The Park, a.k.a My Front Yard

I’m nowhere close to being one of the 1%, but I’m fortunate enough (and I guess I can say I’ve worked hard enough) to live in a nice older house across the street from one of the main parks in my town. I jokingly refer to the park as my front yard. Tourists sometimes seem to lose the distinction between my real front yard and the park as well. I’ve found tourists standing on my front porch to “get a better angle” for a picture they want to take.

The park runs one block from east to west and two blocks from north to south. It’s not designed for playing, so there are no swings, slides, etc. It’s described as a Victorian park, laid out in 1876. It has two fish ponds, a fountain, a gazebo, benches, big trees, paved walkways, green space, and flowers—lots of flowers all summer. The idea was to provide a place for people to stroll, to picnic, and to socialize.

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From April until early October there is unending activity in my “front yard.” My town holds a couple of big festivals, which are centered in the park. There are also smaller events that run the gamut from Right to Life marches, to Gay Pride celebrations, to yoga classes, to biking or walking for one cause or another. They all start and end across the street. There are two large arts/crafts fairs during the summer, what I call “Artsy-Fartsy in the Park.” All of these add up to tens of thousands of people parking in front of my house during the course of the summer.

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Parking is always an issue during these big events. People seem to think that, as long as they leave half of my one-car driveway unblocked, they’re legitimately parked. I went out one day to talk to a man who had helped his wife, in her wheelchair, out of their large vehicle and was about to leave, with almost half of my driveway blocked. When I pointed out the problem, he said, “I have a handicapped sticker.” I told him that entitled him to use a handicapped space, not to block my driveway. He started to protest, but his wife told him to move the vehicle. I stayed with her until he returned.

People who visit the park on calmer days often stop in front of my house. I live in the middle of the block and I think people turn the corner, decide the park is worth stopping for, and by then they’re in front of my house. Of course, the shade from the trees I’ve planted may also contribute to the attractiveness of those parking spots. The park is so pretty I’ve seen people stop, stick a phone out the car window, take a picture, and drive on. Some people who travel in their work stop by the park to eat their take-out lunches. I wish they would take the trash with them when they leave.

Practically every weekend there will be a wedding, or a wedding party taking pictures. More recently I’ve begun to see Quinceañeras, the Hispanic celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday. I’ve told my wife we ought to keep some dress clothes in the closet in our front hall so we could stroll over, mingle, and eat. In May local tradition brings high school seniors to the park to take pictures on their way to prom. The arch is a popular background.

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Around here the weather in May can still be nippy, and I feel some sympathy for the girls in their strapless gowns. The hours spent choosing that perfect dress probably didn’t factor in a half hour of standing around outdoors in 50-degree weather.

I have a long history with my house on the park, even before I bought it. When I came for a job interview, I ate my first meal in this house. In fact, I scrambled the eggs while the man interviewing me fixed toast and set the table. Shortly after I began my job, my boss asked some of us for help in finishing the basement of the house. I hung drywall in what is now my basement.

Even with some sweat equity in the house, I had reservations about buying it twenty years ago, mostly because of the park, but it proved to be the right decision. The neighborhood where we used to live hasn’t fared very well since we left. We were also able to buy the rental house next door to us, which has provided living space for some of our children over the past ten years.

From my vantage point on the park I’ve seen various scenes—some touching, some troubling. It provides a neutral site for divorced parents to pass young children back and forth. Sometimes it’s obviously a grandparent serving as an intermediary. Having been in that role, my heart goes out to the families.

In the troubling category I would place the car that was parked across the street from us every day for several weeks one summer. The lone occupant, a young man, seemed to be talking animatedly. I thought he might have been on a phone. One day he began pointing at my house and gesturing vehemently. I called the police, who talked to him and reported to us by phone that he claimed to be praying. The officer told him he was making the neighbors nervous and suggested he pray somewhere else—perhaps at one of the other city parks which aren’t surrounded by houses. Thankfully he did.

