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From Ferguson to Charlottesville to Bratislava: Hopes for the State of Our Union

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My mother-in-law in her birthday hat

Last week my family and I went to St. Louis for my mother-in-law’s 92nd birthday. We had a terrific time visiting family and friends, swilling a bit of whiskey in old haunts, and walking (or driving) down memory lane.

On one of these jaunts into the past, we drove our children through Ferguson, MO. Yes, that Ferguson. Ground zero, essentially, for the Black Lives Matter movement. The place where Michael Brown was shot two years ago and riots ensued. Coincidentally, we were there on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and on the eve of the riots that would break out in our adopted hometown of Charlottesville, VA, where we’ve lived for the past thirteen years. We stalked the ghosts of one tragic event, as another was beginning to unfold.

Our kids had been to Ferguson before – both prior to and after the riots that trashed its main drag, leaving its residents heartbroken, and the country stunned. They know the old-fashioned store front strip – once a staple of middle class prosperity, the Dollar General, McDonalds, and the tiny, brick bungalows with signs reading We Must Stop Killing Each Other and We Must Start Loving Each Other pierced into their lawns. These are all familiar sights.

My husband grew up only a short bike ride from where most of the violence and tear gas and looting took place. In a small, three bedroom house with no air conditioning. One shared by ten people, who in the midst of a hot, humid Missouri summer, shared a single squeaky, oscillating fan.

But he and his seven older sisters talk with a hearty fondness about their hard-scrabble childhood. The white-labeled, generic cans of “near beer” lined up in their fridge, and the butcher scraps their dad would bring home from his job behind a meat counter at a local grocery chain. Their’s was a mixed race working class neighborhood. Mostly peaceful and dignified. And most of his friends – ones from both black and white families – made it out of there, too.

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Ferguson when my husband was growing up

It’s been hard watching our country stumble, especially with our home towns at the epicenter of our foibles. It has caused us to turn inward, searching our souls and looking for historical parallels that might teach us something, give us an idea of where we could be headed and how we can avoid a crash and burn. How did we get here? My husband and I pose that question at our dinner table often. Because it didn’t happen over night, and it didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump. Love Trumps Hate may be today’s slogan, just as Make Love Not War was popularized during the turmoil of the late 1960s, but it can’t begin to explain what is happening now. “Hate” doesn’t score a win just with the election of a divisive candidate. In a democracy, the state of politics and public discourse is a bipartisan endeavor – much like a marriage. Hate scores a win only when we turn on each other.

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Ferguson during the riots

I was reminded of that, when in another coincidence, I came across an old journal entry from my days when I was living in Europe. It was spookily analogous in regards to some of what we’re experiencing today, so I think it’s worth sharing.

Back in the mid-nineteen nineties, my friend Kate was in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, directing Romeo and Juliet for the Slovak National Theater. In the world of Shakespeare, Kate is this really big deal and gets to fly all over the world doing this sort of thing. It’s a great gig and she’s a wonderful woman.

But at the time, Slovakia was going through a difficult period and Kate found the cultural and political climate a bit challenging.

Eastern Europe was exploding with growth and democracy, while Slovakia was stuck with a third-rate quasi-socialist thug in power and was enjoying none of the optimism and opportunity that was sweeping through its neighboring countries with gale-force wind.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a noticeable subset of Slovak youth found power and solace in the neo-Nazi movement.

argue neo naziOne day, Kate was sitting at a cafe with the director of the Slovak National Theater when a teenage neo-Nazi stomped into the place and thunked down next to them – feet spread wide, hands drumming on the cafe table top. When he heard the women speaking English and surmised – correctly – that Kate was American, he began acting out. He started making all the cracks you’d expect him to make – about the filthy Jews controlling the U.S. and well, you get the picture. It was an ugly scene and Kate would have none of it. She scowled at him, picked up her chair and turned it around, putting her back to him – loudly, angrily. It felt good, she said.

Amen, sister, I thought as she described the scene.

“Kate, what are you doing?” her Slovak friend asked her.

Kate told her how disgusting she found this young man’s views, and the woman nodded, in complete agreement. But then the woman leaned forward and said with sadness, kindness, “Kate, our young people are lost and you are a great teacher from America. Please teach them. Don’t turn your back.”

