left bicep, letting my mind run wild – thinking about the story I’d just begun writing, wondering whether I wanted to make roast chicken or lasagna for dinner, and plotting my husband’s and my next adventure. Childless and newly married, we had moved to San Francisco the previous year and were taking some sort of little road trip almost every weekend. Often, it was my job to dream them up.
As I switched the weight from my left to my right hand, it suddenly occurred to me that while I lived my exterior life with tremendous imagination – that very moment contemplating a visit to Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed – I approached my spiritual life with the creative vision of a bureaucrat. Out of a combination of laziness, and frankly, smugness, I had stamped a big NO into the box for belief.
So, for the first time since my senior year in High School, I cleared my throat and in my mind’s voice said, “Hello, is anybody there?”
The simple answer was no.
But for some reason I didn’t stop asking the question. Every few months or weeks, I would basically just say “hi, there,” and wait to see what would happen. And, well, nothing happened.
It wasn’t until some two years later when I actually decided to do something about my lame attempts at seeking God.
I was in a book store in the Castro district with my nearly eight month-old son looking for a book of poetry to give a friend on his birthday. I hate choosing poetry for people – it’s so personal, like picking out their underwear. But when you get it right, you’re able to add something of real value to their lives. A thought, a metaphor, a validation of a buried dream that will travel with them always. I wanted to do that for this friend, but I was struggling.
“You should try William Carlos Williams,” a man next to me said, handing me a copy of his collected poems.
“It’s for a friend,” I said, casually flipping through the book. I’d never read William Carlos Williams and for some reason didn’t want to.
“They’re wonderful poems,” the man said with genuine emotion. He looked at my young son. “I’m a Catholic priest. Would you mind if I blessed your son?”
I should mention at this point that my husband and I had left the Catholic Church in a huff, separately, during our college years. We were angry with their treatment of women, their refusal to sanction birth control in even the most poverty stricken countries, and their over-all Holier Than Thou attitude about everything. Our marriage was a civil ceremony as we had no intention of going through the required Pre Cana (this is basically premarital couples counseling officiated by a priest) that precipitates any Catholic marriage, and we had recently been congratulating ourselves for having left the Church, given the pedophilia scandal it was embroiled in at the time.
We did want to give our son some spiritual grounding, however, and had looked into Buddhism (we’re not groovy enough), Judaism (we’re only a quarter Jewish, each), and the Unitarian Church (too Protestant).
Anyway, I looked at this Catholic priest standing next to me – dressed in a sweater, a raincoat, jeans and a fedora – and he seemed nice. And I’d let a trans-sexual healer fresh from an all-nighter bless my pregnant belly some months back, so why not a poetry-loving priest?
“Sure,” I said. He asked me my son’s name.
“Eamon Francis Dougherty.”
“Oh, you’re Catholic!”
“Where do you go to church?”
“Um, we’re kind of new to San Francisco,” I explained. “We’re still looking.”
“How long have you been here?” He asked.
I felt like a little kid again. “Actually, three years.”
He didn’t judge and he didn’t miss a beat.
“You must try St. Gabriel’s,” the priest told me. “You’ll love it. The 9 o’clock mass is perfect for children, really any mass there is, but that’s the one families most attend.”
To make a long story a little less long, I strode through my front door with a book of poems by William Carlos Williams stuffed into my armpit and told my husband, “We’re going to church on Sunday.” Regardless of recent meanderings, he knew exactly what I meant by “church.” – “Just go with me on this.”
“Okay,” he said.
I wish I could remember the homily on that next Sunday when we attended mass at St. Gabriel’s, but I can’t. I only know that it was soulful, beautiful, relevant and utterly down to earth at the same time. I do remember the priest saying, “There’s a lot of noise here today – giggling and whispering from the children. Crying. – And I want you all to know that if this is bothering you, than I’m afraid you’re at the wrong church.”
For the first time in our entire lives, although we’d attended years of Catholic school and hundreds of masses, my husband and I had a moving experience during a service.
We became regulars at St. Gabriel’s, even if we couldn’t quite call ourselves believers yet. That would come a long way down the road. But we made friends with the man I’d met at the book shop – Father John. Shortly after my son’s first birthday, we did what we’d swore we’d never do: we had him baptized in the Catholic Church.
When Father John sprinkled holy water on Eamon’s still-bald head during the ceremony, he said, “Eamon Francis Dougherty, you are a poet, a priest and a King.” My husband’s eyes welled up. He still says that to our son every night before we head off to bed – even though the boy is nearly thirteen.
It would be years before I would hear anything even resembling an answer to the tentative greeting I offered God at my gym. Before I could call myself a Catholic with a straight face to be perfectly honest. Or even a believer in anything other than strong values, love and good citizenship.
