Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Out Of The Rut, Into The Groove

When I hear someone say maybe school should run year-round, I get collywobbles. As a kid, I always looked forward to summer. Three months to do whatever I wanted, read whatever I wanted, think about whatever I wanted. Some of those apparently-casual ventures took me to interesting and useful places I'd never have found if other people had been directing my activities.

The past four months have been tough for me. I came back from a promotional trip for A Perilous Conception all ready to get cracking on my next mystery novel. But I couldn't concentrate, couldn't develop a plot, couldn't call up characters. Nor could I do any physical work. I figured I was just worn out from the 2500 road miles.

What I didn't know was that I had developed Graves Disease, or hyperthyroidism, a condition which destroys muscle tissue and turns minds into something like sieve-encased mush. I fell into a daily pattern - sleep late, get up reluctantly, do email, write some blog posts, and now and again stop staring at the wall long enough to thumb through the collection I'd acquired last year of writings, musical compositions, and artefacts from the estate of Brun Campbell, the Original Ragtime Kid. By six in the evening, I was reduced to watching the clock till it seemed reasonable to hit the sack.

I've been treated for the Graves Disease, and I'm feeling pretty good again, but I still can't get myself going on a book. I email, I blog, I look at the Campbell material, I email some more. I'm stuck in a rut. I'm restless. And it's light till ten pm here in Seattle, and the days are what we consider warm in these latitudes.

 My Graves Disease has evolved into Solstice Fever. I need a vacation (from the Latin vacatio: freedom, exemption). Wipe my slate clean, put on a pair of new shoes, wander off, and see where I go. Emails will be shorter and fewer. Except for my alternate-month posts to the Poisoned Pen Press blog, no more blogging for a while. No more promotional work, at least not until leaves fall.

Gonna pull myself out of this rut and find my groove.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

You've Never Heard Of Captain Shaw. Well...

Captain Eyre Massey Shaw was a major figure in the history of firefighting. In 1861, at the age of 31, he was named Head of the London Fire Engine Establishment (reorganized four years later as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and now known as the London Fire Brigade), and served in that post for thirty years. He was responsible for countless innovations in firefighting, was a great popular hero, and prior to his retirement, was knighted by Queen Victoria.

Shaw was also a dedicated Gilbert and Sullivan fan, customarily sitting in the first row of the balcony. At some point, W.S. Gilbert noticed him, and wrote him into Iolanthe. A key feature of the plot of this operetta was the provision that a fairy who dared to marry a mortal would be punished by death. On Opening Night, November 25, 1882, the Fairy Queen, struggling with some inconvenient feelings toward a human, came to the edge of the stage, addressed Captain Shaw in the balcony, and wowed the audience by singing,

"Oh, Captain Shaw
Type of true love kept under
Could thy brigade with cold cascade
Quench my great love, I wonder?"

Well, all right, you might say - but where are you going with this?

 Here's where. My wife Myra and I had been at loggerheads over how to properly celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary this summer. For my seventieth birthday, I'd enjoyed a ragtime concert at our daughter's and son-in-law's house, followed by a terrific barbecue and a fabulous chocolate dessert; for Myra's seventieth, she'd set up a quiet dinner with the kids and their spouses. Now, for our anniversary, I thought we should do something special. She thought another quiet dinner would be in order.

By March, we were nowhere near resolution. Then we went to the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan mid-year fundraising event. There was singing, dancing, mugging. There were raffles. Finally, there was an auction: in the final show of the run, the high bidder would be dressed in a fireman's coat and hat to play the (nonspeaking) role of Captain Shaw, who, with a fire hose, would try to quench the ardor of the Fairy Queen. And, the producer added, couples were welcome to participate - there could be an "assistant hose carrier."

Myra gave me the hardest fish eye in her arsenal. "Oh, no."

"Oh, yes," I said, and raised my hand.

So on the evening of July 28, Myra and I will mark our Golden Wedding Anniversary by dampening the affections of a Fairy Queen. And here's the punch line. We were married in New Jersey on July 29, and time zones being what they are, when we go onstage, it will in fact be July 29 in New Jersey. Would Gilbert and Sullivan have loved that little twist? Even Myra now admits it's pretty cool.

And the next day, dinner with the kids, their spouses, and our grandson.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blatant Promotion Of Someone Else's Book

I recently enjoyed a week of fabulous ragtime music - first at the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, and now at the Blind Boone Fest in Columbia, Missouri. In the process, I've had the pleasure of spending some time with Carol Binkowski, whose book, Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime has recently come out.

Joe Lamb was one of the three major composers of ragtime a century ago, and lived a life of stunning variety and accomplishment. To date, there's been no full-length biography of Lamb, but Carol has rectified this omission. She's presented Lamb's story in a most effective way, painting such a clear and captivating background of the times that at times you'll think you're reading a novel. But it all really did happen, and whether or not you're a musician, and whether or not you like ragtime music, you'll get sucked into this book, and then, when you turn the last page, you'll sit for a moment, dazed, feeling as if you've just been dumped out of a time machine. Get it from a bookshop, or from a library, but get it and read it. I don't think you'll be sorry.

Here's my short review.

* * *

A century or so ago, there were three major composers of classic ragtime music: Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott. Book-length biographies of Joplin have been available for some time, but in this regard, Lamb and Scott have been sorely neglected. Now, happily, we now have Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime, by Carol Binkowski (McFarland, 2012). The wait has been worth it.

Joe Lamb's story is a classic American tale, and Binkowski does a first-rate job of telling it. Born in 1887, Lamb grew up in Montclair, NJ, basically taught himself piano, and as a teenager, began to compose popular tunes in the styles of the times. Then he heard Scott Joplin's ragtime, and became hooked. He began to write in this genre, met and got to be friends with Joplin (who enthusiastically endorsed the younger man's work), and saw his compositions achieve considerable popularity. But about 1920, the market for ragtime vanished. Lamb continued to write rags and other tunes for his own enjoyment, held a responsible corporate job, and lived a quiet life with his family, in Brooklyn.

