"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, December 26, 2014

Merry Post-Christmas to you.

If you're like me, the day after Christmas makes you feel like this:

Or maybe this:

And I don't drink on Christmas.

It's the hustle-and-bustle hangover. So here's something to relax you into a sweet, sleepy December 26th.

Go ahead and take that nap. You deserve it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

From our house to yours

My cards were all sent last week, but I don't have everyone's address. So here is our Christmas card, from us to you.

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet

At this time of year, kindness can get trampled as the crowds reach for one more trinket at the store, but I love a good cup of kindness on a winter’s day. Rest assured that the Carlines have been both givers and receivers of many kindnesses this year, and we hope for many years’ more.

Marcus is finally in that last year of his undergraduate degree at Cal State Long Beach. Unlike his light senior year in high school, he is buried in classes this time. To be fair, he’s the one who wanted to take physics for fun. He’ll have one more recital this spring, where he will present music he is busy composing when he’s not figuring out formulas. His plan after graduation is to work for at least a year to see what life has to offer a musician, then possibly go to grad school if that path looks more promising. By the way, he did eventually cut his hair. He is no longer Mushroom Cloud Marcus—at least until it grows again.

Dale has been working on the house in Norwalk almost all year, giving it the TLC it needed. He’s even learned how to stucco, although he’s not going overboard. I asked about the work on our house and his answer was, “I’m paying someone else to do that.” When he’s not working, he’s golfing, or taking trips, either with his buddies to watch sports events, or with me to my conferences. Let’s just say retirement agrees with him.

I’m the biggest bore of the bunch. I write books, I ride my horses or help at the ranch, and I do things with the Placentia Library. This year was a special birthday for me, so I’ve celebrated for the entire time, indulging in small trinkets, time with friends, and taking trips. One of my biggest events this year was the death of the minivan. I’d owned her for 18 years, but after the yearly trip to the mountains, she begged to be retired. The money I was going to spend on home improvement got redirected to a new Ford Edge. As I wrote the check, I nearly passed out from the amount, but kept reminding myself that I’ll keep this one for 20 years as well.

As for trips, we did our mountain getaway, which was beautiful, although the drought conditions are worrisome. We also went on a few weekend jaunts that were work for me and play for Dale, including a weekend in Las Vegas for the American Library Association convention. But the big trip for us this year was to Scotland. What can I say, except it was glorious? Beautiful, cool weather. Greenery all around us. Friendly people. I loved it all. Dale loved everything except the driving. I’ve never seen him happier than when we turned the rental car in at Edinburgh. I got to ride a fat black-and-white horse through the heather near Loch Ness. I could have sprouted wings, I was so joyful.

One of the remarkable things about Scotland was their constant reminders to be kind to one another, as well as yourself. Signs on the roadways cautioned drivers to pull over if they’re tired, and to maintain their composure and let faster drivers pass. I returned thinking that I’d love to see a kindness campaign in our own country. Looking at recent events, I can’t think of anything we need more. It doesn’t take much to let someone go in front of me in line, or to smile at a clerk and say, “Thank you.” Join me, and we’ll take a cup o’ kindness together, for Auld Lang Syne.

Here’s to a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a Joyous Hogmanay!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Let me have my fantasy, please.

People are ruining my Christmas music and I want them to stop. One of the songs I like to hear during this season is "Baby It's Cold Outside." In particular, I love to hear Dean Martin croon it. So seductive.

Or is that just me? (P.S. I grew up watching his variety show, so every time I hear this, I picture him by the piano, surrounded by the Golddiggers.)

This year, I'm hearing yammering. Yammering about how this song is about drugging a girl ("Say, what's in this drink?") and forcing her to do things against her wishes ("The answer is no").

I am a firm believer that no means no. I may even be one of those radical folks who think that it doesn't matter what a woman is wearing or not wearing, she does not "deserve" it. The analogy I like to use is that if you wandered around in a crowd with a $100-bill hanging out of your pocket, it is still robbery if someone grabs it away from you. Argue all you want about whether it's wise to let that money hang out there, but it's still a crime.

Still, I don't think Dino is slipping anything into that girl's drink and coercing her to do anything. I think he is wooing.

Why? Well, first off, this is how the song first appeared, in an Esther Williams movie called Neptune's Daughter:

Aren't Red Skelton and Betty Garrett just adorable? It's cute. It's playful. She has not slipped anything into his drink. By-the-by, this movie was made in 1949, a time in which people believed that alcohol was quite strong enough and nothing more needed to be added to loosen one's inhibitions.

Second, the song was actually written by a husband and wife in 1944 and was performed at their parties until the hubster sold the rights to MGM. (Boy, was his wife mad. She considered it "her" song.) In the 40s, it was still customary for a woman to resist a gentleman's charms in order to be regarded as a "good" girl.

Seriously and sadly, have we changed that much? Even with the sexual liberation movement of the 60-70s, a woman who wants to have sex often and with whomever pleases her at the moment is still slut-shamed. A man is not. Do we even have a word for a man that is as humiliating as "slut"?

"Baby It's Cold Outside" is a song about two people who want to spend the night together. The man is doing his best to flirt and woo and convince the woman that she is desirable. The woman is obeying the social norm by resisting in a coy manner, all the while finding an excuse to stay for "half a drink more."

