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How NOT Keeping a New Year’s Resolution Turned Out Great!

I’m not one of those people who believes life will magically change just because it’s midnight on December 31st, and we’re throwing confetti in the air, and joining in an off-tune chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” tipsy, with our arms slung around whoever happens to be standing next to us.

Our dreams, relationships, projects, doubts, fears, and unresolved messes all follow us into the New Year, stuck like a juicy piece of gum to the bottom of our shoe.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love the symbolism of ringing in a New Year. Vowing to put the past behind us, starting anew with fresh hopes, raw and uncut, can make for a powerful covenant. And while New Year’s resolutions have a comical reputation for being short-lived, it has been my experience that even the paltry few weeks of virtue they might impel can result in lasting changes.

That’s why, as we come to the end of this year, I want to celebrate one of my favorite New Year’s resolutions. One that I ended up breaking rather quickly, but that nonetheless transformed my life, and gave me a great story to tell.

Several years ago – and I mean years ago, I decided, that at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, I would ditch one bad habit. I thought long and hard about which bad habit that would be, and spent several wine-enhanced nights trying to figure out the Big Bad I should kick to the curb. Turned out, I had plenty to choose from. There were relatively inconsequential habits, like my love of fried cheese, fried anything, really, or my resistance to attending parties peopled with more than just a few, close friends. Basically, low-grade irritants that were more of an eye-roll than anything else.

My bigger bad habits tended to revolve around what I’d call motivational issues. Things I did or didn’t do that would often act as impediments to getting what I wanted, or at least thought I wanted.

Like the fact that I love to swing for the fences. I don’t want to fall in love, I want to meet my one, great, true Wesley from “The Princess Bride” kind of love! I don’t just want to tell stories, I want to change people lives! I want them to live and breathe in the worlds I’ve conjured.

You get the picture.

Big dreams are great, don’t get me wrong, but in my wayward youth, it was hard for me to go for the ground ball, the run, the smaller moves that might get me to home base. I was resistant to reveling in the journey and finding myself surprised by, content with an outcome that may very well have blossomed because of my talents, good habits, and work ethic, but wasn’t exactly what my ego had in mind.

It was just this sort of hyper-drive ambition that I was eager to put the brakes on – just to see what would happen.

And I did great out of the starting block! I strolled rather than steamrolled through that January. I kept a gratitude journal, and gave myself frequent pats on the back for recognizing my little steps forward – the mundane, but necessary parts of any larger endeavor: phone calls, research, setting a schedule, organizing my work space. Decidedly unsexy efforts that might make day to day operations flow, but rarely provide the buzz of storyboarding yet another idea that I hoped could be a runaway bestseller complete with a three-picture movie deal.

By February, I was getting itchy, but still managing to stick to my resolution, albeit with diminished enthusiasm. I resisted the urge to start a new pie-in-the-sky project, but I did put it on the schedule for the following month, then eyed that day the way I did the last day of Lent when I was a third-grader; back in the days when I sat salivating for the moment when I could finally have sugary sodas back in my life, after long, dreadful weeks of water consumption.

March, however, was when I lost it completely.

My long-term love relationship had fallen apart, and I could summon no passion for my work. Every blank page seemed to stare at me in disappointment, any new idea sounded stupid when I tried to say it out loud. I was lovelorn, lost, and languishing, shuffling stoop-shouldered through my days, and carousing through my nights in a way that made sure I would be too dazed and dog-tired to give my failed love life more than a heavy sigh during the daylight hours.

I missed my old boyfriend, even if I didn’t want him back, and couldn’t see a life with him anymore. And every new date I went on seemed to fall into at least one of the following three categories.

Boring.

Random.

Creepy.

Finally, at the end of April that year, my father gifted me with a wall calendar. It was complete with lots of pictures of nature, which is what he loved, and I guess he figured it would cheer me up if I replaced my plain numbered calendar that had no pictures whatsoever, with a log that showcased snowy mountains, bubbling brooks, fields of wildflowers, and infinite deserts. What was lost in translation for my very Czech father was the fact that he hadn’t given me just any run-of-the-mill nature calendar. This one was tongue-in-cheek and parodied those mindful meditation calendars that were big back in the 1990s. The ones that attempted to kickstart your spirit with quotes like, “Every experience I have is perfect for my own growth.” The ones you want to take a Sharpie to. Or a Zippo lighter.

His little cultural misunderstanding did crack me up, and I opened the calendar to May, pinning it on my corkboard. Right there, staring at me, was a picture of a volcano on the big island of Hawaii. The quote at top read thus: “If you drop your keys in a river of molten lava, let ’em go, because man, they’re gone.”

After I finished laughing so hard that I plopped down on my kitchen tile, bruising my tailbone something awful, that’s precisely what I did. With the stroke of a pen, I fell off the New Year’s resolution wagon in a really big way, and just…let it go.

One of my bad motivational habits that I was attempting to curtail was what I referred to as “writing my directives.” Basically, this was a list of all the things I wanted in the coming year. There’s nothing wrong with writing down your goals, of course, and it works for a lot of people. The problem was with my approach. At that point in my life, I tended to go bonzai! with this list, because, I figured…why not? My lists could include anything from winning a Nobel Prize in Literature to being offered a round-the-world luxury voyage. Sky’s the limit! I rarely put practical things on there. Stuff like – put $100 in your savings every month, or learn how to cook three great dishes.

But this time I was determined that my list would have standards! I wasn’t going to be haphazard, lumping in personal goals with professional ones. It was going to be specific, with the intention of identifying the qualities of my perfect romantic partner. The only rule? Every item in the directive had to be positive. Nothing like, “I don’t want another mama’s boy.” Rather, the same sentiment should read, “I want a grown up. A man.”

