19 May 2021

Billy and Me



I attended a small college in Pennsylvania back in the seventies.  With 1,200 students we were not exactly overwhelmed with concerts by famous musicians.  I recall shows by Steve Goodman, and Hall and Oates.  

But the show programmers had one triumph that I imagine they have bragged about ever since.  They booked a concert by a musician whose first album had gone nowhere and whose second record had just been released.  I'm sure a month later they wouldn't have been able to even get his manager on the phone, much less sign a contract, because "Piano Man" was a pretty big hit.

So I got to see Billy Joel live, very early in his career.  He did just about all the songs on the Piano Man album but also played a lot from Cold Spring Harbor.  This was the first record, so badly mastered that Joel sounded a bit, well, chipmunk-ish.  I remember him playing a very depressing song from it, "Tomorrow is Today" and saying "I hope none of you feel like this."  As soon as it ended my friend Mike turned to me  and said: "I feel exactly like that."  I hope you feel better now, Mike, wherever you are.   

Last year, after I wrote a story for Josh Pachter's anthology The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, he mentioned that he was working on an anthology of crime stories based on Billy Joel songs.  I told him I would love to participate, and, wouldn't you know it?  One of the albums no one else had claimed was the legendarily obscure Cold Spring Harbor.  Perfect!

I focused on the song "Why Judy Why."  In it, the narrator complains to Judy about being badly treated by another woman.  But from a crime-writing point of view a song with that title had to be about motive.  So that's what I wrote.  You will find it in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired By The Songs of Billy Joel, available now.

Fun fact: My story appeared dead-last in the Nero Wolfe book.  "Why Judy Why" is the opener for the Billy Joel volume.  I could claim that my work has advanced, but the truth is that the stories are arranged chronologically.  

I'm just happy to be part of the celebration of Mr. Joel's classic works.



18 May 2021

Who Am I This Issue?


Accompanying an interview with me that The Digest Enthusiast published in June 2018 was a sidebar listing all of the pseudonyms I’ve used over the years, many of them assigned by editors rather than pseudonyms I’ve chosen.
A pseudonym is a disguise
for writers, much like the one worn
by the unrecognizable writer
shown above.

When I first began writing, I toyed with variations of my name before I settled on Michael Bracken. Michael Patrick Bracken was used only once, on my first professionally published short story. Mike Bracken appeared on much of my fanzine work before I turned pro and then, for a few years, on humor, fillers, and similar material.

I’ve published several pieces using one or the other of my self-selected pseudonyms: Rolinda Hay and Patrick Myers.

Additionally, I’ve been published under many house names or pseudonyms assigned by editors: Gilbert Anderson, Michelle Baker, Mel Barton, M. Bayman, Christine Bracken, Angela Brown, Peter Carson, Nick Ford, Linda Hay, Bruce Jones, Ned Parker, Wanda Reed, Frank Sandwell, Gladys Spivey, S. Turnham, Kate Williams, Aggie Winter, and Stan Young.

I wrote several stories for the sex letters magazines, and bylines were usually initials followed by the name of a city—for example: H.D., Glenview, Illinois—and are too numerous to list.

The stories I wrote for the confession magazines—True Confessions, True Love, True Story, and many others—were often published without bylines because they were presented as “true” and the narrator, whatever her name might be, was presumed to be the author.

GUESS MY NAME

There are many reasons why a writer chooses to use a pseudonym and many reasons why an editor foists pseudonyms upon writers.

A writer of erotica, for example, might have a day job as a grade-school teacher, and exposing herself as an erotica writer might negatively impact her day job. A writer well established in one genre might wish to differentiate her work in another genre, even if her use of a pseudonym isn’t a secret.

My use of pseudonyms—especially those assigned me by editors—had more to do with productivity and genre conventions.

I have had as many as four stories published in a single issue of a magazine, and I’ve had stories in multiple consecutive issues of a publication. By assigning pseudonyms to some of the stories, it appeared as if the magazines had more contributors than they actually did.

The confession magazines and sex letters publications also operated under genre conventions that implied the stories were written by real people and not by a bunch of professional writers like me. Some of the confession magazines would put a byline on a story that matched the name of the narrator, but many confession magazines dispensed completely with bylines on their fiction. The sex letters magazines operated under a similar convention: By using only the initials of a letter writer, accompanied by the city and state from which the letter writer supposedly hailed, they gave readers the impression that, again, the letters were written by real people and not by professional writers like me.

KNOW MY NAME

I think the last time I had something published under a pseudonym was in 2011 when I self-published the erotic romance novel Stud as by Rolinda Hay, and the last stories I had published without any byline at all appeared in the July 2017 issues of True Confessions and True Story.

There are several reasons why my use of pseudonyms ended during the past decade, most of them related to the rise of the internet and the decline of print publications. Though I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, much of my short fiction appeared in men’s magazines (a euphemism for publications featuring photographs of naked people and purchased primarily by men) and women’s magazines (primarily those publishing confessions of the sin-suffer-repent variety and purchased primarily by women).

The internet, which allows seemingly unlimited access to photographs of naked people, killed the market for men’s magazines. Dorchester Publishing, which purchased the half-dozen-plus confession magazines then published by Sterling/MacFadden in 2004, later sold them to two different publishers (BroadLit and True Renditions LLC) in 2011. By then, Dorchester had crippled the confession magazines such that the two that survived the company’s mismanagement—True Confessions and True Story—lasted only half a dozen more years.

Additionally, and in part because of the constriction or elimination of what were once my primary markets, most of my work these days falls under the broad umbrella of crime fiction. I am nowhere near able to produce enough crime fiction for any mystery magazine to publish multiple of my stories in any given issue, and with all the competition from my fellow SleuthSayers (I’m looking at you John Floyd) and from other writers, it’s unlikely any mystery magazine editor would ever need to.

So, will I ever again use a pseudonym?

You may never know.


“Double Dipping” was published in the May issue of Mystery Weekly.

The 27 Club” was published in Punk Noir Magazine.


17 May 2021

Old Style


Journey into Fear

It is a truth universally acknowledged, to paraphrase Jane Austen, that after a certain age the phrase, “they don’t make them like they used to,” enters one’s vocabulary. Material goods of all kinds, favorite foodstuffs, athletes, movies, political figures are all set against the scale of nostalgia and found wanting. Thrillers, too.