So, please-oh-please, folks. Consider the period the piece was written in, think of these two singers as the husband and wife that sang it at parties, and let me have my moment with Dino. He's so dreamy, I would stay for more than half of that drink.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holidays with Norman

I wrote this short Christmas story a few years ago. Someday I shall tinker with it, but in the meantime, enjoy.

* * * * *

Norman Rockwell is visiting again. I never get any notice, not that I need one. He always arrives on the first Sunday in December. I sit down in front of my mirror to put on my makeup, and there he is, peeking around my shoulder.

He looks a lot like he did in that famous portrait, holding his pipe firmly in his down-turned mouth, the glare from his glasses hiding his eyes. His neck looks more like chicken skin every year, although I don’t know why.

After all, he’s a hallucination. He shouldn’t age, should he?

“Time to get the Christmas tree, Abby,” he tells me.

Yes, Mr. Rockwell.

“Oughta be fun,” he says. “Oughta be quite an adventure.”

Oh, yeah, Mr. Rockwell, it’s quite the holiday escapade.

Every year I have the same fantasy about getting the Christmas tree. I see my husband, Keith and our son, Jake, ahead of me, walking through the Choose-And-Cut lot, pointing to trees and smiling. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground, and we’re in our down jackets, bright scarves around our necks to keep the wind from whipping down our shirts.

Keith turns back to me and smiles. “Jake thinks this one looks like his teacher.”

I look at the small, wide evergreen and laugh.

Later, after we’ve put the tree in our living room, I make popcorn and hot cocoa while Keith and Jake get the ornaments out of their boxes. We spend the evening putting up lights, and hanging stars. Christmas music is playing, and we are filling the room with joyous conversation, talking about nothing in particular.

That’s the fantasy, the dream that Norman Rockwell always comes to feed.

“It’ll be just like one of my paintings,” he says.

“Just like,” I tell him. “Except that it doesn’t snow in southern California, we won’t need jackets and scarves in seventy degree weather, and – oh, yeah – Keith and Jake don’t look like any of the people in your paintings.”

I stop feathering the light brown pencil across my blonde eyebrow and look at the photo propped against the mirror. Keith and Jake are in the scene, holding strings of catfish, smiling.

Keith’s skin is as dark as Hershey’s kisses, his full lips and broad nose identifying his African roots. His body is compact and muscular, his arms strong and sinewy.

“Did you even paint any black people, Mr. Rockwell?” I ask the ghost still peering over my shoulder.

He seems offended. “Of course I did, young lady. There was that little girl on her way to school.”

“Oh, yeah, the one about desegregation.”

“And how about the little kids and the moving van?”

I look down and rub the black mascara wand into my pale eyelashes. “The black family moving into the all white neighborhood, right?”

“And the little boy in the dining car?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Norman, the black guy was a waiter. You never painted pictures of black people just being people, having families, going to the doctor. For that matter, you never painted Hispanics or Asians or anyone of color, except that ‘We are the World’ piece you did-what was it called?”

“You mean The Golden Rule.” He shrugs, but his expression remains the same. “That was my world.”

I put my makeup back in the drawer and stand up, shaking the specter away.

“Your world was so white, it was practically clear.”

I look at the photo once more. If Norman Rockwell would not have painted Keith catching fish, he most certainly would not have painted our son, Jake.

Jake is the color of latte, with his father’s broad nose and mahogany eyes, and my slender lips. His hair is not as wiry as Keith’s, but my natural wave has contributed to its tight curls. At fifteen, he is whippet-thin, with lean muscles and an expanding ribcage from running cross country five days a week.

I check myself in the mirror. My red t-shirt needs to be tugged down over the top of my jeans. The color brings out the ruddiness of my Celtic skin, so I brush at my cheeks, wiping off some of the blusher I had applied. The scent of white ginger lotion engulfs me, and I wonder if I should switch to something warmer for the holidays, something spicier.

Keith is in the family room, watching a football game. He sits forward on the chair, his shoes on the floor in front of him.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” I say.

He nods, engrossed in the play. My husband loves to watch sports; I love to watch him.

I wander down the hall to Jake’s room. He is dressed in his holiday finery: a black AC/DC t-shirt and threadbare corduroy pants that I am not allowed to toss out. His room, however, looks like it has been tossed. Clean and dirty clothes mingle on the floor, along with video games, old homework papers, and the extra large drink he got at Carl’s Jr. last night. The room has that unmistakable smell of boy/man, musk and body odor and old socks.

Jake looks up from his place on the floor, sprawled out, playing a riff on his guitar.

“Get your shoes on,” I tell him. “Dad’s almost ready to go.”

The truth is, I don’t know whether he’s ready to go or not. When Keith watches a sporting event, he is consumed by it. He does not make us stay home until it is over, but he will not leave the TV until some crucial play has been performed.

I never know what that play is.

My husband’s casual manner of getting from the house to the car vexes me, no matter where we are going. I cannot learn his rhythm. When he goes out to the garage, I follow and get into the car, thinking that we are on our way. We are not. Keith will have at least two more trips into the house to get something he forgot, then stop at the refrigerator to pick up a cold soda for the road.

I’ll be waiting in the car, trying to keep my hands from reaching up and yanking my hair out by the roots.