And that was exactly what I wrote in the number 1 spot, even though I could think of so many more glamorous qualities for a lover. I suppose I figured that if I got that one right, the rest of my more castle-in-the-air conditions and character traits would follow.

When I finally finished the directive – and it took at least two hours. I looked it over and felt a little foolish. It seemed a bit like one of those Santa wish lists that included things like superhuman strength and a diamond-studded Ferrari.

“Here you go again,” I said to myself.

So, I closed the journal and put it away. Frankly, I forgot about it for a good five or six years.

It was only as I was preparing a gift for my husband on our very first wedding anniversary – our paper anniversary – that I came across my old journal, complete with my old list that was meant to build and attract to me, perhaps through a combination of alchemy, wishful thinking, and heartsickness, my perfect mate.

That man was handsome, but not like a movie star. He had quirks and enough frayed edges to make him interesting. He was charming, and passionate, and creative, and adventurous. His wit was wry, his whiskey was rye. Style, generosity, and courage were a must. People liked him, but he was no glad-hander. Most of all, he was the kind of guy a girl could rely on.

He was my husband.

In this case, falling off the wagon, allowing myself once again to channel my inner Lucy Ricardo, had been a boon, after all. And my broken New Year’s resolution had delivered. I’m not claiming it was my “directive” alone that got me the kind of love that’s kept us dancing through the mud, and the sludge, and the blood and bruises and warm, weak beer of the luckless years. I’m sure there was more involved than that.

Nor am I saying we should all double down and keep executing the same strategies that have lead us to heartbreak, ruin, or even just an extra five pounds. What I am suggesting is that if you make a New Year’s resolution this year and break it, it’s not the end of the world. Go ahead and laugh at yourself, revel in your foolhardiness, but then forget about it.

Because one day, you might look back and see that those indelicate, zigzaggy steps you took to get where you are, had their own logic. Some of your own broken promises – even the ones you cried about, that made you shake your fists and curse the sky – were a wink and a nod from God.

Happy New Year

This is Everything I Know About the Spirit of Christmas

We dolled her up good

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spirit of Christmas, especially as we go full throttle into the remaining days before the big holiday. When we’re still running from shop to shop for our hardest-to-shop-for relatives, scanning the epicurean websites for the perfect Beef Wellington recipe, and ogling the lights and festive decor with a childlike mirth.

I get caught up in the holiday blitz as much as anyone. It’s at this time of year, that I take “research” breaks during my work day to search for screwball Santa photos to share with Cold readers like yourselves. It’s purely an altruistic exercise, of course, even if I do it while playing the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and getting up every once in a while to do a Snoopy dance.

The fruits of my labor

I lean in to the shameless manipulation of my emotions, as practiced by shameless commercial enterprises – I do. There’s little that’s beneath me – the more schmaltzy the display, the better! I only draw the line at Christmas sweaters.

But occasionally, as I’m reading the paper, or scrolling though social media, I come upon a humbling reminder that the true spirit of the holiday isn’t about how it makes me feel. It’s about birth and renewal, giving to others, and leaving a legacy.

The life of Eda Solome, age 100

Maybe it seems a little maudlin to be thinking about how we want to be remembered at Christmastime. The very nature of endeavoring to leave a legacy implies we won’t be around to bask in it one day. At this point, you might be thinking, “Come on, Vic, get back to the kooky Santa photos!”

But in this year of Covid, mortality has felt closer than usual. I’ve had some stark reminders that not everyone who becomes gravely ill or dies is loved and mourned with the same energy and devotion as the woman in the above obituary.

Not every soul gets the weepy stories and the gushing toasts, or the picture that gets pride of place on the mantel.

Grandpa Dougherty and the grandson who would have adored him

But deep in our hearts, even the grumpiest of us, with the most flagrant, bah-humbug postures hope to. We dream of being missed, cried over, reminisced about, and eulogized. We want to be remembered as having mattered. If not to humanity at large, then at least to the humans in our lives.

In that spirit, I have some suggestions for getting the Christmas spirit right this year. I’ve collected these from experience and tried every single one of them myself. I can say (okay, write) with complete confidence that even putting some of these directives into play has brought people closer to me. I suspect they’re a solid first step toward rebuilding relationships we may have lost, too, although I don’t have any personal data on that.

Regardless, these are sure to make you feel good, and that alone makes them worth a try. So, here goes:

Let’s go out of our way.

Forgive.

Reach out to someone who is lonely.

Examine our own foibles.

Let’s share dog pictures, make jokes, crack open those hard, big books we’ve been meaning to read, get off our phones, have long converstations, bake cookies, learn a new skill just for the sake of learning it, take a chance, say something that takes real courage, try to truly understand the other side of an argument, cuddle, romance our partners, resist the urge to tell the easy lie, and give ourselves the permission to rest.

Finally, if you do all of these things (or at least most of them), please reach out and tell me how it went.

Merry Christmas

A St. Nicholas Day Secret – Just for You

You have the right to remain silent

You want to know a secret? Something to tuck in your pocket and save for a special day?

Say…Monday, December 6th, which also happens to be St. Nicholas Day, one of my favorite days of the year?

Hang on for just a couple of more minutes. First, let me tell you about why I love St. Nicholas Day, despite the fact that here in America, where I grew up, St. Nicholas Day isn’t typically treated as a very big deal.

See, in our Czech immigrant household, it was a big deal. On the night of December 5th, my grandparents would instruct me to put my shoes outside of my bedroom door before I got tucked into bed. I’d dig into my closet and find the biggest shoes I owned – usually a pair of snow boots. Since I lived in Chicago and there was often already a few inches of the cold, white, fluffy stuff on the ground, I could get away with not setting out my regular school shoes for this occasion (a measly pair of standard issue Hush Puppies).

So, on the morning of December 6th, I would open my bedroom door to find my boots overflowing with candy!

