Monday, September 3, 2018

A Brief Update

I've let my blog lapse over the last several months, but I won't offer up any excuses. I grew lazy. But as I looked at the last post I realized I owed readers an update on our dog. Our new dog, featured in several photos, and named Rob (3) because my husband likes that name, lasted only three weeks.

Rob (3) was a handful. He bonded almost at once with my husband, who took him out two or three times a day for long walks on tree-lined streets, into wooded areas, and along the beach. That had to be heaven for a dog we only learned on arrival had spent the last two years in a cage, not allowed to play with other dogs because he was considered too aggressive. He was that, but he was happy and wildly playful. Fortunately, he also knew to get into his crate when it was necessary. At over seventy pounds of solid muscle, he did obey a few commands.

We brought in a dog trainer, Ed Baez from Salem, who has enormously helpful, and Rob learned a few more commands and began to understand limitations. But it wasn't enough. On a Sunday morning in June, in his excitement at encountering three women walkers at five in the morning, he jumped, nipped one, and knocked my husband down, leaving him with a broken arm.

There is no malice in the dog, just far too much energy for one who has never had a chance to burn it off. Our vet pointed out that the dog acts like a ten-pound pup, mouthing and rolling and jumping as though he were just a bundle of baby fur. But he's not a ten-pound pup.

My husband called me from the sidewalk where he was stranded with a dog still jumping and a broken arm. I went down with the rabies certificate (fortunately they weren't far from me) at 5:30 in the morning, a lovely summer day dawning with bright sunshine and a light breeze (it could have been worse). One woman photographed the certificate, and the three of us talked. The one who was nipped showed me her hand and indicated she was on her way to urgent care.

The dog officer came by the next day, giving us a fine and going over what could happen next if the dog continues to do anything like this. The dog was too much for me to walk alone, my husband was in no condition to help, and I wasn't sure what to do. Fortunately, Ed offered to come by twice a day to help me, and in the end I was able to walk Rob in the back yard. But the die was cast.

As difficult as it is to accept, I cannot handle a dog of this size and strength and attitude. Nor did I want to face the prospect of his biting or nipping someone else. The next incident meant more than a fine--it meant a court date. After a lot of backing-and-forthing, we arranged to surrender Rob (3) to a local dog trainer who knew the nonprofit that had brought us Rob. I delivered him on the Wednesday after the incident. The hope was that with strict training he could be re-homed.

The upshot is that my husband has to take his long walks early in the morning or late at night alone for the most part (I'm not conscious at three a.m.), but the surprise is that day and night people stop and ask him about the dog, his arm, and what's in the future. One woman told him he was an "institution." Eventually there will be a Rob (4), and we're already looking at photos of Labs. The arm is healing, and my husband continues to field questions and good wishes from people he didn't know he knew. We miss having a dog, but my husband has promised me that the next one will be docile, not aggressive, used to people and other animals. In other words, a true Labrador.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The New Guy in Our Family

Our animals have come to us in various ways. When my parents moved into our new home, in 1949, they opened the door one wintry day and in walked a black cat. The same thing happened almost thirty years later, when they again moved. One fall day they opened the door and in walked a black cat. Well, maybe she was sitting on the porch, but close enough. 

A dog officer in another county knew my mother was looking for a rescue lab and held onto a dog for a few months until she could take him. The dog was sweet and ended up living with us after she died. We adopted another lab that was being fostered in Cambridge. The foster mother brought him out to meet us, and it was love at first sight. But this time, getting our third lab, was different.

With directions in hand, or actually in my old-fashion memory, we drove to Vermont, finding our way to a store outlet parking lot. We drove in and parked. I couldn’t help noticing a number of other cars with drivers spaced throughout the ill-cared for lot. During the hour we sat there, I felt a little like I was waiting for a drug buy. The outlet stores were drab and not busy in a neglected one-story warehouse, right off a busy highway for a quick getaway for prospective thieves. The parking lot was pitted, with weeds and potholes. Would our dealer arrive? Would the police pull in and ask what we were doing? Why were there so many out of state license plates here? (So, yes, in my life everything is about writing.)