I would be at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a grieving room that was offered to me while my new baby underwent a life or death surgery – one of several she’d already been through, but this time I felt at the end of my rope.
I was rolled up in fetal position on a cot and my hands were folded together so tightly that my fingers had gone numb. In the morning, when the nurse came to get me, I would actually have trouble prying them apart.
But that night, I finally heard something. And no, it wasn’t a voice. I guess it was more a feeling than a sound. It was what I can only describe as the heartbeat of the universe. It was a notion, a hunch, an impression – I don’t know – but one that without saying a word told me that I was a part of it and that no matter what the outcome of my daughter’s surgery would be, my family was safe.
I didn’t spring into that next day with all of my problems solved. Nor were the next few years a breeze because I’d had this experience. But I did feel different. I felt stronger and like anything was possible. And by that, I mean even the worst I could possibly imagine.
And I understood, for the first time, what it meant – doubtlessly, categorically – to love.
Maria Catalina Vergera Egan, or MCV Egan as she’s known in the world of readers and authors, is one of my favorite people. Thoughtful, spiritual, kind and damned interesting – I first met her quite accidentally online because we haunted the same esoteric sites. We also both come from families filled with adventurers and ideologues – folks, who through their determination and courage, made it possible for us to sit around and write about those things. Her debut novel, The Bridge of Deaths is quite simply fascinating, and for those of you who don’t know it, I want to bring it to your attention.
In The Bridge of Deaths, we follow Bill and Maggie in London, 2010, as they explore the events of August 15th 1939. When at the brink of World War II, an English plane crashed and sunk in Danish waters. Five deaths were reported: two Standard Oil of New Jersey employees, a German Corporate Lawyer, an English member of Parliament, and a crew member for the airline. Bill and Maggie find a conceivable version of the events.The Bridge of Deaths is a love story and a mystery. Bill and Maggie travel through the world of past life regressions and information acquired from psychics as well as Archives and historical sources to solve “One of those mysteries that never get solved”. Based on true events and real people (although Bill and Maggie are not real), it is the culmination of 18 years of MCV Egan’s tireless research, sifting through sources and finding a way to help the reader feel that he is also sifting through data and forming their own conclusions. The journey takes the reader to well known and little known events leading up to the Second World War, both in Europe and America. The journey also takes the reader to the possibility of finding oneself in this lifetime by exploring past lives. It is a deeply personal story for MCV Egan, as her grandfather died in the crash or the G-AESY. That’s him pictured above.
5.0 out of 5 stars “An unusual yet much recommended read”, By Midwest Book Review – so don’t just take my word for it.
Please join us here on COLD as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the crash of the G-AESY (which is recounted in full in Mcv Egan’s THE BRIDGE OF DEATHS) and the start of World War II with a month-long history-laden event that will entertain, educate, and enlighten you! As part of this event, a revised version this award-winning and highly-acclaimed account of the events of that fateful day in 1939 will be re-released.
You can purchase and read more about The Bridge of Deaths here:
M.C.V. Egan is the pen name chosen by Maria Catalina Vergara Egan. Catalina was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1959, the sixth of eight children, in a traditional Catholic family. From a very young age, she became obsessed with the story of her maternal grandfather, Cesar Agustin Castillo–mostly the story of how he died. She spent her childhood in Mexico. When her father became an employee of The World Bank in Washington D.C. in the early 1970s, she moved with her entire family to the United States. Catalina was already fluent in English, as she had spent one school year in the town of Pineville, Louisiana with her grandparents. There she won the English award, despite being the only one who had English as a second language in her class. In the D.C. suburbs she attended various private Catholic schools and graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland in 1977. She attended Montgomery Community College, where she changed majors every semester. She also studied in Lyons, France, at the Catholic University for two years. In 1981, due to an impulsive young marriage to a Viking (the Swedish kind, not the football player kind), Catalina moved to Sweden where she resided for five years and taught at a language school for Swedish, Danish, and Finnish businesspeople. She then returned to the USA, where she has lived ever since. She is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Swedish. Maria Catalina Vergara Egan is married and has one son who, together with their five-pound Chihuahua, makes her feel like a full-time mother. Although she would not call herself an astrologer she has taken many classes and taught a few beginner classes in the subject. She celebrated her 52nd birthday on July 2nd, 2011, and gave herself self-publishing The Bridge of Deaths as a gift.
On August 21st, 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in a highly successful attempt to halt democratic reforms that had been taking place in that country since January of that same year. The implementations of these reforms – things like freedom of speech, press and movement, and a proposed mixing of planned and market economies – were called “socialism with a human face” by then Czech President Alexander Dubček.
