26 April 2017

Life on Mars

David Edgerley Gates


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.


25 April 2017

Still Crazy After All These Years

by Paul D. Marks


Daniel Sickles
Tomorrow, April 26th, is the anniversary of the first time the temporary insanity defense was used in the United States. So, since we’re all a little insane, temporary or otherwise, to be writers, I thought I’d mention it and Daniel Sickles, the first person to use that defense.

Danny Boy (October 20, 1819 – May 3, 1914) was born to a wealthy New York family and had his share of scandals in his life, most notably killing his wife’s paramour, Philip Barton Key II (April 5, 1818 – February 27, 1859), the son of Francis Scott Key, the dude who wrote the little ditty we sing before ballgames, the Star Spangled Banner.

Key and Sickles had been buds, good buds. Sickles was a Congressman and Key was the District Attorney for the District of Columbia (DC).

At Sickles’ behest, Key would often accompanied Sickles’
Teresa Bagioli Sickles
wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles (1836–1867), to various events when he couldn’t attend. Now that’s a good friend, and a trusting one on Sickles’ side. But the relationship between Key and Mrs. Sickles went from platonic to romantic…and, of course, complications ensued.

Key, who was reputed to be the best looking man in Washington, would stand across Lafayette Square from the Sickles house, waving a handkerchief to Mrs. Sickles as a signal to meet. Sickles figured out what was going and eventually confronted his wife, forcing her to write a letter of confession.

“Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home. You must die!” Sickles shouted on seeing Key waving the kerchief on February 27, 1859. Sickles pulled a pistol, shooting Key, who begged for his life. Maybe the noise of the shots caused Sickles to go temporarily deaf too because Key’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Sickles pulled another pistol and shot him in the chest.


Whether either was singing the Star Spangled Banner at the moment is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Sickles very clearly murdered Key.
Philip Barton Key II

While Sickles was detained in jail awaiting trial, he was visited by Congressional colleagues, government officials and received a letter of support from Prez James Buchanan. The public was also on his side.

Edwin M. Stanton (December 19, 1814 – December 24, 1869), future Secretary of War for Lincoln, and the rest of Sickles’ legal team came up with a brand, spankin’ new defense: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Stanton argued that his wife’s affair caused Sickles to temporarily not be in his right mind when he shot Key, thus he was temporarily insane (just long enough to do the deed of course) and, therefore, shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. (I want that lawyer!) Newspapers torched up the torrid affair in their pages. That won over most of the public. In court, Stanton argued that Teresa’s infidelity drove Sickles mad, that he wasn’t in his right mind when he shot Key. And Sickles was acquitted. And the rest, as they say, is history. Though Sickles’ history didn’t end there.

The fact that Sickles murdered someone, and that that someone was the son of a very well-known person and an important person in his own rite, doesn’t seem to have hurt his career at all. After that little detour he became a Union general in the Civil War, actually serving with distinction: He was awarded the Medal of Honor. He lost a leg in the war, which he sent to Washington to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery so he could visit it on occasion (not kidding!).

After the war he did a Wild Wild West spy mission to Colombia. He also served as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874. And he was elected to Congress more than once. And we know from his past that he was eminently qualified for the job...

Both Sickles and Teresa claimed to have forgiven one another, which provoked outrage from the public. Though in reality they were estranged from each other. She died young of tuberculosis in 1867. He later married a Spanish woman he’d met while posted in Spain after the war. They had two children.

Sickles’ final resting place is Arlington National Cemetery, so next time you’re out that way stop by and say hello. Though I’m not sure if he was buried with his amputated leg or not so you might have to make a separate trip to pay your respects to it. (Actually, it’s at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, so you will have to make a separate trip. Bummer.)
The Trial of Daniel Sickles

So next time you’re on trial, considering a plea of temp insanity, be sure to remember Sickles and Stanton in your prayers. ;-)

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Note, while I appreciate any thoughts and comments you have, I might not be able to respond as I usually do this time. But I do appreciate them as I’m sure the others who read this will.

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And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.