A white van pulled in and drove to the end of the lot. We got out of our cars and converged on the van, standing around in silent anticipation while the two women opened the back doors and began unloading dogs one by one (or by twos, a pair of puppies). One dog was terrified and fell onto her back, legs up in the air, begging for kindness. The puppies flopped and sprawled and jumped together. Another dog sniffed over to his new owners. 

Each prospective owner had to produce a photo ID. We were checked off as each dog was delivered. Many of the new owners brought donations, as requested—newspapers, towels, and the like. We brought newspapers. Later we were asked to pose for photographs.

The driver warned us that our dog was a bit “wild,” so full of energy that we should be careful. She and her assistant seemed to have trouble getting him out, and now that I know him better, I’m guessing he wouldn’t stay still long enough to get the leash on him. Out he bounded, and he was ours. 

I understand now why he went straight to sniffing the ground, heading for the grass shoulder. He’d been in a shelter for two years, and spent the last six months in a kennel (a metal enclosure with a shed at one end and a short run), where he wasn’t allowed to play with the other dogs because he was too energetic, too wild. After being in a van for eight hours, we were about to take him on another drive, for three more hours.  He is indeed wild, but we have a great dog trainer to work with, and I’m confident our guy will turn into a regular dog fairly soon. But he is a lesson in the dangers of long stays in a shelter without enough attention. But we’re making up for that. 

And his name? As far as my husband is concerned, there’s only one name for a shelter lab. This is Rob. So now we have Rob 3 (formerly Farley), sixty pounds of love and craziness. 

And to bring this post back to writing, I’ve included in my next mystery novel, Below the Tree Line, a shelter dog named Shadow. Watch for the debut of my new series in September, coming from Midnight Ink.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

My One (and Only) Ride in a Police Car

I began this post intending to write about my first (and only) ride in a police car, but that's not where I ended up. Long before I began writing mysteries, I found myself one dark evening in the back of a police car in Pennsylvania.

When I first began graduate school, my husband and I lived near the Pennsylvania border in a small town served by a single bus once a day and a train station almost an hour away by car. I took the bus into Philadelphia in the morning, returning in the evening usually by train, where my husband met me. This was a long commute, and one night it got even longer.

On a warm evening in the fall, I left 30th Street Station at the usual time, just after five o'clock, and settled in for the ride to West Chester. We reached the last stop, and the remaining commuters jumped off and found the cars that had come to pick them up, or their own parked in the tiny lot. The red-brick station was small, grimy, and surrounded by old buildings abandoned or sparsely used. I stood on the edge of the platform waiting for my husband. And waited. The parking lot emptied out and I waited. The lights flickered and died, leaving only one barely illuminating the platform. And I waited.

Yes, this was long before cell phones, and no, the station platform didn't have a pay phone. I waited. It grew darker, so dark that I began to get worried. Eventually a police car with two officers drove into the lot and pulled up in front of me. I prepared my explanation--I was waiting for my husband, etc.

The officer on the passenger side lowered his window and asked me if I was Susan Oleksiw. He then explained that my husband had four flat tires, had called AAA, and would arrange a ride for me from the local bus station. They would take me there, since it wasn't nearby and probably not the best route to walk at this hour. 

The officer opened the back door for me, and I started to climb in but kicked the screen sitting in the well that was used to separate those in the back from those in the front.

"I'm afraid I'll kick a hole in the screen," I told him.
"Don't worry. You can't do it any harm."

I took his word for it and climbed in.

So began my ride. We took the tourist route--side street, back roads, little alleys--the officers were working after all. 

When we came to a parked car at the end of an alley, the driving officer slowed, the other shined a flashlight into the car, startling the two sitting together in the front. The officers discussed what they saw, decided the two were benign, and we drove on. For the next half hour, forty minutes or so, we circled through the small city, keeping an eye out for anything. I tried to see what they saw, but all I saw were dark corners and shadows. I don't recall much at all from that evening except that we seemed to be mostly on streets and lanes without streetlights. When we finally arrived at the bus station, I thanked them and climbed out. 

