Finish Line

[photo by H.G. Reifsnyder]

***

I don’t have a lot of pictures of my father. This one was taken over three decades ago by an old BF who, years after my father died, thought I might like to have it.  My dad died in January 1994, a quarter century ago now, and while it’s true, time does heal all wounds, it doesn’t remove the scars that build up over them.

I don’t think about my dad every day the way I did when the wound was fresh, nor have I ever been to those same depressive depths that I experienced in the year following his death, a depression so deep you couldn’t find me with a periscope.  Those were the dark days, the lost weeks, the months when every thought brought more sadness than I could assimilate and just breathing hurt.  It took me the better part of two years to shake the pain.  Sometime after surfacing, I wrote the piece that follows.

Oh, the hours my father and I would sit at the kitchen table and talk and snack and drink Greek coffee and smoke cigarettes (a habit I gave up long ago, thankfully).

“Come shoot the shit with me,” he’d say, and hours later we’d still be talking, my mom long gone, off to watch a television show or something.  How I long for even one of those hours with him, a bit of time to unload some of the troubles of the day, to have his ever attentive ear and always excellent advice.  Someday again, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll have to make due with my memories.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  Hope you’re having a nice coffee somewhere, and that you finally quit the cigs.

Finish Line

It was Christmas and my father was dying. Not by degrees, as he had been doing since his operation to remove the cancer that had taken over his once healthy esophagus, but quickly and inexorably like Genghis Khan, invading Eurasia, decimating the local population. Years of cigarette smoking had finally grabbed my father by the throat. Now, one operation, two years, and some fifty pounds lighter, he’d stopped eating.

December 28 — Gus’s birthday. I met my parents at one of their favorite restaurants, an Italian place halfway between their home and mine. My father insisted we go despite a lack of appetite. He knew what he was doing, taking my mother out one last time, his birthday his excuse.  Gus ordered shrimp and ate a single one. No linguine, no broccoli rabe, no crusty bread. Just one lousy shrimp, cut up into smaller than bite-sized pieces, and even then it looked hard going down.

The next day my mother reported my father had almost driven off the road going home. He’d fallen asleep. I wasn’t surprised given that the breadth of his diet of late would leave a Yogi lightheaded. My father had never fallen asleep at the wheel. He was a salesman and drove for a living, shuttling cigarettes from news agencies to grocery stores and beyond, wherever his wares were in demand. Never mind he was working; his car gave him wings. Every day, he’d have lunch with a different client, swapping jokes and stories. It wasn’t the job he should have had, what with his quick, analytical mind and steel-trap memory for historical facts and figures. He should have been a lawyer, but he was born to Greek immigrant parents who’d fled to the U.S. to escape Turkish persecution and they had their hands full assimilating.

Now he could neither eat nor drive. The fluffy blanket of life that had enveloped him for sixty years had become flat and threadbare.

A couple days after the driving incident I went to my parents’ house. My father had been under self-imposed house arrest since his birthday. He was not eating, barely drinking, certainly not driving. He was a shell of his post-operation self which had been a shell of his former life-embracing self. Like a mirror reflecting back an image onto another mirror and then another, the image bouncing on and on into infinity, he was growing smaller and smaller without ever actually disappearing.

My mother was her typical strong, stoic self. Instead of crying, she swept: the kitchen floor, the bathroom floor, the living room, the porch, the driveway, wherever you could take a broom or vacuum. Sweeping grounded her, kept her tethered to an earth that would soon be devoid of her husband of thirty years. Sweeping was her medication, her chocolate, her daytime soap opera.

In a show of solidarity, I would have liked to sweep too, but I hated sweeping.  I dealt with difficulty better while in motion:  I walked the dog; I ran errands; I drove back and forth between our residences about a million times. Keep moving was my mantra.

So off I was about to go on some very important errand when my dad announced he wanted to go with me. Me as the driver; he as the passenger. I was at that moment in life when the parent and child roles reversed either through infirmary, dementia or some random insidious disease on the seemingly endless list of modern medical disasters that may afflict our parents. How many times had I ridden shotgun with my father when he ran the Saturday morning errands to the bank, the bakery, the gas station? Too many to count.

“Last ride in the van,” he said as he struggled to climb in despite my ready assistance. The lump in my throat had all the properties of cement block.

Before he got sick and for as long as I can remember, my father loved the horses. He and my mother would go to the racetrack many a Saturday night. My mother went because she loved my father, but my father, he was addicted. Sometimes he would drive midweek by himself all the way to the track just to place a bet, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, listening to talk radio the whole way. In a perfect world, he would have been a professional handicapper – someone who picked winning horses for a living. It involved skill and addiction to risk, two things he possessed in great quantities, but there’s really no job security in handicapping, and then there was us, his family. So he sold cigarettes which paid the mortgage and sent us to college — it just didn’t make him happy. He was the most joyous and most despondent man I knew, possessed of more character in any given minute than some accrued over a lifetime. He was both vice and virtue – a self-contained yin and yang – a pure divine spark of God’s light and dark.

Now he was close to dying – my rock, my strength and all those things dads are supposed to be. I was a sensitive, self-critical child. My dad had talked me off the proverbial ledge more times than I’d care to admit. Surely every father does this for his child? Ah, but I knew better. Few men had the wit, the intellect and dead-on observational qualities of my father. He could read people like they came with instructions, a quality I unfortunately did not inherit. He could also hold a grudge like nobody’s business, but I digress.

Now he was leaving. If I felt like throwing up, imagine how my mother felt?

