Showing posts with label children. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children. Show all posts

25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?

Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain
"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

15 March 2020

Child Conspiracy

Recent SleuthSayers posts have taken a autobiographical turn. I don’t have any new great anecdotes, but I was talking with Haboob about early childhood recollection.

Early memories vary considerably. Ray Bradbury said he could recall his moment of birth and pretty much everything since. Another friend says she remembers almost nothing before the age of ten or twelve.

My memory falls in between, mostly significant events that rocked my infant world. I recall my first step, probably because of my parents’ fuss. Contrary to vicious rumors, that occurred well before my teen years when repairs necessitated exiting my beloved car.

The Rumor Mill

Long ago on Criminal Brief, I wrote about getting into trouble, mainly by being a good student. Weird, huh. I mean me.

Perhaps the most telling of those anecdotes occurred in the first grade. Miss Ruth, a fixture when my mother attended school, trotted us down to the gym. She sat us on the floor arranged in an alphabetical line. She explained how rumors couldn’t be trusted. We’d discover this, she said, playing a game of Telephone.

As a reader, you know Telephone: Into Amber Abelard’s ear, she’d whisper a story, who’d whisper it to Becky Bart, seated next to her. At the end of the line, Walter Younger would relate the story as he heard it. The teacher would then compare it to the original, lesson learnt.

Except… Even in the first grade, there was something of an investigator or junior scientist in me. (Adults usually called it other names.) Alphabetically, I sat dead center in the row of little whisperers. When it was my turn and the story about a cuddly bunny’s bicycle reached my ear, I realized I could run a double experiment. I whispered to the girl next to me my own fabrication about an ice skating duck.

After the words left my lips, I panicked. Miss Ruth was bound to investigate who’d sabotaged her tale. Our teachers believed in corporal punishment. They believed in capital punishment. I was done for, my life over barely into the first grade.

Walter duly stood and story-forthed the legend of a duck on roller skates.

The expression on Miss Ruth’s face… I can’t describe the despondency, somewhere between gaping and gasping.

Her hundred forty nine years of teaching (Did I mention she’d taught my mother?) fled before her eyes. Surely she wondered where she’d gone wrong. What had the Good Lord inflicted upon her?

She never finished the lesson, but packed it in for the day.

I had sold my first story.

Childhood Theory of Evolution
Childhood Theory of Evolution

The Grand Conspiracy

In retrospect, my weirdest early memory was the irrefutable evidence grownups lied to children. Nope, not like most kids. My parents didn’t believe in misleading toddlers about St Nicholas aka Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. Instead, they adopted sort of a conspiratorial approach, said many parents deceived their kids about Santa Claus, winked, and told us the truth. We fully enjoyed Christmas without the obfuscation. It puzzles me today when outraged parents scream when someone pulls aside the curtain of truth.

Nope, my parents played holiday games and the Tooth Fairy, but always let us know it was a game of make-believe.

But still, I knew adults lied. Specifically about growing up. I didn’t believe kids grew bigger or adults had ever been small. I need look no further than myself. On a remote farm, there were no other children to compare.

Childhood time moved so slowly, I never appeared to grow bigger. My next birthday seemed impossibly far off and anyway, birthdays were just numbers the people who controlled the world made up.

Obviously, getting bigger was an illusion promulgated by dishonest adults. Clothes shrank so how could a child judge whether he was growing bigger or clothes were getting smaller?

Old photos of grownups supposedly as children weren’t proof, all grainy and unrecognizable. They were just snapshots of other kids lost in the distant past.

Moreever, I knew things. I was raised amid farms and forests. Baby animals grew up in a matter of weeks or at most, months– mice, rabbits, chicks, and puppies. In less than a year, a calf would grow into a heifer or young bull. I didn’t grow at all during those weeks and months.

Who were they kidding? I’d exposed a dastardly plot to subjugate children and prevent them asking too many questions.

Without realizing the creeping evidence, I gradually became subverted. Or perhaps the adult nightly brain-washers laundered my thoughts.

But I was right about one thing. I never grew up.

12 May 2019

Epigenetics and Elephants

Most of the time I interview people and allow the things they ponder to guide my writing. This is not that article. This is about my late night pondering. Excuse the indulgence, but it’s been a a tough year and I’m prone to sleepless nights and thoughts.

Unable to sleep, I was ruminating on epigenetics and elephants. They may seem odd things to stay up at night about, but these are seriously important.

What epigenetics does is shake things up. DNA decides who we are but life turns our genes on and off - impacting everything from the architecture of our brain to the diseases we have. 

If you want to keep up at night too, just read about how this happens and how we can reverse the DNA changes that happened to your grandmother.

What actually jolted me out of a slide into a lovely slumber was a child. In a shopping cart. 

I was young - probably around 8 - and shopping with my mother. A child less than 2 in a cart passed by and she was sobbing. Her mother, her face clenched in that angry way that makes people truly ugly, slapped the child and said, “Cry again and I’ll give you something to cry about.’ As if that poor child didn’t have enough to cry about. I said to my mother, “Do something!” She said, “Shh.” Afterwards, my strong, well-educated mother told me that much as she would like to, it’s impossible to change how people parent.

