Writing

Interview with Shehanne Moore

The Scottish-born native, Shehanne Moore, who, according to her Amazon Author page “writes gritty, witty, more risky than risqué, historical romance, set wherever takes her fancy — stories that detail the best and worst of human behaviour, as opposed to pouts and flounces,” embodies the writer’s spirit. She has a holistic view of the world, taking the good with the bad, and her wisdom comes through in her writing, especially in the blog space she shares with an unruly bunch of Hamster Dudes.  Here’s what Lady She had to say about the world at large and writing in general.

Writing first — how’d you get started?

I went to a tough primary in a tough area and I spent a lot of time as a child reading. Books were valued in our house. Little stories started to filter into my head and I wanted to write them down.

Why Romance?

Lol. I always smile when people say I don’t read romance. Cos I don’t write it exactly and I don’t read it much either. I had knocked on so many doors going as a writer. My first love is big historical epics with a cast of hundreds — okay twelve, but these things were a hard sell. I kept being told to write family sagas, have only two main characters. Eventually I decided it was crunch time and I considered romance because you can get in that door without an agent. So I went and studied the genre and had a go basically and no-one was more surprised than me to get some interest.

What a great start? How do you keep the creative spark going?

All my stories just start with a flash. One scene. It is usually the opening scene. So then I am fleshing that out in my head re what kind of people these are. Then I find myself thinking of places I have squirreled away, a house, an interior, something scenic. In Loving Lady Lazuli it was the monk’s cell at a place called Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire. This was nothing like a cell. It was a cottage, the only one still standing. And as I was wondering around I so-oh wanted to use it in a story. So I guess it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Can this place be fitted to that story? Can a particular scenario be fitted to a flash? And really I just sit down and I hope I can write the next line, the next page, that another flash will happen. it is a bit like being on a tightrope.

We have a similar approach to writing then. What’s your routine? Do you work out while writing, take breaks, gut it out?

Oh, I try and write so many words each day unless I am busy editing, or proofing, or doing promo things. So I guess I gut it out till it’s done.

Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, has it helped you work through anything in particular?

Yes I do think that. And yes, it has helped me through some difficult family things, some dark times that I knew were just a question of time and hope. If I had nothing to focus on, no other world to step into, I would probably have lost that hope. I would have found it far more difficult to believe there was any kind of light at the end of that tunnel.

Do you work outside of writing, i.e., do you have day job?

Lol, I have always worked, but, we moved a few years back and that meant I couldn’t continue running a business I had run locally—not to the extent I had run it anyway. I also didn’t fancy starting up again. So now I have the tail end of that business which is actually fine because we have been able to help with our grandbaby for two years there when his mum was working, and I am hoping to set up my own small publishing house. That has been on hold since we moved, with so much to do in the house, my writing and also our grandbaby.

A publisher, wow.  Good luck!  How about this:  pantser or perfectionist?

Complete and utter pantster. I fight with my characters all the time, going, ‘Why the hell are you doing that? Why did you say that? Now what the hell am I meant to do next?’

Your perfect day – go.

Oh gosh . . . family is very important to me. I guess it would be family one, good chat, good fun, good craic [news or gossip]. But like that I am also a huge fan of the outdoors. I love my away weekends that way, too. Can I have two perfect days please?

You may have as many perfect days as you’d like. Favorite book? Author? Individual?

Oh.. I am a big fan of the hard boiled school, the James M Cain school. I also love the classics, the modern classics and yep, I love many of today’s authors.

What has been your greatest writing lesson? How about life lesson?

Life lesson it to always have hope because things will turn round. In the meantime keep dancing in the rain. It’s not gonna stop. My greatest writing lesson was overhearing this writer shrieking at an editor about how she was an artist, after he asked her to change some stuff. It was when I was working for a girl’s comic and I was sitting outside the Ed’s office waiting for my turn to probably be shredded. When I went in, he just shrugged and said he would not be using her work again. It sure taught me not to be precious and to think on my feet. Thinking on my feet actually landed me the contract for my forthcoming release, after I talked my way out of a plot hole by introducing the idea of Time Mutants.

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

I do quite like Scarlet O’Hara. I must be honest, going about smacking folks can be quite
satisfying at times. ( My family will say but Shey…you do that anyway…)

What is the most rewarding thing about being an author?

The wonderful people I have met. People like your good self.

 

Thank you, and I feel the same.  Any hobbies outside of writing?

I play one or two musical instruments and well…I’ve spent the last few years doing up our house. It’s got me into making things with driftwood, little houses and cupboards and stuff. We live near a beach so it’s very handy.

You have four books out, right? Are they all traditionally published?

They are indeed and so will the next two which are due out. I am however considering self publishing as I feel it gives far greater control over release dates and a number of other things.

Your books are all historical fiction/romance, right? What kind of research do you do for your books?

I have always loved history and a lot of the books I read are historical but I don’t believe in
hitting a reader over the head with that. However, I do research the period details, say for an interior, or if a character is going to do a specific thing in a scene, how they might do this. In Lazuli, for example, the hero has a drug problem, which was acutally quite common in these days, so obviously I did some research on that. Writers always giggle with one another about the internet searches we sometimes do.

How about a few details about your newest book.  

My newest book, The Viking and The Courtesan is a time travel romance. That was one of
these stories that was going along quite nicely in Regency times and had even got to chapter three when suddenly the thought monster said, you know that Viking idea you have not quite got the heroine sorted on, how about you knock both ideas together? Anyway the basic concept, after I tried and failed to wrestle the thought monster to the ground, is a dynasty of time travelers. Imagine not knowing you have this ability? Having no real control over that? Imagine landing smack bang in another era when you are hell bent on whatever you are planning in your one? Imagine having to try and fit in there? Another book in the series, The Writer and The Rake is due for release March 27th. And I am planning more.


Do you like to travel and if so, favorite place?

I love to travel. Our trips have been more limited lately. I used to love visiting Tilos which is a small Greek island. Beautiful place with so much going for it. I like Rome. But mostly over the last few years it’s been Glencoe, which I adore and we also like popping down to York and the surrounding area.

Favorite childhood memory?

I am not going to talk about the time I chased after the boy next door at age 4 and yanked him off his bike cos he was being horrible and I thought, Yes, girls can do anything. No, no.  Probably being with my mum and dad on Christmas morning.  Any one will do.

How old are your kids? Do you have any pets other than the hamsters? Actually, you have have real hamsters?

My kids are 30 and 33. And actually big secret — I don’t have any pets. They once did have a hamster.

So how did the hamster thing come about?

Well… I was doing this blog post about writing and how folks thought plot was everythiing so they chucked EVERYTHING into their stories from the druids of Stonehenge to the emancipation of . . . I nearly said women but at the last I said hamsters. Then Cat Cavendish said in a comment (under another writer name actually ), “Will wel be seeing hamsters, then?” and I said. “Yeah, abso, drinking vino and begging to be freed from their cages.” I was joking but next blog I put a few out there with wee placards going free us from the cages as joke to her. It just went from there.

And the final question, do you think writing can save the world and if so, why?

The pen is always mightier than the sword so I do have hopes.

pjlazos 3.25.17

 

 

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A Prompt Prompt Prompted Me Promptly

Prompt. The word is fascinating and versatile. It’s a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb. Holy guacamole, how often does that happen? It’s like winning the EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, a laudable goal shared by only 12 lucky and hardworking people. It makes you wonder, is there anything a word like that can’t do? (I found a blog post on the internet that listed 56 similarly situated words ; prompt hadn’t made the list.)

I wish I would have thought of prompt during one of the timed writing exercises I used to do with a friend in the now defunct Borders cafeteria. We’d sip fancy coffees and rip small strips of paper from our notebooks, then write one word down on each slip of paper, three nouns, three verbs and three adjectives, eighteen slips of paper total, separated into three different piles. (We left out adverbs. Call us prejudiced, but we just didn’t see the need.) We’d pull a word from each of the piles and do timed exercises of five, ten, and fifteen minutes.

The rules were simple. Write until your hand falls off. Haha! No, actually, it was write using one word chosen from each of the three piles for the prescribed minutes without stopping: not to ponder a plot twist, not to reach for a word that was escaping your pen, not even to go to the bathroom. It was invigorating and imaginative, and it shushed the internal editor more succinctly than any of the other writing exercises I’d tried. Sometimes we’d tweak the rules, adjusting the time or using twice as many words, but the basic premise was the same. This simple writing prompt fueled the basis for scene after scene of a novel that would eventually become “Oil and Water,” but it also taught me something about the craft of writing: imagination is like every other muscle in the body; you need to flex it if you want to keep it in shape. For me, writing prompts facilitated my workout.

So much of our day is spent elsewhere, unconsciously trolling the past or hypothesizing about the future. Cutting through the madness of life is challenging, but the here and now is where you want to be. If done with full awareness, the art of writing can facilitate a sacred communion with your Higher Self. When you tune in to your Higher Self, the internal editor — the one that never really stops criticizing — is silenced, brushed aside to allow the light of clarity to shine through and the quiet little voice to finally get a few minutes of air time. Don’t banish the internal editor because you’ll need him or her later in the rewrite stage — just tell them to shush up so the quiet little voice can speak.

You can also get that kind of unfettered access writing morning pages. The minute you are out of bed, write down whatever comes to you, a dream, some leftover baggage from the day, any nervousness about the day to come, all of it, and when you’re done, start the day fresh.

Here’s another one. Grab a tangerine, or an apple, the fruit doesn’t matter, or if you don’t like fruit, grab a wrench, then set a timer for fifteen minutes, more if you’re brave, and write down everything you can about the tangerine. Notice the color, the texture, the feel of its skin against your own, the little indentation on the one side and the little nub of a branch on the other where it was plucked from its momma tree. Notice the hexagonal star pattern surrounding the little nublet — not a word, but it describes the little wooden branch remnant on the top center of the tangerine perfectly, doesn’t it? Describe the smell and whether this is what you thought the color orange would feel like. Rub it against your cheek and lips and describe the almost plastic feeling of the skin and balance it on your head and talk about the weight or how easy or hard it is to balance it there and then write a sentence with a tangerine on your head (which does great things for your posture), and talk about how hard it was to keep it from falling, and on and on until your timer goes ding and THEN, eat the tangerine and describe that, so tart, so sweet, so delicate. If you chose a wrench as your object, you’ll have to leave this last part out. The exercise is freeing because there’s really no goal other than to train yourself to observe and describe. Do it a hundred times and you’ll have mastered the art of observation and description which is all writing really is.

Got it? Great! I challenge you to choose your prompt and get to work. Your readers are waiting. You’re going to be amazing.

pjlazos 3.21.17

 

 

 

 

 

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Creating Characters That POP!

Have you noticed just how many of the articles circling the blogosphere involve a list? Every day, dozens of headlines promise to turn your life around in minutes if you just know how to count. Ten amazing slow cooker recipes to ignite your appetite. Eight ab-busting exercises to give you a summer six-pack. Five special tricks to keep your man happy in bed. Seven sure-fire methods to assure your toddler’s good behavior. It’s exhausting, really, and to a certain extent, lacks vision. Can’t we accomplish anything without a list? Is there no way to impart information other than to count it out?

Perhaps, but why start now? Because right now you are only three steps away from creating characters that POP! Ready? Here goes.

1. Understand Why: Understanding is not as simple as recounting a story, and knowledge doesn’t qualify as understanding. Anyone can read a book about the U.S. Civil War being the bloodiest in American history and know, from a factual standpoint, that war is bad, people died, and brother was pitted against brother, but if you were an alien, how would you come to the realization that this period was also one of the saddest in American history. It wasn’t just about war, but the very definition of America was at stake and despite Her differences, America decided to stick together in a Union to define all unions.

How did that history come alive? By understanding the characters. One has only to go to the battlefield in Gettysburg to hear history echoing down through time. You can feel the shiver of fear and dread that ran through all who died there. At the museum, you are flooded with understanding: of the farmer who left his wife and children to go fight rather than bring his crops in; of the terrified 15-year old who goes off to war to make his family proud; of the women left behind who held their families together, protecting their children against marauders, and hunger, and generals looking to replenish their own starving soldier’s supplies. The stories have come alive with understanding — letters, artifacts, firsthand accounts — and motivations. The story is no longer just a fact on the page, but a living, breathing entity brought to life through the light of understanding. Everyone has a key that unlocks the secret of who they are, what makes them take step after step in any given situation. To find that key, you must first understand your character, not just know his or her vital statistics such as name, address and phone number, but the reason why they live where they do and think the way they think, why they like chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream or why they joined the Knights of Columbus instead of the American Freedom Party. Understand your characters and they will dance before you on the page like a hologram.

2. Be Fascinated: When we are fascinated with something we can’t get enough of it. Fascination doesn’t mean you have to like your character, but you do have to like spending time with them, two distinctly different things. If you aren’t fascinated enough to want to take a journey with your characters then your readers aren’t going to be either. Some of the most fascinating characters of all time were scoundrels — Ebenezer Scrooge, Dracula, Captain Hook, Sauron, Cruella DeVil, Voldemort. We are fascinated with their vileness and like the proverbial car wreck on the side of the road, can’t stop craning our necks to see what’s happened as we pass it by. Sadly, like the news, we are more interested in the negative than the positive so you may have a harder time writing a fascinating “positive” character, but there are plenty of them as well: Harry Potter, Dorothy, Frodo, Forest Gump. What is it about them that makes you want to snuggle in close and watch? Good or evil, it’s fascination.

If you haven’t yet read, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, then start there. Campbell talks about the Hero’s journey vis-á-vis the archetypes running through psychology, mythology, and modern day stories. Archetypes are your friends. They are a part of us, the secret to human character. Want to understand your own character? Figure out your archetypes. The Hero, the Dreamer, the Priest, the Prostitute, the Princess, the Warrior, the Architect, the Magi, the list goes on. Know them. Love them. Marry them if you have to, but you need to transcend them in order to understand them and you need to understand them in order to unlock the fascination, that which drives the reader to hunker down and keep reading. We need to spend time with this character because in doing so, we understand ourselves more fully. We need to abide them in our midst because of their beauty or despite their villainy. They are us and we are them. Unlock the fascination and your readers will come back again and again.

3. Emotional Integrity: Okay. Ready for the big reveal? The thing that’s going to bring it on home? Emotional integrity is the linchpin of every story. A story without emotion is not much of a story, right? But drama for drama’s sake just doesn’t ring true either. A character’s emotion has to feel real in order for a reader to be sucked in. I have a friend who swears she could watch Anthony Hopkins reading a grocery list and still get all vaklempt. Why? Because the guy oozes emotional integrity. And that doesn’t mean crying or screaming or carrying on. Hannibal lecture didn’t do any of those things, yet he managed to make your skin crawl without even uttering a word.

Take the time Sally and her best friend, Stu were in summer day camp. Every morning they set off across the street and through the cemetery to get to the neighborhood park on the other side. Sally’s mom didn’t drive, but it was the 1960’s when kids actually got themselves to things without a parent hovering about. Sally’s mom tells her that Stu is sick and she has to go herself but there is No Way Sally’s going through that cemetery alone. She knows her mother will make her so you feigns a bad belly. Telling the story that way is fine, but when you let the reader see the emotion behind the story it really comes alive. Better still, when Sally feels the emotion, all kinds of crazy happens.

Sally’s mom calls down the hall for Sally to get moving,

“Sally, time to go.”

Sally doesn’t answer because she’s bunched up in a ball on her bed, clutching her belly. She’s thinking about the gravestones, silent, waiting, and how she’s going to be so alone. Sometimes even with Stu’s company Sally can feel the icy tendrils of the dead searching for her warm-blooded body, hoping to latch onto something they can suck a bit of warmth from and Sally will be right there, all alone, with no one to hear her scream.…

Sally starts to shiver and sweat and by the time her mom reaches her room to check on her, she’s drowning in a lather of fear.

“Sally, what’s wrong? Are you all right?” Sally’s mom sits down next to her on the bed, feels the clammy skin, notices the diluted pupils, the rapid pulse. Sally looks like hell. She’s got herself so worked up she couldn’t come down if she tried.

Sally’s mom puts her chin to Sally’s forehead. “You don’t have a fever, but I don’t think you should go today. You just don’t look right.” And with that, mom holds the covers up and Sally crawls back under.

That’s it. Mission accomplished. Sally pulled it off, not because she scammed her mom, but because she was so invested in the scary cemetery story that her body actually believed in the terror and reacted accordingly. Emotional integrity wins the day every time.

And so will you if you just follow these three simple steps. Why not start now, creating characters that will resonate with your readers long after the last page has been turned. Your characters, and your readers, are waiting.

pjlazos 3.17.17

 

 

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Hey there.  It’s the first Wednesday of the month and you know what that means.  Insecure Writers Support Group, the day for insecure writers of all genres to get out there and talk about, well, their insecurities.  Or not.  You could also talk about your securities, offer encouragement, connect with your writing kin and comment on like-minded other’s blogs.  It’s all about community and thank God for that, too, because lately it feels like the good ole’ US of A is sorely lacking in community.  In fact, to quote Jack Nicholson who played The Joker in the 1989 Tim Burton version of Batman, it feels like “this town needs an enema.”

The IWSG just happens to be a cure for that feeling.

Every month the cohosts announce a question that participants may or may not answer depending on whether they have something better to chew on.  Cohosts for the March 1 posting of the IWSG are Tamara Narayan, Patsy Collins, M.J. Fifield, and Nicohle Christopherson.  Thanks, guys.  You rock!

Want to join the #IWSG?  Check out the page.  Twitter handle is @TheIWSG.   So get on it and hope to see you at the virtual water cooler.  We can talk about our insecurities.

And now, on to The Question:

Have you ever pulled out a really old story and reworked it? Did it work out?

I did rework a short story I wrote about ten years ago called Stalker.  I entered it into a contest or two, but nothing every happened so I stashed it.  I pulled it out lately and cleaned up the language a bit.  I like this creepy little story about a stalker told from the stalkers POV.  It’s based on my real life experience of a creeper guy who rode my train for several months and did everything he could to get next to me short of sitting on my lap.  I hated riding the train those months because I felt really violated even though the guy never touched me.  After he left and the imminent fear was gone, I started thinking about the story from the creeper’s POV.

Here it is. Let me know if it captures the creepiness.

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Stalker

It is not as you believe, my Angel. I am not a bad man.  You may think it odd that we have never spoken.  I stand within ten feet of you, my Love, and the words falter, trapped in my throat.  I wait for you on the platform this morning and when I don’t see you I begin my search. I spy you in the last car, walking to your seat.  You prefer the solitude of the quiet car. I get that.

I juggle my briefcase and my coffee, taking up more than my allotted half of the aisle, but I see that you are nimble, my Love Light.  I stop, and wait, and hope, but you have contorted yourself into a time-space continuum where anything is possible.  You glide past me without so much as our arm hairs touching.

Now the interminable ticking of my watch is all that separates us.  The train slows; the  doors open.  I walk from the platform to the street, jostled by the nameless, the faceless, carrying backpacks and briefcases.  Their eyes do not shine like my Love’s.
And then you are there, barely yards from me, my Aphrodite, your white dress resplendent in the morning sun, your lush hair tousled by the gentle wind, surrounding a face that would make Venus jealous.  Your long, sinewy legs stride with an athlete’s grace.  I must hurry!

You sense me, but do not turn as I close the gap and we cross the street in tandem.   What bliss!  The sidewalk is deserted; just you, my Madonna, and me, our destinies intertwined, inevitable.

My footstep behind you, adoration at a glance. Did you notice?  I run a hand through my thinning hair and smile.  But what is this?  What’s that look in your eye?  Are you upset this morning, my Goddess?  Perhaps tired?  I walk on, exactly one half-step behind you, but your pace quickens.  You are determined.  The heat rises to my cheeks; the odd bead of sweat now joined by half a dozen others.  I take several shallow breaths and plunge in; we walk side by side.

My ecstasy knows no bounds.  How many times have you looked away?  A hundred?  A thousand?  My Love, my Captive; now you cannot ignore me.  We walk, not an arm’s length apart.  I would encircle you with my own two, would you give me the slightest signal.

My eyes implore:  LOOK AT ME; but your eyes look only ahead, my Angel, as you float along on winged feet.  We cross the bridge in tandem. Your proximity is intoxicating. You smell like a breeze off the ocean. I open my mouth to speak, but you are looking away, to the river below at some distant prize on the horizon.  Your feet belie their wings, my Love.  Are you flying?  My heart pounds the narrow walls of my chest seeking an audience.  Another bead of sweat careens along my cheekbone before dive-bombing to the ground.  I think I hear it plop.  More stand ready.  I steal a glance, but you do not notice.
Another breath, this one more shallow.  Your pace is maddening, unwavering, and I struggle to keep up.  My lungs scream for a rest, a cigarette.  You pull away.  Please! Not now that we are so close.

I glance at your face, sculpted by Michelangelo himself.  Are you not tiring, my Love?  My arms and legs pump wildly, valiantly, trying to match your stride.  My love swells and my heart wrenches, threatening to burst its walls.  You show no signs of slowing.  Soon we will be at a cross street; the moment lost forever. I must do something.

“It’s a lot easier walking than I thought it would be this morning.  I thought it would be hotter.”  Was that my voice?  I do not recognize it.

You turn your head to face me, the Goddess in you saluting the God in me.  But what is in your eyes?  Hostility?  Rebuke?  Or maybe just the heat.  Eternity passes.  Did you hear me, my Queen?

“Just wait until midday.”

Your first words!  But…now?  Sarcasm?  Vowels and consonants hang, suspended like greenhouse gasses.  Your eyes lance my skin.  Beads of sweat form armies on my brow.  Some disband, trekking out on reconnaissance missions.  A millennium passes much too slowly.  You walk faster still, if that is at all possible. Our thirty year age difference wears on me.  I pray for rain that I might offer you my umbrella, but the cloudless sky laughs.  The light changes. We stop. I squeeze out the words, clawing their way to my throat.  I reel, all six acupuncture pulses echoing in my forehead.  I suck in ambient air like a vacuum; it pummels my lungs like shrapnel.

The light turns green and I charge ahead, taking the first step, knowing you will match my pace.  Half a block by I cast a cautious glance over my shoulder. Where are you?  I whirl around to see you buying fruit from a vendor.  I retreat into the shelter of a doorway and watch you, unnoticed.  Your pace has slowed.  Are you tired, my Beguiling One?
You arrive, finally, and I emerge from the shadows to stand before you.  You recoil, drop the fruit.  Fruit salad sprays the sidewalk.  Pineapple and orange and strawberry splatter your shoes. Your mouth goes slack.  The world tips on its axis.  I stand there, silently pleading.  Your stare melts the glaciers.

“What?”

I swallow, but my throat burns like wildfire.  I stoop, gather the fruit.   Remnants of melon and cantaloupe and mango trip through my fingers.  I offer them to you, my outstretched hands filled with the sweet refuse.  We could lie on the beach, my Sweet One, eat fruit until our bellies were full … .

What’s this, my Beauty?  Are you annoyed with me?

Juice slips through my fingers as a thousand needles pierce my arm.  My vision diffuses, my chest seizes. I want to press my heart, but it’s my balls I grab.  I leave a sweet, sticky hand print on my khaki trousers.

“I thought so,” you say, and turn to leave.

I open my mouth to speak, to cry, to confess, but the words splinter as my heart explodes. Oh, please, PLEASE, wait.  Not this way, my Delicious One.  I drop to one knee, then to the ground as my cheek buries itself in a slice of golden pineapple.  The sharp, sweet aroma drifts into my sinuses.  I watch your fruit-splattered shoes recede. I hear the distant wail of a siren.  They come for me, I know.  Will you ride with me, my Love?

p.j.lazos 2.28.17

 

 

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Interview with JB Richards

I had asked JB Richards a few questions while I was preparing to review Miriamne the Magdala but her very thoughtful answers came back to me in a complete block of thought so rather than try to redirect her answers back into the questions, I’m just going to give it to you the way she sent it to me.  Thanks, JB Richards, for your thoughtful words on writing, religion and life.

And now, without further introduction, here is JB Richards:

I’ve always loved the study of history and how certain individuals – even though they came from backwater nations, were brought up in abject poverty, and/or had all the odds stacked against them – were able to affect vast social, political, and/or religious changes on a global level. I can think of no better example of someone who made a lasting impression on the world than Jesus – a young man who more than fit all of those qualifications!

I was brought up in a Catholic household, and during my early teens – which happened to coincide with the massive social and revolutionary movements of the 1960’s and 70’s – I began to question why women were so repressed by the establishment, particularly in my religion. It was not long before I began to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church’s patriarchal hierarchy and why they still banished women from serving as equals in modern times. About the time I started college, I was well into my research of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but shifted gears when I learned of the discoveries of the Gnostic Gospels, the Nag Hamadi Library, and other writings which told alternative stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, but were, in the early formative years of the Church, banned from the Bible. Among these writings were two gospels that were of particular interest to me for the information they contained:  the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas. They told such a different story about Jesus’ and his life that I wondered what other writings could possibly be out there that would force a change in the current view of women in the Church. This question prompted me to initiate a search for the historical Jesus and alternate writings about him. Unfortunately, my research turned up no historical record of the man called Jesus, but through my studies of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John), along with the newly discovered gospels and the actual history of that time, I formed a picture of Jesus as a boy and what his life must have been like.    51n1rcyub0l

Over the course of 25 years, my immersion into the study of Jesus and his followers caused me to view Mary Magdalene as his most important disciple. I realized that she was much more than a simple follower – she was known as his closest confidante and, quite likely, his one true love. Through the study of Jewish culture, religion, ethics, and laws, I found it highly improbable that Mary Magdalene would have been Jesus’ wife – for reasons I will not expand upon here – and I soon formed an image of their relationship in my mind. This gave birth to the two characters I portray in my novel series – Yeshua (Jesus’ real name in his native Aramaic tongue) and Miriamne (an Aramaic version of the name “Mary” which I chose in order to avoid confusion with all the other Mary’s in the gospels). Although the story of their kinship and their younger years are basically fictitious, many of the traits expressed in the gospels and their actual activities line up with the actual recorded history of that time. I pride myself on the historical accuracy of my novels, so the major historic events you read about in Miriamne the Magdala, such as The Crucifixion of the 2,000 and the Destruction of Sepphoris, the culture and traditions, the religious laws and practices, and the political factions and issues, are very, very real.