That story had a tremendous impact on me, and I suspect it did on Kate, too. I remember she told her Slovak friend that she’d been given a lot to think about and dissected the experience in her journal that evening. Knowing Kate, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met, she internalized this incident and wrote down all of the things she should have said to the young man. Maybe, if she had a do-over, she would’ve started with, “Won’t you join us?” That seems like something Kate would do.

As for me, I’d like to say that I’ve so taken Kate’s story to heart that whenever I hear a smug politico or a chauvinist or racist or elitist or even an entitled millennial say something that makes my blood boil, I attempt to engage and teach them the way I’ll bet Kate has done going forward. But the truth is, I usually don’t. I take the easy road, what makes me feel good and righteous, but in truth doesn’t do a damn thing to actually try to bridge a gap and help the situation. I turn my back loudly, angrily. I glare, condescend or insult. Then I blame the pundits and the politicians and all the “stupid” people for our state of discourse.

But even if I haven’t lived up to my potential as a proud citizen in this great country, as a participant in our increasingly global culture, all is not lost.

Maybe, after reading the story of my friend Kate, someone will endeavor to use his brain and his heart to do better. And it will be people like him who will be able to soften us towards one another again.

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Hot air balloon flying over Charlottesville, VA

“See the good in people and help them.” — Mahatma Gandhi

The Hungarian: 3-2-1…BLAST OFF!

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The space race is back…along with Dior dresses, stiletto heels, secret agents, double dealers, smoky rooms and bullets meant just for you!

Get a load of this short excerpt:

Lily held in her hands Fedot’s translation of the Sputnik papers Pasha had squirreled away from his office in Moscow. In the spiritualist’s direct language, he distilled highlights of the emerging Soviet space program along with factoids of his own meant to help clarify the situation for Lily.

“1955 – In announcements made four days apart, the United States of America and the Soviet Union publicly state they will launch artificial Earth satellites by the end of the 1950s decade. This was the starting shot, as Tony Geiger might say, and was preceded by the pillage of the Nazi German V2 ballistic missile program after the war. Liquid-fueled rockets capable of flying long distances at high altitudes, they are the very foundation of astral voyaging.

Von Braun, a German, heads the design team for United States, while a man whose identity is a state secret heads the Soviet design team. His name is Sergei Korolev and he was recently brought out of retirement after spending many years imprisoned in Siberia; a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge in 1938.

Eisenhower will not allow Von Braun to use any military launchers for United States satellites because he fears looking like a warmonger. As a result, Von Braun must develop his own, non-military launchers for his satellites. Soviet Union places no such restrictions on their designer, giving them a timeline advantage.

It is known by Pasha Tarkhan that propaganda is not the only victory Soviet Union hopes to gain. If the Sputnik launch is successful, Soviet Union hopes by end of decade to launch the first of a secret nuclear arsenal into space.”

Lily put the papers down and folded her hands. She couldn’t bear sitting for another moment. Tucking Fedot’s Sputnik translation into her coat pocket, Lily ran outside. There, in the front yard of the library, she found shelter under the very stars and moon the Soviets and Americans were hoping to claim. She located Venus immediately, and the planet stared back at her while the surrounding stars twinkled. The moon, nearly full, was bone white. It was an unspeakably clear and beautiful night. Serene. Deceptive. Lily had never wanted the dawn more.

THE HUNGARIAN, my new historical thriller set in 1956 Europe, Russia and the Middle East, is now available.

Click this link to buy THE HUNGARIAN today!

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If you can’t get enough of the spy vs spy world at the height of the Cold War, please visit my Patreon page for a photographic and historical exhibit on The Space Race! And for as little as a $1.00 donation, you can read my original essay on The Missing Cosmonauts of the Soviet Union, which includes a nearly sixty year-old audio clip alleged to contain the final moments of the first Soviet woman in space.

Click here to visit Victoria’s Patreon Page

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добрый вечер!

Victoria

The Hungarian…A Sneak Peek of My New Historical Thriller

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This coming Tuesday – that’s July 25th – I’ve got a great beach read coming your way.

It’s titled, The Hungarian, and the best, though not least cumbersome way to describe it is to say it’s a historical spy thriller with elements of noir and a ghostly twist. In other words, if you like your thrillers romping, rollicking, dark and unorthodox…this is for you.

The story is a crazy ride through 1950s Cold War hotspots like Moscow, Prague, Bucharest, Transylvania, Greece and Iran and involves Sputnik, the space race, murder by salt poisoning, a Russian mystic, and a great roll in the hay inside an old, abandoned chapel.

