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A Slavic Eye for Cold War Nostalgia

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Click on this before reading my post, please! Won’t take long – swear.

Coming from a family of Czech political refugees, I have to say that my favorite quote from the article I asked you to click on comes from a Russian-speaking commentator who reacted to immigre artist  Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi’s paintings by saying: “Why do all these people nostalgic for the U.S.S.R. move to Berlin and Israel, and not to North Korea?”

That being said, I love these paintings. They are a Slavic DNA splicing of Norman Rockwell and Charles Schultz, representing – pretty accurately in my experience – some of the more charming aspects of Soviet life. And yes, nearly every era has its charms, even if I’d never go so far as to declare that the Soviet regime was charming in and of itself. Let’s just say it for the record – communism sucked.

What enchants me about Nnadi’s work is her nostalgia for the textures of childhood. The colorful incidentals that aren’t so incidental after all, as we often recall them more vividly than the bigger events.

Communist nostalia art 1

From my own young life, it’s things like feathered hair styles replete with split ends, shiny new Chevy Nova’s, and performing random tasks in Six Million Dollar Man slow-motion. They create a collage as powerful as any individual vignette.

Like when my much older step-sister confided to me about losing her virginity – this was back in 1979. I remember her shimmery, overly-glossed lips far better than her description of how things went down (salacious as it was, I’m sure). The way they cupid-curled and puckered as she applied what looked to me like the most glamorous goop I’d ever seen. I’m not even sure I remember the boy-in-question’s name. Might’ve been Bob. Or Randy. I do recall the lip gloss, however. It was called Kissing Potion for sure, and came in a variety of roll-on flavors – grape, bubble gum, orange and of course…cherry. I later stole one from her make up drawer and hid it inside my worn and seam-split stuffed koala bear.

Nnadi gets this.

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Her paintings take us into moments of pithy loneliness punctuated by cringy fashion trends… and then beyond, into a realm that is so stylistically Slavic she makes me ache. Not only for my childhood, but for the very specific children’s storybooks I used to thumb through after school. Ones that chronicled where my mother and brother grew up – in a small, Czech village called Klobuky.

In the pages of my Czech storybooks, I could find scenes that I would never personally experience, though they were captured in the black and white photos framed on my mother’s vanity table.

My mom, pensive-faced, riding her rickety bike down a cobblestone street.

My brother playing naked beside a stream. All curly hair, toddler’s belly pouch and uncircumcised penis.

Slavs have an innate capacity for conjuring home life nostalgia. Of stripping politics and current events from a scene and leaving only the little things that make up our day-to-day lives, and bring essentiality to our existence.

Josef Lada, an early twentieth century Czech artist and children’s storybook illustrator, was a master at this. I can’t imagine Nnadi wasn’t inspired – if not by him, then by Slavic artists like him. His work always celebrated the quieter moments, the minutiae that in hindsight spins a magical longing for the commonplace.

Watching an old man smoke a pipe…

Josef Lada 2

Riding a makeshift wooden sled…


Josef Lada winter

The raucous, smoke-filled excitement of a night at a local pub…

Josef Lada pub

The beauty of Lada was not that he painted a bucolic picture that never truly existed except in our hearts, but that he painted precisely what had existed, but what we may not have appreciated at the time. Tiny glimmers of nothingness present in almost any child’s world.

More so, they remind us that those events continue on in our adult lives – changed perhaps, but nevertheless there. They are happening in our children’s lives and we are cautioned not to take them for granted.

It’s not about the fancy vacation, Lada and Nnadi are telling us. Or the enrichment activities and birthday parties. Or even about who was elected president. It’s about riding around on a hand-me-down skateboard wearing tube socks and piped shorts. Hiding behind the patchwork sofa, making Malibu Barbie and Malibu Ken make out. Eating bread smeared with margarine dyed a cheerful daffodil hue.

And speaking of Cold War nostalgia – The Hungarian, my latest Cold War thriller is free this weekend only on Amazon. Get it while it’s cold…

Click here to download The Hungarian



Love at First Write: On the Tricky Art of Writing a Love Scene

artiste 3One of the hardest parts about writing a love scene is letting go. Allowing yourself to experience the same feelings of bonzai-passion, trembling-fear, vein-popping love, and button-exploding lust in which your characters are awash during their most intimate moments.

A lot of my non-writer friends think this is precisely why writing erotica must be hard. Because its very nature lays you bare to the bone. Leaves you, quite literally, naked and suddenly no longer alone in your fantasies – many of which are cringe-inducing, right? Or downright dangerous.

They scratch their heads a bit when I tell them how – hands down – I find erotica much easier to write than a truly emotional love scene.

With erotic scenes, I can separate myself, float above my own thoughts, looking down on my body like a spirit. “It’s not really me,” I can tell myself, as I endeavor to take my characters through a gauntlet of sexual behaviors that I myself might have no interest in exploring.