There are many things that make us decide on our profession and making medicine my choice was about a series of decisions. All of them started at that moment. I was going to get an education that could help that child.

Choosing medicine would never have been something I did if I didn’t see a road to working with the damaged, the broken and, as I eventually did, stop the breaking and beating. I only went into medicine to work in mental illness.  

Let me tell you about mental illness and medicine and the place it has.  Many wonder why anyone would chose it. I have literally had people ask why I gave up medicine and chose to work with mental illness. Let me get this perfectly clear, I am a doctor who works with the mentally ill. As a doctor, I bring skills to the table because no brain tumour masquerading as depression gets past me. So, I am a doctor. Who works in one of the most important fields of medicine: with the mentally ill. I didn’t fall into it. I marched toward it, and went through medical training and 8 years of specialty training to have the privilege of working with patients that I wanted desperately to work for.

And that’s where epigenetic comes back in. Changing someone’s mental illness changes their genes. Leaving it does too. Those illnesses that all doctors battle, well I battle them too. In a different way, on a different battlefield, but it’s all medicine.

This all made me think of Dr. Fraser Mustard, who I had the honour of meeting numerous times. The last time I saw him was in his lovely home in Toronto, where his children lived in the apartment above him. After an illustrious career in medicine he had ended up pondering epigenetics and childhood trauma. He wrote about it brilliantly. He advocated for children. He was very old when i met him but this belief in helping children made him seem ageless. Children do that to you. In his apartment, so full of interesting things, was where I first thought of how he must stayed up at night worrying about children and that made it his life’s work at the end.

Sometimes, at the end of a career, you ponder the beginning. The thing that started it all. The work you have done and the value of it all.

Now I’m writing another book. It isn’t a departure from any of my other work. It is about the lost, the damaged and the suffering. I can’t change course because I simply don’t want to. It is what we see, truly see, that decides our course in life.

There is an African Zulu greeting: “I see you.” It is a haunting saying. When I was young, I visited many zoos around the world because my biologist father would meet other biologists and talk about the conservation efforts they were making at their zoos. I understand the conservation part. I do. But I really didn’t give a damn then, or even now. I hated zoos. Seeing the animals, really seeing them, in cages that were far too small or chained up - because that was the way zoos were then - I could see that the cages and chains around the elephant legs were truly like beatings. They diminished these animals, and their suffering was evident to anyone who bothered to look. In East Africa, where we spent many months on various trips, I saw wild animals on the plains. My first sight of elephants, not in chains but walking and taking such tender care of each other, made me fall in love. For the wildness of them. For the beauty of them. For the tenderness. I saw them.

Medicine or writing or elephants - it is all about seeing. All of it will keep you up at night if you let it. And these days I do.

And that child, being beaten in a shopping cart for all the world to see but not intervene. That too. That always. It shaped my life. I wish I could have told that tiny darling that. 

07 May 2018

My Mojo

Guest starring Steve Hockensmith
Steve Hockensmith is the author of more than a dozen mystery novels. Trust me, them hard-case crime writers ain’t so tough. Today, Steve will touch your heart. Grab a hanky. You’ve been warned.
— Velma

Monkey Shines

I wish this were my job description: Make stuff up, write it down. That’s what I enjoy about being a writer. But if you’re trying to get somewhere with your writing — having people actually read it, for instance — there’s a bit more to it than that.

gato de botas
That’s why I’m (sporadically) on social media and (even more sporadically) blog. Every post is a wee little flag fluttering in the breeze. It’s got writing on it, “Don’t tread on me”-style:

Look at me,” it says. “I’m alive.

And instead of a drawing of a coiled, bad-ass snake, it’s got this cat wearing a T-shirt that says ➜

Ask me about my mystery fiction.

I’m never really sure what I should be posting about, but in general I try to follow these rules:
  1. Keep it fun,
  2. keep it positive (which I think I’ve already broken)
  3. and keep it real… but not too real (see A and B).
I guess the secret (D) — or maybe it’s another sub-clause to (C) — is “Keep it impersonal.” I don’t like to write about my private life because (switching to numbers to avoid confusion)
  1. It’s private, duh, and
  2. who cares?
But I set that rule aside recently because… well, I couldn’t help myself. I was feeling something and I had to share it. So I started writing a tweet which grew into a message on Facebook which grew into a blog post. And now it’s grown into a guest blog post, because here it is again.

Guyzos — Three Amigos
Guyzos — The Three Amigos
Someone broke the passenger-side window out of my car and stole the shoulder bag I take to work every day. I guess they thought it would have a laptop in it. No such luck for the thieves. And no luck for my family. Because you know what was in that bag? Two monkeys and an owl. Bobo, Lou from the Zoo and Barney the Barn Owl, to be specific.