By the time of the ragtime revival in the 1940s, Lamb was a mystery man to music historians. Most of them assumed that like Joplin and Scott, Lamb was Black, and probably long dead. But in 1949, while researching the book that became They All Played Ragtime, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis discovered him, and he got to enjoy his celebrity for the remaining eleven years of his life. Many of the rags he'd composed during the prior thirty years were published, as were a bunch of new ragtime pieces he set onto paper during the 'fifties. He performed at ragtime festivals, and made recordings.

The author recounts Lamb's life story through a beautifully-drawn background of the times in which he lived, which stretched from the late Victorian age to the last days of the Eisenhower presidency. Social customs and mores of the day, business practices, geographic considerations, and certainly entertainment - particularly music - are used effectively to give the reader a full and satisfying picture of Lamb's personal and professional life. Binkowski's descriptions of places play like movies.

Most fortunate is the fact that two of Lamb's children are still with us, and cooperated fully with the author regarding documents, photographs, and family stories. (The composer's daughter Patricia has been active for years, attending ragtime festivals and presenting seminars related to her father's work).

The material should be of interest to musicians and music historians, while remaining fully accessible to nonmusical readers. In her introduction, the author states, "...this is not a musicological study. Nor is this a comparative or critical analysis of Lamb in relation to Scott Joplin, James Scott, or any other composer." But the scholarship is outstanding, as reflected in the long and comprehensive list of references, and the pertinent chapter end-notes. In addition, appendices list Lamb's published and unpublished compositions, recordings, and folios of his work.

No question, Joe Lamb lived the quintessential American dream. It's satisfying to learn that such a good man received his just and full reward, perhaps not in the coin of the realm, but in currency that mattered deeply to him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

D-Day Remembered

I came along just a few months before Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, so I grew up listening to wartime news on the radio. My father would blow in from work, turn the dial to the five o'clock news, and listen until it was time for dinner.

By the time I was five, I'd discovered that that little brown box was also a smorgasbord of music, so Pop had to switch the station to hear the news. When I made objection, which I did every time, he told me the news was more important, that America was fighting a war, and our lives depended on it.

Well, I knew that. I'd heard it all around the neighborhood, and had spent a fair bit of time scouring the streets for discarded aluminum foil from cigarette packages, to turn in to make weapons and ammunition to kill Germans, Italians, and Japanese. That was fine. But I didn't like to have my musical appreciation hour preempted by sonorous, somber voices, talking about people and places utterly unfamiliar to me.

In early June of 1944, my father got more irritable than usual, sweeping into the house and flipping the radio switch even before he said hello to my mother or me. "There's something about to happen," he said. "We're going to invade from the Western Front - but all the information is second-hand, coming from intercepted German reports. Why do we need to get our news from Germany? Can you tell me that?"

Then, on June 6, as I came down for breakfast, Pop was already at the table, the radio blaring loud enough for neighbors on both sides to hear. The speaker was a man named H. V. Kaltenborn, and he was telling the story of the Allied invasion of France. "This had better succeed," Pop boomed. "If it does, it will be the end of the war. If it doesn't..."

If my father finished that sentence, I didn't hear it. "The end of the war?" I piped?

"Yes, I'm sure of it."

"Hurray!" I shouted, and I remember jumping up and down. "No more news. Then I'll be able to listen to music."

Which cracked up the old man no end. "There'll still be news," he said.

My face must've replied that I didn't understand.

"Peacetime news," my father said. "There'll always be news.

And so there has been. But peacetime news on commercial radio stations has become an endless litany of murders, assaults sexual and otherwise, lawsuits, callous interviews of disturbed people, the silly cavortings of celebrities of all stripes, and repeated weather and traffic reports. Fortunately, we have NPR, to which I'm glad to send periodic contributions to support its broadcasts of excellent music, interrupted hourly by intelligent and informative newscasts. A good balance. I think my father would've approved.

No, the NPR reporters don't sound quite up to Mr. Kaltenborn, or, for that matter, to Robert Trout, Ed Murrow, and many other names with which I could pad this post. But all right. There are a lot of things that ain't quite what they used to be. Go to, and listen to Kaltenborn's report from sixty-eight years ago today. It's worth a few minutes of your time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Music Theft

There's nothing new about music theft. A lot of the 1950s hit ballads were nothing more than blah-blah words set to themes from well-known classical compositions. But by then, the original composers were long dead, relatively few people picked up on the thievery, and as long as the thieving composer's conscience or ego didn't trouble him, no sweat.

But sometimes a composer doesn't take the trouble to be sure the notes he cops are in anything like the public domain. In 1911, Scott Joplin accused Irving Berlin of stealing music from Joplin's opera Treemonisha to write Berlin's breakthrough hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band. Berlin had very recently reviewed Joplin's work for possible publication, but had returned it. Modern music historians have compared the two works and concluded that though the charge probably wouldn't pass muster in a court of law, there's enough to be at the least, suspicious. It's also possible that if this theft did in fact occur, it might have been unintentional, that the Joplin theme had taken root in Berlin's brain, and jumped onto the page unbidden and unrecognized.

My favorite story of musical theft involves one Saxie Dowell, who played in the Hal Kemp Orchestra during the 1930s and '40s. In 1940, Saxie composed a little tune, Playmates, which turned into a major hit for Kemp and Co. Even if you don't go back that far, you probably remember it from your playground days:

Oh, Playmate, come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three. Climb up my apple tree.
Look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door
And we'll be jolly friends forever more.

But not everyone was thrilled with the tune. An old man, Charles L. Johnson, came storming out of Kansas City, a lawyer in tow. Johnson had been a prolific composer of folk-style ragtime during the early years of that century, and he claimed Dowell had stolen the melody for Playmates, note for note, from Johnson's "Indian intermezzo," Iola, written in 1906.

You can listen for yourself and see what you think. Here's a link to a performance of Playmates.

And here's one to Iola. You'll have no trouble recognizing the theme in question.

