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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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(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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We’re having a “Breath” launch party!

 

Click here to get “Breath” for your special launch price!

 

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It’s time to dance, throw confetti and howl at the moon! That’s right – today, we’re having a “Breath” launch party! There will be fun, there will be music, there will be a great book deal for you all, and there will be a contest!

The “Breath” series is epic. It’s a big book full of history and love and magic and most of all, people with whom you will fall in love! It’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?

Once you grab your special launch price download of “Breath,” you’ll be eligible for some “Breath” swag that will include a signed trade paperback library of all my novels, a signature “Breath” mug in a sweet gift box (it’s a gorgeous mug, btw), and a $25 Amazon gift card.

All you have to do to enter the contest is email me with a link to either your “Breath” proof of purchase or a link to your review of “Breath” on the platform of your choice. Cold readers who leave a review will not only be entered into the contest/giveaway and receive my eternal gratitude, but will also get an original “Breath” short story sent to your inbox!

Here’s where you send your email:  victoria@victoriadoughertybooks.com

You’ve got until three weeks from today (that’s June 19th), at which point I’ll put all participants names in a hat (yes, an actual hat), and will draw one lucky winner!

EP135: Picking names from a hat - YouTube

“Breath”

By Victoria Dougherty

Each of us has a before, and an after…

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.

I’m offering “Breath” to you all for the launch price of $3.99. It will only be at this price for one week – I want you to get your copies. After that it will start creeping up to its regular price of $9.99.

Click here to get “Breath” for your launch price!

And yes, now it’s time to dance!

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Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak

We’re going to dance to a song I love. “Desert Rose” by Sting not only captures the mysteries of the desert and of desert people – and Nif and Sherin, our lovers in “Breath” are most certainly desert people (at least in their first lives), but it’s also something you can lose yourself to. This neo-classic makes me want to spin like a whirling dervish, belly dance, and at the end of it all, fall exhausted onto the sand and laugh. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting and it’s romantic. All of the feelings I hope my epic new series will inspire in you.

And since this is a party, I’m offering up the secret recipe for our official “Breath” series cocktail, invented by none other than my drinksmaster husband, Jack. Mix it up before you sit down, put your feet up, and dive into “Breath.”

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Take a fancy glass of your choice (I prefer an ancient jeweled goblet found deep under the sand in the central Sahara Desert), fill it with a potion that’s 1/3 pomegranate juice, 1/3 lime juice, and 1/3 good gin. Add five drops of a virgin’s tears (she must be pure of heart, too, and breathtakingly beautiful), and garnish with cardamom pods. Voila!

Warning: If you drink too many of these, time-travel may occur! Victoria Dougherty Books is not responsible for anyone who becomes lost in the past or the future. 

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That Post-Mother’s Day Glow

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This Mother’s Day was probably the best one I’ve had in my life. We didn’t go out, and I didn’t even get any actual presents, but it was hands-down such a thoroughly enjoyable day that I’m still aglow from the whole experience.

You’d think I would have gotten some kind of fawning letter from my kids – one telling me how I’ve inspired and nurtured better than any other mother in the whole universe! And I did it looking hotter and at least ten years younger than even the Hollywood matriarchs who make us lose our minds over their poise and seemingly effortless childrearing. The Angelina Jolies, Victoria Beckhams, and Kim Kardashians.

Or that my not-so-little-anymore babes practiced a song, a poem, or other creative homage for weeks and performed it in our living room. Not a dry eye in the house.

Nope.

All we did was sit down and watch videos taken on an “old fashioned” Sony camcorder. They were of our children when they were mostly infants and toddlers and rough and tumble kiddos. I think the iPhone came along when our oldest was about five, and as we’re not exactly early adopters, we didn’t really put away our Sony until a full five more years after that. In short, we had a lot of videos to go through.

And I have to tell you that it was the most bonding family activity we’ve ever undertaken. More than going to the amusement park, or to the beach, or on a road trip. It was a full-on totally absorbing experience that each of us committed to with an equal amount of enthusiasm and engagement. Not one of us wanted to tear away – not even our oldest, who at eighteen, looks for any excuse to get out of the house and taste freedom.

We sat close together on our couch, huddled around the little machine, watching a screen that was hardly bigger than a watch face. We giggled and marveled at how each of their personalities had already emerged so early on. We recognized facial expressions that were still common, patterns of speech and thought, dispositions.

Our youngest, Josephine, always fluttering about like a little fairy. Spry, imaginitive, content in her own company. While the other two fight, make up skits, play games, she can be seen dancing in the background despite a notable absence of music. Or walking naked and unaware, a scoop of ice cream in her hand and a pair of felt antlers on her head.

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Our middle child, Charlotte, eager for gold stars, for laughs, for love, for the spotlight. “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!” She sang at age 3, as she jumped up and down like she was riding a pogo-stick. But later, ever so tenderly, she was seen caring for her younger sister – checking her diaper for poopy, and advising the grown-ups as to how to best comfort the baby when she was fussy.

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Then, there’s our oldest, and oldest soul. Eamon’s innate sweetness and sense of adventure were on display in every family scene. As he dug for pirate treasure on the beaches of the Carolinas, built a fort that was so good it was taken over by a bear, said “I love you” with complete abandon.

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Eamon will be leaving our house this coming fall and I can’t get enough of him. He, of course, has had plenty of me ;).

