10 April 2014

Easter is Coming, and My Back's to the Wall


by Eve Fisher

This weekend, I am going to the pen for another weekend workshop.  Two weeks from today, when I'm writing this, I will be hosting a massive Easter Feast.  Thus, a post with more cooking than writing, and more customs than plot.  Oh, well...

Back to the Easter Feast:  So far, I expect 11 adults, 4 children, 1 baby, and perhaps 4 more adults coming, but who knows.  We just made the spanakopita this morning and put it in the freezer.  I have a 7 pound leg of lamb that I'll start thawing around Good Friday, and will stuff with garlic and herbs.  My guests - most of whom have been here before - know their jobs, and each bring a wonderful dish, so that I don't have to cook much else but the lamb and the spanakopita, and put out some olives and bread.  It's a Greek feast, but we're having it on Tuesday, rather than Sunday, so that more people can come.

Easter is a huge deal in the Orthodox church.  Yes, I know it's a huge deal in every Christian church, or should be, since without the Resurrection, the rest is iffy, to put it mildly.  But in the Orthodox church...  even my atheist father (a handsome Greek boy, as you can see) demanded red-dyed Easter eggs.  In the Orthodox church, Easter is the high holy day of days.

And food is an important part:  After 40 days of Lenten fasting - and in the Orthodox church that means no meat, fish, eggs, dairy products of any kind, oil or wine.  (Sundays you can have oil and wine.)  VERY devout Orthodox abstain entirely from food on Good Friday.  (In case you're wondering, I don't do any of this.)  And then, after the Holy Saturday midnight service, there is a love feast, and the next day:  lamb.

Leg of Lamb:
Take a leg of lamb (bone in), and trim of it of any excessive fat.
Cut slits all over it, about an inch or two apart, and in each slit put in salt, a sliver of garlic and/or some herbs (thyme is really good).
Salt and pepper it on the outside and dribble it with olive oil.
Roast at 350 until a meat thermometer reaches about 130 degrees
             (should take about 2 1/2 hours for a 7 pound leg)

Spanakopita:
1 package Filo pastry (I buy it frozen; life is too short to make your own)
1 stick of melted butter
2 boxes of cooked frozen chopped spinach OR 2 bunches of fresh spinach, chopped and cooked
Saute - 1 chopped onion and 3 cloves of crushed garlic in olive oil until tender
Blend - 8 oz. diced or crumbled feta with 2-3 eggs (you want it thick)
mix everything together and set aside.

NOTE:  The key to filo pastry is to work FAST.  I never let go of the buttering brush until I'm done.
Take an 8x10 or 9/11 sheet-cake pan.  (Actually, I use the disposable aluminum sheet pans that you can get 2 for $1.99 for this job.)  If you're going to freeze it before you cook it, line it with aluminum foil.
Put 2 sheets of filo in the bottom, brush them with butter, and then start layering the filo pastry, a sheet at a time, with half the sheet hanging over the edge at various angles (you'll fold them in over the filling at the end), buttering the half-sheet in the pan.  Build this up into a nice buttered filo pastry lining.  Then, when you've used up all the sheets, pour in the filling, and start overlapping and buttering the edges - a sheet at a time - that were hanging outside the pan.  (Save a sheet if you need extra coverage at the very center.)
Bake at 350 degrees for an hour.  Slice it into squares and serve.

Lamb and spanokopita are universals, but the cookies served depend on what part of Greece you're from. In my grandmother's house, it was kept simple and delicious:

Greek KoulouriaKoulourakia:
1 cup butter, creamed with
1 1/2 cups sugar
ADD - 3 eggs
            1 tsp vanilla extract
MIX:  4 cups flour with 1 tbsp. baking powder

Take handful and roll it out into a thin rope (1/4 to 1/2 inch wide), about 6 inches long; then twist them as in the photo.  Brush with a milk wash, and bake at 375 degrees until golden brown.  (Yes, they crack.  They also keep forever in a nice air-tight tin.  If you can keep them away from everyone.  And they taste great, dunked in tea, coffee, or even a bit of brandy...)

 Καλό Πάσχα!  (Happy Easter!)