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Anthony Nominations close soon. Which means you still have time to read my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the 12/16 Ellery Queen. And which was voted #1 in Ellery Queen’s Readers Poll for 2016. It’s available FREE on my website along with “Nature of the Beast,” published on David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp, and “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” published in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir. All from 2016 and all eligible. Click here to read them for Free.




24 April 2017

Perspective

by Janice Law

Few things are harder than one’s own – or indeed one’s society’s – unspoken assumptions, biases, and thought patterns. Having just made my way though more than 1200 pages of the Chinese science fiction trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, I have been struck by how ethnocentric much of our own popular writing is and also how easily good fiction can be constructed out of different materials and ideas.


Cixin Liu is a popular and award winning science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Except for some short stories, his wildly ambitions trilogy about earth’s encounter with an alien civilization was American readers’ introduction to his work. Launched with The Three Body Problem, the trilogy begins with a scientist with a justifiable grudge. After her family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie was disheartened about humanity’s prospects and willing to explore radical solutions. Sounds familiar at the moment!

When a message from an alien civilization appears on her monitor, Ye Wenjie hits the reply button and unleashes a host of troubles, the most insidious of which are the sophons, super sophisticated spy equipment that is launched at earth. Worse follows.

A Western reader inevitably thinks of Pandora, but in her Chinese version, she is no curious girl but a brilliant physicist and theorist of what comes to be called the Dark Forest view of the cosmos. Given Western assumptions about women and science, it is striking to see the range of female scientific and engineering talent that Liu includes in the novels.

There are some gender differences, however, although they do not necessarily fit our own stereotypes. Cheng Xin, the young aerospace engineer who is the protagonist of Death’s End, the last of the novels, has indeed the feminine virtues of compassion and caution, virtues admirable but, in the novel, only helpful in the short run. On the other hand, the macho Thomas Wade, one of the few important Western characters, is effective in many ways, but his aggression and violence also prove ultimately inadequate.
The two people who come closest to solving the problem of a hostile universe are both unlikely and quite unlike the typical Western heroes. Luo Ji, who temporarily staves off disaster, is a bit of a slacker. Appointed to work on global solutions to the alien crisis, he goofs off in Scandinavia and appears to waste the time that should be devoted to intensive research. I can’t help thinking that he is a modern version of one of the Daoist sages, in tune with the universe and destined to achieve success through a sort of focused passivity.

Even less likely is the second possible savior of humanity, Yun Tianming, an ineffectual young man dying of lung cancer and awaiting euthanasia. When he comes into money at the last minute, he buys a star (don’t ask, it’s complicated) for a woman he’s admired from afar, Cheng Xin. She, in turn, recruits him for what will be a dangerous, decades- spanning mission to the alien civilization.

Like Liu, Tianming with his modesty and lack of ambition (but notice that romantic gesture with the star) proves to be a remarkable individual with a combination of ingredients superior in a crisis to either stereotyped masculine or feminine behavior. His gesture of affection for Cheng Xin, by the way, is the closest the novel comes to sex of any kind. And this too seems rather traditional, like the film Cheng Xin admires about lovers who are separated by the length of a great river and never meet. Real love is poetic, spiritual – and often doomed.

Similarly, the other great staple of our popular literature, violence, is treated in a different way. I think two people are shot during the trilogy and a couple more are murdered by a robot. But fights and quarrels and car chases and the like are definitely out. On the other hand, the body count is tremendous. Whole civilizations are destroyed and the relatively comfortable eras in earth’s history come after terrible population crashes.

The whole history of the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and ultimately the universe is Darwinian, a matter of the survival of technologically-advanced and lucky civilizations. Nature, itself, hides nasty surprises like the multiple dimensions that can collapse with disastrous results.

Ye Wenjie’s physicist daughter, Yang Dong, even becomes disillusioned by physics, which is as close to a belief system as most of the characters have. She had thought that “The World of our everyday life was only froth floating on the perfect ocean of deep reality. But now, it appeared that the everyday world was a beautiful shell: The micro realities it enclosed and the macro realities that inclosed it were far more ugly and chaotic than the shell itself.”