And I want to offer Cold readers a sneak peek from the novel. But before you get reading, here’s a snapshot of the greater plot to give you some context:

While vacationing in Greece in 1956, Lily Tassos, the hard-partying daughter of a powerful arms dealer, has a sudden change in plans.

After her sometime boyfriend —a CIA agent— is murdered before her eyes, she finds herself holding a ticket to Moscow and a mysterious metal card. A far cry from her usual pairing of a Faulkner novel and bottle (or two) of white Bordeaux.

Alone and haunted by her lover’s death, apolitical Lily resolves to complete his mission and find out who killed him.

Masquerading as a gung-ho member of the American Communist Party, she travels to Moscow, where she is contacted by Pasha Tarkhan. Brutal, yet charismatic, Tarkhan is both a high-ranking Soviet official and CIA asset, not to mention a covert supporter of the Russian Spiritual Underground. This alliance of self-styled “deists” have rejected the secular Soviet state and vowed to bring it down by means of faith, prayer…and blood.

Grinding her old life beneath the heel of her Dior stiletto, Lily puts her new one on the line, surrendering to fate, love and, for once, events bigger than herself.

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Now, without further ado, here’s a quirky little love scene straight from The Hungarian:

He tortured her carefully, bringing her to points of unbearable pain – yet he knew she would endure, saying nothing about the Sputnik or her Russian friends no matter how many times he asked her, no matter how many ways. Lily was in a different place now; a place where pain and uncertainty meant little. Gulyas touched her lips and she started to sing again – this time a Greek hymn – then she talked about the trees in the Lavra.

“They were very nice trees,” he said. It was true. He couldn’t help but notice them even if he had other things on his mind at the time.

Gulyas removed a midnight blue scarf from his back pocket. It had belonged to his Aunt Zuzanna and he’d taken it some time ago after losing the monogrammed handkerchief his wife had given him as a wedding present. Gently, he lifted Lily’s head and tied the scarf around her eyes, making the knot good and tense.

“Porcia Catonis was Marcus Brutus’ second wife,” Gulyas said. “The one who killed herself by swallowing hot coals.” He took Lily’s jaw in his hands and pried it wide open, placing a wooden block between her teeth. “I always admired her fortitude.”

Lily resisted, of course, but he’d tied her wrists behind her back and secured them to her ankles, binding them with a kind of slipknot that pulled her hands and feet closer together as she struggled. The more she moved, the more unnatural the position became, and the more agonizing. He enjoyed her struggle – although not because it gave her pain. He enjoyed it precisely because she was able suffer the pain. It was yet another attribute they shared.

Gulyas reached over to the dying Bunsen burner at his side and removed a dish from its frame. It was filled with a pharmacological capsaicin mixture and bubbled the way he imagined lava might bubble inside a volcano on the brink of erupting. An active component of the chili pepper, the capsaicin would certainly feel like hot coals.

“This shouldn’t take too long,” he said.

Slowly, Gulyas poured the mixture down Lily’s throat. She gasped and coughed as the capsaicin foamed in her mouth, but finally, she was forced to swallow. It was either that or drown.

“There we go,” he murmured.

In most cases, Gulyas found mock executions to be an extremely effective method of psychological torture. The capsaicin provided the added benefit of physical anguish as well.

But Lily, as he’d come to expect, was not most cases. She rolled onto her side, her wrists and ankles pulling closer together. Her eyes were tearing heavily and she was wheezing, but she’d suffered her fear and discomfort very well. There was almost a sense of serenity to her countenance.

The Hungarian took a sip of his wine and blotted Lily’s forehead with a cool, damp cloth he dipped frequently in a tin of rosewater. He heaved a breath, admiring the strong slope of her nose and the elegant line of her jawbone. She whispered something, but Beryx Gulyas couldn’t hear it. He bent down, putting his ear to her lips. “Love, did you say? Yes, love.”

Lily Tassos had been changed by love, he mused to himself. His love. And Beryx Gulyas had waited all of his life for someone like her. The funny thing was…she wasn’t even Hungarian.

And for more sneak peeks at The Hungarian, and other exclusive content and photographs, CLICK HERE TO VISIT ME ON PATREON

Who Are You Calling a Hero?

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In both fiction and real life, the hero has had a rough journey over the past hundred years. Two World Wars, a depression, a Cold War, a cultural revolution, several skirmishes – military and political – and a jihad have left us in a state of near nervous breakdown. The twentieth century was unrelenting in its assault on who we thought we were and wanted to be. And the twenty-first century hasn’t been off to a very good start either.