When I started writing, one of my idols was Eric Ambler, the god of suspense. Knowledgeable, skillfully plotted, and free of stylistic affectations, his short books did not deal with the big bangs, heavy weaponry, and super-efficient operatives that fill so many modern thrillers and spy novels.

His protagonists tended to be amateurs (part of the old British tradition) without too many pretensions or illusions and with a distinct lack of idealistic posturing. They tended to find themselves in what might be called ordinary life dangers. They weren’t facing the death ray but the possibility of being caught red-handed with incriminating documents, fake passports, or ambiguous passengers. Danger lurked, to be sure, but so did the possibility of a humiliating unmasking and, from the combination, Ambler extracted an amazing amount of suspense.

Zoo Station,
start of the Russell novels
They certainly don’t make thrillers like that any more, preferring even amateurs like Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to have preternatural abilities in everything from computing to martial arts. So, I was pleased to discover David Downing’s  Zoo Station, the first in a series of half a dozen novels about John Russell, an Anglo-American correspondent in pre-war Berlin.

Russell is an interesting character, a former Communist and a veteran of WW1. He dislikes the Nazis, but he wants desperately to remain in the Reich where his son Paul, age 11, lives with his German mother, and where the charming Effie is a B level actress.

They are his reasons for not wanting to rock the boat, and he only moves out of his comfort zone after he begins tutoring the intelligent Wiesner girls, whose desperate parents are trying to prepare them for a safe exit.

Silesian Station,
next up in the series
His affection for the Wiesmers, combined with a mysterious offer to ghost write articles for Pravda, sets in motion the, at first, rather leisurely plot. Russell’s entanglement with not one, not two, but three spy agencies soon commences, and the way Downing works out the unraveling is a real old fashioned example of clever plotting.

If Zoo Station is not quite like what they used to write, it is a welcome variant. Less brutal and cynical than Philip Kerr’s excursions into the same territory, it still conveys the terror of the regime, the desperation of its Jewish citizens and the despair of anti-Nazi patriots, while offering suspense without firearms or official status.

John Russell is one of the amateurs of espionage and he’s a good one.



16 May 2021

Certifiable – Arizona Elections Connections


hacker in winter ninja gear
Florida Cyber Ninja™
comes with winter gloves,
woollies, and balaclava toque

In an OAN exclusive, this is Blanca Mujer reporting from the Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, where faces are lit with ultraviolet wonder. We’re proud to witness elation and, dare I say, vindication sweep among the ballot tabulators recounting the recount of the recount of the recount of the audited, ultra-secure 2020 election. The arena hasn’t seen this much excitement since the 1973 upset of the never-to-be-forgotten Scottsdale Hamsters over the Pima Prickly Pears.

Kept from the public, Arizona election officials had secretly watermarked official ballots discernible through UV-light. Florida’s determinedly inexperienced Cyber Nunchucks has discovered not one of Maricopa County’s ballots thus far examined carries the distinctive watermark. Random samples pulled from the remaining 2.1-million ballots have also proved counterfeit.

Florida’s Cypher Numnuts is rushing to analyze ballot DNA, certain to be loaded with rice paper and bamboo fibres. Some 40 000 Chinese manufactured counterfeit ballots are known to have been airlifted into remote southwest Arizona, even as Chinese submarines smuggled ashore hundreds of thousands of premarked ballots on America’s Eastern Seaboard to co-opt elections in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia.

Detecting the lack of official watermarks makes this historic day one of… Just a minute, my producer is signalling me… (taps earphone) OAN interrupts this broadcast with a message from My Pillow. This has been Blanca Mujer, OAN News.

Arizona-world election connections

The above scenario is not as outrageous as you might imagine. All of the above-mentioned are among lesser conspiracy theories pursued by stolen-election proponents of Arizona’s challenge to democracy.

The Chinese-British-Venezuelan Connection

Popular theory contends Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez discovered Chairman Mao Zedong had set in motion a blueprint to take over the United States government without firing a shot. Chávez realized the plan could only succeed by seizing control of a Spanish election specialist company, Scytl. In a multi-prong plan, Chávez and the Chinese government sabotaged the US elections with a combination of rigged voting machines and counterfeit ballots.

faux watermark
genuine Federal Election watermark

As Venezuela infected, infested, and injected Smartmatic election machines with a voting virus, China launched a submarine to land prefilled ballots along the Eastern Seaboard. Simultaneously, a low-flying Chinese stealth cargo jet hooked around Cabo San Lucas, flew up the Sea of Cortez and airdropped 40 000 ersatz ballots into Yuma or Pima counties. The Chinese operatives didn’t realize the administration was way ahead of the wily Asians and had imbued official balloting paper with watermarks detectable under ultraviolet lamps.

The amateurish and error-ridden web site of Cyber Ninjas led some (including me) to underestimate the genius of stolen election proponents. The only reason I could think of to explain UV lights shipped into the Coliseum was to seek chemical alterations. Instead, the clever Ninjas first used UV to look for those exclusive but elusive watermarks.

Not finding them implied every single ballot was fraudulent.

The Chinese Disruption

Knowing opponents tended to be obsessed with facts caused the Cyber Ninjas to dig ever deeper. They deployed indirect lighting to examine the infilled ovals on the theory vigorous voters would dent the paper under Nº 2 pencils contrasted with mass ‘xeroxed’ (presumably photocopied) ballots shipped into the state. Unfortunately, the preferred Sharpie pens left little or no dent.

Not trusting microscopic analysis, Cyber Ninjas used indirect UV and DNA testing to detect rice paper and bamboo fibres, an absolute indication of Chinese rather than Russian interference.

Another obstacle arose. China depends upon its numerous pulp mills to manufacture paper. Conversely, the USA also makes rice paper and grows bamboo right there in Arizona. Tucson’s Bamboo Ranch operates seventy-five bamboo groves.

The Russian-Canadian Connection

That resurrected an earlier theory regarding the Keystone Pipeline that ran from Communist Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, suspiciously not delivering oil to the states over which it ran. The pipeline was actually a giant pneumatic tube devised to distribute paper ballots from the great forests of our northern neighbour to Putin Russian-Ukrainian allies in the States. Remember these tubes… we’ll return to them momentarily.