The judge had no trouble, either, and Mr. Johnson was awarded rights to all royalties from the tune, including those that had already been paid.

Now comes the punch line. Dowell wrote a (seldom-heard) introductory verse to his song, and it went like this:

There's a catchy little tune a floatin' through the air,
You hear it here and there, they sing it ev'ry where
How it started, where it started, seems nobody knows.
But what's the diff'rence where it came from, here's the way it goes.

Big diff'rence, as it turned out. Was that a little bit of arrogance on the part of Dowell, maybe intended as a sly joke? If so, he did not laugh last. Or even for very long.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Buttons, Buttons, We've All Got Our Buttons

A few months ago, I took a trip to California and Arizona to promote A Perilous Conception, my then-new book, and of course scheduled an event one evening at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. That day, my wife and I spent several hours walking through the Musical Instrument Museum (highly recommended), then, in line with my belief that a day without ice cream is a day wasted, stopped in at the Sugar Bowl (also highly recommended) for cones.

As we walked back to the car, another couple approached us. The woman sashayed into our path. Probably mid-seventies, lots of frizzy hair dyed dark reddish, fleshy features accentuated by mascara that made her look like some sort of human-raccoon hybrid, and a big grin. "Well, wouldja lookit da loveboids," she boomed. "Walkin' down da sidewalk, holdin' hands. How long ya been married?"

I didn't miss a beat. "Seventy-nine years."

Both hands shot to her forehead. "Seventy-nine years," she announced to everyone within half a block, then moved sideways to address her husband. "D'ya hear that, Charlie? They been married seventy-nine years." The woman turned back to my wife and me. "That's terrific. How'd you manage to do that?"

"Patience, persistence and stubbornness," I said.

Charlie sent a weak smile my way, then took his wife's arm and steered her to the edge of the sidewalk.

When we'd gotten a little distance away, my wife asked me, "Why did you say that?"

I admitted the question was good and fair. The woman had been trying to be pleasant, but I'd found her intensely irritating. "I don't know," I said. "I really don't. 'I do not love thee, Dr. Fell. The reason why I cannot tell. But this alone I know full well. I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.'"

That earned me a stern fish-eye.

"Maybe she reminded me of someone I don't like, but I can't think who."

"But did you have to say what you did?"

I shrugged. "It just seemed to come out before I even knew it was in my head."

Like many marital discussions, this one ended unresolved, a draw, the kind of encounter that permits marriages to go on for seventy-nine years.

 But that isn't quite the end of the story. Recently, my son-in-law, frustrated by the potty training operation then in progress, asked my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, "What is it going to take to get you to go in the potty?"

The kid didn't miss a beat. "Fifty-nine years."

Well, he's got a quarter of my genes doesn't he? Presumably including one for a button governing control (or lack of same) of social filtering.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Those Bugs Are Everywhere

In Seattle, we have kiosks to take money for parking spaces. The other evening, I stood behind a man who was trying to coax a sticker out of one of those unarmed bandits. He pushed and pushed at the rubberized button with the point of a mechanical pencil, but there was no response. As his frustration grew, I mentioned that it might work better to use a fingertip. He shot a nasty glance at the button, then turned the look on me.

I understood. "Would you like me to push it for you?" I asked.

Ambivalence left him speechless. His jaw lowered, then raised, then lowered again.

"I don't mind," I said, then reached past him to push the green rubber button. A sticker dropped into the receptacle, the man raised the cover with his pencil point, gingerly removed the paper, nodded to me, mumbled a thanks, and walked off.

Living in what might be the best sanitary conditions in history, Americans are impressive germophobes. Every visit to a men's room is a nonstop show. The man who advances the paper towels with an elbow. The guy who turns the water on and off with a Kleenex wrapped around his finger. The gent who uses a paper towel to open the door to leave, then before the door closes, slings the towel in the general direction of the waste receptacle, and if he misses, well, that's someone else's health hazard. Let the washroom attendant get infected with whatever microorganism might be coating the door handle.

Hand sanitizers are everywhere. I watched a woman enterering a supermarket pull a moistened paper towelette from a dispenser to wipe the steering wheel of the little car her little boy would "drive" through the store. Then she took another towelette to wipe the handle on the back of the car. Then she pulled out several towelettes, walked inside, used one to sterilize the wrapper of a loaf of bread, and headed off toward the rear of the store. I couldn't help wondering how she'd ever managed to conceive that toddler.

There are people who wear face masks to go out into public. No, they're not on chemo, nor do they have immune deficiency conditions. It's just that you never know what's out there.

On the other hand, how about the guy in the men's room I overheard telling a friend about his terrific two-week trip to several primitive third-world countries - as he did everything he could to avoid having a square millimeter of finger contact the flush lever on his urinal? And how about the epidemic of whooping cough now raging through Seattle because so many people don't want their kids to be immunized? (I know about the autism argument, but I don't believe it's valid. What I do believe is that children are dying in my city because their parents have neither allowed them to be immunized, nor themselves received adult booster shots).

What's going to be the outcome of this dualistic behavior? Might we all become pushovers for infectious diseases, bereft of protective antibodies, with immune systems the equivalent of couch potatoes?

But it's an ill wind that blows no one some good, and writers are always tuned in to the world in which they live. One germophobe I watched in action several years back sent me directly to my little pocket notebook to write a description of him. In Scamming the Birdman, he became Fenton Dassidario, who always wore cotton gloves, and loved all things electronic and therefore non-infectious. He was deathly afraid of bugs that might invade his body and kill it, but was a master manipulator of bugs he could plant in someone's apartment to permit him to listen in on their activities.

As the pencil-point man hustled away from the kiosk, I didn't offer to shake hands.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Boners At The Ball Yard

Last Friday night, I had the weirdest deja vu moment. I was at the local ball yard, seated up in the third deck behind home plate, watching our Seattle Mariners nurse a 2-0 lead. But in the seventh inning, the visiting Minnesota Twins loaded the bases with one out. The Mariners' pitching coach came out to talk to the pitcher and catcher, then returned to the dugout.