One scene I don’t know whether to classify as touching or troubling, or just gross. Early one morning, as I returned from the bathroom, my bleary eyes caught sight of a car parked across the street. My town prohibits overnight parking on the street, but I saw a driver was still in the car, with his seat reclined. There are a lot of lights in the park, so I could make out a woman with her head in his lap, and let’s just say her head was not still.

In the past few years I’ve also seen an increasing number of homeless people spending summer days in the park, which has water fountains and public restrooms. The shadiest area is on the south end, directly across from my house, so I’m well aware of them. Sometimes they just sit on a bench all day. I can’t imagine how mind-numbing and soul-wrenching that must be. Police and social welfare workers do come to talk with them. They’re not allowed to stay overnight in the park, but they’re always back by breakfast time every morning.

Definitely in the troubling category is the car which has been parked across the street most days this summer. People walk up to it, get in for a few minutes, then get out and leave. I’m sure drug deals are taking place. I have made a note of the license plate number, but if I call the police, the people in the car won’t have any trouble figuring out who finked on them. The possibility of retribution deters me, especially since my daughter and grandson live next door. There are also two young children in the next house to our east. It troubles me that the police can’t spot something so obvious.

Would I buy the house on the park if I had it to do over? Definitely. In spite of some negatives, I love my “front yard.” Other people seem to as well. While working in my yard (my own yard, not the park), I’ve had several people stop their cars and ask if I would consider selling the house, simply because of what it is and where it is. That gives me confidence that, after I die, my wife won’t have any trouble disposing of it.

As a somewhat claustrophobic introvert who lives in a crowded inner city, it’s a relief to have all that open space out my window and know there will never be annoying neighbors (or any other kind) over there, or anybody over there for more than a few hours at a time. I enjoy the beauty of the flowers and the greenery and the luxury of having other people take care of it. Some of my friends are retiring and moving into condos where they don’t have to do their own yard work. I already enjoy that advantage. The park has inspired me, though, to work on my own lawn and flower beds, something I enjoy more than I could ever have imagined.

Time

Wendy Hornsby

Today was my day to post a blog, and I blew it. No good excuse. I could say that the fourth Thursday came early this month, sneaked up on me, which it did. But the better explanation is, I was hardly aware that today was a Thursday.

Bit by bit during the year since my retirement from teaching, I have lost my intimate connection with both calendar and clock. For more years than I care to claim, I always had a Day Planner, or some electronic version of one, within reach. Now, there is no need to, and I don’t. Same with my watch. Before we left for our recent trip where there were multiple flights and various appointments that needed to be met on time, I had to go buy a new watch because I have no idea where the old one is; probably still in one of the unpacked boxes in the garage.

We do manage to maintain a sort of squidgy structure in our daily doings.  Meals occur, early or late, big or small, according to the rhythm of a day. I write just about every day, and am very aware of the deadlines for two currents projects.  For the rest, Tuesdays we go into town for breakfast and the week’s marketing. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays we swim laps at the community pool. But Tuesday I had a doctor thing, and yesterday, Wednesday, a swim day, some construction equipment broke a water pipe and the pool was closed. If our usual routine went pffht, so what? We skipped the marketing and are making do with what we have in the freezer and the garden.  Yesterday was a beautiful, clear day after three days of drizzle, so we drove up toward Truckee to see what we could see. This morning we had our swim – met the Thursday swimmers – then headed down the mountain to the next town to get our car serviced, a day later than planned. And while we were there….

The really great part of being unchained from the clock and calendar is the freedom to linger and explore. Case in point: We try to arrive at the dealership that services our cars at around lunch time because, among the services offered are either a complimentary sandwich at their little lunch counter while you wait or chauffered delivery to any local restaurant. Today, on the recommendation of our rep, we were driven up to the local airport for lunch at a place called Wings. We’re still new to the area and had no idea that this gem existed. The menu is standard diner fare, but the restaurant sits right next to the tarmac. People fly in and out for lunch, or come just to watch the planes, as we did.  Great fun.