I was standing in front of the bus station but I had no idea where it was located in the city. I probably said as much when I climbed out of the car. Throughout the evening ride, the police said almost nothing to me, going about their work as though I weren't there. Or perhaps, they just didn't want to talk in front of a civilian. Either way, it was a dull ride, and not the way I'd like to spend an entire eight hours.

The bus station garage was another story. I stood in the open front of the garage, once again waiting, until a man approached me and asked if I was Susan. Apparently my husband was on the phone (and I have no idea how he found the phone number for the bus company's garage). A man directed me to an office--a closet, really--with a telephone, and my husband told me to look out for a friend of his from work. Half an hour later, an older woman he knew from the University arrived to loan me enough money for a bus ticket. I hung around in the garage, listening to the mechanics tell each other jokes and make suggestions and talk about the upcoming game. More than an hour later a bus left for my town, and I was home before midnight.

This was supposed to be about my first and only ride in a police car, what I learned and how useful it's been to me since then as a mystery writer. Over the years I've chatted with state police when I was gathering information, exchanged a few friendly words with an officer taking notes about a car accident (with no injuries), and met policemen at some of my readings, every one of whom offered to help with details should I need it. Every encounter only underscored how normal police men and women are. I wish I could report some excitement, but I can't. The first and only ride in a police car was dull. What can I say? My real life is dull. Maybe that's why I write fiction.

What this piece is really about is what many of us have forgotten: what life was like before cell phones, Uber, and ATMs. 

Today, if I landed at the local train station with no cell phone and no way to get anywhere, the police would still transport me if I asked. According to the information officer of my town, the decision to transport would be up to the discretion of the officer on duty, but the police still helped people get where they needed to go when things went awry. It happens less and less now, but it still happens. I'm glad I asked because I'm still not used to carrying a cell with me everywhere, I have no taxi app on my phone, and there's no pay phone at the train station. For some of us, life hasn't changed that much at all.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

My Fountain Pen

When I set off for college, in the Dark Ages, I went armed with a green Hermes 3000 manual typewriter and a fountain pen. I still have both though all the other remnants of my college life were tossed out long ago. Why would I keep the pen when I haven't used it in years? I have a reason.

Many of us, writers and other crafts persons, become attached to our tools if they have served us well. An expensive fountain pen doesn't impress me because it has no meaning if it hasn't proved its worth. My Parker 45, made in the USA according to the silver cap, saw me through numerous exams, countless short stories both good and bad, and my first novel, mostly bad. 

Most schools have dropped penmanship classes, where we learned the Palmer Method of penmanship for learning cursive. I can't remember how often we had these classes, but I do remember that ballpoint pens were forbidden. Each student was given a small bottle of black ink and a black wooden pen with nib. We dipped our pen in the ink and wrote on lined paper. The pens were not attractive and rarely wrote smoothly. I was glad to leave them behind. Later on in high school, I received my Parker Pen, and never thought about using anything else.

Parker Pen was founded by George Safford Parker in 1888. He began by selling pens to his students, noted how much they leaked, and wanted to create one that didn't. He patented his first fountain pen in 1889, which leaked but less than others. In 1898 he added the slip-on outer pen cap. Until then, and even today in some brands, the cap was screwed on. My pen, the Parker 45, was offered in 1960, and was the first cartridge pen. It was named after the Colt 45 pistol.

I took my pen to India with me, along with the insert for ink just in case I ran out of cartridges. I didn't, but I felt very technologically advanced when I noticed that Indians didn't use inserts or cartridges. They just poured the ink into the body of the pen and tightly screwed the two parts together. The whole thing was messy.

After college I might have purchased a new pen when it became evident how much I'd worn down the body. The heat of my fingers had softened the plastic, my fingertips pressing and reshaping the body day after day. Yes, my relaxed grip changed the tool. But I have faith in this simple device. I used it throughout graduate school.