All this time, the hero has taken a sustained and monstrous beating by a group of thugs, each one wielding the rhetorical equivalent of a spiked club engraved with its owner’s moniker: history, media, politics, academia, art. One by one, they bludgeoned her, until she lay there, while we wrung our hands in frustration, outraged over her fallibility.

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With every blow, our cross-cultural, bi-partisan definition of what it means to be a hero was dismantled. First, it was gutted, shouted down.

Later, it was diluted, democratized. According to current cultural norms, anyone can be a hero, as long as they do the minimum of what is expected of them – show up for work, for instance, parent the children they bring into this world, or employ a righteous hashtag.

It’s a pretty low bar to clear. A far cry from what a person had to do to earn the title of hero back in the day. That definition went something like this:

A hero is a person who, in the face of danger or extreme obstacles, combats adversity through extraordinary feats of bravery, often sacrificing her own personal concerns or safety for a greater good.

I’d like to make a case for upping our standards and bringing that common definition back.

As a wife, mother, daughter and citizen, I look to people who have done extraordinary things, even dangerous things, and imagine myself in their shoes. I strive to live up to their example; understand them not as overblown, implausible superhero types in a Marvel Comic franchise, but as indelibly human. Accessible and necessary.

As a writer and reader, I am compelled to evolve and improve only by characters whose feats are big enough, whose journeys are capacious enough, they can remake a person’s heart. Make it grow several sizes the way The Grinch’s did, after he stole Christmas, then gave it back again.

The heroic men and women in the best fiction are people who make me feel as if my own heart will burst like a star. I want to flatter myself into thinking they’d choose me as a friend or lover. They make me up my game, as I endeavor to earn their respect and attention – even if only in my mind.

Perseus, Frodo Baggins, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Katniss Everdeen immediately come to mind when I think of gold-standard make-believe heroes. All of them flush with wit, courage, tenderness, an iron resolve that is both noble and humble. They are not unaware of their gifts and responsibilities… or personal foibles.

These exemplars transform us from within, make us wish for the heavens. After all, few human beings actually long for the lowest hanging fruit, yet we all face the temptation to settle for it.

But heroes shift the paradigm.

Adhering to a code, never justifying inaction, a hero is a rare individual to be sure and we know one when we meet one. He seems to express valor in deeds large and small, and we might find ourselves drawn to him even before we learn anything of his more extraordinary nature. His propensity to jump in and help quell violence during a political demonstration run amok is as immediate as his instinct to bend down and clean up a splotch of red wine a busy waiter has left in his wake.

Of course, we might feel vaguely uncomfortable in his presence, too.

Because as much as we are grateful for a hero’s very existence, he doesn’t always make us feel good when we aren’t in desperate need of his services. When we haven’t been bitten by a shark and find ourselves unable to make it to shore alone, or aren’t facing an irate mob who hates us for our beliefs, he might make us feel less valuable, or worse, force us to consider changing our ways. Becoming more like him.

And not all of us really want to stick our necks out in a life and death situation, or chance disgrace by standing up for an unpopular theme or individual. Even Peter denied Christ three times.

Heroes challenge who we think we are.

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In life, I think of Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, then gave it away, when he could have made millions right off the bat.

In fiction, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorites. Poor, trustworthy, of an essence carved from stone, he went up against an entire town – his town, his home, his people – to defend the weak, the scorned, the misunderstood.

True heroes leave us agog, in a way that makes mere fandom – for a terrific entertainer, or super-successful tech billionaire – seem a trifle embarrassing.

And they hold a mirror to our souls, too.

Sometimes that mirror becomes distorted, like the one in the fun house. We use it to bend the definition of hero to our needs. Water it down, by ascribing chivalrous language to the entrepreneur who declares his allegiance with the sustainability movement, the actress who speaks out against bullying, the talk show host who battles cancer. We call them things like “fearless” and “valiant”, whipping up a frenzy about conduct that is admirable to be sure, but not really outside the realm of normal behavior.

And maybe that’s the point.

Part of us wants heroism to be accessible. Something we can all take a bite out of. It gives our trials and tribulations more meaning, or so the logic goes. And instead of doing better, trying harder, we reshape the definition of hero to make it look more like us.