This melancholy conclusion is more than borne out by the sprawling novels that reach from our Common Era to a scene toward the end of the universe. The latter is more than a little reminiscent of Doctor Who, perhaps because Cheng Xin and her companions are able to time trip, not like the Doctor with a reversible Tardis, but via a combination of hibernation and light speed travel.

Ultimately Cheng Xin and her friends concede that all things must end, but the conclusion of this wildly ambitious and imaginative novel is that the universe can collapse and be reborn, a hope that comforts Liu’s protagonists perhaps more than a Western audience used to heavier doses of positive thinking.

23 April 2017

International Good Books • Great Writers Series

by Leigh Lundin

Last month, I talked about Alice and how buying from International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) donates to a humanitarian cause. From the land of Stephen Ross, the New Zealand Oxfam charity has created two other ads, one I’d seen before and another recommended by a reader (thanks ABA), I wasn’t aware of.

Whereas Alice was surreal, one of the others defines racy and the other esoteric noir. Let’s start with the dark esoteric and save the sexy one to wrap up.

Metamorphosis

This way lies madness…


An advanced education gone horribly wrong.

Havana Heat

This way lays… well…


Once your panting subsides, you know where to order your books.

Go ask Alice.

22 April 2017

The Little Engine That Couldn't: Writers and Self-Doubt


by John M. Floyd



Confidence is a wonderful, magical thing, when applied to creative endeavors. It can sustain us in good times and bad, and when confidence in one's ability is justified it can spur him or her on to great accomplishments.

As for me, I'm no genius, but I try to stay positive and optimistic. I was fortunate in my career with IBM, and I think I do a passable job in my so-called career as a writer. But that doesn't mean I don't suffer lapses in confidence--especially in this crazy world of publishing.

Hills and valleys

I don't personally know a lot of New York Times bestsellers, but I know a few, and one of them told me years ago that she experiences self-doubt on a regular basis. Only half-joking, she said she usually wakes up in the morning thinking Oh God I don't know what the hell I'm doing, then wakes up the next morning thinking You know, I believe I've finally got a handle on this, then the next morning it's This book's going to suck, and everybody's going to find out I'm a fake, and then Okay, I guess I really do know what I'm doing after all, and back and forth and back and forth, day after day. She also told me she doesn't think such feelings are uncommon.

The thing about self-doubt is that it can lead to failure, and failure leads to more doubt, which leads to more failure, and pretty soon the downward spiral is going full speed. And being told not to doubt yourself is like being told not to worry. Everyone worries.

On the other hand, a little doubt can be a good thing, and far better than blind overconfidence. The only time I remember being completely free of self-doubt was a two- or three-week period about twenty years ago, shortly after I'd first started submitting stories to magazines. Having never published anything before, I had submitted five different short stories to five different markets just to see what would happen, and--although I still have trouble believing this--four of those first five stories were accepted, and for the next few weeks I was convinced that I was sitting on a rainbow with the world on a string, like in the old song. I figured Good grief, it it's this easy to get published, I'll just sell a gazillion stories and make a gazillion dollars. That, of course, was not the case. The next thirteen stories I submitted were rejected. Thirteen in a row. That brought me back fast to terra firma, and in retrospect it was one of the best things that could've happened to me. Live and learn.

A necessary evil?

Not necessary, I suppose. But self-doubt is certainly often-present.

Here are a couple of quotes, on the subject. Charles Bukowski once said, "You are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on . . . When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leas to a deeper and more abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act."

And this, from Stephen King: "Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt."

I think that goes for a short work of fiction as well. And here's another point: some feel that self-doubt is cured when one's writing happens to win an award or some other form of public recognition. I don't agree. The times that I've been fortunate enough for that to happen, I've often found myself wondering, afterward, if it was just a fluke, sort of a cosmic burp, never to be repeated. And I've heard others say they feel the same way. Self-doubt, deserved or not, seems to follow most writers around like Pigpen's dust cloud.

So what can we do about it?