A moment later, the batter hit a comebacker to the pitcher. Hallelujah. The pitcher would throw the ball to the catcher, who had one foot planted on home plate, one out; then, the catcher would relay the ball to the first baseman. A one-two-three double play, inning over.

 But the pitcher wheeled around and threw the ball toward - not to, toward - the shortstop, who was covering second base. No outs were recorded, and the game was lost (or from the point of view of the Twins, it was won).

Once upon a time, I coached my son's, then my daughter's, Little League teams, and as I saw the Mariners' pitcher pause and start to turn, I was suddenly on the sideline of a neighborhood baseball diamond, cupping my hands around my mouth to call to a confused ten-year-old pitcher, "Home! Throw it home!" "Throw...the...ball...HOME!"

 What on earth had possessed a big-league ballplayer to pull off a doozie like that? It got even more confusing next day, when I read in the paper that the pitching coach had told the pitcher, "If they hit anything back to you, throw it home." After the game, Eric Wedge, the tough Seattle manager, told reporters, "I'm sure he'll learn from this," which made me think that if I were that pitcher, I might keep my back firmly to the wall till I could jump on the next plane to Japan. The pitcher was quoted as saying that with the ball in his hand, he could think only of getting two outs, second to first. "I had a brain fart," he explained.

Well, brain farts do occur in baseball games, often enough that there should be provision for them in the official scorer reports. Back in the 1930s, a Brooklyn Dodger named Frenchy Bordagaray was picked off second base because the fielders were aware of his tendency to tap his foot, and he got tagged out, as he put it, "between taps." This was the same Frenchy Bordagaray who once became so angry at an umpire that he spat on him. For that, Frenchy was fined $500, which he said was more than he'd expectorated.

Not only players have brain farts. One day in 1942, Lou Boudreau, the manager of the Cleveland Indians, had a bad cold, and during the game, with his team at bat and its two slowest runners on base, blew his nose. Unfortunately, a towel over the face was the signal for a double steal, which ended in a unique double play.

 These events used to be called bonehead plays, or boners. The term goes back to 1908, when Fred Merkle, a young player for the New York Giants, did not run all the way to second base on a walk-off single in a crucial game against the Chicago Cubs. One of the Cub infielders noticed, got hold of a ball that may or may not have been the game ball, tagged second base, and Merkle was called out. As the result, the Cubs beat out the Giants for the pennant, and then won the World Series, which they've not done since. Maybe it was Merkle who put the curse on them. In any event, poor Fred was known the rest of his life as Bonehead Merkle. "I suppose that when I die, the epitaph on my tombstone will read: 'Here lies Bonehead Merkle,'" he once said.

It could've been worse. What if Merkle had done his deed 100 years later? Brainfart Merkle all his life, then on the tombstone?



Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Lilac Lady

 Turn 55, and the shills for retirement communities come out of the woodwork. "You've worked hard all your life. Now it's time to lay back and enjoy life. You've earned it."

I don't think The Lilac Lady would've been persuaded.

Hulda Klager, born in Germany in 1863, came with her family to Woodland, WA, twenty-some miles north of Portland, in 1877. Here, she married, started her own family, and settled into the routines of a farm wife of the time.

In 1903, Hulda suffered an unspecified serious illness. During her recovery, she read about Luther Burbank and his plant hybridization work, and got hooked. She had been annoyed at how long it took to skin the small apples from her tree to make pies, so she crossed two variants and came up with just the right apple, in terms of both size and taste.

Hulda was always fond of flowers, and in 1905, she turned her attention to lilacs. In five years, she developed fourteen new varieties. Ten years later, she began to hold yearly week-long open houses during the height of the blooming season, so people could enjoy her flowers with her.

Her husband died in 1922, and Hulda, dispirited, thought of giving up her work. But with encouragement from her son, she continued, and the Klager lilac variants continued to grow in number and excellence. Hulda's open houses continued, and she received numerous honorary awards from garden clubs, academic institutions, and government agencies.

But it seemed that every couple of decades, a new challenge would arise, and 1948 brought probably the most daunting cruelty. The Columbia River produced the worst flood in memory in Woodland; the town was submerged for over a month. Except for the big trees, every plant in Hulda's garden was destroyed. It would've been understandable if the 83-year-old Lilac Lady had decided to just pack it in, and live out her days in a rocking chair in the home of one of her children. But she didn't. She set to work restoring her living treasure, aided by friends and customers who provided her with starts from plants they'd gotten from her. By 1950, she'd resumed her yearly open houses, and she continued her experiments until her death at age 97, in 1960.

If you live close enough, take a day to go to Woodland during the few weeks leading up to Mother's Day. The Hulda Klager Lilac Society now owns and keeps up the property. Before you go into the gardens, though, take a slow walk through Mrs. Klager's house, which was built in 1889, and is now a museum. There's a must-see photograph there - a picture of an 83-year-old woman, standing at the edge of her tool shed, a hoe in each hand, her face a study in human emotion. Passion is an overused word, but in that picture, Hulda Klager is in nothing less than a passion. She projects sadness and deep anger, but most of all, in her tightly-drawn mouth and hard-set jaw, there's indomitable determination. The first time I saw that picture, it put me in mind of the lines near the end of The Adventures of Augie March, where Augie laughs in sympathy at another character, "as hard used as that by rough forces, [who] will still refuse to lead a disappointed life. Or is the laugh at nature - including eternity - that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will."

 After you've seen the photograph, then go out to the quiet, peaceful gardens. Sit on a bench amid the riot of purple blossoms. As the breeze blows the unique odor of lilac blooms across your face, you'll be surprised by an agreeable sensation of humility and gratitude, blended with more than a little inspiration.

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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


In the movie, The Help, when little Mae Mobley said, "You're my real mama, Aibi," I had one of those time-travel moments, instantly transported back some sixty years, to Lillian.