09 April 2014

Cold Case


by David Edgerley Gates

This is a Where Do You Get Your Ideas? post. Generally speaking, I think this is a dumb question, and demonstrates that somebody knows next to nothing about the actual process of writing. Ideas, in fact, are floating around in the zeitgeist, and we pluck them out of the air.

The movie critic Robert Warshow once famously remarked that there were only half a dozen basic plots to the Western. You might not entirely agree, but can tell where he's headed. The stranger rides into town, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, say, and trouble follows. You can ring a lot of changes from that set-up, even if the conventions are pretty rigorous. In other words, it's not the what, where, or when that matters, but the how.


In this particular instance, I saw an article in my local newspaper, the Santa Fe NEW MEXICAN, about a cold case that had gotten new legs. Sixty years ago, a woman disappears. Everything points to murder. The cops like her husband for it, but they can't pin it on him. For openers, there's no body, and the guy doesn't crack, under interrogation. Some time later, he dies. End of story. Unsolved. Cut to the present day. All these years later, somebody else owns the house where these people lived, and they're remodeling the garage. Digging up the floor, they find human remains. Is it possible, using modern forensics, DNA from her kids, to identify Inez Garcia? Could you finally lay the crime to rest, and give the dead woman, and her family, both justice and closure?

Photo Credit Luis Sanchez Saturno SFNM

It's not the case itself, so much, that caught my attention. It was the gap. Sixty years is a long time. And it occurred to me, what if you framed two parallel narrative lines, the original investigation, and the new one? I've already got the characters waiting in the wings. Benny Salvador, sheriff of Rio Arriba county, back in the day, and Pete Montoya, the New Mexico state cop, in the here and now. Pete could be looking at Benny's old notes, the murder book, the physical evidence, which might even point to a different suspect. That's as far as my thinking takes me, at this point. It's in my peripheral vision.

You probably see where I'm going. The newspaper article didn't give me an original idea. What it did was suggest a way to tell the story, which is half the battle. Not just P.O.V., but voice. A way in, and a way out. Something you can hang your hat on, a shape that casts a shadow.

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.

08 April 2014

Training Writers


by Dale C. Andrews
Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a train
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love. 
                 Night Journey 
                 Theodore Roethke 
       On a Thursday morning in early October Ellery Queen was grappling with more fundamental concerns. The cross-country flight west to Los Angeles had been bumpy, particularly over the Rockies, and he had been bone-weary when the cab deposited him . . . . [H]is sleep had been fitful, and by morning he had still found himself more than a little disoriented in time, thick of tongue, and feeling every bit of his seventy years. Mr. Queen lamented the loss of the leisurely cross-country Pullman trips of yore and grumbled, not for the first time, how flying so unforgivably takes the travel out of travel. 

                  The Mad Hatter’s Riddle 
                   Dale C. Andrews 

      What is it about a train that lends itself to narrative fiction and, particularly, to mysteries? The question is open to some debate, but to my mind there are several aspects to train travel that can be irresistible to those of us who tell stories.  First, a passenger on a train is both a part of the world, and yet apart from it, traveling in a defined slice of life that is removed from everything else.  Second, time passes relatively slowly on a train -- there are opportunities to move about, to have contact with others over drinks or in a dining car, where seating is luck of the draw and we never know who may be across from us at the table. Jimmy Buffett said something about sailing that is equally true of riding the rails -- “fast enough to get there, slow enough to see: moderation seems to be the key.” Unlike airplane travel, where the terrain passes by miles below us, on a train we witness every mile, yet we are apart from each of those miles, encapsulated in a microcosm world. There is an undeniable romance to this.  Third, the train contains its characters, almost like a locked room. The cast is all there, rolling on the rails and quarantined from the every-day world, which can only be observed as it glides by. 

On board the fabled Orient Express
       Little wonder that train travel has provided a recurring locale for narrative writing. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a prime example of a mystery built and dependent upon the structure of train travel. And it only seemed right that Ian Fleming used the constrained setting of a train as the locale for much of the narrative in From Russia, With Love, the fifth James Bond novel. Fleming drew much of his description of that particular train
-- the same Orient Express that captivated Christie -- from his own wartime journeys on the fabled train.

       The same lure of the rails lies at the heart of Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes, which was, in turn, based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.  And Hitchock returned to the rails with North by Northwest.  More recently Sara Gruen’s best seller Water for Elephants relies as much on the train as it does on the circus for its setting, and the 2008 movie Transsiberian is not only a mystery and thriller, but a grand homage to the Trans Siberian Express. 