They were called The Prague Spring by the rest of the world.
And to the Soviets – still stinging from the Hungarian uprising a dozen years earlier – they were an intolerable challenge to their power.
Czechs were shocked and heartbroken to watch some 2000 tanks roll into their streets, along with 200,000 Soviet troops. My Czech mother and grandparents gaped in horror from their Chicago home – my mother had fled her native country the year before. While her two sisters, my Aunts Viki and Helen, had front row seats to that devastating event.
Days later, during a brief opening of the Czech borders, my aunts joined thousands upon thousands of their fellow countrymen and left the only home they’d ever known.
My Aunt Helen departed by automobile for Switzerland, where she and her family still reside.
And my Aunt Viki took her exit by plane. She had a one-way ticket to Chicago, where she was to join my mother. The two of them were and are very close. They’d gone through a lonely, persecuted childhood together, and had clung to each other after the death of my young brother from the flu. My aunt had loved him as if he were her own, and she and my mom still go hand in hand to Catholic mass on the anniversary of his death every year – my aunt flying back to the Midwest from her home in Florida for the occasion.
Lighting a candle in his honor at my mom’s church, the sisters whisper a prayer for his soul.
I can’t imagine how excited they must have been to see each other on that day in 1968. Especially since they’d come to fear they’d never lay eyes on one another again.
What I can imagine is my aunt’s fear. Not of leaving her homeland – honestly, she couldn’t wait to get out of there. Both the Czech government and her fellow citizens had treated her and her sisters atrociously after my grandparent’s defection, so she felt no lost love for the land of her birth. Not then anyway.
What scared my aunt was that she wouldn’t get to leave at all. That a man smoking foreign cigarettes and sporting dandruff on the shoulders of his polyester suit could intercept her at the airport and take her back to the prison cell she’d occupied after my mother’s defection. Czech officials had been sure my aunt “knew something” and interrogated her for days. My aunt distinctly remembers a dossier on my mother – about two feet tall – that began with the line, “Although she is only twelve years old, she thinks like an adult, which makes her even more dangerous.”
Twelve. Years. Old.
When my aunt finally boarded her plane to Chicago, she had to pee really badly. But she was terrified that if she moved, got up – even to go to the toilet – that she would feel the grip of a hand at her elbow and hear a gravelly voice saying, “Just where do you think you’re going?”
So, she sat in her seat for some twenty hours – sweating, digging her knuckles into her seat cushion and refusing food, along with countless offers of wine, soda or juice. Weary of spies, she spoke to no one.
To this day, my mother wags a finger at my aunt and teases, “You know what was the first thing you said to me when you got off the airplane? Not “I love you, sister, I’m so happy to see you,” but “Get me to a toilet – now!”
I raise a glass to all of those who left Czechoslovakia – uncertain, but full of hope, and to those who stayed – muddling through the mess of “normalization,” when all reforms were reversed and dissenters were punished. And to the final triumph of democracy twenty-one years later in the Velvet Revolution – Salute! Your streets have been renamed in honor of political prisoners, inventors and Kings – not pretenders in cheap suits dressed in “brief authority,” if I may quote Primo Levy.
May all tyrants take notice that they’ve hitched their wagon to the wrong star.
May all those who live in freedom take a moment to feel gratitude – true, unqualified gratitude – for having won one of life’s great lotteries.
It’s not that Czechs and other East-ish Euros don’t go on the same vacations we Americans go on – Disneyworld etc. It’s more that they have a different notion of what summer is all about.
There is a back to nature quality to the warm months. A stripping down from the complexities of modern life that manifests itself in a total re-imagining of simple living.
It’s about running around naked as much as possible. And bathing in the sea or any other body of water that is not a bathtub. Why open the tap when there’s a “natural” water source around? Spelunking, climbing trees, chewing on onion grass straight out of the ground and picking wild berries and mushrooms – especially mushrooms. Cooking your own meals, wherever you are. Even if you’re in France or Italy, where they will do it decidedly better than you ever could.
Lakes are a very big deal, particularly on weekends.
My Czech uncle will strip naked and dive into any old lake he happens to come across – even dubious ones just off the highway that might have signs reading “No Swimming.”
He’s suffered insults – “Hey,a**hole, what are you doing?”, warnings, “Sir, you’re not actually going to swim in there are you?”, and directives “Put some clothes on, there are children present!” Not to mention his having been escorted away from many a body of water by our friends in uniform.
But that’s never deterred him.
“It’s hot! What is the water there for if not to swim?” he says. And he’s got a point.
Some years ago, when my husband and I were visiting Prague together, he caught a glimpse of a tiny RV with a big sign posted onto the rear bumper. It read in German, “Hotel betten? Nein danke!” [Translation: Hotel bed? No, thank you!]