Lillian came north from Georgia during the great migration of the 'thirties, and went to work five days a week in my recently-married parents' home. My mother (who eventually lived to 98) was, in the term of the day, "weakly," and Lillian did whatever needed doing in and around the house. By the time I made my appearance, she was family, as were her husband, Big Tim; and her sons, Little Tim and Ralph.

As a toddler and preschooler, I was Lillian's shadow. Mornings, I'd wait for her inside the front door, then trail her through the house. I helped her fold laundry and move the vacuum cleaner from room to room. As she worked, she told me stories about her early life in the south, and sang folk tunes and spirituals. Her favorite was Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Sometimes, when she was down on hands and knees, cleaning the kitchen floor, she told me to get up on her back and have a horsey ride. Lillian was one powerful woman.

She was a church lady of the hardest core. Above all else, she loved Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, and she often told me that when it came time for her to go to heaven, Jesus would be there to show her the way. I loved going to church with her on Sundays; there was wonderful music, and dancing, and even shouting. After the service, I got to bask in the glow from a circle of admiring ladies, to whom Lillian was introducing "My Laurence." (I had not yet become Larry). And then, off we'd go to Lillian's house, where I'd demolish a plate of pork chops, the likes of which I've never tasted since.

One day, when I was about four, I think, I discovered that pushing on that little stem coming out of a tire made an interesting, funny noise, and was enjoying myself thoroughly until the corner of my eye caught my father heading my way at an alarming speed. I took off running, into the house, saw Lillian vacuuming in the living room, scooted behind her, and grabbed onto her legs as if she were a life preserver. As my father charged up, Lillian raised the business end of the vacuum cleaner like a sword. "Mr. Karp," she announced. "If you lay one hand on my Laurence, I will walk out of this house, and I will never come back." My father let out a token splutter, then turned around and stomped out of the room. For the rest of his life, he told that story to anyone who'd listen.

When I was eight or nine, Lillian developed diabetes, and spent a long time in the hospital, where I'd go to visit her. We were all scared silly she'd never come out, but her constitution prevailed, and eventually she returned to work at the Karps', though with a lighter load.

Years passed. I grew up, went off to school, married (with Lillian's enthusiastic approval of my prospective wife), had kids, and eventually moved to Seattle. I wrote to Lillian, kept her up on what was happening, until one Sunday when I got a call from my parents. Lillian had died suddenly that Easter morning, just about the time the sun was rising.

I don't think any writer since late Victorian times has dared to put a story like that into print, but there it is. More than forty years later, thinking about it, my eyes still get leaky.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Name Blame

Last week, I went in for some blood tests. The venipuncturist looked at my order sheet, smiled, and said, "Be right with you, Laurence."

I ground my teeth. "Larry."

The young woman blinked. "Oh, you don't like Laurence?"

"One of my lesser gripes against my mother."


When I was a kid, I was unfortunate enough to have a name like Laurence to go with a head full of ringlets that my mother refused to let anyone cut off. The kids teased me endlessly. "Looooor-ince! lit...tle Loooooor-ince." Then, if they were big kids, they'd beat me up.

"Why did you have to name me Laurence?" I asked my mother.

"It's a beautiful name. It means 'crowned in laurel.' You're going to be a great success."

Maybe if I live long enough.

Then, when I was eight, I went to a summer camp run by a high school athletic coach named Henry Rumana. When "Hank" asked me my name, and I told him, he looked stricken. "Tell you what - we're going to call you Larry here."

The most amazing thing happened. I was the same kid, but the other campers treated me like a whole nother person. Like one of the guys. No teasing. I learned to swim, played baseball, hiked in the woods, put up pup tents. When I returned home, I announced that I was now to be addressed as Larry.

My mother's response was predictable. "Larry...ugh. Your name is Laurence, and that's what you're going to be called.

"If you call me that name, I won't answer," I said. And I didn't. No number of threats, smacks, or punishments loosened Big Larry's tongue.

Mother sicked my Aunt Bea on me. "Larry is the nickname for Lawrence with a w," Aunt Bea said. "You're Laurence with a u. If you want a nickname, it would be Laurie."

 "My name is Larry!" I howled. "Laurie is a girl's name." In those times, there were few things more uncool for an eight-year-old boy than having a girl's name. There was a male Marion in my school. Most days, his life was not worth living.


The venipuncturist pointed at her name tag: WINI. "Know what my real name is?


"Yes, and I hate it. Only my mother calls me Winifred." Her lips curled into a snarl.

"Try not answering to it," I said. "That works real well."


 Call me stubborn. Call me obstinate, or pigheaded. Or even contumacious. Just don't call me Laurence.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Case Of The Phantom Pisser

Today, I'm cheating a bit, but in a good cause.

The past couple of weeks have been very tight, and as some of you mentioned, last Wednesday's post was not quite up to snuff. I expect to be back to full operation by next week.

Yesterday was my turn to post on the Poisoned Pen Press Blog, and somehow, that piece turned out to be the post I've most enjoyed writing, ever. I hope you'll have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Consider adding the Poisoned Pen Press Blog to your regular reading list. You'll get some very interesting thoughts from a bunch of damn good writers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Collector Mindset

Antique music boxes have been an important part of my life for the past thirty years. These self-playing musical instruments appeal to both my ear and my eye, and they've opened doors for me to places I'd never otherwise have discovered.

I grew up in a household which valued only work done by the mind. "Manual labor" was very definitely infra dig. But when I began to acquire music boxes, I saw right off that these old instruments had a tendency to stop playing, and that I'd be wise to learn at least the basics of their care and feeding. Talk about starting at Square One. I spent a couple of weeks at Nancy Fratti's Restoration School in upstate New York. The teacher was Dr. Joseph Roesch, a professor of English, fully as adroit with words as with tools. Amazing! Joe patiently walked me through what I needed to know about the workings and non-workings of music boxes, listed out the tools I'd need, told me to call him any time I got stuck, and sent me home to enjoy more than a quarter-century of fulfilling manual labor.

