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Winter in The Cold

I love leaving wild bird seed out in the winter. We get lots of blue jays, cardinals, and woodpeckers, and they love the stuff.

I discovered a wonderful series on YouTube this past week. It centers on the life of a small, young family living a largely “off the grid” life in the forests of Sweden, in a tiny, rustic cabin with no electricity (they’re able to upload their videos through a single solar charger). 

While it’s fun to watch people live much like they would have one hundred and fifty years ago, albeit with important improvements like good dental care and antibiotics, I found that as I was scrolling through their archive of videos, looking for inspiration, I was almost exclusively attracted to their winter clips. Scenes of wood-burning stoves and tea kettles, thick frostings of snow and sparkling streams with ice crusted near the banks, woolen sweaters, smoky breath, early sunsets, and deep sleeps.

I realized how much the winter is like church for me, and embodies so much of the sacred and holy that not only carries us through the rest of the year, but helps us build foundations for a meaningful life.

Our backyard after a snowstorm.

Because the cold months are the quiet months. The contemplative months. We think more about our place in the world, make New Year’s resolutions, vow to cut the poisonous and gratuitous out of our lives. 

With so much silence, stillness, the sounds we do hear are clear and distinctive: the caw of a warbler, the snap of a branch beneath a heavy boot. Winter’s music is heavy with percussion, and it’s sounds are sparse and artsy. It’s a spoken haiku, as opposed to the riotous symphonic pieces that characterize the other seasons.

But as the moon rises on a cold, winter’s night, that haiku often becomes a soft, acoustic love song. More babies are made in the winter than at any other time in the year, so it’s a season of intimacy, too. The solitude of the crisp day becomes an evening made for warm hands and close bodies. It’s a much needed interval for both lovers and philosophers – the life-makers and the sense-makers.​

The 1905 wood-burning stove that sits in the center of our living room.

​Winter’s smells are sharp and masculine in the outdoors. Clean. They’re tinged with pine and minerals, and the plain, fresh air cuts like a razor. While fresh and exhilarating, going outdoors in the cold months is not for the faint of heart. It takes a helluva lot more than sunscreen to brave the weather. If you live in a place where the temperatures drop below zero, there’s almost no amount of layering that will keep your eyes from tearing, your fingers and toes from getting numb. Ears may burn with the cold even when covered with a hat. It can be painful just to breathe. 

But unable to resist the draw, we sled, build snowmen, let the snowflakes fall onto our tongues, or put our tongues to a cold piece of metal, where it gets stuck. Frostbite is a bitch, too. Winter is nothing if not precarious.

Ah, but then we come indoors – maybe to a roaring fire, or just some good ole charmless, miraculous central heating. The interior elements of winter are decidedly feminine, I think. Its’ scents are nourishing and sexy – aromas of cinnamon, cooked apples, cedar. Our cheeks and lips redden from the contrast of heat and cold, giving a girl the kind of flush written about in romance novels. Soft instrumentals and full-bodied wine, preferably red or mulled, and a good long book that’ll last you for hours…or a great conversation. That’s the stuff not only of falling in love, but of making a close friend.

And winter is the time to snuggle a child and drink hot cocoa, make wish lists, and celebrate not merely the sun, but the candle, the gaslight, the bright holiday bulbs. We wear soft blankets and full body pajamas with cozy slippers, take long, hot baths, and watch the firelight dance until our eyelids flutter with drowsiness. ​

My girls on Christmas Eve some years ago.

On a winter’s night, we have the sublime pleasure of having to warm the bed with own body heat, shivering until our comforters let go of their chill. The night wind blows unfettered by the thick mane of leaves that cover most trees during the spring, summer, and fall. Bare branches scrape against our windows in chorus with the hoot of an owl. In dead of night, the winter is an old, witchy woman. She whispers stories about wolves and ghosts, making you believe you heard something sinister outside, just beneath your bedroom window, or saw a specter in a pane of glass. Nearly all of the most hair-raising horror stories utilize the winter. With everyone shut in, there are fewer people around to hear you scream.

I snapped this on my morning walk. I keep expecting to find a body in that field.

But to me, the best part of winter is what she promises, assuming we have the grit and imagination to see her through.

Winter either tells us to think or get stronger with each hardship she presents. She provides fewer distractions, and prepares us for the opportunities that spring and summer may offer. It’s a time of bare bones and waiting. Lost hope and anticipation. Under the leaves and the ice and the thick socks and the goose pimples, is a new world awaiting discovery. 

Here’s the “off the grid” winter homage I was telling you about – you’re going to love this!

A Fictionista’s Map of Manhood from Antiquity to James Bond

man in teal tank top and black shorts standing in front of statue
Photo by Chris Curry

Manhood. It almost feels archaic to write such a word. It’s become a muddled term, seeming to have as many definitions and contradictions as there are coffee beverages offered at Starbucks.

But despite all the opposing interpretations of what manhood should or does mean – from treatises on “toxic masculinity” to the men’s rights movement; from domineering fictional fantasy lovers like Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, to men who bare their souls the way sweet, sensitive Noah does in the blockbuster novel and film, The Notebook – I don’t think this manhood thing is as difficult as we make it out to be.

In fact, I think a clear roadmap to manhood is right in front of us and has been all along. We’ve just been reluctant to use it. Worried that if we rely too much on historical interpretations of masculine attributes, we could compromise the progress women have made, or the way men have evolved in modern times.

But if we’re to unlock the very best of male traits for our twenty-first century brothers, sons and lovers (and in my case fictional characters), we can’t afford to disregard the wisdom of the past. This map to manhood that history’s mothers and fathers put into place came at great cost and through a harrowing process of trial and error.  ​They gave us our heroes and villains. Our rituals and rites of passage. Enabled the very freedoms women now enjoy, and the equal partnership between the sexes that we currently hold as ideal.

So, that’s where we’re going to begin – with the ancients. They are the logical first point on our map and we can find our way from there.

Sports Evolution Facts: The Greeks, Romans & Us | The Fact Site

Classical Greek male virtues were ones of courage, fidelity, industry and duty. Who can argue with that? These are tenets of manhood that linger on, regardless of whether men are perceived as living up to them or not. 

The Romans were a bit more elaborate, placing humor, mercy, frugality, wholesomeness (health), honesty, dignity, and a host of similar traits on the roster of model masculine attributes, but they ultimately concluded that the sum of a real man is one who lives a life of virtue, plain and simple. One who aspires to answer to his better angels.

Yet from a purely romantic perspective, all this virtue business is a bit dry and could use more fleshing out. As cute as the Roman’s were in their togas and gladiator outfits, they weren’t particularly romantic in nature. If we want to understand what a woman really craves in a man, how a man is just dying to be seen by women (and the world), we’ll do best to keep our eyes trained on fiction. Because it’s only in the novel, the story, that we get off the main highways and take a more scenic route to manhood.

Ahem. I said fiction.