Every day for the last year or so, my son Mojo picked out three of his “guyzos” (his huge posse of stuffed animals) for me to take to work. During the day, I’d send him pictures of the guys helping me do my job. The makeup of the group changed every day except for one constant: Bobo. Bobo always came with me. Because Bobo was special.

Mojo is autistic. There were times a few years ago when it was almost impossible to get him to communicate or cooperate or control himself. And you know who he almost always listened to? Bobo. Bobo could calm him down. Bobo could get him to listen. Bobo could get him to talk about himself and what he was feeling.

Bobo probably would have offended my Italian friends. He-a sounded like-a theese-a. You know: He had a “Whatsa matta for you?” old school faux-Italian accent. Why? Because it’s a silly accent I can do, and a long time ago it became my job to give the guyzos distinct voices and personalities. (It’s not easy. In fact, there are several guyzos with the same voice. Baby and His Brother Baby, for instance, and they sound a lot like Ted the Christmas Bear who sounds almost exactly like Big Ears the Rabbit.)

Bobo was an upbeat, can-do dude. “Let's-a try it, my friend!” he’d say. Or “You can-a do it, my friend!” (He called everyone “my friend.”) And “I love-a you, my friend.” And Mojo would say, “I love you, Bobo.”

Bobo shared Mojo’s distaste for shows of affection, though. “No lovey-doveys!” they liked to shout when things got too icky-sentimental. So I’ll honor Bobo’s preferences and wrap this up.

My wife and I were in a restaurant celebrating our 21st wedding anniversary when Bobo was stolen. When we came out and realized what had happened, we drove around the neighborhood looking for the bag and the guyzos, hoping the thieves would dump everything when they realized they hadn’t snatched anything of value. To them.

We were in tears. Not over an old, stained, to be honest slightly stinky stuffed monkey. The tears were for what Bobo represented. What he gave us. A narrow window into our son’s mind and heart.

That window is wider now. Mojo’s doing fine. He listens and communicates and (usually, in his unique way) cooperates. This morning, when my wife and I told him what had happened to the guyzos, he said, “Oh, no… oh, no.” His lips trembled, and tears came to his eyes. And then, after we talked about it a little longer — about how special Bobo was and how much we would miss him — he said, “Oh, well.” And he was ready to watch his Saturday morning cartoons.

He’s still hurt, I can tell. But at this very moment he’s watching Bugs Bunny and eating a doughnut. He acknowledged his pain, and then he moved on. What we all have to do all the time. Mojo can do it, too. I couldn’t always say that.

A stuffed monkey helped that happen. He’s gone now, but the window he opened remains.

Thanks, Bobo. And goodbye.

Yeah, you smelled. But I love you, my friend…

I got more likes, shares, hits and supportive comments from that post than from anything I’ve done on social media in a long, long time. (It also caught the attention of Leigh Lundin, who asked me if SleuthSayers could showcase it.) But the takeaway isn’t “Ruthlessly exploit your child’s pain.” (At least I hope it’s not.)

I broke my own rules. I didn’t worry about being fun. I didn’t worry about keeping it positive. I didn’t worry about getting too personal. Bobo deserved a tribute, so I wrote one.

Look at him. He was alive (to us, anyway).

That touched people. And many of them responded in a way that touched me. Will that help me sell more mystery fiction? No, and I don’t care.

For me, it’s a reminder that writing (and, yes, that includes blogging and tweeting) can be its own reward. Which is something we writers — particularly we genre writers worried about finding an audience — might occasionally forget.

Steve blogs (sporadically) at

01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again

Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.
And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials…

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

23 March 2016


War novels and war movies are a genre, and military settings in peacetime, as well - SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, or REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, for example - but there's a special subset, stories about dependentsmilitary families and their dynamics, their tensions and dislocations.
The gold standard, most military brats seem to think, is Pat Conroy's THE GREAT SANTINI. I have to say, though, that I've never warmed up to Conroy as a writer. The one book I like is THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, and that itself is another genre subset, the military academy book, Calder Willingham's END AS A MAN, Lucian Truscott's DRESS GRAY (my personal gold standard in this category). And meanwhile, Conroy's also among the fallen, having died only this past week, so it feels mean-spirited, or anyway inappropriate, to damn him with faint praise. In any case, people who grew up on the inside, with career military families, will tell you THE GREAT SANTINI sets the bar pretty high. Sarah Bird, who's an Air Force brat, calls it the Rosetta Stone.

Sarah Bird's sixth novel, THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, came out in 2001, so I'm a little late to the party. Her dad, a flyer, was stationed at Yokota AFB, outside Tokyo, and later at Kadena, on Okinawa. He flew recon missions, which I take to mean RF-101 Voodoos and RF-4C's. The target was North Viet Nam. Nine out of ten crews in his squadron were eventually lost, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Sarah says it was years before she realized his DFC wasn't just given for perfect attendance.