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But in having demolished what it means to be a hero, we have not only downgraded expectations of ourselves, but our authority figures as well. We’ve become vague, confused, cynical, accepting crude and unethical behavior not just in the people we celebrate in art, sports and business, but in our media body, and our elected officials.

Frustrated, let-down, we’ve sought solace in our tribes, turning against some of our fellow citizens. Ones who may revere a different type of hero than the kind we champion of our Facebook pages. Soldier vs activist, priest vs scientist, dark vs fair, man vs woman. We point accusing fingers at each other instead of at ourselves, forgetting that heroes are sculpted from the values they serve – love, honor, duty, courage – and less so the circumstances of their birth or the causes they take up.

To get better, we must be better, demand more. Learn once again how to agree on heroic qualities and behaviors that stand the test of time, rather than cater to fleeting notions of valor that are beholden to cultural fashions. We must retrain ourselves to distinguish superior human merits from cherry-picked affiliations.

Notions of bravery, conviction, integrity, strength, and rightfulness that transcend the bonds of social class, race, gender and politics. Ones that involve very real stakes with often stark choices.

These are what make the hero. They draw an indelible line between them and us: the true hero and the good citizen. A hero builds our greater framework, often working at its outer edges. We follow in smaller ways. Not unimportant ways, but smaller ones nonetheless. It is the difference between suffering a disease – no matter how graciously – and taking the risk of contracting it in order to ease the suffering of others.

“I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island [of Molokai, a leper colony] and give up my work. I am perfectly resigned to my lot. Do not feel sorry for me.” –St. Damien of Molokai, who devoted his life to working with lepers until succumbing to the disease himself.

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Father Damien on his deathbed

While not perfect, heroes are moralists. They must be in order to do what they do. Without an unshakable sense of right and wrong, a hero wouldn’t act. It’s difficult for a relativist to take heroic action. Not impossible, but hard. She’d be thinking too much about context and consequences. In short, she’d behave like a regular person, someone who needs a hero, but is not one herself.

Contrast her with Joshua Mooi, a twenty-two year-old Iraq-based Marine who ran into a building filled with armed insurgents to provide support and recover wounded Marines. Under constant fire, he ran inside six times. He kept going until his rifle was destroyed and he was ordered to stop.

And Lauren Prezioso, who was enjoying a day at the beach with her husband and young son, when she heard a mother’s desperate cries. Her two boys were being swept out to sea! Despite being eight months pregnant, Prezioso and another beach-goer dove into the water and rescued the boys, themselves nearly drowning in the process.

True heroes wake the lions in our hearts.

They wrench the meekest of us from our ordinary lives, granting us the courage to grow into what deep down we all ache to become. Anything less not only makes for inconsequential fiction, but unremarkable lives.

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For more on heroes – both the kind you find in books, and on your city block – please visit me on my Patreon page right here.

As little as a $1 donation will not only give you access to novels-in-progress, chapter excerpts, collections of vintage photographs and more, but 1/3 of the money from all goals achieved will be donated to worthy organizations that are dedicated to improving the lives of children with special needs. The current goal is featuring Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for children with special medical needs (there are some true heroes there, let me tell you). Thanks!

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Bringing Magic Back Into the World One Post at a Time

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This post is about two things that, aside from my family, mean the most to me: creating stories that change people’s lives and giving back.

Most of us writers strive to be better on paper than we actually are, often in hopes of becoming more of that person who lurks within us, and is a very large part of us, but lives in sweet perfection only on the page. Writers are like preachers that way. And if you’ve been reading this blog, or following my work in any way, you’ve probably already learned three things about me:

First, that mass production is not what I’m about. I don’t churn out new books every full moon in hopes of a quick buck. Anything I write takes time, research, and a great deal of thought and craft.

Second, that my work is all about meaning. I aim to entertain and delight, make you sigh, put some beads of sweat on your brow – but underneath the lovers, killers and curses, lies a sense of destiny. And the conversation that simmers underneath my prose is about passion, grief, true love, honor, art and faith.

Third, that I will never, ever, ever offer you less.

That’s why I’ve started a mission with Patreon.

Patreon is an amazing and empowering platform that makes it possible for artists and their enthusiasts to not only engage, but even work together towards a common goal.

And my aim on Patreon is simple: I want to bring magic back into the world – one post at a time!