To solve this international mystery, we turn to Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert, supported by Arizona dentist Paul Gosar, DDS, and famed attorney, Sydney Powell, esq. Bear with me, as reported by NewsMax, OANN, and InfoWars, this is convoluted.

putative election map
Gohmert/Gosar/Powell Army Intel map

The Spanish-German Connection

Shortly after the election, feelers put out by a dejected, desperate, but determined Sydney Powell returned intel of electronic voting irregularities involving British Smartmatic SGO machines in Venezuela, but also Scytl SA devices built in Barcelona, Spain. Scytl computers in Frankfurt were pre-programmed to manipulate election results while hiding the true election map at the direction of US Army Intelligence, the NSA, and particularly the CIA.

It’s unclear if Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney notified Powell or if Sydney Powell contacted him, but she organized an assault team to confiscate Scytl computers. She brought in disgraced former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who’d confessed working for Russia and Turkey, and lied to Vice President Pence and the FBI. Powell called upon Flynn to redeem himself by hand-picking USEUCOM US Army loyalists from the 305th Military Intelligence Battalion (the Kraken) for an assault in Frankfurt to seize the servers. When Secretary of Defence Mark Esper balked at the operation, Flynn and Powell ordered him fired and replaced by Christopher Miller.

According to on-the-ground German tweets, the raid was a partial success, although one woman and five or six (the record is unclear) Army Special Forces men lost their lives in the attempt. How Cyber Ninjas became involved is also unclear.

not a genuine ballot
possibly not a genuine Arizona ballot

The Straight Poop

The Arizona investigation has triggered a disastrous side result. The unexpected ballot examination ordered by the Arizona Senate has aroused panic amongst Deep State forces in Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. They couldn’t call back a Chinese submarine to retrieve the bogus ballots, so instead, they flushed them down the Colonial Pipeline.

Unlike the Keystone Pipeline, this one actually carried petroleum. Similar to your home’s sewage lines, those millions of dumped ballots hopelessly constipated the Colonial’s series of tubes. A naïve press blamed the clog upon innocent Russian hackers.

To Provoke and Serve

While naysayers mock the partisan efforts as theatre and compare the recount to the Crazy Times Carnival and Clown Show taking place next door to the counting house, Arizona treats each conspiracy contention seriously. Cyber Ninjas reportedly hired a local private militia called the Arizona Rangers to provide security. Although these fake ‘rangers’ have neither police nor security training, they reportedly look and act like aggressive cops chasing away nosy reporters. They manifest more interest in deterring scrutiny than protecting the voting equipment chain of evidence.

Meanwhile, Cyber Ninjas has demanded the Maricopa Sheriff’s office turn over county routers to them. The sheriff has refused, raising the threat of a subpoena from the Arizona Legislature. To date, web sites aligned with Q-Anon appear relatively silent whether the Arizona Rangers militia or the National Guard should seize the routers.

Thinking they must mean servers (which Cyber Ninjas claim have been tampered with), not routers, I discussed this with my friend and colleague Thrush, a founder of MagicNet and one of the top network experts in the Southeast. Between the two of us, a networking guru and a fraud forensics specialist, we cannot conceive of any useful information that could be gleaned from a router. We’re convinced Cyber Ninjas don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

We also discussed wifi routers discovered on the ballot counting floor by alarmed observers. Cyber Ninjas claimed the routers were turned off, never mind their very presence and the blinky-blinky bits. I suspect they had shut off the SSID display and not the wifi radios, meaning they were very much active but invisible to the outside world.

As We Speak

This has been a particularly difficult article due to the fluid nature of the madcap Arizona recount. Conspiracy theories rapidly rise and fall and rise again with renewed life, without regard to the writer trying to capture competing hypotheses.

Haboob (an Arizona desert girl, hence her name) remarked the presumption of conspiracies cause believers to create realities around them. I might add to that never-ending conspiracies. I can hardly believe the election occurred half a year ago.

Right now, the voting equipment and pallets of ballots have moved into non-air-conditioned storage in a fairgrounds building too hot to work in. Experts and the US Department of Justice complain that in addition to breaks in the chain of custody and UV damage, the intense Arizona heat (well in excess of 50ºC, 122ºF) causes ballot paper to break down. Arizona Senate President Karen Fann told them to mind their own business, which of course they were.

A dismayed viewer can’t help but wonder if the heat also causes brain damage.

15 May 2021

The Road to Writing "The Road to Bellville"


One of the things I worry about during the planning stage, before sitting down and starting to write a story, is deciding which character can best tell the story.

My V of POV

At the risk of rehashing things all of us already know, let me say something about Point of View in fiction. I've always felt that the viewpoint character should be the person who's most affected by what happens in the story. This isn't necessarily the title character or even the most visible or memorable character. The person who tells the story in To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout, not Atticus. In Shane, it's the little boy. In The Great Gatsby, it's Nick Carraway. In the Sherlock Holmes tales, it's (almost always) Watson. Ideally, it's the character who learns the most from the story's outcome.

In stories (and novels and movies) where there's more than one POV character, the writer has to consider some other things too, like who'll be in the best position to build suspense and/or make the story "flow" well. This is something I ran into in my story "The Road to Bellville," in the current (Spring 2021) issue of Strand Magazine. It's a 6200-word mystery about a rural female sheriff in Florida who's transporting a young female prisoner from one jail to another, and the unexpected things they run into when they make a stop at a roadside cafe on the way. It's also a story of loyalty, deception, escape, pursuit, betrayal, courage, sacrifice, perseverance, redemption, and plenty of lowdown criminal activity.

Characters. plot, etc.

I knew, when I first started thinking about this story, that I wanted to make the sheriff the viewpoint character. She was the one in the best place to tell the story, and would also (as required) be affected the most by what happened. But the more I got into the plot, I realized I needed a multiple-viewpoint story rather than single. That automatically meant the narrative would have to be third-person rather than first-, but that was okay because third-person is a little more comfortable for me anyway if the POV character's not a male. The main thing was, I needed the extra point of view in order to describe some offscreen action that the sheriff wouldn't be in a position to see, and also to generate the tension and misdirection I needed in the middle of the plot. FYI, scenes #1 and #2 and scenes #4 and #5 in this story are from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the middle scene is from the POV of an antagonist (the third one of the main characters).  Symmetrical, I guess, but only because it just happened to work out that way.