See, St. Nicholas Day is sort of like Czech Halloween. And if you happen to be in the Czech Republic for this charming holiday, it’s about twenty times better than if you celebrate in the U.S.A., even if you go all out with candy-filled boots.

My experience of St. Nicholas Day during my years in Prague went something like this: On the night of December 5th, as I strolled the old, cobblestone streets (and most people made sure to be doing so on December 5th), I was sure to run into a peculiar threesome. That threesome included St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), who’s sort of like a Slavic Santa, an Angel (anděl) who represents the Good of the world, and a Devil (čert) who’s Evil personified. I would encounter dozens of these three amigos, as they roamed the alleys and avenues dressed in spiffy costumes that ranged from heavenly to downright terrifying.

Typical, baby

I would watch, enchanted, as they haunted the streets, stopping children and asking them if they were good in the past year – kind of like a certain American Christmas character who makes a list and checks it twice. If a kid knew what was good for him, he’d say yes and sing a song or recite a short poem – think elementary school talent show caliber. These little rising stars would be rewarded with candy or other treats, which were meted out by the Angel, who would smile sweetly and tell the kid how terrific his performance was, even if he sucked lemons.

Of course, there were always going to be some cheeky little sh*ts who flipped off the angel and pretended to be possessed by the devil or something.

In that case, at least according to the strictures of the holiday, bad kids were put in the Devil’s sack and taken to hell. Or if they weren’t go straight to hell bad, maybe just annoying bad, they would get a bag of potatoes or coal instead of candy. I, personally, never witnessed the hell sack, but I imagine the mere threat of such a merciless disciplinary action was enough to keep most of the kiddos in line. I mean, just look at the face on this devil. It’s the stuff of nightmares! American kids would get on the horn to the police at first sight of such a creature, then demand double the candy for their trauma.

But I digress.

You better not pout, you better not cry…or you’ll be put in a sack and taken to HELL.

Finally, that very night before bed, children would put their shoes out in the expectation of even MORE candy come morning!

What does this have to do with you, you might ask?

Well, in honor of St. Nicholas Day, I’m going to give you a very sweet deal – whether you’ve been good or not. You don’t even have to sing a song or recite a poem for me…unless you really want to (feel free to send me poems and songs – I’d love it). And there’s absolutely no chance that I’ll throw you in a sack and bring you to hell. Swear!

Starting on Monday, December 6th, and going through Friday, December 11th, Books 1 & 2 in The Cold War Chronicles, The Bone Church and The Hungarian, will be going on mega-sale! Not only will the ebooks be available for $1.99 each, but paperback and hardback versions will also be on sale! Trade paperbacks will go for just $12.99-13.99 and gorgeous hardbacks for only $19.99! This is the only time all year that trade paperbacks and hardbacks will be on sale, so stock up.

The Bone Church on Nook, iBooks, etc.

The Bone Church on Amazon (this is the best place for paperbacks and hardcovers)

The Bone Church on Kobo

And

The Hungarian on Nook, iBooks, etc

The Hungarian on Amazon (this is the best place for paperbacks and hardcovers)

The Hungarian on Kobo

Big stories! Big, big sale!

Don’t forget to put your boots out!

red and white polka dot rain boots
Okay, my boots weren’t quite this big

The Cold Annual Thank You Note

Every year in the Cold, I like to take stock and think about all of the elements of my life – great and small – for which I’m truly grateful. Things like people who expand my worldview, places that visit me with a sense of well-being, awe, or thrill, or those itty-bitty curiosities that act as a sprinkle of pepper on our daily routines. Flavors and happenings which remind us that no matter where we are on our journey, we are still capable of feeling enchanted.

My little enchantress

This is by far my favorite essay to write all year – if it can even be called an essay. It’s more of a list, one that I assemble over a period of days or weeks. But I aim to infuse a bit of poetry into it, take you on something of a magic carpet ride. To bring the spirit of Thanksgiving to you, no matter where you are in the world, and how grumpy or lost you may be feeling.

So, my dearest Cold readers, my fellow travelers, strap on your seat belts and get ready to give thanks. To come away from this inventory of goodness feeling lighter and heavier all at once, perhaps seeing the beauty in imperfection, and the imperfection in beauty, or simply reveling in being indelibly human.

Here we go.

I’m grateful for ideas. Ones that come and go like mayflies, or blossom long and fragrant, like English Lavender. Even the ones that turn out to be very bad ideas are worth a nod. Those, too, have helped me grow, look at a problem anew, and that’s the whole point of an idea, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m also grateful for our children’s friends. Their mischief, irony, A + triumphs, and capital T troubles, are a meaningful part of our lives. I’m honored they’re willing to share them with us, and hope they’ll always look back on their nights of hanging out, or pigging out at our abode with a special fondness.

Just hangin’

And I just love the scent of my dog’s, paws. Thank you, Barney! They smell like Fritos, popcorn, and fresh grass, all mixed together. I’m so charmed by the way he places them on my shoulders when I pick him up, as if we’re about to two-step at a Middle School dance.

Let’s not forget to add curly-headed dames to this tally. I’ve got two in my house (three, including myself). In literature, such women are daring, even dangerous. Think Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre, Katniss Everdeen, Claire Fraser, and Holly Golightly. As I watch my daughters mature, take on new adventures, I see bits and pieces of all of these women in them, and it makes me so excited to see how the stories of their lives will unfold.

Curly 1
Curly 2

Gorgeous, brazenly colorful autumns, the sun and wind conspiring together to make a glorious day, and pictures taken by the Hubble telescope, all fill me with such a sense of wonder that I’m left agog. The infinitude of such scenes moves my spirit, offering me, if only for a brief time, an unshakeable belief in the existence of God.

Yet, I’m also grateful for doubt, for when agnosticism takes hold of me, because it keeps my faith alive. It forces me to revisit my rationale for belief and stops me from ever feeling smug or complacent.