Hey, if I knew the answer to that, I would've already done it. But here's some wise advice I saw at Chuck Wendig's blog terribleminds: "The key is to let doubt be clarifying rather than muddying. It's important to know that the doubt isn't yours to carry. It's not about you. You needn't doubt your own abilities but rather some aspect of your current work that feels like it's not coming together. Here your self-doubt serves as the standard-bearer for those instincts rising up from your gutty-works. Follow your heart. Thus, self-doubt helps you improve, which in turn helps you defeat self-doubt."

Well said. But it's a hard feeling to overcome. On the lighter side of all this, I remember something else I once heard: "I tried all that 'positive thinking' stuff. I knew it wouldn't work, and sure enough, it didn't." And the sign on the library door that said, "Low Self-Esteem meeting at 6 p.m.--attendees please enter through the back."


Questions

What are your views? Do you ever find yourself doubting your ability or your effectiveness as a writer? If so, how much does it bother you? How do you deal with it? Did any accolades you've received put it to rest? Do you have any advice to offer us Pigpens?

Oh my. Something else just occurred to me.

What if nobody even bothers to read this post . . . ?






21 April 2017

Wonderfulnesses

by
O'Neil De Noux

Ever notice the wonderfulnesses on the covers of books, indicating a book is as radiant as the sun and chock full of unforgettableness? The book is unputdownable? There are 500 5-star reviews of the book on Amazon or it is a best seller? Some covers come dotted with starbursts and little fish with more wonderfullnesses on the back cover.




The sun (really)



I realize these are selling points to get people to peek at the book, maybe

even buy the book. I guess my law enforecment background is showing. Like COP OF THE WEEK - the cop with the most arrests or tickets gets a little star on his pocket lapel. I've seen it. Not recently, thank God.

And then there are the proclamations, the review quotes expounding more wonderfulnesses.

I looked at my 23 published novels and researched reviews for snippets of my wonderfulness to slap all over my next cover. I mean I must be wonderful somewhere. Hell. It's a big world. Some dolt must think I'm a good writer. After a long search I managed to find some quotes and thought I'd run them by you to see which one(s) I should put on the back of my next book. Not sure if they're all complimentary.

Here they are:

“Denoux could be the greatest crime writer in the history of the world.” – The Bayou Goula Gazette

“A good great crime writer.” The Bogalusa Bat

“The most novelist working today.” The Worker’s Review

“Hey, this guy ain’t that bad.” – The North Jersey Petroleum Book Review Club

“The best mystery writer on the planet, or any other planet for that matter.” – The Rotterdam Rag

“Who the hell is this guy?” – Newsweek

“Never heard of him.” – Time

“We wish we could right this good.” – Cajun State University Press-Telegram

“The best thing about Slick Time are the legs on the cover.” – The Persimmon Times

New Orleans Nocturnal is a real sleeper.” – The National Sleep Foundation Newsletter

New Orleans Confidential. There is nothing confidential about New Orleans but if there were confidentialities, then this book would be one.” – New Orleans Tattle-Tale Review

“If he isn’t the best novelist, then it has to be Elmore Leonard or that James Burke guy. I mean, like, come on.” – The Angola Penitentiary Doing Hard Times

“Mr. Denous is the purrrrfect best writer, forever and ever.” – Stella Roux, book reviewer of The Turkish Angora Blue Review

No one spelled my name correctly. Which should tell me something.

OK. None of them really work. So I'll just sit back and chuckle at the hissy fits over the Oxford comma, the Cambridge semi-colon and the Dartmouth diphthong. I mean like, "it's not long enough to be a diphthong!" Do people stay up at night over this?

Just saw a blurb on the back of a new book. The book is 'menacingly erotic' and a 'rollicking romp through fields of sugar cane'



This is what a Louisiana sugar cane field looks like. Have a rollicking romp through it. Go ahead.

www.oneildenoux.com

20 April 2017

The Wellspring & The Touchstone

by Brian Thornton

I was on spring break last week. Always billed as a "time to recharge."

