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Ghosts From 1968

Ghosts From 1968

Were the things we loved as children, and the things that frightened us, more powerful than what is happening to us today?  Or were our brains just more elastic back then, more open to impression? Some memories of childhood remain crystal-clear, and I can trace my scariest memories, and some of my greatest loves, to 1968.

The Bomb and Tet

I wrote the beginning of a story about something that happened in Catholic school, the year I was 7. This would have been 1967:

         Second grade, and the gloves come off. “Say you have a bomb shelter, but only room for 10 people.”

I remember like it was yesterday, discussing with my classmates and the nuns why we needed nurses and teachers. We needed healthy young women in our bomb shelter, so they could have babies to repopulate the planet and contribute needed skills, and we gave them a man to run things and make up the laws. The artists all seemed to be fifty and were deemed both too old to contribute and did we really need artists? I mean, we had a limited supply of food in those bomb shelters. They were left to face nuclear winter alone. Was there really any question I was going to be a nurse? I have felt guilty for abandoning those artists for 45 years. Now I think—I’m 52, and a writer of gay romances. Oops, sorry! No room for you, Sarah. Looks like the bomb shelter is full up!

By 1968, though, there was a new demon even more frightening than the bomb, especially for a kid whose father was in the military. My dad was gone most of 1968 on some secret something in his submarine. Naturally, listening to Walter Cronkite’s solemn voice talking about Tet, and watching the pictures on our little TV coming from Vietnam, I thought he was in the middle of it all. I never missed the nightly news. I was looking for him in those horrible pictures, in those news reports.

My son’s father and I were both in the military, and we were in war zones, sometimes together. I never worried about him the way I worried about my dad in 1968, looking for his face on the TV screen. I was busier as an adult, for one thing, and I knew we were both very competent and there were all sorts of fail-safes in place. It was just work, after all. I suspect now I had used up my allotment of worry during Tet.



The Scorpion

And while I was busy worrying about Vietnam, something happened even closer to home. On May 27, 1968, the happy and excited families of the 99 men on board the USS Scorpion waited on the docks in Norfolk for the sub to come back from deployment. The Navy was not surprised the sub never showed up. They had been frantically looking for it for days. The families showed up and stood around and stared out at the horizon and waited for a ship that was not coming home. When it got dark, most of the tired mothers bundled their kids up and took them home. The Navy finally announced the ship was lost at sea on June 5, 1968. This was the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

There have been many theories and much study since the Scorpion went down about what happened. They exceeded crush depth we know for sure, and the theory I heard most, growing up around submariners, is that a torpedo exploded in the tube. Regardless, the remains sit just off the Azores, where the Scorpion was engaged in the business of submarines of the day- observing Soviet naval activities. We were watching them and they were watching us. It was a cold war down at the bottom of the sea, while the world was watching the hot war across another ocean. But what I remember most clearly was the wives talking about what had happened in our kitchen. Their pale drawn faces, the way they pulled each other into corners to quietly ask if there had been any news. It wasn’t my dad’s submarine, but it could have been.


Mexico and Prague and the rest of the screwed-up world

While I was busy listening to Walter Cronkite, waiting for him to announce my father was being hauled out of the mud of Vietnam, I heard lots of other disturbing news. What the heck was going on in Mexico? They lined their student protestors up against a wall and shot them? Because of the Olympics? I knew what Mexico looked like, of course, since we were Clint Eastwood fans and the Spaghetti Westerns showed the world the face of the banditos, with their fierce mustaches and droopy sombreros.

What the heck was going on in Prague? What was the matter with the Soviets, with their big tanks?

And what the heck was happening here? Everybody was rioting, the students, the Panthers, the entire city of Detroit was in flames, and the hippy war protestors were being shot down in the streets by the good guys, the guys in uniform. America was on fire, everybody had a gun, and people were being assassinated. Martin Luther King, then RFK. I can see Cronkite’s face like it was yesterday, announcing that the Reverend MLK was dead, with the knowledge on his face about what was going to happen next.

Barnabas Collins

But I was a kid, and my TV watching was not confined to Uncle Walter and the nightly news. I was a huge fan of the soap Dark Shadows. We all were, everyone, and all the kids in the neighborhood watched Dark Shadows after school, and then we put on plays for the mothers, acting out new story lines. I was in love with Barnabas Collins. My role was to swoon backward into Barnabas’s dark and steely arms while he ravished my neck over and over again. When he was finished sucking my blood, he would lay my insensate body down in the grass. Good St. Augustine grass is very prickly on the back, but then my nerves were especially sensitive after Barnabas had finished with me. I don’t remember anything else about the storylines of the plays we put on. I only remember the joy of swooning, knowing I was going to be caught, and that a vampire was going to bite my neck.

Reader’s Digest Condensed Books

I recently read my old report cards. Mother sent them to me when she was cleaning out the attic. Oddly enough, they seemed to say the same thing year after year. To paraphrase, the nuns did not appreciate my uniform noncompliance, and I would do better in school if I would stop talking so much. But in 1968, the year I was 8, a teacher found a solution to the problem of my talking too much in class.  We had these boxes of stories, and each story had a group of questions designed to assess reading comprehension. They were for “reading groups” at different levels. The teacher sent me to the back of the room where all those boxes were stored and said I could read them for as long as I wanted. I had to stay in the back, though. Did I have to answer the questions? No, I could just read. I stayed back there until the end of the school year, reading all day, and when she saw I was working on the last box, she got the boxes from the upper grades, and then she brought in armfuls of Reader’s Digest Condensed books.