       So there are lots of stories that take place on a train. But what about fiction that is written on a train? 

       In an interesting little plot twist, Amtrak has taken an initial proactive step toward fostering an even more symbiotic relationship between narrative writing and train travel. Recently the company unveiled its new (and admittedly fledgling) “Residency for Writers.” The program envisions offering selected writers round-trip accommodations on various Amtrak long distance routes as inspirations for writing. In the words of Amtrak “[e]ach writer's round-trip journey will include accommodations on board a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. We hope this experience will inspire creativity and most importantly fuel your sense of adventure.” 

       The genesis of the Amtrak Residency Program was described as follows in the on-line magazine The Wire
After New York City-based writer Jessica Gross took the first "test-run" residency, traveling from NYC to Chicago and back, Amtrak confirmed that it is indeed planning to turn the writers' residencies into an established, long-term program, sending writers on trains throughout its network of routes.
       Jessica Gross described her trip, and the allure of writing on a train, during the course of her interview in The Wire
All told, it sounds like a truly exquisite experience. Gross later detailed her trip in The Paris Review: "I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write."
What, exactly, is the appeal of writing on a train? In a phone interview with The Wire, Gross described the train ride as a "unique environment for creative thought," one that "takes you out of normal life." She won't find much disagreement. Now more writers (The Wire's staff included) are clamoring for their own Amtrak residency.
“I’ve seen a billion tweets from other writers saying ‘I want one of these’,” Gross said, probably being a tad hyperbolic, but it's true that once Amtrak actually does start offering writers' residencies regularly, they're going to be very popular. Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, tells The Wire that there has been "overwhelming demand" from people interested in the program – part of the reason the company is intent on turning this into a regular operation.
Observation car on Amtrak's California Zephyr
       Unfortunately not all of the press generated by the program has been as glowing as the story from The Wire. The Washington Post on March 13 served up a grousing review of the project that basically argues that Amtrak is publicly funded, already expensive, and shouldn't be giving away anything for free -- even to writers. The author of the piece, Post writer Dan Zak, attacks the modest Amtrak Writers’ Residency not by criticizing the program itself, but by attacking Amtrak for offering it.
Amtrak’s 400-plus-mile routes [Zak snivels] posted an operating deficit of $614 million in 2012, while its shorter routes (like those between the District and New York) had only a $47 million surplus, according to a 2013 Brookings Institution report. And yet ridership more than doubled between 1997 and 2012. Amtrak, birthed by a government bailout of the country’s privately operated rail network, is a publicly funded for profit entity.
Math,” Zak ponderously concludes, is “the antidote to romance.” 

       Puhh-leeeze! 

       An aside here (as I struggle through ten deep breaths):  For the last five years I have taught a graduate course at the University of Denver on the development and regulation of transportation in the United States. I could (and do) go on and on about the bum deal that Amtrak has received over the years. But that course, not SleuthSayers, is the better venue for such a monologue. Suffice it to say that every passenger service everywhere in the world is, to some extent, government subsidized. The U.S. government built highways for cars and trucks. The government built airports for airlines and gave them air traffic control. The government built ports for ships. And every country that has taken the next step in train transportation, and invested in high speed rail, has done so with a commitment of governmental funds.  The amount the federal government currently spends to subsidize Amtrak operations is a drop in a bucket.  The amount pales when compared to the outlay in government funds expended to support other modes of transportation.  I could go on, believe me. But the simple answer to the cabined “do the math” squawks of Mr. Zak (who you can just about bet has never read Theodore Roethke and certainly is no fan) is simply that math has nothing to do with it. Certainly it is not an "antidote" for romance.  (And by the way -- who in their right mind wants an antidote for romance?)

       Amtrak's ridership has set new records in something like 8 of the last 10 years.  Many Amtrak runs, including long distance runs, operate near or at 100% capacity; that is, the only reason more riders (and more revenue) is not secured is because of the limited number of cars available to Amtrak (a fact that does derive from Mr. Zak's mathematical penchant).  It seems to me the answer to a viable national rail network is the same as the whispered promise in the baseball epic Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.  