Note 1: I've not yet received my copy of the current Strand so I've not yet seen the published version of this story. What I've told you is based on the manuscript I submitted. (Andrew, I hope you haven't changed anything in printing the story.)

Note 2: The name of the fictional Bellville Correctional Facility for Women probably came from my recent re-watching of the movie The Road to Wellville, whose plot and setting and characters bear no resemblance at all to this story. I just liked the sound of the title.

Questions for the class. Anyone? Anyone?

If you're a writer, what are some of the things you consider when you choose the POV through which you tell a story? Which kinds of stories do you usually write in first-person and which in third? Does it matter? How often, and why, do you choose to use multiple POVs? (I've heard some writers say you should never use multiple viewpoints in a short story, which is simply not true.) How do you go about selecting your viewpoint characters? Is the process obvious, or does it require a lot of consideration? And do you ever start writing the story and then change your mind about POV in midstream and have to start over? I sometimes do, even though I call myself a planner and not a pantser.

A final word. If you happen to see and read the story I've been talking about, I hope you'll like it—and I hope these issues I puzzled over during its creation aren't noticeable.

Let me know.

14 May 2021

Everybody is Fooking Me!


The first time my wife met my mother, we were sitting around the dining room table at my parents’ home in New Jersey. My mother had lapsed into one of her meandering stories and happened to drop the name of one of her least-favorite people. The very thought of this person galled her. A flash of anger crossed Mom’s face and she punctuated her anecdote with a final, spite-filled kicker: “That bitch!”

Horrified, my father reminded her that they had company.

Mom waved a hand at my wife. “Oh,” she said, chuckling. “It’s just an espression.”

Yes, that’s how she rolled. Bobbing on seas of anger and comedy. And that is also how she pronounced that word. She was born in Italy (if the Mussolini pic below doesn’t make that obvious) and arrived in America when she was 15 years old. She spoke English with an Italian accent her whole life, which ended in 2016. Mom was occasionally openly self-conscious about her lack of education. She’d never finished high school, but managed to learn to write and speak English with the help of a nun at the first American church she attended, in Brooklyn, New York.

I think of her every year at this time because Mother’s Day’s proximity to Easter means that at least one of my brothers will hit me up for one of Mom’s old recipes. After her funeral, I swiped the index card file box from her kitchen, and have been slowly compiling her recipes, an exhausting project that requires me to decipher her handwriting and her bizarre spellings. Recipes call for ingredients such as vinella extract, garlic gloves, buches of scallions, and cicken brests pounded into tin cotolets. But those types of errors are easier to grapple with than the wacky way she used to express—er, I mean espress herself.

Not once in my life did I ever hear her say, “Never mind!” Instead, for some reason, she’d say, “Levver mind!” Similarly, the word meanwhile became meanwise. Otherwise was always notherwise. Members of Orthodox churches or beliefs were described as Ortodosk. Angry and hungry were interchangeable. When she speculated about the future—which in her cosmology was universally bleak—she mused, “Who knows what’s gonna be?” The kitchen was her domain, but she suffered from a crazy case of butterfingers. After a loud crash and the shattering of glass or china, we’d hear her exclaim: “Oooooh, what I did!”

When we were kids, my brothers and I could not help bursting into laughter at the way she mangled the language. When it was all the rage to describe a cool kid at school as a “dude,” we were reduced to tears hearing our Mom suddenly ask of a kid she spied on the school grounds, “Who is that doo-doo?”

Kids can be cruel, and I was no angel. Whenever I broke into her accent, she’d scream: “Stop mimmying me! I’m not an idjit, you know! I made you, didn’t I?” Or she’d shake a fist at me and yell, “Hey, body, I’m gonna sawk you!” That is to say, Hey buddy, I’m gonna sock you!

Sometimes her word choices made a bizarre kind of sense. She hated using munch—ie, mulch—in her flower beds because she was convinced all it did was invite birds to scrounge through the moist bark in search of fat worms to, well, munch on. As a neighborhood cat was about to defile her roses, she lunged at it, screaming, “I’ll kill you, you munster!” (Hearing her, I immediately thought of the old TV show, The Munsters, who were in fact monsters.) She once asked me and Denise: “So, guys? Are you busy? Do you have a lot of dead-ends?” She meant to say deadlines, of course, but she had unwittingly nailed the essence of the writer’s life.

To this day, if I do something erratic while driving, Denise will remark that perhaps I’d been tutored by my mother, who was famously a terror behind the wheel. Mom came home one day lamenting that a cop had stopped her for no good reason.

Mom: But officer, I made a left on red!
Cop: Yes, I know. That’s why I stopped you!
Mom: Oh, you not gonna give me a ticket on Valentine, are you?

(Yes—the date of her infraction was February 14th.) Moved by this madwoman’s logic, the cop let her off with a warning. But for the rest of day, while driving around town, my mother was subjected to angry honks, shouts, or worse from her fellow drivers. Exasperated, she arrived home and dropped her own brand of f-bomb. “Everybody is fooking me!” she told my father. As this was not a word she used often, even my father was left struggling to comprehend what she had just said.

On one visit to their home in Jersey, we noticed that my mother kept staring at Denise in a strange way all morning. After breakfast, when we left the house to run an errand downtown, she chased us to the door, shouting at the top of her lungs: “Not till I’m dead! Not till I’m dead!” And proceeded to slam the door behind us.

Only later, when we returned, did we calm her down enough to extract the reason for her strange outburst. She pointed to the T-shirt Denise was wearing, which read, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

I can just imagine how she felt seeing those words on that shirt. It was bad enough that the writer Mom had given birth to had mocked her ceaselessly during his childhood. But now the ungrateful whelp had joined in matrimony with another writer. Surely one day they would mock her in print! It was all too much.


My mother’s revenge came in a manner she could not have predicted. When Denise and I were married, Denise was living in Rome, covering soccer for ESPN. I joined her there for a year, and discovered upon arrival in the Eternal City how worthless my knowledge of high school Italian truly was. I understood one out of every 10 words a Roman spoke to me. My brain unwisely seized upon any word with a Latin root that sounded like one I knew in English—only to discover that I’d mistaken a falsi amici—“false friend”—for a bonafide cognate. No, Joe, morbido in Italian does not mean morbid. A person who is noisoso is boring, not annoying.

