Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Three Voices, One Message...Follow Your Muse

Anne Perry and Abbi Waxman

This past St. Patrick's Day I got lucky, indeed, at the Old Ranch Country Club in Seal Beach. The Westminster-Fountain Valley-Huntington Beach AAUW branch staged its annual fundraiser Authors Luncheon, so I got to listen as three women novelists revealed what inspired them to write. All three definitely inspired me to continue to explore what I need to write next. I've always known that "waiting for the Muse," doesn't work. Waiting isn't the answer. Writing the first paragraph...and perhaps later eliminating it...opens the door for Ms. Muse. 

Aline Ohanesian
line Ohanesian described talking about her debut novel, Orhan's Inheritance, as "like talking about an ex-husband," because she's in a "new relationship," rewriting Homer's Odyssey from the viewpoint of the women, Penelope, Circe and Calypso. Nonetheless, she revisited the precipitating incident that inspired her to write about the Armenian genocide. When she was eight, she'd been obsessed with Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in The Sound of Music. One day while watching it on TV, Ohanesian's grandmother lead her away to a bedroom. There she horrified the child by relating how she had survived exportation by the Turks. 
The memory of the event resurfaced in the author's adulthood. Because she'd worked on a Ph.D. dissertation, she knew how to research and began the task of shaping her novel.
"Orhan’s Inheritance skillfully plays on the tension between voice and perspective in its references to art, photography, and oral history... At turns both subtle and transcendent, [it] will speak to those familiar with this dark chapter of history, and will be equally appealing readers who want to linger quietly in unfamiliar places and hidden stories of love and family."--Los Angeles Review of Books

Anne Perry's first Victorian mystery, The Cater Street Hangman, riveted my attention when it first appeared in 1979. Perry's inspiration came from a suggestion from her stepfather as to whom Jack the Ripper might have been. Subsequently, Perry has written dozens of the William Pitt and Thomas Monk novels. The societal scope of her books has been compared to the works of Trollope and Thackeray.  Perry has said she loved that particular era because "in a way it is the end of history and the beginning of the modern world."

Perry recounted how she saw herself as a magician who uses little squiggles, scribbling marks to convey to anybody in the world a story she wants to tell. John Man's Alpha Beta, which details how the invention of the alphabet shaped the western world, is one of the 50 books she chose to bring with her when she came to the United States to live. "We all have to come to terms with the idea that we will all die," she continued. "So if you're going to put your heart on paper, it's important that you write what you really mean to say, that you create something you really care about." 

The book she is working on now will be about a heroine who in 1933d stood up and tried to prevent an assassination. The character is a photographer, modeled on Margaret Bourke White. "We admire those who stand up, no matter what the cost," Perry concluded.

Final speaker for the afternoon, Abbi Waxman described how she began her writing career at only 14 years of age, in her father's advertising agency. Now working on her third novel, Waxman is from southwest England. Her inspiration for The Garden of Small Beginnings, came one day when she felt vexed with her husband. "I'll kill him," she said to herself. Then she speculated at what that would really look like, a young mother, and what she would actually do without him. I felt privileged to thank Waxman for writing a book about grief and mourning that is laugh-out-loud hilarious. I mentioned that it reminded me in a way of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, where a group of very different people gather on a regular basis, and through their interrelationships  grow and change.
 “A quirky, funny, and deeply thoughtful book…We’re already dying to know if there will be a sequel.”—HelloGiggles

Yes, there indeed is a sequel, and it's set in the same locale as the first poignant and hilarious book, with some of the same characters, Other People's Houses. Waxman contributed a box of the second book, and I received a copy. I can't wait to begin to read it...and to be inspired. And I'm assured to know there's a third in the works, to continue the series.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Kisses for Mr. Castle

 In Orange County I've served two terms as secretary for the Westminster-Fountain Valley-Huntington Beach Branch of AAUW (American Association of University Women. Our annual fundraiser luncheon comes up on March 17. We support Tech Trek, summer camps for girls middle-school girls to support their interest in, technology, engineering and math. I recall how I struggled when I was that age with the mere concept that girls could achieve in this area.

My story here originally was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons for Mastering the Law of Attraction.

Kisses for Mr. Castle

“Give me a kiss to build a dream on, and my imagination will thrive upon that kiss.”  -- Louis Armstrong

By eighth grade, at age twelve, I’d pretty much bought into the common credo that girls couldn’t succeed at math or science.