During the final exams of my senior year in college, I fretted over one course in particular (as I had all year long) and marched in believing I was fully prepared. I'd studied, crammed, practiced questions and answers, and worked myself up into a state. I had to pass. (Actually, I did have to pass or my credits would have been messed up, perhaps affecting my graduation.) I took my place in the exam room and wrote methodically, carefully, determinedly for the entire hour. And then I was done. I could have kissed the ground in relief.

Once again in my dorm room I gave in to a feeling of elation, pushing away the usual post-exam anxiety about all of life as well as exams. I tossed my notebooks and pocketbook, and pulled out my pen. During the exam an idea had occurred to me and I wanted to record it. I pressed the pen nib onto a note pad on my desk. Nothing. I scratched out the word and got nothing but a tear in the paper.

What does anyone do when a pen doesn't work? I shook it and exhaled hot breath on it and shook it again. I put pen to paper and--nothing. There was nothing left to do but open it and pop out the cartridge and look for a blockage. I held the cartridge and squeezed--not a single drop, not even a smear stained my skin. I shook it, breathed on it, held it under a lamp. No matter what I tried, I got nothing. The problem was simple--no ink. Not one single drop of ink anywhere. This couldn't be. There had to be some residue. I just wrote for an hour with the thing. I shook the cartridge again. I blew into the front half of the body. Nothing.

I'm not superstitious. I was lucky at my exam, and even though I went so far as to thank my black Parker Pen for saving my college career (sort of), I know it was luck. And yet, I have a favorite screwdriver that I reach for whenever I have need of one. I prefer a certain pot for boiling water for tea. I will use the same ice scraper storm after storm even though my husband bought a better one. I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this.

We surround ourselves with things, objects, to create our known universe, one that is predictable and reliable and demands little of our mental energy, leaving us to focus on whatever we consider more important. What is important differs for everyone. But for me, within this universe I create strange worlds where everything is new and unknown to me, where I seek out the eerie and creepy and unpredictable, and usually a place where I wouldn't go in real life. That is where I expend my mental energy. And I'm able to do this all because of little tools like an old pen, a rusty screwdriver, a pot boiled dry more times than I can count, and numerous other items of clutter.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Meditation and Writing

Several times a month I come across the question, "What do I do when I'm stuck?" Every writer faces this problem, the feeling of being unable to move forward, of having a cast of characters who are no longer talking to their creator, of reading the last few pages written that morning or afternoon and thinking they're all junk. The heart sinks.

Every one of us has faced this problem, and all of us have ideas about how to get unstuck. The advice may range from plotting exercises to techniques for discovering your character's inner life and the like. All of them will involve some form of writing activity. Some are simple--just write whatever comes to mind until the story flows again.  I like the idea of keeping to the task at hand even if it takes another form--writing about something as long as I'm writing.  But that's not my favorite solution.

To overcome almost every obstacle I encounter I turn to meditation first. There's something magical about sitting quietly, following my breath and disregarding my random thoughts, letting them glide through and, I hope, evaporate like mist, while I let my mind become blank, the chatter fading. I first learned to meditate when I was twelve years old, by the minister of our local congregation. He may not have known that was what he was teaching me, but when later, many years later, I turned to meditation in graduate school, learning from another student in Asian Studies, I recognized the technique right away. I've been meditating off and on (I wish I'd been more consistent over the years but alas . . . ) for the last fifty years. I began with ten minutes, progressed to twenty, and then to thirty to thirty-five minutes every day. My new goal is one hour a day.

What I've learned from meditating every day is that the problem I'm confronting really isn't there. Yes, I can hear the sound of gnashing teeth from thousands of writers across the land, but I do discover that the problem that seems to have stalled me, thwarted my work, made me feel helpless and hopeless, is an illusion and with enough attention it evaporates. By "attention," I don't mean sitting at my desk and struggling to work on it. I mean, "letting it be" as I sit and meditate away from my desk. The knot of despair unties itself, and the ropes themselves shred into nothing, wisps of a cloud that floats away. I don't then see a specific solution as feel I can move forward. Sometimes I see a scene of characters behaving in a certain way, and with that I can move forward. At other times I return to the manuscript and continue where I left off, the path now clear.