“What’s that about?” he asked.
I went on to explain to him that refusing a nice, comfortable hotel was often not a matter of thrift, but ideology. We have all year to get all too comfortable in our overly-engineered lives – our Posturepedic mornings, filtered water, iPhones, multi-setting shower heads, and climate-controlled interiors. Summer, August specifically, is meant to remind us of what we’re made of. Our armpits should stink, our legs and faces should be unshaven, our beds hard and our creature comforts rudimentary at best.
It’s a time to visit family – even the people you can’t stand. And visit monuments to human achievement like the Eiffel Tower, as well as monuments to human eccentricity like the Corn Palace of South Dakota.
But we should play games like children, strum a guitar and sing our hearts out, lie bare-a**ed in the sun, walk barefoot, scratch our mosquito bites with complete abandon, make love under the stars, and really get to know one another again after spending much of the year working and running from appointment to appointment.
“Is that how you spent your summer vacations as a kid?” my husband asked.
“God no,” I said. “We loved the American way!”
I’ve been tagged by the dangerous and redoubtable Eden Baylee to partake in a tour involving my main character. And what perfect timing, since the summer has left me with little time to ponder Cold War mayhem, Nazi jewelry design, the insanity of the Slavic race and other topics usually covered here on Cold. It also gives me a chance to shamelessly plug my novel, The Bone Church!
(LOOK TO YOUR RIGHT AND THERE IT IS!!)
What are the rules? They’re simple!
I have to answer seven questions about a main character from one of my novels, then I nominate five other authors to answer the same questions. I nominated six because that’s just the kind of girl I am.
Please check out Eden’s blog (link below), where she answers some questions about Kate Hampton, her mystery-solving psychiatrist character. Kate’s a woman with a past, and Eden’s a woman with a future. And have a look at Stranger at Sunset as well (link below).
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Getting more serious now, here are my responses about Felix Andel.
1. Tell us a little about this main character. Is he fictional or a historic person?
Felix is like most fictional characters – a peppery goulash of one part truth and infinite parts imagination.
2. When and where is the story set?
Prague, Czechoslovakia, mostly, with a bit of the Vatican, too. As for when? At the end of World War II, with a good dollop of 1956 Cold War menace tossed in for good measure.
3. What should we know about him?
Felix is a hero who barely avoids being a tragic one. He suffers from intense spiritual visions, an incurable case of honor, a thirst for revenge, and an ache for a woman he had no choice but to leave behind.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?
Quite simply, war.
5. What is his personal goal?
To save the woman he loves. To save the world. To save himself.
6. What are the titles of your novels, and where can we read more about them?
The Bone Church is available exclusively on Amazon in digital and paperback form:
Here’s the link: http://buff.ly/VgDxQz
And here’s a picture from the real, live bone church:
7. When can we expect your next book to be published?
I’m finishing up edits on The Hungarian as soon as I get my three adorable children back to school.
As for The Hungarian, it’s an adventure, a Cold War spy-thriller and a love story that examines the intersection of three lives – a drifting ex-pat, a fugitive Russian diplomat, and a Hungarian assassin with a weakness for rich food and sadistic murder. It’s got Sputnik, murder by salt-poisoning, a Russian mystic, and a great roll in the hay inside an old, abanandoned chapel. What more could you want?
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Now I’ll nominate five other authors. All of them are terrific writers, so please visit them and give their books a read. And please take a look at Eden Baylee’s work as well. She’s great fun.
Bloggers I’m nominating: John Dolan (http://buff.ly/1uKvJDi), TW Luedke (http://www.twluedke.com), Amalie Jahn (http://www.theclaylion.com/blog), Christoph Fischer (http://www.christophfischerbooks.com) and Karen Prince (http://www.karen-prince.com), M.C.V. Egan (http://thebridgeofdeaths.com)
These are not only terrific authors, but really good human beings (I’m pretty sure), so do check them out.
So, while I’m eating copious amounts of goulash, being told I need to wear shorter skirts to keep my marriage happy and watching my children get ceremonially rubbed with holy water to ward off any potential evils they might attract throughout the year (when my mother can’t be around to shield them and they have to settle for little ole me and my paltry powers of witchcraft) you might get a case of COLD withdrawal or at the very least envy my time with the people of the Slavic race.
If that’s the case, please visit this wonderful website I’ve just discovered. It’s called, appropriately, Meet The Slavs!
Because, really, why should I have all the fun?
And if that’s still not enough – buy my book if you haven’t already. There are more than enough Slavs in those three hundred plus pages to keep you entertained or make you want to kill yourself. Or as we Slavs say – what’s the difference?