Today, I go out and open the garage door, then putter around, trying to waste time. Jake comes out just as I’ve found the coupon for five dollars off a Christmas tree. About ten minutes after that, Keith shows up. He immediately goes back in for his Angels baseball cap, comes out and looks for the tarp to place on the car roof so the tree doesn’t scratch the paint, opens the car door, shuts the car door, goes to the refrigerator and removes a bottle of water, opens the car door one more time, and finally gets in.

We’re ready.

“Where are we going?” he asks as he backs the car out of the garage.

“Well, we can go around the corner to the Fantasyland lot, or down the street they have one of those Uncle Ernie Tree lots, or there’s the Pincher Choose and Cut.”

Keith stops the car in the driveway and looks at me. “Where are we going?”

I must make the decision. “I have a coupon for Pincher’s. Let’s go there.”

It’s hard to keep a live tree from becoming a fireman’s nightmare in southern California. An artificial tree would be so much safer and easier, but I love the fresh smell of pine, and the feeling of energy that a live tree gives a room. Going to a “choose and cut” tree lot at least ensures that our tree is completely fresh, and hasn’t been sitting, waterless, at various truck stops on its way from Oregon.

Our tires crunch along the gravel path as Keith winds the car up the hill and into a parking spot. There are rows of Monterey pines here, all tenderly nurtured and shaped into cones, canvases upon which glass ornaments and tinsel will be displayed. Young boys in oversized t-shirts and baggy jeans wait by the wooden stand to the right, saws by their sides. The stand sells fruit and vegetables in the summer, pumpkins for Halloween, and trees for Christmas. The owners have decorated it for the holiday, hiding the painted pictures of tomatoes and corn with garland.

I want to leap from the car and scamper to the trees, but I restrain myself. That is not my family’s speed. I get out slowly and stretch as if we’ve traveled for an hour instead of ten minutes. Slowly, casually, my husband and son emerge and stand by me. They wait for my lead.

I gesture to the right. “Looks like there are some nice trees up there.”

We begin to walk into the forest.

It is sunny, but not hot, and the breeze coming through the evergreens makes it almost Christmas-y. The smell of the trees is rich here. My fantasy returns, briefly, until I see the gap between my family members. Head down, Keith is trudging up the hill. Jake is wandering aimlessly, looking at nothing, his ears stuffed with music from his Ipod.

I stop at a tree, and gauge its height and heft. It seems to be about seven feet tall, well-rounded and full, except for one side, which is sparse. We place our tree in a corner of the living room, so this is not a problem; no one will see the ugly side.

“How about this one?” I ask my crew.

“It’s fine,” Keith replies. “Let’s get it.”

I need a consensus. “Jake, what do you think?”

For a fifteen-year old boy who has opinions on everything from my cooking to world politics, he is strangely noncommittal. “S’okay,” he says with a shrug.

Not quite satisfied, I walk on and stop at another tree, slightly taller and fuller.

“What about this?”

My two lovely men give me the same answers. We do this for two more trees. At the last tree, I look up and see Mr. Rockwell again, peeking from around the evergreens.

“Isn’t this fun?” he asks.

If he wasn’t a hallucination, I’d throw something at him. Yea, Norman, it’s swell.

“Let’s get this one,” I say.

Keith nods and Jake shrugs, indicating a quorum.

I tear off the bottom half of the tag and tell them, “We need to go get the little lumberjack.”

They both stand and look at me.

I guess “we” means me, so I turn and walk toward the stand. A scruffy young man leans against the counter, joking with the young Hispanic girl as she collects money from a young couple. He is in typical tree-cutter garb: a short-sleeved t-shirt over a long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, and boots that Frankenstein might have worn, all in faded, earthy colors.

Handing him the tag, I gesture up the hill, and see Keith walking down toward the car. The next ten minutes are spent carpeting the roof of the SUV with the tarp and securing the tree onto the car with twine.

Every time I see a Christmas tree on a car I am reminded of the time my brother and I took my ’67 Mustang to get the family tree. It was a particularly cold winter in Illinois, where we lived, so cold that when you breathed in, the hairs in your nose stuck together. We couldn’t get the tree in the car trunk, so we put it in the backseat, opening the windows so both ends could stick out.

We never even thought of tying it to the roof.

Keith pulls into our driveway and the real fun begins – getting the tree onto the stand, and into the house. Everyone has their assigned tasks. I move the rocking chair from the corner, and place a large trash bag on the carpet, then a towel, then a sheet, in the vain hopes of keeping the carpet dry. Keith removes the tree from the roof and brings it to the front porch, where he cleans the lowest limbs away. I join him, to hold the tree while he tightens the stand around the trunk.

“Hmph t llm,” he tells me.

At least, that’s what it sounds like.


Translation: Get a microphone.

“Hold. It. To. The. Left.”

Translation: Get a hearing aid.

We get it into the stand, then I open the front doors and Keith carries it to the corner. He maneuvers it a little more, making certain that it’s straight, while I get the fishing line.

One December morning, when Jake was a toddler and Keith was away on business, the tree fell over. Instead of getting ready for work, I spent half an hour putting the tree upright and cleaning the glass shards from the carpet. Ever since then, we’ve tied the tree to a nail in the wall, using fishing line. It may not be attractive, but I’ll bet OSHA approves.