I floundered for months, despite the tongue’s seeming simplicity. Only five vowel sounds; what could go wrong?

And yes, the longer I was there, the more the language seeped into my brain. But in strangely diabolical ways. When I attempted to speak English with visiting Americans or Brits, I sounded like a moron. Why? Because now, rather than produce the English I had known all my life, my brain was translating Italian words and syntax into English. In my newfound insanity, porcupines didn’t have quills, they had spines, because the Italian word for a quill or thorn was spina. Oh, and the animal wasn’t a porcupine, but a porcuspine. And you know what? That’s pretty much how my mother used to refer to that creature: porky-spine.

That short time abroad helped me understand Mom better than I ever had. Was it possible that she said Levver mind! because the Italian command “Lasciala!”—ie, Leave it be, Leave it there, Leave it alone—had somehow become coded in her brain for the American English way to dismiss one’s thought or concern? Given her background, she would never nail the word expression for the same reason that some Americans will be ordering expressos until the end of their days.
 
I returned from that overseas adventure with more story ideas than I could ever use. Years later, I proudly presented Mom with a mystery novel I’d written that was set in Italy. The entire book was a work of mimmying—I mean mimicry. One of the writers who reviewed it said that he was convinced the book had been written by an Italian writer, and later translated into English.* I took that as a compliment.

As for Mom, she read my book once. Then she read it again, this time laboriously underlining various situations and plot points. “You stole my stories!” she told me on a call shortly after. “I told you not to do that! What if I wanted to write them down?”

I swear I didn’t! Okay, maybe one teensy anecdote in the life of one of my characters was lifted from Mom’s childhood.

I know for a fact that she had once attempted an oral history. When I was still in elementary school, I found a tape recorder on which she had begun speaking about her childhood in wartime Italy. A childhood filled with an absentee father, Nazi soldiers encamped in her village, Allied bombings, and breathtaking scenery that she could never quite dislodge from her heart. “I don’t need your mountains,” she told my brother angrily when he moved to Colorado to attend college. “I left my mountains in Italy!”

She never completed that life story. Maybe someday I will. Until then, stories like the ones you’ve just read are the best I can do to commemorate her memory. Wherever you are, Mom, let’s remember one thing. I waited till you were gone.

* * *

* I’m fascinated by the books In Other Words, and Whereabouts, which the author Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born American, originally wrote in Italian, a language she learned as an adult. Then she or another person subsequently translated the books into English. She also edited and translated The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. But I haven’t read them yet. If you have, kindly share your experience in the comments.

13 May 2021

What's in a Name—Ancient Egyptian Edition: Ptolemy


The following is adapted from material published in my book The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media 2011). Although there were fourteen (or depending on whom you believe, fifteen) Macedonian Greek kings of Egypt named Ptolemy, here below are featured the three most interesting. And by "interesting," I mean they lived up to the title of the book in which I featured them: three truly "ancient bastards."

Read on!

Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 367 B.C.-ca. 283 B.C.)

“And thus Aridaeus, who had spent two years in preparations, brought the king’s [Alexander’s] body from Babylon to Egypt.  Ptolemy, in honour of the king, met the corpse with his army as far as Syria, where he received it, and accompanied it with great care and observance: for he had not resolved as yet to accompany it to the temple of Ammon, but to keep the body in the city [Alexandria] which Alexander himself had built, the most famous almost of any city in the world.  To this end [Ptolemy] built a temple in honour of Alexander, in greatness and stateliness of structure becoming the glory and majesty of that king; and in this repository he laid the body, and honoured the exequies of the dead with sacrifices and magnificent shows, agreeable to the dignity of a demigod.  Upon which account [Ptolemy] was deservedly honoured, not only by men, but by the gods themselves: for by his bounty and generosity he so gained upon men, that they flocked from all parts to Alexandria, and cheerfully enlisted themselves into his service, notwithstanding the king’s army was then preparing for war against him: and though he was in imminent danger, yet all readily ventured their lives to preserve him.  And the gods themselves, for his virtue, and kind obliging temper towards all, rescued him out of all his hazards and difficulties, which seemed insuperable.'

                                                                            — Ancient Greek Geographer Diodorus Siculus

The Guy Who Gave His Name To The Greek Pharaonic Dynasty In Egypt

Bust of Ptolemy I in the Louvre Museum
The most successful of Alexander the Great’s successor-generals, Ptolemy I Soter (“Father,” also more than that: "Savior," as in "Father of His Country.") succeeded because he was shrewd, calculating, and able to control the political narrative in an age when spin-doctoring was first coming into its own.  We’re talking, of course, about the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.  

During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another, frequently several times over) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed Alexander’s death are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

General, Courtier, Governor, Cadaver Thief?

But for all that, Ptolemy, childhood companion and advisor to the young Alexander, seems different: when offered a command as a royal governor in the aftermath of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy chose Egypt: rich, fertile, both a breadbasket and a gold mine, easily defended because the deserts that surrounded it made travel across them by large military forces nearly impossible.  And from there he ventured out to steal Alexander’s body (as laid out in the lengthy quotation of Diodorus Siculus excerpted above) from the caravan taking it home to Macedonia.  This was a real political coup: control of Alexander’s body, to which he publicly paid every possible honor, gave Ptolemy the opportunity to set himself up as Alexander’s most legitimate successor.  And this is what he did, for the most part settling back and allowing the successors to pick each other off for the next four decades.

The Victor Who Wrote The History

Ptolemy’s greatest accomplishments weren’t founding a dynasty that lasted for three centuries in Egypt, though.  They were two-fold: first, he wrote a history of his famous king, which was used by countless historians during the next millennium (thereby allowing Ptolemy to by and large set the narrative of not just Alexander’s life story, but his own).  Second, he did what no other Diadochus (including the incredibly successful Seleucus) managed to do: he died in bed, of old age.

Truly a coup for a bastard in an age reknowned for its bastardry!

Bastard Son, Bastard Brother?

Ptolemy is listed all over the historical narrative of the period as “Ptolemy, Son of Lagus.”  No further mention is made of Lagus anywhere except his brief mention as Ptolemy’s father.  His mother was a distant relative of the Macedonian royal house and the rumored one-time mistress of Philip, father of Alexander the Great.  It is possible (perhaps even likely) that Ptolemy’s actual father was Philip himself, making Ptolemy Alexander’s bastard half-brother.  This would help explain why a boy eleven years older than the young prince was listed as one of his “childhood companions,” even going into exile with Alexander when the prince fled to Epirus shortly before the murder of his (their?) father.

A silver tetradrachm coin depicting Philip II, father of Alexander, and perhaps, of Ptolemy as well?

Ptolemy Keraunos: the Guy Who Made Oedipus Look Like a Boy Scout

“(T)hat violent, dangerous, and intensely ambitious man, Ptolemy Keraunos, the aptly named Thunderbolt.”

— Modern Historian of Ancient History, Peter Green

In an age where the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” and “bastard” were interchangeable, one of the most notorious bastards on the scene was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.  And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Bastard Out of Time

The Thunderbolt’s father and namesake Ptolemy I carried the honorific "Soter" (Again, Greek for "Savior.") for a reason.  In his own way the elder Ptolemy was as much as bastard as his hot-tempered son.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred movement.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace, and the court of one of his father’s rivals, Lysimachus.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).

Bastard Marriages

Since the time of the pharaohs dynastic marriage has been a political tool used by rulers to cement alliances and found dynasties.  At no time was this practice more in fashion than during the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s generals married the much younger daughters of their rivals, and married off their own children to yet others of their rivals’ offspring.  Such was the case at Lysimachus’ court: the old man himself was married to one of Ptolemy Keraunos’ sisters, a woman named Arsinoë, and another sister, Lysandra, was married to Lysimachus’ son and heir from a previous marriage, Agathocles.  Confused yet?  Keep reading!

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other.  Arsinoë eventually succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having Agathocles executed.  Lysandra and Ptolemy Keraunos fled, traveling to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other one of Alexander’s generals still left standing.  Largely for his own reasons Seleucus assured the two that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.

Betrayal

Seleucus’ forces triumphed in the resulting war.  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.

Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Selecus to death in his tent.  The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia.  The only problem was that Arsinoë still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

A Devil's Bargain

Arsinoë agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoë’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  

Coin minted by this Ptolemy during his short reign in Macedon: the likeness is of his sister/wife Arsinoë

You can guess what happened next.

The Betrayer Betrayed, and a Further Betrayal

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoë began plotting against him.  She intended to place her eldest son (the one named “Ptolemy”) on the throne and rule in his name.

Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoë’s two younger sons.  Arsinoë headed home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes: Gluttonous, Murderous, Unspeakable Bastard (ca. 182 B.C.-116 B.C.)

“The Alexandrians owe me one thing; they have seen their king walk!”

                                                                                —Roman General & Politician Scipio Aemilianus

Ptolemy VIII being crowned: apparently stone is slimming!
That’s right, another Ptolemy.  But where the first of our Ptolemaic bastards was ruthless and shrewd, andthe second was brave, intemperate and violent, Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes was an insane, gluttonous monster who celebrated one of his marriages by having his new stepson (also, because of his family’s in-breeding, his nephew twice over, since he was marrying his own sister, who was already the widow of one of his brothers!) assassinated in the middle of the wedding feast, and later murdered his own son by this same sister in a brutal and sadistic fashion.

Turns out all of those generations of in-breeding tends to have crazy results.

What’s in a Bastard’s Name?

When he took the throne of Egypt in 145 B.C. the Ptolemy took the reign name “Eurgetes” (Greek for “Benefactor”).  In truth he was anything but.  Quickly tiring of his lying, his murderous rages, and his rampant gluttony, his subjects began to refer to him as “Physcon” (“Potbelly”) because he was so fat.  The quote that leads off this chapter references that physical characteristic as well as his laziness.  Beholden to the Roman Republic for its support, Ptolemy VIII was forced to actually walk through the city of Alexandria while playing tour guide to a visiting collection of Roman V.I.P.s, including Scipio Aemilianus.

Originally a younger son of Ptolemy VI, this Ptolemy bounced around from Egypt to Cyprus to Cyrenaica (Libya) until his older brother (also a “Ptolemy”) died in 145 B.C.  In short order he manipulated the common people into supporting him for king, in place of his nephew (a boy who was crowned shortly after his father’s death with the reign name of “Ptolemy VII,” with his mother, Cleopatra II- no, not that Cleopatra- as regent/co-ruler), and managed to work out a compromise with his sister-also-brother’s-widow wherein in he married her and the three of them became “co-rulers” of Egypt.

Murderous Bastard

Not only did Ptolemy then promptly have his nephew killed at the aforementioned wedding feast, he seduced and married as his “second wife” the boy’s sister, his niece, his wife’s daughter (confused yet?  It gets better), also named “Cleopatra” (No, still not that Cleopatra, the Ptolemies, like the Romans weren’t very original with names).  This after knocking up his sister/wife/widow of his dead predecessor herself, siring a son named Ptolemy (again) Memphitis.

When the people of Alexandria eventually rebelled and sent Ptolemy VIII, the younger Cleopatra and their children packing off to Cyprus, Cleopatra II (the sister/widow/first wife) set up their son as co-ruler and herself (once more) as regent.  Within a year Ptolemy VIII had the boy, his own son murdered.  Pretty awful, right?  Unspeakable?

No, that’s what came next.

Unspeakable Bastard

Once he’d had the child (no older than 12) killed, Ptolemy VIII had him dismembered and (no lie) sent to his mother as a birthday present!

As if this wasn’t enough, Ptolemy went on to re-take his throne and share power with his first wife until he died of natural causes after a long life in 116 B.C.

*    *    *

And there you have it: saved the best (okay, the WORST) for last! See you in two weeks!


12 May 2021

Maisie & Jackie


I came to Jacqueline Winspear late, and started reading her books back to front.  I reported here last January about her enormously engaging and quietly unsettling memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, and the first of her fiction I read was The Care and Management of Lies, a WWI standalone.  Lies is a novel of manners, in its breadth of purpose and minute attention to detail, but it’s a suspense story as well, where character collides with necessity.

 

My rule of thumb has come to be, that if I stumble across a writer new to me, I try to go back and start reading them from the beginning.  In this case, Jackie Winspear has a series; book sixteen of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, The Consequences of Fear, came out this past March.  Girding my loins, I began with the first, Maisie Dobbs. 


 

Spring, 1929.  This is intentionally misleading, because there’s a long flashback, mid-book, to Maisie’s early time in service as an upstairs maid, and then to the war, a dozen years before, when she was triage nurse.  We’re often told that flashbacks are a narrative kill switch, but it’s a device that works for Maisie.  For one thing, the tension between past and present is exactly what gives the story its punch, and both the hook and its resolution depend on looking the unburied past square in the eye.  It’s a story about consequences, even if they aren’t the consequences of our own choices. 

 

Two things of note, both related to period.  The books take place between the wars, and as the shadow of the first war falls across the stories, the coming of the second war is a grim foreboding.  But there’s no feeling of artifice, or metafiction.  Winspear isn’t trying to recreate or reshape the Golden Age – one thinks in particular of Dorothy Sayers, and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, very much grounded in the memory of the trenches – and you don’t feel she’s writing pastiche.  Winspear’s treatment of the time is far from nostalgic; it’s quite immediate.  The other thing is that barriers of class and gender are only dealt glancing blows.  They’re present, but they’re part of the fabric.  They don’t call attention to themselves.



It isn’t always the case that knowing something about a writer tells you anything about the writing, or gives us any special insight into the process, or the method, or even a worldview, but having read This Time Next Year, I do in fact think it sheds light on Maisie’s world, and how Jacqueline Winspear inhabits it.  There are influences and intersections, overlaps and dissolves.

 

“Maisie drove down to Kent in early September, when the spicy fragrance of the hops still hung in the warm air of an Indian summer.”  This is, unapologetically, transcribed from Jackie’s own girlhood.  She says, also, that knowing her grandfather’s fragility (from shellshock), but without understanding why, is part of what brought her to the primary matter of the novels, the injury that violence does to our sense of belonging.  It murders trust.

 


I don’t think the Maisie books are dark, but neither are they slight.  Winspear manages a sure balance between the night sweats and the sunny uplands, and gives us the confidence that simple decency is a lasting virtue.  It’s a comforting thought. 

 

11 May 2021

Creating a Believable Character Requires Knowing Their Heart


Writing what you know is advice beginners often get. You want to write something that seems real to the reader, so you need to really know it to write it correctly. Beginners sometimes think the advice means they can only write about something they've experienced personally. Only somewhere they've been. Only a job they've done. There's a funny old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin says he's writing a novel about a guy clicking through TV channels with his remote control; he's writing about what he knows. With time, however, writers usually realize that they can know anything well enough to write about it if they do enough research.

Or can they? Is the answer different when you're talking about voice?

I found myself wondering about this before I wrote my newest story "James." My main character, Nick, is a rock star, and that's something I definitely am not. Sure, I could do research about rock stars, what their lives are like, about touring and writing music and all of that. But could I understand the persona well enough to bring my character to life in an authentic way? The way he'd think. The words he'd use. When I write, I basically become that person in my head. Could I become a big bad rock star? (Those of you who know me in real life, stop snickering!) 

It worried me at first, but eventually I realized that I did know something about who Nick is, something important. Deep down, he's a person with a heart. And I know how to write that.

The big bad rock star
who inspired the story
Sure, there are people--and characters--who have no heart, no soul. But most people do. They care about specific people and specific things. Once you know what a character cares about, you can tap into it, and that enables you to make that character real.

What does Nick care about? His family and his friends. He cares about letting down his grandmother and wanting to make things right. He might be a big bad rock star, but he still has feelings. And these specific ones, I'd think all readers can relate to them. By tapping into them as I wrote the story, it made Nick relatable too.

That was a point I tried to make with the first line: "Even big bad rock stars can feel nostalgic." It's Nick's nostalgia that kicks off the chain of events in the story. It's his heart that drives the plot from there.  

That all said, while knowing a character's heart helps you understand him or her deep down--what pushes his buttons, how she'd react to pressure, for instance--to really bring the character to life, to really get the voice right, you also have to get the words right. And getting Nick's words right, in his thoughts and in his dialogue, wasn't easy. Nick might have been acting believably based on who he is deep down, but in the first draft, he didn't sound right. He didn't sound like a rock star.

He sounded too much like me. 

If you listen to me talk long enough, you'll hear me use whom when it's the correct word to use. A friend told me a year or two ago that no one uses that word, and I replied, "I do." The grammar is ingrained in me. That's not to say I speak properly all the time. But sometimes, perhaps often, I do, and it seeps into my writing.

My friend Tim reads a lot of my work before it goes out in the world. As he said to me after reading an early draft of "James," Nick sounded too grammatically precise. And he didn't use enough idioms. When I revised, I worked on that. I also worked into Nick's vocabulary some words that I would never use, words I find too off-putting, but they're words a man, especially a rock star, might use. So Nick uses them.

Making the right word choices also took due diligence in my next short story coming out, "A Tale of Two Sisters." In that story, my main character, Robin, is a twenty-four-year-old lesbian. I could relate to who she is deep down, and her personality is more like mine than Nick's is. But to ensure my word choices for her (and other characters) were right and that I didn't have the characters do or say anything that seemed off, I not only did research while writing the story, but I also used a subject-matter expert--a sensitivity reader--after I finished it.

Getting a character's voice right isn't always easy, but when you put in the work, you can make that character come alive off the page. That's what I tried to do with Nick in "James" and with Robin in "A Tale of Two Sisters." I hope you'll read these stories and let me know if I succeeded. 

"James" appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The anthology came out last month from Untreed Reads Publishing. You can buy it in ebook and trade paperback wherever books are sold, but you can get the best deal at the publisher's website. Just click here

"A Tale of Two Sisters" will appear in Murder on the Beach, which will be published on May 28th in ebook form and in trade paperback sometime this summer. The ebook version is on sale for 99 cents until the publication date. To pre-order the anthology, click here. It will take you to a landing page with links to nine retailers that are selling the book, including the usual suspects.

***

Before I go, a little BSP: I'm so happy that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story published last year, along with stories by Alex Segura, Art Taylor, Gabriel Valjan, and James W. Ziskin. People attending Bouchercon in August will be eligible to vote for the winner. In advance, you can read all five of the nominated stories through the Bouchercon New Orleans website. Just click here. The title of each of the nominated stories is a link.

10 May 2021

Me and My Hoomans


Dictated by Ernie to Steve Liskow

Dad said I could write his blog if I promised I wouldn't eat the mouse. It doesn't look or smell much like a mouse, anyway.


My sister Jewel and I met Dad and Mom twelve years ago this week. Our first owner lost his home and we had to go to a shelter. Jewel was really shy and it upset her a lot, but I promised I'd find us a new home. When Dad walked in, I purred and played and let him hold me in his lap. Mom petted me too, and they both liked me. I wouldn't go without Sis, though. The people at the shelter said we were a blonde pair, or something like that. I'm kind of blond, but Jewel was a Himalayan. Anyway, Dad and Mom put us in carriers again--I still don't like car rides because, up to then, they'd all ended up us being somewhere we didn't like--but this time was different.

A basement with two litter boxes and lots of furniture. A nice bright kitchen and two food dishes. Two sets of stairs to run up and down, lots of windows and trees so we could watch birds and squirrels. Jewel hid under the coffee table in the basement that first night, but I trotted back and forth between Mom's chair and Dad on the couch, letting them pet me. By the time they went to bed, I knew we'd scored. And when I jumped ino bed and curled up against Mom, she snuggled me. We still do lots of that.


Dad's a writer. He spends lots of time by the computer talking to himself and shaking his head. Jewel used to read his stuff and tell me what it was, but he never had enough action or car chases for me--except that book about roller derby, and that was girls, so Jewel got into it more than I did. She wanted more love scenes and stuff becasue she's...well, you know...a girl. I'm more into sports. That's my favorite section of the newspaper. Except the comics. 


For our first Christmas with Mom and Dad--I was about a year and a half and Jewel was two, Mom got us a new kitty bed. It was nice, but it was even better when she took the cushion out of it. Then we could fit in it together and groom in a sunbeam. Mom took a picture and used it as a Christmas card one year. There was even a big hanging plant in the room at first, but Dad saw a few teeth marks on leaves and took it away. He never saw me chew it, but what are you going to do?


Mom's an actress, and sometimes she'd walk around in the bedroom talking to Jewel in funny voices. Jewel would always talk back, and sometimes I thought Mom actually understaood what she was saying. Hoomans are pretty smart if you encourage them. Dad practices guitar sometimes, too. It's weird, a guitar doesn't smell alive, but it makes noise like you wouldn't believe. Jewel and I usually went upstairs when Dad pulled it out of its bed. That's when Mom would stretch out on the bed and we'd cuddle with her. Sometimes, she stayed downstairs and did a crossword puzzle. Jewel probably knew more answers, but I usually sat on the back of the chair so I could see the clues better.

During basketball season, Jewel liked to watch the UConn Women, even though they're the Huskies. Go figure. Mom thinks she taught Jewel to say "Maya Moore," but she could say it all along. She just finally let Mom hear her.

Jewel died about three years ago, and Mom and Dad and I held each other a lot. I didn't remember being away from her before, and I looked all over the condo for weeks before I figured out she wasn't coming back. That really hurt. But I'm still taking care of Mom and Dad.

Mom and Dad take care of me, too. Mom even gets up to fill my water cup if I'm thirsty in the middle of the night because I don't like my fountain downstairs. And I still like to sleep between Dad's feet except in the summer when it's really hot.


Dad's not writing as much as he used to now, and I keep telling him he needs more car chases. I don't think he gets it. He still plays guitar, too, and I help him and Mom watch baseball and basketball. I'll take care of them as long as I can, because that's what Maine coons do. We love our hoomans.  

09 May 2021

Drugs, rugs, and dogs


I’m now suspicious of my carpets.

First, I should explain that I’m a huge fan of Persian carpets. When I was a poor student, I bought one at a flea market and got hooked. No pun intended.

When I had a bit more money, I bought some more from a lovely local store and became even more enamoured with them. I even gifted them to my children when they moved out.

I was wandering the internet late at night - we are on lockdown, so my late night amusements are limited these days - and I found out that some rugs have drugs.

“Sniffer dogs at the Manchester Airport aroused suspicions for a large import of beautiful carpets, and upon further examination the security personnel found the drugs “hidden inside thread-like sheathes that look like carpet yarn to the naked eye”.

These smugglers literally managed to create little malleable ‘tunnel containers’ for heroin that look like rope, then wove them into the fabric of gorgeous, completely inconspicuous carpets of commercial quality. 46 of these hand-made knotted carpets were in this particular shipment, and they found around 50 kilograms of heroin hidden in them so far.

The sheer size and sophistication of this operation is just mind-blowing. This particular shipment would be worth several millions of dollars, and while this one was miraculously sniffed out by highly trained dogs, there could have been dozens more that went completely unnoticed.”

It’s a marvel, really, that someone would be able to think of, let alone implement, a process where heroine was hidden in carpet strands and then woven into a rug.

Apart from admiring the technical brilliance of the plan, I was worried. When I read that I looked at my sleeping bouvier, Kai. Surely, if our rugs had drugs, Kai would have found them. I came to my senses and realized that Kai is not a trained sniffer dog and unless a rug smelled like meat or cheese, she would ignore it completely.

I then went down the rabbit hole of drugs in rugs. I wondered if rugs with drugs have been found near where I lived?

Apparently so.

“The joint investigation between provincial and Toronto police as well as the Canada Border Services Agency began in June 2010, when border services agents at Pearson airport found 15 kilograms of heroin hidden inside 27 carpets that arrived from Pakistan.

The drug had been put into the main support strands and the carpets were woven around them, likely by people who were paid almost nothing for their labour, police said.”

Who doesn’t love the totally Canadian statement about the poor pay of those who made the heroin laced rugs?

However, I must admit this alarmed me. Did I buy a rug around that time? I might have.

Then I realized that a heroin laden rug would be promptly picked up by whoever organized it and it was unlikely to end up on my floor.

In case you’re wondering - because of course you are - I did ask Kai to sniff our rugs. In the middle of the night.

Kai is a very reasonable dog. She is also inordinately fond of me for no reason I can ascertain, and generally puts up with my odd request. I can be a handful.

After a curious look at the carpet, she simply lay down and promptly went to sleep. She may live with a crazy woman who goes down crime rabbit holes late at night, but she needs her beauty sleep.

I also found out that they have made dinner sets out of compressed cocaine. Is it out of line for me to ask Kai to smell my dishes?

Did I mention we’re in lockdown?