In order to give Miriamne the Magdala a sense of authenticity to the reader, I used common Hebrew phrases and terminology whenever the characters interacted with each other. Yeshua even speaks Greek to his aunt’s friend when he is in the Marketplace in order to lend an air of realism to the conversation as it would have been held between them in that time and situation. Though I don’t speak Hebrew myself, I learned basic Hebrew phrases from a young man I met on Facebook. In fact, I speak about his enormous contribution to Miriamne the Magdala in the Acknowlegements section of the book. He was also kind enough to translate much of the English to Hebrew phrases while making sure they adhered to 1st-century Hebraic language and to provide the alliterative translation in place of the classic Hebrew script to make the words legible for me and my readers. It’s certainly an understatement to say that, without his assistance, Miriamne the Magdala would not exist as it is today – a genuine representation of 1st-century Jewish-Galilean life.

As someone who has studied history and religion for a great many years, I’m fully aware of the controversy my novel series stirs up. Naturally, there are people in this world who refuse to see anything but what the authorities put before them, and the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is only one of several hotly contested topics bantered about these days. Even in religious scholarship circles, the subject of Jesus’ celibacy and divinity is oftentimes a point of great contention. Not surprisingly, I’ve been called heretical and blasphemous for not only my writing but my personal views on women’s equality and inclusion in the Church. I’ve also received my share of inflammatory comments on social media, as well as a number of death threats. Although I respect the rights of these individuals to express their views, I discount anyone who uses intimidation or hate in order to dissuade another from being able to express their own views. These individuals are cowards who use religion as a front to push their own agendas forward and I have little regard for their empty threats. In the end, one cannot ignore History, and when all the information about past events point to a certain conclusion, we must accept that conclusion as Truth. I consider Miriamne the Magdala to be the beginning of my own Journey toward Truth.

p.j.lazos 2.25.17

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Skin of Tattoos

Welcome to the third installment of author interviews in anticipation of Mystery Thriller Week, 2/12/17 – 2/22/17. This week’s feature is Christina Hoag, writer and former journalist whose own life reads like a real-life crime novel. She’s “been threatened by a death-row murderer, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and her phone tapped in Venezuela, was suspected of drug trafficking in Guyana, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, gunmen, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories.”

Kirkus Reviews calls Christina a “talented writer,” and her debut novel, Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016) “a well-crafted, engaging novel about an ex-con trying to break free.” Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016), was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. Christina also writes nonfiction, and co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities.

Christina was born in New Zealand, but grew up as an expat, living in various parts of the world, and is fluent in Spanish and French. She boasts four different accents in English (!) and despite her extensive traveling would probably say England feels the most like home because that’s her mother’s home.

Christina currently makes her home in Los Angeles and on the web.

Synopsis for Skin of Tattoos

Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’s desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice of everything – and everyone – he loves.

Think Christina sounds mysterious and exciting? Think Skin of Tattoos sounds like the must-read thriller for 2017? What until you read this!

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What’s your writing background (schooling), backdrop (where you work at writing), and backstory (what you will tell the world when you become super famous)?

I won a prize for “writing interesting stories” when I was six years old so I think writing was something I was born with. I always wanted to write books. I discovered journalism in high school – a career that would pay me to write! I wrote short stories on and off until I really focused on my childhood goal of writing novels about a dozen years ago. I wrote an outline for Skin of Tattoos in 2006, started writing it in 2008, finished it in 2013.

What are your favorite books?

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Goat’s Party by Mario Vargas Llosa; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Queen of the South by Arturo Perez Reverte; Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle by Ingrid Betancourt; Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood: A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd; For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway; and Vanity Fair by WillliamThackeray.

Why mysteries?

I love delving into the seamy side of life and what drives people in that world which is very different than mine! My characters do things that I never would so maybe that’s why I like writing them. I’m fascinated with the psychology behind the criminal mind and how people get to be that way, the risks they take. Other than that, crime makes great drama and conflict, the basis of any novel.

Do you see the need for all these sub-genres or do you think we’ve become over-specialized, as in, a story isn’t just a story any longer, but a specific type of story?

Genre can really help sell a book because readers know what they’re getting. Publishers love assigning genre. On the flip side, genre can also box in a book to those preconceptions. Thus I don’t think reliance on genre is great for authors who need free rein to write from their imaginations. I see it as a necessary evil of the publishing industry. Sigh.

Why writing and not ceramics, or gourmet cooking, or anything else really? If not writing, then what?

I have to be intellectually engaged. If an activity doesn’t engage my mind, I get bored easily. Secondly, I love to use my imagination, hence I love writing fiction. It completely absorbs me.

From where do your ideas come?

Really anywhere. Some have come from my own experience, some from people I’ve interviewed and things I’ve written about as a journalist, things I read about or that people just tell me about their own lives. It kind of all gets poured into a funnel in my brain and mashed up.

What’s your routine? Do you work out while writing, take breaks, or simply gut it out?

I’m a morning writer. I get up early, have my coffee, check the news and then sit down and write until I feel my brain turning squishy, usually early afternoon. Then I get some exercise and try to do some marketing and social media work. It’s amazing how much time that stuff consumes!

What is your favorite place to walk?

Anywhere in nature that doesn’t have hills! I really love wild, remote places, probably because I live in the city.

Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, has it helped you work through anything in particular?

Definitely. My YA thriller Girl on the Brink was inspired by a bad relationship I had. I wrote this novel so teen girls could learn the red flags of an abusive relationship, particularly the insidious signs of emotional manipulation. Because it was so personal, writing this book was hard and it took a long time to get it right, but I feel so much better that sharing my experience will help others.

Do you work outside of writing, i.e., do you have day job?

My day job is writing! I do corporate communications/public relations writing: speeches, press releases, blog posts, that sort of thing. I also edit dissertations and do some journalism in the form of big reports for Congressional Quarterly Researcher. I work freelance so I can juggle my schedule to fit my novel writing into my schedule.

If you could quit your job and just write, would you, or do you pull inspiration from the other aspects of your life and find it necessary to keep the creative spark going?

Not really. I have set goals and ideas I pursue. Self-discipline, though, is the key to keeping going.

Pantser or perfectionist who meticulously plots out their stories?

A bit of both. I like to know where I’m going so I have a loose outline. I’ve found knowing your ending from the getgo really helps to avoid writing yourself into corners, or into a wall. That said, I change stuff as I go all the time. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Sometimes I do detailed mini-outlines covering just the next chapter or two. It also helps to get you started when you sit down at the computer every day so you avoid wasting time wondering what comes next.

Your perfect day – go.

Basically it’s what I have now, but maybe I’d have an assistant to handle all the social media/marketing stuff and emails, as well as those big royalty checks coming in!

Favorite book, author, individual?

Probably my favorite all time author is Graham Greene. Many of his books are about the concept of being a foreigner, an outsider/observer, which I relate to on a personal level since I’ve lived in many countries both as a child and as an adult. That influence comes through in Skin of Tattoos, where the protagonist Mags was born in El Salvador but left with his family fleeing the civil war when he was a child so he doesn’t really feel Salvadoran, doesn’t remember anything about the place, yet that is his identity. He’s an outsider to El Salvador, yet as an immigrant an outsider to mainstream American society, as well. He finds his home in a gang with others from similar backgrounds.

What has been your greatest writing lesson? How about life lesson?

Writing lesson: Persistence. Just keep at it no matter what anyone tells you, no matter how many rejections you get. The more you write, the better at it you’ll get, and you will succeed.

Life lesson: Believing in yourself is the greatest gift you can give yourself. If you believe you can accomplish something, you will.

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

James Bond would definitely be fun!

Favorite childhood memory?

Tough one, but probably my mother buying me a book — a Secret Seven mystery by Enid Blyton — on a shopping trip. I had finished it by the time we pulled into the driveway, and I remember feeling so sad I no longer had anything new to read!

And the final question, do you think writing can save the world and if so, why?

Yes. The foremost purpose of writing is the communication of ideas and messages, and ideas are the seed for saving, or alternatively destroying, pretty much anything.

Want More?  Here’s an excerpt from Skin of Tattoos:

“Ay yo, homes!” A familiar voice sliced through the bustle. “Mags!”
I twirled faster than a ballet dancer, my stomach clenching. Fuck. It was him. Rico. Slashing across the street aiming the shopping bag in his hand at me. His baggy shorts slung so low the waistband of his boxers showed. Socks, white as fluorescent light, pulled neatly to his knees. Ink flowing out of the arms and neck of his plaid shirt. Exactly how he looked the last time I saw him.
The memory of that day bore down on me. We were kicking it at a street corner, and Rico was bragging about how he shot a trey-eight into the ceiling of a liquor store he was jacking, and the storeowner pissed his pants. As he was talking, he took the .38 out of his waistband in a live re-enactment, and I just had to take the piece, feeling its cold weight in my hand for just a second or two before handing it back to Rico. That second or two cost me twenty-six months of my freedom.
Rico threw his arm around me. A thick gold chain shone around his neck. I had a cord with an orange arrow slung around mine.
“Ese.” My voice had as much life as a three-day-old soda.
I never knew if he dropped that thirty-eight by accident, as he said, or if he saw his chance to set me up. I kinda figured the latter. Someday, somehow, I’d get him to admit the truth to me.
“I thought that was you. But I said to myself, ‘Mags, in that fuckin pendejada? Couldn’t be.’ But I looked again and simón, it was. Whatup with this shit?” He flicked the red nose ball. I caught his wrist in midair and stared him down in his swamp eyes. “Easy, fool,” he said.
I dropped his wrist. “Just making a few bones.”
“I heard you was back. We been waiting for you at the garaje, but you ain’t showed up.” Rico drilled my eyes. “You avoiding your homies or what?”
The ball was itching my nose like an oversized mosquito bite. “I got parole and all that. I just wanted to get set up first.”
“I figured you needed a couple days to get readjusted, get some pussy.” He shook his head. “But damn, this shit?” He shook his head. “You ready to get crazy again?”
“Keeping it lo pro, Rico.”
Rico studied me. I suddenly glimpsed myself in his eyes—I had become a small brown man.
He brightened up. “Hey, I just had a kid. A boy. I’m buying some bottles and blankets and shit right now.”
“Felicidades.”
“With Maribel. But I got my side action, feel me?”
“You were always real slick with the jainas.” I knew a little flattery would soften the rough edges of the meet. He smiled big.
“Tell you what, loco, I’ll give you some lessons, make you real smooth.”
“Yeah, I’m out of practice now.” I tried to laugh.
“A lot of changes gone down in the barrio. We need to catch you up.” His arm hooked my neck in a chokehold. “You our firme homeboy, man, you’ll always be part of la familia. We need you, fool.” He squeezed a little too hard. “You come by the garaje. We got a jump in day after tomorrow. We’ll be waiting. We’ll hook you up again, then you can dump this shit.” He pointed his forefinger at me with a barbed wire smile. “Missed you, Mags.”
I watched him vanish into the crowd of shoppers, and spat on the ground to get rid of the bad taste that had flooded my mouth.

 

p.j. lazos 1.28.17

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The Sign Behind The Crime Series

Welcome to my second interview in the series of author interviews leading up to Mystery Thriller Week, February 12 – 22, 2017. This week’s guest is Ronnie Allen, author of The Sign Behind the Crime Series. Before we went live, Ronnie shared some great news she just received:

I woke up to awesome and humbling news from my publisher, Black Opal Books. The Board of Directors voted on Aries to be one of their three submissions for the Mystery Writers of America Nero Awards! I told ya, in 2017 I’d be busting out! Aries is Book Two in The Sign Behind The Crime Series. This book will be featured in a couple of upcoming #MTW blogs.

Exciting news, Ronnie! We wish you the best of luck.

Let’s start with the book synopsis for Aries, The Sign Behind the Crime Series, as listed on Amazon:

Lying. Deception. Cover-ups. Anger. Revenge. Death. That’s what happens when an Aries-obsessed killer combines black magick rituals, knives … and murder. Samantha Wright, a rookie NYPD detective, gets her first case, a big one, by stumbling over the body while jogging in the park. Sam has a lot to prove, both to herself and to her new precinct, on this serial murder case involving fashion icons in NYC. Together with a rough around the edges BJJ fighter, forensic psychiatrist, Frank Khaos, Sam chases down leads through the five boroughs of NYC. As the bodies pile up, sparks fly and Sam and Frank, polar opposites, go from their dislike for each other to setting the sheets on fire. But their main suspect is hooked up to an IV in a hospital bed, so how has she pulled off five murders in seven days? And can Sam and Frank stop her before even more innocent lives are lost?

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Ronnie Allen is a New York City native, born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, where she was a teacher and a School Psychologist in the New York City Department of Education for 33 years. Her work as a classroom teacher, staff developer, crisis intervention specialist, and mentor for teachers who were struggling prepared her for a career as a writer. Always an advocate for the child, Allen examines the horrors of child abuse through the eyes of three characters in her novel, Gemini, the first book in The Sign Behind the Crime Series.

In the early 1990s, Allen began a journey into holistic healing and alternative therapies. In 2001, she completed her PhD in Parapsychic Sciences. In addition, Allen is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner as well as a crystal therapist, Reiki practitioner, metaphysician, dream analyst, and Tarot Master Instructor. She has taught workshops in New York City and in Central Florida where she now lives.

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And now, on to the questions:

What’s your writing background (schooling), backdrop (where you work at writing), and backstory (what you will tell the world when you become super famous)?

I started teaching in 1970 and became bored with just that so I begin my writing journey in 1978 when I went to acting and writing school in Manhattan. I started writing screenplays and worked in screenwriting and film until the mid 90s. Even though not produced, I wrote feature films and teleplays for TV episodes. I had three agents during the time and when my third agent was getting my scripts into three different TV series, they shut down. I began a journey into holistic health in the mid 90s, and wrote and published in nonfiction. In 2011, I began my journey into novel writing. My first book was published in 2015, the second into 2016 and the third will be released in September of this year. Schooling? Lots and lots of workshops, conferences, online classes to learn the craft.

Why thrillers?

I’ve always loved the crime genre, to read as well as write. I think I must’ve been a detective or FBI agent in a past life. I love the action, the energy, and I can take out any personal revenge on a character or situation.

Do you see the need for all these sub-genres or do you think we’ve become over-specialized, as in, a story isn’t just a story any longer, but a specific type of story?

I think having the specific sub genres help readers decide whether your book is for them or not. It’s another category for publishers to market your books.

Why writing and not ceramics, or gourmet cooking, or anything else really? If not writing, then what?

I love to cook and bake. Recently I’ve gotten into gluten-free and lactose free baking. I’m very much into health and nutrition and I’m a holistic health practitioner so I practice alternative therapies in my daily life as well as use them in the context of my books.

From where do your ideas come?

A lot of my ideas come from dreams. Others, come from fantasies with me acting as the main character whether it’s the protagonist or antagonist.

What’s your routine? Do you work out while writing, take breaks, or simply gut it out?

Since I don’t have a 9-to-5 job or young children in the house, I write whenever I want which is at least 6 to 8 hours a day, whether I’m researching, blogging, or working on marketing. Very often I write at the pool, so in between chapters or scenes I’ll do water aerobics with my dumbbells. I also bake, and over the last six months I’ve gone as gluten-free as humanly possible so baking muffins has become a hobby.

Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, has it helped you work through anything in particular?

I see writing as definitely a cathartic experience. It’s helped me work through a family issue we’ve had, and I also work through some anxiety and trauma about my childhood and lifetime asthma. The latter, is a major plot in my second book, Aries, which drives the antagonist, a female killer in her why.

Do you pull inspiration from the other aspects of your life? How do you keep the creative spark going?

I do take my content for my novels from my daily life and my experiences as a holistic health practitioner specializing in alternative therapies. The therapies my characters are involved in, I teach my clients.

Pantser or perfectionist who meticulously plots out their stories?

I’m definitely a plotter, but not so meticulously that I have to stick to a definitive plan. I allow my characters to go in their own direction, and very often my characters give themselves more of a role than I had intended. When that happens I know I am in very deep POV and it works best for the plot.

Your perfect day – go.

Since I’m pretty much a free woman, even with my husband, we both like to sleep late and by late I mean even past 11 AM. We pretty much do what we want when we want. So I usually start my day with some vitamins and a muscle milk protein shake while I’m watching one of the Home Shopping Network’s. Even before that, I check all of my social media, which is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Then I might write, plot, plot for as long as I want to until late afternoon.

What has been your greatest writing lesson?

We are constantly learning the craft and no matter how many books you have out, there is still much you can learn. You really need to have an open mind in this business. I’ve learned to listen to people who have succeeded and to have what I want. In other words, listen to your critique partners, beta readers, and if you get feedback from agents really think about what they are saying instead of standing on your laurels and saying you are not changing anything. This will considerably cut down on the amount of rejections you get until you get that one yes.

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

I will choose Samantha Wright who is my heroine in Aries. She’s bright, sassy, and just becoming in tune with her psychic awareness. She’s on target with her analysis of on-scene forensics, and has a real gut instinct on how to deal with people. In addition, she has the hottest sex on the planet with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Frank Khaos. She’s one lucky woman.

And the final question, do you think writing can save the world and if so, why?

Actually, I think it’s reading that can save the world, and yes works have to be written in order to be read. I think when people open up their minds through a book, they get a different perspective on how other people live. Perhaps through a book they can learn an appreciation, for other cultures and or lifestyles. Reading is also a way to escape and a way to relieve stresses.

Thanks, Ronnie Allen, for stopping by. Best of luck with The Sign Behind the Crime Series.

Buy Links:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Blog

Twitter and Instagram

Facebook

And if you readers want a bit more, enjoy a short excerpt from Aries:

Aries, The Sign Behind the Crime

The rain had tapered off by the time Nick arrived at the scene and got out of the car. He didn’t neglect to notice Sam’s perfect body through her clingy sweats and T, even though she was covered in mud and blood. Her ponytail hung loose. Straggling wisps of hair stuck to her face. He smiled for the first time. His wife was never going to meet this one. Blonde and blue eyed with the perfect nose and full lips, to boot. Nope, his wife was never going to meet her.
Sam approached the other suited man who also towered over her. “Hi, I’m Sam Wright.”
It was all Nick could do, not to laugh. He knew Dingo well enough to know what went through his mind.
“Dingo Withers, lead homicide expert from Homicide Investigative Unit. What have we got here?” Nick couldn’t mistake his curt attitude and, he assumed, neither could Sam.
“What are you doing here?”
“You lucked out, rookie. My unit is housed in your precinct. I’ll be busting your ass.”
“Okay, Withers. I see this as a test, right?”
He didn’t crack a smile. “I said I’d be busting your ass, but no. It’s the job of a first responder, and you, Detective Wright, happen to be that person.”
“I was the first on scene, yes. No one has gone into these woods since I’ve been here. No civilians to interview. The scene is safe. No assailant. On first look, I saw blood still oozing from wounds. So they’re somewhat fresh. The rain wasn’t pouring down so forcefully when I was under the shelter of the trees near the body. It’s a lot of cuts, more than ten at first glance. I got up after I fell. So you’ll have my DNA evidence that was transferred because my arms touched the branches, yeah Locard’s Exchange Principle, and there’ll be wet origin footprints. Didn’t notice any other footprints going to or away from body. Ooh, ooh ooh. There’s more!”
Oh, man. How old is she?
Nick bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
“I knew I shouldn’t have taken the direct path to the body because that’s probably what the assailant did. But I had no choice. The bushes on either side are so dense. See them over there? So there was no other way to get through. I did, though, try not to tread in the water. Didn’t stick around to make exact count of cuts. Kept my arms straight down at my sides when I ran out and my eyes on the ground. Didn’t see any weapons or possible tools. Noticed the puddle water was red, right over there where I was standing when you pulled up. Splattered up on me as I jogged through it. I haven’t gone back to the body, but looked at it through this path.”
“While I was waiting for you, I took pics on my phone of my shoe prints, the soles of my shoes, which have mud embedded in them now, the splatter on my clothes, and I documented the time, and conditions with my ID. I also noted the exact time the rain started. Also made videos of the flow of the water from every angle, except directly from the body. As I said, I didn’t go in there again. In one of the videos when I replayed it, I found…” She set the video to pause on an object deep within a bush low to the ground and gave him the phone. “This oval white thing. Looks like a band of some kind. I didn’t touch the bush, or try to retrieve it. May have some blood residue, but I’m not sure. It’s down deep enough, so I can’t tell how much rain hit it. We actually shouldn’t even be standing here. It’s within three hundred feet of the scene. The body is less than twenty feet in. I’m thinking that the killer or killers wanted the body found. They could have taken it deeper into the woods. I did see some indentations in the ground that indicated a path. Took pics of that, too. Maybe they dragged the body. But they also raked up leaves and debris, and removed them, leaving a muddy path around the body. I fell butt down into that mud.” She twisted around to show them.
Nick couldn’t help but look at her perfectly rounded bottom. He had to turn away to conceal his burning cheeks. He saw Withers do the same.
“Maybe trying to outsmart us by removing what they considered to be evidence, so what we see on the surface may not be what really is. In removing stuff, they actually told us a lot. I’m getting the impression that because of this, the murder was premeditated, carefully planned, and not random. As I’m thinking, it could be a woman. Maybe she wasn’t strong enough to pull him farther, or it was more than one woman. Can’t tell if the wounds were post mortem and I definitely couldn’t see the COD. And it stinks. Had a full meal before he was offed, otherwise he wouldn’t have released fecal matter. I know it’s not dog poop, stepped in enough of that while jogging. Nope, this isn’t dog poop on my sneakers.”
She raised her foot to show Withers. He just stared at her with his eyes widened and his mouth slacked open.
“I stepped in it next to the body. Oh, and he was laid on his back, hands down at his sides, arms and legs intact, cuts on torso, eyes open, and—”
Withers cut her off. “Are you finished rambling? How in the hell are you going to remember what you just said? I don’t see your brown book. And I need your notes, Detective.”
“Oh.” Sam plucked her recording device from inside her bra. “Always have this with me. I turned it on when I came across the body. I also recorded my prelim before you got here.”
Withers blew out a breath. “You mean to tell me, rookie, you recorded what you saw and then proceeded to give me this long-winded ramble? So now I have to go through two fucking tapes? And your complaint form?”

pjlazos 1.22.17

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Interview with American History Professor Louise Stevenson                                               Author of Lincoln in the Atlantic World

I sat down, virtually, with Professor Stevenson to get the skinny on how she came to be the expert on all things Lincoln and where she wants to go from here.  So come on and, virtually, listen in.

From our conversations it’s clear that you are a diehard historian. How did you first become interested in American History?

I was going to be a European historian and then switched to American Studies when I transferred to a new college. My credits worked better. I would have to blame my liking history on reading . . .  Sir Walter Scott, the Landmark books, and the orange biographies for children.

Was there a defining moment where you said, “Yes, this and nothing else.”

Cultural history or American Studies offered job latitude. I had a number of courses in political science and economics as well. I view historical study as a kind of tourism. When I write about a period, I try to understand the way that the minds of its people worked. I try to enter their worlds by looking at their reading, their homes, their work sites, etc. You shouldn’t impose yourself on the past; you should let its people talk to you in their language.

Give us a quick rundown of your CV. You’re an American History professor at F&M. Have you taught at other colleges?

I started off at University of New Hampshire. Turned down other job offers because of family and husband. Decided I wasn’t a careerist first.

Did you always want to teach or was that the only option available in order to study history?

My course of study in college and summer jobs could have taken me to banking, an MBA, law school, etc. But I got married at 20 and therefore started to teach at a k-12 school.

You also taught Women’s Studies at F&M and are active in women’s issues. How do you see this election — outside of the obvious — affecting women? I know some women who no matter what will not vote for Hillary despite a long list of derogatory remarks that her opponent has made against women in general.

People choose a candidate because of all sorts of factors. Some are admirable; some not so much. I would recommend that no one choose a candidate because of his or her sex. Without arguing for one candidate or the other, in this election I hope voters in the upcoming election will judge the candidates on their records and promised policies.

Do you think this election is polarizing the majority of American women or bringing them together? If you were a historian writing about this time 100 years in the future, how do you think this time will be viewed. A watershed moment for women? A turning point in our nation’s history? A reversion to prior days where women were kept in the kitchen?

If we are to remember this election, I hope that it will be only because the first woman candidate of a major party ran and perhaps was successful. I hope that it will not be a moment when our constitutional political system collapsed. Look at other countries, did Evita Peron’s, Margaret Thatcher’s,or Angela Merkel’s candidacies usher in new eras for women? In terms of achieving power, I see Clinton’s candidacy as quite traditional as she would be nowhere without Bill.  In terms of her leadership on the world stage, if she stands for what women members of her party want, she will continue to alienate the leadership of countries where women are kept in subservience. The same would be true for Republican women and Trump but to a lesser degree. Standing for human rights as they are construed in America is imperialistic, western domination if I speak as a Muslim leader.  unknown-2

Do you think the violence and personal risk that the suffragists experienced to their persons and their families is the same sort of backlash that women may experience today?
I am unaware of any threats to American suffs’ families. Beyond crowd heckling, the majority of suffs endured no violence. Britain may have been more extreme because the Pankhursts and their followers practiced violence against property that the Americans never did. The Pankhursts taught their tactics to Alice Paul. Her followers, who picketed the White House and were thrown in jail for no cause, did experience severe treatment in jail. The hundred or so incarcerated were a tiny minority of the thousands of American women involved in the larger suffrage movement that worked for the cause peacefully and without violence.  220px-annie_kenney_and_christabel_pankhurst

You’ve talked of retiring in the next decade. Having lived through more than a few phases of the shattering glass ceiling, and yourself being a woman in a man’s world, what is your advice to women just starting out their careers or even women just hitting their stride?

I don’t know what you mean by man’s world. I never saw the university world that way, although I was the first woman in my departments at UNH and F&M.

Advice. Set your priorities. Accept what life gives you. When men or women try to have it all, sometimes they end up with nothing.

Tell us about your two previous books.

Phew, too complex to explain. The first book, Scholarly Means to Evangelical Ends, explained how religion and scholarship worked together in the mid-nineteenth century. The second book, The Victorian Homefront, explained world of ideas that mid-nineteenth century people inhabited in their homes, their cities, and their reading matter.

Let me tell you instead about a project that I’ve done every summer. When I was in Grad school, I went to a state historical society to ask if it had any collections about women. The archivist told me that the answer was no and that women didn’t make history. Since then that archivist has discovered the Abigail Adams’s papers and I hope that archivist has changed his attitude. To make sure that women of the future can find their history in archives, I’ve dedicated many summers to collecting and preserving the papers of local women’s organizations.

I know you and your husband are avid skiers. If you had unlimited time and resources, what would you do with it? Skiing? Sunny beach? Write another book?