It was a testament to his strength that he lasted two more weeks without food and only a few sips of water now and again. Unable to sleep, he’d wander the house like a ghost, catching cat naps in his living room chair when he got tired. I’d keep watch on the couch while my father sat in his armchair. By morning, he’d be watching me sleep. Even in dying, the strength he exhibited was remarkable.

“You’ll always be a giant in my eyes,” I whispered.

In response, he teared up, pretty un-giant-like by men’s standards, but proving my point. Gussie was unlike most men. He embraced the entire range of his emotions with the verve of one who knows just how satisfying a good belly laugh, a good cry, and all the space in between could be. So while his body disintegrated, his mind shouldered on and in those last weeks he spoke with almost everyone who loved him and more importantly, made amends with everyone he’d ever disagreed with over the years, asking pardon for his part in the disintegration of those friendships. In the end he had created his own absolution, needing no priest to do it for him.

That last night he laid down for the first time in the hospital bed we’d rented a few weeks earlier. We had put the bed in my room so I slept there next to him in my childhood bed, listening to him breathe. At 4:30 A.M. I woke up, knowing something was about to happen. I clearly heard a voice, maybe my own Higher voice, say, “If you turn around now you can watch him leave.” I froze in terror unable to move. How long I stayed that way I don’t know. When I awoke a couple hours later, my father’s body was cold, his spirit gone.  Perhaps it would have been too much for me, watching him go.

We sprinkled his ashes across the finish line at the racetrack which is what he wanted. Gussie had a friend who had a friend who got us into the track a few hours before it even opened.  I stood there, dead center of the finish line, and tipped the plastic bag, meaning to sprinkle the ashes from end to end.  Gussie had other plans. 

The wind picked up and ashes swirled everywhere: on my clothes, in my hair, even up my nose, giving me one final kiss before another sudden wind change scattered them in a billion purposeful directions.  This time I did see him go. 

I often wonder if the horses who ran that night felt his spirit there, cheering them on as they thundered across that finish line. I know I still do.

pam lazos 6.16.19

Posted in father's day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 54 Comments

La Familia Que Escribe Juntos…

La Familia Que Escribe Juntos…

(The Family that Writes Together…)

My dear friend Lydia Isales with whom I had worked for over a quarter century retired a few years ago.One day she was there and the next, up and out. A stellar lawyer and zealous protector of the environment, an editor and proofreader, she lent her eagle eye to the editing of my novel, Oil and Water, and another zillion legal documents. She took those very transferable skills into retirement with her, turning them into a vocation and maybe one day, a second career. She had been writing stories for Ezines, but then I heard something else was in the works — a novel she and her husband and son were working on in a three-way collaboration. Now, I had relied heavily on my husband’s commercial diving expertise when I wrote Oil and Water, but actually writing the book with him never crossed my mind.  It sounds so unprecedented and out-of-the-box that I knew I needed a moment to sit down with Lydia and the family with a list of questions over a virtual cup of coffee (she now lives states and states away) and get the skinny on this new endeavor.

Rather than the traditional interview, this prolific group of writers is going to tell you what it’s all about in their own words.  I’ve added bracketed information here and there to fill in a bit of background information. 

Take it away, Lydia:

Lydia – Alan [Lydia’s son] has always been a writer. He started writing in elementary school and his writing has always shown such imagination and superb plot lines. He has always enjoyed fantasy books so it wasn’t a surprise that he first wrote in that genre. But hey, what a surprise, a Mom proud and boastful of her child. [Typical modest Lydia — I ask her about her and she talks about Alan.]

After I retired in 2014, I had a beginning sentence pop into my head. It was followed by a few other lines. So I wrote them down and saved that paragraph. It took me a couple of years to get back to it and another year to finish a 7-10 page story. 

When I became ill with two “aggressive” cancers, I wrote a couple essays as therapy.  I had a yearning to someday tap the underrepresented market of Puerto Rico [Lydia’s father was Puerto Rican and her mother is American; Lydia grew up in Puerto Rico where her dad was a practicing physician.] as the setting in a piece of commercial fiction and maybe join the two of them [husband David and son Alan] in writing a book. 

The three of us started throwing around ideas of writing a book together and what wondrous fun it would be. We started sharing bits and pieces of things we would want to see in the story; a story not yet defined in any way.  Alan wanted to incorporate boxing, I wanted to include Puerto Rican sayings at the beginning of each chapter, David was interested in placing it during an intriguing historical time. 

It reminded me of an interview I read once of the Farrelly brothers who said something about walking around with a notebook and when something funny occurs to them, they write it down. Then they take those notes and write a movie script. When they described that to someone they were told, “but you can’t do it that way, that is not the way to write a movie,” and perplexed they said, “we can’t?” That always makes me smile when I remember that interview and feel a bit inspired by them.

In October 2017, I sent David and Alan an email telling them that I thought I had discovered our setting and time period. That led to our next few group meals, which included Alan’s wife Ankita, to discuss the characters; each author was assigned the task of creating a central character. We knew it would be a historical murder mystery, my favorite genre. 

Alan wrote some pages first, laying out the murder scene. It was those pages that led each of us to start writing about ‘our’ character, still without the outline of the book.  We then shared those pages with each other. Discussion again ensued. This led to more writing. When we had a total of about 100 pages, David took it all and started piecing it together. He consulted with us on what he was thinking and assigned us rewrites of some sections, but undertook many of those himself. Once we had that edited version, we were all full of ideas of what we wanted to include and started a list of scenes, characters and plot lines. I was the lead on doing lots of research although each of them also did lots of research relevant to their sections. The book really took off then; after about a year and  many iterations later, we had a first full manuscript.