Anywhere from the legend of King Arthur onward will do, if you want to stick to the less ancient classics. Tales of chivalry and love are particularly good at clearing away the cultural debris on our path, and allowing us to see what it takes to be the kind of man that makes a girl jump on the back of his horse and ride away with him to an uncertain future. One she is confident he can navigate. Stories like Don Quixote, Dracula, The Hobbit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild, The Count of Monte Cristo, even Sense and Sensibility in its quiet, mannered way, chronicle the kinds of masculine characters who answer the call to adventure, and in the process, endeavor to do right by those they encounter. They use the knowledge they gained during their exploits not only for their own personal fulfillment, but to be of better value to society at large.​

As we move further down the map, mid-twentieth century writers such as Kerouac, Hemingway, Stienbeck, Salinger, and even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson give us a different perspective. They show us what a man wants to be at his wildest, while illustrating how perseverence, duty, even when a man is flagrantly shaking off the shackles of domesticity, keep him from straying too far from his role. Some of these authors – Salinger comes to mind – are especially adept at revealing to us what can happen when a man foregoes the map entirely and walks off into into unchartered territory. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass, despite his intelligence, talent, and courage at war, becomes so alienated from his family and society that he feels he is no longer of any use and kills himself. As appealing a character that he is, he’s a cautionary tale about the perils of going rogue.

More recent scribes – Diana Gabaldon, Maggie Shipstead, Nora Roberts and Amy Harmon – offer an updated and more feminine view of the kind of man a woman goes nuts for, and a man follows around like a good dog. Yet despite a few tweaks, their heroes still display all of the classical traits that have been written about for millennia. They may be more overtly emotional in their presentation – a bit squishy on the outside for the likes of your average knight or lone cowboy – but are solid granite just beneath the skin. These new, improved men know how to talk to a girl, not just provide for her, rip her bodice and take her right then and there. That’s no small upgrade, in my opinion. Like leaving a village and entering a metropolis.

Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser: bodice-ripper and great talker to boot.

But of all these authors mapping out the hero’s journey, even the most manly man wordsmiths among them seem to understand that when it comes to women’s most unfeigned expectations of men, it has always boiled down to one crucial element from which all of the other virtues quite naturally flow. A woman wants to be the center of her lover’s universe. No matter what and forever. She wants him to be that immovable force. The protector of her heart and her person.

That is the maxim of every work of fiction that trains its eye on a pair of sweethearts, and the most desired realestate on the map. It hovers unspoken in almost every genre, too. Even in high testosterone spy thrillers, players like James Bond – a man who finds a new paramour in every adventure – is prepared to give his life for even the most undeserving damsel in distress: The gangster’s moll, the double agent, the fellow assassin.

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She didn’t deserve him.

In my own fiction, I give a lot of thought to how much a romantic story – a term I use loosely – really does hinge on the creation and evolution of a man worth falling for. The kind of guy both the ancient Greeks and the girls in a modern day book club can appreciate. After all, if a man is going to make my female protagonist the center of his world, that world better be compelling and worth living in. It better be one of virtue. Or, if he’s the bad boy type, become one of virtue in the course of the story, and usually due to his valiant efforts.

I aim to cut through the dither and disorientation that surrounds the conversation around men and manhood these days, and make his direction clear. Draw up the kind of guy we all want in our lives. One who exemplifies the very classical virtues that, when followed, internalized, can make an evil man good again, and a good man great.

I find the points of interest in the rituals he performs. The ones that usher a boy into manhood and unveil opportunities for him to fulfill his promise, earn his place among the adults in the room, and ultimately, even lead them. “When” is a seriously under-appreciated concept in my view, and rituals play an important role in a man’s development, giving him the ready, set, go! signal he’s been waiting for. The one that dares him to put his virtues into play. Make them more than mere ideals.

From baptism to filling out a draft card to getting a driver’s license, graduating, being challeneged to that first schoolyard tussle, having that first kiss – these all let a guy know that it’s time. To move on, to step up, to fight, to finish, to make love, to marry, to make a decision. About where he’s willing to go and what he stands for, what he’s willing to do and risk everything for. Otherwise he ends up untethered, just wandering all over the map.

Because that is the crux of what makes up a man in the end, isn’t it? His decisions. His ability to make them and stick to them, accept responsibility for their outcome. A man’s virtues and ideals may tell him how he should behave, but his rituals let him know when it’s time to employ them. They show him and everyone watching whether he has the mettle to actually behave in the way he wishes others to see him. In the way that he will ultimately be judged and remembered when he comes to the last stop on the road.

Savage Island, excerpt

By Victoria Dougherty

“The women take care of a boy’s hair until his hifi ulu,” Ku whispers. He’s come up next to me, too, and I’m glad for his company. 

“Of course with Will, that’s been a no go. He hasn’t let a woman touch his hair since well before he left for England. Except for Oliana, of course.”

That just about stabs me through the eye.

“Of course,” I say.

Sure enough, Oliana takes up the scissors and lifts up one of Will’s ribbon-wrapped locks. She takes a first snip right above where the ribbon is tied up top and holds it high for everyone to see. There’s a big cheer and Will meets my eyes, so I swallow hard and give him the best and biggest smile I’m able. This is his day and I’m not about to behave like a jealous harpy.

One by one, each of the women and girls take a turn cutting off a beribboned lock of Will’s hair – something they get to keep for themselves as a memento of the occasion, and symbol of their role in making a man of Will. –Savage Island

The hifi ulu, the Nuiean hair cutting-ceremony that acknowledges the passage of a boy into manhood is real and I chose to feature it in my novel, Savage Island, precisely because of how important I feel such rites of passage are to young people. On Niue, until a boy’s hifi ulu, the women of his family take care of his long hair – brushing, braiding, doing whatever is necessary to keep it in shape. After his hair is cut, the implication is that the boy must begin behaving like a man, not only caring for his own person, but getting himself mentally and physically prepared for caring for a family and for others who may need him down the line. It’s a lovely ceremony, and crucial to my protagonist Will’s journey, as from that moment on, the responsibilities of manhood will fall on him in a way he never expected or could have ever dreamed of.​

Savage Island is on sale for $.99 for a short time only! Get your download today.

Reflecting on the Old; Ringing in the New

Happy New Year, my friends. I know that most of you are probably quite happy to see 2020 end, and I won’t pretend I’m not ready to say sayonara. My own inner circle has seen death, ill health, financial insecurity, and all the drama that comes with living under semi-quarantine. Cabin fever can be no easy thing to navigate when there’s no clear end in sight.

But there has been magic this year, too. Many office slaves have been able to kick their commute to the curb and work successfully from home. The more industrious of us have picked up new hobbies, read more books, finally lost those stubborn pounds around the middle. Others have grown closer to the ones they love, and looked at their lives anew, perhaps getting a deeper, wider perspective on who they are, where they want to be, and how to get there.

Others still, may have had the worst year of their lives, yet remained standing. Tests of survival, the ones that show us what we’re made of, have their own brand of fairy dust.

In that spirit, I’d like to share some of my favorite family photos of 2020. Ones that caught us off-guard, and showed our quirks. Or just captured a genuine emotion.

After you’ve perused my little photo album, I have something special for you. It’s a long and winding conversation that’ll take you to many unexpected places. This is one for the books, my Cold companions, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Ready?

​This woman is my spirit animal, whoever she is.

My pre-COVID venture into the wild world of the KISS concert raised some eyebrows. As my New Year’s resolution last year, I vowed to accept every invitation to get out of my house – no matter what it was. I admit, I’m not exactly a KISS fan, but I stick to my resolutions, dammit.

And you know what? It was a ball.

Sadly, my resolution came to a grinding halt at the end of March, when we were all forced into lockdown. In those short, few weeks, however, I made new friends, reconnected with old ones, and experienced an onslaught of fresh, out-of-the-box experiences the likes of which I hadn’t even endeavored to try since becoming a mother. For a brief period there, I actually went to bed after 9:00 p.m., and told my family they were on their own for dinner. 