As an aside, I was once penciled in for flight status out of Yokota, an assignment that never materialized, but it would have meant flying ELINT missions out over the South China Sea and down along the coast of North Viet Nam, lighting up the SAM sites as we came into range. Which leads me to suspect that Maj. Bird flew what were known as Ferret Flights. He never explained to his daughter exactly what he did, it was classified, and she filled in the blanks after the fact. My point, here, is that I've got some inside dope, but it's actually not entirely pertinent. As a matter of fact, in the novel, the mysteries of the dad's duty rotation, and sometime absences, is part of the fabric of uncertainty his family lives with.

However. What the guy does is both central, and secondary. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is mostly about the oldest kid, Bernie, for Bernadette, and her relationships with the other kids, and with her mom. The military environment is a constant presence, but it's a gravitational influence, like a planet in unstable orbit. Even if you don't see it, you feel its tidal pull.

This is the thing I liked best about the book, the sense of immersion, and at the same time, apartness, or isolation. Bernie's center of gravity is her immediate family, but although she's in this larger institution, the military and the airbase where they're stationed, she's not entirely of it. She says to her sister Kit, at one point, You know it's all transitory, you have to detach, how can you take it seriously? Meaning, the next assignment takes you to a new installation - a new school, a new set of people, a new kind of landscape to navigate, and yet the same constraints of behavior, and how you present yourself. And the rules are all the more restrictive because they're unspoken, half the time. You absorb it by osmosis.

This is a life experience I'm guessing you can't really inhabit unless you've been there. You can come close, you can approximate it, and Sarah Bird does a pretty amazing job of making it enormously vivid and convincing, with never a false note, but all the same, no matter how well you describe it, or reimagine it, breathe it in and breathe it out, some part of it will elude the rest of us.

She says, Sarah, that she's perhaps paying back an obligation. She calls the novel a Valentine. In an interview, she remarks that "All of this made us [her family] something of our own little tribe of nomadic recluses, outsiders within this greater tribe of outsiders permanently passing through America." I find it a very telling observation that she pictures the serving military as outsiders, and I think she's right. Permanently passing through. In, but not of.

Don't mistake me, though. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is anything but a niche novel. I'm obviously relating to it on some kind of metabolic level, simply because it rings so true to me - and that's not to suggest you have to see it through my eyes. It opens a window on an unfamiliar world, and makes it seem utterly intimate and organic. Partly this is Bernie, who's a wonderfully engaging narrator, but also the choice of exact detail, although coming at you from an odd angle, and not quite what you expected. Then again, the book as a whole works against your expectations. That's its charm. And there's the word I've been looking for all along. Charm. In either sense, too. Both the goofy, flirty, adolescent voice, and the sense of casting a spell. It holds you captive.

27 October 2015

Kids and Crime

by Barb Goffman
When I was in sixth grade, word spread through my elementary school that some fifth graders were going to put Spanish fly in their teacher's coffee. I didn't know what Spanish fly was, but it sounded bad. Dangerous. I waited to see what would happen and ... nothing happened. Did the students chicken out? Did someone threaten to rat them out so they called off the plan? Did someone actually rat them out but this information was kept quiet? Did they call off the plan themselves because they realized it was a bad idea? Or had it been a big rumor with no truth to it at all? I don't know. But it's certainly true that kids who may not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions can enjoy playing pranks, and they can get angry and want revenge. Teachers often are a prime target.

A review of news reports on Google bears this out. A small sample:
  • A thirteen-year-old student was charged with allegedly sneaking a sleeping pill into his teacher's coffee after she chastised him for disrupting class.
  • A middle-school student was accused of putting several of his asthma pills into his teacher's coffee.
  • An eighth-grade teacher was sickened after two students slipped a prescription sedative into her lemonade, police said.
The articles go on, including ones involving elementary school students even younger than the kids involved with the Spanish fly rumor from my elementary school. It was these types of stories that prompted my newest short story, "The Wrong Girl," about a group of elementary school girls who seek revenge on a mean teacher. Addressing this topic was cathartic for me because what happened to the girl in the story happened to me, except I never tried to get revenge.

What causes some kids to try to hurt others? Do they not truly understand the consequences of their actions? Or do they understand but lack sufficient empathy? I don't know, but it's a topic I like to explore in my fiction. I've had several short stories published involving children and teenagers. You can find a few of them in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press, 2013). My newest story, "The Wrong Girl," is my first attempt at flash fiction. It's in a new anthology called Flash and Bang, which was published on October 8th by Untreed Reads Publishing.

This new anthology is the first one featuring members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Every story involves a flash or a bang. The publisher chose nineteen stories, including one from fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd called "Rosie's Choice."

I hope you'll check the book out and let me know what you think of my take on kids and crime. (The anthology is available as a trade paperback and as an e-book, so with a couple of clicks, you could read it right away.) In the meanwhile, as we head toward Halloween this weekend, when children are encouraged to beg for candy or else they'll supposedly play a trick on you, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on children and crime. At what age do children come to truly understand the consequences of their actions? And at what age should they be held accountable?