Skiing at all the great resorts would be terrific. I love to sit by beaches and swim in the surf, but i’m cautious about the sun. My ideal of a terrific weekend reading a good book with the sun pouring through the window and then taking a thinking walk, maybe with friends.

Book writing is work and definitely entered upon cautiously. The focus and dedication of time that it requires isolates writers, or at least me, from people.

Speaking of which, have you thought about what your next book is going to be about?

I have three more books in mind. The first will investigate how Lincoln’s ideals and policies affected foreign policy in the Pacific. It involved arguing for open immigration for the Chinese, an end to unfree coolie labor in Peru and Cuba, and an end to using military force to open markets and create investment opportunities.  The second book will show the pro-war stance of college students with regard to World War I and their campus activities in support of the war.  And for the third book, I’d like to write something that makes people laugh or at least smile.  unknown

If Lincoln had failed, or perhaps if the earlier assassination attempt against him would have been successful, what do you think our country would look like today?

If you mean failed as in if the Union had not won the Civil War, or lost the election of 1864, or not passed the thirteenth amendment. Let’s take him losing the election in 1864.

The election itself threatened violence. Republicans feared that the Democratic Party in NYC would stir up violence as it had done with the draft riots of summer 1863. Military transports were stationed in the harbor with soldiers ready to intervene if violence happened. In the election year, Democratic journalists in NYC had published pamphlets and broadsides showing white Republicans dancing and cozying up to black women. Other journalists invented the word miscegenation to suggest that interracial sex would result from Republican victory. I should learn more about the Republicans’ electioneering. I’m sure that it wasn’t pretty either.

If McClellan, the Democrat had won, Lincoln would have done everything he could to make sure that the United States would remain united. He signed and filed away a memo to that effect about three months before the election. If the Confederate States had remained independent, England and France would have done their best to take advantage of a weakened North and a strategically important South.

Certainly, slavery would have persisted as a legal system of labor because the 13th amendment would not exist and the president would have repealed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was an order of the Commander in Chief. Also, the fourteenth amendment would not exist, and we must remember that its promise of equality under the law is crucial to much contemporary legislation with regard to civil rights for all minorities, including gender minorities.

Some people will try to scare us into thinking that this election could bring about an equally horrible future. I have to have faith that such is not the case.

p,j,lazos – 10.14.16

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Reviewers Wanted!

Who do you turn to when you need a hand with your novel?  Well, readers and writers, of course.

Are you a book reviewer?  Are you interested in murder mysteries?  How about an environmental murder mystery?  If you’ve answered yes then perhaps you’d be interested in reading Oil and Water.  I will happily gift you a Kindle version of the novel in exchange for an honest review posted to your blog.  Sound good?  If so, leave a comment on the home page of this blog and I’ll PM you and get your deets! A synopsis follows so you can see what you’re getting into.

Are you a reader?  Share the love.  I’ve added some book discussion questions at the end in case you are so jazzed when you finish the book that you immediately want to text all the members of your book club.  Some day, after Steven Spielberg makes a movie out of Oil and Water, you can say you were there when it all started!

Cheers and thanking you in advance.

 

Oil and Water

When inventor Martin Tirabi builds a machine that converts trash into oil it sends shockwaves through the corporate halls of the oil cognoscenti. Weeks later, Marty and his wife, Ruth are killed in a mysterious car accident. Their son, Gil, a 10-year old physics prodigy is the only one capable of finishing the machine that could solve the world’s energy problems.  Plagued with epilepsy from birth, Gil is also psychic, and through dreams and the occasional missive from his dead father he gets the push he needs to finish the job.

Meanwhile, Bicky Coleman, head of Akanabi Oil is doing his best to smear the planet in it. From a slow leak in the Gulf of Mexico to the most devastating oil spill the Delaware River has ever seen, Akanabi’s corporate practices are leaving oily imprints in their wake. To divert the tide of bad press, Bicky dispatches his son-in-law and Chief Engineer, David Hartos to clean up his mess.  A disillusioned Hart, reeling from the recent death of his wife and unborn child, travels to Philadelphia to fulfill his father-in-law’s wishes.
There’s no such thing as coincidence when Hart meets Gil and agrees to help him finish Marty’s dream machine. But how will he bring such a revolutionary invention to market in a world reliant on fossil fuels and awash in corporate greed?  To do so, Hart must confront those who would quash the project, including his own father-in-law.  
You’ll find murder, mystery, and humor as black as fine Arabian crude filling the pages of Oil and Water. The characters are fictional, but the technology is real. What will we do when the oil runs out?   Open up and see.

Book Discussion Questions for Oil and Water

1)  Would the creation of a machine that produces oil be a blessing or a curse for the world in which we live?  How would such an invention be greeted at this point in time?

2)  How would you label Gil’s personality?   Do you see him as a genius, a misfit or a combination of both? Please comment on the fine line between genius and insanity.

3) The advent of green technology has been years in the making and while market share continues to grow, fossil fuels are still king. How long do you think the world will continue to rely on fossil fuels as the primary source of energy?  What will be needed to promote a change?

4) What do you think of Bicky?  Is he a villain, a good man, or simply a typical human being exhibiting the pros and cons that go along with that designation?

5) Who was your favorite character in the book?  Why?

6) Assuming its use didn’t put energy extraction companies out of business, how do you think those companies would react to an invention that allows for the spontaneous production of oil from waste? The novel offers possibilities for partnership. Do you see the oil companies acquiescing to such partnerships?

p.j.lazos 7.22.16

 

 

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Thank You, Friend

Thanking people should be the easiest part of writing a book and yet, it’s not. Why? Well, in this instance, the first draft of Oil and Water was written about thirteen years ago, and in between then and now I edited the manuscript at least four times, beefed it up, cut it down, pasted it back together, started as close to the “inciting event” as I could without losing the integrity of the document, subjected it to scrutiny by various critique groups, let it languish for months, sometimes years at a time while I worked on other things, and then shredded it again before sending it out to publishers and agents where it garnered interest at times and fell into darkness at others. When I got tired of the search for the perfect representative, I decided to become her. Whether I have succeeded magnificently or failed miserably is a subjective matter, but I do know I have tried, sometimes with grace and sometimes with everything but, to bring this most heartfelt work out into the world, and maybe drag some environmental awareness along with it in a fun, non-threatening, non-judgmental manner. Okay, maybe the teeniest bit of judgment, but I am an environmentalist after all and old habits die hard.

I loved writing this book. It was my first novel and I finished the first draft in nine months, but like all infants, it needed time to grow and change and discover. Frankly, I think I’ve held onto it longer than I should have the way a mother is conflicted about seeing her children grow up and leave the nest. You want the best for them. You want to see them succeed, but it’s a scary world and there are so many potential pitfalls. Whatever. I’m setting it free so I can begin my next project. Closure only works in your favor when you actually finish something.

So thank you, friend, whether we have yet to meet or have known each other for lifetimes, for all the love, support and good intentions.  I send my own back to you for success in all your most heartfelt endeavors.  In this way, we lift each other up.

Synopsis for Oil and Water

When inventor Martin Tirabi builds a machine that converts trash into oil it sends shockwaves through the corporate halls of the oil cognoscenti. Weeks later, Marty and his wife, Ruth are killed in a mysterious car accident. Their son, Gil, a 10-year old physics prodigy is the only one capable of finishing the machine that could solve the world’s energy problems.  Plagued with epilepsy from birth, Gil is also psychic, and through dreams and the occasional missive from his dead father he gets the push he needs to finish the job.

      Meanwhile, Bicky Coleman, head of Akanabi Oil is doing his best to smear the planet in it. From a slow leak in the Gulf of Mexico to the most devastating oil spill the Delaware River has ever seen, Akanabi’s corporate practices are leaving oily imprints in their wake. To divert the tide of bad press, Bicky dispatches his son-in-law and Chief Engineer, David Hartos to clean up his mess.  A disillusioned Hart, reeling from the recent death of his wife and unborn child, travels to Philadelphia to fulfill his father-in-law’s wishes.
There’s no such thing as coincidence when Hart meets Gil and agrees to help him finish Marty’s dream machine. But how will he bring such a revolutionary invention to market in a world reliant on fossil fuels and awash in corporate greed?  To do so, Hart must confront those who would quash the project, including his own father-in-law.

       You’ll find murder, mystery, and humor as black as fine Arabian crude filling the pages of Oil and Water. The characters are fictional, but the technology is real. What will we do when the oil runs out?   Open up and see.

p.j.lazos 6.12.16

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[photo by Scott Eberly]

Feeling Nosy?

So it’s Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of summer.  What better time to dive into a book?  May I recommend Six Sisters?  I’ve even got some questions for you to ponder after your done.  So grab your hammock and a cool one and get started!

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Six Sisters, three stories, one theme: Know Thyself.

 

Book One:

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Synopsis for A Gathering of One: Twins, Patrice and Danielle began battling in the womb. When hard-headed, 3-year old Danielle drinks Drano while Patrice watches in horror, unable to stop her, the battle becomes a war. Patrice triage’s the situation, making Danielle vomit to rid herself of the poison, but the damage is done and the blame squarely laid on Patrice’s shoulders, assuring the sisters remain on a lifelong collision course. Anger, jealousy, and indignation may have sparked their dysfunction, but duty and familial obligation keeps them tethered long after the bonds of childhood have morphed into the shackles of adult responsibilities. May the best sister win.

Book Discussion Questions for A Gathering of One:

  1.  Early in the story, it’s apparent that Danielle is grappling with some mental health issues. As the story progresses, how does your opinion of this situation change with regard to Danielle? To Patrice?
  2. If you were Patrice’s friend, how would you have counseled her with regard to caring for her mother? For her sister?
  3. We don’t find out until a good deal of the way into the book that Patrice is pretty. Did you think this of her? Did it change your opinion of your protagonist or does beauty even matter?
  4. Do you think Patrice is a strong individual doing the right thing or more of a doormat who lets everyone tell her what to do?
  5. There were some critical turning turning points in Patrice’s life, times when she could have chosen differently and which would then have resulted in a lifestyle change such as the incident when girls were young or when their mother died. Up until the time she meets Bruce, Patrice never even considered herself in the equation. What do you think were the factors, other than the obvious attraction to Bruce, that led her to consider her own feelings rather than dismiss them in favor of everyone else’s?
  6. Putting others first is a typical female trait, especially in women who have become mothers. Now that women are also the wage-earners in the family, do you think that tendency is waning or do you think that women are just having to find additional ways to cope with the added responsibility and if the latter, what can women do to change that?

 

Book Two:

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Synopsis for List of 55: Following her mother’s death, Belinda manages to survive childhood despite her sister-turned-caretaker, Simone’s long list of no’s: no money, no car, no electricity, no food, and ultimately, no Simone. Belinda’s abysmal treatment at the hands of the reckless and psychologically abusive Simone left layers of scar tissue so deep she needs an excavator to remove them. Poised to make a life-altering change on her 25th birthday, Belinda accidentally runs into her future ex-husband, Ted, who, because of his own complicated past draws to her like a shyster to a Ponzi scheme. Canny judgment and diamond-like determination may have gotten Belinda to adulthood, but can she survive the onslaught of attention from Ted who is both charming and abusive in equal amounts or will she succumb to the pattern begun in childhood?

Book Discussion Questions for List of 55:

  1.  What is Belinda’s initial reaction to Ted? Does it go beyond physical?
  2. Do you think it’s true that like attracts like and that we are energetic beings, drawn to the energy most like us?
  3. Bert’s leaving Simone to care for Belinda seems like irresponsible parenting, but the fact is that 20,000 kids age out of faster care each year with no where to go. How do we expect these kids, being possessed of a teenage brain (read, undeveloped), and lacking most practical life survival skills to make it in the world where even without a full time service-type job could not make enough money in year to rise above the poverty level.
  4. Why does Simone have a change of heart?
  5. Why does it take Belinda so long to leave Ted? Is this scenario replayed in home after home across the country or is Belinda an anomaly?
  6. In one of the passages, Belinda thinks about her son Kyle, “she likes to listen in on the sound of him growing up.” Are children the only reason mothers stay in abusive relationships or is it something more?

 

Book Three:

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Synopsis for The Quality of Light: Do the dead dream? Yes. They dream of living. Ellie finds this out too late and now her husband and daughter, her two best loves, are left to fight like the bitterest enemies. From her perch in the ethers and sometimes through the actual live body of her sister, Celia, Ellie watches their lives unfold, but Doc can’t see past his rage and the cruel fate that left him with Harley who even under the best of circumstances barely tolerated him. Before Ellie’s death, husband and daughter vied for her attention, dismantling each other with verbal fisticuffs. After her death, anyone could see that Doc was going to ditch and run, leaving Harley with Celia and Doc a free man, but fate, or perhaps Ellie intervenes through Twila Fuller, rancher, political activist, and self-taught expert on all things related to hydraulic fracturing. Everything about Twila is big: her ranch, her ideas, the level of contamination in her groundwater, even the cancer in her body. As Twila’s influence draws Doc into Ellie’s former world, he must make some tough moral decisions and perhaps even finish the work Ellie started. Will Doc’s newfound passion lead him back to Harley, to Celia, or to Ellie, the dead woman he loves more than life? The answer lies somewhere in the light.

Book Discussion questions for The Quality of Light:

  1.  How does Celia’s influence change Doc over the course of the book? Do you think he becomes a believer or is he just going along to get along?
  2. Why is Doc so resistant to participate in Ellie’s environmental habits such as recycling while she’s alive, but then quickly adopts them after her death?
  3. Do you have similar tensions in your relationships that never seem to resolve or that only resolves when a crisis occurs?
  4. While Doc loses a wife, the real loser is Harley who lost a mother and the stability she brought to Harley’s life. Can anyone, even a sister, fill the hole that’s left by losing a mother? Is is possible for those children not to have lasting emotional damage when your foremost navigational system, your mother, goes offline?
  5. What about mother’s who abandon their children? Is the emotional damage inflicted by the abandonment the same?
  6. As a shaman, Celia believes she can manipulate the weather simply with the power of intention. Doc, an engineer by training says that it’s all a bunch of hooey. Who is right and why?
  7. Will there ever be a middle ground between science and spirituality where all men might exist, or is the divide too great, the parts of the brain used for such divergent thinking too dissimilar, the yin and yang of the question too necessary to hold the world up?

So that’s it!  Let me know if you have some fabulous answers to any of these questions or some additional questions of your own.  Thanks for reading Six Sisters!

p.j.lazos 5.27.16

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All Done with the #AtoZChallenge = Freedom

So that happened.

Now that we’re done, I feel like I’ve graduated from pupa to butterfly or in this case, maybe moth, but who knows.  I really never understood the diff.

I realize after a month of blogging that there are only a few things I care enough about to consistently have something to say.  It’s probably a good thing, otherwise I would just go on and on.

Anyway, here’s one more that I didn’t get to, but fits the bill:

Silence

Silence stands at the window and watches the dusk give way to the night.

She loves the way the sky grows deeper buy degrees from blushing baby blue to cobalt to indigo to the inky black of a moonless night.

The salamanders have gone to bed while the sylphs chase the dragonflies back to their sleeping places and carry the light of the stars to earth on silent wings.

Silence loves to take slow deep breaths and let them out while her nose is pressed against the window.

Then she writes her name in the fog, watching until it disappears.

p.j.lazos 5.2.16

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Day 26 of the #AtoZChallenge

Zero Point Field

Holy crap, we made it!  I wasn’t sure if it were possible, yet here I sit, a few hundred words away from crossing the finish line.  An excellent feeling.  I made some new friends and I found some really divine blogs in the process so, like labor, all the suffering was worth it.  Without any additional hesitation, here’s Z:

The dictionary definition of the zero point field is — heh, heh — well, it hasn’t made it into the dictionary yet, but Wikipedia has this to say:Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 1.24.21 PM

The concept of the Zero Point Field also known as Zero Point Energy was first developed by physicist Max Planck in 1911.

Through my reading of books such as The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe, by Lynne McTaggert, Tachyon Energy – A New Paradigm in Holistic Healing, by David Wagner and Gabriel Cousins, and A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, I have a tentative grasp on the science, but not enough t enter into a robust discussion, just enough to make me wish I hadn’t dropped physics in college.  What I have not been able to do scientifically, I hope I make up for it below with my writing.  I’m fascinated by the zero point field and will continue to read up on it until I could explain it in a way that even a 5th grader could understand, a lofty goal and one that will outlive the #AtoZChallenge.

I do know this: the Zero Point Field is one of the first scientific explanations for the existence, presence, perseverance, phenomenon or whatever you want to call God. It runs through all of us, through every living thing, and it is the way in which we are all connected.  Sounds woo-woo, right? Well, it’s not.  It’s just physics.  Who knew that Max Planck and I would have so much in common?

And as a parting gift for all our time together this month, enjoy an excerpt from my soon-to-be-released novel, Oil and Water, an environmental murder mystery and a great beach read. The excerpt talks about the practical applications of the Zero Point Field.

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     Avery stood at Marty’s drafting table, pouring over drawings of the TDU, matching up the drawings with the real thing. At ground level, the outside of the TDU’s receiving station looked like a gigantic child’s play chest. Sliding metal doors opened and disappeared within the grated metal exterior framework — the classic European pocket door — to reveal a cavernous opening that funneled trash to the giant cylindrical tank housed below ground. With this design, Marty had been able to back his tractor right into the barn and, utilizing the trailer’s hydraulic lift, pour the trash directly into the yawning mouth of the cylinder.

Marty’s TDU was a democratic machine, treating all trash equally as long as it was carbon based. Once inside, the trash was mixed with water to create a slurry, an insoluble, goopy mess. The slurry passed through a pipeline to a holding tank where it was heated under pressure until it reached a reaction temperature. Another pipeline, a third unit, also cylindrical — Marty Tirabi was fond of circles — ferried the slurry along to where it finished its initial reaction and was flashed again. Here the gaseous products were spun off, the pressure lowered, the liquids separated from the volatile chemicals. Marty built a series of interconnected pipelines placed one on top of the other, some at 90 degree angles to each other, a steel matrix to house the myriad and varied reactions. Step five was another series of thinner cylinders, three in a row, tall and demure, sitting side-by-side like young girls at their first dance, waiting to be asked. But size was no indication of their strength. In these cylinders Marty heated the mixture, separating water from gas from light oils which led to the final stage, two large, squat holding tanks where Marty intended to store the gas and light oils. Even staggering the six stages of equipment at forty-five degree angles to each other, the prototype was huge and encompassed the entire back wall of the barn.

Avery sighed and flopped down at the drafting table. Marty had said there was a problem with water. Was it too much or too little? Avery couldn’t remember. Gil knew, but damn it, he wouldn’t help. Avery was on his own. And with at least two-dozen blueprints, this was going to take a while. Maybe a little meditation was in order.

Avery practiced meditation in fits and starts. When he did, a wonderful clarity always ensued, infused with an acute awareness of being in the present. And the help always came with it, fecund and unbidden. From where it came, he really couldn’t say: probably the universal mind, the brain trust, as he referred to it. From ions, or static or electricity. From nowhere and everywhere. He knew at times he’d tapped into the morphogenic field where ideas were traded like stocks on the NASDAQ, the theory being that if a monkey in Costa Rica learned to drive a car, a monkey on the Rock of Gibraltar could do the same without even meeting the Costa Rican monkey. Or perhaps he’d tapped into the Zero Point Field, that eerie, brave new world where discoveries were deposited in the cosmic bank account, waiting to be withdrawn by anyone holding a debit card. He’d read plenty on comparative religion and had a few surreal experiences in his lifetime, enough to recognize the signs of a downloading from the One Mind when he felt it, which he rarely did. But Gil made regular withdrawals, engaged in constant conversation, slept with it under his pillow. For Gil, change and enlightenment were the same, immediate and visceral, played out physically each time he had a fit or an idea.

For the rest of the world struggling to catch up, the only acceptable change was a gradual climb up a low-grade mountain, the steps laborious and slow. And morphogenic field or not, it still took time for all the other monkeys to accept their new knowledge. Even if they could do it, did they want to do it? Even if he could fix this invention — something he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in at the present moment — Marty had said it would make the world stand on its head. Was the world ready for such a precarious position? Come to think of it, was he?
Avery needed Gil’s fertile mind where you could plant the seed and days or weeks later the answer sprung forth like Athena from Zeus’s head, in full warrior regalia, engaged and ready for battle. Gil’s epilepsy fueled his creativity; the disease forced him into the Zone where he was working out some serious past-life crap. Avery felt helpless at these times but appeased himself with the thought that you can’t work someone’s karma out for them, a fact that at the tender age of ten, Gil completely understood.

“Gil.” Avery walked to the living room and shouted for his brother. “Gil!”
A muffled, “he’s in his room” wafted up from Kori’s corner of the basement. Avery nodded a thanks that Kori couldn’t see and went upstairs to find Gil.

He rapped on the door and stepped into the room. Unless Gil was hiding under the bed, he wasn’t here. Avery checked the closet then under the bed. He sat down on the bed to wait. Minutes later, he was asleep.

➣➣➣

The wind whipped across barren fields where only rolled bales of hay remained. The oak trees swayed and heaved in fits of laughter as the wind rose up, intertwined with their naked branches and whispered secrets only the oaks could understand. Avery took inventory. All healthy, thank God. A couple dozen were in striking distance of both the barn and house. He’d hate to see the damage one rotten tree could cause in a windstorm like this.

He touched the bear totem pole rooted to the ground, facing the barn. It was six feet high, a hundred feet from the barn’s entrance; its eyes saw all who moved through those doors. Marty had carved it out of a tree gone rotten at the base after Gil had noticed it swaying in a windstorm much like this one.

Marty relayed the information to Ruth who, noticing the swing set was in the probable trajectory of the tree should it fall, called a tree service. The tree service couldn’t come for two days. Ruth told Marty to leave the tree alone, that if it hadn’t fallen by now, it wasn’t going to fall in the next two days, and left on an errand.
But Marty couldn’t leave anything alone, especially a rogue tree, threatening him through his barn window. Ruth’s tire tracks weren’t even cooled before Marty got out the ropes and chain saw. The whir of power tools called the kids to the backyard, but Marty banished them to the deck, more than a safe distance away, until he was done with the felling. After that, it was all fun and games. The kids played happily on the fallen log while Marty used his chain saw on the part of the tree still in the ground and routed out the finer stuff. When he’d finished, Marty had transformed his enemy into a vigilant friend, the coolest totem pole the kids had ever seen. One paw rested on the bear’s stomach as if he’d just eaten lunch. His mouth was open, exposing healthy, yet deadly incisors. His eyes were wide as if he’d just spotted something. Marty let Kori paint the eyes and claws and big scary teeth all white, and when it was dry, he let the kids crawl all over it, something they still did years later whenever they hung out in the backyard. Avery smiled and rubbed his hand inside the bear’s mouth. For luck.

Avery tapped lightly on the barn window. Gil threw the deadbolt and waved him in. Avery dropped the roll of Marty’s drawings on the table and removed his coat while Gil closed and locked the door behind him.

“Toasty in here,” Avery said. Gil had the space heater cranked up and it felt like a billion degrees in the barn. “Why don’t you wear a sweater like most people do in cold weather, and then you won’t need the heat to be so high?”

“Cause I wanted to wear my lizard shirt.” Gil looked down at his black t-shirt with the lizard face on it and smiled.

“What’cha got going on here?” Avery asked.

“Building something,” Gil said.

“I see that. But what is it?” To Avery, it looked like a souped-up go-cart. He walked over and surveyed the frame and held a tentative hand out to touch it. The frame proved incredibly durable. “May I?”

Gil nodded, and Avery stepped up on the floorboard, testing the weight load by jumping up and down on it.

“Come here. I’ll show you.” Gil pushed Avery’s own drawings aside and peered over a stack already open on the drafting table.

Avery sifted through them, his excitement growing. “It’s a hybrid engine? Are you using technology that’s out there or is this something … ?”

“New. Dad says you can’t talk about something until you finish or you lose the Muse. So I can’t talk about it.”

“You have a Muse? Who is it?”

“You know. A pretty lady. Sometimes she sings.”

“What’s her name?”

“She never said.”

“Is she real or you made her up?

“Real.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I just know. She comes at night. Sometimes she whispers ideas in my ear or if I’m stuck on something, she helps me solve it.” Gil looked down at his hands and turned them over, inspecting them. “Sometimes she just holds my hands. She says they’re soft.” Gil smiled sheepishly. Avery snickered, but turned away before Gil caught him.

“She helped me with that,” he said pointing to the ATV. “It’ll be more energy efficient than the others. Less fuel, less charging time and the batteries will be smaller.”

“Hmmph,” Avery said, pondering the blueprints. “How long until you think you’ll be done?” Gil shrugged and spun around on his stool. “Well, just let me know and I’ll get busy on the patent.” Avery flipped through the drawings. “Is there anything I can start on now?”

Gil unclamped the vice grips holding the drawings in place and rolled them up, a dismissal. Apparently, the conversation was, for the present, concluded. Gil unrolled Avery’s drawings flat and used the vice-grip to clip the topsides to the edge of the drafting table. He reviewed them carefully for several minutes, unclamped the vice grip, rolled the drawings back up and handed them to Avery. Then he walked over to the hammock where Max reclined.

“How’d you get him up there?” Avery asked. Gil shrugged like it was no big deal and lay down next to Max who, startled from sleep, emitted a small yelp.

“I need your help,” Avery said. Gil nestled in close, warming himself against Max’s monstrous shape. The hammock moved in a rhythmic, rocking motion. He shook his head and buried it in Max’s face.

“Why not?”

Gil buried his face deeper into Max’s fur.

“Gil. Why the hell not?”

“I just don’t want to do it alone.” Avery detected a tremor in Gil’s voice and mistook it for fear.

“You won’t have to do it alone. I’ll help you.” Gil shook his head vehemently and Avery dropped his voice, low and soothing.

“Are you afraid? Don’t be afraid. The barn’s alarmed. And I swear I’ll keep you safe.”

“I’m not afraid,” Gil spat out. “I just … I can’t do it without Dad. It was his. Not mine. I can only do it if he says I can.”

“But, Gil. Dad’s dead.”

“I know that, Avery!” Avery didn’t notice the tears gathering in Gil’s eyes and continued.

“Well, he’s not going to be saying anything again.”

“How do you know?” Gil shouted.

It was the first time Gil had shown such emotion and made Avery realize how unbearable was the angst Gil had been carrying since his father died. A sudden queasy feeling gripped Avery; it couldn’t have been worse if he’d been sucker punched.