Another of my father's strongly-held opinions was that opera was stupid. "I don't understand it," he used to say. "A man gets up on a stage and starts singing, "Oh, I am going to go out the door, out the door, out the door, yes, out the door. I am going to go out the door, yes, yes." But the music on the very finest antique music boxes was operatic - this, after all, was the popular music among people wealthy enough to be able to buy music boxes back in the nineteenth century. It didn't take long for me to decide I'd like to hear this music in a theater. The upshot was that my wife and I have been Seattle Opera subscribers for some twenty years now, and are declared Seattle Ring-Nuts.

I like the whimsical early-twentieth-century chromolithographs, and it just so happens that they sometimes can be found on the lids of small music boxes from the turn into the twentieth century. At the Palmer-Wirfs Expo Show in Portland this past weekend, I noticed a lovely Russian black-lacquer box with a small, unexceptional two-tune musical movement inside. But the lid was covered with a very engaging litho, at the left lower edge of which was printed "Bringing in the Christmas Pudding." And very unusual, the artist's name, Helena Maguire, was printed opposite the title. Well, I do collect music boxes, so of course this one came home with me.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Movin' On

My office walls are covered with artwork and photographs which represent a number of my interests. There are music boxes and organ grinders, early twentieth-century sheet music, the wrapper from a giant chocolate bar, some beautiful Origami flowers made by the mother of a Japanese friend, and a photo of my son Casey and me at a ball game, wearing matching T-shirts with a big, blue PUTZ emblazoned across the front. (Mr. J.J. Putz once pitched for our Seattle Mariners). I've been a baseball fan since I was nine, so it stands to reason that some of my office wall decorations have been posters handed out by the Mariners over the past fifteen years.

But baseball ain't what it used to be. (I know, nothing is, but still). What I miss most about the baseball of sixty years ago is the loyalty and affection that grew between fans and the players who spent their entire career with one club. Joe DiMaggio wasn't called the Yankee Clipper for nothing. Jackie Robinson retired rather than accept a trade to his Dodgers' hated crosstown rival, the New York Giants. And if the Giants had ever traded Willie Mays, the fans would've demolished the Polo Grounds.

Most Seattle fans will never stop booing Alex Rodriguez for swearing fealty to the Mariners, then jumping ship to grab an unprecedented package of Texas simoleons. But Albert Pujols' defection to Los Angeles this past winter was worse. When he sailed southward, A-Rod was still a green kid, susceptible to the blandishments of a megalomaniacal team owner. But all it took for Pujols, a grown man in the prime of his career and an idol in St. Louis, to blow off his adoring multitudes of fans was a few pieces of Disneyland silver. His statue could've stood next to Stan Musial's forever. How many millions of dollars does anyone need?

 I have no particular attachment to the St. Louis Cardinals, but Pujols' flight to the coast was a spit in the face of every baseball fan everywhere. Last week, I cast a jaundiced eye at my walls, then pulled down the baseball posters, and put up the ragtime memorabilia I accumulated over the past several years, as I wrote my ragtime-based historical mysteries. Scott Joplin replaced Alex Rodriguez, a better trade than any the Mariners ever pulled off. Joe Lamb's "Nightingale Rag" replaced the Mariners' flamboyant proclamation, "You Gotta Love These Guys."

Well, no, I don't gotta. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Birds Of A Feather

In 1899, fifteen-year-old Sanford Brunson (Brun) Campbell ran away to Sedalia, MO, to take piano lessons from Scott Joplin. Before he left Sedalia, Joplin nicknamed him The Ragtime Kid.

For nearly ten years, Brun worked as an itinerant pianist throughout the midwest, Colorado, and California. When interest in ragtime faded, Brun took up the barber trade, first in Tulsa, then in Venice, CA. He played a major role in the ragtime revival of the 1940s, working tirelessly to promote ragtime, Scott Joplin, and, not incidentally, himself.

Last spring, I got an email from a Los Angeles antiques dealer who had cleaned out a house, and found three cartons of items that had belonged to Brun Campbell. Having never heard of Brun Campbell, the dealer googled his name, and up came Larry Karp's ragtime historical-mystery trilogy. A quick negotiation, and a few days later, three cartons arrived at my house. I opened them in jig time. My summer project lay before me.

One of the cartons was nearly filled with typed manuscripts. About half were titled When Ragtime Was Young; these were accounts of Brun's career as an ragtime pianist. The rest were short pieces, treating one or another aspect of the history of ragtime. Brun had hoped to publish this material.

 It didn't take me long to decide that the historical writings should remain unpublished. Most of the information is now common knowledge, but more important, Brun simply was not a historian. Why spend time chasing down a fact when an opinion would serve just as well, maybe better? In addition, Brun was, to put it tactfully, an embellisher. Probably his most egregious historical invention was a description of Scott Joplin's funeral. Brun alleged that the procession to the cemetery consisted of a long line of carriages, each bearing a placard with the name of one of Joplin's rags. But Joplin had died broke and forgotten, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

I spent six years in Brun's close company as I wrote my ragtime trilogy, and I think I got to know him pretty well. In my imagination, I pressed him on the point of Joplin's funeral procession. His answer? "Well, the way I told it, that's what Mr. Joplin deserved. That's how it should've been."

So, Brun's histories will stay in their acid-free protective sleeves. But the story of his musical career is another matter. The Kid didn't pick up much in school as regards grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but he was a master storyteller. Those pages held me enthralled - I could hear the old guy talking. Yes, he probably did toss in an exaggeration here and there, but the overall account rang true. He couldn't possibly have made up some of that stuff.

So, I guess for the next year or two, as I'm writing a followup mystery to A Perilous Conception, I'll be trying to work Brun's anecdotes into a coherent, publishable narrative. It's interesting that with all the capable writers of ragtime history throughout the world, Brun's works found their way to another storyteller. I think that would've amused The Kid. Maybe that's how it should've been.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Linger Awhile, Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, an American who spent his most productive years as an expat in England, died this past December 13. A prolific and highly-imaginative writer of both adult and childrens' books, Hoban sprang to the forefront of literary fiction writers with his stunning 1980 post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker. A reviewer in the Sunday Telegraph wrote of the author, "I've often thought of Russell Hoban as a sentimental Samuel Beckett for people who would rather Vladimir and Estragon just did something while waiting for Godot not to show up."