As we were watching the last video on Sunday evening, just before Eamon and his sisters were going to start making burgers for our Mother’s Day dinner, he said to me, “This is the last Mother’s Day where we’ll all still be living under the same roof.”

I didn’t want to get teary-eyed, but I did. Not right then – I didn’t want to wreck things. It was later, when I lay in bed, staring out into the dark and saying my prayers.

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Travel Tours for the Housebound

Amazon.com: MCS MBI 13.5x12.5 Vintage Travel Scrapbook Album with ...

Most of the people who read Cold, are what my friend Barry would call PLUs.

People Like Us, are any group of individuals who are interested in roughly the same topics of conversation. Like people who are Cowboys fans, love Jimmy Buffet and enjoy Scuba diving. Pretty sure we know what they’re talking about over cheeseburgers in paradise.

In our case, a PLU not only refers to fiction lovers, but folks who are wild about history, exotic places, and quirks of culture. Doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew, Elvis or The Beatles. If you’re into the aforementioned subjects, you’re in.

Cold PLUs in particular share a fundamental curiosity about what’s not right in front of us. It isn’t because we don’t care about the view from our own backyard and the current events shaping our everyday lives. It’s just that we want to understand them through the lens of what has been or what is in various places around the world and amongst diverse peoples. We’re eager to see where our stitch is made in this grand tapestry.

But right now, my fellow PLUs, it seems some of our interests are inaccessible to us: namely, foreign places and cultures. And since we’re lamenting not only the loss of our actual vacations in the coming weeks and months, but even the day trips and weekend excursions that used to help keep our wanderlust sated, I thought we might do a little work-around.

Through the modern magic of YouTube, we can not only cross borders, but transcend the boundaries of time and space! And while real, live travel is great – it’s been the seed for several of my novels – YouTube is a pretty good substitute. It’s been a Godsend to this housebound mother-of-three fictionista. There are lots of places I’ve written about over the years that I haven’t visited personally, but have seen through the handheld cameras of tourists who have been kind enough to upload their home movies onto internet video platforms.

Given that we’re all housebound right now, I thought it might be a fun idea for me to act as a tour guide of sorts and take us on a handful of these virtual trips together.

This will be a curated video travelogue of some of my favorite places in the world, embellished with a few, short, history-infused blocks of fiction. Just to get all of our interests folded in.

The good news is, you don’t even need to put on a fresh coat of lipstick for these outings. Hell, you don’t have to shower or change out of your PJs. No TSA lines or weird intestinal bugs from the street food you’ve consumed either. Best of all – these trips are FREE.

hitchhike to wonderland

Our first stop is Athens. I know this ancient city pretty well, as I lived and studied there in college. Today, I thought I’d take you back to Athens in 1924 – a few years before my time. This was during the Golden Age of Archaeology, when the modern world was utterly transfixed by the ancient past. Let’s walk around a bit, shall we?

That was incredible, wasn’t it? And we didn’t even have to break a sweat.

If you don’t mind time-hopping just a bit more, I’d like to take the hydrofoil from Athens to Monemvasia, just like I did when I was a twenty-one year old co-ed. Just kidding – no hydrofoil required! This time we’re going by way of a snippet from my second novel, The Hungarian, which took place (partly) in Greece in the mid 1950s. Just as a funny aside, the following conversation was very similar to one I actually had with a Greek gigolo who approached me on the beach. He wasn’t romantically interested in me, I should add. And even if he was, I had no need for or interest in paying for a male escort. He said he’d overheard me talking to my friend and wanted to “give me some advice.”

The rosy sun skimmed the water, as if dipping its toe to test the temperature. The simple beauty of the sky made Lily smile. It was one of the few uncomplicated things in her life right now. The sun, the water and Etor, the hotel gigolo, who sat beside her imparting his particular brand of wisdom.

           “A woman should never travel alone,” Etor chided. “Especially one of childbearing age.”

           Lily chuckled at how he could sound like a prim schoolmaster, all the while sporting a most fashionable pair of chartreuse swimming trunks that left little to the imagination. She tossed her head back, enjoying the tickle of a lone droplet of sweat that rushed down from her neck and into her cleavage.

           “I’m not alone,” she teased. “I have you.”

           Etor had taken to joining Lily around sunset, sitting cross-legged on the rocks, as they watched jellyfish bob on the swelling surface of the Pélagos Sea. His lined face was still handsome, but Lily figured he was only a couple of years shy of retirement, as men half his age courted the attention of the same vacationing Countesses who used to buy Etor’s supper and handmade Italian shoes. The ladies were only a decade or so older than the bronzed Cretan now, and stared with growing resentment at the silvery roots of his auburn hair.

           “You need a man,” Etor asserted. “A Greek man. The Americans can’t handle you.”

Vintage TWA Trans World Airlines Adv. Postcard GREECE "Acropolis ...

Next stop: Italy – the seat of the Roman Empire, the birthplace of the Renaissance, the land where pizza was invented. I’ve wandered her oldest roads, touched the foot of Michelangelo’s David, was nursed back to health from a terrible flu by a sweet, silent cadre of nuns at a monastery outside of Rome, and was blessed by Pope John Paul II during an audience at the Vatican.

But that was twenty-five years ago, not one hundred and twenty-five. Maybe, we’ll discover it hasn’t changed all that much.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take you to Vatican City, again during the mid 1950s, courtesy of The Bone Church.

Felix bowed his head, and the Cardinal led the way into an early Renaissance building, its interior decked in blue-veined marble. The Cardinal’s office was perched on the third floor corner, one of many rooms that comprised his suite of apartments.