Yes, it was glorious. 

At the same time, no matter how much fun was had, I always looked forward coming home.

I had no idea that people actually followed KISS around like they’re the Grateful Dead and dress up as band members. It’s a great community of folks.

​​I love this picture of me and my girls. Late this spring, we decided to shake things up and celebrate the loosening of quarantine strictures with Shirley Temples and calamari at a local Italian joint that has a great patio! I’ll clarify: They had Shirley Temples and I had a glass of wine. 

On any other night, in any other year, they would’ve probably had other things to do on a beautiful Friday night​. ​In a rare thanks to COVID, their weekend plans for most of the past several months, were often my plans, too. We’ve cooked, watched movies, played music, gone for bike rides, taken walks, and sat by the stream and just talked. I don’t mind for one minute that I was their first choice only by default in 2020. This may have been my last chance to spend large chunks of time with them without resorting to bribery.

My husband and son were camping at this time, so we girls later got into our pajamas and watched “The Office” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”

​The Dougherty family spent the dog days of summer at the Blue Ridge Swim Club – a totally hippie, “green,” spring-fed pool (from 1913, no less, and I believe it’s the oldest working swimming pool in the USA). Swimmers must share the water with tadpoles and brave a slippery, muddy bottom at the shallow end. And let me tell you, this pool is COLD. As my husband, Jack, observed – “It is scrotum-tighteningly cold.”

Jack and I brought a stack of books, and lounged on some adirondack chairs while our kids practiced doing flips off the diving board. After daring me, begging me, telling me there’s no way I’d do it, I finally told my daughters to zip it and take a seat. I walked up onto that board, jumped hard once, and did a front flip for the first time in thirty years, thank you very much.

Image may contain: 4 people, including Jack Dougherty, people sitting, tree, grass, child, outdoor and nature
Father’s Day at Blue Ridge Swim Club

My kiddos, and my “extra” son, who’s my oldest’s best friend, lounged around by the fire after Thanksgiving dinner. It was a quiet, intimate night. No fuss. Just a home-cooked Indian dinner and lots of laughter. Honestly, even though we love our busy, more boisterous, and bigger family holidays, this is the best one we’ve had in years.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, sleeping, living room, table, shoes and indoor
Everyone seemed to love just cooking the food we wanted to eat, instead of making our usual Thanksgiving recipes.

My daughter, Josephine, sang “Santa, Baby” on Christmas Eve – with her own lyrics! She wrote them as a Christmas present for her dad: “Papa, darling, there’s no one else quite like you – so true – I love the light in your eyes, Papa, darling, so hurry up and tell us a joke. One of your bad ones, please.”

It was a loving gesture that was simultaneously a tribute and roast. That’s how we roll.

I would’ve loved to post the video footage of Josie actually singing the song, but she put her foot down on that one.

This was a year of keeping up with friendships, too. At least to the best of our abilities. Despite many legitimate concerns about social media, apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Zoom, just to name a few, enabled us to keep in touch when we couldn’t actually socialize in person.

So last, but not least, I’d like to invite you to take some time and listen to a brand new conversation I had with my friend, Ricardo Lopes, on his wonderful YouTube show and podcast, The Dissenter. Ricardo had me on last year and it was so much fun that we vowed not only to do it again, but to do it every year from here on out.

If you have a curious mind – and I’m assuming since you’re here in The Cold, that you do – I can’t recommend Ricardo’s show enough. He invites, artists, intellectuals and academics from a variety of areas and disciplines, ranging from Literature and Philosophy to the Social Sciences and Biology. He has interviewed the likes of Noam Chomsky, Gad Saad, Patrick Lee Miller, Gordon Gallup, and so many other fascinating guests.

This time around, Ricardo and I dig deeper on the kinds of stories we love, and on the cultural trends that interest us, as well as drive us crazy. We talk about religion, politics, comedy, writing fiction, and what makes an interesting villain! Honestly, he and I never run out of things to chat about and I always look forward to sitting down with him.

So, put on your headphones, pour yourself the beverage of your choice (I prefer wine or whiskey if it’s after 5), and put your feet up – you’re in for one hell of a conversation.

The Dissenter and I sit down once again. Just click this link to join us!

And if you’re interested in some of the fruits of my labor this year, please check out BREATH, the first book in my epic new historical fantasy series.

And Savage Island, the first companion novella to the BREATH series:

Readers and Reviewers are calling the BREATH series “Breathtaking” “Romantic and enthralling” “Unlike anything I’ve read before” and “The story of a lifetime!”

Merry and Bright

Barney in his Christmas sweater

As of this year, Santa is no longer much of a factor in our house, so we decided to shake things up a bit and have our big meal and gift-exchange last night, on Christmas Eve (the traditional Czech way). I have to say – it was wonderful. The presents were heartfelt, the laughter spontaneous, and the joy everpresent. I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed celebrating this holiday in the evening, even if I know I’ll eventually miss being dragged out of bed at zero dark thirty to drink hot cocoa and watch my kids rip open their presents in a frenzy as close to bloodlust as I’ve ever seen. Those memories are a treasure and one of the delights of being a parent.

But so is cooking a Beef Wellington with my son, discussing adult topics as we sit around an ancient, pot-bellied stove, and staying up late into the night without a thought about the next day.

My oldest child and sous chef

I can’t help feeling blessed and grateful despite all of the turmoil this year, and hope that all of you are enjoying your holiday with those who are closest to you. I’ve heard over and over how that’s been the silver lining of Covid restrictions – the fact that we are spending so much time with our most essential loved ones. A girlfriend of mine confided to me just the other day, “It’s so nice to have no frills holidays, isn’t it? No pressure, just us. Covid’s been a great excuse to do exactly what we want.”

While I do love a big, boisterous holiday celebration full of love, family gossip, and even the occasional drunken mishap, I admit it’s been a guilty pleasure having my children and husband all to myself.

The Christmas Beef Wellington turned out perfectly (it was a disaster last year – the first time we tried making it)

We spent most of last night just cooking dinner and listening to Christmas carols. My husband made perfect Manhattans, and we opened one of our favorite bottles of red. We lit candles, and said a prayer of thanks before the food orgy commenced.

“Mom, I got diarrhea, but it was so worth it,” one of my kids, who for dignity’s sake shall remain anonymous, said.

Dinner is served

This morning, as I write this, I’m sitting next to our Christmas tree and thinking of you all. How grateful I am that we’ve all found each other here in The Cold. That you read my stories and share yours’ with me – offering me an intimate look into your hearts. Thank you. That’s a gift that keeps on giving all year long.

Merry Christmas

The Cold Annual List of Undying Gratitude

48 Vintage Thanksgiving Photos - Retro Photos from Thanksgivings Past

This has become sort of a thing here in The Cold: a quirky, annual list of things for which to be grateful. Maybe you’ll find some of my items a bit oddball – I can’t deny that unlikely things have made my list in years past. Like a swarm of flies that congregated at my office window, and the spooky sound of footsteps at night, when no one else is home. Those might not make everyone’s list the way chocolate cupcakes and puppy kisses tend to.

Hopefully, regardless of whether you share my tastes in gratitude, my Cold list will make you feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside, have you twisting up your face in laughter or confusion, and contemplating the good enough, the pretty damned good, and the great.

Let’s get started:

I’m grateful for our Indian Lady. She’s a portrait given to us by my husband’s friend Amit, who lives in Mumbai. She’s no great piece of art, as our esteemed art historian friend once commented, “But hey, you like her and that’s all that matters,” she said.