“You don’t know anything.” Gil jumped off the hammock and ran for the door. Max tried to follow, but his foot got stuck in between the knots. He sat there whimpering, trying to disengage his paw. Gil unlocked the dead bolt and ran out, failing to deactivate the silent alarm. Avery watched Gil run across the yard, unaware that downtown at the police station, another alarm screamed out a warning.
Max yelped in frustration. Avery untangled his foot and lifted him out of the hammock. Max took off after Gil through the open door. Avery sat back on the hammock and rocked, listening to the howling of the wind.

“Now what?” Avery said to himself. He really didn’t expect an answer.

“Stuff envelopes,” a voice said. Avery landed on his hands and knees and scanned the space around him. The queasy feeling was back. He sucked at the ambient air.

“Mom?” He stood up and looked uneasily around the barn. As much as he would love to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation with his mother, the shock might be enough to kill him. He took several tentative steps, swiped the drawings off the drafting table and high-stepped it out of the barn, slamming the door behind him. He didn’t stop to lock it.

Two minutes later, he threw off his coat and sat down at the kitchen table. Stacks of paper and envelopes crowded the kitchen’s surface areas. He scanned the room. The project would take all day. Avery shivered and with a single glance back toward the barn, folded one of the sheets of paper in three and stuffed the first envelope. He looked again before stuffing another. Nothing was amiss. He began folding and stuffing in earnest and after several minutes, the repetitive motion of his task took the chill out of his spine.

 

And with that, I rest.  Thanks for reading.  See you in a week or so.  I’ve got laundry to do!

p.j.lazos 4.30.16

 

 

 

***

Y

Day 25 of the #AtoZChallenge

Yoga

Say Yes to Yoga.  My #AtoZChallenge was accompanied by a personal fitness challenge to do yoga at least five times a week for the month of April and I must say that having met that goal, I feel great. Okay, still haven’t managed the “get more sleep” thing, but baby steps are progress and stretching and breathing really go a long way toward making you feel fab.

We humans spend a lot of time sitting these days, more than sleeping, walking or standing. You’re sitting, you’re sitting, you’re sitting, and your glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) and hamstrings are being stretched like a rubber band while your hip flexors are shortened. Think of how a rubber band looses elasticity if it’s under a constant stretch and how inflexible your muscles become when you don’t stretch them. Your breathing becomes shallow, and overall, your muscles become weaker, softer, lesser. Maybe you start to develop health problems because of it, problems like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, loss of flexibility, heart disease, and more.  As a result, you begin a slow, at first unnoticeable creep toward the next pants size while in a show of solidarity, the rest of your body takes on a jello-like appearance.

Do you want to avoid your muscles’ slow death march into uselessness? If your answer is “heck, yeah,” then moving around is the key not only to a normal weight, but to a longer life.  Studies show that lean people move around more. They find and utilize walking opportunities. They stretch. They fidget. (Yes, fidgeting will keep your weight down!) Get up from your chair, the couch, your desk, your car, wherever, and move. Get your heart rate going, and the electrical conductivity that pulses through your body with it.  Stretch. Breathe.

p.j.lazos 4.29.16

 

 

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X

Day 24 of the #AtoZChallenge

Xenophobia

But first — eXultation, as in, the feeling I am going to have when this freaking #AtoZChallenge is over!

Until that time, however, I still have an obligation to X so let me just say NO to Xenophobia.

The dictionary definition of Xenophobia is “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.”  Weird, huh, considering all of us — unless you can trace your ancestry back to a Native American tribe —  came from other countries.

Time to get over it because:

a) as my daughter said when she was about four, “Mom, do you know that aliens think that we’re aliens, too; and

b) we don’t have x-ray vision.

You have no idea if the guy you are so desperately trying to keep out is the guy who may discover the cure for cancer or fix your plumbing.  So be eXquisitely gracious.

I have a quote on my door at work that says:  “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”  Where it originally came from, I’m not sure, maybe the Bible, but it hangs on a wall in Shakespeare and Company, an English bookstore in Paris owned by the American-born George Whitman for almost 60 years until his death in 2011.  George was partial to supporting writers, estimating that he’d lodged somewhere around 40,000 over the years.  They’d come to work, or to soak up the aura of a bookstore that so many of the greatest writers had lent their auras to.  So if we must err, let’s err on the side of over rather under-inclusiveness…

Unknown

…because you never know.

p.j.lazos 4.28.16

 

 

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W

Day 23 of the #AtoZChallenge

WTF!

Wait, what? How is this happening?

imrs.php

Is it my imagination, or does this man have the vocabulary and mannerisms of a second-grader. Yet, he’s only a few steps away from being the Republican nominee and perhaps the next POTUS.

WTF!

Unknown

How did we get here with a political system that’s going, going, gone so far down the line of broken that it can’t even be sold for parts.

images

Time to Wake Up from our collective somnambulism that’s become a way of life, and decide how bring the WOW! back to our lives — to our lives — not someone else’s, which also means that you have to live your dream, not someone else’s. To do that, we have to focus on what has passion and meaning, on what makes us happy, on what we’re here to do, on what the world would look like if we could create it from scratch. Look at all those things rather than the things that could go wrong, and the landscape will change for you.

Because what you think about all day long is what you’re gonna get. Maybe start with a bit of gratitude for the 8,000,002 little miracles that happen for you every day. Things like breathing, and walking, and the sun rising, and growing fruits and vegetables, and movies. Start today, because if that stuff up there at the top of this post happens, then it’s only a matter of time before we implode ourselves and this happens…

p.j.lazos 4.27.16

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V

Day 22 of the #AtoZChallenge

Volunteerism — “Vision Over Visibility”

What does volunteerism mean to you? To the women of the Jr. League of Lancaster (JLL) it means commitment to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. The purpose of the JLL is exclusively educational and charitable.

The women of the JLL are women who lunch, who have kids, who have jobs, husbands or boyfriends or girlfriends, or who are single, who write, act, play, who have cancer or eating disorders, whose husbands are sick and they carry the load, whose children get sick, sometimes so sick that they die but who keep going because they know no other way, who have hopes and dreams that they often put to the side to help others with there’s. They are women who show up and put a smile on their face with or without their makeup. Women who do their very best working for some group, some cause, for someone whose need is greater, someone other than themselves, and despite their own lives and schedules and maybe even pain, they keep showing up.

I am proud to call these wonderful women of the JLL my friends, colleagues and co-conspirators in trying to inch the world along in the hopes that we will leave it in a bit of a better condition than where we found it.

So find yourself a group — or maybe come join ours — and keep showing up. It’s amazing what a small group of committed people can do when we work together.

p.j.lazos 4.27.16

 

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U

Day 21 of the #AtoZChallenge

What About Us?

I’ve written quite a few things about the dog and the cats are feeling a bit miffed and giving me attitude as cats do. They threatened to pee in the dog’s water dish. Frankly, I don’t think Apollo would care since I have caught him eating out of their litter box on the rare occasion that they use it. Since they’re indoor/outdoor cats they take advantage of all the perks Mother Nature has to offer. Okay, this is a stretch for “U,” but technically it works so don’t be a hater.

Raul and Bella, my cats, about four years old. I’m convinced this is my second time around with these two. The first time they were Zing and Zoe, brother and sister, born in Philadelphia and adorable. It was my privilege to have them for fourteen years before they transitioned and in that time, they got me through law school, several boyfriend breakups, the death of my father, and a few relocations, including a big one from Philadelphia to Central Pennsylvania. They used to sleep with me, one at my feet and one at my head, as if keeping the anxiety hiding in the darkness just out of reach. When they died within nine days of each other — one from a bladder problem and the other from a broken heart — my heart also broke. It was years before I let another cat into my little world, but when he came, all battle-ready and full of himself, we let him in.

Chester was a beautiful orange tabby, maybe 7, maybe 10, we never know for sure, but we knew we had to take him. The original owners were moving to Arizona where the foxes made a meal of cats like Chester and besides, Chester would not have gone. He was tough, part of the Special Forces team, and I once saw him take down a rabbit bigger than he was and proceed to eat it on the back deck. He would often disappear for a day, sometimes more, doing cat things. One time when he was gone for three days and I was in a panic, thinking this time he’d picked the wrong sparring partner, I prayed to every saint and deity I thought would listen, and when we found him, he’d been under the deck all along, recuperating from what looked like one tough fight. He lived a long, full life and when he stopped eating and drinking we took him to the vet who gave him an injection. We knew Chester didn’t want to live unless he could live. The kids and I held him as he took his last breath and we cried and cried. Funny that such a warrior died that way, but he really had nothing left to prove.

Back to Raul and Bella. In his past reincarnation Raul was Zoe, the Cary Grant of cats. He would wait for me on top of the refrigerator in my tiny one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia where he could kiss me when I walked in the door. In her past reincarnation, Bella was Zing, aloof, gorgeous, and a bit of a snoot. They have retained their original personalities although they seemed to have switched bodies.

Last night, Raul woke me up around 3 a.m. He was banging around our bathroom, picking up pieces of jewelry and dropping them on the counter or floor, moving bottles, knocking over tooth brushes, making a ruckus. When I “chch’d” him to be quiet, he moved into the bedroom to the window blinds and pushed them back and forth so they clanged against each other. This generally ricochets me out of bed and he knows it which is why he does it. Cats are nothing if not single-minded. Single leaves no room for two. The minute my feet hit the floor he was out of the bedroom and into the living room waiting near the fireplace to see where I would go next. His partner in crime, Bella, was close on my heels. I walked to the front door and the second I opened it, he zipped out. This is not a cat that zips in and out of doors. Usually, I hold it open a year or two before he makes up his mind, yet there he went before I could even give him a scratch behind the ears and a “be careful out there.” (We get hoot owls, although not usually at this time of year, and a cat Raul’s size would be a tasty treat.) Bella was a few steps behind and out she rushed to where Raul was waiting for her on the top step. The moment her paws crossed the threshold they were off into the moonlight, running into the great unknown with a plan and purpose that only they understood. I watched until I ran out of moonlight and they were swallowed by the inky night. I knew they’d be back. They always find me.

p.j.lazos 4.25.16

Maybe I can redeem my lame “U” with an honest to goodness “U” song:

 

 

 

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T

Day 20 of the #AtoZChallenge

Giving Thanks

True confession: I am a reluctant dog owner. It’s not that I don’t want a dog. It’s just that they are so much more work than cats and I already have more things on my wish list than time to accomplish them, but here we are.

When we were kids, my mom had a no animals policy. Really it was no mammals. Fish, turtles, okay, cats and dogs, no way. I’m not sure why, really, since she had a cat growing up. Maybe it was the shedding or the litter box, but no amount of begging caused her to relent. It wasn’t until I went to college and rented a townhouse with four other girls that I got a cat. A friend who’s cat just had a litter needed a place for half a dozen kittens. I got Siah, a black, muscle-bound fur ball, and for the next two years my roommates doted on him. One, a gourmet cook, fed him all kinds of rich, tasty treats which likely contributed to the heart attack he had six years later.

After college, I moved back home for a stint and Siah moved with me. It was as if the no animals policy was never in effect. Siah became like another child and when I moved out to start a job in the city, Siah stayed. My parents had foster-cared me out of the picture and since my new townhouse didn’t allow pets it all worked out for the best. Fast forward five or six years and my sister and I along with my two cats, Zing and Zoe, and her dog, Tashi, a Siberian husky, rent a house together. I walked her every day after work because dogs are demanding even without saying a word. Plus they give you the sad eyes until you do whatever they are telepathically telling you to do. Tashi did the dog park circuit at least twice a day, once with me and once with my sister. My dad even built her a deck out back so she wouldn’t have to stay in the house all day. It was a rental property. That’s love.

Fast forward to the present. Two years ago, my son, Ian, begged me for a dog. We had two cats already, Raul and Bella, who I am convinced are Zing and Zoe reincarnated. Ian says he needed a dog “for my childhood.” I relented because we didn’t have a no animal policy and that kind of longing should be fulfilled even though I knew it meant that I would be resuming dog care duties. I extracted a thousand promises from him, including one to walk the Apollo before school and except for that one he’s been pretty good about dog care, but as I suspected, Apollo is stuck to me like Velcro when Ian is not around. And since no one can resist such enduring and unconditional love, bit by bit, I am being won over.

So because I don’t want Apollo chewing on those nasty rawhide bones that have been bleached with formaldehyde or worse, we buy marrow bones in the freezer section of the grocery store, simmer them in a bit of water, freeze the bones and store the liquid to put in his food. Apollo loves these bones. The other day, we picked up the meat we had ordered, a quarter of a steer, probably enough meat for a year for our family, all organic, grass fed, no antibiotics. My husband had asked the butcher for some bones for Apollo, but the only thing in the boxes was a couple packs of short ribs and since it was frozen, you couldn’t tell how much was meat and how much was bone. We decided to cook it up for Apollo who had gone along on the trip to the butcher and had been salivating ever since.

Well, the two ribs turned out to be loaded with meat and very little bone, so I cut them in half, roasted them a bit more and sent Apollo outside with one of them. His usual routine is to wag his tail furiously when the bag comes out of the freezer and race to the back door where he waited. Somehow he knew this bone was different. I gave him the rib on the back porch and he took it, gingerly. This is something he wasn’t used to, a small bone loaded with a ton of meat as opposed to a large bone loaded with marrow. He ran to his usual spot in the yard, set the bone down, took a couple licks, stopped, looked up, no lie, looked up, for like four or five seconds, then down at the bone, and took another few licks. At first I thought the bone was still hot from the oven, but it had cooled for 20 minutes so there was no way. He licked it again, looked up again for a few seconds, and I was overcome with the feeling that Apollo was saying grace before a meal. Then he proceeded to eat, slowly, reverently, as if he knew the worth of what he was eating and wanted to savor it.

Apollo has never savored a thing in the two years we’ve owned him. He gobbles everything down, usually without tasting it, and we laugh. He finds bones of fallen animals in the farm field behind us and brings them back to chew on no matter how many times we throw them away. He eats other animals poop. No, I’m not proud of the fact that my dog eats poop, but he does it so fast when we’re walking that it’s almost impossible to stop it. Yet, here, on a random Friday afternoon, given something he’d never had so much of before that it was clearly manna from heaven, he was giving thanks. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d gotten down on his knees. Perhaps we all need to a take a cue from our animals and thank the Creator, not just with the perfunctory, “bless us, oh Lord,” but with a heartfelt gratitude that permeates our being and reminds us of the joy of living. Amen.

 

 

***

S

Day 19 of the #AtoZChallenge

Bernie Sanders

So my 15-year old calls during her study hall this morning and asks if she can go with a friend to Millersville to see Bernie who is appearing at the Millersville gym.

“Wait, what?” First of all, when did that plan happen and second, these kids are so tuned in they practically know about something before it even happens. But if Bernie’s coming, I’m going, too. I call our friends who we have plans with this evening to see if we should change them and all go to see Bernie. After a lot of commotion and hoopla and gnashing of teeth, we decide that we won’t go — because of the crowds, because the doors open at 4:30p and the event starts at 7:30p and it’s first-come-first-serve basis, and because we don’t have patience to stand around for three hours and wait. My friends did a lot of these rallies back in the day, but I’ve never attended a political rally. I feel like I’ll miss something if I don’t go, and then I remember how much I no longer can stand being in those kind of crowds. We’ll send the 15-year old and have her report back. And then the realization — Bernie Sanders has more energy and enthusiasm than I do!

Okay, first off, how does he do it? The man is 74 and he’s indefatigable. He was just in NYC the other day and after losing, headed home to Vermont (a wise choice — regroup, refuel, then redouble efforts) and today he’s traveling to Millersville, Pennsylvania — practically my back yard. I go to Philadelphia twice a week for work and it’s almost too much for me.

Second, why, at 74, would you want what is quite possibly one of the hardest jobs in the world? He’s not after the fame or fortune as we’ve seen again and again like the other candidates are. He simply wants to make our nation a better place. There’s no overblown verbiage like “Make America Great Again” because that in and of itself is the wrong message. It’s more like, “Make America Kind Again,” or “Give Americans a Living Wage Again,” or “Protect America’s Privacy Rights Again,” or even just make America a place where the dream is still alive again, not for a handful of people who stepped on the backs and necks of others to get there mega-share of the pie, but a place where everyone has a share, a path, a chance at the dream.

That’s what Sanders is all about and if that’s what democratic socialism is then I’m in. I don’t think Bernie will miss me tonight. He’s got too much rock star status these days and there are going to be a lot of screaming teens and twenty and thirty-somethings who can carry my load and then some. But I’ll be thinking about him and hoping that he keeps going the way he has, thinking about how his refusal to give up even in the face of unbeatable odds is why we are so enamored of him, thinking about how he has not taken a dime of Super PAC money and yet he’s front and center in the game, and how, at the end of the day, there’s nothing that can stop an idea whose time has come.

Whether he becomes the democratic nominee or a third-party nominee or he packs it in and goes back to Vermont after this and rests on his laurels, he’s changed the conversation, and he hasn’t been afraid to say the things that people have been afraid to say for a decade or more now. How very refreshing, idealistic, and brave. Just like America used to be.

p.j.lazos 4.22.16

 

 

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R

Day 18 of the #AtoZChallenge

Run Away, Run Away!

The day the dog ran away the SPCA got a cool $100 for a half hour stay in their lovely little pet resort. It started like this.  My husband was trying a new approach to dog walking. Apollo, our lovely Border Collie/Lab mix would walk/run beside him while Scott road the Segway he’d converted from standing to sitting to accommodate some health issues. The Seqway really zips around because the only feature that’s been changed is the way you ride it.

Scott and Apollo had gone out together a couple times before in the nascent stages of Scott’s Segway conversion when it was going through all kinds of modifications. First off, my husband is extremely mechanically inclined, gifted really, as are his father and brothers and my son. It’s so pervasive in his family it appears to be genetic. Half the time I don’t even understand the explanation of how something was built let alone be able to actually build it.

Scott had originally installed a tractor seat on the Segway that added about 60 lbs. to the total weight but later switched it out for a canoe-type seat made of fabric, allowing for more mobility and flexibility. Some additional modifications were made like a foot rest, and hydraulically powered feet that stabilized the machine, allowing you to get on and off safely and that you retracted with a push of a button. Suffice it to say that with all the modifications there were a few false starts, and Apollo happened to be around for a couple crashes.  Consequently, he was a bit battle worn.

On this particular day, they set out and Scott decided to keep Apollo off the leash. Maybe Apollo was done being around the Segway — it’s quiet, but it still makes a humming noise — or maybe he was chasing something and when he looked up he didn’t know where he was, but Scott called and called and when Apollo ran out of sight, Scott drove the Segway home to get the car and go look for him. While he was inside retrieving the car keys, the cops called. Apollo had been found on someone’s porch and the owners notified the cops who took him to the SPCA. A $100 later, Apollo was ours again.

We’ve been trying to help him forget the whole sordid affair and were taking him on walks together, me, Scott, and the Segway so he gets used to it. He sticks close by when the Segway is along, watching it out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to stray too far ahead or behind, maybe protecting me, maybe just curious, watching to see what that beast of a Segway is going to do next and whether he’ll have to run to safety because of it. Or maybe it’s just an excuse to run.

p.j.lazos 4.21.16

 

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Q

Day 17 of the #AtoZChallenge

Question Authority

It’s getting a bit harder, this post everyday thing, but we passed the halfway point so I’m confident I can do it, although my posts are getting later and later.  By the end, I’ll be posting at 3 a.m.  So without further ado, today’s post:

Question Authority, especially if it doesn’t agree with your mindset. I’m not saying be disrespectful, or hide in the weeds, or tell lies, or sabotage someone’s vision to get what you want, but maybe ask questions and feel the veracity of the answers. If it doesn’t agree with your own energy then vote with your feet (i.e., walk away). The Buddha said “believe nothing no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” It’s doubtful that’s a direct quote from the big B, but because I’m pretty sure the words “common sense” weren’t used in 6,000 B.C., let’s call it a paraphrase.

We’ve been so conditioned despite all our talk of individual rights to take what’s left at the table when we should be sitting down to the feast. America, democracy, these are experiments like the world has never seen, but that doesn’t mean the world is ready for them, and apparently, we aren’t either. After all, what did we do once we got a little taste of  the freedom making our own choices brings? Folded like an origami peace crane, that’s what. We got scared and stepped back into anonymity where we’re willing to settle for scraps. The last couple decades have been about transferring huge amounts of wealth between the already powerful and wealthy. Trickle down economics didn’t work when Reagan proposed it and it doesn’t work now. So what are we going to do to change it?

Start by believing in your worth and all the magic life has to offer. It’s for you, too, not just the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. While you’re figuring out your game plan, enjoy an excerpt from The Quality of Light, and a little song from Queen.

p.j.lazos 4.20.16

 

 

 

THE QUALITY OF LIGHT

☼☼☼

          They climbed, suspended between worlds. Ellie set the pace, her agile legs scampering over pebbles and boulders alike. Doc had no trouble keeping up; he was accustomed to his wife’s rhythm. He watched her, maneuvering around brush and rock, yielding nothing to the steep grade, meeting her formidable opponent at an erect, forty-five degree angle. Her posture spoke volumes, yet Doc knew it was just overcompensation for the pudgy girl who never really recognized the firm and sculpted woman she’d become.
When they reached the mesa, Doc pulled a bottle of water from his pack and handed it to Ellie. They shared long drafts until the bottle was empty then sat down on a boulder to catch their breaths. Doc tossed the bottle to the ground and fished around in his backpack.

“Recycling fourteen of those bottles can make one extra-large polyester t-shirt.”

“So you’ve said.”

“You’re not going to leave it there, are you?”

“Yes, Ellie, I hiked miles into the sky to look at this magnificent view and leave a plastic water bottle.”

They exchanged grins, his sardonic, hers sheepish. She held a hand out for the binoculars and Doc placed them there without taking his eyes from her face. She surveyed the valley like a general in enemy territory, squinting against the glare of the early morning sun inches above the horizon and already broadcasting the tenor of the day. Doc used a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his wife’s brow then applied it to his own forehead. She leaned back against him despite the heat.

“It’s got to be ninety already,” Doc said.

Ellie nodded. “Look. Right there . . . and there. Not more than a quarter mile between them, I’d say. That’s just too damn close.”

He agreed, but Doc was more interested in watching Ellie watch the miles of valley below, the slight breeze, ruffling her sun-kissed auburn hair; her unique and captivating eyes — one brown, one green; the sleek curve of her neck; and her long, delicate fingers as they held the binoculars. At forty-one, Ellie retained the athleticism of a thirty-year old. She was a handsome woman with a classic beauty that might not have been appealing to everyone in the age of supermodels and skinny jeans. To Doc, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, even with the fine lines that had begun to form around her eyes, lines that could etch into deep crevices and still not change his appraisal.

Ellie handed Doc the glasses; Doc swiveled his gaze. He could see them, minuscule specs against the expanse of land and sky, the sunlight glinting off their shiny little heads. Move even a decimeter in any direction and they disappeared. He could see the noxious fumes emanating, rising in a fine mist and dispersing particulate matter into the atmosphere. Of course, he was making the latter part up. It was only his knowledge of alchemical processes along with an engineering degree that now accessed a diagram from the computer-like recesses of his brain. Ellie would say instead that he was accessing the Zero Point Field, the web of life where all possibility resides, but Doc didn’t buy into such nonsense.

Still, he thought he could see something rising up, and not just the blazing heat of the morning that slowed and twisted the atmosphere until you could almost touch each molecule as it shimmied in the sun. No, it was something else. Maybe it would account for the headache that was gaining momentum at the base of his skull. Even looking at those wells felt toxic. Something should be done, he knew, but he wasn’t the man for the job.

***

P

Day 16 of the #AtoZChallenge

Peace

     With apologies to Warren Zevon, we’ve tried lawyers, guns and money and it hasn’t worked. It’s time for a pragmatic, system-fixing, allomothering contingent of Nanas, Bubbies and Yiayiás to head to Washington before the shit hits the fan.  Certainly, they will find a way to bring peace to our ailing nation.

Imagine your dear grandmother. She’s always led from behind as the kids ran in front and to the side and around her ankles. She kept a home, raised a family, may or may not have worked outside the home, but either way, she learned to stretch a dollar, put kids through school, and then sent them off to start their own families.  She brushed 5,000 heads of hair, planted 10,000 kisses, made 72 kajillion meals, and took the late night vigil with a sick child so her  husband could sleep before work the next morning, and she still got up the next day to do her work, her motherly duty, no matter how tired she was.

She held a million hands and gave just as many hugs, cried along with every broken heart and bruised ego, be it because of a lost friend or a lost love, buried the beloved animals, made a zillion batches of chicken soup and just as many chocolate chip cookies, and sang her kids to sleep after “just one more” bedtime story.

Even when she faltered, she picked herself up, dusted off her pride, and pretended it was no big deal because that’s what role models do, especially ones who want their children to succeed, and then despite years of hard work and sleep deprivation, she started all over with her kid’s kids. That’s the kind of leadership, resilience, intelligence, humor, and especially love that we need in Washington right now.  So screw the politicians. I say send a coalition of grandmas and let’s watch them shake things up. I bet they start by sweeping the front steps of the United States Capitol and putting a nice pot of flowers by the door, or maybe making us all lunch or a hot cup of tea.

And then, they’ll fix the world.

Peace.

p.j.lazos 4.19.16

 

 

 

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O

Day 15 of the #AtoZChallenge

OMG it’s OPD

Spare me the OPD — other people’s drama — I have enough of my own, yet OPD is running amuck in our society, taking over the airwaves and the newsfeed and the TV. Think Donald Trump or the whole American political system. Think the Kardashians. We’re sucked in, strung out, hung up, mired down, enabled and enabling. The energy on the planet is cray-cray, to use the modern lexicon for completely batshit crazy, and the more we put it on display, talk about it, and show case it to each other — “Did you hear? Did you hear?” — the more we mirror back the crazy and the more the crazy grows.

Take the Kardashians (please). When I was growing up, these girls would have been called something other than a brand and people would have stayed away from them rather than pay them money to do — I’m not sure what. Similarly, Donald Trump despite his wealth would have been considered a jerk by almost any standard, mean, arrogant, a narcissistic windbag, someone to avoid. Now he’s running for president.

So my question is, when did crazy take over the world? I think it’s when we became obsessed with OPD. Perhaps reality TV is to blame. Perhaps our ritual instincts have been dulled by the overabundance of goods and services we have in this country so there is nothing left to do but sit around and watch each other melt down, overspend, overeat, overbuy and overmedicate. Unfortunately, OPD fuels TPD — this person’s drama (meaning me, or you, if you are reading this) — and you know what happens when crazy meets crazy, right? It becomes combustible crazy which is why we are exploding all over the place, exporting and importing crazy, having lunch with it and taking it to the spa.