The kindness of strangers – here’s another glimpse of pure virtue to be thankful for. Like the woman who pulled up next to me and my family when we were caught in a downpour on the streets of Charleston. She dug an umbrella out from her glove compartment, passed it to me from her window, and said, in her sweet, Southern lilt, “My goodness, take care! You need this far more than I do.”

Sincere apologies – given and received. They strengthen bonds thought to be broken, humble us, and give us hope for the future. Thank you to all who have said “I’m sorry” and meant it, as well as to those of you who have accepted my apologies.

Beautifully designed porcelain tea cups are so dainty and sturdy all at once. There’s nothing I would rather drink out of, except maybe a 1930s style martini glass. To that, I raise my chalice in thanks.

Happy Hour with vintage glasses

I’ll toast Bugs Bunny while we’re at it, too! How many characters withstand the test of time, and can make us laugh whether we’re three or one hundred and three? He’s the GOAT (that’s teen slang for Greatest Of All Time). And since we’re on the subject of slang, I’ll throw out some of my favorites from this generation’s phraseology. One’s that make me feel grateful to be in the know:

Basic – a boring, “normal” sort of person. As in, “She’s just so basic. I mean, she’s not even into Harry Styles!”

Dope – very cool, super. “That dress is so dope!”

Tea – gossip, as in “Okay, spill the tea. Did you kiss him?”

My curly-headed dames with straightened hair and attitude – plus slang.

For those few, lucky days we get to spend in our pajamas, I am much obliged! Preferably the flannel kind with cozy designs, like red checks or honeybees. Add to that a pair of furry socks, and we’re in business.

I had the good fortune of stepping down an old, wooden staircase, recently, too (although not in my pajamas). They were in a hundred and twenty year-old school house and were of the sort that shine and creak. I felt such a sense of gratitude for the timelessness, nostalgia, utility and simple elegance of the experience. Part of me wanted to run back up just to descend them again.

Hammocks, fairy lights, wild and hairy herb gardens, stone paths, statues of St. Joseph, and birdbaths all make up the kind of backyard I can live in. A space that’s graced by simple beauty with an aura of romance. I am thankful for every component except the mosquitos.

Can’t get much better than this.

Perfect recipes, peacocks, all phases of the moon, snow globes, spider’s webs, late night diners, bouquets of balloons, gas lanterns, fondue, stained glass, men who aren’t afraid of style, women who don’t think of men as something in need of fixing, fake-frosted, artificial Christmas trees, nunneries, Kafka quotes, french fries fresh out of the fryer, and water slides all make me damned happy to be alive, prompting me to smile, fist bump, even break into spontaneous dance moves from time to time. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Most of all, and it’s not even close, I’m grateful for simple connections with others. For the ability to love and be loved. For people like you.

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.

Transformation, Transcendence, and Realization: The Spirit of Halloween Has a Greater Impact Than We Might Think

In just a scant few days, the lot of us will be dressing decidedly unlike ourselves: as ghosts, vampires, mythological figures, and cultural icons. We might watch a scaaaary movie – the kind with a soulless, masked fiend who won’t give up until he’s plunged an axe into some teenager’s head. Or a sentimental one like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” if we’re not the blood, guts, and night-terrors types. The children in our lives will undoubtedly beg us to take them to one of those haunted houses or corn mazes that pop up around this time of year – and we’ll pretend to be above all the jump scares. At the very least, we’ll settle in, and enjoy some crisp, fall weather, complete with a bit of moon, some howling wind, and fistfuls of candy.

As you may have inferred already, Halloween holds a special place in my heart. It’s spiritual, whimsical, a little naughty, romantic, commemoratory, and creative; a loaded hot fudge sundae of all the things I love. Plus, its aesthetic pretty much lasts for a whole season. I know at our house, we start to set the pumpkins on our porch around end of September, and add some spooky elements to the yard no later than October 1. Those might come down a few days into November, but the pumpkins stay put until December 1, for sure.

That’s not a real spider

But there are some elements of Halloween that have historically continued all year long at Chez Dougherty. Namely, the costumes and make-up part.

Transformation has always been a theme in our family, a phenomenon that has long outlasted those halcyon days when our children were little – the “I want to wear a princess outfit every day” and “Why can’t I go to school wearing a hat and have a whip tucked into my belt?” years, when our brood looked like some insane mash-up of a Renaissance fair and The Village People.

She wore this outfit every day for almost a year
Ditto with the Indiana Jones get-up

For the most part, we took for granted our children’s propensity to indulge in comically preposterous versions of themselves, even when to outside eyes they were beginning to look a little old for all of this dress-up business. With a snicker and a shrug, we fed them a steady diet of the accoutrements they felt were essential to their persistent quest for transformation: the special fx make-up kits, the wig collections, the colored contact lenses (in red, white, black, spiral – yes there is such a thing as spiral and it’s creepy as hell), the “man of the wilderness” accessories (going well beyond clothes and camping equipment, to include axes, fire-starters, bows and arrows, and other stuff I’m not willing to put in print), the vintage military uniforms, the second-hand clothing stores and online boutiques dedicated to ancient couture. The wild, wacky, beautiful, frightening, hideous, overtly feminine, and unapologetically masculine all merged and disjoined kaleidoscopically at our house.

Yet it’s only recently that my husband and I have fully come to realize what a big part of our family life involved this kind of play, and the effect it’s had on how our kids perceive themselves, and have grown into their own.

It was just last week, as a matter of fact, that I had a revelation as I started putting together a few photos of Halloweens past. It’s the first year that we’ll have no active trick-or-treaters in our house, and I wanted to take a little trip down memory lane. And while I knew that my kids had always been great at creating smart and hilarious Halloween costumes, and that they could be, shall we say, sartorially eccentric at times, I was struck by just how many costume and make-up shots we’d collected over the years. Ones that had nothing to do with Halloween at all, and were snapped pretty much on any old Tuesday.