Jake’s job used to be to stay out of our way while we got the tree positioned. Now, his task is to stand in the driveway, waiting for his dad to give him permission to drive the car into the garage. At fifteen, this is his weekly thrill. I watch Keith walk from the porch, give Jake a serious look, and then smile as he tosses the keys. Our son leaps into the car and roars the engine to life, then creeps into the garage, attempting to place the SUV in the perfect space between the shelves and my minivan. He backs up and retries this two or three times, either because he’s a perfectionist or because he wants the extra driving time.

Keith retires to his football game, a bag of tortilla chips and salsa with him. His work is done.

It’s now tree trimming time, so I begin my ritual. First, I select a bottle of wine, a deep cabernet. I open the hutch and remove a wine glass. Norman is staring back at me.

“Hot chocolate?” he asks.

“More like hot toddy,” I tell him.

I see him frown a little, and wonder if the artist was a teetotaler.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Rockwell, I can drink and decorate.”

Jake’s voice startles me. “Who are you talking to, Mom?”

“Just myself, honey. Want to help me hang ornaments on the tree?”

He scowls a little. “Not really.”

I pour a glass of deep red elixir as my son wanders out of the room. Soon I hear his guitar wailing softly. I plug a Christmas CD in the stereo and turn it on. Eartha Kitt purrs to her Santa Baby while I get to work.

The ornaments are still in their boxes. I take them out, one by one and set them on the dining room table. After they are all out, I begin. There is a process, a rhythm, that must be followed.

I pick up a small, muslin mitten, grey with age, its edges cut with pinking shears. There is a green tree outline painted on one side and my name painted on the other. This ornament was made for me when I was six, by Mrs. Miller. Pete Miller was my boyfriend in 1st grade. I look at my name and remember Pete’s mom. She was a great cook, but not highly educated; the “y” in “Abby” is backwards.

The first ornament I owned must be the first one on the tree. Then the first ornament Keith and I bought together, then Jake’s first baby ornament. After that, the ornaments from friends and family who have passed, and then those who are still with us, and so on.

Norman reappears as I hang a handmade porcelain angel in the upper branches.

“This isn’t right,” he says. “Where’s the family? Where’s the popcorn?”

It’s okay, Mr. Rockwell, tree trimming is just not my family’s thing.

I am about halfway through it all, the wine and the trimming, when Jake comes back into the room.

“Need help, Mom?”

“Sure. Grab an ornament and find a limb.”

When he was younger, all my son wanted to do was sort the ornaments according to size, color and shape. The only year he wanted to hang ornaments, he hung them all on the same branch. I tried to let it alone, but after the bough touched the ground, I had to re-position them.

This time, I promise myself I will not re-hang anything he puts on the tree, although I secretly pray that he will spread them around a little.

“Jingle Bell Rock” starts playing, and we sing along. We are getting to the end of the ornaments, the boxes of gold balls that were bought on sale and have no meaning. Our work goes faster, as we fill all of the unadorned nooks on the tree. At last, we look back at the table. It is empty, just like my wine glass.

Jake extends his long, muscled arms and engulfs me.

“You’re the best mom,” he says. “What’s for dinner?”

“Leftovers,” I reply. “Still think I’m the best?”

He laughs and wanders into the kitchen. I hear him foraging in the refrigerator.

After our dinner of re-heated minestrone and salad, I pour one more glass of wine and sit on the couch in the living room. I’ve turned the lights out, so that only the Christmas tree is lit. The colored bulbs sparkle in the darkness. I can hear the football game on TV, the crowd roaring from our family room. Otherwise, all is silent.

Keith sits down beside me, wine glass in his hand. We watch the tree together.

“Pretty, huh?” I ask.

He nods. “I’ll put the outside lights on tomorrow.”

“Do you ever worry that we don’t really do things family-style? I mean, I decorate the tree, you put up the outside lights… it’s not very team-oriented.” I can’t help but add, “We’re not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting.”

Keith shrugs. “It’s just the way we work. Everybody does what they are good at.”

He leans over and kisses my temple. His lips are soft and warm.

“Besides-” He sweeps his hand toward the tree. “This is prettier than anything Norman Rockwell ever painted.”

Suddenly he stands up. “Halftime’s over.” He returns to the family room, leaving me alone.

I watch the lights flicker. Norman’s shadow is dancing around the tree.

This is my world, Mr. Rockwell.


Monday, December 1, 2014

On the first day of Christmas

Or Hanukkah. Or Kwanzaa. Or any other holiday in December, really, even Festivus for the rest of us. This month I'm joining in with a group of authors to offer ebooks at a substantial savings. Why? Because:

1. Many people who don't have a Kindle or other kind of reading tablet will probably be getting one this year from their loved ones who think they need a new electronic toy. These electronic toys will need to be filled with ebooks.

2. Many people already have a Kindle or other kind of device with a Kindle App on it and their loved ones like to stuff their stockings with ebooks.

3. Many people just like to buy for themselves because, well, you can never have too many books - either ebooks or tree-books.

So I'm one of the Twelve-Count-Em-Twelve authors over at Books on the Vine. Each day, one of us will be featured, but you can buy our books at any time.

Go here to see all the books - http://booksonthevine.com/

Today's featured author is the fabulous and prolific Jacqueline Diamond, who is offering THE FORGETFUL LADY for your reading pleasure. You can read all about her on the Latest News - http://booksonthevine.com/latest-news/

Don't know how to give an ebook as a gift? Just read this - http://booksonthevine.com/how-to-give-an-ebook-as-a-gift/

AND - If you stick around for the 12 days of fun, there is a contest at the end. You could win an Amazon gift card! Check this out - http://booksonthevine.com/win-prizes/

Now that there are no excuses, get ready, get set, and SHOP!