       For a host of obvious reasons Amtrak’s Writers’ Residency program is likely not for math majors of Mr. Zak’s ilk, who focus on cost to the exclusion of value; expense to the exclusion of investment. But in any event (and again) Amtrak's Writer Residency program is not about math. Rather, the program is for the romantic.

       If you are more poet than mathematician, well, take a look. Applications can easily be submitted to Amtrak on-line
Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015. A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.
Residencies will be anywhere from 2-5 days, with exceptions for special projects.
All aboard?

07 April 2014

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


by Fran Rizer


 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.


Th













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!

06 April 2014

April Foolish Fix


by Leigh Lundin

I once wrote about Cinderella, the sep stisty uglers, and her prandsome hince. In the spirit of last Tuesday's April Fools’ Day, once again, a friend sent me another Cinderella story which I share now.

Cinderella

A Grim Fairy Tale

Cinderella at age 95…

After a fulfilling life with her beloved but now dead prince, Cinderella sat in her rocking chair accompanied by her cat named Bob, watching the world go by from her nursing home porch. One sunny afternoon out of nowhere appeared the fairy godmother in a flash of light.

Cinderella said, “Fairy Godmother, what are you doing here after all these years?”

The fairy godmother said, “Cinderella, you have lived an exemplary life since I last saw you. Is there anything for which your heart still yearns?”

Cinderella was taken aback and overjoyed. After thoughtful consideration, she uttered her first wish: “The prince was wonderful, but not much of an investor. I’m living hand to mouth on my disability cheques, and I wish I were wealthy to ease my old age.”

Instantly, her rocking chair turned into solid gold.

“Oh, thank you, Fairy Godmother!”

The fairy godmother said, “It is the least that I can do. What do you want for your second wish?”

Cinderella looked down at her frail body, and said, “While the politicians argue about health care, the rest of us suffer. I wish I were young and full of the beauty and youth I once had.”

At once, her wish became reality, and her loveliness returned. Cinderella felt stirrings deep inside of her that had lain dormant for years.

And then the fairy godmother spoke once more. “You have one more wish; what shall it be?”

Cinderella looked over to the frightened cat in the corner and said, “I wish for you to transform Bob, my old cat, into a kind and handsome young prince.”

Magically, Bob suddenly underwent so fundamental a change in his biological make-up that, when he stood before her, he was a man so beautiful, the likes of him neither she nor the world had ever seen.

The fairy godmother said, “Congratulations, Cinderella, enjoy your new life.” With a bright blue flash, the fairy godmother was gone as suddenly as she appeared.

For a few eerie moments, Bob and Cinderella looked into each other’s eyes. Cinderella sat breathless, gazing at the most beautiful, stunningly perfect man she had ever seen.

As Cinderella sat transfixed, Prince Bob held her close in his muscular arms. He leaned close to her ear blowing her golden hair with his warm breath as he whispered…

“Bet you’re sorry you neutered me.”
And that concludes this year’s story of Cinderella.

05 April 2014

My get-up and go is alive and well


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Back in the Fifties, the Weavers used to sing a song:
How do I know my youth is all spent
My get-up and go has got up and went
But in spite of it all, I’m able to grin
When I think of the places my get-up has been.

I’ve been unable to find the songwriter. Most references I googled said “Anonymous,” and the book Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul claims it’s copyrighted material without saying who holds the copyright. I sang that song myself many times long before anybody took chicken soup out of the bowl and put it between book covers. And I had the impression it was written by Lee Hayes, the legendary bass vocalist with the Weavers.

As I get older…and older and older…the song, which I always thought was fun, gets more and more relevant. My father, who lived to 91, used to be the living embodiment of the final stanza:
I wake up each morning and dust off my wits
Open the paper and read the obits
And if I’m not there, I know I’m not dead
So I eat a good breakfast and roll back in bed.

I reached the mid-sixties, an age at which my contemporaries were just starting to die of what’s sometimes called natural causes, at around the same time as my first novel was finally published. I’ve had interesting friends all my life. Even if I hadn’t seen or been in contact with some of these people for decades, they remained vivid in my mind. I always assumed that one day they’d pick up the phone or I’d shoot them an email, and we’d pick up exactly where we left off. It’s been a shock to realize that with some of them, that isn’t going to happen.