On the way up, we noticed a western art gallery. Paul loves western art and has a small collection of prints, paintings, and sculpture. So, our freshly serviced, newly washed car returned to us, we went back to see what was there. Turns out that this is the gallery, studio, and foundry of monumental artist Douglas Van Howd. We were given a wonderful tour of the work and the studio, and works-in-progress, by one of the artist’s assistants, and had a lovely, long talk with his wife, wildlife photographer Nancy Van Howd. Mr. Van Howd was the artist for the Reagan administration; remember that Reagan liked western artists. Van Howd not only designed and crafted the gifts that Reagan presented to heads of state during official visits, but he and Nancy also accompanied the President on those visits. Great stories, wonderful adventures. Monumental talent. Tucked into a meadow on a back road in a small Sierra foothills town. Quel suprise!

You never know what you’ll find when you have the time to stop and look around. I’m sorry I slipped off my blog posting schedule. But while I wasn’t paying attention I fell into one hell of a lovely day.

Green Gas, Video Games, and Great Writing on The Great War

by Nancy Means Wright

100 years ago this summer, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off (for complex reasons) one of the cruelest wars in history.  Whole generations of young men were lost on all sides, and I, for one, can’t stop reading and writing about them. I wept through the heartbreaking novel All Quiet on the Western Front when a disillusioned German soldier in the last months of the war stands up out of his trench to gaze at the fall foliage–and is killed.  I thought about that young German a fortnight ago as I heard the Stuttgart Boys’ Choir sing (on tour from Germany). Ah, those pure high voices–one sweet-faced pre-teen with blond hair falling to his shoulders–no soldier there! And now I’m rereading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in which he recreates his WW1 months in an Italian ambulance unit, the agonies of war, and the role of a deserter.

I think of the poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote of a soldier in a gas attack “floundering like a man in fire or lime… / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”  The poem ends with the irony of “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”) Tragically, Owen was killed just days before the November Armistice–as were the brother and fiance of British nurse Vera Brittain, who wrote in her classic Testament of Youth of tall Americans marching jauntily along “like young gods” to the killing front.

On a happier note, my father-in-law dropped out of Middlebury College in 1918 to “join up” and fly an observation biplane over enemy territory. Luckily for him it was a short war, and he returned to college a student hero, and began barnstorming at country fairs.  He loved to bellow out euphemistic war songs like “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” and “Over There.”  Then there was old Charlie Willson, our octogenarian family carpenter, who was gassed in that war and for the rest of his life had nightmares of “shrieking shells and cries of the wounded.” While he was working on our roof or barn, he would shout down war stories to anyone who’d listen–as though compelled to tell them.

TV productions like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge  move their characters in and out of The Great War, and we hold our breath, praying our fictional heroes will survive–even if it’s with a missing arm or leg. The characters in my new multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, endure the war at home and in the trenches, where in the confusion of shell fire and greenish gas, my protagonist’s soldier-lover stumbles off, his legs taking over his brain–away from the terrible war.

And we all admire Charles and Caroline Todd who write two award-winning mystery series set during and after WW1, featuring the shell-shocked veteran inspector Rutledge (Hunting Shadows); and Bess Crawford, a nurse in France (A Question of Honor). Mother and son make us relive all the passion and panic of the times.

Finally, I was surprised to read about a new, interactive, virtually non-violent French WW1 video game, “Valiant Hearts,” in which a young soldier named Emile must choose  between his officer’s orders to charge to the right, through gas and shells–or run left (to desert)  and onto an officer’s sword. Tough choices! The game depicts four years of war as lived by Emile, by an American volunteer Freddie, a field nurse Anna, and a dog–among others. One discovers the brutality of the trenches but also the human drama. Instead of firing rifles, players dress wounds, dig trenches, duck aircraft fire, and liberate prisoners. They hear the night quiet–or the muttering enemy, and they fear what’s ahead. They run, hide, and solve puzzles, all in real life locations and scenes from the war.

Surely a video I’d want to buy for my grandchildren! To keep the memory alive, yes–although a video game can never wholly emulate the horror of a war the did not, as hoped,  end all wars.

 

Torch Song for a Trilogy

When I started writing the Jake Samson-Rosie Vicente books I knew I’d be writing a series and thought of it that way. I unrolled their personalities and then let them grow and change through the various stories and settings.