As I arranged the pictures in chronological order, I started to see patterns emerge. Elements of style that our kids had built all on their own, on their terms; ones that were reflective not of poses meant to obscure who they were on the inside, but rather, bring it out.

Ensemble after ensemble enabled our children to see themselves in the best possible light…

Our son in vintage coat and tails during our trip to Prague.

Or invited them to delve into their darkest fears…

Beaten-up make-up perfected at theater camp

I was moved by how psychological many of these imaginings were, aiming to mess with perceptions, and uncover hidden emotions. The way they revealed longings, conflicts, and ways in which our children may have felt misunderstood.

Josie two-face

At times, I recognized them crying out to be seen as how they hoped to be, or would be, if allowed to exhibit their true selves; young men or women capable of heroism and daring-do, even when it went against the grain of what their friends were dreaming for their own lives.

Our son at 12, wearing his grandfather’s World War II Marine Corps uniform

Their costuming played with class, sex appeal, moral and ethical dilemmas, as they explored character traits and careers, trying on aspects of their personalities that might trend towards the dangerous, the alluring, the disruptive.

blonde bombshells

But what hit me hardest, took my breath away, was how over time, they each developed their own singularities, picking and choosing from years of envisaging and creating, until they found what fit. What helped them stand apart in a crowd, or just hold their own in our boisterous family. What made them fit in, too, becoming a unique puzzle piece in a larger picture filled with peers, friends, cousins, sisters, and brothers.

How fantasy became reality.

The man of adventure and wilderness, the smart sophisticate, the artist lost in her thoughts and her world, now stand in relief next to the older photographs of their burgeoning selves. I can see the pieces were there all along, and were, perhaps, inevitable from the start.

The Bones of a Social Media Feud

An interesting thing happened to me on Twitter this week.

I found myself at the center of a minor literary feud between two major media and literary figures. It was a tweet I posted that started it all – really had very little to do with me as a person or an author. A measley tweet about Halloween decorations, of all things.

I should point out that I have but a small Twitter following – a smidge over 6000 souls, who are largely interested in writing, weird pictures, Cold War antics, and passionate kisses. I’m hardly a lightning rod for contraversy. And my influence on that platform is something akin to an actor who has a walk-on role in a giant blockbuster film. You know, the guy who comes up to Brad Pitt and says, “Excuse me, sir. You dropped your hat,” and then walks off, never to be seen or heard from again.

I should also stress that when I say “minor literary feud,” I mean just that. A veritable teardrop in a big, ice-cold resevoir. But I digress.

What’s strange is that my tweet was really innocuous. Just a photo I snapped of a big, black Victorian house in San Francisco – one that had been cleverly decorated for a certain children’s holiday that’s coming up at the end of the month. My family was in California for a wedding, and my daughters and I were just strolling the neighborhoods, and getting in the spooky spirit of things, documenting the funky, funny, gorgeous, and ridiculous. Anyway, here’s the tweet, so you can see for yourself:

To my surprise, this run-o-the-mill tweet went viral, attracting thousands of “likes” and “retweets” over a couple of days. Stranger still, two women I admire – feminist author and scholar Christina Hoff Sommers and literary queen Joyce Carol Oates, no less, got into a minor skirmish about this simple little photo and comment about Halloween decor.

To which Christina Sommers replied:

And

I do wish the tweet at the center of all of this had more substance to it than – wow, check out these cool Halloween decorations. I mean, this hardly spawned a Keats vs Byron, Hemingway vs Faulkner, le Carre vs Rushdie kind of fracas. It wasn’t even a good row over professional jealousy like the feuds between Gore Vidal and (insert just about any literary figure who was his contemporary).

But, it is a sign of the times.

An era when we’re just on each other’s nerves and constantly picking each other apart. Especially on social media. At our best, we make connections, even friends on these platforms, and learn in quick-time about history, science, politics, and cultural phenomenons. At our worst, we try to destroy the lives and livelihoods of strangers over misunderstandings, semantics, or wrongthink.

Don’t worry – this is not going to be one of those anti-social media diatribes. As far as I’m concerned, these platforms are here to stay, and we simply have to learn to live with them, the way we adapated to the telephone, automobile, radio, and television. These were once hugely contraversial, too, and many thought they would mark the end of civilization, sending us into a downward spiral from which we would never recover. Even the mirror, when it became a common, household item, was viewed as an evil invention that would ultimately destroy us – drowning us the way Narcissus was drowned, falling into a pond while staring at his own reflection.

But unlike Narcissus, we learned to swim.

It’s true that we’ve probably spent too much time staring at ourselves since first getting a gander at our accurate reflections. But the mirror also helped us see ourselves anew. It allowed us to (pardon the pun) reflect deeply upon beauty and its inverse, and was for a long time regarded as a portal to the supernatural, inspiring art, literature and countless spiritual odysseys.

What does this all have to do with a spat about Halloween decorations? Oh, hell, who knows? Maybe I’m just trying to say that in the end everything is going to be alright.

Cold Goes Wide and Into the Unknown!

I want to address all of you Cold readers who have been asking when my ebooks will be available wide and no longer be exclusive to Amazon.

The answer is…now!

As of this week, The Bone Church, The Hungarian, and Breath will all be available at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and all of your preferred booksellers. They will still be available on Amazon, of course. Savage Island and Welcome to the Hotel Yalta will continue to be available wide, as they’ve never been exclusive to mighty Amazon.

Here’s where you can get ’em!

In a time of danger and distrust, two lovers seek redemption…and a way back to each other. “The Bone Church” is a hypnotic tale of war and passion!

The Bone Church in a whole bunch of stores.