25 May 2015

All I Need To Know

Mystery Author Jan Grape
This past week I was thinking about how things learned at a very early age can form us in a way that we really don't understand. Thinking about that reminded me of the book title, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. Have any of you read that book? I never read it but I did read Mr. Fulghum's original essay on the subject. If you haven't read the book or the essay here are some highlights:
  • Play Fair.
  • Don't Hit People.
  • Put Things Back Where They Belong and Clean Up Your Own Mess.
  • Wash Your Hands Before You Eat And Don't Forget To Flush.
  • Take a Nap Every Afternoon.
Pretty good examples of how to live a pretty good life, right? And we did learn this in kindergarten or if you didn't go to kindergarten, you learned it in first grade. A couple more things were mentioned but I didn't want to get into copyright problems. And the major point I was thinking about was how this all can relate to your characters as you write. Definitely to your main character and to your villain as well.

My late husband, Elmer, had a somewhat traumatic experience when he was five years old. In fact, it was on this fifth birthday. He was playing outside and although he knew he wasn't feeling too well, he kept running and playing and one of his older sisters who was in the house watching him out the window didn't see him fall. He just fell unconscious. No injury, no reason. If she saw him at any point, I'm sure she just thought he was playing dead or whatever little five year old boys do.

A nearby neighbor saw him and called for an ambulance. The ambulance took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. A short time later, his mother who had returned home and found out her child was in the hospital raced to the medical center. Mama began having a screaming fit because this was a Catholic Hospital. She had been taught in her church that Catholic churches were evil and that all nuns, even nurses worked for the devil. She came into the children's ward, right to her son's bed yelling about how they were going to kill her baby and that she absolutely had to take him out of this Satan's Den of Evil before he died.

Fortunately, the medicine that had been given Elmer had broken his fever and since the family didn't have any insurance or money, they sent him home with his mother and medicine. For the rest of his life, every time Elmer had to go to the hospital and he had a number of surgeries after we were married, he always had a bad experience. There were times he called me to come get him, he felt they were doing him more harm than good. I had heard his childhood story but never connected the dots of the child's traumas with the man's bad experiences. Often because there were little things that had gone wrong, like pain meds making him sick or a bad nurse, or machine failures.

The mother of a good friend of ours died when he was five years old. He actually doesn't remember much of the next couple of years although his father remarried and his new mother was kind and loving to him and his three older brothers. His parent's had four other boys and all were happy and healthy. It wasn't until he wrote his memoirs when he was in his seventies that he recalled the devastation he felt. It also explained his fear of separation from his wife and children even though they were only going on a short trip to visit her mother two hundred miles away.

These little stories made me think of how things that could have happened to your main character when they were four or five or six can shape the life of a hero/heroine or the life of your villain or even secondary characters.

I even read that psychologist say that even if a young person goes bad and maybe commits crimes and seems to hate everyone and everything, love can save him.  If that person knew and felt love when he was a baby up to age five or six, that he will return to return that love. I have no idea how this relates to career criminals but it might redeem some bad person you're writing about it you know their life story.

I'm writing this on Memorial Day and I want to say thank you to all those who are serving in the military, those who have served through all the years, and those who have to wait. May all come back home safely. Including my father, my bonus dad and my husband who did come home safely.

07 April 2014

Take This Job and Shove It, I ain't writing anymore

 A month or so ago, I quit writing--no more books to be published under my real name nor under my pen name.  I just became bored with the whole deal.  My agent is seeking a home for my last two books (a horror and a thriller).  Don't you think six Callies and several books by a pen name are enough for someone who only got serious with fiction after retirement?

Besides, I do have an anthology I've been involved with coming out in September, 2015.  This came about when David Lee Jones, a writer friend, and I were having lunch. He said, "Let's write something, publish it, and contribute the royalties to charity."

"Sounds like a plan," I answered, assuming he meant he and I would write it. As we talked, we decided on a ghost story book with all stories about SC and written by SC authors. We invited two more writers, James Kirk and Richard Laudenslager, to join us and became  SC Screams, an association whose purpose is to raise funds for children's charities. The manuscript is complete, and we've found a publisher who is as enthusiastic about it as we are.  I'll tell you more about that when the release date is closer.

That was exciting, but it still left me bored.

I was having a hard time sitting, and I certainly wasn't staying.  I redecorated some rooms, and I became a "lady who lunches."
Since most of the people I met for lunch are either writers or friends who read my books, I was constantly faced with this across the table:

When I explained that I'd quit writing, so there was no book to report on, they asked in disbelief, "No more Callies?

"Not unless Russ produces something I can 'Callicize,'" I answered, referring to the author who wants to write a Callie.

"It won't last," they told me. "You'll get some big idea and be back on the computer all night."  I did get a big idea, but not for a writing project.  I decided to sponsor a benefit for children.

Music captivates children.  What better way to earn
money to help them than a concert?
In the past two weeks, I wrote an article for Bluegrass Unlimited and that led to contact with Willie Wells who owns Bill's Pickin' Parlor with its listening room that seats over 300. The idea of a benefit concert hit me while talking to Willie, and he agreed to contribute the venue for my cause. 