Then the idea for Blackjack came long. I’d always loved dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction. Anything that took place in the near future (think 1984—hard to believe that date was in the future when I read the book). Rica Marin’s name popped into my head and she became the protagonist—Rica Marin. Rich Marin.  A woman born to the California redwoods, in a country called Redwood, in a world divided into tiny warring states. The U.S. Balkanized. Most of the population gone by way of ecological disaster and germ warfare, and plague.

But also a world struggling to pull itself back together. A heroine working as a spy for anyone who will hire her, while wrestling with her own evolving morality. But more than just a mercenary—a singer of torch songs carrying a torch for a woman who had left her years before. Love, violence, hatred, war, confusion. Healing, too. The planet, the former U.S., and Rica.

I started to write it and found myself constructing an intricate and consistent fictional world that was also an easy extrapolation from the one we live in now. Pages and pages of notes about how people lived. Communications, medicine, weapons, vehicles, social norms. Understanding of their own terrifying history. I worked it all out. That process alone took a couple of years of working on it off and on while I wrote and did other things. Finally, much to my amazement, I considered it finished. Sold it. Saw it in hardcover. Saw some wonderful reviews.

But finishing that one book, then titled Blackjack, I knew the story was not over. This book came to its conclusions, but my outlines and notes didn’t. I worked out a story for a second book and a third. Rica and her friends and enemies just weren’t finished telling their story. I began a second book, but I still had other things to write.

When I moved Blackjack from one e-book publisher to another, it was time to go back to Rica. Blackjack, with some wonderful editing by Julie Smith at BooksBNimble, became Torch Song, first in the Blackjack Trilogy, and I finally began to focus on all of this story, from spy job to diplomacy to war, from alliance to attraction to love. From chaos to some kind of order that might actually work.

It’s such a big challenge, it scares me. But I’m loving it. One book done and out there, two to go.

Summer Reads

I seem to blog a lot about what I’m reading.  Sorry.  Can’t help it.

It used to annoy me when someone published a list of books to read on summer vacation, books either more relaxing or more mindless than the average tome.  Since I retired and no longer have to have a summer vacation (it’s all vacation, right?), I have noticed that summer does shunt me off onto a different reading track than other seasons.  I have no idea why, but I seem to read more non-fiction in summer.  It’s not usually self-help stuff but history or pre-history or popular science.  I read a lot of fiction too, but that is beginning to feel like a work assignment–here are the latest mysteries, read them.  So let it go without illustration, I’m reading mysteries.  Here are two non-mysteries I found suitable for summer.

Joanna Trollope writes good, leisurely studies of relationships–fiction in the grand style of her family.  The Soldier’s Wife is a lively portrait of a modern woman caught in the archaic role of British officer’s wife, not to mention the more usual soccer mum role.  Trollope even brings off a fairly happy (and fairly fair) ending, all without murdering anybody.

K.J. Parker does heavy fantasy–pre-steam steampunk.  I just finished The Folding Knife, a good study of a very anti hero.  It begins with a murder about which there is no mystery, and it ends down, down, down, but the detail of life in the “Vesani Republic” (a riff on the Venetian Republic) is rich and evocative.  It is refreshing to find fantasy that doesn’t wallow in patterns of bucolic life from the English Middle Ages.

Moving on to non-fiction, a dose of American history.  My history degree was definitely European.  I don’t believe I ever took an American history course at the college level, so my understanding of U.S. history is patchy.  Filling in blanks can be a real pleasure.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has a deft touch with massive arrays of fact that might turn to sludge in a lesser writer’s hands.  I finally got around to reading her 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, No Ordinary Time.  It deals with the last four years of Franklin Roosevelt’s life–they happen to be the first four years of my life–and Goodwin gives sympathetic portraits of both Eleanor and the President without air-brushing their faults.  My parents and grandparents worshiped Eleanor Roosevelt.  In No Ordinary Time I found out why.  Eleanor’s achievements make the First Ladies who succeeded her fade to nothing, with the possible exception of Bess Truman for very different reasons.