Throughout, David continued to have the lead on ensuring we were consistent and constant with editing and such. Alan really kept an eye out for ensuring we clearly expressed each character’s depth and complexity. After one particularly frustrating evening, we agreed that after full discussion on a given matter, if we were still not agreed, a 2-1 vote would be binding. [How democratic!]  That ended up working.

As an example, David and I had some discussions just among the two of us, along the lines of:  “You just wait, I know Alan will agree with me.” We painstakingly made sure we presented it to him as neutrally as possible so he would not know who was rooting for which choice. Of course, sometimes he came up with a third choice!

Writing does not come as easily to me as to David or Alan but I have found a creative outlet in that it helps me with my serious health situation. It is therapeutic.

I am a fan of Submittable as a source for where to submit short stories, both fiction and nonfiction. In 2018 I had three short stories and one essay published: two stories in Rigorous, one in Label me Latina, and an essay in Acentos Review.

I would like to continue to write with Puerto Rico as the backdrop; it is such a rich, untapped source. We have all three started to discuss a sequel but not in any concrete way yet. I am dedicated to the agent search at the moment.

Thanks, friend, the whole experience sounded exhilarating, especially the dispute resolution process!  But you neglected to tell us the title of the book.  Or is it a secret?

The working title of the book is The Dead Time at Aquirre.

Compelling!  We’ll save the synopsis for when you are closer to a publication date.

Now, let’s hear a bit from Lydia’s husband, David: 

 

 

David – Becoming an author? Serious consideration started when I traveled from Philadelphia to Atlanta to move Alan to a new job. He had written his first fantasy novel, and being an unofficial editor, I found the experience intriguing. During the journey long south, I mentioned some ideas I had and with his encouragement, we discussed a plot.  I had already jotted down a few interesting scenes involving character interactions and medical facts that I felt would pique a layperson’s fancy. On returning to Philadelphia, I dove in.

 

My writing schedule can be in fits and starts, but I’ve always been one to embrace flying by the seat of my pants. I abhor routine.  I generally find my best writing is in the morning, after my mind has had a good night’s rest.  I began writing during my last two years of doctoring. Sometimes I would query Cathy, my office manager, for a woman’s perspective and sometimes I’d ask patients or their parents (I’m a pediatrician), if their field was pertinent to a character or plot line. My favorite inquiry was to an EMT. I asked him if he had any colorful terms for a suicide by hanging. He broke down after I pestered him long enough.

“We call them ‘wind chimes’,” he offered with some embarrassment. 

This crass description of suicide was incorporated into Second Chance.

If I hadn’t become a doctor, I’d probably be teaching. Nothing gave me more pleasure than to have a knowledgeable patient – and I don’t mean someone who spouts off about the latest drug, or what they read on medline sites on the internet. To describe a medical condition in simple layperson terms was a particular joy I felt during patient interactions. In writing Second Chance, as well as the follow up novel, Bucket List, I carried a similar desire to teach my readers medically related topics that were introduced.

As far as writing a novel together, I was first a reluctant participant, expecting hurt feelings would be in the offing once critiques were shared. Each of us was responsible for a central character, and I was pleasantly surprised that after permitting the ‘tweaking’ of our pride and joys, I think we all felt our characters benefited. For example, if differences on a character’s actions or emotions were expressed, votes were cast and majority decision ruled. The lesser players were written by anyone who wanted to do it. In the end, having three authors was not the hell I expected. It’s not unusual to have three subplots in a story, so it afforded each of us an independence most writers need. And we found weaving the three together was not difficult at all.

Lydia was the first to express an interest in collaborating on a novel, and she quickly expressed a desire to place it in Puerto Rico, her birth place. With few historical fiction novels centered on the island having been published, it was an easy sell. After a little research, the Spanish-American War rose to the top of the list. 

Thanks, David. It’s great to see family unity surviving what may have, at times, devoted into a contentious situation.  Sounds like something you may be willing to do again. 

Now let’s hear from the third member of this writing triumvirate, David and Lydia’s son, Alan.

Alan-Ideally, I give myself a half hour to an hour a night to write or edit, hopefully a couple hours a day on the weekends; realistically, it ends up being three or four nights a week, enough to stay engaged in the story, not enough to burn out with everything else going on. I started writing in college, and same as probably everybody it embarrasses me to read what I wrote when I just started. And yes, I’ve been writing while being a practicing forensic scientist, though it can get difficult to balance that.

When we started writing this book together, it was more like we settled on the idea that there were no recent books that we were aware of based in Puerto Rico which surprised us since the island has such a rich culture that could be explored in popular literature. From that, we settled on different characters we wanted to write, and we each would write a chapter from our chosen character’s perspective, share that with the others, and build the story from there, step by step. The structure and plot evolved as we got deeper and deeper into the story, editing each other’s work and discussing how we wanted the story to progress.

As for my work experience showing up in my first book, A Dragon’s Bloodline, I think a bit of it does — not the science, which wouldn’t fit in that world, but in the way some characters look at evidence of crimes and violence, and the analytical pattern of their thoughts. And while it’s true that I have a lot of different interests, I enjoy writing because it lets me indulge my imagination, and get lost in different worlds and times; I especially like thinking of scenarios that I haven’t read or seen, and trying to imagine how people would react in those situations, and then try to build a plot around those scenarios. I think I inspired my parents to write (I was first to publish something, even if it was self-published) rather than the other way around, though we may disagree on that. But they certainly encouraged my writing career, reading my stories and giving me their comments, even editing. They could see I enjoyed it, and I think for them that was enough.