I am producing GENE HOLDWAY Flying Solo with a special guest appearance by NANCY GATES OWEN on July 20th to benefit Children's Chance.

Gene agreed instantly to performing  his "Flying
Solo" act which includes bluegrass, but also
folk, country, Americana. and a few
comedy bits..
I met Gene Holdway in 1998 when I did
a photo shoot of the band Split Rail.
 He and I became "partners in rhyme,"
co-writing and producing music and
have remained friends.


Nancy Gates Owen is an Americana  singer/songwriter
and recording artist in Tennessee.  She'll be
performing in Columbia, SC, as a special guest
on July 20, 2014. 

Note that I don't say, "All profits will go to Children's Chance, a SC nonprofit organization for children with cancer."  My problem with that statement is the word "profits."  Too often, the profits are contributed after a lot of debts are paid.  In this case, admission is a donation at the door, all of which will go directly to the charity because both performers, the owner of the venue, the staff, and the promo team are contributing their parts of this project free-of-charge.

Everyone's enthusiasm about this has revved up my energy and enthusiasm. It also has me writing again--press releases, public service announcements, and at least four feature articles that have to say the same things in different ways for local magazines, each with its own hook.  

It all feels good, but I must confess--I just got one helluva an idea for a short story.

Until we meet again… take care of you!

21 March 2014

How the Horses Have It

Here on SleuthSayers, we’ve often discussed the impact of crime on the lives of victims and their families. This article deals directly with that impact—in this case, the impact childhood sexual assault has on its victims years after they reach adulthood, at which point these adults choose to be called what they now truly are: Survivors of childhood sexual assault.

I have chosen to write, this week, about Itahoba Horse, an upcoming program designed to facilitate and foster personal healing for these survivors.

In the interests of full disclosure, I want to make it clear that the founder of Tapestry Institute—the non-profit organization partnering with the WINGS Foundation to present the Itahoba Horse program—is my sister, Dawn Adams Ph.D. But, the reader should also be aware that my sister and I do not always agree on things.

While I spent ten years working for military intelligence and Special Forces, for instance, she earned her doctorate at the University of California Berkley. Consequently, politics is just one area in which our views are worlds apart. It has also been my experience, however, that her views and ideas for assisting people, in manners consistent with those planned-for in the upcoming Itahoba Horse program, have proven remarkably astute and effective in the past. And, further, the approach used in the program is probably of great interest to both readers and writers.

Itahoba Horse Program

The Lone Ranger whistles and his horse, Silver, comes galloping up so the masked man can jump on horseback and get away.

Is this sort of behavior natural to a horse? Is it natural for a person?

Perhaps more germane: If Silver was busily interacting with several other equine friends at the moment the Lone Ranger whistled, would he still be so quick to respond? Or would Silver behave differently when he was part of a de facto herd?

What does this have to do with adults faced with the ongoing trauma resulting from sexual assault they suffered during childhood?

Quite a bit, perhaps. (And, no I’m not accusing the Lone Ranger or his horse of anything. They’re just a couple of handy examples.)

This spring and summer in Fort Lupton, Colorado, adult survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault (CSA) will examine remarkably similar, but much more personal questions as they participate in the Itahoba Horse program.

“Itahoba” is a Choctaw word meaning “connected,” and the program is designed to provide an exploration and strengthening of significant connections—of many kinds—as participants engage with horses in a very special way.

This idea of connection can be extremely important in the lives of CSA survivors, many of whom feel a sense of social or personal isolation due to the stigma inflicted by trauma suffered at a young age. This sense of isolation can be further aggravated if trusted adults were involved in the abuse, or if they failed to believe the child was actually victimized—particularly in those instances in which children were mistakenly (or dishonestly) told that what they reported to a trusted adult never actually happened.

Itahoba Horse is a product of cooperation between two non-profit organizations—WINGS Foundation, which provides counseling and support for adult survivors of childhood sexual assault; and Tapestry Institute, which integrates different ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world.

Stacy Sheridan, MA, LPC; Program Director & Clinical Supervisor of WINGS Foundation, Inc. says: "I am thrilled to announce WINGS' partnership with Tapestry Institute! As a clinician and program director for WINGS, I consider equine work to be one of the most effective and transformational approaches to healing. I have seen firsthand the power of a horse's presence as they invite a level of vulnerability, intuition, and trust that many of our survivors simply cannot experience with another human at this point in their healing journey. It is for these reasons and many more that I am thrilled to begin referring our survivors to Tapestry and look forward to the transformational healing they will experience through this partnership."

Tapestry Institute’s main focus is the examination and integration of different ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world. The institute’s objective is to understand how we, as individuals, construct a certain view of the world, including the factors that influence us to create and maintain deeply held beliefs. This, in turn, allows a constructive rearrangement and integration of these factors, permitting people to realize a deeper understanding of the world around us and our place in it.

To illustrate how this plays out in programs such as Itahoba Horse, I’d point to a difference in viewpoints between my wife and myself. We see colors and cars differently.