“Girls don’t become scientists,” Mama said, totally ignoring Madame Curie. “Take typing and shorthand. If your future husband dies, you can always get a job as a secretary.”

Such was the common wisdom in working class families back in 1950. Girls could become nurses, teachers, librarians and secretaries. Those were the choices for those unlucky enough to remain single or to become widowed. So I gave up even before I started, and still have my junior high school report cards to prove it, sprinkled with dismal C’s in science and math.

Daddy also reinforced the myths that girls could not grasp the subtleties of algebra or geometry, or succeed in scientific endeavors.  In early l950, we’d received a letter suggesting that my scores on the Iowa Standardized Tests were high enough to qualify me for a career in engineering.

“It’s a mistake,” he’d said with a chuckle, tossing the letter into the wastebasket. “They must have thought you were a Terry, a boy.”

By the last semester of eighth grade, though, I had a goal.  My English teacher, Miss Laird, had written in my autograph book: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, ‘til your good is better, and your better’s best.”  Since then I’d longed for a straight A report card to please her.  But how could I get it, with my mandatory science class?  And this year I had Mr. Castle with his famous formidable projects.

All of his science students had to conduct research, prepare a visual exhibit, and give an oral report.  Though we could be creative in choosing a topic, it had to relate to science.  Science to me meant engines! Test tubes! Electricity!  I still viewed the new television sets I saw in store windows with awe.  Pure magic.  And my father, a mechanic, sighed as he wiped his greasy hands, after trying to interest me in how our sedan’s motor worked.

“Some students do chemical experiments,” Mr. Castle suggested, when we asked for examples.  I envisioned explosions that would hurtle us through the windows, with no “drop drill” exercise to protect us from the impact.

“Some like botany, and have collected and categorized various leaves into scientific classifications.”  I couldn’t tell an oak from a maple, let alone a phylum from a species.

After class I stopped by his desk.

“I don’t know what to do,” I began, “I get stage fright when I have to speak, and my parents say girls aren’t good at science. So how can…”

Mr. Castle threw up a hand to stop me mid-sentence.

“No!  Anybody can be good at science,” he said.  “All you have to do is be curious.  Curious!  Just think of something that you love, and research that.  No matter what it is, you’ll find it’s related to science.  Forget the stage fright.  If you love something, and it’s evident, so will your audience.”

Besides family and Miss Laird, what I loved most were acrobatics, baton twirling, and tap dance, but I couldn’t see how I could relate any of that to science.  I also loved reading Ray Bradbury, but that was science fiction, not science.

Then I thought of Hershey Kisses, in their glittery little silver wraps.  Though I later learned that Kisses dated back to 1907, during my childhood they were no longer around, since foil had been rationed for the war effort.  Kisses returned on the market just as I started junior high, and I was an immediate fan.

I doted on them, but nibbled them sparingly to avoid the dreaded zits that allegedly could dot my face.  At mid-century we still believed that chocolate caused pimples, but Kisses seemed safe, not as much chocolate as in a full scale candy bar, but a bit more than in one of the chips my mom used for baking cookies. 

In pre-Internet days, research meant heading for the encyclopedias.  Luckily, I had library science as an elective, so whenever I had a spare moment between shelving books, I read up on the history of chocolate, and how the Maya and Aztecs extracted it from cacao beans.  I learned that chemistry showed that the principal alkaloid is similar in structure to caffeine, providing that little lift.  I could also chart out details of how chemists and biologists over the years had worked to improve the quality of chocolate by breeding a better cacao bean. 

For botany, I tracked chocolate from Kingdom Plantae to Species Cacao.  For physiology, I outlined the nutritional content of chocolate, fats, sugars, carbohydrates and proteins, and demonstrated how the body converts food into energy.

Still needing color, I decided to write to the company in Hershey, PA, to plead for materials.  They responded, sending posters and photographs that arrived just days before my presentation.  I fashioned a portable bulletin board from an old cardboard box, and then did a mental review.

“Appeal to our senses,” Miss Laird had stressed, teaching us about creative writing.   I had sight down and sound, since I’d be talking.  But what about taste, touch, smell?  The answer came immediately.  I needed the Kisses themselves!

Three hours of babysitting would cover the cost of two bags, so I hustled next door to ask Mrs. Kimble if she needed a babysitter since she liked to go to the Saturday matinees.  Cinderella is playing up on Vermont,” she frowned.  “And the kids want to see that.”