There is probably a scientific reason for this. Neuroscientists have become fascinated with Buddhism, and the Buddha's (and his followers') prescience about the world and the human mind. The tests of humans who have meditated for years (often Buddhist monks) have brought neuroscientists closer to understanding how the brain works and to validation for new insights. All of that is fascinating, but, more important, it underscores the value of this simple practice. The answer to almost everything that is blocking us is accessible in stillness of the mind.


I grew up not far from where I live now, in a town typical of the United States, which means in a culture of striving to always be better, do better. I found the same living in other states and in India. Humans are the same the world over. Perhaps that is why this core practice of Buddhism (and other religions) has been adopted country after country in recent centuries. The idea of discovering what is of lasting value and how to live in doing nothing but emptying the mind in stillness contradicts most of our culture. And yet, there it is. And anyone can confirm it with his or her own experience and practice.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Craftsmanship

One of the pleasures in life is going into a quiet cafe and relaxing with a book. Perhaps I have lunch, or just sip my coffee. My small city offers lots of choices, with and without students from the local arts college, which means with and without a racket of noise. My favorite place for a quiet moment is a small French bakery where few people go. The storefront is really meant to draw customers in for special orders for weddings and other events.


The glass-enclosed case of baked goods is limited to croissants, breakfast pastries, and cookies. No bread, no sandwiches, no dinner rolls. This is really a sweets bakery, with a case of specialty desserts and another of cakes. I rarely pay attention to the sweets, heading instead for the croissants. But the last time I was there the baker had put on display some of his handiwork to promote his wares. And they were stunning. Yes, those are real cakes decorated with real sugar, including the two vases with flowers.

There’s no chance I’m going to take up baking any time soon (or ever), but I was drawn to the detail and perfection of craftsmanship in these sample cakes. Everything is real except for the cake inside, which has been replaced with a clay that won’t deteriorate. I studied the flowers and decorative flourishes with amazement, thinking about the sheer physical discipline required to get each little piece made and then in place.


Craftsmanship is something I admire, and wherever I come across a demonstration of skill and quality, I stop to look and learn. I notice the color choices, the design overall, the delicacy of the sugar pieces. It’s easy to admire a painting hanging in a museum or art gallery. We’ve been taught to accept as great art certain works, and to admire them when we encounter them in the appropriate spaces. But there is art everywhere, and most of it isn’t admired or even recognized as such.

I pass a number of nineteenth-century cast-iron mailboxes every few days, delight in their sinuous vines, and then I walk on. We’ve replaced things like this with a single steel box hanging on the house, or, at most, a painted steel box set on a post. We buy new clothes every season, and think nothing about it. But I found an old dress my mother had remade from an older one, and the nap on the fabric meant that the wool would last for eighty years or more.

Craftsmanship is taking the time to care about our work, and to understand what makes something better. I recently read a novel that was written by a woman who normally wrote poetry. I could see the attention she lavished on each word choice and each sentence. The writing wasn’t fancy, full of figures of speech and platitudes that sounded wiser than they were. She didn’t try to impress with vocabulary or literary allusions. It was a simple story made rich by the care of the author in building clarity and depth into the characters.

We can’t all write great books, make sumptuous jewelry, or craft a stair railing that will win an award. But I still look for examples of work made by those who cared to take time, to get it right, to want to add beauty to the world.

The cake in the bakery was gorgeous, and if the baker’s cakes are anything like his pastries, the eating of it would be just as wonderful.
            

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Writers and Their Superstitions

Today I'm posting a short article that first appeared in How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own Words, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay (Writers Digest Books, 2007).