Truth be told, it’s this taste for the exotic, the edge of rational behavior, that I can write about until the cows come home.

Yet, while writing scenes drenched in explicit, perhaps deviant sexual behavior might compel me intellectually, I’m unmoved for the most part. Those animalistic, choreographed encounters are often as distant to me as a group of prehistoric cave-dwellers. Interesting, sure, but they just don’t stick in the craw of my heart.


It is in writing the love scene – the one that is sensual, not sexual, brimming with real emotion – that I am truly left exposed to my core elements.

Such encounters tease where two thundering hearts will be willing to go, once they finally do fall into a carnal embrace. So that when the inevitable happens, it’s not merely a consummation of burning lust, but a promise, a vow, a sacrament. An act of consequence and conscience that will change the lives of our lovers forever. They’ll remember every moment in vivid pantomime for the rest of their lives – because they had to court, seduce, prove their worthiness to the other. To us. It must be an act of imagination and feeling that will leave me, as both writer and reader, wistful for days.

love piano

A true love scene is difficult precisely because a writer can’t fall back on sex. We hold a reader’s very essence in our hands and must speak in the language of raw tenderness in order not only to hold their attention, but help reveal to them what is lurking in their own blood…what will make them gasp, curl up like a snail-shell, and ponder just how they’ll be able to face the world now that they’ve been changed by a few well-chosen – no, well felt – words. They might approach their spouse with more than pragmatic necessity – perhaps fearful of rejection, or just as leery of their gesture being returned in full force. Something as simple as a purposeful touch can open up a whole can or worms… as much as a garden of delights.

“To love another person is to see the face of God,” says Victor Hugo.

Yes, sex is easier.

That’s why I decided not to write direct sex scenes in the new novel I’m working on. It’s not that the flesh isn’t an intrinsic part of love and loving. It most certainly is. Nor am I against sexy novels with a high erotic content. Truth be told, though, I am a little bit sick of them. They need to keep dialing up the action – like a Hollywood thriller – until the scenes themselves become almost comical in their content. How many gizmos, fetishes and come-hither outfits (or lack thereof) can you actually fit into a story about two mere human beings, after all? Even this guy looks bored.

sexy legs girl

Sensual scenes, love scenes, can’t get away with being merely novel or clever. They can’t fall back on a chorus of moans and groans. The heart has to work with the flesh and the mind, leading a reader to a place of yearning that is so much bigger than libido. A climax that satisfies the soul before the body.

Compare your average scene of heavy breathing and dutiful grinding with this:

Four of his fingers – three calloused, one as supple as moss – drummed over my brow. Light, wispy. Like the sweet and silly kisses of the tiny fish Yina used to keep for my father. Those would nibble at the skin of my toes when I dangled my feet in their pond.

Gliding down the slope of my nose, his only silken finger landed at its tip before moving lower. My lips quivered as he touched them, caressing their every bend and bow. Wetting the pad of his fingertip with my juices, I heard him bring it to his mouth and taste me.

Before I could let the air from my lungs, or close my mouth – laid open in awe – he took my head firmer in his grasp and lifted it just off the stone. He expelled his breath in a slow hiss, letting it linger over the skin of my face. Warm and damp. So unlike the desert.

P.S. Please have a look at my video diary, Love at First Write. It will be an ongoing series that will chronicle my efforts to write a great romance. I’d love to hear your comments.


The Lost Cosmonauts of the Soviet Union

One of the more disturbing stories to come out the Cold War, and certainly the most horrific – if indeed true – to emerge from the space race, is that of the “lost” (and by lost, I mean dead) Russian cosmonauts.

It has been alleged by a number of credible sources that the Soviets launched not one but several failed attempts at manned space flight before Yuri Gagarin survived his 1961 mission to become the first Russian in space. The Soviet Union denied these reports when they first began to surface and Russia continues to deny them today.

While I have no idea if these stories are actually true, in my experience of the Soviet Bloc, they are highly plausible. It’s hard to forget that the Soviet Union committed many worse crimes against its own citizens – so much so that the alleged horrors done to their MIA cosmonauts seem almost quaint.

Space travel is dangerous. There is no doubt about that. The United States has had its share of casualties in our harrowing quest to voyage beyond the relative safety of our planet and into the universe at large. Devastating tragedies like the Challenger explosion come to mind. Then there are the nail-biting, snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death missions like 1970’s Apollo 13, when NASA came together in what has been called its finest hour. With little more than passion, commitment and ingenuity, NASA engineers brought a spaceship full of stranded astronauts back from the Moon and from what looked like certain death.

A truly breathtaking and inspirational feat that struck at the core of who we were and clarified for us Americans just what we were risking, and what we were willing to do in order to bring our star-explorers home safe and sound. Shaken from this narrowly averted tragedy and buoyed by our mastery over the Soviets, the U.S. put manned missions largely on hold until recently.

space race mission control

Mission Control, Apollo 13

While both the Red and the Red, White and Blue space programs were dangerous and audacious, there were several distinctions between the Soviet space program and the one executed by the U.S. during the Cold War space race. The first and most important contrast was that American astronauts competed like mad for the job. They most definitely wanted to blast off into space – risk and all.