The Bone Church in the Kobo store.

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“The Hungarian” is a stylish and sexy thriller that readers have called the literary love child of John le Carré and Quentin Tarantino!

The Hungarian in a whole bunch of stores.

The Hungarian in the Kobo store.

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Passion. History. Immortality. From the author of “The Bone Church,” comes a stunning new series about a girl, a boy, and the price of eternal love.

Breath in a whole bunch of stores.

Breath in the Kobo store.

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But Wait…There’s More

I am both elated and relieved that I’ve finally finished “Of Sand and Bone,” Book 2 of the “Breath” series. I’m combing through the manuscript for the usual continuity problems, spelling errors, and grammar faux pas, then sending it off to my editor on October 1.

Here’s a snippet:

Cairo, Egypt, 1886

“I must have woken up screaming again. I’ve been doing that every night since I was born. Three weeks ago yesterday. Usually when I dream – especially so soon after a birth – I’m bathed with memories from my previous lives. I’m visited by my forever love, Nif, and we whisper to one another about how we can set about finding each other in this life. Perhaps discover a way we can leave clues that point us in the right direction. It is soon after a birth that dreams are all we have left. Our waking hours become consumed by our new lives and our memories of the past dissolve like sugar in tea.

Such is the life of a Nin’ti. And that’s what I am, what Nif is.

We’re as rare as angels or demons.

Born to live and die over and over again. Born to love only the other. Born to help God’s human experiment endure.

Only this time around, things seem a bit different. I fear my dreams are firmly anchored in the present time and I’m watching what is, not what was. Nif’s voice has come to me only once or twice since I took my first breath, and I wonder if he isn’t absorbed by what I see, too.

“What I see in my dreams is death. Death in the desert,” I tell him.

“Then we must go there,” he finally says.

“There is a wind that speaks of anger in the desert. It will make you bow so low that you will no longer be.” I sing to myself, to Nif, from the Songs of the Desert Wind.

It’s an ancient, epic song that could be sung for days without end. My father used to sing it to my mother, but only the more pleasant parts. The beautiful ones made of poetry. My first father to my first mother, I mean. They died long before the great kings of Europe and the Orient. Before Caesar. Before Moses.

“Leila,” my new mother says. Her voice as cool and rich as fog.

I let go of her nipple and look up into her face. I love her eyes, black and wet like a London street after a heavy rain. I love her, so kind and strong. I wish I could speak to her, tell her what I see in my dreams before my memories up and leave me. I know she’d believe me; that she’d understand. Not all mothers would, but Llizabith Saber is different. Her rebellious heart, her Egyptian blood, her lyrical brain. She understands the truth of myths and fiction, knows the science in them. I could tell her what I saw in the desert through my dreams. Something I hoped I would never see again. I could warn her. Warn them all before I forget.” -Of Sand and Bone by Victoria Dougherty

Back in the Cold!

For the last few years, I’ve been in the desert. A hot, dry, gorgeously infinite no man’s land filled with war and warriors, love and lovers, mysteries and mystics. At least as far as my fiction is concerned. My new Breath series, a historical epic with some major fantasy and romantic elements, takes place in some pretty scorching places, including the Sahara desert of the ancient past, and Cairo of the complicated, glittering present. There are even a few steamy and mucky Virginia summers thrown in there.

But you can’t keep a girl out of the Cold for too long. At least not this girl.

Now that I’m fixing to hand over “Of Sand and Bone” (Book 2 of the “Breath” series) to my editor, lighting a fire to the process of getting it ready for public consumption, I’m turning my attention back to the Cold War.

It’s high time I finish Book 3 of The Cold War Chronicles, which has been on my back burner for far too long. “Tower of Silence” will follow its predecessors “The Bone Church” and “The Hungarian,” and concern characters from both of these earlier novels. Rest assured, this story will come out swinging! With a slew of grisly murders, a cruel and cultish villainess, and a cryptic series of coded messages, “Tower of Silence” promises to be a Cold War thriller you can sink your teeth into.

Did I mention that it takes place largely in 1950s India?

This is 1950s Bombay

And just to psych myself up for a return to my beloved thriller genre, I’m debuting “The Bone Church” and “The Hungarian” in beautiful hardcover on Amazon!

The Bone Church in hard cover right here

The Hungarian in hard cover right here!

For those of you who have been waiting for my novels to be available in stores other than Amazon, your wish is my command. Within a fortnight, “The Bone Church,” “The Hungarian,” and “Breath” will be joining Welcome to the Hotel Yalta,” and Savage Island,” in stocking the virtual shelves at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and all the usual suspects. I promise to keep you updated as I branch out from Amazon, and take my books out of Kindle Unlimited for the time being, and make them available to a wider, non-Amazon exclusive readership. I’m really excited about this, and look forward to reaching new storylovers, and working with a variety of partners to get my fiction out there!

Speaking of getting things out there, I’ve got a brand-spanking-new Love at First Write up on my YouTube channel! It’s a juicy one on the changing perception of love throughout literary history – basically from Homer to Fifty Shades of Grey! Please don’t forget to like and subscribe 🙂

Stay Cold, my friends!

I Can’t Believe It Actually Happened

Something big happened this week. A monumental thing that I was beginning to think would never actually come to be.

My children went back to school. I mean in-person, out-of-my-hair and out-of-my-house school.

Yet I find myself conflicted.

We’ve gotten used to each other’s rhythms over the past roughly year and a half, and have enjoyed large swathes of our time at home and together.

They would otherwise be out on the town, with friends.

We’ve sunbathed on our porch, gone for bike rides, hung out on our hammock, and eaten well – I even tried to give them Czech lessons. I learned that I probably could successfully home school them if I had to – although, yes, it would make it harder for me to get what I consider an adequate amount of work done. But still, it would be possible and not entirely unpleasant. I’m a pretty good teacher, after all – at least according to my students from way back in my teaching days. And my children are damned good pupils, if I do say so myself. Curious, skeptical, funny, hungry for experience, and willing to take chances.