I jumped in fast.  “Why don’t I take Bobby and Biddy to Cinderella, and you can go to see All About Eve at the Arden?”  I asked for a dollar to cover my admission and three hours of babysitting.  Just enough to buy two bags of Kisses so everybody in the class could have seconds.

“Bette Davis is my favorite,” Mrs. Kimble agreed, “It’s a deal.”

The day of my presentation I marched confidently into science class, tossing a smile towards Mr. Castle.  After a lackluster procession of reports from others, I strode to the front of the class, unfurled my posters and propped up my bulletin board.

I dug a bag of Kisses from my purse, and began to pass them around, as I began to explain the science of chocolate.  Nobody heckled me with “Kissy,” which had been my biggest fear.  Instead, eyes remained glued to me as I produced a second bag.  “Just taste them, smell them, feel the tin foil,” I urged.  “It’s all science.  You just need to be curious!”  Mr. Castle looked away, choking back a chuckle.

I got the straight A report card I had yearned for, and Miss Laird hugged me.  My parents shook their heads and agreed that somehow a mistake must have been made with that A in science.

Though I did not pursue a career in chemistry or biology, I overcame my fear of science, public speaking and even of math.  My curiosity remains, and has helped me in work as a journalist and a social worker.  I’m able to speak before groups with no trace of stage fright.  I did a statistical analysis of data for my master’s degree and annually do my own income taxes.   

In January 2007 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hershey Kiss, its special Love and Kisses, just in time for Valentine’s Day.  I was at the post office early to buy several books.  Even today, no matter how stringent my current diet, I can never turn down a Hershey Kiss.

And I still attribute my unabashed curiosity, which has led me to the some of the most exotic ends of the earth, to Mr. Castle.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tapping My Toes and Humming Along

February's nearly over and I'm still in the mood for music...and, of course, love. I started my celebration this month by attending another stellar concert featuring the dulcet phrasing of Dewey Erney, thanks to the Grace Concert Series at the Grace Presbyterian Church in Long Beach. I'd heard  Dewey sing several times before, both at house concerts sponsored by CalJas and at his 80th birthday celebration at this church a year or so ago.

Dewey's voice is as dulcet-toned as ever. His phrasing remains unequaled in my book. And his longtime accompanist, Ron Eschete, still is impressive. Catch him here on his seven-string guitar.
Chris Cross

Then a post-Valentine treat at Segerstrom Center Concert Hall: Christopher Cross, who still sails smoothly, backed by the elegant Pacific Symphony.

Here's Christopher with one of his most famous pieces, the theme from "Arthur." He's still doing the best that he can do...and boy, is it pleasing. The video accompanying this made me want to see the movie again.

Tomorrow night, there's "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" at Vanguard University. This is the favorite all-time Hollywood musical of my sweetie, Frank, so we saw the original movie several months ago. Looking forward to concluding this month of love with seeing the well-reviewed production.

Coming up soon:

We'll be tapping our toes at the Rose Center Theater when we go to see "42nd Street" next week. 
My favorite scenes from the 1933 movie centered on Ginger Rogers, sporting a monocle and carrying a lap dog, and Ruby Keeler, tapping her way down those stairs.  Remember?

I've never been to the famous Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. But I'll be there in early March to see one of my favorites from the late '60s...Gary Puckett. Remember him?  Here's a reminder:
Gary Nowadays
The Union Gap, 1968

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On Mental Health: Letting the Sun Shine In

A longtime friend and fellow licensed clinical social worker, Christine Johannson, posted this on Facebook, and gave her permission to share it widely. Thanks so much, Chris, for contributing to the discussion of what mental health issues can and should be addressed.