I admit one of my many feelings on learning of the passing of these friends from junior high and high school was disappointment that they’d never know I’d finally achieved this lifelong ambition or get to enjoy the book.

But of course, that wasn't all. I felt cheated of the catching up and schmoozing we could have done. I wanted to know how they were affected by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the Sixties and by the women’s movement later on. I wanted to know if they got to write their books and paint their pictures and play their music and travel all over the world. I wanted to know if they had fun. I wanted to know if they were happy.

Several of the friends I lost at that age were academics. To some extent, they lived the lives that most of our parents back in Queens expected us to. I’m in the other group, those that jumped the rails—and believe me, for this old English major, running off with genre fiction was an act of rebellion—and reinvented ourselves every few years.

On the other hand, academics of our generation could be and often were political firebrands. Having survived all that, they should have gotten to retire—a state that no longer means golf and bridge and Florida as it did in my parents’ day, but a turning of their energies to a new set of dreams and ambitions. One high school buddy, whose career was even more checkered than mine—poet, therapist, and stand-up comic (“I’m not a shrink, I’m an expand!”)—got cancer shortly after finally inheriting enough to relieve his endless scrabbling for a living.

Now I'm staring 70 in the face. I'll have passed that milestone by the time you read my next blog post. I've lost many more friends, and others are dealing with life-threatening and debilitating illnesses as well as losses of their own. I've also published more books and short stories, released an album of original songs, helped a lot more people in my other role as a therapist, and gotten to enjoy my grandchildren as they grow.

Grandkids are the payoff for all that showing up for adult life we have to do and what our kids put their parents through. If I live as long as my mother did (and let the planet please not fall apart by then), I have a good chance of dancing at my granddaughters' weddings, cradling their children, and maybe even holding their first published books in my hands. In the meantime, I've decided that 70 is the new 39. I'm old enough to remember Jack Benny, and his shtick was that no matter how many years went by, his age was always 39. So if I feel like it, I can stay 70 forever.

04 April 2014

Photo Quiz Redux (or: "Honey, where are we now?")


by Dixon Hill

A few times, we've discussed the visual aspects of blogging, and how this differs from the confines of using only words to tell a story.

Some time ago, while helping my daughter get signed-up for classes, I used my cell phone to take photos of Scottsdale Community College, which I posted here, challenging you to determine where I took the photos and why I was there.

So just what are the photos below all about?

Take a look and tell me:  What am I showing you? -- and -- WHY am I here?

This time, you'll find the answer below.



PHOTO 1
Why does this shot look so grainy???

PHOTO 2


PHOTO 3
Aha!  Do you see an answer to the question in Photo 1?
Where was this shot taken, and what was I doing here?

PHOTO 4

PHOTO 5
PHOTO 6


PHOTO 7
PHOTO 8

PHOTO 9



PHOTO 10

PHOTO 11

PHOTO 12



PHOTO 13


PHOTO GROUP 14

14


14
14

14

14






PHOTO 15
My Favorite!  Why?

What are these photos of?  Below is the explanation:

Photos 1 and 3:  The view from the living room window at our new apartment -- taken through the screen.

For a number of reasons, my wife and I have found renting to be the best answer for our housing needs over the past several years.   However, since leaving the army, we've always lived in a house.

Our last house was a 3 bed, 3 bath main house, with large living room, dining room and kitchen area.  We also had a pool, a large yard, a pool house that was really a studio apartment, and a two room apartment (plus bathroom and kitchenette) add-on where the carport once was.  As many of you know, I used the back half of the two room apartment as my office.  We used the front room for storage.  We also had a large metal storage shed on site.

A few weeks ago, however, the home owner decided that the housing market was finally looking up. She announced her decision to sell the house, and I finally managed to convince my family to try apartment living in the 21st Century.

Photo 2:  Yes it's a dumpster.  But, the city's name is right on there.

Photo 4:  This is a shot of the same area seen in Photo 3, but taken from a reverse angle and much closer.

Photo 5:  This shot shows the small Ramada with gas BBQ, which is visible in Photo 1.  The Ramada is equipped with ceiling fan and lights, as well as electrical outlets.  I'm sitting there, as I write this, smoking a cigar, my computer tethered to the internet through the Wi-Fi in our living room.  So far, I've found this a very pleasant place to write ... and to burn burgers and steaks!