I’ve never made a point of trying to convey messages in my stories; but think about it, and I hope I give people a sense of wonder, at the complexities underlying life, and encourage them to think and imagine.

Given unlimited options for my writing, I’d prefer to keep writing books, playing with different genres, challenging myself; that’s what I’ve found helps my writing the most, trying to write something different than I did before, in a different style or from the perspective of a type of character I haven’t written before. My two biggest influences on my writing are Robert Jordan and Terry Pratchett.  Jordan because of the incredibly complex and detailed world he created in his Wheel of Time series, and Pratchett because he was able to find humor in every subject.  Beyond that, I always got a sense that while [Pratchett] had a clear-eyed view of humanity’s many frailties and flaws, he was still able to find something redeeming about our struggles.

I hope to have three or four more books written ten years from now, both with my parents and some of my own fantasy stories. We certainly have enough ideas to write at least that much, it’s just finding the time to put them down. However, at the moment I personally have only one book out, A Dragon’s Bloodline, independently published on Amazon.

Thanks, Alan!  You’re an inspiration, as are your folks.

We’ll be watching for The Dead Time at Aguirre and I look forward to spreading the word when the book launches. Thanks so much, Ackroyd-Isales clan.

pam lazos 6.9.19

Posted in author interview, blog, book promotion, environment, Uncategorized, writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

How to Change Your Mind

How to Change Your Mind

Michael Pollan is a rock star.  Not a shooting star, not a fleeting 15-minutes-of-fame star, not a one-hit wonder, but an honest to goodness Influencer, someone who moves the populace, sometimes in small increments, at other times across large swaths of thought, toward a better tomorrow. 

I just finished reading How to Change Your Mind, What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, and it was, in a word, illuminating.  

Pollan’s has written other books, seven, actually, books like Food Rules (“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” which cautioned against eating anything with more than five ingredients, especially if you can’t pronounce them); and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a breakdown of the true cost of growing food) both of which have changed the way we as a society think about food.  

The thinking behind Pollan’s work is grand and millennial — as in time, not people — and always represents a departure from current accepted thought.  His suggested methods to institute change are not massive, but often a return to a simpler way, and when instituted, can be far reaching — like small ripples on a large lake with an underground spring that connects to groundwater that ties into a river that ultimately flows to the ocean, i.e., gradual change that shifts society in a direction, a more long-lasting variety that generally outlives it’s creator. 

In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how ideas are spread in society and the types of people that spread them: mavens — those who know a lot about things and want to share their information with you; connectors — those who know a lot of people who do a lot of different things and want to share their connections with you; and salespeople — those who are naturals at selling a product or idea and making it sticky so that everyone wants to own or be a part of it.  In modern day parlance, these people are called influencers.  (Granted, in the internet age, there are said influencers such as youtubers who have become famous for applying makeup or making a sex tape who do not move the world to a better place; they are really just gaming the system.)

Pollan is both a maven and an influencer.  It’s obvious from his books that he’s done the research.  How to Change Your Mind starts in 1938 when lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD was first synthesized, and loops all the way up and around to present day via 1955 when an amateur mycologist, R. Gordon Wasson, purposely ingested a mushroom, one that the Oaxaca Mexicans called flesh of the gods, and which contained the psychoactive ingredient psilocybin that caused strange visions.  Two years later, Wasson published an article in Life magazine and the magic mushroom craze was born.  

Pollan’s in-depth look at first the natural history of the fungi, the government regulations that have blocked mushroom research and development for decades; the experts in the field of mycology (relatively few, sadly, since science is discovering that mushrooms are capable of assisting us with a great deal of things from improving mental health to removing plastic waste from the planet); the LSD and mushrooms craze in the 60’s and how that hurt the mushroom movement; the healing nature of psilocybin (used by the Aztecs for thousands of years); and finally, his own foray into mushroom healing is riveting and insightful, making the case for further studying the use of psilocybin, particularly in a society awash in mental health issues like major depression which affects as many as one in 12 adults.

After reading How to Change Your Mind, I am convinced that Pollan is right.  Like Columbus, Pollan went in search of a new world, one that began inside the mind and moved outward, one that connected him to all life on the planet and beyond.  Like Columbus, he may not have been the first to cover this terrain, but he documented his experience in such a way that the rest of us could tag along, reaping the benefits of what he discovered on the journey.  We may be years or even decades away from incorporating such mind-expanding awareness into our world, if ever, but the job of the influencer is done.  The case has been made and the facts are there for all to read and decide upon — and that is the beauty of having a mind to change.

pamlazos 6.2.19

Posted in book review, butterfly effect, influencer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

#WATWB — Single-Use Plastics Ban!

Single-Use Plastics Ban!

The EU Parliament has approved a single-use plastic law, giving the 28 EU member countries two years to amend their national laws.

The directive bans single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton swabs by 2021. It sets a 90% collection target for plastic bottles by 2029, and it mandates that plastic bottles be made of at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025 and 30% by 2030.

Plastics Recycling Update, May 22, 2019.

Wit-woo — nice job, EU!

It’s the last Friday of the #WATWB, time to post those feel good stories.  What makes you feel better than knowing there will be less plastic in the ocean now because of this EU law?