For Felix, visiting the Cardinal’s apartments was a bit like coming home. The artists whose work his father had so admired from a distance – Caravaggio, Pisanello, Daret – were mounted in heavy gold frames. Michelangelo had painted images of the apostles on the wall alongside the banister, one of the few artifacts left unmolested during a seventeenth-century renovation.

Felix’s first glimpse of those same apostles hadn’t been in the books of his father’s study or on his initial visit to the Cardinal’s office some years before, however. It had been in his mind’s eye when he was little more than a child – a reverie that he’d tried to convince himself was the result of an overactive imagination. Felix was a boy of nine and skating alone on a pond in the Blansko forest, when a still, mental image of Simon the Zealot, disciple of Jesus, avenging priest of the temple, appeared before him. Felix mistook him for a neighbor at first and began skating towards the figure when St. Bartholomew emerged from the snow. As Simon whispered into Bartholomew’s ear, they faded away into a jumble of tree roots.

Back then, Felix had explained away every prescient dream and strange, wakeful image, the way a dweller in an old house might justify the creak of footsteps when he knew no one else was home.

Found: Vintage Italian Postcard – Rome 1898 | An Italian Canadian Life

Our last stop today is Cairo, Egypt. I’ve never been there, but I’m writing about it anyway. The second book in my new “Breath” series, tentatively titled “Of Sand and Bone,” takes place largely in Cairo in 1902. A friend of mine, a Chilean artist who’s travelled there many times, assures me, “It’s much as it was before.” But perhaps that’s something we can verify together…

Last, but not least, I give you a brief excerpt of the work in progress I mentioned, “Of Sand and Bone.” It’s one that must rely entirely on my imagination – one fed by the journey’s I’ve taken to Cairo through fiction and film. I hope I’ve done it justice.

As we spill out onto Ramses Square, a musical racket of chants, footsteps, arguments, and laughter comes at us. The clim-clam of camels moseying along with the elegant trot of horses pulling a carriage rolls in the background like percussion.

“It’s like nothing at all has changed,” Father marvels. He walks on as gape-mouthed as a first-timer.

“It hasn’t been all that long we’ve been gone,” I tell him. “I’m sure the Pharaohs think the same when their spirits come down from the heavens to visit their pyramids.”

He takes me close and squeezes my shoulders. “You and your ghosts.”

One thing, of course, has changed irrevocably, and I know it’s on his mind. He’s wondering how we’ll ever live here without my mother. Unlike me, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. To him, gone is gone.

“What’s so splendid about Cairo is that nothing ever really leaves here,” Clara says, as if sensing what I’m thinking. “It all becomes absorbed into her fabric. Such an old city, but the desert that surrounds her is even older, and its phantoms, too, find their way here.”

Hugo’s Brougham pulls up and the men in tarbushes go to work again, loading our bags up top and bowing deeply, then helping us ladies inside the carriage. I get side-glances from all of them, getting a firm reminder that here in Egypt I’m not quite Egyptian enough for the Egyptians. They can look all they want. The desert has always felt like home to me, and my blood is every bit as old as theirs. Older, my mother would have insisted.

Only one of them looks on me not only as if I belong, but with deep affection. It’s Horus, Uncle Hugo’s coachman.

“Little Leila,” he says, utterly breaking decorum. “You’ve come home to make more mischief for me, I see.”

“You’re hardly one to talk,” I tell him.

It was Horus who once drove me into town center when I was only yay high knowing full well I was determined to sneak into one of my mother’s incendiary feminist readings – where children were most certainly not allowed. The adults were required to make a big stink out of it, of course, but they were all just blowing smoke. Horus was docked a day’s pay, which was snuck back to him by my mother the following week, once things had settled down.

I give him a wink and he flinches in horror as if it’s the evil eye.

Inside the carriage, I feel like I’m back in London all of a sudden. It’s a new one, with plush, creamy velvet and gravy-brown tassels all over.

“Ach!” Clara waves her hand and gives one of her famous eye-rolls. “A gift shoved down our throats by Hugo’s grandfather. It was after one of the cousins came to visit and clearly complained about how he was brought about town. The old rig was just fine.”

“Hmm, just fine, yes,” Hugo says, though it’s quite plain he enjoys his new toy. The old rig was only a buggy.

“It’s very handsome,” I whisper to him, and he takes a puff off Father’s pipe to keep from smiling too broadly, then comments on how fine a tobacco my father has brought with him.

While I’ve never minded roughing it at all, it is lovely to sit in comfort and get reacquainted with Cairo. I lay my arms on the window ledge and balance my chin onto my hands enjoying the street circus.

We pass men playing big bass drums hung around their necks. They’re singing a song, but I can’t make it out. One of the many folk songs sung on the streets as often as small talk is exchanged.

Men, and even some women carry baskets on their heads. But it’s only the men, all pouch-bellied, who sit sprawled on rickety chairs, smoking hookahs and watching the crowds. Their heads are wrapped in thin, white linens that have all seen better days. They sit playing dominos on stone tables that look as if they were dragged in from the pyramids.

A small wooden Ferris Wheel, cranked by hand, is set right in the middle of the road, forcing us to go around it. Only about four benches on it, each fit for one, rocking and jerking with each turn. Makes the riders – men, of course – chuckle. When each one reaches the top, they spit over the side, prompting a strong rebuke from Horus.