As a bonus, Amit prayed daily for our youngest when she was born catastrophically ill, so whenever I look at our Indian Lady, I feel like she’s looking out for us. That, in my estimation, makes her better than any more illustrious oil on canvas, and I’m enormously thankful that she made her way into our lives and onto our wall.

Our Lady of India

I’m ever so grateful for dreams. Dreams of writing books, of booking that trip to a faraway land that’s just a little out of budget, of fixing up our kitchen, of watching our children struggle with an emotion or a skill, and then ultimately achieve at least a provisional mastery over it.

These are the kinds of dreams we scheme for during the day, but I’m also grateful for the ones we must submit to at night, as our unconscious goes to work. The dreams of flying, wingless, above the clouds, of running with wild beasts, of talking to God. Our daytime dreams make things happen, but our night-time ones bring magic into our lives, make us ponder the impossible, and perhaps even give us the courage to go for it, whatever “it” is, as we spring out of bed in the morning.

I’m also grateful for cool, but not cold, fall breezes. I just love those. And for Virginia country gentlemen, who say, “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, ma’am” with an almost imperceptible nod of the head.

I love old Persian rugs, and new music introduced to me by my children: singers and songwriters like Harry Styles, Noah Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey. They keep me current and freshen my tastes, encouraging my mind and heart to remain open.

The truculent, determined sound of a rumbling coal train always energizes me, makes me want to give a loud “whoop”! I feel its growl in every part of my body, and I’m always a little sorry after it has passed. The best place to experience one of these is on the walking bridge that connects our dead end lane to the street across the tracks. Here’s my daughter looking out from that bridge. Can’t you just imagine one of those big, black locomotives screeching and barreling through?

I love dried wildflowers that keep their color, and throwing rotting jack-o-lanterns off the above railroad bridge, then watching them go splat. That’s a Thanksgiving ritual we all look forward to at our house.

And my husband’s new beard is just the best! I’m ever so grateful that he grew it. Makes him look like a slightly dangerous, but endearing amalgamation of Charles Bukowski, the Gorton’s Fisherman, and Pierce Brosnan. He loves that last comparison and I’m sure he’s very grateful that I mentioned it.

My youngest daughter’s freckles truly inspire my gratitude, as does my middle daughter’s outrageously long, curly hair, and my son’s beauty mark, which rests just above his lip.

The original tin ceilings in our house are their own beauty mark upon a historic, but otherwise frugal, industrial-looking structure, as is the smothering ivy that ads so much character to the outer face of our home. Part of me always hates to have to tear it down, even if I know it’s not good for the bricks or the gutters.

Our dog’s face-splitting yawn is day-making! Thank you for that.

Barney

Singing Karaoke with my kids after a holiday dinner and a few too many glasses of wine is a blast! And spending just one night in a really fancy hotel – I love that. Just like I love a big city skyline every bit as much as a starlit night in the country. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And thanks for:

Nashville, TN.

Charleston, SC.

The promise of New York City and the reality of Texas. Most of all, my stylish, gritty, no no-nonsense and utterly ungovernable hometown of Chicago.

Chi-Town Jazz Festival At The Green Mill, Chicago

Bold attempts at color on a wall, and subtle attempts at color on a face are both beautiful.

But there’s more.

Rag wool socks, a deep breath and a slow stretch, young grass, the way the trees sway in the wind when they’re heavy with summer leaves. Equally, I thrill to the long, bare branches of those same trees in winter. Those resemble the old, arthritic limbs of a forest witch who lures you with gingerbread, but really wants to stuff you into her oven.

I’m also grateful for my mom’s impish laugh, though not always for the reason behind it. You just never know what that woman is up to. And for my brother-in-law’s raspy and snarling Scottish brogue, that’s in complete contravention to his sentimentalist’s heart.

For old family pictures in chichi frames, cars that sport bumper stickers from all the places they’ve been, and for eating at the bar in a fancy restaurant (which isn’t possible in our current COVID world, but I’m grateful that it will be again one day soon).

I love and feel gratitude for my strange, sometimes tentative faith: the way it surges for no known reason, and becomes frail as glass thread on other days. I’ve been told doubt is what keeps faith a living entity within our hearts and I believe that.

I also love moss, busy ant hills, and finding a praying mantis camouflaged in our bushes.

And I just appreciate the h*ll out of goofy, German words that sound like laughter and shouting all at once. Like Schadenfreude, Kummerspeck, and Torschlusspanik. Try reading them out loud. Then try shouting them. Don’t you feel better afterwards, almost like you’ve just had a good cry?

Last, but never, ever least, I’m grateful for all of you who are reading this. Now it’s your turn…pass it on.

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.

Wandering

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.” — J. R. R. Tolkien

Come wander with me. Indulge a few extra words that meander, and might leave you unsure of where this is all headed. Wherever that is, I can assure you it’s to a place that’s not…here.

See, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t wish I was somewhere else. I spent my childhood wandering my backyard, then my neighborhood – anywhere I could get out of my same-old.

“Plant your feet in the ground,” people told me.

“Stop living in a fantasy world.”

But they didn’t quite get where I was coming from.

It wasn’t that I hated where I was. I grew up at the height of 1980s Cold War decadence in a middle class Chicago suburb. Nothing wrong with that. I had great times in those years, and little reason to complain about my geography.

It was actually who I was with that poked and prodded the restless soul within me. Made my feet itch, my mind wander, and my heart pound with anticipation everytime a map lay unfolded before my wide and wishful eyes.

No one in my family – except for me – was born in the United States. Not only did they not come from the only home I knew, but literally crawled over borders guarded by snipers to escape a barely pronouncable place called Czechoslovakia. All to get to the place I took for granted and was dying to flee.

Czechoslovakia: Exotic-sounding in a weird-foreign-guy meets vampy supermodel kind of way. Due to the Iron Curtain, I had little hope of ever getting a look myself.

I knew it had a lot of old buildings, and that parts of it resembled something out of a fairytale. The kind with evil stepmothers and sorceresses. I knew it smelled of the food my mother served – gulash, rye bread, fruit tarts, dumplings and boiled vegetables. The few pictures we had of the old country were black and white, and the people in them looked contemplative, and had a shabby beauty. Even the kids.

My brothers and cousin, hanging out in the “old country.”

They were nothing like the color photos I found myself in, which documented me and my neighborhood gang launching snowballs at each other in a fenced-in yard or playing alien invasion. There was always some mom providing Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and snapping a picture of the snowman we built, or the series of cardboard boxes we’d duct-taped together to make a spaceship. More often than not, she’d paste them into a neat photo album with a daisy print cover and label them stuff like “The Blizzard of ’79” or “4th of July Shennanigans.”

Our photos from Czechoslovakia were simply shoved into a drawer, looking as lonely there as the scenes they depicted.

Yet the old country had its allure. What it lacked in dazzle, it made up for in story. Tales of danger accompanied those pictures. The places they depicted had seen a lot: wars, lovers, dictators and spies. It was the stuff of novels and classic films, not Kodak moments.

My life may have been in vivid color, and came with lots of cool swag – Guess jeans, boomboxes, skateboards – but I had been ROBBED of being interesting! Feature film worthy! That, to me, was a tremendous insult.

One I intended to rectify.

As luck would have it, an electrifying synergy of luck and karma came my way. On November 17 in 1989, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution took the world by storm. In a matter of weeks, my family’s people gently kicked the dreaded communists out the door, and opened their arms wide to the rest of us.