Friday, November 28, 2014

I'm all a-sparkle

I believe I met August McLaughlin on Facebook and immediately thought she was equal parts charming and driven. (Imagine my surprise when, after months of stalking her through her FB posts, she said she'd been stalking me the same way!)  I followed her exploits with great interest - here was a woman who didn't just want to change HER world, she wanted the change THE world.

I'm a sucker for that kind of thinking. When she invited me to be a part of #SparkleFriday, I couldn't resist.

"Let's make Black Friday shine! In lieu of a conventional housewarming party, we're having an act-of-kindness celebration.

Between now and 11/28, conduct an act of kindness. Then on the 28th, share a description and/or a photo on Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter using the hashtag #SparkleFriday. (Writers, feel free to post yours on your blog!)"

Here I am, sparkling.

She gave us about a month to do our good deeds. I thought, well, I should be able to do something nice for someone within 30 days. I signed up and went on with my life, and started to notice things.

The first thing that caught my attention was at the ranch. One of the things I do regularly is put away equipment, sweep out the feed room, refill the fly spray bottle, and generally do what might be considered ranch-style housekeeping. I don't have to do any of these things. They're not in my jurisdiction - most of them are my horse trainer's tasks. But I see how busy she is working horses, so I do it for her to make her life a little easier.

Then there was Bouchercon. One of the members of the OC Sisters in Crime is legally blind. She wanted to go to the mystery convention, but needed a ride. I live in Placentia, the convention was in Long Beach, and she lives in Fountain Valley. Figuring it was half-way between the two points, I volunteered to take her. I could have seen if someone else in the area could do it, could have stayed silent when she spoke of wanting to go, could have done things a lot of different ways that didn't inconvenience me. But I like her company and didn't mind the detour to her house and wanted her to be able to go.

Two weeks ago, one of my horseback riding students spoke with me about a project for school. She has to do 10 hours of volunteer service before the end of January. She is interested in a career with horses, and wanted to know if she could do volunteer work at the ranch. I said yes, even though it meant we would have to coordinate our schedules and I might have to extend my hours a little in order to supervise her. But I want to encourage anyone who wants to work with horses, and she is such a nice girl that I like helping her.

Last week, my trainer and I were at Corner Bakery for lunch. I got my cup and went to the drink area to get iced tea. A young girl stood with her two water cups, sort of in line and sort of not. When the person at the machine moved away, the girl stepped back and looked at me. I motioned for her to go first. She seemed surprised. I suppose I could have gone ahead of her, but she was there before me and was being so patient. What did I have to lose by being nice to her, except a little time?

This week, I was in the grocery store, buying food for Thanksgiving dinner. It's taken me years, but I've finally discovered a recipe for sweet potatoes that is yummy. It calls for fresh yams, not canned, so I was in the produce section, picking out a few with the right size. A woman stopped by the area and began to ask me about them. How do I cook them? What's the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? I explained about the difference and told her about the recipe. It took several minutes, because one question led to another. I was kind of on a schedule. Had lots of stuff left to do, and was under no obligation to educate a stranger. But she was asking for help and I had information that would help her. Why wouldn't I share it?
So it would seem that I conduct acts of kindness quite often. I just don't notice them. As a matter of fact, I may be a serial kindness-performer. I didn't take photos of any of these events, probably because I was too busy doing them.

What I do want to do is thank August for making me realize that, even on days when I am ranting at traffic or crowds, or railing at the sheer stupidity of sections of the human race, underneath it all I am capable of being a nice person. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that we can choose to be good - and that it's really not that hard.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


The first time I was on Garrett Miller's Rated G Radio show, someone called in and asked where I got the character of Benny Needles. She was certain there had to be a person in my life that I modeled Benny after.

For those of you who don't know Benny, he was meant to be a one-time client of Peri's - a needy little man with no filters on his brain, who was obsessed with Dean Martin. Readers loved him so much, he became part of the regular cast and has appeared in all the books. In the third book, THE HOT MESS, it was acknowledged that Benny has Asperger's.

My answer on the program was that I've known many Bennys in my life. Sometimes they are young children that I am teaching at the ranch. I've even met an adult Benny at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The man was obsessed with a particular movie studio from the 30s or 40s, and knew all of the films, actors, etc.

Part of me was fascinated by him. Part of me wanted him to move along so I could actually sell some books.

Over the past week, I've spent four days at Bouchercon in Long Beach, and three days at the California Special District Leadership Conference. This means:

1. For seven days, I have been meeting both friends and strangers and giving them "my best Gayle."
2. For seven days, I have heard more people talking than I normally hear in a month.

By the sixth day, I started to notice something: my ears were full. All the voices, all the words, began to blend into a cacophony with no meaning. By the seventh day, my ears were hypersensitive. The man next to me was sucking on a mint. I could hear the hard candy knock against his teeth. On the other side, the man behind me was actually eating his mints. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I wanted to stab both of them with my pen.

I started to think about my hearing. I've always had a problem with certain sounds. Music can get too loud, but there's one click on the volume that will send me to homicidal territory.

My darling husband likes to listen to ESPN Sports Radio while he drives. Or really any station that is broadcasting a game of some sort. These shows are always on AM radio, which has a distinctive timbre. It seems that the speaker on the passenger side is always louder than the driver's side, so I spend every car ride being assaulted by talking heads.