My wife can name somewhere between five and fifty colors, all of which—to me—go simply by the single name “purple.”

Conversely, when I say, “Wow! Check out that Corvette!” her reply usually runs along the lines of, “You mean the blue car?”

I love classic cars. For instance, I love old Mustangs, the older Corvettes with the tubular headlights, and the early Stingrays (which I prefer). To my wife, however, all cars boil down to: redcar, bluecar, whitecar, etc. She sees no difference between a blue 1963 Stingray, and a blue 2014 Mazda—except that the Mazda is newer.

When we first met, I owned a white 1964½ Mustang. On our first date, I asked, “So, what do you think of the car?”

She shrugged. “It’s okay.”

“OKAY? It’s a ‘64½ Mustang!”

“Well. Yeah. I guess it is kind of old. Isn’t it?”

“OLD!?! It’s a Mustang.”

“Well … I mean, it’s older than I am.”

“Oh, my God! How old are you?”

To me, I was driving a classic—a Mustang from the first production year. A car to be truly proud of. To her, I was driving an old white car.

I have no interest in learning about fifty shades of purple; my wife has no interest in learning about classic cars. The truth, however, is that we’d both probably benefit by learning what the other knows. I’d gain a better understanding of color nuance, while my wife might come to understand why I love to run my hands along the fender of a classic car, to pop the hood and work on the engine in order to more fully “grock” what I see as a living, breathing, metal sculpture of energy in motion.

It reminds me of how my appreciation for Jackson Pollock’s work was planted and grew within my heart and mind in a single hour. Upon first viewing a Jackson Pollock, I thought: “Hmmm. I suspect this artist downed a lot of beer, then somebody pulled a fast one and started swapping mugs of brightly-colored paint in on him. When he got bed spins, he barfed the paint all over the canvas.”

I was seeing only the static, physical presentation of dead paint on stretched canvas. One hour in my college Modern Art class changed all that. I saw a short film of the man painting on glass, another of him dueling with the canvas, saw how he attacked it. Saw the concentration on his face as he worked to impart energy to the work.

Today, I love a good Jackson Pollock. To me, he’s accomplished a nearly impossible feat: He’s captured energy in motion via a two-dimensional static media. He’s taken what I loved about my ‘64½ Mustang, and fastened it into canvas and paint.

When looking at a Jackson Pollock, I sometimes think of the way physicists shoot electrons and other sub-atomic particles at a screen, watching for the way the screen “lights up” to map the particle’s path. A Jackson Pollock looks, to me, like a snap-shot of the electron screen being struck by thousands of sub-atomic particles, some of which shoot through leaving just a speck or spot, while others shatter on impact, splashing themselves across the screen. It’s beautiful, terrifying, and filled with trapped frenetic energy.

Because of what I learned in that art class, I've now come to know Jackson Pollock’s work in a much deeper and far more fulfilling way. I’m sure my wife and I would both experience similar fulfillment if we decided to learn about color and cars. At Tapestry, however, the manner of learning and knowing is not so much about color vs. cars—though their approach is applicable in that arena—as it is about “Western World View” and “Indigenous World View.”

People naturally learn in many different ways. Everyone uses intuition sometimes, or information gained from insight. People learn from story, whether in books or movies or even visual art. They also learn by thinking and analyzing and reflecting on information. They learn from spiritual experiences, too, whether in a church service or a powerful moment spent in a forest, alone. And they learn through experience, “proprioceptively”—You can’t just EXPLAIN how to shoot a firearm properly, for instance; a person has to actually DO it to learn the skill. Someone may understand exactly how a rifle works, but s/he cannot learn to shoot it well, without loading ammo and firing rounds down-range. People need the physical experience to learn.

I believe that, if you think about it, you’ll agree: people really do learn in all these different ways. I’m reminded, in fact, of some recent reading I've done, in which law enforcement personnel stated that many victims seemed to intuitively “know” that they were about to be preyed upon. The idea is that nature has endowed us with ancient predator-prey receptors that signal red flags when we have unknowingly walked into a dangerous situation. As one of the law enforcement writers put it: “Anyone who has ever felt the hairs standing up on the back of his neck knows what I’m talking about here.” 

Contemporary Western culture tends to recognize and validate only the analytical and mental methods of learning and knowing. We've all felt the hairs go up on the backs of our necks, however, so we know the other methods are out there.

These methods, though, tend to be devalued by contemporary education. Our schools are full of how to learn through reading, writing, and analysis. Yet, there is little to no instruction on how to access, assess, or evaluate and use information acquired through art, story, intuition, spiritual insight, proprioception, and so on. Tapestry’s goal is to help people learn to do just that.

To do so, Tapestry taps into a non-Western world view—specifically, that of “Indigenous World View.”

My sister has embraced her Choctaw heritage much more deeply than I have. Through that embrace she has come to understand the contemporary world view of Choctaw Indians and other indigenous peoples, as well as the ancient beliefs that informed this world view. Tapestry then integrates the ways of knowing inherent in BOTH Western World View AND Indigenous World View to access more ways of learning and knowing. They then teach others how to access, assess and evaluate the information gleaned from these additional ways of knowing and learning, in order to give students a deeper knowledge of the world around them and their places in it.