Want to join the party?  Here are the guidelines for #WATWB:

1. Keep your post to Below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. Link to a human news story on your blog, one that shows love, humanity, and brotherhood. Paste in an excerpt and tell us why it touched you. The Link is important, because it actually makes us look through news to find the positive ones to post.
3. No story is too big or small, as long as it Goes Beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.
4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD badge or banner on your Post and your Sidebar. Some of you have already done so, this is just a gentle reminder for the others.
5. Help us spread the word on social media. Feel free to tweet, share using the #WATWB hastag to help us trend!

Tweets, Facebook shares, Pins and Instagram using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. We’ll try and follow and share all those who post on the #WATWB hashtag, and we encourage you to do the same.

Have your followers click here to enter their link and join us!

pamlazos 5.31.19

 

Posted in plastic bag, plastics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 35 Comments

All My Mothers-in-Law: A Tale of Diversity and Inclusion

All My Mothers-in-Law:  A Tale of Diversity and Inclusion

When you think of the words diversity and inclusion, the first thing that pops into your mind might be race, but really it’s not just race, but a range of things including age, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical abilities, nationality, political leanings, anything really, that makes us different from one another.  In the strictest interpretation, everyone we’ve ever met fits this definition which means that we’d be remiss if we didn’t expand the diversity net to include all our friends, families and familiars. 

We all started with some kind of nuclear beginning, a father and mother, two mothers, two fathers, or some other combination of that story, biological or not, whether they left when you were born or not, whether they raised you or not, whether they went to all your soccer games or coached your baseball team or not.  I came from the regular old vanilla nuclear family of mom, dad, me and sis, but I preside over a blended family where my husband and I came to the marriage with our own kids. (I say preside because sometimes it does feel like I need all my lawyering skills to resolve disputes.)  

With blended families comes more opportunity for diversity and inclusion since there’s more of everything in the mix, especially mothers-in-law.  Here is our our mothers-in-law breakdown:

Ex-husband, at the time of our marriage, brings one mother to the partnership = First Mother-in-Law;

New husband brings one mother to the marriage = Second Mother-in-Law;

New husband brings one mother-in-law from previous marriage = Mother-in-Law-Once Removed; 

Ex-husband remarries, acquiring another mother-in-law = Mother-in-Law-By-Patrilineal-Association.

I really could use a better title for the last mother-in-law — a lovely woman who by all standards has been wonderful to my daughter with ex-husband who she acquired as a granddaughter-by-patrilineal-association when her daughter and my ex-husband married — but Mother-in-Law Twice Removed seems so been there, done that, and it really doesn’t quite capture the complicated path to our association, hence, Mother-in-Law by-Patrilineal-Association.  (Suggestions for a better name welcome.)

Anyway, my husband and I married when the kids were little:  my daughter was 2, his son and daughter were 5 and 7, respectively.  Tough going doesn’t even begin to describe the early days.  

Five years before we wed, my husband’s first marriage ended in tragedy when his wife died unexpectedly, leaving the extended family to cluster around their remaining group of three, pitching in, propping them up, consoling them as best they could; together they all worked through their grief, attending to all the ADLs (activities of daily living) that a mom would normally do for her young children and husband, while everyone took time to heal.  

Collectively, the involved family members had become one big mega-mom with many hands all in service to the good of the kids.  Given the situation, everyone had staked some sort of claim on the kids and their growth, and by the time I arrived on the scene, despite the giant open fields of unspoken emotions, littered with landmines at every turn, the situation had stabilized, the kids ostensibly happy and resilient, albeit still in the silent throes of PTSD that would take many more years — if ever — to unravel.  

As for me and mine, after seven years, a couple miscarriages and still no baby, my ex-husband and I had reached the breaking point and decided to split; ironically, it was then that I found out I was pregnant.  

What’s the saying?  Nothing like an idea whose time has come?  Sadly, decision made, the end of our marriage seemed an inevitability and we went our separate ways to start anew.  Not the happiest of times, but for the fact that I was about to become a mom — something I’d wanted for 5-ever— but the cataclysmic changes that had occurred to get there were pretty overwhelming so the PTSD thing was running amuck in my life as well.  

With that kind of history, perhaps you’d think it wasn’t a great idea for my new husband and me to start again given how much each of our individual boats had been rocked, but what the heck?  We went for it, and I’ve never regretted all the wading through extreme emotional waters for us to get to normal, assuming anyone on the planet knows what normal even is.  I’m happy to report that today, everyone is pretty well-adjusted.

How did we get through it, you ask?  Through diversity and inclusion.  

Through shared holidays that crossed family lines, through myriad dinners and sleepovers that included anyone and everyone — cousins, step-sisters, half-sisters, and those who wanted to be — through Christmases and birthdays, through hikes and bikes and paddles down the river, everyone was welcome.

I didn’t birth my daughter’s half-sisters, but they seem as much a part of me and my world as my own kids given that I’ve been a part of their lives since they were born.  The other night we all celebrated my daughter’s birthday, including my ex-husband and In-Laws-by-Patrilineal-Association, and it was great.  My kids have grown up sitting at a table where everyone is welcome, and in its own weird non-linear, non-normal, non-nuclear way, it works better than anything else I’ve tried.

I’ve got a million of these stories, twinkling points of light and kindness that go on to make welcome differences, not only in my own life, but in the lives of all the people I am blessed to have in my wonderfully diverse and inclusive world.  Yes, we could have hunkered down, played it safe, took the non-inclusive path and no one would have criticized us, but as I watch my kids pay it forward, I know I did the right thing.  On the interpersonal highway of life, I took the road less traveled, and what an amazing difference it has made.

pamlazos 5.24.19

Posted in Diversity and Inclusion, parenting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Drink to Every Beast

Drink to Every Beast

The whole six degrees of separation thing was fully in play when I met Joel Burcat, a friend of a friend and an environmental lawyer like me who also writes environmental thrillers — like me.  Burcat worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (PADEP) as an Assistant Attorney General before moving into private practice (while I still work for a regulatory agency).  So many similarities! An interview was in order.