My husband and son on a camping trip in Moab last summer

Ultimately, however, the social aspect of going to school is something we all value almost as much as the instruction. And being writers, both my husband and I need some solitude – time away from everyone, even our beloved kids and each other – in order to do our best work, our most thorough and creative thinking.

But I won’t lie. I miss them.

As happy as I was to see them driving away Monday morning – off to meet up with friends at a local cafe for some first-day-of-school coffees – I knew this unexpected, uncomfortable, yet undeniably close Covid-era togetherness was coming to an end. While I’m not anxious for the return of lockdowns, and I hope for the sake of our collective health (both mental and physical), that the Delta variant disappears as quickly as it’s flared up, I’ve not-so-secretly enoyed the fact that my kids have been forced, for the collective good, to be homebodies.

Even if I do think friend groups, neighborhood haunts, breaking the rules, and otherwise spreading their wings and sowing their wild oats (within reason) are crucial aspects of development, and would never deny them any of these on purpose.

Nor would I ever deny that Covid has cost our family and our community a lot. I lost my father to Covid. While I was raised by my mother’s second husband, a man I called “Dad,” my biological father was a huge part of my life, my story. A deeply quirky and eccentric man, he was the source material of countless, often hilarious anecdotes.

About his almost pathological obsession with the outdoors (at the ripe old age of eighty, he was still camping for a full half of the year).

And how he would play passionate concertos on our piano – beautifully – only he’d do it at 2:00 a.m., and seem genuinely perplexed when I would come downstairs and ask him to give it a rest. That the kids had school the next day!

Or that he was in love with my mother until the very end, despite the fact that they’d been divorced for over fifty years.

My father was terrified of COVID, yet single and lonely. His need for company is what would kill him, when he broke down one night and went to a local drinking hole – just for some company. Some thirty people would become infected with the virus at that bar, and he would be one of them.

My father, with a date.

We lost friends to depression. Two people we care about deeply took their own lives. Smart, funny, loving people, who had been fully engaged in life! I believe the Covid lockdowns played no small part in their feelings of despair.

And we know people whose businesses closed, or just barely hung on.

Still, I’m aware of how lucky I am. To have not gotten sick, or gone broke, or lost my mind. Most of all, to have been given the opportunity to spend quality and quantity time with the people I love most.

Looking back, I think that’s all I’ll remember. That, and my husband’s fabulous, nightly cocktail concoctions.

A fresh Hemingway Daquiri by Jack Dougherty

A Picture Becomes a Thousand Words

“There’s a theme to the art you have hung up in your office: black and white creepy pictures.” –My daughter

I think she’s exaggerating. The pictures in my office aren’t exactly creepy. They definitely have a mood, perhaps a bit of a noir sensibility mixed in with some historical context; a little woo-woo occult flavor thrown in here and there. Only one of them crosses the line into classic Twilight Zone territory, though. That one’s of The Tower of Silence in Mumbai and relates directly to a novel I’m in the process of writing.

The Tower of Silence is essentially an open air burial ground for an ancient, pre-Islamic religious sect called Zoroastrianism, and yes, that’s right, those are vultures perched on the tower’s wall. But isn’t it wonderful? There’s a sense of peace to the photo, and it reflects – at least to me – a natural order.

And here’s one of the Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s Josefov Quarter. It’s got thousands of gravestones, all of them sticking up this way and that like crooked teeth. Bodies deep in the ground buried one on top of the other. I love the history, the religiosity, and resilience of such a place, and feel comforted by its existence. This photo, by my friend Susan, sits just to the left of my desk, and I like to take it in when I’m writing a particularly ethereal scene.

This next shot is an aerial view of Peace Square in Prague. One dominated by perhaps my favorite neo-Gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Ludmila, named after the saint and martyr who also happened to be the grandmother of Good King Wenceslaus. It is said she was strangled with her veil at the behest of her own daughter-in-law, who opposed Ludmila’s attempts to convert the Slavs to Christianity.

Well, alright, maybe my daughter has a point. Except here’s another one. It’s not an actual print. I tore it from a picture book and intend to have it framed, as a sort of poor man’s short cut to a collection of real art photography. It’s a Jan Saudek, and reminds me of my son, who used to get so excited when the coal trains passed by our house. One time, when he was barely four years-old, a conductor let him sit in the cab and blast the horn.

Jan Saudek - boy watching train

I like old pictures. I have for as long as I can remember. They seem to mix in with my own life’s narrative quite seemlessly, the way cognac dissolves into a complex, creamy sauce tailor-made for a beef tenderloin.

Old pictures are contemplative, capturing stillness in a way that the quick and brilliant modern lens does not. Or doesn’t seem to. Perhaps it’s modern life that refuses to be caught standing still?

And old pictures are a bit like a prayer. They make us think, reflect, rather than merely react. We might end up whispering to ourselves as we ponder the unsuspecting characters we observe in those images, and the historical events we know await them. “Good, God, just five years from the time that picture was taken…”

Even the most jovial shots – of an elegant London in the Victorian Era, a wild Berlin in The Golden 1920s, a free and easy California at the apex of the Summer of Love – reek of both nostalgia and danger. Of the years, days, split seconds before influenza epidemics, Titanic sinkings, wars, holocausts, and Manson murders. Of a time before instant global connectedness, when we had little choice but to sit with ourselves, or interact with those around us instead of pretending to be busy, checking our phones.

The spell these pieces of the past have cast upon me are personal, too. They don’t just stem from the active fantasy life of a passionate story-lover, although I admit that is part of it. My interest in bygone eras and foreign lands was triggered by my own childhood perceptions of my family’s country of origin, Czechslovakia. A place that remained shrouded in mystery until I was twenty-one years old.