By the time we arrive, I leap from the car, feeling like my ears have just been scraped raw by an industrial rasp.

While I'm sharing, let's also talk about the worst sound ever: people eating. Crunching noises, slurpy noises, smacky noises, they all make me want to run screaming from the room (possibly to retrieve a weapon). There are times when I can't even stand to hear myself eat.

I try REALLY hard to not react to these sounds. They may be assaults to my ears, but only to MY ears. No one is trying to annoy me. Well, that they'll admit. But it's hard. I find my fingers drifting to my ears to stop the noise. I scoot my chair away. I run my finger across the tines of my fork and let my mind wander...

Today I realized something: I may have all my filters in place, but on the inside, I am Benny Needles. There's a reason he seems so real to my readers. I know him intimately.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Where in the world is Gayle?

Good question!

Thursday through Sunday, you can find me at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Most of the action will be occurring at the Hyatt Regency on South Pine Avenue. (http://longbeach.hyatt.com/en/hotel/our-hotel.html)

Mostly, I will be either sitting in panels and looking for fascinating authors for our second annual OC Sisters in Crime Ladies of Intrigue event OR I will be sitting in the bar looking for fascinating people to hang out with.

On Friday at 1:30, I will be the headliner in Room Harbor A. Actually, as you can see on the map it is a small room.

A very small room. As if they don't think many people will show up. It could be true - I'm on the schedule at the same time as the Cadaver Dog Demonstration.

Hell, even I want to go see the cadaver dog.

But if anyone shows up, I'll give out some prizes and yammer about something. It'll be fun - hope to see you there!

Monday, November 10, 2014

How real is your bucket?

A friend of mine was talking about her version of a bucket list. She keeps a list of what she would do if she won the lottery. It's not really a bucket. More like that imaginary box that mimes get stuck in. What struck me was that she is doing some of these things now (no, she hasn't won the lottery). Painting the house, replacing flooring, furniture, etc.

"All these things were on my list," she said. "But I'm not excited about them."

She chalked it up to a general feeling of blah.

I enjoy nice things, don't misunderstand. I'd love to get new flooring and new furniture in my house. But I know it won't make me any happier than I already am. It's not about the stuff anymore. I could live in a trailer park. It'd be okay.

My bucket list is about experiences. I'd like to attend the Oscars. I'd like to visit Wales, maybe Scandinavia.

My imaginary box is fuller, but not of goods, or even experiences. In my imaginary box, I want to be more than I am now. I want to shed my skin and fly, not just through the air, but through the dimensions. I want to know what isn't knowable.

I want my tombstone to say, "She was the muchiest person who ever lived." Okay, either that or, "She was really, really old."

What's in your imaginary box?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When we were warriors.

This is me as a tyke.

Yes it's a real rabbit and yes, it's on a leash. His name was Powder Puff.

I'm not certain how old I was. Maybe four. Note the sassy twinkle of the eyes, the swagger in the pose. I'm young enough to still believe in... everything.

At this age:

1. I loved raptors and lions and basically all predators with large claws and big fangs.

2. I tried to catch snakes if I saw them in the yard.

3. On Saturday mornings, I acted out scenes from The Roy Rogers Show. My grandmother's Chihuahua was Bullet. I was Roy.

4. I could spend hours trying to climb sunbeams because I just knew I could do it.

5. I also just knew that if I tried hard enough, I could remember my life before I was born, and I could understand what dogs were saying when they barked, and other impossible things.

I was a warrior.

There is more, but as I traveled through life with my family, in a slow, steady motion, they taught me that I wasn't magical, that snakes were frightening, and Chihuahuas weren't German Shepherds, and there are girl things and boy things. Girl things involve pretending that you are nicer and weaker and less human than you really are. Pretending you can't pick up heavy things, or curse like a sailor, or emit any bodily noise.

At least I had some practice acting on Saturday mornings.

Once I started to grow curves, I learned another lesson about girls versus boys. Girls had a Something called Virginity. It was precious, and once it was gone, it could never be retrieved and the angels wept. Boys could talk about having a thing called Virginity, but what they really had was Inexperience. Not so precious, and once it was gone, well, good riddance.

The day I started my period, I remember thinking, "Well, that's that. My freedom is officially over."

The day I felt uncomfortable in a man's presence because I understood what he could take from me and how important it was and that I feared him because of my own knowledge, completed my transition.

The warrior was gone. In her place was a mouse, scurrying from safety to safety.

I'm thinking about all these things because I'd really like my female pirate to be something more than a fantasy girl who waves a sword and avenges her tormentors. I want her to be a warrior, a woman who lives her life being who she is. Maybe she'll have a hawk, maybe she'll play with snakes, or even possess magic.

But she will not be lessened by sex. And she won't pretend to be less than who she is.

How do I accomplish what society has discouraged within myself? What does this woman look like?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

And now we return to our regularly scheduled lives

This is the way I always feel about elections:

And now we get back to our day-to-day.

Will someone please go to the office and call an ambulance?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why should I vote?

Tomorrow is the "midterm elections," a voting day infamous for the teeny percentage of voters who turn out. Even during a presidential election year, we get far too few citizens exercising their right. Let me repeat: citizens exercising their right to vote. It is YOUR right. Blood was shed in order to give you that. Why are you not using it?