Lines and lines of merchant stalls, their proprietors dressed in skull caps and tunics striped like pajamas. Each and every one of them has a bushy mustache as thick as a fur collar. Except for one. He is clean shaven and catches my eyes as we pass. He looks right at me like he knows me and holds up a small statue barely the size of his hand. It’s a rather distinctive looking thing, and I notice its bird head and lion’s mouth straight away. Then the clawed talons. Those seem to be clutching a flower.

An Ox cart passes between us going in the opposite direction and I strain to keep my eye on the man, but it’s no use. By the time the carriage has passed, the merchant is gone and I feel as alone as I felt on the day Mother died.

Vintage Postcard of Cairo Mosque Sultan Barkuk $20.00 – Schofield ...

Until next time, stay safe and distant, but remain close.

 

You Are Cordially Invited to an Ancient Party

breath cocktail party

Place: Your Imagination

Time: Thousands of Years Ago

Since parties are out of the question for the time being, I thought I’d offer you a bit of a virtual gathering. This one is ancient. It’s a short excerpt from my forthcoming novel, “Breath” and details a sumptuous party held in celebration of my heroine’s betrothal.

Breath_Kickstarter_paragraphheaders_WIP01-1_STORY_small“Breath”

by Yours Truly

(Coming May, 2020)

It’s a cool night, and our hearth is blazing, sparks whirring up into the black, and vanishing like magic. Part of me wishes I could vanish into the night sky. My palms are damp and cold and my fingers tingle unpleasantly. I place them on my lap and force a cheerful smile for our guests, which they return along with a nod of respect. I must look alright, then.

The train of my mother’s tunic, all rosy, ripples behind her as she makes her way across our roof garden. She takes a goblet from Yina’s hands and shares it with an elegant, long-necked woman who I will one day be calling auntie. This woman tells my mother how excited her nephew is about the prospect of taking a wife, assuming all goes well tonight. My mother laughs and waves her hand with an impressive aura of confidence.

Breath inspiration book 2 fashion

The night is overflowing with garments made of bold desert hues. Jugs and platters are arranged on our finest eating cloths; ones embroidered with pretty images of grapevines outlined in delicate gold thread. The musicians play from our central courtyard three stories below, stomping their feet to a beat on a patio of mud brick built by my father’s hands. The sounds of harps and reed flutes waft up along with the strong perfume of the royal purple lulas I’ve been growing for the occasion. Those are just beginning to blossom, and haven’t yet unfolded into the decadent flowers they’ll become. When they do, their scent will be stronger than smoke and reach all the way to the ziggurat, I’m sure.

We lounge on pillows, as our guests pick from an array of barley cakes, mustard greens, goat, fowl, and mutton. Sauces that hint at sweetness, but are overcome by the taste of blood. I know them well. Pastes of organ meat and crushed nuts are smeared over flatbread. My favorite! Mulberries and pomegranates spill over clay bowls painted with symbols of fertility – horses, hunters, gardens, breasts the size of engorged udders. I look at my own bosom, and sniff. Can’t imagine they’ll ever be like those.

A chorus of women – lizard-skinny and full of gossip – are rolling cuts of roasted meat in finely chopped herbs that leave a green, furry ring around their lips. Splaying around our hearth fire, they point their toes as they stretch, cupping their breasts and giggling. My new clan. I wish I could like them a bit more, but every new bride feels that way at first. Or so I’m told.

“Godly, just godly,” one of the ladies says, chewing with her eyes closed in rapture. Her nostrils flare explosively as she speaks, and even more so when she takes a deep sniff of roasted flamingo.

The strum and pitter of good conversation conceals the growls from my stomach. So I lay back, like the ladies, pretending I’m accustomed to a life of leisure. Yina, taking pity on me, sneaks the odd bite of heaven into my mouth as she rushes by, filling cups, replenishing platters. She doesn’t trust the other slaves we borrowed for the occasion.

All along, my prospective husband’s uncle watches me. One of his eyes is larger than the other and he fixes it on the buds of my breasts, not at all taking care to be subtle. Dressed in fine linen, bone white, he seems safe and dangerous all at once, like a garden snake.

Sahjaloh, Uncle,” I say, nodding.

A bride never uses the names of her would-be husband or his family until the wedding. It’s considered very bad luck. But it’s so hard in this case since his name means “one-sided” and has a peculiar connection to his face. I say his actual name to myself only once – Arik –to keep it at bay.

“Mala, your father tells me you make linens as fine as your mother’s.”

A dare, a test. Every little thing is. I lick my lips and take a good swallow.

“Only because my mother is such a fine teacher, Uncle,” I say, but the name Arik keeps rising up like a ghoul.

I blink hard, trying to gauge how well I played it, and meet eyes with a young man on Arik’s – the uncle’s – right. His son, I think. Well-built and a full head bigger than most, with fresh skin, smooth like mine. It’s possible he’s only a couple of years older than me. With long, wavy hair that falls down his back and eyes the color of a golden ripe apricot, he seems out of place. Like he belongs to another world, another people. He smiles and I glance away before I’m tempted to smile back. That wouldn’t do.

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“And you garden, I’m told. A wishful pursuit for one who lives on the edge of a desert,” the uncle mentions casually.

“A girl’s life is made of wishes.”

“That it is,” he says. “It’ll be a wish fulfilled if your womb makes life as readily as your hands.”

I realize I’ve been speaking with those hands and fold them into a tight ball at my waist.

“Is it also true you kick stones with the boys and run like a gazelle?”