Among Eleanor’s projects was day-care for the children of women working in the factories that were building tanks, ships, and airplanes.  No Ordinary Time describes the superb day-care center the Kaiser shipyard was induced to build in Portland OR (and another in Vancouver WA where I now live).  My father was a naval officer during the war.  His ship, a baby aircraft carrier, was built here on the banks of the Columbia, in part by women whose children spent the day–and in some cases the night–at the Kaiser day-care center.  Hooray for Eleanor.

The other U.S. history work I rambled through was Stephen E. Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage (1996).  I live on the Columbia River now, but I was born in Montana near the great falls of the Missouri.  When I was growing up in eastern Oregon, we could still see ruts carved by the wheels of wagons on the Oregon trail.  Needless to say, I’ll read anything about Lewis and Clark.

Ambrose keeps his focus on the tragic figure of Meriwether Lewis.  I have no quarrel with that.  The biographical slant gives ominous urgency to the narrative, and Ambrose makes a convincing case for Lewis’s death as the straightforward suicide of a man whose family had a bipolar history.  Lewis was under a lot of pressure to finish editing his journals.  Right now I’m 90% through writing a mystery and whamming my head against the wall trying to force myself to finish it.  I think poor old Meriwether’s suicide is perfectly understandable.

So–what are the rest of you reading out there on your beach blankets?

Truth, Lies, and Academia

I write a mystery series set in academia and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad?  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even idiocies that make great material for satire.  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.

And because I’ve been invited to speak at dozens of colleges and universities over the years about other books of mine (often because they’re being taught there), I get offered story after story.  At some point during my visit–in a car, at a dinner, walking up a staircase–somebody takes me aside and tells me a wild tale of academic pettiness or worse.  Committee infighting, tenure sabotage, rival speakers, snarky faculty emails, you name it.  If all that sounds like bald men arguing over a comb, in the words of Borges, it is.  Academia demonstrates the vanity of professional sports;  the cruelty of big business; and the hypocrisy of politics.

But for all the stories I’ve been told while on the road, I’m usually just a witness, not a participant.  That changed recently.

I was invited to a small private college to read from one of my most successful books, My Germany, a memoir about growing up in the shadow of Germany because my parents were Holocaust survivors.  I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, however, but by another department that I won’t name.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, an all-time low for my campus readings.  Part of the low turnout was the ill-chosen time: noon. But the chagrined coordinator told me that the real problem was this: whenever she brought in a speaker who creative writing students would naturally be interested in, English Department professors consistently cold-shouldered the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they feel they’re only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so very typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students could have learned a lot and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.

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A Question for Mystery Writers

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.‘ Ernest Hemingway

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’ Mark Twain

I dare say that we’ve all heard Mark Twain’s quote above. And probably a good many of us have heard what Hemingway had to say. I’m struck by the dichotomy posed by these two statements. As writers, if we are to write the truest sentence that we know, how are we to either accept or pay attention to Twain’s warning? Though Hemingway once said that all American literature begins with Twain, the two thoughts seem to cancel each other out. Don’t they? Or am I taking them out of context? And as mystery writers, is all of this beside the point? I mean, our aim is to write a thumping good tale and let the chips fall where they may, isn’t it? Twain is right in part. I have, as have you all probably, seen situations that nobody would believe if you put them into a book. But does that mean we aren’t servants of truth?

For my part, I always fall on the side of telling the story and not worrying about deeper meaning. It seems like every time that I have ever concerned myself with deeper themes, with finding “truth,” I end up being ham-fisted in my attempt. In graduate school, I studied under the late Dr. Joanne Cockelreas, a graduate, in the early 60s, of the Iowa MFA program. She told me once that I should focus on good, old-fashioned storytelling. “Look at the anthologies,” she said. “You’ll find one or two or three experimental pieces. But, the vast majority are just excellent, straightforward stories.” While she wasn’t speaking directly to Hemingway’s assertion, I think there is an application to be made.

Having said all of this, I’d like to hear what other mystery writers have to say. So, chime in. Let’s talk about truth and fiction for a few minutes.

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