So do your part for the planet. The next time you’re tempted to meet crazy with crazy — like when the a$%hat driver cuts you off — take a deep breath, smile, rise above the fray for an instant and fill the space with light, let the breath out and maybe do it again if you have to and then watch and see what happens. The emotional landscape will miraculously change right before your eyes. It works although you may have to close your eyes for an instant which means you’ll have to stop watching OPD. I know you can do it. We all can. Nothing less than the fate of the world is at stake.

4.18.16 p,j.lazos

N

Day 14 of the #AtoZChallenge

Nix the Nics

The honey bees, our fuzzy four-winged friends responsible for pollination of about 70% of the foods we eat are dying at a rate of about 30% per year and getting harder to replace.  The conundrum of the disappearing bees is vexing.  We used to keep bees, but two years ago, our two remaining hives died, although that’s a misnomer since they didn’t die, but simply disappeared. Sadly, this is year two that we’ve had no bees.  My husband doesn’t want to start again without replacing all of our equipment. He thinks it’s contaminated with pesticides and that any hive that moves into those boxes is destined to meet the same fate as the previous occupants.

A study out of the Université d’ Orléans, France (March 3, 2014), reveals that low doses of neonicotinoids — a group of insecticides first applied to treat the seeds of plants and that control pests by targeting their neurosystems — are harmful to fruit flies. And while you may not care about the pesky fruit fly that’s after your pineapple and cantaloupe, scientists care very much as they use them to study the effects of chemicals and then extrapolate that information out to other insects, a little window into their reactive and behavioral world. The study found that fruit flies exposed to high doses of neonicotinoids had this frenzied mating period which rose by about 30%, and after which, they had nothing to show for it, but a significant decrease in offspring. What do these sublethal effects mean for honey bees? Decreased foraging ability, scientists hypothesize, but it’s only a theory because no one has come up with a control mechanism to test the theory.

Another study from Harvard (May 9, 2014) demonstrates that bees exposed to neonicotinoids in the summer abandoned their hives in the winter and subsequently died from exposure which is probably what happened to our little guys since they left without a trace. Wild honeybees, on the other hand, survived the winter. Historically, during winter, between 10 and 15% of bee colony populations died, but according to the Department of Agriculture, between 2007-2011 that number rose 30%. Why? Interestingly, neonicotinoids were first introduced as a method of controlling pests in 2006. Coincidence? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Yet, it’s not just bees that are being affected. Humans are, too, since the residue is taken up by the plant and ends up in our food, especially high fructose corn syrup which is used in much of our processed foods and many breads, and which beekeepers have been using of late to feed their bees. The Harvard study concluded that these sublethal amounts of pesticides were the cause of the subsequent winter collapse. Some researchers panned the study for using too small a study group, and also because it did not account for other factors such as loss of habitat and disease, but the researchers stand by their findings.

Industry has countered that it isn’t the neonicotinoids, but the varroa mite that is killing the bee. Varroa mites are to bees what fleas are to dogs. Bayer Crop Science, who makes the neonicotinoid, clothianiden, intends to spend $2.4 million (a pittance for a company that size) on the bee problem, and to find new chemicals with which to treat (slather) the varroa mite and eradicate the problem.  While the treatment of varroa mites has historically “worked,” it’s made honeybees dependent on humans for survival since they are prone to varroa mite infestation, a result of a hybridization experiment gone awry. Without the treatment, the numbers of varroa mites increases significantly and the little buggers begin attacking the bee larvae, causing still births and extreme stress on the hives as the bees struggle to keep pace with the removal of dead carcasses. Not the best scenario for our bee friends. Interestingly, the wild honeybees seem to be unaffected by the varroa mite.

While pesticides and insecticides revolutionized farming, decreasing workloads overall, and making the system much more profitable, why kid ourselves? Pesticides are really biocides. They don’t just target one thing and leave everything else alone. They are more pervasive and longer lasting than anyone could have anticipated and they are ending up in our food and our blood stream and who knows? Maybe they are changing us genetically as well. No one picks the beetles off the plants by hand anymore — unless you’re growing organic — because the pesticide kills the interloper before it becomes a problem.  Yet as any child at an amusement park who ate the ice cream, and the cotton candy, and the popcorn, and topped it off with a giant slushy knows, too much of a good thing is too much, which is where we are with pesticides.

If trace amounts of the pesticides are in plant-based derivatives like corn syrup, isn’t it safe to assume they are in the hive as well, flying in with the bee on the pollen and the nectar, and staying to make itself at home. By the way, nectar is dehydrated by the bees and transformed into honey, the same honey we eat.

Problematically, EPA’s tracking system for pesticides, its “conditional registration” is from the dark ages. Conditional registration means a product can go to market before it’s been fully vetted as long as there is not “any unreasonable risk to the environment,” but with over 16,000 pesticides registered and no centralized system, information falls through the cracks. It’s confusing, not fully computerized, and the responsibility of about 20 managers nationwide to manage 16,000 pesticide registrations! What happens when someone retires? It’s easier to get a pesticide conditionally approved than it is to thoroughly vet it, and while Bayer is obligated to follow up with information on clothianidin, one of its neonicotinoid darlings, it’s continually late. Is it better for us as a society to pay a kajillion dollars in medical expenses to treat the myriad number of diseases that will develop 5, 10, 20 years down the road from eating pesticide-laden food, or to wait a few more years and find the safest way to bring a product to market? Remember that bees are the topside’s canary in the coal mine. If neonicotinoids are damaging their little bee nervous systems, what do you think it’s doing to yours?

So what can we do?  At the end of the day, we’re not powerless, but powerful, but we must do our individual and collective parts. Write your congressman, your local city council, anyone who will listen, and ask them to focus their resources on this neonicotinoid issue and Nix the Nics. When planting your garden, use bee-friendly vegetation. Plant native flowers, keep flowers blooming all spring and summer by planting a variety that work their way through the seasons, skip hybridized plants that don’t seed because they produce less pollen, and for God’s sakes, skip the pesticides. Your grandchildren will thank you, and so will your friends, the bees.

p.j.lazos 4.16.16

M

Lucky Day 13 of the #AtoZChallenge

The Mindful Writer

Noble Truths of the Writing Life

Taking its cue for Zen Buddhism, Dinty W. Moore examines the nature of writing in his lovely little book, The Mindful Writer, Noble Truths of the Writing Life. A former disillusioned Catholic, Dinty Moore became enamored of the Buddhist religion while conducting research for his book, The Accidental Buddhist. The beauty of The Accidental Buddhist, besides being a stellar work of non-fiction, is that it makes a case for Buddhism without even trying. For me, Buddhism goes something like this: “Come. Don’t come. Do only what make sense to you, but don’t grasp onto any of it too tightly because it will only give you brush burns. We’ll be here mindfully waiting until whenever you’re ready to begin.”

Sounds great, right?  The big enchilada of Buddhism is about being non-judgmental and full-time into mindfulness. Those things are really the cornerstone of all the world’s major religions, but I think the Buddhists do it best because they place a premium on it, and put it square in the center of everything. If you look at the world through the twin filters of non-judgment and non-attachment you can’t help but be more mindful and have a better understanding of life, or at least not get so upset about it.

Enter writing, or more specifically, Buddhism and writing. The Mindful Writer explores how Moore’s own creative pursuits opened his heart and his mind in ways he could not have hoped to comprehend at the time he set out on the path, and how his own struggles as a writer helped steer him toward a deeper understanding of Buddhism.

The Four Noble Truths for Writers as explained by Moore are:

— The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
— Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
— There is no way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
— The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

The book is separated into four parts — the writers mind, the writers desk, the writer’s vision, and the writer’s life. It is full of wonder and insight and fabulous quotes, and Moore is uniquely qualified to write it.  It is the type of book that you’ll want in your permanent library even if you are not a writer, but simply someone interested in living a more authentic life. So take a breath, grab a coffee, and enjoy a few precious, non-attached, mindful moments and see what wisdom The Mindful Writer unleashes in you.

p.j.lazos 4.15.16

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L

Day 12 of the #AtoZChallenge

The Tyranny of the Label

It starts as soon as they begin a course of traditional schooling. They’re sifted and labeled and placed accordingly. If you are gifted you go to a special class. If you are challenged, you go to a special class. If you like math you to to a special class. If you like science you go to a special class. While not bad in and of itself, I think it results in an epidemic of expectation that our children may have trouble maintaining, or worse, they hit the glass ceiling because of that expectation.

While I’m all for supporting strengths and helping to overcome weaknesses, I can’t help but cringe when the 6th grade Middle School holds Career Day and expects that the kids are going to decide the rest of their lives right then and there.  I know it’s about exposing kids to a myriad of occupations and maybe that’s why they hold Career Day at all, but only the smallest number of kids grow up to be what they dreamed of being as a child, and when you start touting the list of good, safe, and always a market for jobs, or jobs that make a ton of money, you breed the dream right out of them.  Dream of being an astronaut?  Forget it.  Hardly anyone makes it.  How about a firefighter?  Low pay, high mortality rate.  How about choosing something safer?  But a 12-year old doesn’t know what his or her 30-year old self is going to want from life. Can we let them be kids for awhile and figure it all out later?

One of my kids is labeled gifted and one probably should have had an ADHD label but because the school didn’t want to do an IEP, they worked around it by giving him out of class support.  Sometimes the gifted one wants to live up to the label so much that it results in an overwhelmingly disruptive anxiety that causes a lack of focus. And the almost ADHD one has an amazing ability to concentrate on the things of interest to him — a state of hyper focus — of which I’m almost jealous. In fact, when studying for something important, he won’t talk about the fun thing to follow because he’ll start dreaming about it and he won’t be able to finish the task at hand.  He’s said this.  How wonderfully self-aware.

Is it possible that our labels are actually stunting growth, forcing our kids to mold themselves to fit the names we call them, and denying them the serendipitous avenues their lives might have taken if we hadn’t scripted every last second of it by insisting on calling it by name.

Want more focus? Want the job of your dreams? Find the thing that makes your soul sing and start Living on Purpose.  The light in that part of your world is astounding, and there’s no name for it.

p.j.lazos 4.14.16

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K

Day 11 of the #AtoZChallenge

Kill the K-Cup

Kill the K-cup!  Watch the video. It’s hilarious, and true from a too much plastic perspective, and scary, but only in the environmental sense, not the possible K-alien sense.

Also, Kiss someone today.

And always act with Kindness. Even when you’re mad as hell.

Need I say more?

p.j.lazos 4.13.16

 

 

And because I don’t like to end the day without listening to a little something, here’s Kwabs:

 

 

 

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J

JOY

Joy stands at the window and watches the hummingbirds at the feeder. They are the same, she and they, nature’s most tenacious forager. She knows they came many miles to see her and she is grateful.

Joy can’t remember the last time she was sad. She tries to make herself feel that way sometimes — just for kicks — but she ends up laughing and laughing. She really is the easiest person in the world to get along with.

Joy counts the number of times per minute the hummingbird flaps its wings just to see if she can keep up. Sometimes she stands next to them to feel the breeze on her face. She does such silly things, but the hummingbirds don’t seem to mind.

Joy snorts sometimes when she laughs which just makes her laugh more. Also she smiles in her sleep especially when she dreams. Joy would like to be your very best friend. She hopes you will take her up on her offer.

p.j.lazos 4.12.16

 

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I

Day 9 of the #AtoZchallenge

I Am Water

And so are you. At least about 72% of you is, along with the person you love, your kids, your friends, all your acquaintances, all mostly water. Several billion years ago, a few single-celled organism started focus groups, formed cohesive bonds with those similarly situated, discussed logistics, strategized, and eventually crawled their way out of the primordial soup. At one time oceans covered the planet. At one time dinosaurs roamed the earth. We’ve come a long way since then, but we’re still sipping the same water the dinosaurs drank.

When I was born, I shared the water on this planet with just over 3 billion people. Today, I’m sharing it with 7.2 billion. In 2040, we’ll have just over 9 billion people, but maybe not enough water for us all. By 2030, one-third of these billions of people will not have access to clean drinking water; by 2040, the constant struggle of energy needs vs. personal water use will create dire water shortages for the planet; and by 2050, it could be game over.

Rather than say “the problem is too big; there is nothing I can do,” say, “I am water.” By aligning yourself with the essence that is water, you change the game. Water is fluid. Water is cleansing. Water is buoyant, and intuitive, and multi-dimensional. Water knows how to heal itself and, intrinsically, you do, too.  Maybe start with that leaky faucet.

And while you’re imagining ways to become one with water, here’s John to help you along.

p.j.lazos 4.10.16

 

 

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H

Day 8 of the #AtoZChallenge

Hands that Help

Holy Crap, it’s only day 8 of the AtoZChallenge! Getting a bit tired, but I’m not giving up and neither should we, despite the hellish state of American politics. There are so many words that start with H that I could wax prophetically on for paragraphs: hell; happiness; hinderances; hyrdrofracking, but I want to talk briefly about the political landscape in the U.S. as a microcosm of the world in general where we, as a society, are standing on the precipice of so many challenges — economic, moral, spiritual, apocalyptic — and never have we had this many stressors on the planet at once.

It’s snowing here today in Central Pennsylvania where my daffodils and hyacinths were already in bloom, where it was 65 degrees last week, and 70 degrees and balmy last Christmas morning. That juxtaposition alone should lead to people everywhere saying, “holy crap,” and I think they are, but instead of facing the problems we’ve created, we’ve turned away from our collective problem-solving mindset and run hog wild in the other direction, screaming hysterically at rallies for our political aspirants who shall remain nameless — lest I provide them with more media coverage — about the needs of the individual (or country) outweighing the needs of society (or world).

That’s all well and good when there’s a billion people on the planet, but things are getting a bit crowded here on Planet Earth and with seven billion of us needing to eat, sleep, and poop, we don’t have the same luxuries of abundance (overuse) that are the dominant theme of our American culture. Think of water as a prime example because you know California is and soon your state may be, too.  We must learn to live sustainably if we are to survive and we can’t live sustainably without living collectively.  It’s just not possible.

We need our tribes, always have, and even if you don’t need all the able-bodied men in the village to take down the wooly mammoth, or the able-bodied woman to collect and gather and keep the fire going, you still need them to be good fathers and mothers, providers and role models, and plain old good citizens because every generation models itself on the one to come before them either through acceptance or rejection. Isn’t it better that our children emulate our actions rather than decry our abuses, overuses and destruction of what is soon-to-be their world?  Our current ideology of narcissism and greed over all else — of making us great again at the expense of our brothers and sisters who also live here on this planet — is an ill-fitting dress that the Earth does not care to wear. It doesn’t square with democracy, or the “moral code” espoused by so many God-fearing peoples on the planet, although many seem to be embracing it whole-heartedly, an anomaly in and of itself, and how it got this out of control is anyone’s guess.

I think it may have something to do with fear, and survival, and the feeling of being under attack, so let me just say that the way to combat fear is with love, and the way to feel a sense of community, of deep-seated trust and respect, is to reach across the aisle, or the pond, or the planet, with a wide-open heart and two open Hands and be part of a Community. Change can only come Through Your Hands. Now go wash them and get busy.

p.j.lazos 4.9.16

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G

Good Grief

Grief doesn’t rearrange the furniture anymore, she just throws everything away with no care for whether she’ll need it later.  Grief sits at the kitchen table with her head in her hands, a cup of black coffee, untouched, at her elbow. She understands the meaning of despondency because she goes there for micro visits 500 times a day. Grief used to have a lovely singing voice, but she can’t seem to get past the feeling of heavy cloth lying atop her larynx. She doesn’t even hum anymore. Grief adorns herself in black moonless nights and bottomless lakes. Sometimes she thinks about putting big stones in her pockets to see if she can find the bottom, but then she gets embarrassed and reaches for another thought.  When she can’t quite grasp it she gives up and goes to bed. Lots of times she cries. Watching her, my heart sinks into the fibers of the mattress along with her tears.

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Day Six of the #AtoZChallenge

Fear & Forgiveness

Fear is our greatest enemy, the one we never knew we had. Fear demands you alter your behavior and arm yourself to the teeth. Fear says you’re with us or against us and there is no room for anything in between. Fear says take this road, but not that one because who knows what evil may be lurking. Fear says keep your eyes on them, they don’t look at all like us. Fear stands between you and everything that is different and demands an accounting. Fear takes all the fun out of life. He really is a big fat downer.  Fear never lets you achieve your dreams.

Forgiveness stands at the front door and waits even while all the cold air snakes in because she knows there’s room for everyone and doesn’t want them to get the wrong impression, especially the one she was way too harsh with earlier. Forgiveness says, “Come. Have something to eat,” then sets an extra place for you even when you thought you couldn’t possibly belong. Forgiveness floats through the air on angel wings, fluttering by your face like a cool evening breeze, taking all your past inexcusables with it. Forgiveness is the embodiment of grace in motion. Forgiveness shares. Forgive someone today and watch your life shift and your inner light grow.

p.j.lazos 4.6.16

 

 

 

 

 

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E

Energy, Economics and Environmentalism

How can we care for the Earth if we can’t care four ourselves? The energy and enthusiasm we bring to environmentalism is a direct reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Our bodies become a toxic waste dump when we eat nothing but processed or pesticide-laden foods, when we over-medicate, when we choose inertia over exercise. Similarly, contamination isn’t limited to our bodies, but also our thoughts. Fear, jealousy, anger, etc., all have deleterious effects on the body.

In the U.S. our energy policy is predicated on the destruction of the earth — ditching, drilling, dredging, and the like — and the pillaging of Her natural resources, while the consumption of energy is simply a gluttonous affair, note as one example, the heating and cooling of the uber-sized McMansions that are rarely occupied for more than a few hours a day. In Europe, sustainability matters. In the U.S., it’s size. Perhaps it’s the incredible amount of wide open spaces we once had at our disposal, spaces, that are rapidly dwindling.

Here in Central Pennsylvania, my home turf for the last 22 years, I’ve watched farm after farm being gobbled up, sacrificed to the gods of urban sprawl so rows of cookie-cutter homes can stand where beets and cabbage and arugula used to grow. If our country’s economic prosperity is fueled by the housing boom and a consumerism mentality, how long will it be until the bottom really drops out. Eventually there will be nowhere left to put a new home even if there are still buyers, and really, how many blenders or new pairs of shoes does one need?

Maybe we could try free energy for a change of pace. Wind, water, our amazing sun which shines its beneficent face on us daily. There are jobs that can come of the means by which we harness these gifts from the Mother. Technologies yet to be discovered and invented. Ways to make a profit and a living wage. But the premise from which we begin to think about it must change from me to we. If what’s good for the collective becomes the imperative over what’s best for the individual watch how the paradigm shifts.

p.j.lazos 4.6.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day Four of the #AtoZChallenge – Dams, Dikes, and Diversions

Day Four and I’m still doing yoga everyday, even on Sunday, the day off from writing.  Already I feel more flexible than I have in years so there’s that.

Dams, dikes, and diversions means those things that distract you on the way reaching for your dreams.  It’s a direct outcropping of failing to live consciously as you fail to guard your thoughts and unfortunately, given the state of our world, it’s easy to think less than stellar thoughts at any given moment.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “you create your own reality,” but do you know how it works? When you wake up looking forward to a great day but your next three thoughts are about your commute, or a meeting you don’t want to attend, or a test you don’t want to take, you’ve been diverted, and your super highway to your day’s (or life’s) dream will be dammed up, left wading in shallow water with other similar dreams, so close, yet just out of reach on the other side of that dike.  It’s not your fault, you say, but it’s your thought, and that’s the thing that needs work.

More on thoughts, and energy, and the art of making dreams a reality later.  For now, enjoy an excerpt from my soon-to-be-released environmental murder mystery, my current dream, Oil and Water, with a bit on a famous D river, the Delaware.

Oil and Water

The Delaware River, the longest undammed and only remaining major free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, also lays claim to the largest freshwater port in the world. The river flows three hundred and thirty miles from Hancock, New York, and makes a pit stop in the Delaware Bay before spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. It serves as the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey and services twenty million residents of the New York, New Jersey and the Philadelphia area with drinking water. Washington’s famous Christmas Eve ping ponging across the river began and ended on the banks of the Delaware at Trenton, New Jersey. But the river’s abundance isn’t limited to battles, boundary lines and the provision of potable water. It’s a dichotomy in uses: heavy industry draws on her for its needs as do bald eagles and world-class trout fisheries. As evidence of the latter, about one hundred and fifty miles of this magnificent river has been included in the U.S. National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
In the late 1800s, approximately one million Philadelphians lived within the boundaries of America’s third largest city, which boasted the second largest port in the country located in the Delaware Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with assuring the river’s safety, dipped its long, federally-funded fingers into a bevy of construction, flood control, and navigational projects designed to improve, among other things, the river’s navigability. In 1878, before Philadelphia had electricity or the telephone, sixteen hundred foreign trade vessels arrived each year, and six thousand coastal trade vessels docked in the river’s port. Trade vessels have given way to supertankers: seventy million tons of cargo arrive in the river’s waters each year. From sails, to steam, to the supertankers, the Delaware River and its Bay have lent their banks and waters to the growth of the interstate and international commerce of not only Philadelphia, but also the nation.
At its deepest point, the Delaware is only forty feet, which means the river can’t abide a thousand foot supertanker between her banks. Roughly the size of three and a half football fields and bearing three million gallons of oil or other cargo, a ship that size has forty foot drafts, and sits forty feet below the water line, as deep as the river’s most navigable channel. Low tide causes the water levels in the tidally influenced channel from the Delaware Bay to Philadelphia to drop as much as eight feet which would leave a thousand foot ship incapacitated, floundering like a beached whale.
When the Corps of Engineers began its first deepening project in 1855, the depth of the Delaware stood at eighteen feet. The Corps dredged down to the current depth of forty feet during World War II and maintained this depth by periodic dredging and removal of silt buildup in the channel to the tune of about 3.4 million cubic yards a year. Since 1983, the Corps has studied the feasibility of dredging the Delaware’s main shipping channel down to forty-five feet to better accommodate the world commodities market by making the hundred-and-two mile shipping route from the Delaware Bay to Camden, New Jersey, more accessible.
To do so, the Corps would need to remove about twenty-six million cubic yards of silt and sediment from the river bottom and continue removing another 862,000 cubic yards every year thereafter at a cost of approximately $311 million dollars. Cost notwithstanding, the Corps needs a place to put all that sand, clay, silt and bedrock. While federally owned sites have been identified, environmentalists contend that the detrimental effects to drinking water, aquatic and bird life, and the potential contamination from the disposal of dredged material outweigh the benefits.
That story — small town need vs. corporate greed; environmental stewardship vs. environmental recklessness; the rights of the few vs. the rights of society — has existed since the dawn of creation, and, because of constraints of space and time, is a story best saved for another day.

Enjoy also this musical interlude by the Fifth Dimension.  And with that, I rest.

p.j.lazos 4.5.16

C

Day Three – Live Consciously

Living Consciously means being present in the moment, not worrying about the past or superimposing you wishes on the future, rather, just experiencing the here and now in all its abundance. That is a choice we all make on a moment-to-moment basis. When you’re having coffee with a friend while checking your news feed on your cellphone, you are not living consciously. When your husband or kids are trying to tell you a story and you are reading your email rather than making eye contact, you are not living consciously. When your kids are saying, “mommy, can you go out and play with me,“ and you ignore them for some other task, you are not living consciously (also, don’t be surprised if they ignore you later).

Our brains are simply not wired to multitask despite what we all choose to think. You can’t read the paper, listen to music, have a phone conversation, and write a term paper all at once, not without some or all of those things suffering for it. Not only does the quality of the work product diminish, studies show this kind of multitasking is extremely hard on the human brain which likes to do one thing at at time and do it well. My 20-year old is fond of watching “Grey’s Anatomy” while she does her homework. She minimizes the box and places it in a corner of the screen, but that doesn’t eliminate the distraction, it just adds to the constant crush and buzz of noise in her head, AND it doesn’t make the dreaded task go any faster. In fact, it really just slows progress.  If I said that such constant stimulation without any chance for the brain to relax was not good, that perhaps it may lead to Alzheimer’s, do you think anyone would believe me? Probably not, because we often feel invincible, that is, until we aren’t, and then we are left with the consequences of all our bad choices.

Similarly, my 15-year old, and every one of her friends, can spend hours surfing through vines — 6 second videos — which are often funny, but don’t do much to improve IQ. Is it possible that all the incidences of ADD and ADHA are fueled, or at least contributed to, by the sheer number of distractions in our 21st century world? So what’s a parent to do? Begin by setting the example to live consciously, moment to moment, instead of languishing in a collective delirium. Consider this — in this over-loud, overbearing, overloaded world, it’s possible that the quietest person in the room, the one unaffected by the din, will be the one with many of the answers, the one that people gravitate toward. What a refreshing change. I tell my kids every morning when they leave for school to make good choices. And as far as I can tell, living consciously is not just a good choice, but the best choice. Our very existence as an evolving planet depends on it.

p.j.lazos 4.4.16

 

 

 

 

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B

A to Z Primer — A Study of the World Behind Your Eyes

Day Two — Breathe

Hey, I’m back again (so soon?) for Day Two of the A to Z Challenge. As background, after much wrangling with potential themes and possibilities for decent content on a month’s worth of blogs, I settled on the one thing in my universe that needs the most work — me.

The original idea came while attending my weekly yoga class. I take yoga once a week and while the benefits are amazing, they certainly don’t last an entire week.  By the time I go back the following week, it’s as if I never went in the first place. Time to shake things up, I see, so why not combine challenges?

For the entire month of April I will attempt transformation from the me who sits too much, thinks too much, eats too much stuff that’s not good for her, doesn’t sleep enough, and who is so totally invested in being a mom, wife, lawyer, and writer that she pretty much will let herself fall apart at the seams, to a glowing, nimble, peaceful person who happens to also do all those life things but respects her Self in the process. Maybe my little bit of self-improvement will add light to the sum of light out there and the angry planet we find ourselves spinning on will perhaps get a dose of much-needed equilibrium. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on some save the world thing. I’m totally limiting my quest to my own darkness and my own light, but if the light somehow spreads, well, that would be cool, too.