Photos 6,7 & 8:  These shots show what's called "The Quiet Pool."  The apartment complex is located about four miles from Arizona State, but rental prices keep most students from living here.  For those grad students, or out of state students -- or just young singles who have the money to live here -- the complex throws parties at one pool on weekends, while maintaining the other pool in a more family-oriented atmosphere.  Frankly, I prefer this pool because the Jacuzzi is hotter and has more jets than the Jacuzzi at the party pool.

Photo 9:  The dog park, located beside the Quiet Pool.

Photo 10:  A look at some of the apartments in the complex.

Photo 11:  Grill overlooking Volleyball courts.  There are several small BBQ Ramadas here.   Two are located beside the sand volleyball courts. 

Photo 12:  Covered parking is very important here in The Valley, if you don't want your vehicle's paint to get bleached-out in very short order.

Photo 13:  This is the Fitness Center.  It's one of my two favorite shots, because I can get my son in there.

One problem I've had for the past year, is that I hadn't been able to find a gym that would let my 11-year-old son work out with me.  Gym policies usually stipulated no one below 16 or 17 could use the equipment.  Unfortunately, school Phys. Ed. classes are woefully inadequate, here, so my son hasn't been getting the exercise he needs.  That had me pretty worried, until I found this apartment complex, where my son can use the Fitness Center -- open 24/7 -- as long as I'm with him.  Since moving in, he's run miles on the treadmill, and I don't know how far he's gone on the elliptical machines.  Frankly, it's tough to get him off the rope-climbing machine when it's time to go home!

Photo Group 14:  The Party Pool.  As you can see, there is a nice bar setup, with two large gas grills. I have little doubt that this works wonders for creating that party atmosphere -- and even less doubt that I'm glad this pool is located at the opposite end of the complex from our apartment.

Photo 15:  This is my favorite shot.  Luxurious green grass that I need neither plant, feed, water, nor mow.  Now THAT's paradise!!

See you in two weeks,
Dixon




03 April 2014

Another Forgotten Bastard: Pope Stephen VI (Or Was It VII?) and the Cadaver Synod


by Brian Thornton
As I mentioned a few posts back, a couple of years back I wrote two of books about "bastards": (in)famous people with a mean streak- including some that many today continue to consider "heroes," or at least "good people"- admittedly many of these historical figures have overall positive public images, but in order to show that most everyone has a bit of the "bastard" in them, I included discussions of George Washington putting the moves on his best friend's wife, Jefferson siring children with one of his slaves, and so on.
More fun to write were the accounts we have of many historical personages who have all but disappeared from the pages of history, and getting the opportunity to lay out just exactly why these characters ought to still be considered "bastards" even today. This is one of those "neglected" personages. The account below is an expanded version of the one that ended up in The Book of Ancient Bastards, and lends more detail than I was given within the constraints of the book itself. I hope you enjoy it.

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Read, — how there was a ghastly Trial once Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes

                                                                                    – Robert Burns, The Ring and the Book 


Our latest foray into historical bastardry concerns the Papacy and a pope “convicted” of terrible crimes nearly a year after his death!

The late 9th and early 10th centuries marked a period of widespread political chaos in Italy dubbed the “Iron Age” of the Papacy.  For example, no less than twenty-five men served as pope between the years 872 and 972.  During this time the Papacy came to be viewed as the ultimate “plum job” by Rome’s wealthy families, many of whom vied with each other to see one of their number don the shoes of the fisherman and in turn dispense ridiculous amounts of patronage amongst his kinsmen.

Feuds developed, blood was spilled.  A pope was poisoned, and the reigns of his successors became successively shorter (many of them also meeting violent ends).  In the midst of all of this chaos, where a pope would change canon law by this or that decree, only to have his reforms overturned by an antagonistic successor, one pope took matters even further.

He ordered a predecessor’s corpse dug up and put on trial.

Enter Pope Stephen VI (or VII, depending on who you ask), who reigned as pontiff from May of 896 to August of 897.

These days people (Catholic or not) tend to view the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church as a benevolent, invariably elderly man dressed in clean white robes, apolitical, a living symbol of the Church’s stances on things such as social justice and mercy.

This was not always the case.