Here are some of the reasons I hear:

1. "My husband is one party and I am the other, so our votes cancel out."
Okay, maybe, but if your husband votes and you don't, then your 'party' loses. And are you really faithful to a party? Or do you vote for the person or the issue?

Vote, because even if you can't control the election, you believe in your candidate/issue and you want them to win.

2. "The polls already say Proposition X is going to win. Why should I bother?"
Because the polls get things wrong sometimes. The tide of public opinion sometimes turns. I watched this during the recent vote for Scotland to become independent of the UK. The polls had the "Yes" votes winning by a slight margin. In the end, voters got cold feet and the "No" votes won.

Vote, because your vote is your voice, and maybe it won't win but it will be heard.

3. "These propositions are too hard to understand. I don't even know which way to vote."
I hear ya, Sistah. It's frustrating to me, to read through the actual text of the propositions, knowing that the average reading ability of most Americans is 5th grade and these props are written for lawyers, not laymen. It's equally frustrating that most of the voters will cast their ballots for the most convincing commercial. Threaten with more taxes, less services, more government, whatever provokes the most fear, and people will react.

Vote, because these propositions will lead your state to either prosperity or ruin. If you don't at least vote, you don't get to complain about their results.

4. "Who are these local yahoos, anyway? I don't know/care who we elect to judge/city council/trustee."
Well, you should. This is the level that you DO have some control over - the LOCAL level. Your city may be in debt. Don't you want someone that wants to pull it out of the red? For everyone who wants city services to thrive, but doesn't want to pay more in fees/taxes, how are any of these candidates planning to accomplish this?

Vote, because you care about your streetlights, your safety, your children's education, your home.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Music and memories

I know the autumnal equinox was back in September, but in southern California, it has been summer since about March. It feels like we've had nothing but temperatures in the 90s and above for such a long time, perhaps we should never see fall or winter again. Not that those seasons are so very cold down here in Orange County. Still, I am used to a few months of temperatures in the 50s and 60s and varying amounts of rain.

This weekend we had fall. Rain, cool weather, with the added bonus of changing the clock back an hour. Nothing says autumn like darkness at 5 p.m.

Certain music reminds me of certain seasons, something I'm aware of every time the weather gives me that first day of spring, summer, etc. In SoCal, it's a little difficult to have that first day of winter, or even summer, but even the thought of a season makes me think of a song.

This is what I've been hearing in my head this weekend:

The album was released in March 1970, but I have a memory of hearing the song one crisp autumn day back in Illinois. The moment froze for me, what I was wearing, where I was standing, and that vague yearning for more in my 16-year-old heart.

For winter, my mind drifts to this:

I know, it's so totally disco, but I remember seeing the snow falling one night outside my window as this song was playing, and the swirling sound of the violins captured the swirls of snowflakes blowing across the streetlights.

Spring is found here, in my head:

This was all about being a college kid and having a local band covering The Stones and feeling very grown up.

And Summer:

Ah, the days of lip-synching, but I still adore John Sebastian (lead singer for those of you youngsters). The heat and stickiness of the summer day combined with the words "back of my neck feeling dirt and gritty" summed up my forever-feelings about summertime.

Each one takes me immediately back to the memory when I hear it. I often think of trying to capture this idea of a character being motivated by songs that jiggle memories loose could be interesting, if done correctly.

What song takes you to a time and place?

Thursday, October 30, 2014


I suppose I should have something pithy to say about Halloween, but I really just want to cruise YouTube, looking for snippets and trailers of some of my favorite scary movies. Mostly, I like the trailers for their sensationalistic qualities.

Don't you love it when the actor (Kevin McCarthy) starts speaking to the audience? "Please listen to me, listen to me!"


Rubber claws are coming to getcha!

I don't know why I love this one so much:

I mean, it's not even an actual gila monster. They used a beaded lizard, for pete's sake. Since gila monsters are poisonous, they probably couldn't get the appropriate permit to handle one. You'd think they'd at least paint stripes on the beast.

For those of you who think I'm stuck in Black-and-White-Land, here's a horror movie in color:

Run, don't walk! Yeah, because, seriously, you can totally outrun this thing. And it stars Steve McQueen and "a cast of exciting young people" - jeepers, neato!

BTDubs, ever notice how everyone's first impulse is to try to shoot a monster? Why would you shoot bullets into a gelatinous blob? What are you trying to hit?

But enough corny horror trailers - have a safe and sane and spooky Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The witching hour nears

We've never discussed witches, have we? Well, apart from this chick.

"Why no, Mrs. Danvers, I don't want to roast marshmallows."

Here's what I find weird about witches: they seem to be goth fairies. Compare them. Both have magic powers.

Both can be capricious.

It's just a matter of dress.

When I saw the Wizard of Oz as a child, I was fairly terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West. That black and white scene where she morphs from Miss Gulch into The Witch made me shiver to my soul. Of course, I played it brave for my family, because when I admitted fear, they laughed.

I'm telling you, I could have won an Oscar at my house.

As I grew older, witches grew less frightening. Snow White's stepmother was scarier when she transformed into the old hag, but not awful. Maleficent should have been crazy-scary, but I actually loved the dragon. I was sorry to see how that ended.

Bette, Kathy, and Sarah Jessica were adorably hideous as the Sanderson Sisters. Not horrible. Adorable.