The uncle crows and crams a soft lump of mutton into his mouth, its juices running the length of his forearm.

“If I’m being chased, Uncle,” I tell him.

He stills for a second and I can’t even breathe. I’d wanted to sound sure of myself, but with enough modesty and regard for my elders. No one wants to invite a diva into their house, then have to whip her into shape. Literally.

I’m tempted to apologize for being too offhanded, but Arik’s eye twinkles and he roars with amusement. Even the gossiping ladies start to hoot, shielding their mouths with a swathe of linen, like they’re so dainty. The young man looks at his lap, biting his lip. I try on a grin – not too pleased with myself, I hope.

The uncle unfolds, stretching and groaning. Sitting up tall, he slaps his hands on his ribs. It’s his job to set the tone of the evening, which he does with a wordy speech about the many virtues of my would-be husband. He begins – incredibly – with a flowery monologue about the qualities of the top of my husband’s head (round like a melon, with an abundance of hair).

He moves from there, as thorough as any man who loves to hear himself talk, and expounds on the merits of my husband’s face and neck (handsome and foxlike, aquiline nose, and so on) then his broad shoulders, chest, hard belly, and strong hips.

He doesn’t shy away from describing a remarkable set of genitals – in detail, his big eye boring straight into mine the whole time! No one dares to snicker, especially me, although when he describes the gem quality jewels pierced into my husband’s foreskin (at the very tip of a member the size of a calabash, he tells us, giving a big wink while stroking the neck of a jug of wine, no less!), the ladies struggle not to fall to pieces. I only survive the ordeal by imagining the uncle squatting over a chamber pot, just as Yina advised me. She’s been through this ritual three times, after all, and has suffered through all manner of innuendo – including a detailed description of her parents’ wedding night once! She knows how to fight fire with fire.

The uncle keeps his comportment, staying deadly serious, and I have to admire him for that. His son strums his fingers along his thighs and glances away. I pinch my thigh hard to keep it together – an eager, enthralled look upon my face, I hope. An expectant bride never wants to look like a prude.

After a long and hearty clearing of his throat, the uncle continues to describe a pair of sturdy legs – like the trunks of a tamarix – all the way to my future husband’s feet (stronger than the most well-made sandals, he says, and I think he could have done better than that) and finally, his toes. Seeming to grasp for something properly marvelous to say about those, he ends by assuring us they were the most beautiful and manly toes he’s ever seen.

“Nahoor,” he says, concluding the speech with his blessing.

 

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Stay safe, stay distant, but remain close…

Back to the Days of Promenade

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Since my gym closed in response to COVID19, I’ve been walking a lot in my neighborhood.

I live in a semi-rural area, so the houses in my neighborhood aren’t all lined up in a neat row, the way the were in the suburb of Chicago where I was raised. A lot of the homes in our area are old, too, and aren’t exactly on uniform plots of land. Some are on an acre, others on so many acres you can’t even see the house from the road. While it’s charming, this kind of layout doesn’t really lend itself to the sort of backyard barbeque and stoop culture that some cities and suburbs enjoy. We’re not living a “Little House on the Prairie” life per se, but we do have to go out of our way a bit to visit with the people who live close by.

Before the pandemic, when I would go strolling down the streets of my ‘hood, I would usually spy one – maybe two- of my neighbbors walking about. And that’s assuming the weather was good.

Over the past ten days or so, since we’ve been told to try and stay home as much as possible, the country roads near our house have come alive. People are strolling hand in hand with their spouses, running, throwing a ball with their dogs, taking their kids for a bike ride, pushing baby carriages, catching up with one another – at an appropriate distance of course.

It’s occurred to me how very nineteenth century it all feels.

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Back then, diseases like cholera, rubella, measles, small pox, and typhus were simply a part of life. A frightening part, as the tiny local graveyard in the vacant lot at the end of my street can attest. We took a family stroll there two evenings ago, reading the old tombstones – some of them dating back to the Revolutionary War. One tragic young couple from the 1870s buried all five of their children before succumbing to an unknown illness themselves, and just a few weeks apart from one another. Four of their children died before the age of two, and one lived to adulthood, dying at the age of nineteen. I guess COVID19 is fairly tame by comparison.

A century ago, the vast majority of folks prayed and read their bible daily – for strength, for courage, and guidance. There are no atheists in a foxhole, the saying goes, and all of life was something of a foxhole before the widespread use of vaccines. Today, in my very loosey-goosey faith group on Facebook, I’ve seen a big uptick of people using prayer apps. I, myself, have been listening to Pray as You Go every morning.

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But despite the obvious dangers of those bygone days, it was also a time of neighborliness, contemplation, outdoor play and patience. Patience to read a difficult book, learn a new skill, cook a meal from scratch.

“I’m going to teach myself to sew,” my neighbor, Kate, told me as we chatted on my daily walk yesterday.

I spied her talking to another friend, Dianna, who was out walking her dog. Dianna lives on the other side of the railroad tracks that separate our homes, and our daughters have been hanging out since they were yay high. I swear, though, I don’t think I’ve seen her in months. Life gets busy that way. Anyway, Kate was crouched at the end of her driveway, planting pansies in a big wooden barrel. “I hear the deer don’t eat these, but if they do, no biggie. I’ll just plant something else.”

My youngest daughter, who hates art class, has been drawing up a storm. She and her older sister, who’ve been at each other’s throats this past year, spontaneously, without me having to force them, made homemade churros together. When finished, the fried pastries looked akin to turds rolled in cinnamon sugar, but they tasted great.

