Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Fabulous Bodacious Chocolate Birthday Cake

My son Casey and his friend Ian had birthdays very close together. The year they turned 12, as the big days came up, Ian's mother was in the final stages of a tough pregnancy, so she announced she wasn't in condition to throw a party for him. "No problem," said my wife. "I'll make a birthday dinner for both you guys. You can have whatever you'd like.

You don't say that to 12-year-old boys. You just don't. They came up with turkey tetrazzini and a 7-layer chocolate cake. Myra balked at the entree, offered roast beef instead, but agreed to do the cake. The 7 layers turned out to be 14 inches high, each layer separated by chocolate buttercream, and the entire construction was iced with a bittersweet chocolate glaze. As you might imagine, it was a major hit.

Such a major hit that the other two chocolate freaks in the house - my daughter Erin and I - insisted that we get equal treatment. So when our next birthdays arrived, so did Myra's Bazooka Cake. Trying to slice the sucker was such an undertaking that our friend Carl Kehret, one of those guys who could make anything work, studied the situation, and the next time we saw him, he presented Myra with a uniquely-formed plastic panel to keep the layers together as they were being cut and served.

All this was 35 years ago. Though Casey's moved out of the area, and Erin's moved on to a chocolate souffle whose recipe she wheedled out of a French chef, for me the idea of a birthday dinner without that cake is inconceivable. Though the gatherings at the table are smaller than in years past, it's all right. The cake freezes beautifully, and is the best remedy in the world for a bad day, whenever one springs itself on us.

 There's this joke about the psych prof who asked his class how often they have sex. "Who has sex every night?" "Three times a week?" "Once a week?" "Once a month?" "Every six months?" "Once a year?"

At that, a little man in the back row jumped up, waved his hand wildly, and said, "Me, that's me! I have sex once a year!"

"O-kay," said the professor. "But what's to get so excited about over having sex once a year?"

The little guy jumped up and down. "Tonight's the night! Tonight's the night!"

Well, tomorrow's my birthday! Tomorrow's my birthday!

P.S. If you can leave a little room in your gizzard, the cake goes down real slick with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Life's A Pitcher...

...with a collection of curve balls nastier than Hogan's goat.

Back on November 9, I wrote about my Writer's Quandary: should my next mystery novel be My Mother The Murderer, or should it be The Most Horrific Botched Surgical Case In History? Or should I give attention to the treasure I'd recently acquired, unpublished manuscripts of Brun Campbell, the real-life Ragtime Kid?

Well, I'd figure it all out once I got past the major promotional work for A Perilous Conception.


The bookshop tour went very nicely, but a new term entered the equation. I'd intended APC as a standalone, no more stories featuring Detective Bernie Baumgartner and Dr. Colin Sanford. But somehow, the review copies went out proclaiming the book to be the first in the new Bernie Baumgartner series. Reviewers were enthusiastic - delighted, they said, that Bernie would have further adventures.

And then, at every stop on my tour, there were people who'd already read the book, and without exception, they wanted more Bernie. By the time I got back home, I'd decided if there really was that much interest, why not give it a try? It might be fun, and besides, why miss an opportunity to be compared to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

So I settled in, and tried to go to work. I say, tried. I felt exhausted, my mind like a sieve. Okay, I need a week or two to recover from the tour, right? Wrong. I got worse. Finally, I hauled myself off to my doctor, who told me I had Graves' Disease (an overactive thyroid gland), and got me treated. But he warned me it was going to be a slow recovery. I'd need to be patient.

I wasn't. I felt fatigued, did I? Really exhausted? Fine. Step it up a notch or two at the gym. Whereby I managed to strain both rotator cuffs, and got to add twice-weekly physical therapy to my routine.

Talk about frustration. No way could I get another mystery underway. I couldn't put two coherent thoughts together. Develop a plot or a character? Forget it. Literally.

But the Brun Campbell material was there, staring at me. The Kid's story of his life, first as an itinerant ragtime pianist more than 100 years ago, then as a fanatical ragtime revivalist in the 1940s, was captivating, but to say the least, it also was seriously disjointed. I needed to take about fifteen short to mid-length manuscripts, put them into some kind of reasonable order, and type them onto the hard drive. That I could do, an hour here, an hour and a half there.

Now, three months later, I'm feeling a whole lot better, but still have a way to go. Bernie and Colin sit in the back of my writing room, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. Brun Campbell nods approvingly at the files on my computer. "Kid," I tell him, "I think it's getting to be time for me to give those guys a little attention."

He waves off my comment. "Hey, lemme tell you about the time, it was back in Sedalia, summer of '99, with weather almost as hot as my ragtime playin'. I'm sittin' around with Scott Joplin and his pal, Otis Saunders, over by the Maple Leaf Club, and here comes this gal, movin' double-time, the most attractive creature of the fair sex you ever set eyes on, and both her eyes got blood in them. Saunders, he takes one look at her..."