"I have been a counselor for over 30 years. I believe counseling can be life changing. I believe that early intervention can help high-risk children and may prevent them from developing the kind of deeply twisted psychopathology that we see in many of the school shooters. What I do not believe is that more mental health services will fix the immediate problem of mass shootings.
"The term 'mental illness' covers a lot of turf and this causes a great deal of confusion. Those who suffer from acute disorders such as bipolar and schizophrenia can respond well to counseling and medication. But, for the most part, these are not the people committing these shootings. Most shooters are people with a different, much less treatable, kind of mental illness. They suffer from characterological disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder (AKA sociopath) and malignant narcissism—disorders that profoundly distort how they see and respond to the world.
"Mental health providers have a dismal record of treating this group—not because we haven’t tried, but because of the nature of the illness. These disorders seem to start in early childhood, causing a serious distortion in how the person perceives and interacts with others. These are folks who have little or no insight (they don’t see that they have a problem, but instead blame others), and they have no empathy (which is why they can carry out these horrific attacks without remorse). They lack a conscience and you need a conscience for most therapy to work. Since they see others as the problem, they don’t believe they need to go to counseling (why can’t others just change?). When they do go, they tend to be dismissive, manipulative and take no responsibility for their behavior. Even if the person managed to find one of the few highly skilled therapists that can deal with this difficult population effectively, the likelihood of the person staying in therapy for the 1-3 years needed to undo the significant damage that caused the disorder are slim to none. Change is hard and requires an ability and a willingness to acknowledge our dark side and do the very hard work of changing it. Asking a sociopath or a profoundly narcissistic person to do this is like asking a pig to fly.
"Even if we let go of the idea that counselors are going to magically fix people with these severe disorders and just focus on having them identify those who are dangerous, there is still a problem. This type of client is a counselor’s worst nightmare because we are aware of the potential danger they pose, but we cannot involuntarily commit them to a psychiatric hospital unless they are 'an imminent threat' (they have told you of an plan and you have reason to believe they could carry it out). You cannot take away someone’s civil rights and lock them up because you have a bad feeling about them, even if that crawly feeling is spot on. As a counselor, you do your best to give resources, to provide a safety net, to get them additional support (things that can actually help with people who do not have a personality disorder, but aren’t really that effective when you are dealing with a sociopath or a malignant narcissist). Then you pray that you don’t wake up to see their face on the front page of the paper in connection with some horrific crime.
"What will help? Not allowing the average person to have access to weapons of mass destruction, weapons whose only purpose is to kill the most amount of people in the shortest time. We simply have no accurate way to identify those who will use these weapons to commit mass murder, and, if we could identify them, we can’t watch them 100% of the time. The bottom line is that none of us need to have weapons of war; thinking that we do has created an unlivable society with an intolerable level of carnage. We can buy back the weapons that are out there and confiscate the black market ones as we come across them. Is this a perfect solution? No, but it is the only one likely to have much of an impact. We can’t keep all people from driving drunk, but we still have laws and stop those we can. We can’t stop all people from abusing their children but we have laws and we try. There is literally no other destructive behavior in our society where we shrug our shoulders and say that since we can’t completely fix it, let’s do nothing. We are all sick to death of hearing these stories of tragedies that we can prevent. Let’s do something this time." --Chrisrinw Johnnaon


Friday, January 12, 2018

The Spirit of Kind America: "Home from Haiti"

What Really Makes America Great

Where were you  on 9/11? I was in Haiti. Yes, Haiti. You may have heard of it recently. On that day, Haitians comforted me and the Peace Corps Volunteers I'd traveled there to train on HIV/AIDS intervention techniques. My story about that day and its aftermath appeared two years ago in Chicken Soup's The Spirit of America. Here it is:

Home from Haiti

 "God says do your part and I'll do mine."—Haitian Proverb

All I wanted in the aftermath of 9/11 was to get home to Ken. The United States Embassy assured me I'd remain safe in Haiti, where I'd finished staging an HIV/AIDS prevention seminar for Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts.

"Reagan National will remain closed indefinitely," the ambassador's aide explained. "You can get on your flight for Miami Sunday, but once there, you'll be stuck. All the rental cars are long gone. People will wait days to grab a seat for Dulles or BWI."

"I understand," I said, "but I'll risk getting delayed. If worse comes to worst, my daughter-in-law's parents live there, and might put me up for a while."

My husband still had been asleep in Silver Spring, Maryland, that Tuesday morning when, a dozen miles away, a hijacked jet had smashed into the Pentagon. He hadn't learned about the day's events until the early afternoon when a son phoned to see if he were all right.

I'd been 1500 miles away, in a rustic hotel in coastal Montrouis, two hours north of Port-au-Prince. Still newlyweds, we'd grown used to separations during our first year of marriage, since I traveled overseas frequently for my job. This, though, was different. I needed to be with Ken right now for mutual solace.

When the news reached us in our hotel conference room, we'd taken a break. We'd poured into the adjacent bar, where the manager had switched on a generator-operated black and white television. We stared in disbelief as CNN showed reruns of footage of the collapse of New York City's Twin Towers.

"We should cancel this training," a few Volunteers suggested through tears.

"No," others countered. "People are travelling here from all over the country. Some have to hike miles to catch a tap tap. We can't disappoint them."