Burcat started writing fiction in 2008, publishing short stories in Euphony Journal (University of Chicago’s lit journal), the Montreal Review, Hobo Pancakes, Kaleidoscope, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ragnarok, and Harrisburg Magazine. He’s also received recognition for his short stories: ScreenCraft Short Story Contest for Excellence and Cinematic Potential (Semi-Finalist, 2017; Quarter-Finalist, 2017 and 2016); and Valhalla Press Legal Professionals Writing Contest (Honorable Mention, 2013).

We’ve already established that Burcat’s favorite genre is the environmental legal thriller, but there aren’t that many out there so Joel took it upon himself to write one.  To that end, Headline Books published his first novel, a DRINK TO EVERY BEAST (release date May 31, 2019) about murder and midnight dumping.  Oh, and there’s a love story in there, too.

Burcat grew up in Philadelphia and is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University and Vermont Law School. He has two grown daughters and a granddaughter, and lives with his wife, Gail, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the setting for many of his stories.

Here’s a synopsis of the novel (imagine flashing lights and lots of fanfare):

Synopsis for Drink to Every Beast

Peter and Cindy, youthful lovers, suffer horrific deaths after accidentally swimming in chemicals dumped in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River in Luzerne County. Hours later, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lawyer Mike Jacobs and inspector Charlie Zelinsky are on the scene to conduct a preliminary investigation. They are followed by disgraced, former DEP lawyer Tom Flynn, who claims to be conducting his own “people’s investigation.” Flynn suggests that the culprit is Big Bill McClatchy, the unscrupulous owner of a local truck stop. 

After Mike and senior DEP lawyer Roger Alden begin their investigation, Mike is introduced to the smart and seductive Sherry Stein at a lunch in Harrisburg, and they hit it off immediately. Sherry, an accomplished prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office is working on an investigation of the charity operated by the wife of the Governor’s election opponent, the DA of Luzerne County, and she suspects the DA may be involved. Sherry and Mike’s relationship takes a steamy turn of events, but it also appears that Sherry is spying on Mike.

Roger sends Mike back to Luzerne County to begin the investigation and while there Mike falls into a relationship with the beautiful girl-next-door Patty Dixon. Patty is Mike’s mother’s nurse in the local nursing home. Patty is also being stalked by her psychotic former boyfriend, Greg Domarski, who is the father of her ten-year-old daughter.

Mike, Roger and Zelinsky meet with a number of confidential informants, not aware that they too are being watched.

Their lives intersect. Danger strikes–who will die? Will Mike discover the treachery before the midnight dumper kills again?

Sounds intriguing Joel.  I guess it’s time for a few questions:

While the field of environmental law is  growing, there weren’t that many of us when I started practicing law a few decades ago.  Did you always do environmental work or did you start out in some other kind of law.  How does your work impact your writing? 

I decided to become an environmental lawyer in 1974, when I was studying physical geography at Penn State. I needed to select a major and my professor suggested that geography would be a great way to prepare for a career as an environmental lawyer. That sounded interesting. He was right. I sought out environmental law programs and selected Vermont Law School as it had one of the only environmental law programs in the country at the time. Also, it was in Vermont. My first job was as an Assistant Attorney General for the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Resources. After I left DER I worked in private practice as an environmental lawyer. I have always been an environmental lawyer. My favorite genre in which to write is environmental legal thrillers, so my background greatly informs my writing. 

How long have you been writing?  Were you formally trained?  What’s your writing routine?  

I have written since college and took several writing courses back then. Once I became a lawyer, I found I was too busy with 60 to 80-hour weeks to write. In 1994, I did write a short story that was published about turning 40. I became serious about writing when I wrote two short stories in July 2008. Eventually, both were published. I have taken a number of courses and attended conferences over the past decade on writing.

When I was practicing law (I retired due to a visual disability in 2018), after my day job I would head up to my writing room and write from about 8 pm until midnight. Since retiring, I write starting in the morning. With DRINK TO EVERY BEAST coming out, for the past several months my time has been consumed with the business of books. 

I write for as long as I feel like writing, then I may take a break or call it a day/night.

What is your favorite type of book to read?

Thrillers. My reading tastes are pretty eclectic and I read all kinds of fiction. My all-time favorite writer was Philip Roth. I enjoy the work of Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, and others. My favorite current short story writers are Annie Proulx and Nathan Englander.

What’s your favorite book and who’s your favorite author?

Tough questions. Favorite author is Philip Roth. PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Roth was both groundbreaking and taught writers to let go of your inhibitions, maybe to pretend that everyone you know is dead so you do not hold back in your writing. He wrote a number of terrific books. The scariest and most disturbing book I’ve read was THE ROAD by McCarthy. He’s written great books (ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is one of my favorites). Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION was one of the most inventive books I have ever read. Among thriller writers, I enjoy Steve Berry, Thomas Harris (edge of your seat writing with Hannibal Lecter), Elmore Leonard, James Dickey, James Lee Burke (his NEON RAIN is masterful), Harlen Coben, and, of course, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline and John Grisham (his SYCAMORE ROW is terrific). There are so many other great writers, I hate to limit myself

Ah, The Road terrified me, so much that I couldn’t see the movie with Viggo Mortensen — who I adore — but I knew I could never unsee it so I refrained.  I think McCarthy can’t paint a picture bleaker than even George Orwell — an amazing skill for a writer — but one wonders if that’s the kind of stuff that normally goes on in McCarthy’s head.  Speaking of, where do you get your ideas?