In a whirlwind, I sold my car, quit my job, and hopped on a plane to that country’s capital city. In Prague, a dizzying landscape of coal-stained buildings, castles, Gothic churches and Baroque facades painted the colors of Easter eggs greeted me, proving without a doubt that my almost place of origin had indeed been a place of fairytales, just as I suspected.

I felt like the young provincial milkmaid who discovered that she had in fact been a princess all along.

Me (on left) dressed up in a crazy costume for some Prague theater production.

After installing myself in a gritty, but increasingly hip part of my new city, I proceeded to find work, then made it my business to wander around any and all parts of the Czech lands that were worth a damn.

But I didn’t stop there.

I took planes, trains, automobiles and even rickety old buses to Greece, Hungary, Poland, France, England, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Gibraltar, Italy, and I’m sure I’ve missed at least one or two others. In those days, even a modest salary could get you anywhere. Maybe not in high style, but that’s neither here nor there. Staying in humble pensions and eating street food only added to the authenticity of the experience. To the story.

And I racked up some great stories.

Don’t ask

At long last, I was the party guest with the big tale of the insane night in the romantic place with the outlandish characters! I was the one who’d survived run-ins with Serbian gangsters, got drunk with war photographers, danced in a cage at a makeshift, traveling nightclub, and spent the night in a real, live castle that was actually someone’s home.

Best of all, better than any of that, is that I also found True Love, just like in all the fantasy tales I’d read when I was a kid. The ones about the unlikely girl meeting a handsome guy in a mysterious place under unusual circumstances.

Yes, that happened. All because I made up my mind to go wandering in search of them.

Here comes the wandering bride and the lunatic who wanted to marry her.

I met my husband one chilly, foggy night in October, right in the heart of Old Town, Prague. Here was a man who shared my passion for the unknown and unchartered. A shanty-Irish writer who grew up in the St. Louis suburbs, he, too, had his eye on another world, a different life than the one he was expected to live out.

And like me, he didn’t hate where he came from. He just wanted out, wanted more, wanted different, wanted to wander. One of eight children, he was also as eager to dive into the audacious adventure of family life, as he was to hop on a plane and go just about anywhere.

“That, too,” he said. “Is a journey.”

He convinced me that becoming parents was a natural path to take in our wanderings, a new chapter that would freshen our narrative after all of the zany, more self-indulgent things we’d done.

So, that’s exactly what we did.

We envisaged that our babies would travel with us from continent to continent and across the seven seas. We’d inculcate them in the wandering life, giving them a whole bunch of stories of their own from the get-go. The kinds of madcap dramedies we’d had to wait until adulthood to accrue.

Just imagine:

“Remember your 8th birthday party in India? I told you not to ride that elephant!”

“Christmas in an igloo in Finland was the worst! But at least we got to see a sled pulled by real-live reindeer. Not that the guy driving it looked anything like Santa Claus.”

Except that once my new husband and I actually had those kids, we learned very quickly that travel with little ones is cumbersome, chaotic, and expensive. Jet lag throws off nap schedules big time, and toddlers don’t care about wandering the streets of an ancient city. They want to go play in a park. Or splash around in a pool. They’re not even that into visiting castles, either. They’d rather build them in the sand.

Or bury each other in the sand.

But we were not to be deterred. Our wanderlust was that strong, that impervious to reason.

“Damn it,” we said to ourselves. “Even if wandering the Earth isn’t quite the family fun we thought it would be, there’s got to be something we can do to escape the doldrums.”

In a feat as daft and clueless as our plan to globe-trot with our kiddos strapped to our backs, we scraped our pennies together and bought an old fixer-upper. I mean like old old. Pre-Civil War old.

With absolutely no handy skills or design experience, we began renovating our new old house bit by bit, tackling each region of the structure like a country to be explored. In a slow-motion frenzy, we hired handymen and contractor friends to help us transform the interior of our place – creating nooks, picking colors. Getting it comically wrong sometimes.

Exiting the “blue room” and entering the hallway painted in “Exorcist pea soup barf” green.

We had walls knocked down and swept out chimneys, making them usable again. Discovered century-old graffiti under a seven layer dip of carpet, vinyl, tiles and handmade brick, plus yellowed newspapers and hand-written letters beneath floorboards, between walls. “I’m not fond of this Martin Luther King fellow,” one of those letters read.

We never bought anything en masse, choosing instead to hunt for our furniture piece by piece.

Because we wanted our home to tell more than the story of our tastes, but of our life together and the family we built. A living, functioning testament to all the places we’d been to, and the crackbrained dreams we’d cooked up along the way. We needed it to be a place a person could wander, even get lost in.

Our ivy-smothered wanderers’ house, covered in peeling paint.

Indeed every room holds at least a dozen stories, from the framed “New York Times” Obituary my husband wrote for our dear departed dog, to a mounted gazelle’s head that sits between “Marcel” and “Claude,” two oil on canvas portraits of 19th century gentlemen with absolutely no sense of humor. We found those in a little antique store in the heart of a tiny French village.

A painted up coffee table lifted from my husband’s college fraternity house sits next to a beautiful and expensive pair of arm chairs that we splurged for. Faded antique rugs lie near newly made ones, and we purposely left the original pine floors pretty much as they were – oil drum stain and all.

Every purchase, whether from a flea market or a fancier outlet provides a view, a marker, something to talk about. Old memories mix with the new, ghosts sit with the living in making them.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

This piano came with the house. We reckon it’s from the late 1800s.

And now, we can see this journey, too, coming to an end. Not today. Not tomorrow. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the end of our in-home wandering stage is closer to its conclusion than its onset. We’ve racked up a lot of stories here and don’t know how many more we can squeeze out of this place. Already, our oldest has left for college and his sister is close on his heels. Our youngest will be launching her life only a handful of years after that.

Then, perhaps, it will be time to put on our knapsacks again. To open our doors and step out into the world. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll have quenched our wanderlust and will finally look around us and see there’s nowhere else we’d rather be?

Nah. Who am I kidding?

Trick or Treat!

My true self.

I’ve got some delicious word candy for you this week, my pretties not-so-easily frightened Cold readers, and I promise you, you’re not going to be able to get enough!

In the spirit of Halloween, the night we dress up as other people, creatures, even inanimate objects, we’re going to have a literary costume party of sorts.

To get things rolling, I thought I’d showcase the on-going story of a heroine who routinely dons a costume and goes undercover…for the good of her country, and for True Love, damn it! Her name is Tami Vaduva, and she’s about to shoot, karate chop, eat Moon Pies, and jiggle her way into your black little hearts.

This is an opportunity for y’all to try on a literary genre you may or may not be normally inclined to read, and that, in and of itself, is more thrilling than your average haunted house (except for mine, of course). I’m talking about a hilarious, sexy, and definitely NOT for the comic-faint-of-heart new series called “Shrimp & Grit.”

It’s been described as “A rollicking, raunchy, romantic romp across the contemporary South!” And is it ever! Or evah, as they say in Dixie.

Lucky for you, the whole trilogy is having a launch sale that get’s you all three books for under $5.00!

Trick or Treat!

Get the whole trilogy right here for a song (but only this week – October 26th thru October 31st)!

But if you hate passion, romance, action, and naughty, politically incorrect humor – for God’s sake, DON’T buy any of these books! Here’s what educated readers with any taste are saying:

“This was bonkers!”

“I couldn’t believe I could still BLUSH from a book!”

“Struck me as very odd.”

“Raunchy.”

“I only pray this is satire.”

DON’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED…

Look, I love comedy. The more unapologetic, the better. A little dirty? No problem! That’s why I love this brank-spanking-new series. It’s superbly written, tongue-in-cheek as hell, and just a delight. In short, it’s a wild party at a time when we’re not able to go to any parties. Might as well live vicariously!

On The Hunt

By V.J. Fitz-Howard

Tami Vaduva, the most decorated female soldier in U.S. Army history, is on a mission. Her commanding officer—a dashing U.S. Army colonel and certified “Southern Gentleman”— impregnates her on his last night of active duty, hours before a military helicopter whisks him out of an Afghan combat zone.

Determined to break a curse of single motherhood that has plagued the women of her family for centuries, Tami tracks the retired colonel to his estate in the genteel horse country surrounding Charlottesville, Virginia.

A master of military dark arts, she deploys covert operations, surveillance tactics, deception and PsyOps in her quest to “capture” the colonel—and the wedding ring for which she longs. But after four combat tours fighting jihadists and insurgents, she is about to confront her most ruthless enemy yet: old money southern snobs determined to prevent her from climbing over the gilded walls of their high-society citadel.

In this hopelessly romantic, often hilarious, and unapologetically bawdy first novel in the SHRIMP & GRIT series, Tami discovers if her lifelong search for true love is indeed, as one of her fortune-telling ancestors once told her, “in the cards.”

On the Hunt (Book!) is available on Amazon for .99 cents!

Shrimp & Grit: Book 2

By V.J. Fitz-Howard

In Book 2 of the Shrimp & Grit series, Tami Vaduva, the most highly-decorated female combat soldier in US Army history, has a new mission!

After she infiltrated Charlottesville high society and married the dashing colonel who fathered her child, Master Sargent Tami Vaduva reckoned she had retired from the U.S. Army. She also hoped she had broken the curse of single motherhood that had plagued the women of her family for generations, bless her heart.

But in Shrimp & Grit, our heroine, recently widowed and now a single mother, is called back to active duty. Her assignment: Rescue her 18-year-old step-daughter from the clutches of Charleston, South Carolina, socialites who turn to sex-trafficking to fund their extravagant lifestyles.

Accompanied by a tall, dark and handsome FBI agent, Tami is about to rain hellfire on her daughter’s captors. But will she finally find True Love and break that curse of single motherhood?

Shrimp & Grit is available on Amazon for $1.99 this week!

The Lost Cause (Book 3)

By V.J. Fitz-Howard

Tami’s Next Stop: PALM BEACH!

You’d think twice-widowed Tami Vaduva—now sitting on a $500 million fortune as a result of her two doomed marriages to very rich men—would be installed under a palm tree in the Caribbean sipping piña coladas.

But in The Lost Cause, Book 3 of the Shrimp & Grit series, she is called back into action yet again. Her mission: Infiltrate, and conquer, hermetically-sealed Palm Beach high society, where a mysterious Argentine expat known only as “El Obelisco” is conspiring to stage a coup d’état in his home country.

Will Tami successfully apply her unrivaled military and seductive powers to thwart El Obelisco’s plans? And will she finally break the curse of single-motherhood that has bedeviled the women in her bloodline for generations?

The Lost Cause (Book 3) is also available on Amazon for $1.99 this week only!

About the Author: V.J. Fitz-Howard is the author of the Shrimp & Grit series. These novels chronicle the adventures of Tami Vaduva, a West Virginia gal from a family of fortunetellers, who also happens to be the most highly-decorated female combat soldier in US Army history. She finds love and trouble – although not necessarily in that order – in the hermetically-sealed high societies of the comtemporary South. Reviewers have called Shrimp & Grit “Sexy” “Hilarious” and “Bonkers.”

V.J. denies Tami Vaduva is in any way based on real life persons living or dead. Except maybe Aunt Glodeen. She was a hell cat.

This is not V.J. or Aunt Glodeen. It’s just a festive, Halloween photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Happy Halloween and Happy Reading!

What is it about Beethoven?

Was Beethoven black? | AL DÍA News

My friend Gerald Elias is a wonderful fiction writer (and professional violinist) who (mostly) specializes in mysteries. His Daniel Jacobus mystery series, which combines Jerry’s two passions – classical music and murder – is a gem of a collection that I can’t recommend highly enough.

But this week, we’re talking about Jerry’s newest endeavor. A stand-alone mystery novel – “The Beethoven Sequence” – which fuses classical music with murder and…politics.

Here’s what reviewers are saying: “The Beethoven Sequence, the latest thriller by award-winning Gerald Elias, might be his best one yet. Written with the author’s unique sense of humor and his insightful musical references as a professional violinist, it tells the story of a mentally unstable conductor who becomes obsessed with Beethoven’s ideals of liberty and freedom, interspersed with an analysis of his past traumas and parental influences (thank you Sigmund Freud!) Including two murders and a teacher who is wrongly imprisoned, The Beethoven Sequence is a page-turner that is impossible to put down.”—Carol Lieberman, musician and journalist for Early Music America

And here’s what we’re saying in the Cold, where Jerry talks with us about writing, Beethoven, and his terrific new story.

Me: All of your books, no matter how dark, are (at least to me) a love letter to classical music.

So, I have to ask: Why Beethoven?

Jerry: I’m far from unique with the opinion that the three greatest composers are Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Overall, Mozart is my favorite–and we can talk for hours about that–with the main reason being that Mozart isn’t all about freedom and heroism. It’s on a much more human level with feelings that we all share. That’s not meant to put Beethoven in a negative light at all. His accomplishments (particularly his last string quartets) are absolutely mind-boggling, even if he wasn’t deaf, and his expansion of the scope of what music can do was revolutionary and changed the world of music.
But regardless of my opinion of Beethoven, what’s important is Layton Stolz’s, and I hope that came through loud and clear.

Me: It did come through loud and clear. What makes Stolz compelling is that Beethoven’s music holds him in thrall – leading him to unexpected heights that he seems both unprepared for and even uninterested in. Stolz, however, is not the only character who is being influenced by Beethoven and the Beethoven sequence. Are the characters in charge of their own actions or is it the music?

Jerry: Stolz, through the power of his obsession, brought it alive for the other characters.

Me: Stolz feels driven to be a conductor and devote his life to music – despite his limited skill and experience. In order to get his proposed school orchestra green-lighted, he uses the most literal interpretations of Beethoven’s music to curry favor and play into the biases and aspirations of the school board. Then things take a more sinister turn. Tell me about the relationship between artistic rapture and insanity – if you believe there is such a thing. Is that a theme that fascinates you, or merely an interesting device that you wanted to play with as an author?

Jerry: Stolz was uncomfortable in the real world. He was a loner, partly by instinct, partly to avoid more psychological damage.

Me: The themes of freedom and triumph in the Beethoven sequence you illustrated in the novel have a wonderfully disturbing parallel with Stolz’s own emancipation from both his mundane, painful life and his sanity. Was it the music on its own that transformed his life?

Jerry: Stolz’s home life and job were a dead end. With Beethoven he saw an irresistible way out, perhaps his only way.

Me: You obviously have a passion for both music and fiction. Both are forms of storytelling. What are the differences in the way you approach interpreting (or composing) a piece of music, and writing a novel? Do you have a preference for one or the other?