My favorite Hoban novel is Linger Awhile, a short work from 2007 which blends apparent reality with the most outrageous science fiction to consider the poignant mysteries, illogicalities, and contradictions of old age. Irving Goodman, an 83-year-old (Hoban's age at the time) widower becomes obsessed with Justine Trimble, a long-dead star of crummy western movies. He recruits his friend, the aptly-named Istvan Fallok, to resurrect the actress from a movie tape, but the pair of lascivious oldsters soon find out that to stay alive, Justine needs regular doses of human blood. Then, things get interesting, in a Chinese-curse sort of way.

Maybe my enthusiasm for this book reflects the possibility that an elderly male, especially if he happens to be a writer, might be particularly susceptible to the subject matter. But I prefer to think that what hooked me was Hoban's brilliance at cloaking the fantastic in prodigious verbal agility. Did I mention that Linger Awhile is written in first-person point of view - of no less than eleven characters? I was so dazzled by Hoban's way with words that I was even able to look past his premise that Justine Trimble's need for blood was grounded in a requirement for continued replacement of genetic material. Adult red blood cells, having no nuclei, don't contain chromosomes.

Hoban also ranks high on my list of authors who write lines I'd love to steal, if only I had the nerve. My favorite in Linger Awhile comes as Irv is about to engage in a bit of geriatric sex with his new friend, Grace Kowalski. Grace tries to encourage him: "Don't ever say you're not a player." "Well, I don't do the full orchestra," Irv replies, "but if you like chamber music, I'm your man."

In his later years, Hoban, a self-described writing addict, remarked that "when the tank is getting empty I think you drive a little faster." And he thought death might "be a good career move. People will say, 'Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again'."

Linger awhile, Russell.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Publishing Jitters, Writing Jitters

Different strokes...
Some writers get the jitters after they've finished a book. Galleys are done, review copies out. No going back. Too late to fix the horrible errors that are certainly there. Readers will hate it. Reviewers will shred the book and crucify the author.

My jitters come earlier in the process. As a writer incapable of using an outline for fiction, I begin my stories with a barely-defined character in a murky situation, turn the character loose, and start banging the keyboard. My first drafts are masterpieces of literary malfeasance, the poor characters stumbling this way and that, trying to find their way through the novelistic equivalent of a classic London pea-souper.

As I wrote my first few books, the end of a writing session found my characters and me equally exhausted. But I learned that if I'd just...keep...writing, the characters would gradually reveal and define themselves. Words I couldn't have imagined would be spoken; deeds I couldn't have envisioned would be done, and the book would spring to life. Like a biologist bringing a slide under a microscope into focus. By the time I write "The End" - well, I never actually do write "The End," but to make a point - I feel as though I've told the story I wanted to tell (which is always different from the story I had thought I'd wanted to tell), and that I've done it as well as I could. By the time the book comes out, I'm into the next story*, and any jitters I have are related to the new project.

 Sometimes I think about all the other roads my characters might've taken, but didn't. Just like real life. Alternative histories haunt us as we constantly make choices that send us off in particular directions, too bad about the myriad other possibilities that never will be.

To take it a step further, how many other possibilities were there at the moment my parents did what it took to put me into the world? I'm sure there could have been better Larry Karps, and I guess there could have been worse, but for better or worse, here I am. All I can do is keep stumbling forward, and hope that when I've finished the final draft, it will be the best story I could have told.

* There are exceptions to every rule. With A Perilous Conception out for two months now, I'm not yet into my next story. But that's a whole nother story. I hope to be generating my next set of jitters soon.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ethics of In Vitro Fertilization

I've begun my bookstore and library talks on A Perilous Conception with remarks to the effect that in vitro fertilization used to be a hot topic, the subject of considerable debate between scientists and liberal ethicists on one side, and religious leaders and conservative ethicists on the other side. I've shown my audiences the cover of the June 13, 1969 issue of Life Magazine, which asked, "When new methods of human reproduction become available - Can traditional family life survive? Will marital infidelity increase? Will children and parents still love each other? Would you be willing to have a 'test-tube" baby?"

Now, more than thirty-three years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown, it's become clear that fertilization in a plastic dish, rather than in a fallopian tube, carries no excess risk for offspring, parents, or society. Today, in vitro fertilization is an accepted standard medical procedure.

But not everyone's convinced. Monday morning's newspapers carried Newt Gingrich's call "for a commission to study the ethical issues relating to in vitro fertilization clinics, where...large numbers of embryos are created."

So, back we go to Square One. Forty years ago, the ethics of in vitro fertilization were extensively discussed and argued, and the issues were resolved to the satisfaction of the great majority of the American public. But Gingrich's proposal has nothing to do with the question of whether IVF babies are at higher risk for physical or mental abnormalities, or whether the mothers might be damaged by the procedure, or whether there might be adverse societal fallout. The presidential candidate is trying to court voters who believe human-ness begins not at fetal viability, nor with a beating heart, nor with organ differentiation, nor at embryonic implantation, but at fertilization. To this bloc, he holds out the hope of exerting official control over the handling of the eight-cell embryos created during the IVF process.

So, hello again, Roe v Wade. Easy to see the coming end-run, another attempt to legislate the will of a minority of the population past a ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

But Gingrich's self-serving gesture to the far right has the ring of a cracked bell. I wonder what would be the political stances and religious convictions of the members of his commission. This candidate has complained loud and long about the intrusion of government into our everyday lives, but he seems to think it'd be just fine for the government to dictate his-size-fits-all reproductive choices. He might do well to consider the beliefs and feelings of the ten percent of American couples who find themselves infertile. Do the math, Newt. They also vote.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Have You Ever Heard Of Artist Trading Cards

I never had. But that was before I met Mark Hague, a writer from Long Beach, California. Mark was in the audience for my recent talk on A Perilous Conception at Book'Em Mysteries in Pasadena. He told me he was working on a cozy mystery, and when I asked about the background of the story, he said, "ATCs. Artist Trading Cards. Do you know about them?"