So, now what? I don't know. I really don't. I guess before I pick my teammates for the next year or two, I need to keep up with my conditioning, and get myself off the DL. Then it'll be time to grab a bat, walk up to the plate, and depending on what the pitcher throws me, either dump the ball into the right-field corner, or drive it to the left-field wall.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bad Words

More and more, I get asked why I need to put bad words in my books. This despite the fact that you can walk past any elementary school play-yard during recess, and you won't be able to count fast enough to add up all the fucks you'll hear.

A well-read, educated man once put the question to me. "You write so nicely," he said. "Such good stories, so clever. You don't use a lot of bad words, but they still ruin the experience for me. I really think my wife would enjoy your books, but with that language in them, I can't recommend them to her."

I imagined his wife, down under the covers in bed, shining a flashlight on the pages of First, Do No Harm, as her husband snored beside her.

I just can't understand why you need to use any bad language," the man said. "Even one word."

"Because that's what a particular person - a character - in that situation would say right then," I replied. "Look at it this way: when my wife and I were bringing up our kids, we told them they could use any word they wanted, as long as they knew what it meant. And now that they're grown, they actually don't cuss very much at all - but when they do, you sit up and listen. It's like that with my characters. I draft my stories from the subconscious, and I'm often surprised at what comes up on the computer screen. If I go back and cut out anything a character says that rings right for the story, it'd be like cutting off that character's arm, or leg. I couldn't expect him or her to do anything for the story from then on."

"You could use asterisks," the man said. "Or dashes."

"'Dash you?'" I said. "Go asterisk yourself? Sorry, but I think that might take readers out of the story."

He was determined to be patient with me. "In one of your books, you have a bunch of people walking down a sidewalk, using the worst language I can imagine. I walk on a lot of sidewalks, and I've never, ever, heard a bad word. Have you? Honestly, now."

"Well, one day last week, I was walking along in downtown Seattle, and the air around a bunch of kids was bluer than the sky. Yes, honestly. I hear it all the time."

He shook his head. "It must be different where you live.

I don't think I mentioned: this man lived in New York. I figured there wasn't anything else to say.

Then, there was the pleasant, gray-haired woman I spoke with at a library promotional event. She asked all about my books, their plots, settings, and characters, and she seemed extremely interested. Then she said, "Do you take the name of the Lord in vain in your books?"

"Well, not personally," I said. "But yes, sometimes my characters do take the name of the Lord in vain. All in all, there's not a lot of off-color language in my books, but sometimes it just seems necessary."

The woman's smile became positively materteral. "Oh, I don't mind off-color language in books," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, you can let your characters say fuck all you want. I just don't like to hear the name of the Lord taken in vain."

I tried not to laugh, failed miserably. Fortunately, the woman didn't seem offended. "Well, I guess a person can't please everyone," I said.

The woman was still smiling. "You'd be foolish to try."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Life Goes On

Ed, Dale and I had good times for a lot of years, collecting and restoring antique phonographs and music boxes. Ed had some twenty years on Dale and me, and he generously showed the young guys all the ropes about acquiring and fixing our musical toys.

When the day came for Dale and me to attend Ed's funeral, Dale had a music box that needed my particular attention. He and I live nearly an hour's drive apart. "Should I bring it up to the church?" he asked. "We can put it in your car after the service. You think that'd bother anyone, if they saw us?"

I shrugged. "There's always somebody who could be bothered by anything. But if Ed knew, I'd bet he'd get a laugh out of it."

Dale nodded. "I wouldn't bet he never did anything like that, himself."

So the parking lot exchange went off as arranged.

In the years since, Dale and I have stayed close to Kay, Ed's wife, and John, his son, also a phonograph enthusiast. Last week, one of Kay's daughters, John's sister, died, and her memorial service was set for last Saturday. I had a music box that needed to go to Dale, and he had one he wanted me to work on. You know what we planned.

The service was to be casual, the celebration of a life, but the air in the church was heavy, no one being able to get away from the feeling that a much-loved person had died too soon. After the service, there was a reception, and after that, Dale and I made our way outside. As we were moving music boxes between car trunks, I heard a gruff voice: "Hey, what's this? You guys having a swap meet in the parking lot?"

I half-turned, saw John standing behind us, and wondered whether I might be able to melt into the asphalt. But then I saw he was laughing. Not only that, he was holding a phonograph. A man and woman standing with him were also laughing. John introduced them as cousins of his; they had bought the phonograph years before from Ed, and now that it had stopped working, John had told them to bring it to the church, and he'd take it home and fix it.

We stood around, talking, for a good fifteen minutes. John showed us some interesting structural details about the phonograph he was going to set right. Dale gave the cousins contact information for someone who could fix an early TV set. I remembered aloud the time Ed got a hot tip on the availability of a rare and beautiful phonograph. Never mind that right then, a wind and rain storm was raging through western Washington, and most of the area was without power. That's why God gave us flashlights. "Come on, Maw," Ed shouted to Kay. "We can't let anybody beat us out on this one." An hour or so later, Kay held the flashlight as Ed hauled his treasure up from a dark, soggy basement and into the car.

When we went off to our cars, everyone was smiling. Life does go on. Celebrate it any way you like.