What does that mean? I want to partner with readers not only to create the most original, comprehensive and knock-your-socks-off story experience a writer has to offer, but I want to share with you the gratification of giving. By supporting an artist whose work you want to be a part of, and in doing so, helping organizations like Camp Holiday Trails, which has provided more than 10,000 kids with special needs the opportunity to have a safe and positive summer camp experience.

As little as a $1 pledge will give you access to original essays, works-in-progress, photographs, art work, videos and more. One third of the proceeds from each goal achieved will go towards supporting worthy organizations like Camp Holiday Trails.

So, join me! Spread the word! Be an evangelist for meaning and love! Share the link. Tell your friends, colleagues, children, grandchildren, lawnmower mechanic, your kid’s teacher, the cop who stops you for speeding, the salesgirl who needs a lift in her day, that guy with quirky smile you’ve been trying to get up the nerve to talk to.

 

Above all, thank you,

Victoria

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On Old Haunts, Daughters and Time-Travel

Prague reading 2017Recently, I not only had the privilege of performing a reading of Welcome to the Hotel Yalta for the Alchemy Double Feature at Napa Bar and Art Gallery in Prague (see above picture), but got to spend a glorious eight days in the golden city with my twelve year-old daughter, Charlotte.

The reading was on a Monday, only a day or so after we’d landed in the Czech Republic, and I aimed to offer my little girl a memorable night of friends, family, great prose and off-beat poetry. We donned our virtual Berets, and I sat her down at a long, wooden table with a big, fat Coke, shamelessly showing her off to my Prague friends. Up until that night, most of them had only seen her in pictures or heard about her exploits via social media.

Having brought Charlotte’s older brother to a similar event in Prague a couple of years earlier, I also looked forward to showing off a bit for her. Giving her a taste of what her mother does apart from driving car-pool, picking up cupcakes, and nagging the whole lot of Dougherty children to practice piano.

Chauffeur and buzz-kill are not the only descriptions I want ascribed to me – even if used affectionately.

And since Charlotte herself is a creative writer, I thought the experience would be good for her – enriching. I know I never wanted the night to end. Full, frothy mug in hand, waxing nostalgic about the “old Prague” of my twenties, I turned to my daughter at one point… and watched her yawn. She tried to cover it up, but when I pressed her, she admitted she was dying to go get a hamburger and escape the whole “booooring” scene.

You can’t please everyone – least of all your own children. And as the late playwright, dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel once said, “Work for something because it is good, not just because it has a chance to succeed.”

I’m not entirely sure I made the grade on either parts.

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After the Alchemy Double Feature, I laid in bed – still wide awake with jet lag – and tried to envisage what the rest of our week would be like. I made a valiant effort (after several Pilsners) to recall what struck me most the first time I came to Eastern Europe – the fairytale anatomy of the buildings, the smells of dog poop and sausages, the tiny, gnome-like old ladies who pushed to the front of the line with well-earned meanness – and how it would be possible to translate my experiences and make them relevant for my daughter. 

How could I describe to her that lingering sense of otherness that comes from knowing a place as well as the geography of your own hand? And would it even matter to her if I did? I know Prague’s spirits, her hard-fought victories and crushing defeats. I know her sins. Especially her sins.

And she knows mine.

It is an intimacy that follows you around for a while. It’s not quite like the emotional hangover that comes on after bumping into a former lover. More like the act of remembering – truly remembering – a long dead friend whose absence can still be felt inside your heart chamber.

Except that my daughter has never had a lover, or been forced to navigate the loss of someone beyond an aged grandparent who she only saw a couple of times a year. She loves history, though, and has a wild imagination for its characters and exploits.

So, that was a start.

She understood when I told her that there is a time-travel aspect to visiting an old haunt. Especially a haunt that’s been around for well over a thousand years. Prague is an ancient soul, one that held me in the palm of her hand during some of my most tumultuous years. I do have a sense when I’m there, that part of me is following around the ghost of my younger self.

 

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Years ago, when I vowed to take each of my children to Prague on the cusps of their thirteenth birthdays  – I decided I wanted to craft an over-arching theme for our journeys. First, I took my eldest, my only son, and we had a magnificent time. We did the touristy things, of course, but we also visited my mother’s village, saw my father’s farm, which had just been sold after hundreds of years in our care, and even went to a Burlesque show.

My objective then was to bequeath a sense of family legacy to my son, a notion of honor that would launch him into young manhood.