When I told him no, I'd never heard of ATCs, he reached under his chair, brought out a three-ring binder, laid it in my lap, opened the cover - and I was looking at nine beautiful works of miniature art in a plastic display sleeve. The theme of the group was Hallowe'en and autumn, and all sorts of materials had gone into the construction: ink, paint, string, fabric, metal, dried leaves. Many cards opened to show a message inside. Turning the sleeves, I saw Christmas cards, cards with sly humor, cards with friendly messages, even a few mildly-naughty cards. The range was endless, the work uniformly impressive. Some of the cards in the binder had been made by Mark, some by other artists.

Mark explained that ATCs were originated fifteen years ago by M. Vanci Stirneman, a Swiss artist and bookstore owner who wanted to establish an artistic parallel to sports trading cards. ATCs are the same size as the familiar baseball cards, and they are exchanged between artists around the world, whether by mail or at swap meets. Selling ATCs is verboten; they may only be exchanged. So far, Mark has made thousands of the little treasures, and completes 123 projects per year. He participates in eight swap meets a month.

I asked Mark the title of his cozy. He smiled, and said, "Death by Paper Cut." If I were a publisher (which, all praise be given, I'm not, but just to make a point), I'd bring out that book based solely on the title and the enthusiasm of the author. I'd even put a little money on this guy's ability to weave a darn good story. Hope to see it soon, whether bound between hard or soft covers.

If you'd like to know more about ATCs, Mark can be reached at

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lovely Voices From The Past

On my recent tour of indie mystery bookstores, several readers asked whether I missed practicing medicine. My answer was to the effect that my head has always known that trying to help people with medical problems is more important than putting words up on a computer screen, but my heart and gut just don't get it. I'm now into my eighteenth year of full-time writing, and have never looked back with regret.

Still, during the tour, I had a couple of poignant reminders that my time in medicine did have rewards beyond providing background material for murder mysteries.

 For the past twenty-seven years, I've scrupulously avoided releasing the name of my patient who delivered the Pacific Northwest's first in vitro fertilization baby - but there she was at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop Debut Signing, dispensing hugs to all of us who'd participated in her success, and saying "I was Number One!" to anybody who didn't already know. Well, okay. Her prerogative.

Another customer at SMB was a patient who'd suffered several mid-trimester pregnancy losses, but was finally able to carry a baby to term after a surgical procedure to strengthen her cervix. More hugs, more happy exclamations.

Then, at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, who should come by but a couple who had just retired to Arizona. Thirty-four years ago, the husband's brother, a medical colleague, had asked me to keep a lookout for a newborn that his brother and sister-in-law might adopt. I told him I thought the odds were mighty low, so of course, the very next week, I got word that a single teenager on the Family Practice Service had given birth, and wanted to put her baby up for adoption. I called the prospective adopters, and they contacted a lawyer, who had some concerns regarding the birth mother's mental capacities. He worried that the baby might be similarly affected. "What you're seeing is depression," I told him. "If you were 16 years old, single, and had just had a baby you were giving up for adoption, you'd be a little depressed yourself." He agreed, and the adoption went ahead. The baby now has a family of her own, and holds a job that requires pretty high-level brainwork.

My patients' outcomes were not always good. But some of the victories were spectacular, and even after all these years, they make me feel that those days, nights, and weekends on call just might've been worthwhile. But when someone at one of the bookstores asked whether I might ever go back to medical work, the head went with the heart and the gut. My headshake was prompt and firm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Accidental Mystery Novelist

I've been visiting independent mystery bookstores to talk about A Perilous Conception. When someone in an audience asked what made me want to write mysteries, all I could do was laugh and say I didn't know.

When I left medical work, I set out to write a mainstream novel whose protagonist was to be Harry Hardwick, a wealthy businessman who lived in New York, and was a fanatical collector of antique music boxes. But as I moved along through Chapter One, someone - I didn't know who - stopped by Harry's house during the night, shot him dead, and stole his most spectacular music box. Over several months, I worked at sneaking Harry past his killer. No luck.

Finally, a writer-friend pointed out to me that I seemed to be trying to write a murder mystery, so why didn't I just let it happen? The result was The Music Box Murders, my first mystery novel. I enjoyed the process, working to create rounded, complex characters with unusual interests who needed to use their specialized skills to work their way through often-ambiguous moral/ethical situations, both to solve a crime and to answer significant questions about themselves and others.

So the decision to write mysteries was not a conscious one, I told my questioner. I just wrote myself into a coroner.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pass It Along

The last Christmas my grandfather was with us, he made certain there was a brightly-decorated tree in our house. Then he gave me a little plush Santa Claus, which became a family treasure. That was seven decades ago. I was two.

Through the years, Little Santa came out every Christmastime to sit through the season on the mantel, or on a music box, or on the player piano. At one point I had to fight off a kidnap attempt by my sister, who was under the impression that Santa was actually hers. But possession being nine points and all that, I prevailed. She finally accepted my version of how he came to our house.

This past month, my grandson fell in love with The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. He'd request four, five, six consecutive readings, then walk through the house, reciting such lines as "My friend told me I wouldn't hear the bells. But I knew better."

I thought I might be able to find a sleigh bell, wrap it, and slip it underneath the pile of gifts on Christmas morning. But as I walked past Little Santa, I noticed that atop his hat was a small bell, a perfect miniature of the one Santa cut off the reins for the boy in The Polar Express. And then it occurred to me: my grandson is two years old.

Some of us write made-up stories, but we all write the stories of our lives. I put together a note to my grandson, telling him the history of Little Santa, folded the note into a box with Santa, wrapped it, and pasted on a tag that said, "Shipped via The Polar Express." My grandson smiled when he opened the box and saw Little Santa, though of course, he didn't come close to understanding the story. But his mother and father did, and in time, he will too.