In the Soviet Union, cosmonauts were chosen. Did they feel honored and thrilled to be plucked from their lives and hand-picked for such an adventure? We’ll never know, and they certainly would not have felt at liberty – without serious repercussions like being sent to a gulag – to divulge any misgivings on their part.

If you’ve read THE HUNGARIAN , my new historical thriller which centers around Cold War spies and the 1950s space race, you may remember quirky, Russian double-agent Fedot informing Lily that President Eisenhower had placed significant restrictions on our American team of scientists. This was truth, not a fiction of my imagination. Not only were our physicists, engineers and the like asked to develop flawless technology, but Eisenhower would not allow them to use any military launchers for United States satellites for fear of looking like a warmonger. As a result, our scientists had to develop non-military launchers that were just as effective as the military ones. No easy task, and one that cost us. The Soviet Union placed no such restrictions on their scientists and designers, giving them a distinct timeline advantage.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 exposed the single-minded recklessness and carelessness with which the Soviets pursued a crusade to crush enemies and expand their power. Nuclear energy and space travel were executed with the same vicious resolution as their illogical and mostly failed Five-Year Plans regarding agriculture and economic development. If the statistical comparisons between Soviet/Russian fatal airline crashes and those of Western carriers are any indication of how the Soviet Space Program was conducted, then the words myopic, hostile, sloppy and inhumane come to mind.  As late as 2011, Russia snagged the title as the most dangerous country to fly from, according to The Wall Street Journal. A rash of fatal accidents there prompted investigations into its airline industry, which found “ineffective regulation, inefficiently small airlines and poorly trained pilots not following modern safety procedures,” according to The Journal.

While airline safety and space travel precautions may or may not have mirrored one another in Mother Russia at the height of the space race, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. Especially since what we do know for sure is that the Soviet Union, throughout its relatively brief reign, were open about valuing the State over the individual. It was one of the few things they were actually open about. As a result, millions of innocents died of starvation, or were worked to death in labor camps, or were simply victims of grotesque forms of criminal negligence.

Chernobyl comes to mind. It’s hard to fathom that the Soviet government did not warn the locals of the nuclear disaster that had occurred in their backyard. Not until it was too late and the whole world had already discovered their dirty little nuclear secret.

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Chernobyl Kindergarten

The only heroes in Chernobyl were the brave nuclear power plant workers who died in order to try and avoid even greater collateral damage from the meltdown. According to Knowledge Nuts,  “During the well-documented Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a pool of water used for emergencies in case of a break in the cooling pumps or steam pipes became flooded with a highly radioactive liquid that was in danger of blowing up. The size and specific conditions meant it could have caused virtually the whole of Europe to be enveloped in radiation. Three divers equipped with wetsuits and a faulty lamp dove in to allow the water to drain, with full knowledge they’d die as a result.”

The three engineers were Valeri Bezpalov, Alexie Ananenko and Boris Baranov. They  were buried in lead coffins that were soldered shut. We should always remember these men as having given their lives in order to save perhaps hundreds of thousands. They made their choice freely and without the help or scrutiny of their government, who continued to deny the disaster.

If the stories of the lost cosmonauts are true, they deserve to be remembered as well. In absence of their names, let’s simply pray for their souls.

space race first woman

If you can’t get enough of whiskey, bad women, great stories, and the general mayhem of writing about love and war and passion and art, visit my Patreon page for exclusive content on just about everything I write. This includes essays, articles, a forthcoming video diary, and vintage photography – curated just for you!

For a donation as small as a dollar, you’ll not only get access to original and interactive content, but 1/3 of your donation will go to Camp Holiday Trails, a wonderful summer camp for kids with special needs!

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


My mother-in-law in her birthday hat

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

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

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

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

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

ferguson downtown

Ferguson when my husband was growing up

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

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Ferguson during the riots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hot air balloon flying over Charlottesville, VA

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

The Hungarian: 3-2-1…BLAST OFF!

blast off

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

Get a load of this short excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click this link to buy THE HUNGARIAN today!


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

Click here to visit Victoria’s Patreon Page

space race first woman

добрый вечер!


The Hungarian…A Sneak Peek of My New Historical Thriller


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There we go,” he murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

Who Are You Calling a Hero?

hero - incredibles

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

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

hero wonder woman beaten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But heroes shift the paradigm.

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

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

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

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

Heroes challenge who we think we are.

hero protester

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

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

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

And they hold a mirror to our souls, too.

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

And maybe that’s the point.

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

tourists - 70s

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

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

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

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

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

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

hero damien on his deathbed

Father Damien on his deathbed

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

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

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

True heroes wake the lions in our hearts.

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

hero clark to superman

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

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

camp holiday trails






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