I was very happy to see these, as we had them at home, too. In my house, we believed in education and we believed in reading. But the rest of my family was normal about it. I would wait on the day the Reader’s Digest Condensed book was due to arrive and carry it to my room, and no one would see me or the book again until I had read every page. If the book arrived when I was at school, it would be sitting, waiting for me, still in the cardboard box. Only watching the news could pull me from Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. But by the end of the year my dad was back home, and he told me not to worry, he was not going to Vietnam in his submarine. It has only recently occurred to me, after forty or so years, that he was not telling me the truth.  Mother must have noticed that I was watching the news every night and started to worry.

The Chemistry Set

In between my obsession with Barnabas Collins and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, I fell in love with the chemistry laboratory. Not chemistry itself, just the lab, with all the cool bubbling test tubes and fumes and liquids and mad scientists. I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas, and Santa obliged. It was the coolest present of my entire life, with a Bunsen Burner (real flames!) and a little test tube holder and packets of various chemicals and glass test tubes. I dove right in, doing experiments left and right until my ingredients ran dry. I wasn’t as interested in doing experiments where you knew what was going to happen. I wanted to do experiments where the end result was a question. Most of the chemistry designed for eight year olds is not set up for the random. Now, of course, I completely agree with this safety feature, but at the time I was a bit disappointed nothing would blow up and I could not perform a transformation of any significant nature. Chemistry lab in college was even worse, the rigid nature of doing experiments to prove a point that they already knew!! Was I the only one who saw the futility of this? But I still get a little lightheaded with happiness when I see a Bunsen Burner and test tube rack.

Music

Janis Piece of My Heart (Janis nearly got me kicked out of Catholic School. That story for another time. Mother said she was “not a lady.”)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJb7cBfrxbo

Glen Campbell Galveston (I’ve got a story in the planning stages called The Persian Rose that features this heartbreaking song)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsHUgpSxMoI

Buffalo Springfield For What It’s Worth (I have listened to Buffalo Springfield Again every year since 1968. It was my first record album)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp5JCrSXkJY

Blood Sweat and Tears You Made Me So Very Happy (My mother was a big fan of Blood Sweat and Tears, and also Gordon Lightfoot)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxWSOuNsN20

Jefferson Airplane  White Rabbit (from the Smothers Brothers!)( I was not allowed to listen to them, as they promoted drugs use. Mother suspected this song had something to do with drugs. )

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnP72uUt_pU

Writing

It was always my intention to write when I ‘got old’. I wanted to work off enough good karma as a nurse to earn my place in the bomb shelter, and to help repopulate the planet in the event of nuclear winter.  But somewhere about age 45, it occurred to me that, if I was going to write when I got old, the time was now. I also was stalling, I think, with the idea that I hadn’t read enough. My obsessive reading behavior had not abated, but there were still so many more books to read! Would I have to choose between reading and writing?

And my first few efforts were, frankly, pornographic. I excused myself by allowing that this was normal human behavior; after all, I wasn’t having sex, most people I knew weren’t having sex, and so naturally we were all thinking about sex. I suspected this obsessive interest in sex was based on some flawed idea that sex was a shortcut to intimacy. Regardless, over time I became more interested in writing about love. As expected my readership went down until I am now at about 20 regular readers, a small but strong cadre of readers I suspect were sitting in the back of their classrooms in third grade with boxes of stories. I love you guys.

1968 was a beautiful rich heartbreaking killer of a year. I hear that music, listen to the voices, watch the newsreels and it feels like I’m home again, in my small safe place, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, watching the world tear itself to pieces. And now, like then, after all of those sorts of years, we wake up and get to work, because we’re the grown-ups, putting the pieces back together again.
 
The General and the Horse-Lord

The new book is coming out April 5 from Dreamspinner!


General John Mitchel and his favorite pilot, Gabriel Sanchez, served together as comrades and brothers-in-arms for more than twenty-five years. They followed the warrior’s path: honor first, and service, and the safety of the tribe. Their own needs for love and companionship were secondary to the mission. Retirement from the army, however, proves challenging in ways neither expected.

When old warriors retire, their armor starts falling away, and the noise of the world crowds in. That changing world sets up longings in both men for the life they might have had. After years of loving on the down-low, the idea of living together in the light seems like pure sweet oxygen to men who have been underwater a little too long. But what will it cost them to turn their dreams into truth?

Fan Fic and Jane Eyre's Soap!

Jane Eyre Makes the Best Honey-Lemon Soap!

I never got that thing about writing fan fic. Stories about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock? What? What planet were they on when that happened? Was Mr. Spock in pon farr? I thought Vulcans just liked to fight when…oh. No. Absolutely not. I can’t think about this. I need to put this in a small box in my mind and lock it away.

But my recent obsession with soap-making has led me down the fan fic garden path. What kind of soap does Hester Pryne use? The first time I tried to read The Scarlet Letter I became so infuriated I threw the book. Literally, and I am not the throwing-the-book type. My third effort, age 52, was the first time I made it through the entire story. Darling, I am going to make you some wonderful soap, not that any soap can make up for those men around you, but some soap that will lift your battered heart just a bit. Some rose clay, for gentleness, but with a tiny scent of the wild pine forest.