The Papacy has been around for millennia; it is one of the oldest institutions in the Christian Church.  It stands to reason that a position like this one, which has been occupied by any number of different men over the course of its existence, has been occupied by the occasional loose screw.  In the case of the Papacy, one could make the case that the law of averages has been stood on its head, and the office has seen enough loose screws, screaming rivets and outright nuts to fill a toolbox.

Funny, he doesn't LOOK crazy....
 One such loose screw was Stephen VII, a churchman so off his rocker that he was given to toasting the health of the Devil and blaspheming against God.  Add in the fact that Stephen was politically beholden to the family that ruled the nearby Duchy of Spoleto, and things start to get interesting.
During the Middle Ages the idea went that if a Pope was Christ’s vicar on Earth, he ought to have actual territory to rule like any secular feudal lord.  This usually included the city of Rome and varying amounts of adjacent territory.

Since the Papacy at the time was scrambling for money and troops of its own, a succession of popes (including Stephen VII and many others) made outside alliances with powerful Italian families bent on adding the prestige of the Papacy to their own names.  The Popes of this period usually accomplished this end by offering to legitimize the rule of the ally in question with a formal papal coronation (literally having the Pope himself place the ruler’s crown on his blessed head) in exchange for military aid and protection.

One pope who had done this was a predecessor of Stephen’s named Formosus, whose reign lasted
Pope Formosus, apparently before his death, exhumation and trial (in that order).
five years (891-896).  During that time Formosus (whose name in Latin means, “good looking”) had crowned the young Duke of Spoleto Holy Roman Emperor, then turned around and offered the same crown to Arnulf, King of Germany.

Arnulf had answered Formosus’ invitation by invading Italy and taking Rome, where Formosus promptly crowned him Holy Roman Emperor as well.  Needless to say, this caused an uproar in Spoleto, especially with Agiltrude (or Ageltrude), Queen of Italy, Duchess of Spoleto, and erstwhile Holy Roman Empress, mother of the underaged Duke of Spoleto (who, lest we forget, had already been crowned Holy Roman Emperor himself).

German king Arnulf, posing for his action figure.
Struck by a sudden mysterious paralysis, Arnulf withdrew from Italy, leaving Formosus to pick up the pieces.  Formosus responded by dying shortly afterward, to be initially succeeded by a couple of popes with ridiculously short reigns (one of them only lasted two weeks as pontiff!), and eventually by Stephen VII, the certifiably crazy political pawn of Spoleto’s ruling family.

About six months into his reign, Stephen had Formosus dug up and propped up in a chair in the Vatican, where he was then placed on trial with Pope Stephen himself sitting as judge.  Formosus (or rather his corpse) was accused of (among other things) being ambitious enough to actually want to be pope (the nerve!).  No one is sure of Stephen’s reasons for putting on this, the ultimate show trial, but historians speculate that he was feeling pressure from Agiltrude and her supporters to delegitimize Formosus’ reign (thereby also wiping out Arnulf’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor) and suffering from some well-documented psychosis.

The trial lasted for weeks, during which time Stephen would frequently interrupt his own papal prosecutor in order to rant at Formosus’ moldering corpse, calling it all manner of names, accusing it of murder, blasphemy and several other crimes with which it was not actually charged.  How the corpse responded is not recorded.

The trial’s outcome was a foregone conclusion.  The corpse was stripped of its expensive papal vestments, the first three fingers of its right hand (the three with which a pope blesses his subjects) were cut off, and the body was briefly reburied, this time in an unmarked grave in a graveyard reserved for foreigners.  Within a couple of days it had been dug up yet again and tossed in to the Tiber River, only to be pulled out by a monk loyal to the dead pope’s memory.

"Let the record show that the accused did NOT deny the charges against him!"
Called the “Synod Horrenda” in Church Latin, this “Cadaver Synod” resulted in riots throughout Rome which eventually cost Stephen first his papal throne and eventually his life.  He was strangled in prison less than six months after “condemning” the dead Formosus (once again, Formosus’ reaction, if any, to this news is not recorded).

A fitting end for one crazy bastard.

02 April 2014

Time to Accessorize


by Robert Lopresti

I am somewhat stunned to report that my morning granola was interrupted today (April Fool's Day) by the news that my "The Present" had won the Derringer Award for best short story.  Talk about a present!  I can't think of anything to say about the story that I didn't say here.  But thanks to the Derringer judges, the voters, and The Strand for publishing in the first place.  Now, on to more good news...