Then WICKED (the book) happened and turned the Wicked Witch into a sympathetic anti-hero, and the musical took that idea and made being green and powerful a good thing.

She's not wicked, she's misunderstood.

Who's your favorite witch? Fairy? Dragon?

It's coming closer...

Look out behind you.

Or don't.

It doesn't matter. If the monster wants you, it'll get you. (Seriously, what is wrong with that mother? And what's with all the cats?)

Unless, of course, you have the code word (sorry, I'm a sucker for this clip):

P.S. These are great examples of building tension, dread, and terror. In the second clip, I'm not sure we even have to see the leopard to feel that girl's fear.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What is horror?

Sure, we have a definition of the horror genre -

A genre of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon has defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing." It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is usually supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society. (Wikipedia)

(Note: Yes, I cite Wikipedia in those cases where there are enough references to verify its accuracy. Sue me.)

Still, sometimes I look at the books I've read, or movies I've seen, and think, "It may have been a mystery/thriller/romance/literary fiction, but I was terrified. Why isn't it in the horror section?"

A.C. Doyle's Professor Challenger stories always seemed to horrify me at some point, but they are listed as fantasy or science fiction. H. Rider Haggard's SHE has a most scary ending - the shower of eternal youth and beauty must only be used once. It is also listed as science fiction. Even the Indiana Jones movies have a horror element to them. I mean, heads explode, faces melt, hearts are ripped from living bodies... the list goes on. It's billed as action/adventure, but trust me, I was pretty repulsed by the man aging to a skeleton by drinking from the wrong cup.

As for works that are considered in the horror category, we shudder when we think of Poe's writings. I don't know about you, but reading about people being buried alive, plagues, and madness induced a feeling of ickiness in me.

Stephen King is definitely horror. His stories frighten, scare, startle, and repulse me. I used to read King voraciously. I still love his non-horror novellas, STAND BY ME and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. But I stopped reading him after Pet Sematary because he killed a child. I let him have a pass with Cujo. I guess with me, it's two strikes and you're out.

Dean Koontz has a horror edge to his tales, but he is not horror to me because at the end of the book, his heroes survive and evil is vanquished. I can breathe easily and sleep at night, knowing Mr. Koontz has saved the earth from the enemy he created.

So my own definition of horror would have to include an ending which does not promise a bright tomorrow. The hero might survive, but so would the villain. Even if the evil is eradicated, the cost is terrible.

(Aside: If horrific means having the power to horrify, why doesn't terrific mean having the power to terrify?)

What is your definition of horror? Do you read books or watch movies that scare you, even if you don't like the horror genre? What makes the difference?

Oh, and BTW, which one of Koontz's books would you like to see as a movie?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The (horror) tales we tell to children

Fairy tales - the original horror stories. Much like mythology, they are supposed to show us archetypes, reveal truths, and teach morality. The only real difference is that we pretend these are children's stories. We don't normally teach little ones about Zeus and his wandering Johnson, but we do drag out The Three Little Pigs - to teach how far a wolf is willing to go for a little bacon.

Does it bother no one that the wolf is trying to eat the pigs, and the pigs end up trapping the wolf in a boiling cauldron, where they cook him, alive, and eat him? (Yes, I know there are versions where they just chase him away, but seriously, who doesn't think he'll be back? Sooner or later, someone is going to die.)

I still have a book of fairy tales my grandmother gave me.

"To Gayle Sue from Grandma Wetherholt, March 11, 62

Let's take a look at some of these children's stories.

Little Red Riding Hood - the wolf has a nice conversation with our naïve Little Red, tries to eat her grandmother (in some versions, he succeeds), nearly eats Red, but her dad arrives at the last minute to chop the wolf's head off (in the alternate version, Grandma jumps out of the decapitated wolf, none the worse for wear).


Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella - all pleasant young girls who are targeted by evil women and have to hang around, useless and sometimes comatose, until some guy shows up to rescue them.

What does this teach our kids? To trust grownups, or to be proactive?

The worst stories in this book are Babes in the Wood, and The Goose Girl.

In the first, two little tots are orphaned and left with an aunt and uncle who want their inheritance. The uncle sends them off with henchmen to be murdered. One henchguy has a change of heart, kills the other one, then leaves the kids in the woods and says he'll be right back.

That's right. He never returns and the children die. They freakin' die! The uncle and aunt keep the riches, evil is not vanquished, good does not triumph.

There's a lesson for you, Kids.

In The Goose Girl, a princess is sent to be married but her maid forces her to switch positions. The awful part of this story is the princess has a talking horse, Falada. When they arrive at the new kingdom, the maid (now masquerading as the princess) instructs the knacker to kill the horse. The real princess talks the guy into hanging the horse's head over the town gate - where it still talks.

Couldn't she have talked the knacker into not killing the horse?

Of course, the whole story is found out and the maid is not just executed, she's tortured - put naked in a barrel stuck with nails and dragged behind two white horses down all the streets in town until she's dead.

That's what horse killers get in these parts.

I was 8 years old when I read these, and while they horrified me, I wouldn't say they scarred me for life. But would I have encouraged my 8-year-old son to read them? Yeah... no.

If none of those made your hair curl, maybe this little scene of Beauty and the Beast (Fairy Tale Theater) can give you some goosebumps.

Did you read fairy tales as a child? Did they scare the pants off you?

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