Charlotte, however, is very different from her brother, and not just because she’s a girl. Family legacies aren’t really her thing. She wants to chart her own course and while fascinated by the past, she chafes at feeling encumbered by it. Since her infancy, she has demanded my full attention all the time, and has never been content to sit in companionable silence together. Her brother, on the other hand, could go three days without ever saying a word.

To my glowing pride, amazement and exhaustion, Charlotte squeezes every bit of juice out of any given situation. “This is my trip,” she let me know – big smile, but with hands on hips to convey she meant business.

It was daunting to re-imagine the trip for her, bring something new to it, so that it wasn’t just the same tour I’d planned with her older sibling. She wouldn’t abide that anyway, and there was no doubt in my mind that she’d be keeping a private ledger, comparing his trip to hers.

Did I mention she’s a middle child?

Nor did I want to be like the parent who drags her kid to her college town, telling cringy stories about where she puked after the “wildest Halloween party ever.” How she and her friends dressed as Van Halen and jumped off the roof of the cafeteria! Get it? Jump-ed! My daughter loves me, but I know she will never, ever think I’m cool and I have no intention of striving – in vain – to change her mind.

As I stared up at the ceiling in the dark that night after the reading, it occurred to me how little interest I had in going back and creeping down my own personal memory lane. Almost as little as my daughter had in following me there. I’ve grown up and away from the young woman I was when I called Prague home. Even if I hold great affection for that old me and some of my more colorful adventures and misadventures. They were at once fun, scary, weird, devastating and glamorous.

So, after subjecting Charlotte to my book reading, I decided to steer as clear as possible from stories of my days in theater, the hours I spent in smoky pubs talking Cold War shenanigans, my travels through the backcountry and affairs of the heart. How boooooring.

I told Charlotte instead about history, the fickle nature of politics, the centuries-old gravestones, the art and architecture that spoke not just to its own generation, but to humanity at large. Things that transcend.

In short, I endeavored to make Prague hers, ours. A place she could adopt into her heart for its own sake.

So, on our last day, when I asked my daughter what she wanted to do, she didn’t hesitate. “I want to get watercolors and go paint somewhere.” Her enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the rainy weather that visited us out of the blue – another Prague feature that has spanned the ages. But she wasn’t deterred.

We bunkered down at a series of coffee houses, ordering tea and goulash, capturing the people, the cobblestone streets outside the arched windows, the intricate fleur de lys patterns molded onto the high ceilings. I’d never done that when I lived there and it was truly one of the best days I’d ever spent in the city. Just me and my daughter, painting pictures – her’s much better than mine.

“Can we move here, dad?” Charlotte begged my husband over Facetime late that afternoon.

I turned back to the view from our balcony. The streets were damp and glossy, and the smell of exhaust fumes and baking bread wafted up.

“Perhaps, Mr. President,” I whispered. “We’ve managed to do something both good and successful.”

Prague Char view

Growing Old(er) Together

j-and-v-wedding

One of our wedding photos. Says it all, doesn’t it?

My husband and I celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary last July. As far as commemorating the occasion, to be honest, we fell pretty short.

In fact, we both forgot. And this was hardly an isolated incident.

There have been years when the only time we “remembered” was when we played our phone messages and discovered several “Happy Anniversary” tributes from friends and family. Joyful, wistful ruminations about how much fun was had at our nuptuals and such.

So last summer, when we slipped the occasion yet again, we hung our heads in mock shame and whispered our usual mantra – “Please tell me you didn’t get me anything.”

It’s true, our wedding deserves better homage than we have given it. It was a wonderful occasion in every possible way. I was giddy, with not a flash of cold feet, and my husband called his “I do” loud and strong, like an Amen! at church. Our friend Dave wore his Marine Corps dress uniform in honor of my husband’s late father, a Greatest Generation Marine, eliciting wails and tears from all seven of my sisters-in law. The toasts from our loved ones got longer and funnier as our guests got drunker. There was a hand-stand contest in the women’s bathroom, several sing-a-longs, and a few Irish cry-a-thons. I’m pretty sure the bartender went home with one of our guests.

In the wee hours of the morning, we drove off into the sunrise feeling like we’d just had the best night of our lives. It was a glorious start to a love affair that would grow us up, bring three new humans into the world, and both validate and challenge every notion of what we thought marriage was going to be about.babies at UVA

 

Yet, while we have been truly remiss at celebrating milestones like anniversaries, we do pay attention.