“Today’s my painting day,” my middle daughter, the one who actually looooves art class told me. She dug out her paints and brushes from underneath her bed and blew the dust bunnies off them. To my surprise, all three of my children have been practicing piano and guitar without my having to issue threats or bribes. Sometimes, they even seem to enjoy it.

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Don’t get me wrong – my kids are dying for this to end! They haven’t all of a sudden embraced the life of “Outlander” the way the time-traveling characters of that book and television series did. They miss their friends, their soccer games, all of the plans they were so looking forward to. My oldest will have to forego prom, graduation, and Senior Beach Week. To his credit, he’s philosophical about it.

They all are – except when they’re not.

“If Harry Styles is cancelled in June, I’m going to jump out the window,” my middle daughter informed me, while mixing her paints.

Only Barney, our Boston Terrier, seems to be having the time of his life now that the whole pack is home 24/7.

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I’ll be honest, I can’t wait for this to end either, but my frustrations are a bit less on the social side. I’m worried about the health of our older generation, and the long-term economic impact on us, our friends, the world. We’ve got my mom living with us, after all, and we’re looking at our oldest going off to college next year.

But if I can put those fears in a box, one I place high up on a shelf and keep well out of my sight, I find in my heart a genuine appreciation for the slowness of life under quarantine. Of having the time to dream again, and really mix it up with our friends and neighbors – even if it is at a bit of a distance. I’ve reached out to people I usually only connect with on birthdays, and have made sure to check in on those of my friends who live in Europe and Asia.

There is a tenderness to the way in which we are regarding one another. All of us are scared, and considering austerity measures. But we’re all in this together, too.

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I don’t know how much of this sentiment – if any of it – will linger on after this current crisis has abated. It’s likely that in our day to day lives, we’ll go back pretty much to the way things were.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll have read a complex story that changed our perspective, had a long conversation that brought us closer to someone we’ve been taking for granted, took up a new hobby, spoke to a friend or family member who we’d fired from our lives.

That, in and of itself, will have made this functional journey back in time worthwhile.

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Creative Relief for the Quarantined

get me outta here

There’s a great deal out there – from microbial to financial – that’s causing a lot of anxiety right now, and most of our usual ways of letting off steam are currently unavailable (at least if we have any sense). We’re discouraged from going to the gym, the restaurant, the pub, dinner parties, coffees, concerts. Even libraries are off limits for heaven’s sake.

We’re being forced into a Jeffersonian life of walks in nature, reading, listening to podcasts, Audible books, music, and hanging out almost exclusively with our nuclear families. Who would have thought, say three weeks ago, that a trip to the grocery store would come to be both dangerous and strangely exhilarating? Makes me feel like that girl in the horror movie who is compelled to enter the room where the killer is lurking and ready to plant a saw in her face, but she MUST GO IN because there may be a crying baby to save, or a gun with a silver bullet in there!

haunted house shadow

For those of us who are parents and work from home – which is a lot more of us now than there were last week – we’re faced not only with still having to get all of our work done, but with unprecedented interruptions from our little and not so little angels.

It’s true, that being a bit of a hermit does in some ways give me an innate advantage over some of my more social peers during this time of self-quarantine. Not only am I used to being isolated, but I’ve trained myself over a period of years to be disciplined when working from my home office. It’s also true, however, that the mortal enemy of the writer – someone who is nourished by solitude and watches movies like “A Quiet Place” with a certain dreamy-eyed sense of envy – is the interruption.

It’s hard for me to get too frustrated with our precious distractors, the way I tend to do in the waning days of summer vacation. They’ve been forced into seclusion, too, and many of them are disheartened over the cancellation of sports activities, clubs, and even, potentially, rights of passage such as prom and graduation. I’m actually pretty damned impressed with how they’re handling it so far. They’re taking it in stride, much like the British did during the Blitz. I watch them wandering around the house, filming TikTok dance numbers and funny memes, adjusting to the current state of things with remarkable aplomb.

empty amusement park

Of course, we Cold War kids had our own problems. In our case, we looked potential mutual nuclear annihilation right in the eye with a heavy dose of punk rock attitude. If there was going to be an apocalypse, we were going to go down screaming and swinging, dammit.

But what’s hard about the current offensive measures we’re being asked to take in our fight against the coronavirus, is that they’re…defensive. The British marched on through their days with a stiff-upper-lip-business-as usual-demeanor, even as German flyboys streaked across their skies and bombs rained down on them.

The immediate generations after World War II used defiance as their weapon of choice. When the hot war turned cold, they sock-hopped, discovered The Beatles, went to Woodstock, flew to the moon for the love of God, played air guitar to anthem rock, created a cinematic and literary revolution, then discovered the action film, partied like it was 1999, came up with rap and hip hop, and pioneered the technology that’s transforming our world.

man on moon

In our war against this new biological enemy, we’re being tasked with something else: We must turn inward, find meaning, come together, re-evaluate, invent and innovate, as well as behave our way out of this. And I believe we will. In some respects, this may well be a much needed pause in our busy, distracted, partisan, selfie-obsessed lives.

We all must do our part. The real heroes of this epidemic will be on the front lines – medical professionals risking their own health in order to ensure the health of their patients and the greater population. There will be those of us who find ourselves out of work, and will have to scramble, improvise, do anything we can until some degree of normal jump-starts our work lives again. Entire business sectors will be under water, at least in the short term. Already, we have a friend in the hospitality industry who has watched helplessly as his revenues evaporate. To the extent we can, we should extend offers of help and mean it.