Tap taps, the gaily painted vehicles that provide public transportation in this Caribbean country, follow fixed routes on rough roads. Some of the counterparts might walk for most of a day or more in torrid heat to reach the nearest pickup site.

The Haiti Peace Corps health programmer and I exchanged glances. There'd never been a question in our minds of cancellation. Though HIV/AIDS prevalence rates had diminished from horrendous highs in the '80s at the outbreak of the scourge, mother-to-child transmission rates remained shockingly high in this poorest country in the Western hemisphere. This long-planned event would be Peace Corps' first training effort here.

We somehow struggled through the conference. The Peace Corps nurse, an energetic Haitian woman, drove from the capital to counter the myths that had sprung up about the disease. In no uncertain Creole she set her superstitious countrymen straight that voodoo played no part in selecting victims. The Volunteers translated for their counterparts, and engaged them in the interactive skits and scenarios that are the hallmark of Peace Corps trainings worldwide.

Most Volunteers reported their counterparts now had increased levels of understanding and had agreed to spread the new information back in their villages. We were happy with this positive outcome.

The embassy escorted me Sunday morning to Toussaint L'Ouverture International where I trudged aboard an American Airline flight for Miami. The flight attendants all wore black armbands to honor their colleagues who had died in the line of duty on 9/11. They informed us we needed to remain seated for the entire flight. Everybody seemed uneasy at takeoff, some Haitians weeping. Air conditioning couldn't mask perspiration's acrid scent.

Once in Miami, I buzzed straight for the American Airline desk. I produced both my return ticket to Reagan National and my government passport.

"Sorry, we don't have any seats available on any flights right now," the check-in agent said. "Wish we did. We have one flight diverted to Dulles tonight at 11, but the last economy seat got taken about 10 minutes ago. All I can do is put you on a waiting list."

I went to a nearby pay phone and called Ken. I knew he'd be relieved that I'd at least made it back to the mainland.

"I'm here at Miami International," I said when he answered. "Might be here for days. Things don't look good."

"Call me again tonight, baby," he said. "I miss you so much. I've been on the phone with all of my sons today. We're all hoping you get home safe…and soon."

I sat down near the gate and began to read Herbert Gold's "Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth." This was a newly revised paperback edition. I'd met Gold decades earlier and knew of his lifelong love for the country.

I'd only finished a chapter or two when a young man sat down beside me. He looked exhausted and angry. I realized that nearly everybody in the waiting area wore similar expressions of anxiety and defeat. It had been a terrible week for us all.

"Haiti?" the man said, peering at the book in my hands. "Why bother to read that? That country's done for."

"Not quite," I replied. "I work for Peace Corps and our philosophy is a positive one. I've just come from conducting a health training there."

His scowl faded. He blinked. He shifted his gaze to my face.

"Tell me more," he said. "I'm in pharmaceuticals and we're always looking for new markets."

I explained a little about how HIV/AIDS and devastated the country, and what efforts had been made to counter the disease. Soon he was telling me about his family in Virginia, and how lucky he'd been to get on the 11 p.m. flight there.

"I got the last seat," he crowed.

"Oh, it's you. I came ten minutes later." I fished in my purse and hauled out my wallet.
"Here's a photo of my husband. We've been married a little over a year. He's alone in Silver Spring, and I've been yearning to get back to give him a hug. I've never missed anybody more."

He studied the photo. "Looks a lot like my dad. He died a few years back. I always could go to him for honest encouragement. Your husband has the same kindness in his eyes."

I nodded, and smiled. I love seeing how we can find similarities to bond over despite all of our differences.

Soon the man arose and walked to the check-in desk. I returned to my book. First class had already boarded for that last Dulles flight. I pictured my companion soon settling into his seat.
The loudspeaker crackled. "Will passenger Elders come to the check-in desk?"

I approached, steeled for bad news about how many hours or days I'd have to wait until another flight could be diverted.

"Here's your boarding pass. You're in the last row, but you'll be home tonight."


The clerk smiled. "The guy who had this seat upgraded. He was traveling on business with an expense account. He said to tell the lady who had been trying to do some good in Haiti to give her husband a hug."

Finally I released the tears I'd held back all week.

I phoned Ken from Dulles. "Not everything is a nightmare. Prepare to be hugged in about an hour, thanks to a stranger's kindness."

"I'm ready," my husband replied.


Chicken Soup followed this book up last summer with a second one,  My Kind (of) America. My sweetheart, Frank Stern, had a story in that volume. Here we are together at a book signing in San Bernardino last August.
Celebrating the True Spirit of America