What kind of soap does Lord Byron use? Something just a little bit over the edge, because he was one for pushing the boundaries. He was the guy that drank too much, loved too hard, laughed too loud, tried to swim too far. Wrote too beautifully. Hard to love him in person, I imagine. Too exhausting. He must have known the way people drew back from him just a bit, and he was never sure what he had done to push them away. I need to write him a scene, just a small story, so we can see into his lonely heart, and give him someone who can love him exactly the way he is. What kind of soap? Something exotic and fresh, a strange combination. Sandalwood and Black Pepper?

Captain Ahab needs some soap, some strong soap that will lather up even in salt-water. He needs more than soap, actually. I’m concerned. He needs medication and therapy, but for now we will just offer up a clean-smelling bar with seaweed and coconut. I’ll offer up the soap and then get out of his way. This man and his obsession could take us all down.

Jane Eyre needs a special soap. She is THE romance heroine, the umbilicus mundi for romance writers. She needs a rich, sweet-smelling soap, so that when she lowers her tired face into her hands at the end of the day, hands full of creamy lather, she can close her eyes and remember Mr. Rochester. This was the only time of day she let herself think of him, let herself remember. The way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. The way he turned his head so eagerly to look for her when she walked into the room, always with that smile. She lowered her face into her hands, scrubbed away the dirt and traces of tears, and smelled Mr. Rochester just for a moment.
Okay, so now I get fan fic. 
 

Love Story with Squash

Potato Soup on the Stove

Awake or asleep, Rebecca dreamed beautiful dreams. She dreamed of a small organic market garden, maybe four acres of butternut squash and Blue Hubbards; this garden would provide the produce for the casual and eclectic restaurant where people would learn again to love the flavors of food. She even dreamed of her small restaurant as a stone, dropped into the lake of American obesity. Future generations would look back and point to four acres of squash, and say, that’s where it started, right there. That’s when they started to get healthy.

She was a sturdy girl with wide shoulders and strong hands, a long ponytail the color of oak, and on her days off she liked to drive around in her pickup truck and look at land for sale. She was looking for four unimproved acres of rural Oregon, and she must have walked a hundred, studying the slope and the trees and the fertile earth, dressed in a warm barn coat with a corduroy collar and hand knit socks inside her Wellies. Her mother had an alpaca in her back yard, and she sheared and spun his fleece every year and knit the yarn into socks. The alpaca gave about seventy pairs of socks a year.  Rebecca knew that her mother wished it was seven hundred.

Rebecca came from a long line of women who had dreamed big when they were young--grandmother, mother, aunts, cousins. These voices urged caution, higher education, a back-up plan, perhaps a husband. Her cousin Adele, the cousin who knew her best, suggested soup.

The problem, Rebecca thought, with Americans and squash was they didn’t know how to cook it. Also, their palates had been ruined by all-beef patties and too much salt. They didn’t know how to cook, they didn’t know how to eat, and they didn’t know how to wait. Soup was a very reasonable first step. After talking the problem over with Adele, Rebecca decided to ask her boss at Denny’s, where she worked as a waitress, if she could make her soup and serve it to the customers.

“I want to make soup with my organic squash and serve it here at the restaurant,” she said.

Mr. Vick looked like he was thinking hard about what to say to her. He wore a black polyester tie and white, short-sleeved uniform shirt. “The thing is, Rebecca, that this is a franchise. Denny’s has a set menu. According to our contract, we can’t add squash soup.”

“The thing is, I love the flavors of squash,” she said, “especially butternut and acorn and pumpkin. Blue Hubbards, too, and there are some very interesting new varietals coming out of Israel. But maybe not everyone shares my taste.  My cousin Adele says I should get some people to taste the soup before I invest in the land.”

“The land?”

“Four acres. I want to have a small organic market garden, specializing in root vegetables and winter squash. Then, I would use that produce to open a restaurant. Specializing in squash. Like, cooked into something.”  She waved her hand. “I haven’t gotten that far. But soup for sure.”

They studied each other for a moment. Mr. Vick rubbed across his forehead. “If you used the commercial kitchen here to make the soup,” Mr. Vick said, “you could sell it at the farmer’s market.  Or you could make the soup here and offer it to the rest of the staff, as an initial experiment.”

They eventually agreed that Rebecca would work the long shift on Saturday, 0600 to 1700, and she could make her soup and keep it on the back burner for the staff to eat during the day. That would give her two shifts worth of tasters.

Rebecca was as happy as she could ever remember being when she arrived the first Saturday at 0500 to start her soup. She had saved two weeks’ worth of vegetables from her CSA share for the stock, and she roasted butternut squash, a couple of Acorns, parsnips, turnips, and some Yukon Gold potatoes for the soup. Denny’s was quiet, a dark night turning into a cool and foggy morning, and the restaurant smelled like coffee and bacon and roasting root vegetables. Mr. Vick came in early, too, and watched what she was doing in the kitchen.

“So this is the soup?” He looked into the big stockpot. The celery tops were floating on the surface of the simmering water.

“No, that’s the stock. The soup is going to be made with the stock, and then all these veggies.” She cracked open the door of the oven, and he looked inside. “I’ve got some turnips and parsnips, as well as the squash. I thought about adding a beet, but that would mess up the color.”