Jerry: Of course, writing a novel is more like composing than it is like performing the work of another composer. But as you say, all three have a story-telling aspect, and I think a lot of performers, who have had the idea of exact reproduction drilled into them, lack the story-telling quality in their performance. (This is indeed one of the problems I have with the Suzuki method, through this shortfall is by no means their’s alone.)

I prefer writing stories to writing music these days, for a couple of reasons. 1) It’s really hard to get one’s music performed, and 2) A story goes directly to the reader without the necessity of an interpreter.

“The Beethoven Sequence” is available at these bricks and mortar bookstores and online outlets:

The Mysterious Bookship
The Kings English
Barnes & Noble
Apple Books
Kobo
Amazon

We’re not done here. Not by a long shot! Jerry and I have so much more to say. For those of you who missed my Q & A with Jerry on Tuesday evening, I’ve got a link to that Facebook live event right here!

Jerry at home in Salt Lake City

As a bonus – you even get to break quarantine, since this little book party takes place (virtually, of course) at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City! Jerry and I dive into all sorts of bookish themes, like discussing the difference between a mystery and a thriller, and much more on why artistic rapture is so often associated with madness! Plenty of fun, but no fluff! This is a conversation worth listening to…

Watch Gerald’s Mysterious Facebook Event Right Here!

Bad Writing Day. In All Its Mundane Glory.

I posted this link on Twitter the other day.

Thomas, a fellow scribe and Twitter buddy, left a comment, asking me: Why don’t you write about what a bad writing day really looks like? The devil is in the details.

Image

Thomas

Challenge accepted.

Bad Writing Day: In All It’s Drudging Bromidic Mundane Glory

Cold mugMy bad writing day begins like every other writing day: with coffee and a power-walk, the latter fueled by either country music or a podcast. By and large, this puissant combination – one part drug (caffeine), another part a jacked-up hodge-podge of thought-moxie and mediation – works like a charm. That is to say, its efficacy is inconsistent, but somehow the ritual has become indispensable to me. I believe it will help conjure the muse…whether it does or not.

By the time I decamp in my office – wet hair, laptop on thighs, butt depressed into my sapphire blue sofa, my dog, Barney, nestled between my ankles – I already have that sinking feeling. The one that makes me think today isn’t going to be one of those writing days when my keyboard is smokin’ and I float into the kitchen at the cocktail hour like I’ve just had a night of great sex.

It’s not that the words don’t come. I’ve got friends who can find themselves staring at a blank screen for hours, an imaginary, grinding, wow-wow siren sound growing louder and louder in their twisted minds until they just…just…[get drunk, weep, bake excessively, kill a neighbor – ok, maybe not kill, but definitely rip a new *sshole]!

That’s not the way my bad writing days roll. With me, the words come, but they just aren’t necessarily any good. And that wow-wow siren? More of a deadly silence. One that lingers like a fart, as my words trip and teeter onto the page pretending it was someone else who cut the cheese.

(slightly embarrassing excerpt from work-in-progress “Of Sand and Bone.” Book 2 of the “Breath” series.)

As we shadow Cornelius P. Neville into the Southern cemetery, (is there a difference between the Southern and Northern cemeteries? If so, does it matter?) I explain to Ripley about the necropolis we’re entering. Over a thousand years old, it is, in fact, a massive burial ground that is home to the graves of Cairo’s most illustrious and historical elites, as well it’s most common of commoners (should I mention who?). It is also, to a growing number of Cairo citizens, a place of residence. ( or a place they call home. Too alliterative?)

We pass by a group of children kicking a ball made of twine and singing a popular children’s song that my mother used to sing to me: “There is No Night in the Land of Sun.” The ball hits the door to a mausoleum, and a woman in a headscarf peeks out, castigating the little rascals.

“It used be that just the gravediggers and tomb custodians lived here,” I tell Ripley. “But with Cairo growing so quickly, others have begun to move in as well. Bakers, servants, and the like.” (tour guide-y?)

Hmm. That is a bit expository. I mean, I want to explain what the City of the Dead actually is, but I don’t want to get too in the weeds…it’s boring and slows the plot. How much of the–

“Mom?”

Deep breath.

A freckled face peeks in through my office door, eyes all doey.

IMG_2428

“Barney peed. Earlier, I mean. When I was eating breakfast.”

Barney looks up, then puts his head down again. He knows we’re talking about him.

“Where?”

“Near the door.”

“You think maybe he was trying to tell you he needed to go out?”

Silence.

“Ok, clean it up, sweetie.”

Heavy sigh.

“What do you want me to do about it?” I demand ask.

“I don’t know where the clean-up spray is.”

I narrow my eyes.

“I mean, I looked for it – I did.”

“If I get up and go to look for it, am I going to find it in under a minute?”

“I’ll go look one more time.”

Where the hell was I? I know I was in the middle of a thought about the balance between exposition and action, and I think I was about to have a breakthrough insight, but now I’ve forgotten my train of thought. @#$%^*#!!!

Re-read what you wrote, girl, it’ll come back to you (I’m talking to myself, now). But it doesn’t come back to me. And I’m liking what I wrote less and less.

Time for some inspiration. I’ll get on YouTube and do some mental traveling. Research. If I infuse some color into the words, fill in the world I’m building, maybe it won’t sound so studious?

City of the Dead, Cairo 1950, Henri Cartier-Bresson | Henri ...

City of the Dead

Another sentence down. Then another. Pretty enough, but are they contributing to the story? I cringe at over-wrought descriptions almost as much as gratuitous exposition, yet when done right (think Kundera, Gabaldon, Martin, Marquez – not that I’m comparing myself to them), it paints a new universe. One with a fourth dimension.

Founded in 642 A.D., the City of the Dead has had its ups and downs – its “up” having been largely in the Malmuk era, some four or five hundred years ago (does a reader care?). It’s having something or a revival now, and has been growing exponentially in the past few years, as Cairo’s growth has gone positively mad and people other than grave diggers and their like have begun spilling into the necropolis.

Reads like a term paper.

The further we go into the oldest part of the necropolis, (the city, the cemetary?) the more it feels as if we’ve stepped into a Cairo that’s more legend than true history. Like a painting based on an artist’s macabre imagination. Yet strangely, Cornelius P. Neville seems as if he belongs in this place. As if he belongs in any place of times past, where the dead and the living exist side by side. (Is there a specific physical movement he makes that might communicate this?)

Most of that last bit’s alright, I think, but the music isn’t quite there (that’s writer-speak for the way a paragraph flows from one into the next).

Maybe I need a break.

Check emails.

Sit.

Stand.

Make a cup of tea.

Say a prayer?

Clearly, I’ve reached the bargaining stage of creative grief, so I close my eyes and fold my hands. Breathe like a yogi.

Dear God,

“Coo-coo”

Oh, God.

“Hi, Mama.”

IMG_2242

(in Czech accent) “I need help to take the things from my car that I buy.”

“Mom, I told you not to buy anything at Sam’s Club. We have what we need and don’t have room for another 20 pack of paper towels.”

“It was on sale.”

“Ok.”

“It’s in my back seat.”

I nod.

“And the laundry detergent is in front seat. It’s heavy.”

“You just bought some last week!”

“I do laundry.”

“94 loads? That’s how many loads are in one container.”

“I do laundry. Is good.”

“Ok.”

I do as she asks, mmm-hmming my way through her stories about breakfast with Sandra (at Panera – the only good de-caf in town), and their trip to Sam’s (they made her go back to her car and get her mask, which she hates wearing because it messes with her make-up).