As a couple, we’ve been together for twenty-one years. Roughly 3 1/2 years apart in age, we’ve grown up with the same movies, TV shows and music, and can reminisce together about having spent the latter part of the 1970s in “Six Million Dollar Man” slow motion, while anthem rock blared from our teen siblings’ radios. We share a love of literature (namely Czech) and can usually come to a compromise on tastes in furniture, vacation spots and pets. We have laughed with each other all through this journey.

And as the indignities of aging have begun to creep up, we laugh at each other, too. The creaky ankles, the gastrointestinal rejection of foods we’ve always enjoyed no problemo, becoming out of touch with popular culture. You know, that weird feeling when you look at the cover of a “People” magazine and have certainly heard of the celebrity who graces the cover, but are not acquainted with their body of work, or lack thereof. Furthermore, you don’t care.

I’m both humbled by and amazed at how successful our union has been so far, especially now that I know how easily things could have gone wrong. Like all of those times we moved and had to make real sacrifices for the other. Career sacrifices. Lifestyle choices. We took big risks in starting a business, chasing dreams, in adding more children into the mix. Things didn’t always work out the way we’d planned.

We’ve had to navigate our youngest child’s on-going medical woes, the fall-out that came from a birth defect that arrived in the form of a rare, cancerous tumor.

j-and-v-wedding-baby-jo

And we’ve marched on through this muddy, emotional backwater while friends – people who married with the same joy and hope in their hearts – broke apart over what appeared to be minor grievances. A series of tiny papercuts, instead of big events like extramarital affairs or long habits of knock-down drag-out fights. Although a few of our friends had those, too.

There, but for the grace of God, go we.

From what I’ve seen, the breakup of a marriage can be as simple as two people who have settled into living separate lives with few common interests. A slow drift, rather than a short, sharp shock. No cataclysmic event that punctuated years of anger, dissatisfaction and an erosion of trust. I’ve often wondered when exactly those lovers made the decision to just do their own thing, and if they had even the slightest inkling it would be the kiss of death for their marriage. A first cigarette that would turn into a two pack-a-day habit, and then ultimately, well, you know…

Little things can add up to either build up or chip away at a bond. And each, seemingly small decision can be the difference between growing together or apart.

It is an awesome responsibility, a marriage.

j-and-v-wedding-laughing

It’s why recently, when my husband developed a light snore that happened to coincide with a nasty streak of insomnia on my part – one that had been plaguing me like a swarm of locusts – I took a hard swallow and held firm. I told him that under no circumstances would we remedy the situation with separate bedrooms and conjugal visits, as he suggested.

“It would only be for a while,” he said. He was getting really tired of my nudging him every time he started to make his raspy noises and I don’t blame him. “And we can make it fun.” Wink-wink.

I thought about it briefly, and then said, “Nuh-uh.”

That night, I sucked it up and ignored his snoring, letting him have a good night’s sleep without the feel of my hand pushing him onto his side.

Because I’ve seen it happen before. Once you move into that other space, it’s too easy to like it there. Having the whole bed to yourself, with no extraneous noises and clanging midnight visits to the bathroom. No cold feet or sharp toenails.

And once that separate space has been established, it’s even easier to start taking other seperate spaces. Especially since that one worked out so well. You might start going out alone more, not watching that tv series your spouse likes so much, but that you find just meh. You might make love less frequently or stop altogether. “Making a date of it” requires planning, and planning is hard with three kids in the house.

I also think that without those little reminders of intimacy – the brush of a hand on your hip while you finish that last chapter of the book you’re obsessed by, a kiss on the shoulder, spooning – it’s more convenient to find comfort in your own cave. Do with less.

You might even think you like it better there.76P

Until that day when you recognize that you and your beloved have whittled away at what made you a couple, leaving you with little more than common space, common chores, and memories of the way laughter used to echo in the house.

That’s why, after seventeen and a half years of marriage, instead of making up a guest bedroom for victims or perpetrators of excessive snoring, we decided to go mattress shopping instead. We’ve had our mattress for as long as we’ve been wed and figured there have probably been some improvements in the slumber industry – one’s that might even help an insomniac get back to sleep, or lessen those gurgling sounds made by most middle-aged men.

And sure enough – mattresses have come a long way!

My husband and I plopped down on a “Plush” version that felt like heaven and had a price tag more akin to real estate than furniture. But we figured it would make up for all the anniversary presents we haven’t and won’t be giving each other.

And for seventeen more years, it’s worth it.

unmade bed

 

 

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