So let’s talk about breathing.  A good breath increases the wellness quotient in your body like a long slow rain after a drought.  It’s a Benediction for you blood, tissues, organs and all your vital bodily processes.  Most of us are shallow breathers, moving/racing/lunging toward the next thing on our to-do list, the next shallow breath, not engaging our diaphragm, and not allowing air past the top third of our lungs.  This breathing method creates some unwanted conditions.  Since the lungs never expand sufficiently, their elasticity is compromised over time as the body is never treated to the abundance of favors that a series of deep breaths can bestow.  Shallow breathing can lead to problems such as anxiety, asthma and pulmonary edema, to name a few.  Shallow breathing can also lead to the build up of carbon dioxide in your system, making it uninhabitable for you.  I mean, how does a decent breath find its way into a body like that?

Deep breathing releases toxins and tensions, clears the mind and body, relieves pain — in yoga, you “breathe through” the pose — supports the immune system, the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the skin, and eyes, and liver, and hair, heck it supports every one of your body’s systems, and it’s both free and easy, or easy-ish, because you have to be mindful to do it correctly.  I’ll go so far as to postulate that if we were all deep breathers, world peace would be a possible next step in our evolution.

So don’t forget to breathe, and breathe deeply.  Your simple act of breathing could make a utopian universe possible!

Now I’m off to yoga.

p.j.lazos 4.2.16

 

 

 

A

A to Z Primer — A Study of the World Behind Your Eyes

Day One — All In

Can writing improve your life? I’m going to attempt to write something every day for a month, and I’m hoping the daily blog doesn’t become the daily slog, but I want to see if I can do it, to commit to writing in a way I haven’t committed before. I may not be up to my personal best every single day, especially because my obsessive editing is going to be asked to sit this one out, but I’m going trust that whatever comes of this will be worth the effort.

In tandem with my little writing experiment, I’m going to add the practice of yoga every day, eat fewer processed foods, and as little sugar as possible. Note that I didn’t say I would give those things up, but I will commit to reducing consumption and being more mindful of what I do consume. At the end of 30 days, I should feel like a million bucks, right? So to the extent this exercise needs a theme, here it is: self-improvement through being nice to Self.

Also, sometimes, depending on the day and what is going on in the world, I may need to get the ranting over before I can get to the good stuff. In that way, greenlifebluewater may become the Forest Gump of blogs. You never know what you’re going to get with the exception that I will, however loosely, stick to the rules.

It’s an A day, so here are so random thoughts about As:

Adipose tissue, also known as fat, is the place where all those nasty chemicals we ingest through bad food, bad water, bad Air and bad processed foods take up residence in our bodies. They also can affect our organs which is where disease starts so perhaps a spring cleanse is in order. Give your liver a facelift with a nice liver cleanse. You’ll help your body take out the trash. While you’re at it, ditch the Anxiety you’ve been storing in your cells and start saying nice things to yourself. Try three nice things about yourself before you get out of bed in the morning and see if you can keep it going throughout the day.  It’s a total mood-changer.

So for today, at least, I am All In for this A to Z challenge. My hope is that I’ll get to the end adapted, admired and allegro (which basically means happy in Italian).

In the meantime, enjoy this example of the heights to which you can rise when you are All In.

p.j.lazos 4.1.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[photo by Arianna Rich]

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Words

by Arianna Rich

Words:

 

I
They’re sweet like
honeysuckle,
hiding in the bushes.

II
They’re the words
of mourning, when you get
a midnight phone call: “There was a crash … ”

III
Words can be soothing,
a gentle caress of your cheek
just when you need it the most.

IV
They’re lemon bitter, the hate words.
They jump down your throat and
Sit
like a lump,
no oxygen escaping and none slipping in,
threatening to bring tears to your eyes.

V
They’re Swift
like a shadow
in the night,
slipping through the darkness without a trace of light.

VI
They’re soft and swirly and light as a feather.
White cotton sheets,
rippling in the wind.

VII
They’re bright and bubbly,
popping, like drops of golden sunlight
into your sun-kissed hair.

VIII
They’re EVERGREEN.
Fresh and pure as young pine, hiding
behind the old ones in the mystical forest.

IX
Words are slick as a blade,
gliding across the ice.

X
tHey conjure and drEam and imagine
those siLly words.
They buiLd castles in the clOuds.

XI
There are words that rhyme,
but not all the time.

XII
Words are STIFF
hard
j-a-g-g-e-d
quick
sharp
Ridiculous. Illogical. Truthful.
Often impatient.

XIII
Words are the center of the Earth,
the glue that holds her inhabitants together.
Without words, there would be no poems to write
or stories to speak.

No Way To Communicate.

Yet sometimes — when words are needed most…
is the time no words are spoken at all.

p.j.lazos 3.28.16

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Moon Talk

When I talk about the moon

I mean to talk about you

(Yes, you!).

I know how you like to hide

Behind the moon

Playing games with the night

And the stars.

Perhaps when I talk about you

I simply am trying to find

What is real and true about me.

How clever not to reveal your dark side

Until all the wounds have healed!

What do you suppose I mean

When I seek out the meaning of you?

In all the nights of the universe

Is there meaning to the moon?  Or does

The moon hide its meaning

Behind the meaning of you?  Concealed

Behind the moon, as there is

A mid-night, could there be a mid-moon?

Our destiny as a couple was doomed —

No mid-wife, no child —

Therefore no meaning of life as a wife.

You left me naked, alone in the darkness,

Talking to the moon.

      from Moon Talk by Wade Stevenson

p.j. lazos 3.20.16

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The Chocolate Assassin

      The ghost of Dashiell Hammett floats between the pages of The Chocolate Assassin, by Peter Durantine, a crime noir novel á la Hammett, Raymond Chandler and the rest. Set between two time periods — present day and World War II Germany — The Chocolate Assassin presents as a hard-boiled crime noir novel, but where Hammett’s characters are surly and disillusioned with life (think Sam Spade), Durantine’s protagonist isn’t bitter, or smart-alecky, or even mad; he’s just a good detective. Similarly, the gritty nature of Hammett’s characters is not present in The Chocolate Assassin, and that’s a good thing because Durantine is his own writer, and Detective Grey is his own man, a detective with a conscience and no particular grudge against life. How refreshing!

The Chocolate Assassin starts with the murder of Eric Hoest, a fisherman, and friend to Oskar Franks, the neighbor who discover’s Hoest’s body. Franks is a German ex-pat like Hoest. They both had come to America for a fresh start but apparently, Hoest’s past followed him here. Found at the scene near Hoest’s body are shell casings later determined to be from a Luger, circa late 1930’s, and a recent newspaper article naming Hoest as a former U-Boat Captain.

Detective Sam Grey is a half African-American and half Hispanic grad student working on a Masters in history degree. For the most part, Grey manages to avoid, if not ignore overt racism despite that it’s at the very heart of the book’s subject matter. It helps that Grey’s not all gnarled and bitter on life like your usual crime detective, and that he has a real penchant and talent for his work. Grey follows up on the newspaper clipping found on Hoest’s desk with a trip to the library to search through WWII newspapers. Diligence combined with intuition leads him to uncover several leads and soon he’s off to Germany to track them down, meeting one bizarre character after another, each more mysterious than the last.

Martin Hahn was trained as an elite member of the Hitler Youth and given an assignment of the utmost secrecy as the war was drawing to a close. Hahn and Hoest have a linked past, and it’s possible that Martin is still working undercover for the Nazis more than half a century later, but it will take more than Grey’s interest in history to unravel all the many twists that ultimately lead him to the truth.

It’s no coincidence that Durantine is a journalist by trade and used to digging for a story. The Chocolate Assassin has a no-nonsense style and a flavor for the history of the times without getting lost in it. A nice read for lovers of the crime or historic fiction novel, or for those who just want a well-told, fast-paced and enjoyable Whodunnit.

p.j.lazos 3.5.16

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The Emperor’s Cool Clothes

       The Emperor’s Cool Clothes by Lee Harper is a new take of the beloved tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen. We’ve all read the original. A very vain, very rich man, the Emperor, orders some fancy new clothes.  His greedy tailors comply, but in the process, decide to stick it to the Emperor.  They spend hours and hours creating the new wardrobe and when when finished, present it to the Emperor with the caveat that only those worthy will be able to see them. Of course, there are no clothes, but the Emperor doesn’t know that, and when he can’t see what he’s supposed to be wearing he thinks he himself is not worthy. The Emperor’s Cool Clothes is the same story, yes, but the real joy of this version is Harper’s amazing illustrations and cleverly reimagined characters, modernized to resonate with today’s kids. The book is beautiful, a paean to illustration.  So what are you waiting for?  Go buy it for your kids.

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Harper has illustrated a variety of books, including the award winning, Woolbur, a story    about a sheep who dared to be different, Turkey Claus, Turkey Trick or Treat, and Turkey Trouble, obviously about turkeys, with author Wendi Silvano, and in addition to The Emperor’s Cool Clothes, he’s written and illustrated Coyote, and Snow, Snow, Snow.

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I’m sure I’ve missed some, and there are definitely more coming.  Not only is the man something with a set of paint brushes, he loves the art and craft of writing and illustrating for kids.  So without further adieu, I give you Lee Harper.

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First off, you are a top-notch illustrator.  Have you always done illustrations or did you start off with something else and then move into illustration? 

Thank you!

Looking back it’s easy to see I was always an illustrator. In elementary school I could never hand in a book report without illustrations. I majored in fine art in college but never quite figured out how to use what I learned in the real world. It wasn’t until after I had four children and was in my forties that I thought seriously about illustrating picture books.

Did you doodle, draw, paint, or throw paint at a canvas as a kid?

In elementary school I fell into the habit of doodling on all of my math tests. I think it was my way of entertaining myself when I was bored. I found math incredibly boring.

How do you come up with your illustrations?  Do you see a picture in your head and go from there or does something catch your attention and you decide you want to draw it to express what you’ve seen?

Whether it’s an illustration for one of my own stories or an illustration for another author’s story, it all starts with the words. In the beginning stages I’ll read the words, then search the world for inspiration. Sometimes, like in the case of Woolbur, that meant visiting sheep farms. Sometimes it’s just gathering info on the Internet. When I’ve absorbed all the information on the subject that I can, I lie down and try to imagine a scene. Once I have a picture in my head that I’m happy with I begin drawing. After I have a rough sketch, I’ll go back and look at photo or reference materials to fill in the details.

Do you prefer collaboration where you simply illustrate, or do you like to do both the writing and the drawing more?

Once I’m given another author’s story to illustrate I superimpose my own interpretation on top, creating a new layer of meaning, while at the same time keeping within the framework of the author’s story and true to their vision. It’s a delicate and complicated process with a lot of going back and forth but somehow in the end we create an entire picture book world previously unimagined. It’s such a huge undertaking that it’s nice to have a collaborator, or collaborators. I love it. But on the other hand, it’s nice to tell your own story in your own personal style. Sometimes — like in Coyote [a story written by 41Yf-vgs5yL._AA160_Harper to honor his brother, Chase, who had died] — it could be no other way. So, to answer your question, I love doing both.

What did you do in your previous incarnation before you became a children’s book author/illustrator?

After college, unable to make a living selling my paintings, I found work as a picture framer and eventually opened my own picture framing business, which I ran for about fifteen years. I learned a lot from the experience. Even though I wasn’t making a lot of art in those days, every day I LOOKED at art. All kinds of art. Good and bad. I think it helped me learn what kind of art I liked and what kind of art I didn’t like. It also gave me a great appreciation for now being able to do something I really love!

What do your own kids think of your books?  Did you initially start writing for them?

Before I was published, my kids thought I’d lost my marbles when I began spending all my free time painting beavers playing baseball and other goofy scenes. The turning point was when a few years ago, after I’d had some success in picture books, I was honored in a special event at my kid’s school. Afterwards, the principal asked my wife Krista and I to a luncheon in the teacher’s lounge. My kids were also invited. They had never before eaten in the teachers lounge and —compared to the cafeteria — it was a revelation. Also, eating in the teacher’s lounge earned them a degree of celebrity status amongst their classmates, as no other child before or after was known to have eaten in the teacher’s lounge. Now they think what I do is pretty cool.

My kids have always been a great inspiration for my writing and art but I can’t say it was for them that I started. In fact, when I was making my career change from picture framing to children’s literature it felt like an extremely irresponsible parenting decision.

Well, it was one that paid off, at least for the children’s book world.  What’s a typical day look like?  Up at five, doing yoga, then some drawing? 

That would be my dream typical day but the reality is that most days start out with something much more mundane… like doing the dishes I was too tired to do the night before. Once I’m an empty nester and the puppy is house-trained, I’m hoping that my typical day will be up at five, yoga and drawing!

I note that you teach painting workshops.  Do you teach both kids and adults?

I’ve taught some painting workshops for kids but never adults.

How often do you visit kids’ schools and how did you get started?

When my first book came out, my editor at HarperCollins encouraged me to visit schools. I visited a few my first year of being published but I wasn’t very good at it. It didn’t come naturally for me to talk in front of large groups of people. The first time I ever spoke in public, during question and answer time, the first question was: “Are you really scared?” I guess I was shaking a bit. As I published more books, each year I was asked to visit more and more schools. Gradually I got better at it and began to really enjoy it. Now I visit about twenty schools a year and get a lot of inspiration from my interaction with all the children, teachers, and librarians I meet. It also helps pay the piper.

You are very active on social media.  How much marketing do you do from a time standpoint and do you like it?

As soon as my daughter Naomi introduced me to Facebook I was hooked. As someone who expresses himself best with words and pictures — and who has an insatiable hunger for external validation, — it’s the perfect storm. I check to see how many people like my latest post once every hour, but I’m trying to cut back. From a marketing standpoint I don’t think it’s very effective, in fact, it’s probably counter-productive. During the Romney campaign my friend list shrank by 40%. Now I try not to post a single comment about politics even when one party’s front-runner is a bullying, xenophobic, racist with a weird orange comb-over. [ed. note:  hilarious and so true!]  I try, but sometimes I still slip up with a caricature or two.

Do you have any advice for would-be children’s authors?

If you must post on Facebook, stick with puppies. Try to eliminate as many trivial distractions as possible. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to other seemingly more successful authors. Whether you are just starting out or you have numerous books under your belt, it always comes back to the work. Put blinders on and stay focused on the work. Enjoy the work. Everything else is just noise.

That’s great advice, Lee.  I’ve got one more question. If you could give the world’s kids one gift, what would it be?

I would give them my books. Although most of my books are of a silly nature, I sincerely believe that if the books I give the children of the world help foster a lifetime love of reading — even if it’s only in a miniscule way — I’ll have given something worthwhile. The more children read, the more likely it is that they will become adults capable of dealing rationally with the complexities of the world and understanding different kinds of people.

That’s great.  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat and good luck with your future works!

p.j.lazos 2.29.16

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Alex Moves to a New House

Justine Bugaj, co-owner of bookscover2cover with a newly launched PR and marketing business has recently published her first children’s book, Alex Moves to a New House, a delightful tale of overcoming fear and embracing change.

Psychologists tell us that moving to a new house is one of the top ranking stressors, right up the with death and divorce, so if it’s tough for an adult, imagine what it’s like for a kid? How do children deal with the emotional fallout of moving? Justine’s protagonist does just fine, not only acclimating, but excelling by making new friend the day after they arrive with the garden-growing neighbor next door. This leads to a new life skill as Alex learns all about growing vegetables and plants. The book ends with an entire page dedicated to pictures of plants and vegetables, lending support for kids to identify real world foods. Alex Moves to a New House is endearing and heartfelt, great for young readers and curious thinkers, and a lovely addition to any children’s book collection.

 

JHBF

 

And now, an interview with Justine Bugaj:

How long have you been writing?

Not long, although it has been something I have always dreamed of doing. This children’s story was somewhat of an anomaly in that it came from a thought and took on a life of its own, but I would not have considered my being a “writer” until the last 6 months or so when I began a daily writing practice. Sit and write, even if just for 10 minutes or 45 minutes.

Is Alex Moves to a New House your first published piece?

Yes

What was your inspiration?

My nephews, and my own difficult experience of moving to a new house when I was about seven.

Why did you choose children’s books over other genres?

Perhaps because I have an inclination for this genre given that some of my favorite memories are from some of the earliest books I read (Ferdinand the Bull, Peter’s Chair, Where the Wild Things Are) and, to be honest, the story found me so I decided to write it.
Personal experience tells me that children’s books are much harder than writing for adults. Do you agree? Do you prefer children’s books or is this a one-time project?

Because I have not yet attempted to write a longer piece for adults (except for a couple short stories and poems), I am not sure. I imagine it depends upon our personal experiences, both past and present, and what motivates us to write the story. Children’s books are fundamental to encouraging a child to read and engage and if I can contribute even in a very small way…. I don’t think it will be a one-time project as I have already started another story.

You are the co-owner of bookscover2cover.com which publishes writer’s works daily and where you are responsible for website design and content. First, which side of the fence do you prefer being on, writing or publishing, and second, are some things interchangeable between writing and publishing, or is it a wholly different skill set?

Great question! The whole endeavor has afforded me an opportunity to learn and develop new skills, which I enjoy in itself. Thus, I like being on both sides of that fence, although the writing requires more of me (quiet time, energy, reflection) because I am so new to it as a practice. Or perhaps that is the way it is regardless of how long you have been doing it?

Your brother, Jason Squire Fluck is also a writer, and your mom, Sandra Fluck is a poet and your partner in bookscover2cover. So what’s the deal? Was there something in the water growing up or was it intentional that you all became writers? And what about your dad? Odd man out, or does he write as well?

To be honest, I don’t consider myself a writer in the same regard as both Jason and Sandy — they have been writing for decades and their work reflects the art and skill of such a sustained practice and creativity. However, having been raised with writers in the midst, some of the intention most likely passed on.

What’s your next project?

My next writing project will be another story in what I would like to see become an “Alex” series of books.

Given unlimited resources what major world problem would you try to solve and how would you go about doing it?

Violence. We perpetrate violence against each other and it is a most insidious form of power. We perpetrate violence against our planet by consuming resources without regard to future generations. To me, tackling the violence towards children — poverty, abuse, lack of education, unsafe home environment, continual media exposure to violence… you get the picture — is imperative as a way to secure a future for both them and the planet.

I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks, Justine, for your time and your creativity.

p.j.lazos 2.25.16

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Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy

“Memory is like rope, knotted every three or four feet, and hanging down a deep well. When you pull it up, just about anything might be attached to those knots. But you’ll never know what’s there if you don’t pull. And the more you pull at that rope, the more you find.”
Dinty W. Moore, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy

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Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy

Dinty W. Moore’s new book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals, is a droll, delicious exposé of the inner workings of Moore’s mind. Oh, and it’s a writing tutorial as well, although not in the instructional sense —- commas here, apostrophes there, watch those dangling participles —- but in the classic show don’t tell sense. Moore shows you how to write the most sublime essays in answer to questions posed by contemporary essay writers —- questions generated in response to a query from Moore on their thoughts regarding the art of essay writing. As a bonus, he throws in more than a few tidbits of enlightened instruction along the way such as his rumination on the em dash. I, like the questioner, Cheryl Strayed (think “Wild”), am enamored of em dashes —- so much so that perhaps it’s become an unhealthy relationship —- but that’s my problem —- and I’ll deal with it —- someday —- maybe. Then there’s Moore’s history lesson.

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Did you know that the sixteenth-century French nobleman Michel de Montaigne was the father of the modern essay? (I know. I never heard of him either, but I googled him and all I can say is that I must have been sleeping during my Humanities class.) Also that “Montaigne was a bum, of sorts,” and that he was afraid of something, but I forget now what that was. In addition to those tantalizing tidbits, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy reminds us of the importance of self-effacing humor in memoir writing. The book exudes waggishness and charm, and will be a wonderful asset to every writer’s library. The essays are insightful, humorous, and instructional, the best kind of tutorial. One of my favs was,”Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” which gave me hope for rising above some of my own more serious gaffes; obviously, Moore has flourished despite his, and from reading Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, they were pretty — well, let’s just say you have to read the book.

My friend who taught me how to ski at the very late age of 25 always said, “those who can’t, teach.” I never really understood that line. My friend was and is a wonderful skier, and also a great teac41V31zOOyBL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_her. Similarly, Moore has spent most of his adult life teaching at various institutions of higher learning around the country and abroad, yet he can write with the best of them.
I’ve been a fan of Moore’s since I read, “The Accidental Buddhist” (1997), and wrote a profile piece on him for the literary journal, Rapportage.  Since then, Moore’s prose has evolved to the point of perfection, gleaming with the spit and polish that years of practicing a craft bestows. If you want a good belly laugh and to learn something about the writing process in the interim then Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy should be on your to-read list.

p.j.lazos 1.29.16

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Wade Stevenson

[Photo courtesy of the author]

An Interview with Wade Stevenson

First off, congrats on the success of Flutes and Tomatoes, one of Kirkus Review’s Best Indie Books of 2015. What an honor.

I read Dear You and Flutes and Tomatoes in relatively short order. There is such a full blown range of longing, despair, grief, and, dare I say, an exhilaration in the expression of it all, maybe more emotion packed into two slim volumes than many would experience in a lifetime. So — are you reconciled with the events that took you to such a dark place, maybe at peace, and if so, how did the writing help you to get there?

Writing for me has always been an act of catharsis, of purification, of healing. The stories described in Flutes and Tomatoes and Dear You did indeed take me to dark, difficult places. No one would want to stay for a long time in that kind of emotional cell, and the only path I could find to free myself went through words. The words that make up the fabric of those poems became me. I lived them as if they were real. The events that caused the original pain happened again, in real time. Holding those two books in my hand, I can say, “You are the proof of that love that was lived and lost.” That feeling is one of wonderful release, it creates peace.

Both books were published in 2015. How much time passed between the events and the writing of the books? Did you find yourself agonizing anew as you wrote them?

Both books were published in 2015 because they’re related in terms of their emotional context and impact. Flutes and Tomatoes grew out of an experience I had in Paris when I was in my early twenties. That was in the late 1960s. I still have the notebooks that formed the basis of the book. The story narrated in Dear You took place in 1992. I started writing about it then but I couldn’t finish it. It hurt me to finish it, and in one way I didn’t want to finish it because that meant putting closure to it. And I felt I needed to keep the wound open. It’s strange how that happens, no? You don’t want to stop reliving in your memory something that hurt you very much.

Dear You is a very intimate exposé of your feelings at a specific time in your life, but also an intimate portrait of the mother of one your children. You share a daughter and shared a life, the details of which now are very public. I think it would be hard to be written about in such an intimate fashion. How does the Mlle. X. feel about your characterization of your relationship and particularly of her part in it?

I like to think that my poems are written from the center of my stomach, what the Japanese call “Hara”. You could also say: from the gut. You’re absolutely right: “Dear You” is a very intimate portrait. Extreme intimacy. I was afraid of showing it to Mlle. X, the mother of my child. But I also felt it would be wrong to publish it without first letting her read it. So I sent it to her and said, “If you don’t like it, or don’t approve, I’ll just keep it in my desk drawer.” She called me up a few days later and said, “It’s a beautiful book. I’m so sorry, I never realized I caused you so much pain.”

Do you think there are patterns in life and that people succumb to certain ones or that there’s much more of a randomness to the universe? For example, Greg Braden talks about something called Fractal Time and how, like the inside of a nautilus shell or the repeating patterns of a pine cone, life spirals out in ever-widening circles, but the pattern remains the same. Braden posits that there’s a precise mathematical formula to prove his theory and with certain bits of information such as the date of the inciting event, among other things, he can predict when the next event will occur, allowing you to prepare yourself for a disaster or maybe keep it from happening, or conversely, accept a blessing. I’m fascinated by this concept and wonder if you’ve heard of it and what your opinion of it may be. 


Greg Braden’s idea is intriguing, but I deal in my texts with emotional time, not mathematical time. My own books, such as the memoir One Time in Paris, or the novel The Electric Affinities, or my prose poem, The Little Book of He and She, draw on such different experiences of life and love that it would be impossible to say they conform to any preset pattern. In your own book, Six Sisters, you write a passage about how nothing happens by chance. I agree, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying that people succumb to certain patterns that keep replicating themselves.

I’m sure your familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell and the power of myth and archetype throughout the ages. You have two stories of lost love, both of which might have shattered you, but you proved resilient. Do you think that we are all living our lives under the umbrella of a few archetypes developed early on in our childhoods, and if so, what archetypes resonate with you?

Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is one of my favorites, and I strongly believe in his mythological narratives. The archetype that resonates with me is that of the hero, the man who, assuming his own destiny, ventures out on a dangerous quest, meets several obstacles, overcomes them, and is victorious. There are many types of “quests” and the victory is always a spiritual one, symbolic, but it must be fought for and achieved. My books are all about a quest for love, or what happens in the aftermath of a broken love.

What’s your next project? Another hybrid book of memoir/poem or something completely different?

My next book is actually about the moon. It’s called Moon Talk. It will be published by BlazeVOX next month. It’s divided into three parts, a long poem, an essay, and some quotations. It’s a poetic, spiritual, and philosophical journey through all the phases of the lunar cycle. It’s a lyrical riff on the moon as myth and symbol. Joseph Campbell would have liked it.

Sounds wonderful.  So what’s a regular writing day look like for you? Part time? Full time? Some time? Every day or only when the muse strikes?

I’m a nocturnal poet, I need the night to write. A certain solitude is essential. I don’t believe in the Muse. Writing comes from patience and discipline. For me, it’s almost like a Zen meditation. When I’m in it, I’m ready to kill any distraction.

I gather you are not a religious man, yet you write as though there is a real spirit of the divine in your work. Reconcile this for me.

I’m not religious in the sense of going to church or following any established ritual. But I went to a religious school (St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire), and at one time I even converted to Judaism. My forthcoming Moon Talk book is quite mystical. It talks about that “Name who, moving among darkness, sheds light”.

What is your greatest hope for the future of mankind?

If mankind as a whole read more poetry, the world would certainly be a greener, more peaceful place.

I know a few poets who would agree.  Good luck with your next book. I look forward to reading and reviewing it.

p.j.lazos 1.20.16

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Dear You

      Dear You, a combination of poetry and memoir, by Wade Stevenson is one of the most exposed, unrelenting, and heart-breaking pieces on longing that I’ve read. Like Flutes and Tomatoes (reviewed below), named one of the best Indie books of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews,  Dear You is a genre Stevenson seems to have created, and if he didn’t create it, he knows his way around the terrain with the temerity of a conqueror. I love the mix of self-reflective recollection and metaphorical lyricism. It rounds out the narrative and answers the nagging questions that straight poetry leaves to the imagination.