On the day my last blog entry went up I came home to a pleasant surprise: three copies of the June issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I knew they were publishing a story of mine but I had no idea when that happy event would occur.

"The Accessory" is my second appearance in EQMM in 38 years of trying.  Yes, you read that right.  It's a story about --

Well, let's pause for a moment.  This is a golden opportunity to rehash that favorite topic: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  This time, by category!

1.  Personal experience.  At three in the morning one night a policewoman rang my doorbell to tell me my car had been "prowled."  The first two pages of my story "Shanks on the Prowl" are almost a literal description of that scene.

2.  Someone else's personal experience.  One day I watched an elderly, over-the-hill musician being disrespected by his accompaniest.  "Snake in the Sweetgrass" was conceived while they were still on the stage.

3.  News story. 
Or other piece of nonfiction.  "Crow's Lesson" began with a New York Times article about a school system hiring private eyes to follow students and see if they really lived in the catchment district.

5.  Out of the clear blue sky 
One day I had a vision of a short man attacking a much bigger man on the street for no obvious reason.  "Hammer and Dish" was my attempt to find out why and what happened.

And finally...

4.  Fiction.  To some extent ALL fiction comes from other fiction we have read.  For example, I read "My Life with the Butcher Girl," by Heath Lowrance, a very nice story about a man who becomes romantically obsessed with a woman who killed three men in sexual situations.  That got me thinking about people who correspond with convicted criminals.  The main character of my new story, "The Accessory" is a woman who does just that.  Now the man is out of prison and has apparently killed someone who testified against him.  The cops want to find out what she knows...

I hope you like it. 

01 April 2014

Honey...I'm home!


By David Dean

I know what day this is, but this isn't a joke--I'm back.  None the wiser for the hiatus, mind you, just back...and glad to be here.  I noted in my absence, that Terry raised the bar for Tuesdays so that I am almost guaranteed to disappoint.  Thanks for that, Terry.  Thanks a lot.

If you recall, dear reader, I took the time away from SleuthSayers to pen another of my unsellable novels.  It is with some pride that I report--mission accomplished!  "Starvation Cay" is complete!  My thanks, by the way, to my fellow Tuesday scribbler, Dale Andrews, for overseeing some of the technical aspects of the story.  Besides his literary value, he has a wealth of knowledge regarding all things nautical.  Useful to me, as I set nearly the entire story on board boats.  Thanks again, Dale.  Through no fault of his, I am now in the process of collecting rejection slips and arranging them in order of snarkiness.

On another note entirely, my son and heir, has gotten hitched to a truly lovely young woman.  Robin and I absolutely fell in love with her too, and apparently she was too smitten to heed that time-honored warning--Look to the parents!   

The wedding took place in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia where they both teach.  My son's side was not only represented by mine and Robin's families (The Georgia-Jersey Axis), but also by a large contingent of his college rugby buddies who double, apparently, as the school's male dance team.  Her side was family from both Jersey and Michigan.  Both sides were duly impressed with the athletic abilities of rugby players and their women, even if the dance floor became a dangerous place for the infirm and elderly.  The bride's family went very quiet during their dance interpretation of John Denver's "Country Roads," which also included a sing-along.  Fortunately, the nuptials had already been performed so there could be no "take-backs." 

As if this wasn't enough good news, our Christmas present from them was a grandparents' album.  Robin got it almost immediately.  I, however, being a former police officer, stared at it for several stupefied moments before understanding dawned.  Robin was crying and hugging the young couple, as I was still turning the album over and over in my hands, murmuring, "They're trying to tell us something...but what?  What could it be?"

Besides working on the novel, I also managed to knock out a few short stories along the way.  I'm happy to report that those did sell, and will be (or have already been) published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

As if all these things weren't enough, I've actually read a few books, as well.  But more on that at another time.

I've missed you guys.  Though I have duly followed SS every morning (it's the first thing I read), it's been a little lonely out here.  Writers are not thick on the ground in South Jersey, and as you all know, it's a solitary profession at the best of times.  So, it's good to be back amongst friends, if only virtually, and even better to have been asked.  Thanks all.