“Are those potatoes?”

She nodded. “Potatoes are the most popular of the root vegetables, but not the only ones. The roasting really brings out the richness of their flavor, something between nutty and sweet.”

“Hmm, nutty and sweet.” He rubbed his chin, and she noticed, not for the first time, the dark hair that grew on the back of his hands. He had strong hands, like a farmer’s. “I was wondering if you had thought of a name for your soup.”

Rebecca shook her head. “I’ve just been thinking of it as squash soup.”

“The thing I’ve noticed, managing this Denny’s, is that names seem to matter to people. The familiar names and the silly names seem very popular. I can’t begin to explain why. But not many people understand squash the way you do. They might be more inclined to try the soup if it sounded a bit more familiar.”

Mr. Vick had won a scholarship to play football for Oregon the year Rebecca was in the third grade. He was home by Thanksgiving of his freshman year and never went back, to football or to college. He’d come back to Denny’s, where he’d worked as a short order cook in high school, and had worked his way up to manager. None of the waitresses knew what had happened to end his dreams, though they speculated a good deal.

“You mean call it potato soup?” She poured a cup of coffee for him, then one for herself. “Potato soup is a good example of what I’m fighting against. You take a healthy, simple food and you pour in the cream and butter and salt until it’s a bowl of heart attack soup. Old fashioned potato soup is really good, though. My grandmother used to make it with baked potatoes and onions and milk. She said baking the potatoes was critical.”

“My grandmother made potato soup, too. I wonder if you could call it something unique, like roasted potato soup?”

“The soup is going to be goldy-orange,” Rebecca said. “The color might throw people off.”

“Then what about Golden Potato soup?”

“That sounds perfect,” Rebecca said. “Thank you.”

“Oh, of course,” Mr. Vick said, his neck shading red, and he went back to the front to roll silverware in napkins.

She made ten gallons of the Golden Potato soup. It was probably too much, but she was hoping that people would like it so much that they would eat seconds, and ask her if they could take some home. By lunchtime, the soup was rich and thick, filling the kitchen with the warm smells of sage and browned butter and roasting squash. It was a lovely golden color, and it tasted like a cupful of autumn leaves, like Indian summer sunshine. Denny’s was busy by noon, but none of the customers asked about the smell. They ordered burgers, as usual, with fries on the side.

Mr. Vick had a large bowl of soup for lunch, and then ate seconds. The cook tasted a cupful, winked at her and told her she was hot shit in the kitchen. He was looking at her ass when he said it, though, so she thought his opinion was suspect. The busboy wouldn’t try any soup.  The other two waitresses deferred: one was lactose intolerant and the other was doing Atkins. By late afternoon, when the lunch crowd cleared out, she was left with about nine gallons of soup.

She was tired, as much from the excitement of the day as anything. Moderate to low enthusiasm was adequate for a first try. She had taste buds. She had a nose. That pot of soup was the best soup she had ever eaten. Her first commercial pot of soup! It was as good as she had hoped it would be. She ate a bowl herself, swallowed with her eyes closed and dreamed about standing in a garden with a shovel, turning over rich, black earth in early spring.

By four she had customers in for the early-bird specials. An elderly woman, her walker parked next to the booth, told Rebecca that Denny’s smelled good. “It reminds me of something, I don’t know. Something I’ve forgotten? A lovely, old-fashioned smell,” she said.

Rebecca looked around the restaurant. Mr. Vick seemed to be watching her, but when she met his gaze, he looked quickly away. “Would you like to try some soup? It’s on the house,” she said. “It’s called Golden Potato soup. A new recipe.”

“What’s in it?”

“Potatoes, turnips, parsnips, butternut squash, and acorn squash. Vegetable stock, milk and butter and sage and cinnamon!”
The old lady clapped her hands. “That’s what I smelled! The sage and the cinnamon. Yes, my dear. I would like to try some soup. Are you sure it’s on the house?”

Rebecca nodded. “Absolutely.”

She raced back to the kitchen, stirred the pot. It had thickened over the course of the day, but she didn’t want to try and thin it out, not when she had a live taster on the hook. She filled a cup and carried it to the table.

The woman bent over the cup, her eyes closed, smelled deeply, then she tasted a small spoonful. She leaned back, fingers stroking the purple silk scarf around her neck. She swallowed another spoonful and uttered a small sound of distress in her throat.
“What’s wrong? You don’t like it?”

Rebecca was horrified to find the woman looking at her with tears in her eyes, tears sliding down her worn cheeks. “When I was growing up, we had a small farm in Oklahoma. My father left, looking for work. This was the depression, you know. My mother and my grandmother, they grew all the food we had to eat. This soup reminded me of what those years tasted like. I had forgotten. I don’t think I’ve tasted turnips in soup in fifty years. It reminded me of being hungry.” She pushed the soup across the table, like she couldn’t get it far enough away.

What could she possibly say to this? Rebecca handed the woman an extra napkin for the tears, patted her tiny shoulder.
“Darling, don’t mind me. I can cry over sunshine, when the day’s been cloudy. It was lovely soup, I promise you. I’m just not feeling very strong today.” Then she reached for her walker with shaking hands.

“Don’t go without eating!” Rebecca was ready to cry herself. “What would you like? Let me get you something. You can take it with you.”