Usually it's a staycation at Casa Thornton, with plenty of spring-specific chores in need of doing. This year, my wife–God love her!–had other ideas.

She dispatched me on an epic quest in search of my touchstone so I could re-tap my wellspring.

In other words, she gave me the gift of time and headspace in order to help me find my groove with my writing. And she did it by sending me to Cannon Beach for a couple of days, so I could write without distractions.

I don't do anything by half-measures, so my particular touchstone really is a stone. Solid rock. Solid, massive rock.

In fact, at 327 feet above the sea, it's the fourth largest sea stack (off-shore monolithic rock) in the world. My touchstone is Haystack Rock.

My touchstone

I just turned 52, and I have been visiting Cannon Beach since I was three months old. I have come on vacations, stayed for long weekends, even once memorably took an overnight road-trip on a whim (Oh, college...) with two friends from Spokane to Cannon Beach. We got there in the middle of the night, stoked the coals of a dying beach fire, enjoyed the rock and the night and the stars for a couple of hours, then turned around and drove home. We were back in Spokane by noon.

And I have come to pay homage to my touchstone after break-ups, before changing jobs, in between moves. So many of the transitional times in my life have involved a pilgrimage to commune with Haystack.

And so it was last weekend. You see, I sold my first book to a publisher in 2004, and saw it in print in 2005. Over the next five years I brought my total of written, sold and published books up to an even ten.

And then I met my wife. In fact, the back-end payment of the advance on my ninth book helped pay for our honeymoon. After that I collected and edited a West Coast-themed crime fiction anthology, wrote and sold a couple of short stories, and my wife and I welcomed our son into the world and into our family.

With these new demands on my time and headspace, something had to give, and it couldn't be my day gig (I teach ancient history to 8th graders. And like I tell them, by "ancient history," I'm not talking about the 1990s!). So it was my writing.

I had to hit pause at the end of the first draft of an historical mystery I'd been researching and working on since before I met my wife. My marriage, my kid and the house all needed to come first.

But like an itch you can't quite scratch, the story had not left me. If anything it tormented me as I attempted to squeeze in time and energy and headspace to try to wrap it up. I wrote thousands of new words, tweaked old scenes, and generally stalled, because I no longer had the option of dropping everything and blocking the world out until I'd hit my daily word count.

This is not to say that it can't be done, that writers can't juggle very small children, a demanding day job, a good marriage and a fulfilling writing career. People manage to do it all the time.

And folks like me are rightly in awe of them. (The immortal Jess Lourey comes to mind: did all that and did it as a single mother, to boot! She's truly a wonder.).

I'm just saying it couldn't be done by me.

Add in the demands of my wonderful wife's corporate gig (she's management now, and I don't tell her nearly enough how incredibly proud I am of her. And I am!), and we needed for me to pull the slack at various times over the last four-plus years.

And I hated stalling out on my writing.

HATE.

HATE.

HATED it.

But what I kept coming back to was that I loved being married to my wife, adored my son, and could not escape the notion that my child did not ask to be born. We wanted children. Specifically, we wanted him.

So I wrote when and where I could, and never quite gave up on it.

And then a funny thing happened.

My son started preschool.

Not "funny," so much as "wondrous."

I also wrapped up a couple of unrelated long-term time-suck commitments that have helped free up my writing time/attention even more in the time since my son started school last September.

And the result is that the first three months of 2017 have been more productive for me that the last two years put together. I am about to release my first novella, and the novel (yes, that novel!) is on-pace to go to my agent in June.

June!

This is not to say that it's all been smooth sailing. I still get bogged down in the day-to-day every now and again. Like a couple of weeks ago.

And my wonderful wife, the smartest manager I know (on so many levels!), sent me on my quest.

Let me show you the view from my writing desk over the course of those two glorious, word-count-packing days:

Magic!
And just like that, the spigot on my internal wellspring got turned back to blast. My writing pump was primed.

And two days later, I got to celebrate the return of my long-lost writer's voice with two people whose opinion matters most to me.

Easter Morning, 2017
Thanks again, Haystack.