The story starts with a breakup (Stevenson’s marriage); a rat (in the apartment of his soon-to-be beloved, Mlle X.); a rescue (by Stevenson of Mlle X. from the rat); a pregnancy (Mlle X.’s by Stevenson); a marriage (being rescued from a rat does not always end in marriage, but in this instance it did); and a birth. In reading the list above you would not guess that the birth would be the most tragic and life altering of the events that transpired, but it was both stunning and life-derailing for the author. Even more uncanny, Stevenson knew at the exact moment he watched his daughter’s head emerging into the world through his wife’s legs that their affair was over.

WHY?

I want to know the splitting event
The decisive moment that drove us apart.

Was it in that white hospital room
When her darling head crowned

Between your bloodied groaning thighs?
Standing proudly at your head, I thought:

You will never see her again in this profoundly
Open way. I had such strong sexual energy

Devoted to an act that is God’s
Cosmic joke, and then you laughed,

Asked why I keep returning to you,
I had only one answer, “It’s instant and love.”

I want to write you a poem
So full of magic and power
That you’ll read it and never leave me.

Stevenson had no empirical evidence to support the conclusion that at the precise moment a new life was beginning a prior life would come to an end, but his inner voice advises him as such, and so, there it is. Life in all it’s conundrums.

Dear You is simply, achingly, this: a story of a man who loses his wife. The loss is not in the classic sense through death or divorce although given how abruptly the relationship failed it may as well have been. A traumatic change of heart? Possibly. A near death experience in childbirth? Perhaps. Too much pressure to return to the conjugal bed? Could be. Or was the fruit of the union — the child — more than enough emotion for the mother to hold. After all, the process and pain of childbirth is tumultuous, scary, and maybe closer to God than any of us will ever get while still walking around in our human suits. Before modern medicine, women regularly died in childbirth. Even with modern medicine, some women experience a postpartum depression so severe that it may take months, even years before they return to their own selves while the helpless father sits attentive, ready to assist, but unable to cross the great divide between those two disparate selves that are now joined in the body of that tiny beautiful little baby. How can a father compete against such helplessness? How can he suppress such unbridled longing? The answer is, he can’t.

Stevenson tries valiantly, and sadly, fails, but he leaves behind a collection of poems depicting the war he wages against his new found isolation, punctuated by one of the most despicable, definitive words to pass between lovers: no. For anyone who’s loved and lost, Dear You is your comrade in arms.

Next up:  an interview with Wade Stevenson.

p.j.lazos 1.17.16

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Flutes and Tomatoes – A Memoir With Poems

“I became sensitive to every vibration in the air, to every nuance of the changing light. It would be late afternoon. It was then that the snake of emptiness would tighten around my throat. It was hard to breathe. I didn’t know if I could make it to the next day. There was a bottle of red wine on the chair. I grabbed and gulped it and enjoyed the warm swish of the liquid down my throat.” Wade Stevenson, Flutes and Tomatoes, A Memoir With Poems

Flutes and Tomatoes, A Memoir With Poems by Wade Stevenson is not at all what I imagined it would be. Let me start with a confession: poetry confounds me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the cadence, the sentiment, the succinct nature of the writing; it’s just that I don’t always understand it. Without a context, it could be a metaphor for anything which is exactly the commonality of human emotion the poet intentionally taps into, but for a reader like me who wants certainty, assuredness, a good clean ending, the myriad possibilities that poetry presents can be downright frightening. That’s why I love this hybrid memoir/poem combo platter by Wade Stevenson. There was no guessing as to what had happened to make the poet lock himself in a basement studio in Paris with a bunch of tomatoes and a flute because he tells us, straight off, that he’s in mourning, that his lover has quite unexpectedly died, that he’s not coming out of the basement until he discovers the meaning of it all, or alternatively, learns to live with it. Having been apprised of the situation from the offset, I could relax, free to roam the pages of Stevenson’s poems, spending as much or more time on each as I felt necessary to understand because I’d been released from the chore of deciphering the code. I already had the rudimentary understanding; the rest was pure — wait for it — poetry, and it was illuminating and lovely.

I think poets, more than novelists, are the epitome of private people. Full disclosure is near impossible which is why they cloak everything in layers of metaphor. As with all good poetry, Flutes and Tomatoes is no exception. Stevenson keeps the details, crushing as they were, in the safety of his private zone. We have no idea, despite the broad brush of events, as to what actually happened in the atelier in Paris: how the lovers met, whether they were young or old, how long they were together, whether they spoke the same language or were perhaps the same sex, whether the trip to the countryside would have been the first or the last. All we know is that the flute and more than a dozen tomatoes remained, the flute maybe because Stevenson and his lover shared a flat. The tomatoes because, as he discloses, they were gathered/stolen from a farmer’s field on a trip that should have been but was/not.

Judge for yourself what could possibly happen to you that would cause you to spend a day, a week, a month, perhaps an entire summer living a solitary existence, just you and an external object(s) of your choice. How devastating the shock? How debilitating the news? It’s unclear from the text how long Stevenson remained underground. Long enough for the tomatoes to rot, for grief to move in with its own baggage and take up excess floor space in his sparsely furnished apartment, for questions of the existential nature of reality — living as he was, at the time, in Europe, the birthplace of existentialism — to be answered, or go unanswered, for him to turn on a tomato or two, to watch them rot and fester and disintegrate into nothingness, to violently throw one against a wall, to embrace his own darkness and ultimately his own light. It’s not an existence for a cowardly heart, perhaps not even a tomato heart. In the end, only the experience remained, and the words, resonating with an emotion the color of tomato.

Tomato Heart

If you choose not to eat it
A tomato quickly becomes useless
Unless by chance you learned to love it
Knowing buried deep inside
Are seeds of water and sunlight
To you it is transformed, a crimson flower
You watch its pink petals fall
Think of everything that might have been
Desires, sorrows and regrets
How to reconcile the shadow of your soul
With your real self? Tenderly, with blind
Fingers you touch the precious skin
As it swells and dilates
Like some enormous empty heart

p.j.lazos 12.9.15

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An Interview with Jan Groft, author of Artichokes and City Chicken

I first met Jan Groft about ten years ago at the Lancaster Literary Guild. I was on the Board at the time and had just concluded a meeting with the Guild’s Director, Betsy Hurley. Jan was coming in as I was getting ready to leave and Betsy asked her if she’d like to write a profile on the author Dinty W. Moore for the Guild’s magazine, Rapportage. Jan was hesitant, worried that her friendship with Dinty Moore would somehow make the piece less honest. I got the job by default because I happened to be standing there. It was my first profile and I’ve loved writing them ever since. All because of Jan.

Jan’s first book, Riding the Dog: My Father’s Journey Home — A Memoir, chronicled her decision to care for her dying father. In As We Grieve — which I think I have personally purchased at least a dozen times for friends because of its therapeutic value — Jan discusses the grieving process we all go through following the death of a loved one. And now we have Artichokes and City Chicken, a story that in part explores the difficult relationship Groft had with her mother. Three different books that all share common elements of memoir, philosophy and scripture. I had an opportunity to do an email interview with Jan in advance of the release of Artichokes and City Chicken. Here’s what she had to say:

Taken as a whole these books seem to form a kind of trilogy of how you got to where you are today. Do you agree and if so, do you want to elaborate? Are you evolving, do you think, to more of a faith-based form of writing, or is this just what fits the particular story you are trying to tell?

The three books together do shed light on how I got to the moment of now, though the light doesn’t penetrate every crack and crevice. I hope someday they’ll serve as a legacy, a way to connect with members of a future generation who may want a window into the past. Part of the view, as you suggest, would reveal an evolving faith, for in exploring the landscape between loss and hope, which my work tends to do, I am continually struck by the wonder of it all—the fact that the Spirit (or whatever name you choose for a higher power) brings forth in us the capacity to rise above our deepest sorrows.

Don’t take this the wrong way, okay? We have three books and the central theme for all three revolves around death. Are you obsessed with death, do you think?

Great question: Why do I write what I write? Having come from a large Italian family with dying relatives aplenty, I was exposed at a very young age to death and funerals. I can still see the women shrouded in black, wailing and throwing themselves on the casket, waving crocheted hankies, their flags of death, while the men gathered out front, smoking and telling jokes. This dichotomy always intrigued me. Later, as I experienced my own deep losses, I was surprised to again discover a study in contrasts—an uplifting presence of hope at the bottom of profound sadness. I think it is actually this gift of hope with which I am obsessed.

Hope is a great obsession and a wonderful twist for a difficult topic. For me, writing is easily a form of therapy, a way to exercise my demons whether the topic is relevant to my life or just something I heard of and upon which I chose to focus. What role does writing fulfill for you in your life?

Writing, for me, provides an opportunity to explore and discover—learning at its finest. I never know what I’ll find, but when I come upon it, wow! It feels like discovering a nugget of truth, all shiny and real. So yes, I’d agree that writing has a therapeutic value and then, as a writer, my job (my passion, really) is to sort through the discoveries and share those that might also be of value to others. When I started writing Artichokes & City Chicken, I had no clue that I was harboring unresolved grief over my mother, who had died years earlier. But the writing led me to that realization and guided me through a somewhat mosaic process of healing. And healing, I think, is a need that extends far beyond my tiny corner of Earth. For readers seeking ways to transcend their own brand of hurt, I hope they’ll find in its pages a kindred spirit and paths worth exploring. Just as cooking is to those who love to cook (as my late mother did), writing is a process of giving and receiving. That’s why, I think, it’s so fulfilling.

You started in advertising where you ran a very successful business for many years, and then gave up that business to write. First, what do you miss about the advertising business and would you ever go back? Second, assuming it is, why is creative writing your best job ever?

My advertising career was very good to me, and I’m grateful for having experienced it. It taught me about what matters to others and why. It also helped me develop my own quality-of-life barometer. After twenty-five years in the advertising business, creative writing was like a comfy pair of slippers that had been waiting for me to return home. The solitude, the entrepreneurialism, the opportunity to connect deeply with an inner voice are a few of the qualities that call my name. Of course, at any given moment, these things can be elusive, but you just feel in your heart and soul that you are in the right place.

I know you as a very private person, yet as part of your writing process, you easily share very personal experiences. What is it about writing that allows you to reveal your emotions and your secrets?

I honestly do not know the answer to this and have often wondered about it myself. All I can say is that, to me, writing is like getting lost in a dance with the Spirit. All self- consciousness goes out the door, and there I am, holding on, trying out new steps, celebrating the few that are mastered, and just feeling liberated and safe because the Holy Spirit has my back.

That’s beautiful. So tell me, who is your greatest influence both from a creative writing standpoint and in life in general?

My greatest influence—both in my writing and in my life—ebbs and flows, changing constantly. One day, it’s a 100-year-old hospice patient who, even alone as her health fails, is the most grateful person I have ever met. Another time, it’s the voice of Elizabeth Gilbert (you have to check out her new book on creative living) or other writers like Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, and Anne Lamott. Or, it’s a reader who jots me a note about connecting with my words. And, as reflected in my work, it was and is my late father for many different reasons. I hope this doesn’t sound evasive, but ask me again tomorrow. The Holy Spirit is full of surprises, keeping the influence fresh and diverse through an ever-evolving cast of messengers.

So what’s next for you? Will you continue in this vein of writing or do you have an idea regarding the next genre you’d like to pursue. Do you see any fiction in your future?

Even though my graduate education focused on fiction writing, I wandered into the realm of personal essay/memoir years ago while working on a short story. The piece was based on a visit with my best friend who was dying. I struggled with the story until I realized that what happened in real life was more compelling than my fictionalized version, so I switched to nonfiction. Haven’t turned back yet, but you never know.

I do have a seedling of an idea, thanks to the hospice patients I visit who inspire me to consider what my own life might look like at age eighty or ninety. So my next effort may involve creativity and fun, focused on looking ahead. If the concept takes root, I’ll let you know!

Thank you, Jan Groft! Artichokes and City Chicken is now available on Amazon.

p.j.lazos 10.22.15

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Artichokes and City Chicken

Jan Groft’s new book, Artichokes and City Chicken, reads like a mid-life “coming of age” story except instead of recounting the fading of adolescent angst as girl becomes woman, Groft writes of shedding her self-protective armor to embrace life the way it should be lived, with a wide-open heart and her internal chatter stilled to the point that she can almost hear God breathing. Through scripture, life review, and self-analysis, Groft reaches that still small space that often leads to revelations. A beautifully written homage to her mother, now deceased, Artichokes and City Chicken is part memoir, part cookbook, and part primer on how to let go and let God. The story is loosely centered around Groft’s relationship with her mother who for years struggled to understand a daughter she could not hear. By the time Groft’s mother died, she was so hard of hearing, and had been for years, that it was difficult for Groft to have even a small conversation with her. This fact permeated many aspects of their troubled relationship which had the effect of pushing Groft toward a stronger relationship with her father, perhaps as compensation, but more likely because they saw the world the same way.

Groft’s previous book, Riding the Dog, showcased the steadfast loyalty and easy camaraderie she shared with her father, but no such emotions were in play when it came to her mom. Her mother had her own soul-crushing demons to contend with as Groft describes early in the book, yet all one had to do was look at the energy she spent cooking consistently amazing and abundant meals for her family to know that Groft’s mother had no shortage of love for her child, just an inability to communicate that love in ways other than through food.

Making peace with those we struggle with is never easy, and Groft’s was particularly difficult. In fact, it never really happened. Groft’s mother passed and all the unspoken hopes and frustrations were left to simmer on the back burner, never cooling and never coming to a full boil. How does one explain or ask for forgiveness and give it in return when the object of your malaise has already crossed over? Groft’s deft hand touches every page, finding connections where before existed only confusion and doubt, especially as it relates to her mother. In a case of art imitating life, Groft experienced some severe cases of writer’s block while writing this book, that is, until she put her preconceived notions down and listened. And what she heard was the 3-D equivalent of angels singing. One of the things that came to her then — in addition to most of the book — was a memory of herself as child, sitting on the ottoman in front of her mother’s chair while they watched TV together and her mom stroked Groft’s hair, a small, elegant, impactful symbol of a love that was always there; Groft just had to listen to remember. Is it a perfect Hollywood ending where everything is resolved and everyone gets what they want? You’ll have to read Artichokes and City Chicken to find out.

Artichokes and City Chicken, as well as the divine recipes in the book is now available on Amazon.

p.j.lazos 10.20.15

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AS WE GRIEVE

Our society is obsessed with the search for youth, and so unhinged by the notion of death that we take Herculean steps to keep people alive, sometimes using methods that defy logic. Not so many generations ago, people died at home, surrounded by their loved ones who nursed and fed and cared for them during their last days. Today people die in the hospital, surrounded by the whirl and hum of high tech gadgetry and if they’re lucky, the occasional relative. Death is no longer the spiritual experience it once was.

Lucky for us there are people like Jan Groft who, through her writing and example, help us to bridge the ever-widening gap between life and death. Prior to writing As We Grieve, Discoveries of Grace in Sorrow, Groft conducted half a year of research, reaching out to friends and loved ones with a single question: what is your most poignant memory of the death of a loved one? In doing so, she created a sacred space for dozens and dozens of people to chronicle one of the most significant events of their lives. Even now that the book is published, Groft is still collecting anecdotes, listening with an almost preternatural ability to people describe the pain and the process.

While the research took six months, the real work for As We Grieve began earlier and was rooted in Groft’s own pain. She cared for her father, or as she says, “it felt more like accompanying him on a journey, a very bumpy one” as he lay dying. “He found ways to make everything — even struggles, even dying — worthwhile and rewarding, as weird as that may sound.” He was gone in a season, and as part of her grieving process, she wrote her first book, Riding the Dog, My Father’s Journey Home — a Memoir. The seeds of As We Grieve were sprouting. They had been planted years before with one of her sister’s deaths, and continued to grow each time a friend or family member died. Groft began to think about the moments of grace she had experienced with the death of two of her sisters, her parents, her best friend. The bones of the book took shape. So Groft collected stories, as all good writers do, and noticed how others’ experiences aligned with her own. She asked friends and relatives, people at her church, and anyone with an interest to share their own stories. The heart of the book began to beat and she was rewarded with grace. Groft was the farmer, planting the seed, tilling the soil, watering with great care, pruning where necessary. People intrinsically knew they could trust their most intimate stories with her, knew that she would handle them with respect. Groft took their raw, unfettered emotions, wrapped her inherent and hard-earned wisdom and compassion around them, and produced a jewel of a book. As We Grieve, reveals Groft to be part counselor, part confidant, part best friend. “I hope it feels like a companion to them, like an embrace at a time when all of us need it most.”

I cried intermittently throughout my own reading of As We Grieve, cried for each of the contributors and what their pain reflected back to me of my own heart. Some I knew personally, most not, yet all of their stories resonated with a poignancy, a universality that gave me a safe place from which to review my own emotions. For anyone who has lost a loved one or is currently experiencing that most profound emotion we call grief, As We Grieve will provide, if not complete relief — because only time and grace can do that — at least a bandaid with a big old squirt of the stuff that takes the sting away.

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p.j.lazos 10.18.15

 

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“Change was the uninvited dinner guest at a swanky restaurant who drank and talked excessively and then bailed on the check, a nefarious six-letter word that entered like a hurricane scattering roof and dreams, downing all electrical connections, and leaving ruin in its wake. She waited for Change now, hoping for a good one, dreading a drastic one, praying for a just one, knowing that she’d be forced to surrender to whatever came because in the end, that’s all anyone can do.”

from A Gathering of One, by P.J. Lazos, available as a download on Kindle at amazon.com.

p.j.lazos 9.7.15

 

 

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The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress

Robert Frost famously said that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Rhoda Janzen’s, The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress proves Frost’s wisdom not only to be true, but in this case at least, beneficially healing. My friend recommended The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress and I ran and bought it right away because: 1) I love the kind of book that, at its core, dishes about a particular religion — kind of feels like insider trading to me; and 2) I’m married to a Mennonite. He’s non-practicing, okay, let’s call him lapsed, but like the Catholics (me), you can run, but the tribe is never far behind as Janzen points out so hysterically in The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress.

At the start of the book, Janzen, a 40-ish academic with no kids, but a husband whose bipolar nature may at times make her feel as though she has them, manifests a dis-ease necessitating surgery. Afterwards, her husband oh so lovingly nurses her back to health, but before the bedpans are even dry, he announces that he’s leaving her for Bob on Gay.com. Soon after, she gets crushed, literally, in an accident, hit hard and head on by a teenage driver. Not her fault, but there are those who say emotions are like magnets, drawing similar stuff to you, so if you’re feeling downtrodden, chances are the universe will hammer that point home again and again in the nicest of ways. But I digress.

When Janzen realizes that she’s teetering on the brink of financial ruin and simultaneously barely able to make the length of the living room without scooting across on her butt, she does what most people whose lives have been upended by fate and circumstance do when those lives seem impossible to piece back together. She goes home. To her parents house, the house of her childhood. Here’s the hilarious part: she writes about the whole sloppy mess in The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress, weaving in some homegrown mother wisdom and a few family recipes. Borscht, anyone? How about Warmer Kartoffelsalat? Janzen’s breezy style and never-ending ability to laugh at herself and her roots made me laugh out loud more than a few times (which is somewhat embarrassing if you read, as I do, on the elliptical machine at the gym). No matter where you read, pick up a copy of The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress, a brilliant, satirical, sometimes whimsical book, hilarious proof that there’s no place like home.

p.j.lazos 7.21.15

 

 

 

 

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[Photo of Duncan Alderson at the launch party for Magnolia City.]

Magnolia City
An Interview with Duncan Alderson

I first met Duncan Alderson when I signed up for a fiction writing course at the Rabbit Hill Writer’s Studio. Duncan started my writing career by giving me a place to learn the art, and explore the craft. He also jump-started my social life as a newly-minted Lancastrian where I attended parties at the house Duncan shared with his wife, Isabelle, mixing it up with other writers, and their eclectic friends, and drinking Isabelle’s famous Sangria (hands down best ever!). We’d sit under the trees on the patio adjacent to a pasture where sheep grazed on the Amish farm next to their house, a little slice of paradise right there in Central Pennsylvania, talking about writing and life. Duncan sometimes brought in outside writers to teach at the studio and I learned the art of screenwriting at Rabbit Hill. Over the years, he influenced an entire group of writers, me among them, giving us a “safe house” and I know I am not the only writer to be grateful for his stewardship and tutelage. A former Waldorf school teacher, Duncan cannot resist the pull of teaching, and many of us write today because of Duncan’s wisdom and generosity of spirit. So it’s exceptionally gratifying that he’s finally given himself permission to set his teaching persona aside and pursue his own writing interests. Alderson realized one of his life-long dreams with the publication of Magnolia City, and as a former student, I am ecstatic for him. Please enjoy this interview with my friend and mentor, Duncan Alderson.

I know the original draft of Magnolia City went through several iterations and even had a different name.  How long did it take you to write MC?  What happened from the time you finished the first draft until it went to print?

I spent ten years researching and writing Magnolia City. This historical novel has quite a history of its own! It started as a flashback in another novel way back in the 1970s, where the mother of the protagonist was remembering her youth in the 1920s. One of my writing coaches in the 1990s really liked the voice of the mother and said, “Why don’t you let her tell her story.” I decided to follow that advice and Bam! I discovered that I had this female voice inside of me that wanted to express itself. That one flashback exploded into a whole novel set in 1920s Houston. The working title was The First Word Spoken from the Moon (another description of Houston) which I developed in the workshops at Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio. My editor thought that was too long and wanted to call the book Houston, the Novel. I suggested another title which I had discovered in my research: Houston was historically called The Magnolia City because of Magnolia Park, a legendary but lost paradise planted with 3750 Southern Magnolia trees.

I finished the final draft in 2005 and sent out lots of snail mail queries but failed to find an agent or publisher. The manuscript languished on my bookshelf for years until I found an ad for a “sensitive editor” in the classifieds of the The New York Times Book Review. She helped me take it to the next level. This time I sent out email queries using the automated power of a new website called Bookblaster and within months had found my agent. As the local paper described it in a headline, “Persistence leads to publication.” Amen.

        You’ve said that the original idea for the novel came from a photo of your mother in a flapper dress.  From there you created a story around that photo.  Tell me about that process. 

I grew up seeing photographs of my mother, Dottie May, as a flapper from a remote, more romantic time in Texas history. The exotic woman in the pictures wore furs and long strands of pearls, staring into the camera with a kind of flaming defiance missing in the practical housewife who was raising me. I had to write a book to explain who that other woman was. She sparked my imagination in so many ways as I tried to picture her on a honeymoon in Galveston, sneaking into the Balinese Room for one of the fashionable new bootleg cocktails. “Dottie” shape-shifted into “Hetty” and sprang to vivid life in my mind.  Henry James said that every writer must find his donnée (what’s given to him by life). I found the thread of my donnée in those old faded photographs of my mother. When I yanked on it, a whole book unspooled.

        I had the privileged of reading an earlier version of Magnolia City and it was a much longer novel.  As someone who devours historical fiction and isn’t afraid to read a thousand-page novel, I loved the original length of the book and all the rich, descriptive illustrative history of the city and the characters. Why did you pare it down and do you feel it made the story better or would you have rather kept the original length?

I originally envisioned Magnolia City as an epic historical novel and fleshed it out to a whopping 700 pages. It felt like it needed to be as vast and varied as the state of Texas itself. I like novels that bring a place to life, so I tried doing that with Houston, Texas — all the sights, sounds and smells of the semi-tropical Gulf prairies. But when I finally found an agent, she complained that she couldn’t get editors to read 700 pages. She said I had to pare it down to 500 — 200 whole pages! I had one summer to do so before the fall selling season. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish this daunting task. It’s very hard for a writer to cut his own work. She suggested I begin by cutting 2 lines per page. I started that way and soon learned that I could compress the valleys between the peaks of the plot. I tend to try and dramatize everything, but some material just needs to be summarized. The cuts tightened the book up, but I’m still attached to the original version. The funny thing is that after we found an editor, he wanted me to fill in some of the back story. “Expand all you want,” he said. I added back in some of the scenes I’d cut, haha!
       Before you published Magnolia City, you ran a successful writing studio, Rabbit Hill.  Was it hard to walk away from that after shepherding so many writers over the years?  Will you ever open another writing studio?

I ran the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio for 10 years. My students helped me develop Magnolia City by giving me feedback in critique sessions. Some of the more astute readers had a large influence on the shape of the story. It was the perfect gig for a writer like me. I had the days free to work on my novel, and taught workshops at night. We had lots of fun. Several of the Rabbit Hill writers have gone on to become published authors, one of them a New York Times bestseller. After ten years, I felt a little burned out and decided to close the doors of the studio. I had mixed feelings about walking away from it, and still miss the stimulation of being around other writers, but wanted to focus on getting my novel published. Now that the Rabbit and the Dragonfly Book Shop has opened in downtown Lancaster next door to my new condo, I am tempted to open another branch of Rabbit Hill! Who knows . . . ?

What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you as a result of publishing Magnolia City?

The most interesting thing that happened to me after publishing Magnolia City was being chosen as a Must-Read by Harper’s Bazaar. I used to leaf through both Vogue and Harper’s back in my twenties when I dreamed of becoming a published novelist, and now to think that I have a novel spotlighted in the magazine is a mind-blowing experience. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something by all my hard work.

        How’s work going on the sequel to Magnolia City?  Can we expect it soon?

I am working on the sequel to Magnolia City now. The working title is The Tibetan Magic Show and the novel follows the adventures of Hetty’s children in the 1960s. It’s hard to find a fresh way to write about the ‘60s, so that’s my challenge. I have no idea when it will be finished, but I’m hoping it won’t take ten years this time.

[Magnolia City is available on Amazon and wherever awesome books are sold!]

p.j.lazos 6.14.15

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Please enjoy this excerpt from Book 3, “The Quality of Light,” from the “Six Sisters” collection of novellas.

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Doc rose from his bed where he’d spent the last few hours. Ready or not, he had to speak with her. Celia lived only a mile away. Harley could stay with her, go to the same school, keep the same friends, live the same life. Plus there was the added benefit of Celia being Ellie’s twin. Harley might find herself in a parallel universe of sorts, Ellie gone, but not really. Meanwhile, he could get his strength back, plot next steps. With his wife gone, he may not even stay in Central Pennsylvania. California might be nice, but he couldn’t take Harley. It would be too disruptive for her and Celia. What rights did he have anyway? Non-binding, non-legal, stepfather rights. In other words, none.
He found Harley out back, talking to the stones. At least that’s what it looked like. She hunkered over a palm-sized rock extracted from its cozy spot in the flowerbed edging where it had been keeping watch, making sure the pansies and bachelor buttons didn’t escape.