Some ideas come from cases I have read or worked on. DRINK TO EVERY BEAST was very loosely based on the Butler Mine Tunnel case (I only based it on the idea that dumpers were dumping toxic waste into a borehole behind a garage that emptied, eventually, into the Susquehanna River). Some of my work comes from snippets from my career. I once interviewed a guy who lived in the woods in a mobile home. That interview became the basis for an interview of a confidential informant in DTEB. Most ideas are purely imagination.

Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, has it helped you work through anything in particular?  What has been your greatest writing lesson?  Life lesson? 

Writing enables me to go somewhere that I might not visit. I do not write a chapter and say, “I feel better now.” I’m sure that is the case for some writers, but not me. My greatest writing lesson is: “Just write.” Stop fooling around, procrastinating, and just write. 

Life lesson: you can overcome any obstacle in your path.

My perfect writing day is to make a good cup of coffee, start writing early, and break (work in the garden or take a walk). Repeat.

Do you have a day job and, if so, when do you write?

Until 2018, I worked as a full-time partner at a law firm. Since I had a day-job, I limited my writing to after 8 pm and Sundays (I do not write on Saturdays/Shabbat. As Walter Sobchak announces on THE BIG LEBOWSKI, “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”). I did most of my writing at night, after 8 or 9 pm. Now I am able to write during the day. I get started no later than the very civilized hour of 9 am. I am thinking about writing earlier, like 6 am, but haven’t disciplined myself to do that yet on a regular basis.

If you could be a character in any novel, what character would you be and why?

I cannot tell you that. I need to have some secrets.

What’s your favorite childhood memory and did it make it into your writing?  

I had a good childhood, loving parents and we lived with my maternal grandparents from the time I was 4 years old until I was 8. Great memories. I went to junior high school on Spring Garden St. in Philly (Masterman Junior High, as it was called at the time) from when I was about 12 to 14. I took a bus and train every day to get there. Lots of adventures with my buddies roaming around Philly [unattended] as a kid after school. What were my parents thinking?

Some of my life stories make it into my writing. I include snippets, imagination, and exaggerations to make up for times that were not nearly as awesome as they should have been. I write what I know much of the time. Sometimes that is impossible, but much of my writing is writing what I know.

How much research do you do before you begin a writing project?

A fair amount. The chemical phenol plays a role in DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, and I did a lot of research regarding its use and health effects.  This included reading a number of ATSDR reports on a variety of chemicals, searching the internet, and interviewing two medical doctors on the health effects and treatment for phenol poisoning. My first novel (unpublished) is called WHIZ KID and is set in Philly in 1950. I did a ton of research on 1950 (which was NOT “the 1950s”), 1950 Philadelphia, and on the 1950 Phillies.

Will you stick to writing eco fiction or do you think you’ll branch out into something else.

I have a problem with the use of the term “eco-fiction.” Here is my take on the terminology (from my blog): 

My novel, DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, is an environmental legal thriller. That makes it different from eco-thrillers and environmental thrillers. All are thrillers, meaning that there will be a lot of action, quick pacing, suspense, dread, excitement, surprise, anticipation and plot twists. 

By definition, all three of these genres feature the environment as a central issue. To some extent, the protagonist will be trying to protect or defend some aspect of the natural environment and health of eco-systems and humans. For the most part, all feature villains, often corporations, that are much more interested in profit at the expense of the environment or human health. Nevertheless, there is district difference between the three genres. 

After reading many books from all three genres, here is my guide:

Eco-thrillers. An eco-thriller is a novel in which the action involves an environmental calamity that may be world-wide in scope or that will change some significant aspect of the Earth as we know it. Often greedy corporations are the antagonists. These books are part-science fiction or speculative fiction. Often a massive calamity that shatters the norm or defies scientific principles takes place in these books (e.g. ZOO, in which all of the animals attack humans effectively taking over the Earth; RELIC, in which a monster accidently is brought back from the Amazon rain forest to the New York Academy of Science and runs amok in Manhattan killing dozens of visitors to the museum; JURASSIC PARK, in which dinosaurs are brought back to life). For quite some time, eco-thrillers have been the mainstay in the environmental thriller category. Certainly, with issues like climate change, that can wreck disastrous consequences from one end of the planet to the other, eco-thrillers are here to stay. They are now sharing the spotlight, however, with environmental thrillers and environmental legal thrillers.

Environmental thrillers. These stories deal with real-world environmental issues. Often corporations are portrayed as greedy, thoughtless villains more interested in profit than in the safety of humans, animals, or the environment. There may be no legal proceedings in the book or they may be only tangential to the story. (e.g. THE MONKEY-WRENCH GANG, in which a group of environmental activists become eco-extremists in an effort to oppose environmental degradation and offenses by callous corporations; OIL AND WATER, in which a family is nearly destroyed when a corporation tries to steal a device that makes oil from garbage). Environmental thrillers are taking more of the spotlight as current writers highlight environmental issues that have real world consequences, as opposed to science fiction-y type books.