In our down time, and let’s face it, there’s going to be a lot of it, we have the opportunity to reflect and find beauty and a sense of gratitude about our lives. On the bright side of all this, we will fare much, much better in the current crisis than any other generation in history. We will be able to react, get accurate information, and self-correct in real time both faster and better than we could even fifteen measly years ago.

I know that’s easy to say, but more difficult to absorb and feel. That’s why I want to extend to you what my husband and I like to do for each other when we’re experiencing times of high stress and low certainty. We send one another – usually through text or email, even though our home offices are right next to each other – bits of artistry, enchantment, humor, and grace that we call “morsels of positive affect.” Positive affect, according to psychologists and other peddlers of emotional well-being, refers to “one’s propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and life’s challenges in a positive way.”

Morsels of positive affect, at least in my experience, can be a big help in getting us over mental humps and slumps. Of jarring us out of descents into self-pity, and stopping us from “awful-izing.”

So, that’s what I hope to give you today: a bit of positive affect.

I’ll start with inspiration from some of the artists I follow on Twitter, if I may…

“fire-hollowed house, the lawn laden

with nameless blossoms” –Joseph Massey, poet

Joseph offers some of his poems for free on his website.

Yo-Yo Ma has been playing #songsofcomfort such as Dvořák’s “Going Home”, and if you’re not on Twitter, you can watch and listen right here.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has asked PBS to stream his new series, “Baseball”, for free and beginning immediately right here.

My small contribution to quarantine begins with an exclusive short story I’ve written for my forthcoming “Breath” series.

Breath

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Two souls. Infinite lives. A quest across history.

Nif and Sherin are Ninti, beings both human and divine, who share a deep and powerful love that puts them both in mortal danger, while propelling them towards an extraordinary fate that ensures they will live infinite human lives…and suffer an equal number of deaths. Together they must solve a mystery that spans the ages, or risk losing one another forever.

The following “Breath” story takes place in rural Virginia, and involves a brief encounter with the villain of the series, who is also an immortal Nin’ti.

Easter’s House: A Breath Story

I plan to have more for you in the coming days and weeks. I’ll try to cull great content from my universe of weird, glorious, sublime outliers, as well as offer some of my own creative work for all of us to chew on as we wait this out.

Yes, we live in an age of reality TV, and often silliness seems to rule the day. But there’s a lot of wonderful, soul-nourishing content out there, ironically thanks to the very same internet and social media platforms that we curse.  With any luck, most of us can come out of this more resilient, wiser, kinder, more connected to those who matter most, and with our hearts and imaginations re-booted, perhaps even re-engineered.

More to follow…

beauty

 

 

 

How I Ended Up at the KISS Concert

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetI was a little young when the heavy metal glam-rock band, KISS, became a phenomenon. I knew enough to be able to name its members and could sing the refrain to exactly three of their songs: “Lick It Up”, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”, and “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night (And Party Every Day)”. I was also vaguely aware that they made a movie of some sort. It was called “KISS Meets the Phantom” or something like that. I never saw it, but I remember watching the commercials for it on TV and thinking, “Hmm, that looks freaky.” Basically, KISS was to my young self what the Kardashians are to me now. I knew they were big; I knew a lot about them through cultural osmosis; but I wasn’t a fan, per se.

Yet, when my friend Susan reached out to me a few weeks ago with a text that read, “KISS is coming to Charlottesville – wanna go?”… despite the fact that I didn’t want to shell out over $100 for a band whose music I didn’t listen to, and who sang in a genre I wasn’t particularly fond of, I said, “Sign me up!”

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I should back up right here and tell you a little bit about my social history over the past twelve years. Namely that it’s pathetic, and I’m not using even a trace of hyperbole here. For most of my life, I’ve been an outgoing, sociable person who had a certain grace with conversation and was able to make friends pretty easily and with a wide variety of people. Growing up as a bit of a cultural outlier as the daughter of Czech immigrants in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood, I got pretty good at operating outside of my comfort zone and seeking common ground with peers. I got so good at it I even married an Irish Catholic and feel perfectly at home in his predictably large, boisterous family.

As an adult, I moved not only all over the United States, but also studied, worked, and lived in several countries in Europe. In fact, as I sit back and take an inventory of people with whom I’ve had friendships, or at the very least have successfully broken bread, or shared a drink with, it’s a roster that reaches well beyond the usual parameters of racial and ethnic diversity. It’s a list that includes, but is not limited to, nurses, doctors, teachers, plumbers, war photographers, men and women in uniform, journalists, diplomats, hippies, bartenders, hair stylists, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, a handful of tech zillionaires, three British hooligans, a mobster, a nudist, a car salesman, an erotic film producer, an ex-con turned musician, a sculptor, a Hari Krishna, a Baha’i pioneer, an antiques dealer who found a way to have herself declared legally dead so that she wouldn’t have to pay taxes, a pro athlete or two, a forest ranger, a professional gambler, a fashion designer, a vacuum salesman, a hobo, a Greek gigolo, and a Bollywood star who played the villain in a James Bond movie. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I used to be able to talk to anyone.

Even when my husband was offered a job in Mumbai, India, I didn’t blink about moving our young family there and didn’t feel the least bit intimidated about the prospect of making friends and finding a community. In fact, the only reason we didn’t end up going was because our third and youngest child was born so sick that we simply couldn’t leave our home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I guess that’s when my social problems started.

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At first, my self-sequestering was circumstantial. Our daughter’s illness put our family in crisis mode and pretty much anything that didn’t revolve around her survival and our family’s ability to cope, was put on the backburner. The only relationships we had the energy to maintain were with family and people who already were like family. Essentially, the near and dear we didn’t have to put any additional work into. They knew us; they loved us; they got us.

On the rare occasions when I did leave our house – say, for school field trips, or for other child-related social obligations – I truly felt like an alien. I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of a Honda Pilot, on the way to a science museum for my son’s field trip, and listening to two good friends of mine having a casual conversation in the front seat. I recall having neither the desire, nor the ability, to join. And I remember wanting to cry.

The peak of our crisis mode lasted about a year, but our daughter needed a great deal of attention for five solid years. After that, things normalized for us, as she began living like a healthy child. We were able to go on dates, and hit the beach for a week in the summer. I was able to focus on work more, and start making up for lost time. It’s a huge blessing that I love what I do. Writing isn’t a chore for me, it’s a profound pleasure that has the added benefit of helping me sort through my emotional conflicts.

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But it’s also something that I do almost exclusively from my home. With the advent of social media, which corresponded roughly with the start of my daughter’s illness, I was suddenly able to have relationships with readers and colleagues that were entirely online and didn’t require me to meet anyone anywhere ever.

And while I fully expected to get my social mojo back once our lives had attained some level of balance and security again, the fact is…I didn’t. For several New Years in a row, my resolution was to get out, make new friends, and accept more invitations.

Only I didn’t.

Our home became a gilded prison cell. One that was filled with all of the people and things I loved most. Our food was great, our cocktails greater, our music was excellent – why would I ever want to leave?

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Then, about five years ago, a friend of mine – the mother of one of my son’s buddies – recommended my novel, “The Bone Church”, to her book club. I have a personal policy of not strong-arming my friends into reading my fiction, and think writers who don’t have that policy end up having a lot of resentful friends. So, I was really touched that she did that, and hadn’t expected it at all. This warm and fuzzy feeling, however, was quickly replaced by burning shame when she said to me, essentially, I like what you’ve been writing, so I thought I’d give our friendship one more try, even though you pretty much dumped me. She didn’t say it exactly like that – she was much nicer about it – but the meaning was clear, and I was absolutely dumfounded. I wanted to scream, “No! No, I didn’t dump you! I swear!”

But I didn’t do that either. The truth is, I didn’t even know how to explain my hermit status to her, so I just said, “Um…I never go out.”

That friend ended up moving to Texas, but in the years since that incident, I really have tried to get out more, meet new people even. Usually with mixed success. My social isolation has put me out of synch with the ebb and flow of a conversation that isn’t on the written page. On paper or computer screen, I can pause, reflect, and construct a joke. All of the things I used to be able to do spontaneously, and in person. In recent years, when I’ve forced myself to go out, it’s been clear to me and others that I’m more than a little rusty. This has set up a vicious circle of promises to myself: I will talk to people more; I will make an effort to make friends! The promises are quickly followed by discouragement and failure. I talked too much, said the wrong thing, came on too strong. I had become… weird.

Once again, I would find myself falling back into the cozy embrace of my house, my family, my core group of entrenched simpaticos. I would stop accepting invitations, and by and large, they would stop coming. What began as a fear that I would never recover my social life and skills, grew into a feeling of grudging acceptance that this was the new normal: the outgoing woman I was in my teens, twenties and even into my thirties was a gone girl.

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Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas this year, my son was invited to a party hosted by the parents of a school friend. It was a raucous mix of teens and adults, and most of the grown-ups hit the open bar pretty hard. The next morning, when our son began regaling us with stories of our tipsy neighbors, he mentioned that three different sets of parents – flush with alcohol – made comments about the fact that we never go out and aren’t a part of the community.

This hit me hard. Worse than sitting in the back seat of a Honda Pilot fighting tears. Even worse than having a friend think I ghosted her. This was coming from my kid, who had discovered what I thought I had largely kept secret from him. I was surprised at how contrite and embarrassed I felt.

But like all hard truths, it opened up an opportunity for me to take a cold, critical look at myself – “a moment of clarity, as the counselors say. I saw the chances I’d lost – to perform a kindness, to try something new – and became painfully aware of the way my walls had gone from providing me protection to closing in on me.

This year, just days after my son attended that party, I made my New Year’s resolution once again. Only this time, it was a vow. Instead of swearing up and down that I was going to go out more in that eye-rolling way unserious people swear they’re going to quit smoking, give up sugar, quit their dead-end jobs, I made a covenant with myself to become a social animal again. Whatever the invitation, unless I had a genuine conflict, I was going to say yes! No excuses, no exceptions.

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Since January 1, 2020, I’ve been at a birthday party, two dinner dates, a UVA basketball game and a wine and cheese get-together that I actually hosted at my house!

And last Friday night, I found myself making devil horns at the KISS concert, accompanied by a friend who never gave up on me.

It was freakin’ awesome!

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P.S. I don’t make my in-person neighborhood friends buy my books, but my reader friends are a whole different story, so here’s are some links ;).

Savage Island – new release! (ebook on sale through Valentine’s Day for .99 cents)

The Bone Church

The Hungarian

Cold

Welcome to the Hotel Yalta

Oh, and here’s 19 seconds of KISS for your enjoyment!

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