The Rule of Twelve: Writers and Their Superstitions

I am not a superstitious person. I don’t keep a rotten apple in my desk drawer like the poet Schiller, to inspire me to put words to paper, nor do I sharpen a certain number of pencils each morning like Ernest Hemingway, lining them up like a stockade fence falling to the earth before the perfectly crafted sentence. If I need to have my desk tidy and clear of clutter before I turn on my iBook and face the blinking cursor, that is simply a normal tic in the life of a writer. The tic for Don DeLillo is a manual typewriter, and for May Sarton it’s eighteenth-century music. Malcolm Gladwell needs a busy, noisy place, reminiscent of his newspaper days, to create the right kind of environment for his work. Gladwell’s setting is positively serene compared to Hart Crane’s need for raucous parties and loud Latin music.
But the Rule of Twelve is not a superstition; it is based on empirical evidence. 
            I learned about the Rule of Twelve in the second writing group I attended, in the 1980s, while I was struggling to publish my first stories since college. A fellow writer, more published than I (her experience supplied the first piece of evidence), explained the rule: a story sent out to twelve journals, or sent out twelve times sequentially, will be published by one of them. Was I skeptical? Yes, but testing this was hardly as threatening as getting a new desk, which I did recently. Deciding that the Holy Grail for me was a desk with drawers rather than the six-foot long trestle dining table I’d been using for years almost sent me into therapy. But, as I said, I’m not superstitious. Unlike George Sand, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, and Winston Churchill, I don’t believe the only way to write is standing up. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain lay down to write. I use a chair.
            There are those who believe that before you can be published you have to write out the first million words at the end of your pen (or your fingers) before you get to the really good stuff, the stuff that will make your agent swoon and editors call you on Sunday evening begging for your manuscript.  I considered my options: a million words versus twelve submissions.  As a rational person, I chose to test the Rule of Twelve. I polished one particular story and sent it out to twelve journals. And then I waited.
            The notion that writers are superstitious gains credibility at every author signing and talk. The first question is often, How do you write? People ask this question as though the answer held the key to a finished novel, a prize-winning story. The answer in fact might, but not for the person asking it.  Bruce Chatwin buys a box of Moleskine notebooks at a certain stationery shop in Paris, numbers the pages, and writes his name and address on the inside. This is a superstition—they can be used just as well for a travel journal, without numbered pages, which is how I choose to use them.
            After what seemed an unreasonable length of time, in the twelfth month of the year, the story was accepted. I don’t know what happened to the other submissions—they seem to have disappeared into the mail. Unlike Jack London, I did not obsess about the mail—stamps, letters, modes of delivery, postal system workers. I accepted the editor’s reply as empirical evidence. The Rule of Twelve works.
            I think it is important to keep in mind that writers live in fantasy worlds and therefore it is all the more important to keep superstitions at bay. Umberto Eco explains this nicely when he points out that certain projects call for a pen, others call for a felt-tipped pen, and still others call for a computer. Alexandre Dumas pere used different colored paper for different genres, an orderly rational approach to his work. Sensible and practical, I cleared a shelf in my bookcase for all my future publications.
            The next time I noticed the effect of the Rule of Twelve was in 1992. By now I had an agent and a mystery novel, which she sent out to more editors than I can remember. She sent the manuscript to Scribner’s, where it sank into oblivion. Despite calls to the editor, repeated letters demanding the return of the manuscript if it wasn’t going to be accepted, we heard nothing. But I am a rational person. Unlike Gail Goodwin, who keeps talismans from the graves of writers she admires—a beechnut from Isak Dinesen’s grave in Denmark and a piece of rock from D. H. Lawrence’s in New Mexico—I cleared my desk and went to work on another novel. I don’t need a window overlooking the water in Venice, like Henry James, waiting for a ship to bring into view a needed detail for the story. The sidewalk outside my window works just fine.
            On a cold Sunday evening in February, the telephone rang. It was Susanne Kirk. She wanted my mystery novel. It was a full twelve months since my agent had sent it to her. My bookshelf was filling up with more empirical evidence.
            By now you should be convinced that superstitions have no place in the writing life. Empirical evidence is the only way to go. The Rule of Twelve works. Use it.