Doc hobbled outside, shillelagh in hand. “Hey,” he said, peering over her shoulder and blocking her sun, a partial eclipse.

“Hey,” she said holding tight to the stone as if to conceal its secrets between her haunches.

Doc rested his weight on the shillelagh. He felt ludicrous using it, but circumstances controlled. Ellie’s great-grandfather, a bow and arrow maker in the Lakota-Sioux tradition had carved it for Ellie. The old man had long since died, yet the stick lived on. Doc and Ellie had taken it with them a few times on their hikes though mostly it stood in a corner by Ellie’s side of the bed. She put it there, “in case the bad guys got in,” but given that Doc slept closest to the door, the place his wife had assigned to him, he suspected she just wanted to be near the spirit of her grandfather. The stick had stood there until this week when Doc found he was greatly in need of its assistance.  The doctors had checked and rechecked Doc’s musculoskeletal system, alignment, ligaments, tendons, even the tiny bones in his feet and found nothing, yet his inability to move forward unassisted continued. He could move right, left, and back, no problem, but ask him to take a step into the future and his feet put on the brakes. It was not until he started using that stick – his third leg, or more appropriately, the probe, sent out like a scout to test the terrain – that the forward motion had begun. At least he didn’t end up in a heap on the floor.

“Give it some time. You’ll heal and move on,” Celia had said.  A quaint concept, but how does one move on? He was right smack in the center of middle age, holding fast to a dead wife and hiding from a thirteen-year old kid who expected answers from a man who couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without the help of a piece of oak, cut, sanded and polished by a thirty-year-dead Lakota-Sioux.

“I just thought of how moths can die.”

Unlike most 13-year olds, Harley hadn’t lost the quirky inquisitiveness of childhood. Doc bumped his chin up a notch, the universal symbol for “go on.”

“You know how they have to get to the light? Well, maybe they fly too close and burn up.”

“Maybe,” Doc said. “It’s a theory.”

“You can see the planets in the daytime, right?”

“No.”

“If you took a spaceship, you could?”

“Yea, the planets are always visible. Just depends on where you are, I guess.”

“I’d like to see aliens, but I think I’d have to leave the atmosphere to do it and I don’t want to burn up, you know, because I got too close to the sun or something.”  Doc nodded as if he were listening, but processed nothing.

“Do you think it might be the same for Mom? Like if we just took a spaceship maybe we could see her somewhere?”

A small pool formed in the corner of Doc’s eye while he studied his fingernails.

“Hmph,” Harley, “Mr. Pathetic,” Harley mumbled.

“What did you say?”

“I said . . . ” Harley’s voice reached Doc from far away, swimming, as it were, in oceans of grief. . . “I lost somebody more important than anybody” Harley continued. “I won’t see her again. Ever. And all you can do is feel sorry for yourself. So I said — Mr. Pathetic.”

Had Harley chosen this moment to beat on Doc’s chest, he would have stood there like a giant stuffed bear and accepted her gift. Instead, Harley rubbed her chin with her shoulder while Doc tried to compose his heart.

“I’m sorry, Lee, I really . . . I packed you a little bag.”

“Don’t you be leaving your sorry’s all over the place. I’m not picking them up. Aunt Celia said you’re always leaving parts of yourself behind. Like your energy. Little bits of your light scattered everywhere. Now you’re leaving me. Just one more piece of something left behind.”

“I don’t . . . Lee . . . It’s only for a few months.” Harley blinked, turned away.  “Once I get my act together, maybe lose this ridiculous stick, then you can come back. Meanwhile, Aunt Celia will take you to school. Pack your lunch and stuff.” He knew she knew. He could tell by the way she hunched her shoulders and held her breath, poised to run. He waited for the levy to break, but Harley held her ground. When she did give, it was with a long hissing sound. Doc doubted the strength of her poison, but wished she would strike and assuage his guilt. She grazed him with a look, turned back to her stones.

“Aunt Celia said the stones told the first stories.”

“Oh, yeah, I can see that,” Doc replied with more sarcasm than he’d intended.
Harley rocked on her haunches. “I thought if I hung out long enough, they’d tell me a story about mom. Why she went away.”

“Lee, you gotta stop listening to your aunt. Her view of things is a bit skewed, don’t you think? A little too alternative, maybe?” Harley flinched as if struck.

“You’re never going to lose that crutch. You’re going to hang on to it for the rest of your life.”

“What?” Doc said.

“Nothing.” She started to hum, but it wasn’t joyful, more of a dirge.

“Who taught you that song?”

“Aunt Celia.”

“It’s sad . . . kind of pretty.”

Harley moved a few rocks, strategically laid them down. “Mom’s here.”

“No, Lee, she’s dead.”

“She’s here — in the rocks and stones and trees. She’s not at Aunt Celia’s. I want to stay here, with Mommy.” She turned to look at him, her head bent unnaturally from her crouched position. Her welling eyes threatened to unravel him, to burn a hole in his resolve like acid. Had Harley kept her eyes trained on him he would have cracked; instead she turned back to her stones, and severed the connection.

“We gotta go,” Doc said. He leaned over for a glimpse of what was so fascinating.

“Okay,” Harley said, hunkered down further.

“Harley, honey, the rocks aren’t going to talk to you.”

“I know.”

“Well, what are you doing?”

She raised her palm without turning back to look. Doc’s visual inspection revealed a tiny orange and brown salamander, resting on the rock. He placed the stone on his palm and watched it a bit before growing impatient. Harley stared at the space where a sliver of sunlight held its ground next to Doc’s enormous shadow.

“Why isn’t it moving?” Doc asked.

“Because it’s dead. I’m just keeping it company.”

“Well . . .” he said, trailing off, but Harley’s words had sucker punched him, stealing the breath he’d intended to use to finish his sentence. She held out her hand and he placed the rock on her palm. She squeezed her delicate fingers around it, laid it back on the earth.

“I’ll be inside when you’re ready,” he said, and limped toward the backdoor.  Doc turned to look just before going inside. He knew it was the time of the ending for them, but as he watched Harley crouched over her dead salamander and her living rocks, watched the space, the very air around her dancing and swirling, shining as if charged with the light of creation itself, he knew that for her – without him – it would be the time of the beginning.

Quality of Light

Six Sisters” is available in print on Amazon.  “The Quality of Light“, Book 3 of the “Six Sisters” series and where this excerpt is drawn from is also available on Kindle.

p.j.lazos 6.7.15

 

 

 

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Interview with Rosina Rucci, author or 6000 Days of Us

To see my totally biased, deeply personal review of a totally biased, deeply personal book, go here.

Or stay here and read this really cool interview with Rosina Rucci:

You say in the forward that your son inspired you to write this book, that you wanted him to know your history. Has he read it and if so, what did he say about it?

He has not yet read it and tells me that it make take him a long time to be ready to do so. That’s fine. My need was to reveal my inner-most thoughts, loves and feelings to my one child with whom I share a deep and visceral bond and constant, open communication.

How did you manage to get through the writing process? Were your emotions as raw as they come across in the book, and now that it’s done, are you relieved?

Writing 6000 Days was madly gut-wrenching but the more I wrote, the more I realized I had to write and, many times I felt as though [Salvie] were sitting right there with me, reminding me of events, stories and conversations. It was an effort undertaken by both of us, of that I am sure. Relieved? Highly, yes. I never intended it to be a book. Writing it all down, allowing myself to finally see fully the very big picture of my life’s most important story and what we lived as kids made me realize something I never had before – that it is incredibly and breathtakingly beautiful and that despite all the heartache, trauma and horrors, it is a very unique and special love story that will always remain timeless.

You walk through the sometimes light, sometimes terrifying moments of your relationship with honesty and you make it a point to say you are no longer afraid of anything. Is that true? Are you really not afraid that someone from this distant past might take issue with this book?

I cannot legislate others’ views — I’ve no control over how others will choose to analyze and form opinions about my story. All I can say is that releasing these writings as a book, I knew I’d be subjecting myself to all sorts of reactions both positive and otherwise and even accusations that what I wrote wasn’t true. But the truth is the truth no matter what anyone wishes to call it and I feel deeply sorry for any person who could read my book and not see, not feel, the love embedded into each and every word. It is a love story – how anyone could take issue with that is beyond me. As for feeling fear, what I mean is that since suffering the loss of Salvatore, my life’s truly greatest loss, and experiencing the constancy of his presence all of these long 30 plus years, I know how protected I am; I know how accompanied I am through my life; and, I know the power of my Angel. This knowledge totally vanquishes any fears I may have heretofore housed in my heart and soul. This experience has taught me that not only do I, but all of us, actually, have nothing to fear ever.

You said that on the night of the bombing, your mother had a heart attack. How did your parents get through that awful time? Was it a process you were involved in together or did you deal with it singularly?

Together, yes. We were all grieving deeply. When Sal’s Dad died, we were all still in mourning for the loss of his Mom. My family and his were very intertwined – our mothers were very close, best friends; my brother and Sal’s sister were best friends – so there were no boundaries in the grief we shared. I think one important thing to know about grief is that when it can be shared fully, it should be; but, if it cannot be shared with others who are able to offer their full understanding and empathy, it is better to keep it to ourselves. I shared my grief after his Dad’s passing – naturally, with him but also with everyone in my own family — but kept it all so very much to myself after he died because the magnitude of my sorrow and sadness and pain were things I simply was not able to share with anyone.

What did your parents think of your relationship with Salvatore and of the Testa family in general?

I believe my parents were very frightened for me considering the depth of my love for Salvatore and the fears they had for the life he would probably choose to live. I know, as I knew then, that that life was not ever something they’d want for me. Every member of my immediate and even extended family loved every member of Sal’s immediate and extended family. My parents loved him very deeply as well as his parents and his sister and all of the other family members they knew well on both sides. There was nothing but a deep love and respect between our two families. Absolutely nothing else ever.

Do you remain in contact with Salvatore’s sister? Do you ever see anyone from that time period and if you did, would you cross the street or stop to talk?

I am no longer in contact with Salvatore’s sister. There are very few people whom I knew from ‘that time’ who I would actively avoid if seen anywhere, at any time. I actually have sought out encounters with several people from that time so as to purposely have a conversation and the chance to tie-up a loose end.

You went from South Philadelphia, to Rome, the city you adore, to New York City to work with your brother, Ralph Rucci who is an internationally accomplished fashion designer, and then back to South Philadelphia, to the very place it all happened, living what many would call a very full life in the process. Is there closure now? Can you get on with your life and if the answer is yes, what does closure even look like?

There has never been, is not now, and will never be “closure”. I lost my life’s greatest love at 28 years old and now, at 59, I look at these long years and see that he has never been and can never be replaced. What we had was unique for people that young, what we had was a depth of love that spans many lifetimes and thousands of experiences. After years spent in a mourning so profound I thought I’d die, I slowly began to feel the desire to live again, and asked him to remain with me while I pushed myself forward. He has and I have. With all the force I could muster inside me, I chose to live again and I chose to live BIG, as he did, and as I knew he would wish for me to. So, I guess in answer to your question, the great dichotomy of ‘living big’ and ‘living again’ is that I did it without ever having had closure of any kind. As for what ‘closure’ looks like, all I can say is that I have no idea because I will need his presence, and miss and love him until the day I die.

What about the future? I won’t ask if you think you’ll ever have such an intense relationship again, but what about a relationship that makes you happy?

My future is rich and beautiful and joyful and full of love, and going home to Italy. This is how I choose to live and experience my time with the people I love the most. As for a great romantic love, I’d like to think that the Universe will send me something wonderfully beautiful, sexy and passionate, a gorgeous, honest and brave man who is not intimidated by where I’ve been, but who knows? I love constantly and deeply, in most every moment of my life, and that, to me, is what counts.

That is what counts, and I hope the universe honors your request. Finally, what is it with the double-parking thing in South Philadelphia anyway?

It’s an Italian-American genetic illness.

p.j.lazos 6.4.15

 

 

 

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Orphan Train

“[T]he people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most  ordinary moments. They’re with us in the grocery store, as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles.” Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train

Some books speak to your love of history. Some books’ characters float up and off the page. Some books give you justice or take it, while others embrace your imagination and do a little dance with it. Christina Baker Kline’s, Orphan Train manages to do all of these at once, alternating effortlessly between present day in Spruce Harbor, Maine, where protagonists, Vivian and Molly now live, and New York City to Minnesota, circa 1929 – 1939, where a very young Vivian traveled by rail across the country to meet her destiny. While I wanted the story to continue, as I always do when I fall in love with characters this rich, I got everything I needed from Kline’s subtle, heartfelt prose which left me feeling sated, like sipping port after a fine meal.

Vivian’s parents came to America as all immigrants do, to find work and a better life. Instead they found crushing poverty, discrimination and isolation. The problems they had in Ireland — Vivian’s father drank and her mom didn’t have the strength of character needed to counteract that behavior — accompanied the family to NYC. After a fire in their tenement apartment killed most of Vivian’s family, the authorities shipped Vivian out west on an orphan train with dozens of other children. The idea was to find suitable, God-fearing homes to raise these unfortunate children, some of them homeless, all without a responsible adult to care for them. The exercise was one of NYC’s first tries at a foster care service. Ostensibly an act of charity, practically, it was a way to get kids off the streets and out of New York. Yet, suitable did not characterize many of the homes where the children ended up, sometimes living lives a few degrees shy of slave labor. Vivian sewed for hours, some did back-breaking farm work, others child-rearing, whatever the host family demanded. Much like today’s foster care system, there was no guarantee the host family would keep you. Vivian herself lived several places before finding her ultimate adoptive home.

Molly, a goth-dressing, present-day foster kid with a knack for getting kicked out of her many foster homes has created a tough guy persona to both hide and shield herself from the world. She loved books, but had no money to buy her own, and got herself into trouble when she stole her favorite one from the library. As a result, Molly had to choose between 50 hours of community service or juvenile detention. Through a brilliant stroke of luck that looks a lot like divine intervention, Molly ended up at Vivian’s, helping the now old woman go through her attic of memories which included boxes and boxes of Vivian’s past. Vivian couldn’t seem to let go of anything with the exception of the stories behind these things and soon Molly was immersed in Vivian’s colorful, and at times, gut-wrenching past. These women had more in common than anyone might have ever guessed.

Orphan Train will change you on the inside and make you ask the harder questions about those less fortunate children who have no one walking them through this world, at least not with any consistency. If you want sappy and sentimental, you won’t find it here. If you want clear and concise prose accompanying a deliberate, well-timed, bittersweet tale of a piece of American history that we’d do well not to forget, then Orphan Train is your ride.

p. j. lazos – 5.3.15

Christina Baker Kline will be appearing at the Jr. League of Lancaster’s Author’s Luncheon on December 4, 2015 at the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square.  For more information go to http://www.jllancaster.org

 

 

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The Fun Foodie Friends Interviews!

I don’t know what’s more exciting.  Putting your own creative works out into the universe, or promoting another’s work because you love it and you can. The promotion part is at the heart of every grass roots movement. “I just read this great book and I’m excited to share it,” takes on more meaning when a friend recommends it rather than an advertisement.  The concept of, “and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends,” is exactly how movements grow and also how the world changes.

I previously reviewed Fun Foodie Friends, and now I’d like to introduce you to the women who created it.  While I’ve known Elaine for over 30 years, we’d lost touch and only recently rekindled our friendship. Coincidentally, we were both publishing books at the time and were able to help each other along on our new and exciting journeys.  Who says the universe doesn’t always know exactly what it’s doing?

So without further delay — meet Elaine and Joyce, creators of Fun Foodie Friends!

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[photo – Elaine Callahan, co-author of Fun Foodie Friends]

Where did you get the idea for Fun Foodie Friends and how long have you been working on the drawings for this project?

Fun Foodie Friends naturally evolved by paying attention to the nudges from the Universe. I was initially looking for a way to use my art to make a positive difference in the world. Almost 1 1/2 years before I started actually working on the cookbook, I began to paint food faces made out of food because they were fun and made me laugh. It turns out they made others laugh too, especially kids. That led us to eventually create a cookbook for Kid Chefs, with fun as the first ingredient to help encourage kids and adults to make friends with their fruits and vegetables. The cookbook took us 1 1/2 years to produce. The art plus the cookbook was a three-year journey for me.

Your illustrations are top notch. Tell us about the design strategy. Where did you get your inspiration for the characters?

The inspiration for the characters came from my quirky sense of humor and wanting to make the everyday ordinary into something fun and approachable. Once we had the recipe and character agreed upon, I would do rough sketches to figure out how to incorporate most, if not all, of the fruit or vegetable ingredients into the art. Then I would take a visit to the farmers market to get the produce and come home and play with the food until I got it just right. I took photos to use as reference, often having pieces of food all over my art table while I was painting the food friends. There was creative license in creating them as well. My intention was to have the art simple enough that anyone could create their own version if they wanted to. What was amazing to me was that each food friend has their own unique personality that just came alive as I painted them. It was a fascinating experience for me.

The term, “playing with your food” just took on a whole new meaning for me.  I know you worked with Joyce, who is a chef, in creating this book.  Did you participate in the creation any of the recipes or did you stick to writing and graphic design?

When we first started the cookbook, we were both creating the recipes. I was also doing the design, creating the art and co-writing the cookbook. It was too much for me. Joyce graciously took over the recipes and became the Chief Food Officer. Since I was creating the art and design I became the Chief Fun Officer, which is much more fun to say than illustrator, designer and coauthor.

Tell me about your experience with self-publishing. How did you go about choosing a publisher? Were you satisfied with the experience? Would you do it again? Most important, was it fun?

Self-publishing is an ongoing learning experience. With the way publishing is changing, there are more opportunities than there used to be to get your work out in the world. You can research all you want, but like anything, until you actually do it you have nothing to base your experience on. We interviewed other authors who had used the same publisher before going with them and liked that they were local. There were definitely moments when it was more frustrating than fun because we were in the midst of all the nitty-gritty details of editing the cookbook. Overall, creating the cookbook was a labor of love and when things got really tough, we would remind each other that fun was the first ingredient.

Will there be a Fun Foodie Friends II?

Currently we are working on a product line beginning with aprons and pot holders to make the whole cooking experience fun. I think it would be terrific to have a Fun Foodie Friends II.

If you could be one of the characters in Fun Foodie Friends, which one would it be and why?

I’ve always naturally gravitated towards butterflies and have many photos of butterflies in my office from a trip to Argentina and Brazil, so I would be Wonderful Wendy the butterfly.

joycek kesler_225 copy

[photo – Joyce Kesler, co-author of Fun Foodie Friends]

What was the inspiration for the recipes in Fun Foodie Friends?

The initial inspiration was Elaine’s art, particularly Senor Gauc and Sammy Salsa. From there we discussed family recipe favorites, and what childhood recipes we enjoyed creating. A few of those actually made it into the book, Leo the Lion Celery Sliders, and the Berry Blue Blueberry Pie. In addition we tested an initial concept of the book with a few key advisors, and asked those with kids to try out the recipes. What amazed us was not only the positive reactions, but the images of kids making the recipes, and their expressions of pure joy. One mother even commented that her kids had not willingly ate that much celery before. It was reactions like that that inspired us, or really motivated us to keep going.

How long have you been a chef? Did you have much experience cooking for kids or is this a new area for you?

I have to set the record straight, first I am definitely not a chef, and I do not have any children. The entire experience is new for me, it was a challenge, but one that I have found I enjoyed. It really is true that I love food and food loves me, I guess you could say that I am passionate about food. My parents who for a time owned a fishing lodge in Northern Minnesota, were always creating lunch and dinner meals that would be crowd pleasers. I have my mother’s recipe box filled with their recipes. Taking those original recipes and creating what I call the Betty/Doug remix to create recipes that are healthier, and with more fresh ingredients has really been one of the best parts of this experience. Princess Vivien’s Very Vegetable soup is an adaptation of their fish chowder that originally was for 60 to 120 servings. Obviously it had to be cut down, and making a fish broth for the base is not something I thought kids or adults would enjoy. Plus the original recipe was with fresh caught fish right out of the lake! Most people do not have access to that kind of fresh fish from clear blue waters.

Looks like you inherited your parents ability to please a crowd! How did you choose the recipes? Overall, there’s a balance to the book, some appetizers, some side dishes, some desserts, although I note you stayed away from main courses. Was that purposeful, or are you saving something for Fun Foodie Friends II?

Once we had a couple of the recipes and the art completed, Elaine and I would discuss what’s next; to fill in the gaps we did put the recipes into categories to make sure that we had variety. Not only for taste, and type of food, but participation level; and how many Big Hands Helping were needed. We wanted to make sure that it really was a cookbook for kids to cook from, not that every recipe had to have an adult supervisor at every step. Our intention was to keep it simple, and not intense for the kids, and always remember that fun is the first ingredient.

We have tentatively discussed FFF II, but Fun Foodie Friends was just published in December of 2014, and we are still in the amazement and enjoyment phase. Before we begin on II we need to see who gravitates to Fun Foodie Friends to establish what tweaks, changes and additions need to be made, and the direction that we will go. On that I say “stayed tuned”.

What we are doing now is creating companion items; adult and kids aprons and a pot holder with a couple of our favorite Fun Foodie Friends featured. We thought this would make the book more marketable as a gift item if there were complimentary items to go with the book.

Is there a recipe that you would have really wanted to put in there if it wasn’t so hard to break down into steps?

The challenge with each recipe was to make sure that all the pieces of preparing a recipe could fit on one page. The ingredient list, the steps, the list of tools, and the Fun Food Facts with Food Head Fred, and Fruit Head Fruita. That does limit some choices for recipes, then there was the added element of making sure they were gluten free, low in sugar, and that there were substitutes available for the common allergens that might be in the recipe. It did keep me up at night a couple of times. Peary Penguin’s Pear and Cranberry Crisp was one of those. I was taking my mother’s apple crisp, and taking out a majority of the sugar, adding coconut flour, and other major changes, but the end product is really very tasty.

Did you target a specific age group with Fun Foodie Friends or is this for kids of all ages.

Our target age for Kid Chef’s is from five to eleven. But in some ways it’s ageless, because we wanted the adults to be the deciders in what was task appropriate for their Kid Chef. We have found that adults are engaged with Fun Foodie Friends as well. I have had many adults comment on the Fun Food facts; “I didn’t know that”, or “I can’t wait to try that recipe”. I have stated that I don’t have kids, but my most common response to that is that I have two, one is 6 and the other is 60, they just happen to also reside in my same body. My husband enjoys cooking as well, and one of his go-to recipes is in the book:  Splish-Splash Vegetable Stir Fry. So it’s fair to say that we wanted to keep Kid Chefs engaged, no matter what age.

If you could be one of the characters in Fun Foodie Friends, which one would it be and why?

My first pick is Hoot-Hoot because it was one of the first recipes of mine that was completed; I had in earlier years collected owls, but Peary Penguin is really my other favorite. Then I realized that both of them had tummy’s that could be rubbed like MMMM, MMM Good!

pjl. 4.11.15

 

 

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Six Sisters, three stories, one theme: Know Thyself.

A Gathering of One: Twins, Patrice and Danielle began battling in the womb. When hard-headed, 3-year old Danielle drinks Drano while Patrice watches in horror, unable to stop her, the battle becomes a war. Patrice triage’s the situation, making Danielle vomit to rid herself of the poison, but the damage is done and the blame squarely laid on Patrice’s shoulders, assuring the sisters remain on a lifelong collision course. Anger, jealousy, and indignation may have sparked their dysfunction, but duty and familial obligation keeps them tethered long after the bonds of childhood have morphed into the shackles of adult responsibilities. May the best sister win.

List of 55: Following her mother’s death, Belinda manages to survive childhood despite her sister-turned-caretaker, Simone’s long list of no’s: no money, no car, no electricity, no food, and ultimately, no Simone. Belinda’s abysmal treatment at the hands of the reckless and psychologically abusive Simone left layers of scar tissue so deep she needs an excavator to remove them. Poised to make a life-altering change on her 25th birthday, Belinda accidentally runs into her future ex-husband, Ted, who, because of his own complicated past draws to her like a shyster to a Ponzi scheme. Canny judgment and diamond-like determination may have gotten Belinda to adulthood, but can she survive the onslaught of attention from Ted who is both charming and abusive in equal amounts or will she succumb to the pattern begun in childhood?

The Quality of Light: Do the dead dream? Yes. They dream of living. Ellie finds this out too late and now her husband and daughter, her two best loves, are left to fight like the bitterest enemies. From her perch in the ethers and sometimes through the actual live body of her sister, Celia, Ellie watches their lives unfold, but Doc can’t see past his rage and the cruel fate that left him with Harley who even under the best of circumstances barely tolerated him. Before Ellie’s death, husband and daughter vied for her attention, dismantling each other with verbal fisticuffs. After her death, anyone could see that Doc was going to ditch and run, leaving Harley with Celia and Doc a free man, but fate, or perhaps Ellie intervenes through Twila Fuller, rancher, political activist, and self-taught expert on all things related to hydraulic fracturing. Everything about Twila is big: her ranch, her ideas, the level of contamination in her groundwater, even the cancer in her body. As Twila’s influence draws Doc into Ellie’s former world, he must make some tough moral decisions and perhaps even finish the work Ellie started. Will Doc’s newfound passion lead him back to Harley, to Celia, or to Ellie, the dead woman he loves more than life? The answer lies somewhere in the light.

Six Sisters reverberates with healing truths, reawakening us to our resilience, our reliance on each other, and the ancient wisdom rooted within our hearts.

pjl 2.26.15

6 Responses to Writing

  1. Nilanjana Bose says:

    If you’ve made Q bite the dust then this is not the time to Quit!!

    Enjoyed the clip and the excerpt both. Loved Doc’s take on a woman’s beauty especially.

    Best wishes for the rest of the challenge,nearly there, just 9 more posts to go! 🙂

    Nilanjana.
    Ninja Minion, A-Z 2016
    Madly-in-Verse

    Like

  2. Bhawna Saini says:

    Loved your theme, we all need a little mindfulness in our lives! I didn’t know about adipose tissue at all. Do you have a good liver cleanse recipe to suggest?
    Yellow Mellow Life

    Like

    • pjlazos says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words. As for a liver cleanse, I would google it and see what appeals to you. There are a lot of different ones out there. The one I tried last year recommended by my acupuncturist required eating a quarter cup of raw brown rice every morning for breakfast among other things. It took FOREVER to get done with breakfast! Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  3. sandra says:

    Loved the poem and picture from Arianna Rich, we really do take words for granted. This site has so many wonderful, feel good and educational articles. Thanks Pam for putting all this together and sharing it. You’re amazing!

    Like

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