The old lady wiped across her cheek with the back of her hand, made a little tsk of impatience at herself. “Nothing, thank you, my dear. Enough is as good as a feast, as my grandmother always said.”

Rebecca walked her to the door. Then she went back to the kitchen, pulled the huge stock pot off the stove. She put the lid on and set it on the counter. The cook grinned at her and pulled his smokes out of the pocket of his apron, offered her one. She shook her head. Mr. Vick looked into the kitchen, studied the stockpot, but he didn’t say anything.

Rebecca finished her shift. It had been a very long day. Mr. Vick looked tired as well. He kept looking at her like he wanted to say something. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to hear it. She was beginning to suspect that he had eaten seconds of her soup just to be nice! She didn’t need false encouragement. He didn’t understand the power of her dreams. She needed honest feedback. Those damn turnips! If he had just told her four hours earlier the soup tasted like the Great Depression, she wouldn’t have forced it on a frail elder.

She heard the screams before she smelled the smoke, then the alarms were going off, red lights flashing, and the customers were racing for the exit doors. Mr. Vick ran into the kitchen, then spun in a circle, looking for the fire extinguisher. She grabbed one from below the waitress station and followed him through the doors. He held out his hands and she threw the extinguisher to him. The grease pan below the grill was on fire, grease and flame spreading across the floor. The cook was beating at the smolder on the bottom of his apron with a cup towel.

Mr. Vick pulled the pin and squeezed the nozzle, pointing the fire extinguisher down at the floor. A dollop of foam, and then the extinguisher was fizzing, blowing air. The second extinguisher was on the other side of the grill, unreachable. The cook was shouting, pointing at the back door. The fire was climbing up the grill, scorching the walls, filling the kitchen with oily black smoke. Mr. Vick grabbed some towels, threw them at the fire and tried to stomp on them. They soaked up the grease and caught immediately.

“It’s an oil fire,” he said, eyes zinging like pinballs in his head. “We can’t use water. Water just spreads it…”

Rebecca grabbed the stockpot. It was heavy, the soup cooling thickly, and she dumped the pot out on the fire, nine gallons of beautiful squash soup across the kitchen floor. She watched it smother the flames, suck the oxygen out of the fire. Mr. Vick leaned back against the counter, set the empty fire extinguisher down with shaking hands. “Wow. I’ve never seen soup do that.”

The cook was laughing like a loon from across the kitchen. “Golden fucking potato!”

The oily black smoke was replaced just for a moment with the rich autumn smell of roasting squash, sage and cinnamon. Rebecca stared down at the mess on the floor. That was good soup.

Rebecca turned around and walked out of the restaurant. She passed through the crowd of customers in the parking lot and got into her truck. She reclined the seat and closed her eyes. Adele was wrong. She didn’t need tasters. She needed four fertile acres planted in heirloom Blue Hubbards.

She was calm by the time Mr. Vick opened the door and handed her in a couple of Kleenex. “I’m coming back in,” she said. “I just needed a minute. Mr. Vick, I gave some soup to a customer. She got upset and started to cry.”

“I know. I saw it.”

“I’m really sorry. I’m not sure what happened, to tell you the truth. But I shouldn’t have done it.”

Mr. Vick straightened, looked back toward the restaurant. The fire truck was turning into the parking lot. The crowd of customers out front applauded when the fire fighters jumped down from the truck and picked up their axes. “I’ve got to go. Will you come in tomorrow? Help with clean-up?”

Rebecca noticed that, by the ceiling light of her Ford Ranger pickup, Mr. Vick’s evening whiskers were growing in very thick and dark. “I’ll be here.”

“Have you found your land? The four acres?”

She looked at him in surprise. “I’m very close.”

He smiled down at her. “Good.”






 

Writing by the Numbers

Writing by the Numbers

I just sent The General and the Horse-Lord off to Dreamspinner for their consideration. One of the characters was trying to explain the basics of Algebra to a fourteen-year old. I did quite a bit of research, trying to figure out an interesting and unique way to understand algebra- for the character and myself- and since then, numbers and patterns have been popping up like daisies in my head. Here are some random numbers from the new story:

Number of words so far: 54,016

Number of cities in which I worked on the story: 9 (Koro Island, Suva, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Las Vegas, Sequoia National Park, Fresno, Berkeley, Fortuna)

Number of gay characters in the story: 4

Age of the two main characters: 48 and 52

Number of miles I walked, thinking about the story: (est) 37

Number of days from start to finish writing first draft: 47

Number of albums I downloaded to my Ipod during story: 7

Number of pizzas delivered during story: 9

Number of books purchased during the writing of this story: 11 (this number may be inflated by an excited trip to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco)

Number of airplane flights during the writing of this story: 4

Number of flying machines in the story: 3- 2 helicopters and 1 hot air balloon

Number of new cars purchased during the writing of this book: 1

Number of manuscript pages: 132

Number of minutes after I sent the story to the publisher that I thought of the first revision: 12

Number of illness/injuries during the writing of the story: 2 blisters, 1 sunburn, 2 migraines, 1 near nervous breakdown, 1 bad stomach ache after going crazy at a fruit stand in the San Joaquin Valley

Number of peaches that I ate and dripped peach juice down my shirt: all of them

Number of times I thought about giving up and never writing again because my writing is crap: 1 okay 2 or 3

Number of trees hugged: 6, but they were Giant Sequoias

Number of homeless people spotted on the streets while walking around while writing this story: about 100

Number of miles driven in new car while writing this story: 1556

Number of times someone in the story used the word fuck: 28

Number of fathers and sons in the story: 3 pair

Number of times I tried to force myself to add more sex scenes, just a simple blow job, would that be so hard?:  about 100

Number of sex scenes: I don’t remember. Some. More than a few.

I’m writing this on the front porch of cabin number 1 at Grant’s Grove, King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. The cabins are very quaint, with shake roofs and uneven floors. A marble dropped in the bathroom would roll right out the front door. The porch is wide and deep with chairs for those of us who can’t bear to go inside. The sky is getting dark and the Sequoias are…they are just SO BIG. AND TALL. Not sure how else to put it. They are huge, with this delightfully lightweight spongy bark that is exactly the red color of my son’s hair. The kid reported the presence of sap. Is this the time of year for sap?  I wouldn’t have thought so, but I was happy he finally put his Nintendo down and went into the woods to look at the trees. So we have sap!

The Sequoias don’t look like anything else on the planet, and this place, high in the Sierra Nevadas, is also unlike anyplace else on earth. Just after the ranger station, we slowed to watch two teenaged bears show off for the tourists- they climbed about six feet up the tree trunk, then bent over, hanging by their legs, looking at the cars and people upside down. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. I felt like calling their mother to report what they were up to.

The trees live in groves, and I don’t really understand how they group themselves, since I am standing around like a fool with my mouth open, marveling at how BIG THEY ARE. I did sneak into the forest and hug some trees. My mother claims I wandered away from our family campsite when I was 3 or 4, and she found me hugging a Sequoia. I don’t remember that, but the trees today were in little groups, twos and threes, like they were having a chat. I hugged a group of three ladies, and while I was doing that, my son was peeing on one giant Sequoia he found in the grove all alone. He claimed he could not wait until we got to the visitor’s center, but I have my doubts. I think he was like a little red-headed bobcat marking his territory. I swear, sometimes boys make me want to scream. Tomorrow we are going to hike to Grant’s Tree, the National Christmas Tree, a youngster at 1800 to 2000 years old.

The mountain road was very narrow and twisty, and we climbed so high we were driving through the clouds, and they smelled like snow. My son looked at my legs- bare in shorts and flip flops, as we had spent last night in Las Vegas and I had been driving all day to get here. He suggested I might want to make a better choice next time. To pay him back, I put on his new sweatshirt from the Grand Canyon and that did the job. The air up here smells like snow and pine and redwood, and something about it resonates in my memory and makes me feel like crying. I am starting to suspect my mother’s story is true. I have smelled this smell before. Or maybe this is the air I want to smell when I die. Can we request that we be put out to pasture in one of the distant groves, and let the Sequoias watch over us when we take our final breath? I wouldn’t mind letting my final mineral deposits feed one of these trees. I can’t help but notice that the very nice porch I am sitting on is made out of a sweet-smelling, reddish colored wood. I think it would be a fair trade. I should do some research. There are probably federal laws detailing the administration of deaths in the National Parks, but frankly, King’s Canyon has places only seen by the hawks and the bears.

The kid informs me we are in the wrong place. He shows me a book in the bookstore that details the differences between the Giant Sequoias and the Coastal Redwoods. Duh! I did think they were the same tree! We ARE in the wrong place, since I was supposed to take him to see the redwoods! But I am in love with this place, and these beautiful, quiet, huge old trees with their soft bark, these trees that let everyone hug them, 3,000 years of hugs.

We got our stickers at the gift shops after I read the book that told me I was in the wrong place. We have these suitcases with aluminum sides, very sturdy, and I know it’s corny, but we put stickers on the suitcases whenever we go places. Besides the National Park stickers, which are the majority, I have one that says, “My Life is Based on a True Story,” and the kid has one that says “Boise Zombie Response Team.” He also has one that says, “I heart Key Lime Pie.” But we’ve been going to the National Parks for some time now, usually when I am close to a nervous breakdown, and the stickers range geographically from Big Bend in Texas, through the southwest—Navajo country, Arches and Canyonlands near Moab, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, Lake Powell, Glacier, Denali, and a few others. Now we’re forging up the Sierra Nevadas. I’ve avoided California for years, thinking there were too many people. That may be a valid point, but wherever the Californians are, they did not face down that twisty little mountain road on a Tuesday in October. The park is wonderfully empty, other than the trees that have lived here for 3,000 years, and some bears that are acting up. And a mom and boy who are, for the moment, getting along.

Why I Write Romance

Why I Write Romance

Checking the writer’s pulse:

Mood: Gloomy, but with the possibility of reprieve due to lunch.

Music: Bruce Springsteen Devils and Dust

Book: John Gardner On Moral Fiction

Drink: Decaf Coffee

Pulse: 78

Shoe Size: 9.5

I read a list once that stratified writers, with poets floating dreamily at the top and writers of fiction graduated down through mystery, speculative fiction, bloggers, writers of personal memoir that start with a favorite story of grandfather, writers of shopping lists, and romance writers. I’m not one to hold a grudge.  I would just like to remind the unpublished writers of very important literary fiction that romance writers are still writers, and that means we throw everything into the pot. We do not forget and we’ll probably use your snotty comment against you at some point in the future. Like now, for instance. And we’ll no longer be doing your laundry or fixing your lunch, either, so go back to your garage.

That first paragraph no doubt caused all but the romance writers to leave the room. Good! It’s just us. We can tell the truth, right? So why are we writing romance? Anyone who is writing money, oops, I meant romance because they want money, you can leave now. I’m not talking to you.

So, how many of us are left? How many of us are writing romance because these are the stories that keep pouring out of our heads when we write? How many of us have written speculative fiction and mystery and literary fiction and even god forbid poetry and have gone back to romance? We’re down to the hard core, now. We’re the pan drippings when the rest of the world has rendered their pork butt of fictional subjects. Okay, not a really successful metaphor. But that’s writers for you. We try to find metaphors like magicians practice palming coins out of kid’s ears. (And for anyone who plans to use that metaphor against me in the future? Let me just say now I’m kidding about the pork butt, so don’t be an ass.)

When children begin to tell stories, what are they doing? They’re making a safe reality where they can explore ideas. I read an article from Tin House about the first stories children tell. They all follow the same structure. The child is the protagonist. She’s lost and alone in a dark woods. Then she finds a friend, and she isn’t alone any longer. The end.

The dark woods is different, of course, depending on the kid, but they are all dark woods and we all understand what that means. This story structure makes perfect sense to a romance writer. Our characters are alone, and then they find a friend and they aren’t alone any longer. They’re lost, and then they’re found. They’re in danger, and then they’re safe. They’re lonely, and then they’re happy. At the end, they are safe and warm and they have a home and someone to love. This is as basic a human story as exists in the world. Frankly, nothing else matters too much to me. When we get down to it, this is what I care about. And these stories? They’re romance.

What I want for the people around me is the same thing I want for my characters. I want them safe and happy, with a home and someone to love. I look around my clinic waiting room, the bookstore and the diner, and I know this is not reality for many people. But I want this for them and for me and for you, so badly I can feel the desire in every drop of blood moving through my heart. So I write romance, stories where people who are lost can find a friend and live happily ever after.

Of course the world matters.  After WWI, literature changed. The industrial revolution changed fiction. War always does. So does totalitarianism and the suppression of free speech. But dig deep down into the bones of human desire? We’re lost in a dark woods, and we need a friend. And my friend, I have a story for you.

But are these stories really  romances? This question has come up recently, when some of the darlings who wrote reviews of my last book mentioned I am veering off course even more than usual. Well, I do write romances. I write love stories, and when I write them, I feel a great tenderness and hopefulness for all the sweeties who read my books. I want all of you to be in love, to have a friend, to be at home and safe, to not be lost in a dark woods. And if you are lost, I want you to believe, like I do, that there’s hope. Hope for redemption, hope for a friend so you won’t be alone, hope for a home and safety and love.

Stories should say something to us about being human. They should make us think, make us feel, make us look at the world, and each other, a little differently. Stories should be life-giving. That’s what I’m trying to do. Trying, and not yet succeeding, but I have hope! The next one will be better. I’m working hard. The next story might change my life. It might change yours. I have hope.

They've always been one of my dream publishers, so I was very happy they gave The Pond an honorable mention in their latest contest. Rather than send it out to publishers, though, I decided to share it with you:

The Pond

Mother said, you need to try just a little bit harder, and of course I put Janis on the record player and turned the volume up. It was 1972, Janis was two years gone, and I was still mourning. Mother rubbed between her eyes like she had a headache and enrolled me at St. Mary’s.

I took my turtle and went out back to the pond. We’d been in Key West a couple of weeks, and I was already in love with the rank smell, the chaotic tangle of mangrove roots, the rotting slick green leaves that floated on the surface of the pond. My little red-eared turtle was called Janet.

The pond was filled with wild turtles, black water snakes, tiny darting silver fish, strange birds with long legs and eyes like killers. Janet stayed in her plastic bowl, with the plastic palm tree, and we sat on the edge of the pond and watched it all.

I was in trouble with the nuns from the first week at St. Mary’s, mostly for uniform noncompliance. Mother sent me out the door in a pleated pale blue skirt. Where did I get the love beads and the rainbow-striped socks? I was singing Janis is the halls between classes.

The sixth-grade girls stood together, talked about periods and boys. The blood was sticky and nearly black! If you used a tampon, you weren’t a virgin anymore. I couldn’t keep from reaching for that boy who sat in front of me, twisting his red hair between my fingers.

I put some slimy weeds in Janet’s plastic bowl, and she nibbled, walked back and forth until she smelled green and dank. My Key West smelled like the pond. But walk by the old cottages downtown, the roofs nearly buried under the heavy branches of old live oaks, and you smelled Cuban spices burned and smoking in iron skillets, bitter dark coffee. Down on the beach the salty turquoise water was full of sunshine and conch shells with pale pink lips. The bottom would cut your bare feet to ribbons.

My red-haired boy pulled out a pack of Marlboros he’d lifted from his dad’s dresser, and we climbed into the tree next to the playground. The bark was so rough on the back of my thighs I could scarcely breathe. He reached out, touched my bare leg with fingers that smelled like smoke.

The nuns were ready to kick me out. Mother was called, meetings were held, and I sat on a bench outside the office and thought about Janis. When we got home, I picked up Janet and went to the pond.