Some twenty-two minutes later, I’m able to slip back into my office. Before re-installing myself on the sofa, I take a little Byzantine icon from my mantel, and listen at my door for a few seconds. All quiet. It appears my sacred space is safe for the practice of artistic voodoo, and I sit down again, begin my prayer anew.

Icon - Wikipedia

God,

First, thank you. For my family, my health, my work, my dog. I’m struggling today. I have limited patience for the people I love because they keep interrupting me and I’m writing badly. Please help me clear my mind and not act like a b***h every time someone enters my office. And excuse my French.

I blink open my eyes and set the icon on my belly. Focus on my computer screen. Damn. The words have gotten blurry, which sometimes happens as the day progresses. I’m going to need my stronger reading glasses now, but those give me a head ache. And they’re on my desk and I don’t feel like getting up, since I’ve just cozied-in again.

I make the font larger.

Although somehow, reading my work in gigantic font makes it weird and difficult to get into. Kind of like watching high-definition porn, where you can actually see things like razor-burn and stretch marks (from the reading I’ve done). Groaning, I get up, swap out my reading glasses for the stronger ones, and return to my sofa, nudging Barney over and disturbing his sleep. Even my dog is getting sick of all this.

Barney ready for close up

(One hour elapses. Ok, perhaps two)

And, well, I think I’ve got something here. Maybe nothing that’s going to win any awards, but not bad. Workable. Stuff like this:

We try to remain a good distance behind Cornelius so as not to be spotted, at least not quite yet, but it’s difficult to keep him in our view with all the tall tombs and headstones about. The further we go into the oldest part of the necropolis, the more it feels as if we’ve stepped into a Cairo that’s more legend than true history. Like a painting based on an artist’s macabre imagination. Yet strangely, Cornelius P. Neville seems as if he belongs in this place. As if he belongs in any place of times past, where the dead and the living exist side by side.

“Looks like he’s going into that mausoleum,” Ripley says. “You’re sure people actually live in those?”

“They’re better built than a lot of the newer houses in center,” I say, shrugging. “Made of stone, with walls as thick as the trunks of oak trees, and grand wooden doors that keep out or invite in the sun; I imagine that once one gets past the idea of sharing a living space with a few corpses, the prospect of sleeping in a tomb isn’t so bad.”

“I suppose you’re right. Not like I haven’t slept in my share of tombs. Par for the course when you’re the son of an archaeologist.”

Ripley cocks his head and squeezes my hand, which I realize he’s been holding all this time. I feel a very warm rush from the top of my head to my toes and watch him pull me gently along, concealing us behind a rather weathered series of tall tombstones. Ones engraved with an illegible Arab scripture that has been worn down to almost nothing over many hundreds of years.

The mausoleum Cornelius entered belongs to a once important Moslem family, it would appear. By its decaying grandeur, I would guess it is a family that died out some time ago. It is at least as old as a millennium and has windows with wooden shutters that look as delicate as spider’s webs. Ripley and I sneak closer and try to look through the slats in one of the shutters. Inside, there’s a large stone tomb of the sort that could fit several cadavers. There’s a mat and blankets in the corner, a small table with unlit candles. It’s definitely inhabited.

Full days’ work. A single page. Better than nothing, I guess.

An Eye on Embracing the Creative Life

Eye, Creative, Galaxy, Collage, Flowers, PaintBritt Skrabanek and I started blogging at right about the same time – coming up on eight years ago now.  We first bonded over love stories. About how falling for our mates had taken us by surprise, as we’d both been outliers who looked at the world askew, and perhaps hoped to, but didn’t expect we’d ever find that special someone who made us feel like we’d come home.

Next, we connected over writing. We’re both compulsive storytellers and fiction authors who follow our muses – sometimes blindly, and into genres that are alien to us. We are suckers for the unknown, the mystifying, the curious, the strange. Boy, do we love the past, too. Poking around the shadowed corners of history, trying on the styles, the ethos, the triumphs and tragedies of bygone eras.

And, of course, we have our lifestyle interests. Britt is a yogi, tea-drinker, and all around life-enthusiast. Me, too. Except for the tea. I like it fine, but I prefer coffee. That seemingly insignificant difference – tea vs coffee – is also what distinguishes our blogging styles.

While my blog, COLD, focuses on writing and my own personal crusades, esoteric pursuits, and the unshakeable belief that our struggles make us better, stronger (coffee), Britt’s blog is made of pure optimism and joy. Adventure. She writes about what brings meaning to her life and features kindred souls, who don’t merely journey, but quest (Earl Grey anyone?).

vintage dressOf all the people jumping on the blogging bandwagon back when we started – when blogging was hot and new – she and I are two of only a handful who have kept on blogging, writing, and embracing the creative life. I think it’s because she and I both have a strong vision for what drives us, puts a fire in our bellies. For us, blogging isn’t just a platform, but a practice that has helped us write better, think better, be better…and ultimately connect with people all over the world.

So, when Britt reached out and told me she was starting a podcast, I knew she was serious. That eight years from now, her podcast would still be going strong – so unassailable is her vision. She’s just that passionate about squeezing every drop of juice out of life.

And I was honored that she asked me to be one of her first guests.

Episode 05 Image 1 - IGI urge you to sit down, put your headphones on, make a cup of tea, or a pot of coffee. Pour a glass of wine if you like. Join our conversation. We talk about what it means and what it takes to embrace the creative life. It’s a damned inspiring conversation, but we also get into what all of this really entails and don’t just stick to the fantasy parts of it.

If you’re thinking of diving in and living a creative life of your own, or if you already do – hell, even if you have no interest in embarking on the creative life yourself, but enjoy being a voyeur, you’re going to love this experience.

Embracing the Creative Life: Listen Right Here 

love your enthusiasm podcastAnd if you haven’t bought your copy of my latest creative endeavor, I invite you to do so. “Breath” is epic. This is a big book that’s sort of like an ancient “Game of Thrones” meets “The Time Traveler’s Wife” with just a dash of “Indiana Jones” thrown in for good measure. I know, you’re thinking What? That sounds awesome, but a little weird. To that I say, Um, yeah, and how long have you known me?

The world of “Breath” awaits you!

Two souls. Infinite lives. A quest across history.

In the ancient past, in the now lost Kingdom of Rah’a, a young woman named Sherin finds herself in mortal peril after her family succumbs to a deadly contagion to which she is immune. Alone and afraid, she is cast out into the desert in search of a safe haven.

But the plague continues to ravage her region, forcing survivors to band together. Some form haphazard tribes, others violent gangs. Through her wits and courage, Sherin captures the attention of two very different men: Nif, a desert warrior who leads a nomadic tribe, and Roon, a powerful soldier for the crumbling sultanry.

As cannibalism, torture, thievery and war blight the region, alliances shift and terror reigns. Despite all of this, Sherin finds herself falling deeply in love with one of her suitors, sensing a mystical energy between herself and the man to whom she is so passionately devoting herself.

The forces of destruction enveloping them, an extraordinary destiny begins to unfold before the lovers, ensnaring them in a fate that traps them in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. It will propel them through history, from the earliest of civilizations to the present day, where they must struggle to save humanity from the same fate that befell their ancient civilization, or risk losing one another forever.

Readers have called Victoria Dougherty’s new “Breath” series “haunting” “beautiful” and “breathtaking storytelling.” Discover why this thrilling and romantic new fantasy will have you up all night turning pages!

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