This plays a large role in the Itahoba Horse project, and in helping adult survivors of CSA to realize new ways to connect not only with the natural world, but also with loved ones.

Program leaders are quick to point out that Itahoba Horse is not standard equine-assisted therapy. “We’re providing people with a different method to connect in a natural way—one that is both ancient and modern,” said Dr. Dawn Adams of Tapestry. “As a paleontologist who has taught biology at major universities, I know that all living things are quite literally connected to one another and to their physical environment. But our connection to nature runs more deeply than the genetic and ecological connections science recognizes. The word itahoba expresses this level of connection, which includes aspects that are not accessible through a strictly materialistic view of reality, as well as the biological and physical connections between ourselves and the world around us. Our program is designed to help people open the doors to both kinds of connection, using horses as facilitators who help mentor the process. Our experience has been: once this door is opened, the person who has made that connection with nature suddenly discovers she is also connected more fully with her own self as well as with coworkers, family members, and society as a whole.”

Itahoba Horse leaders are hesitant to provide too many program details, concerned that participants may read about certain objectives before having experienced the work that would help them come to a full and deep understanding of those objectives.

Program leaders did, however, consent to share that the first step in the program is to institute an understanding of “mindfulness” in each participant. In this context, “mindfulness” means: “Having a mindset focused in the present moment, not considering the past or future, which helps participants examine their actions in the present without judgment.”

This is important because, for a CSA survivor, examining him/herself without judgment may not be an easy thing to do.

As with many Itahoba activities, the first session appears deceptively simple on the surface. Participants will be broken into groups of four, and each group will be assigned a horse, which comes with a volunteer who is well-versed in both the concept of mindfulness and requisite horsemanship skills (some are also CSA survivors). After basic instruction and practice in mindfulness, participants will be given brushes, and asked to brush their horses “mindfully.” Afterward, they will be quizzed about what thoughts and feelings arose as they brushed their horses’ coats.

According to Jo Belasco, Itahoba Horse Program Leader, who has a degree in Psychology, and conducts national seminars and clinics for fearful horseback riders: “The common thoughts people share often include: ‘I am probably not doing this right. I’m always inept.’ ‘This horse is too skinny. I wonder if someone harmed it in the past.’ ‘Stupid horse! Why do you keep doing that; it makes it hard to brush you.’ Or even something as innocuous as, ‘I wonder what’s going on at work. I hope things don’t go to hell today, leaving me with a nightmare in the office tomorrow.’

“They are not in the present moment,” Belasco points out. “Consequently, they’re often making judgments of themselves and others—sometimes even judging the horses. Emotions often accompany these thoughts: despair, fear, anxiety, things like that. So, we do it again after looking at what they tell us they thought and felt. We practice until their minds begin to still. Once they experience being wholly in the moment, without judgment—even for a few minutes—they begin to understand the freeing power of this practice. Believe me: people who have experienced despair, fear or anxiety for years or even decades find it very refreshing to experience even a few minutes without those feelings.” 

As the sessions progress, participants will be asked to perform tasks of increasing difficulty with their assigned horses, always encouraged to practice mindfulness while they do so. Of course, as the problems mount, this can be a difficult mindset to maintain. Itahoba Horse volunteers, however, are there to assist and encourage, helping participants remain fully in the present without judging themselves, their horses, or other people. One goal, over time, is to enable participants to control their focus, leading them to connect more deeply with the horses they’re working with, and with the people around them.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to the writers among us that the institute has identified “story” —whether mythological, religious, or simply entertaining in nature—as a major factor in creating deeply held personal and cultural beliefs. In other words: we learn from the stories we read, hear, or see acted-out.

Story has also informed the lives of CSA survivors, often in negative ways. Some survivors, as children, were told stories such as: “This is our special secret; you must never tell anyone, or bad things will happen to you.” “She couldn’t have done that to you; you must be wrong!” “If he did that to you, you must have done something to make him act that way. What did you do?” These are stories, when repeatedly told to a young child, undoubtedly erect a strong infrastructure informing his/her deeply-held system of adult beliefs—about the world, and about themselves.

As Itahoba Horse participants connect with horses and people during the program, they will also be challenged to examine stories that inform beliefs we, as individuals and as a society, hold about the nature and behavior of horses, people, and victims of sexual assault. To say more might be to endanger the success of the program in some survivors’ lives, so I’ll stop here—though I will hint that this is where the Lone Ranger and Silver ride into the equation.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so the first session of Itahoba Horse is scheduled to be held April 12th. Subsequent sessions will be held on May 17th, and June 28th.

For those wishing to learn more about WINGS Foundation , or Tapestry Institute , I made their names clickable in this paragraph.

Tapestry is in search of further funding to underwrite Itahoba Horse and possibly expand the program. Those wishing to donate, may do so by following this link. HERE See you in two weeks! --Dixon