The wild turtles were tough. They lay in the sun, leaves drying on their knobbly shells, swam in the murky water when they wanted the cool, and the dark. Janet had her front feet on the edge of her plastic bowl, head straining forward. I lifted her up and put her down in the mud. She slid into the water and disappeared, a tiny line of bubbles rising to the surface.

I Blame Jackson Browne

Koro 1

I’ve been in a state of rigor mortis for the past two weeks. What am I doing? I’ve quit my job and booked a one-way flight to Fiji? Are we talking clinical insanity, or have I just spent too much time listening to Jackson Browne this summer? How many times does one have to listen to The Pretender before one is moved to desperate action?

I don’t blame Mr. Browne; after all, I’ve done this sort of thing before. Truthfully? It’s been about 50-50 great experiences v disasters, so this new Fiji experiment could go either way. The thing is, I’m 52! There will come a time when, if I ditch a good, well-paying, and fairly easy job, I won’t be able to get another. (Duh!) This last thought was the cause of my recent rigor mortis. I anticipate spending about ten thousand dollars on a couple of waterless, non-electric composting toilets. Delivered to Koro Island, Fiji.

So I took a day off work and moved my paperwork out to a table by the pool. So I could dunk my head into the cold water if I started to hyperventilate. My friend Jay came by and told me a story about a film he had seen with the baby penguins all crowded together on the edge of the cliff. No one would jump, until one brave little penguin took the leap. Jay was trying to cheer me up, having recognized the look of frozen horror on my face. I strongly suspect that one brave little penguin felt a sharp kick in the ass from someone behind him in the crowd before he took the plunge.

But today the plans arrived in the mail from Nelson Treehouse and Supply. Yes, the plans for the treehouse. Not only am I moving myself and the kid to Fiji, but we are going to build a treehouse. I say this with a straight face, knowing I’m still not able to fully work my touchscreen Ipod, the one with only two buttons. But the kid is really psyched, and has the plans spread out over the table. He’s talking about spanning struts and knee braces and K-nut and suspender units- called the ‘dynamic triangle.’  He’s passed over the instruction book for me to read called Treehousing: The Instructional Guide. It starts off by saying: ‘Trees are among the most complicated and fascinating organisms on the planet…They are delicate, beautiful, and exist all over the world…It is imperative that we treat the tree with respect, and climb up into it with knowledge and a friendly mind.’ I’ve got the friendly mind already. Hey, we’re not alone! Yeah, baby! We’re going to Fiji!

Good Bye to the Beautiful Southwest

Good Bye to the Beautiful Southwest

By the time a person is a mother and a responsible adult, the opportunities for running away from home to become a cowboy are fairly limited. Not that I’ve let that stop me. It was ten years ago when I sold the house, put all our possessions in storage, bought a pickup and a camper, and headed out to the beautiful Southwest. If I remember correctly, we had a CD of the Dixie Chicks singing Wide Open Spaces when we pulled out of Orlando with a bead on…out there. Way out there. Indian Country. Cowboy Country. I think my son had some idea that out west, the other kids wouldn’t drag you into the bathroom at school and kick you in the stomach. I had the idea that, in the big empty west, you could at least see the bad guys coming for you.

Which proved true. Navajo boys live by a code, and that includes telling the truth. When my son was punched in the face by a school mate in seventh grade, they both showed up at my clinic to confess- my son to confess it was his fault, and the other kid to confess he did it.

When we left Florida, I was feeling slightly desperate and wondering if I was going insane- a fairly typical response for a single mother when told her beloved son has autism. I didn’t believe then, and still don’t, that I was running away- I needed those wide open spaces. I wanted some room to see the bad guys coming for me. In the last ten years, since we’ve come out here, we’ve lived on the Navajo Nation, in Alaska for 6 months at an Athabascan Village, in Boise, and for the last year, we’ve been travelling around New Mexico for work. There are bad guys out here, I’m sure, but I haven’t run into very many of them. My experience has been open doors and open arms, people who live by a code, hard work and hard lives. Cowboys, in other words. And, as any fool knows, the best cowboys have always been Indians. It has been my great pleasure to take care of them.

But the urge to roam is still strong and I’m getting ready to go again. Still West. We’re going to Fiji, and the story about to come out from Dreamspinner, The Legend of the Apache Kid, is my last beautiful story set in this land I love. I hope the next adventure is as rich and full of colorful people as this one has been. If not, well, it’s a big world. I still haven’t seen Petra, or Hong Kong, or Iceland. I’m not much on vacations; I have to go live there. I’m not just having a psychotic break, as certain members of my family believe—I’m looking for a place for my son and me. I know if we keep looking, we’ll find a place where he can be at home, where people will like and accept him. I think the warm and happy people of Fiji will welcome us, and we can make a home with them. If not, I suspect I’ll get a few stories out of it before we move on!

The new story is coming out on Sept 5, and we’re leaving on Sept 6—I think that’s a good sign. I hope this new story will give you a little taste of Taos, and The Greater World, and a bit of the beautiful Carson National Forest. I drove through the Carson, and went camping and hiking in April and May—with a tiny bit of snow still on the north side of the mountains, and the wildflowers blooming and the bears snuffling around in the underbrush. So good bye to the beautiful Southwest. Thanks for all the memories. I’ll check in from Fiji.

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