Due to a rigid communist regime, we couldn’t, under any circumstances visit our one-time homeland – at least not until after 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell – and we had to be very careful about any correspondence with the people we left behind. For their sake, not ours. And my parents had left behind pretty much all of their possessions when they fled, so few actual family photographs made the journey with them to America. Add to that no heirlooms, no trips to visit extended family, not even phone calls.

It was as if we had appeared in America out of nowhere. A family of no ancestors or homeland.

Klobuky

My grandmother’s village

Throughout my childhood, browsing my immediate family history felt a bit like reviewing a redacted government document stamped CONFIDENTIAL. Some of the sentences remained intact, and I got the general gist of what was being communicated, but it was like most of the names and places had been struck through with thick, black marker.

My only comprehensive connection to my parents’ pre-America world came from a stack of old books that were piled up near our stereo cabinet, next to a bunch of polka records. In that pile was one particular book – a big, cloth-covered hard book containing old, black and white pictures of my mother’s birthplace, Prague.

I remember turning each page, utterly disbelieving that this was an actual place, let alone a city my mother knew as well as our southwestern suburb of Chicago. The time-worn, coal stained buildings, the hundreds of spires and gargoyle statues, the rain-slicked cobblestones, and street signs that sported outlandishly tortuous words like Vltavská, and Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad, left me agog, contrasting farcically with the split-level Brady Bunch homes, the freshly paved sidewalks, and the friendly, golden arches of McDonalds restaurants that made up my day to day life.

The most ominous were the photos of lonely streets with only a single pedestrian walking. A phantom dressed in old-fashioned formality, utterly unaware of the camera. It was as if she was walking towards me personally, but would keep on walking, never once looking back.

That always gnawed at me.

Prague, which would one day, through a miracle of history, become my home, was presented to me like an old movie set – abandoned, left only for the drive-by tourists, like myself. Not a lot different from the Psycho house that sits on the Universal Studios lot. A place that had been useful once, even famous, but now just sits empty. Gawked at by people who need someone to explain to them who Alfred Hitchcock even was, and why they should care.

“Prague was like Paris until Hitler came,” my grandmother would try to convince me. “Old, yes, but also glamorous and modern. Smart and artistic.”

Studying that old picture book made her assertions seem ludicrous. The buildings appeared dirty and haunted, the people, what people there were, a little sad and a lot distant. It looked like Prague had never seen a party and never would. It was a city that had perhaps known stormy skies and bone-chilling cold, dungeons, funeral attire, and secret societies, but never the kind of revelry that could attract the likes of Hemingway, and other distinguished members of The Lost Generation.

Of course, my moving there, and finally obtaining access to Prague’s past as well as her present, even a glimpse into her future, proved my grandmother right. As always. And showed me just how dramatically a staid narrative could be transformed, reinvigorated, even comletely blown up. Like the very miracle every known religion promises can be delivered by a benevolent God – just when you least expect it.

The Prague of post-communist 1990s, was just that miracle, and a curious place to say the least. Her once gleaming bones – some Gothic, some Baroque, others Art Nouveau and Art Deco – were gorgeous, but every bit as bruised and smudged as the old black and whites of my mom’s picture book. That part was true. Even the people seemed stuck at first, continuing to dress like it was the late 1960s. As if time had stopped when my family left, or more accurately, when the Soviet tanks rolled in, squashing the brief period of political liberalization and protest that had bloomed under a reformist president in that fateful year of 1968. A year that seemed to set the whole world on fire – in a blaze that managed to spread behind the Iron Curtain, despite the perennial wet blanket that had covered those luckless nations since the late 1930s.

Yet, in the Prague of the 90s, there was also a collective breath of relief in the air. A sense of hope and thrill that was unrivaled. A latent boldness had been unleashed, and people were drinking harder, smoking better cigarettes, dancing into the wee hours, and finally, looking forward to the what could be. The past, the present, and the future had converged there, making it the most fascinating place in the world, and all because the unimaginable had happened. The naysayers – politicians, journalists, academics, exiles – had been proven wrong.  Dead wrong. A powerful tyranny, thought to be there to stay, had not only crumbled, but evaporated. And practically without a fight.

Out of nowhere, a new world order had been born.

78P

The new “Fred and Ginger” building – designed by Frank Gehry (1992) – near Old Town, Prague.

I suppose it’s that experience – of immersing myself in a series of remote, black and white photos for years, and then stepping into them, witnessing something that had not only been beyond my imagination, but my wildest dreams – that transformed my life. I was shown possibilities I had long since stopped entertaining, and it permanently changed my relationship with promise, anticipation, castles in the air. In other words, faith. This new, imperishable sense of optimism took root and began the process of transforming me from an aimless creative into an author of fiction. It had shaken my American girl shoulders and awakened the Slav in me, too, I suppose, coloring in the black and white photos I’d loved so much, for so long. If that’s not a novel, I don’t know what is.

Prague Me Kampa

Photographs – particularly ones that inspired me in my youth, or I’ve gone on to “collect” in my adulthood – continue to be rich source material for my work and my spirit. I think they always will be. The places they urge me to visit become part of my make-up. I’ve so often felt like I’ve come home when I’ve stepped into the very scenes I’ve stalked in the old black and white.

I can certainly see how a lover of history, an excavator of the past, could come to believe they have lived before.

Because old pictures, too, have more than one life. They have the life the photographer captured, the many lives envisaged by the people who might gaze at the photo in a book, in an old shoebox, or on the wall of a gallery, and the life we experience when we step into the mud, onto the stone, or the centuries-old mosaic tiles captured on some day years ago, by a single click from a camera.

Those pictures inspire more than a thousand words; they give rise to a thousand worlds.

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