Environmental legal thrillers: a sub-genre of legal thrillers, environmental legal thrillers try to portray both environmental harms and the legal battles associated with those harms. The legal battle is central to the story and can involve investigations, trials, and appeals of significant environmental issues. (e.g. GRAY MOUNTAIN, in which a young lawyer opposes mountaintop removal mining in western Virginia; THE PELICAN BRIEF, in which opponents are assassinated on behalf of an oil tycoon who intends to drill for oil on Louisiana marshland that is habitat for an endangered species of brown pelicans). DRINK TO EVERY BEAST is an environmental legal thriller.

My first novel (unpublished) is called WHIZ KID and is a literary story about a young man trying to decide whether he should take a risk and become a novelist or, as everyone in his family wants him to do, go into advertising. This was set in Philadelphia in 1950 and the backdrop is the World Series run of the 1950 Phillies.  I have written a work of speculative fiction called LITTLE BROTHER, set about 15 years into the future, in which a local police department goes to war with the FBI. I may go back to both and have scribbled a few words of a sequel to LITTLE BROTHER.

Wow, thanks for that.  I may need to change the tagline on my novel!  So what do you think is the greatest thing about writing?

Easy question. That is when your characters start talking to you and telling you, almost demanding, that you write certain words and actions for them. The writer Nicole Bernier calls her characters her “imaginary friends.” When your novel writing is really humming along, your imaginary friends dictate their lines to you. That’s pretty cool.

And the final question, if you could have one superpower, what would it be?

To a certain extent, all writers who write stories about current issues have to see into the future. It is awful when you write something and then a few years later your story sounds outdated, or at best quaint. I’d like to be able to foretell the future.

Also, I wouldn’t mind being tall enough to change lightbulbs without a chair.

Good one!  It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Joel.  Best of luck with the book release! 

Stop back on May 31st for an excerpt of Drink to Every Beast.

pam lazos. 5.16.19

Posted in blog, book release, carbon footprint, environmental thriller, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Plastic-Free Life

[Fruits for a plastic-free life unite.]

Plastic-Free Life

I think I’m just one of those people that needs a mission.  This week I decided that if I’m ever going to even approach a Zero Waste Life, I need to find ways to buy things with less built-in waste.  The problem with that is I don’t have gobs of time to search the world for such items so why not coax the world into providing them for me?

I thought I might try something locally, like writing to my grocer and asking him/her to reduce single-use plastic usage and see if together we can’t make a small dent in some of this plastic craziness.

Here’s the letter if you want some ideas to do the same thing in your town:

Dear Mr. or Ms. Grocer:

Our world is awash in plastic — literally.  If you don’t believe me, you only have to google the Great Pacific garbage patch to see just how this 5-mile stretch of a plastic island is choking wildlife and suffocating the habitats and breeding grounds of the ocean dwellers.  Why should you care, you may be asking yourself now, since you are running a grocery store, not a marina, and how the heck does an ocean garbage patch affect you and your store anyway?

Well, allow me to share a bit of information.  The world uses about 4 trillion plastic bags a year while about 150 million tons of plastic is produced for single-use, and 8 million of those tons ends up in the ocean.  Holy crap of a waste stream, that’s a lot of plastic!

You, as the provider of food for the masses, are in a unique position.  The products you deem worthy of putting on your shelves are the ones people choose between to buy.  If you removed single-use plastic from the equation, there’d simply be less of it out in the world post-purchase.  I, and many others, would be thrilled if you were to remove the plastic from my zucchini and broccoli, from my squash and carrots, from my cauliflower and all the other veggies that have found themselves enmeshed in a prophylactic living situation.  

I don’t believe that wrapping vegetables in plastic improves the taste or quality of the product, and if it’s the possibility of contaminants — people do sometimes sneeze and cough when shopping — being transferred from person-to-product while the vegetables sit there, waiting for someone to purchase them, then you really don’t need to worry too much about that because:  a) everyone knows you need to wash your veggies before you eat them; and b) that’s what our immune systems are for.  Maybe I’m overstepping here, but perhaps you could just display things in the same manner they came into the world:  naked, the way God intended.

I understand there will be some people who prefer the plastic wrap, and for them — at least during this plastic phase-out period — you might want to leave a few bags around to collect the stray lemons and beets, and to catch the fish juice so it doesn’t drip all over the milk.  (Actually, I think we might always need to have some plastic around specifically for the drippy meat products because that just makes good sense.)  

For the rest of us, a few reusable bags for our vegetables would be great, allowing us to bag and bag again without waste, something we’d probably all willingly pay for if it meant one less turtle would end up with a straw stuck up its nose.  Oh, and speaking of straws, can you just eliminate those plastic ones and only sell reusable ones?  The turtles will be thrilled.

I know you have a lot on your plate and this seems like such small potatoes in comparison, but think about it.  As the provider of foodstuffs, you wield great power.  I just ask that you use it wisely. 

On behalf of the planet, I thank you for your kind consideration.

Need more convincing?  Consider this:  water and sunlight together cannot breakdown the currently used types of plastic, causing downstream water intake systems and wastewater treatment systems to actually become a dangerous to wildlife, spreading plastic particles a/k/a microplastic that much of water’s wildlife ingests, but cannot digest; to many micro plastics will ultimately kill the species that eats it.  Since we don’t have a solution to the waste stream yet, we need to work on the source.

Want to start a movement?  Write to your grocer and ask for a little help here.  Perhaps we can remove single-use plastics from our environment one grocery store at a time.  The turtles, and your children, will thank you.

pamlazos 5.10.19

 

Posted in conservation, environment, environmental conservation, environmental effects, plastic bag, plastics, saving the world, single use plastic, Uncategorized, waste, water, water conservation, zero waste | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments