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Little Prayers Poetry: An Interview with Susie Meserve

When it comes to choosing the next book to read, I’ll read anything. I love challenging myself to different genres and diverse authors. I think we learn about our world as readers, and writers, through different mediums and kinds of storytelling.

April is National Poetry Month, and I love exploring this genre because it reaches the reader in a way unlike any other written form. Many of my favorite writers began as poets, and there’s something to recognize about the talent and skill it takes to craft a poem that makes you feel something in a short amount of words and with little filler.

007-KLJ-WEB-Susie-Final-3372Susie Meserve is a poet, memoirist and blogger. Her first collection of poems, Little Prayers, was recently published by Blue Light Press and was the winner of the 2018 Blue Light Book Award.

I’ve followed Susie on twitter and her blog for years, so am happy to welcome her over to the Happiness Project to chat about her new book and why poetry matters today.

***

JW: Welcome, Susie! 

Describe Little Prayers in three words. 

SM: Poetry about life.

SM.LittlePrayersFrntCvrWbWhat would you say are the themes in this collection of work? 

Death and rebirth, flight and return, the life of dreams, the fleetingness of time. And maybe, as Michelle Bonczek Evory suggested on my book cover, “the daily mundane.”

Your poems feature detailed captures of moments and objects, how we can find ourselves lost within those fragments. Is that where the title “Little Prayers” comes from, those moments? 

I think so, yes! This book had several other titles before Little Prayers—for a while it was called “Losing Paradise” (and a friend suggested “The Oracle”). When I stepped back and looked at it, though, I realized that while the poems were all very different thematically and structurally, there was this fleeting, temporary quality to almost all of them. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re not memorable, but they do seem to capture somewhat ephemeral snippets of time—a bird flying in the window, waking in the middle of the night, a session doing dishes, a little ruminating on California—in a meditative, quiet sort of way. So then I looked at the poem “Little Prayer” and thought, yeah, that’s my title poem. I just slightly changed it to indicate a multitude of prayers, not just one. I should add: I’m not a religious person, but my poetry chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2008) is called Faith. I’m not entirely sure why. I think the act of writing poetry feels somewhat spiritual to me. And let’s face it, it requires a lot of faith—in something!—to be a writer in today’s world.

What does writing poetry compared to other forms of writing allow you to do differently? Do you think you can speak your truth, or Truth, more clearly? 

I love that you capitalized Truth, here, like the universal Truth. I don’t know if I believe in that concept, though. I actually think I can speak my own truth more clearly in personal essays like this one  and this one, where I’ve had to be deeply honest to tell the story. In poetry, I can speak multiple truths, in a sense. It’s all very sneaky. Poetry is absolutely my first love, and I think what I love about it is the unexpected. I just begin sometimes, and things surprise me, and then I have a poem (that may or may not be “true”). This can be very freeing—when it’s working.

Your poems include a variety of style and format. How do you decide what is the “right” format for your poem as you’re writing? 

Great question. This book consists of poems from over 15 years of writing, so it represents a lot of different styles as I tried them on over the years. For a while I was really feeling couplets, then these formless, no-stanza, rambling poems, then poems with numbered sections. I think the poem usually tells you what it wants. For me, a poem I want more control over—because it’s got a more intense, precise quality, maybe—will ask for couplets or tercets, whereas one that feels more free and easy—or unwieldy—might not want any stanza breaks at all.

What’s your best piece of advice for someone writing poetry?

I don’t use prompts, really (though I do like the prompts in the book The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, excellent for beginners). My biggest advice is to READ. I think when you start to be able to identify the kinds of surprises other poets incorporate into their work, you start to incorporate your own. So reading a wide variety of styles and voices is just essential.

Why do you think poetry is important today? 

I think poetry asks us to tap into a different part of our brains than prose does. It demands and requires more intangibility. I remember well the time my mom told me she liked my poems but felt like she didn’t understand them. I told her she didn’t need to, that she should just appreciate what she got out of them. She told me later how freeing that was for her, that me giving her permission not to work too hard took away a lot of her anxiety and allowed her to just sit with the lines and enjoy them. I think that’s one of the things that’s hardest about poetry—we don’t always “get it” in the way we might, say, a novel or a memoir, and maybe that’s why people run away from it. We don’t want to feel stupid or like we’re missing something. We want clarity, answers. Because poetry often raises questions. But I think that’s a really good thing! Poetry can open us up to mystery and abstraction, which is good for our brains and our hearts. And the music of poetry—learning to hear it—is essential for anyone wanting to write or appreciate good writing.

What’s next on your writing desk? 

I’m most excited about a new poetry collection I’m working on. I’m writing a series of poems about infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood. They’re deeply personal, much more raw, and all linked thematically. I’m thinking of it a bit like a memoir in verse. It’s going really well. I’m super inspired, and just hoping it’s, you know, good.

I’m sure it will be! Thanks, Susie! 

***

In honor of National Poetry Month, Susie is giving away a free copy of Little Prayers to two lucky people who signs up for her newsletter before Sunday, May 6th! Sign up at Susie’s website to win!

You can catch up with Susie on Twitter @susiemeserve or on her website, www.susiemeserve.com, where she blogs regularly about writing and being More Than a Mother.

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Three to Get Deadly: My First Experience With Janet Evanovich

Of course I had heard of bestselling author, Janet Evanovich, but I’d never read her work before.  It was just a few months ago at my book club when a member suggested her work that I made a stop at the library.

“All the books we read are so serious!”  A cry heard on numerous occasions at book club.  Our group substituted in some summer fun when we read local author, Jay Gilbertson’s Moon Over Madeline Island and Back to Madeline Island.  We got to skype with the author and I interviewed him here!

Janet Evanovich was another name tossed out amongst the group.  With the release of One for the Money in theaters, a film version of Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel, many readers were talking.  Our dialogue introduced me to the characters:  Stephanie Plum – Bounty Hunter and Leading Candidate for TLC’s What Not to Wear, Lula – Ex Prostitute and Bounty Hunter in Training, a real passion for velour tracksuits, Joe Morelli – Jersey Cop, on again/off again fling with Stephanie, and Ranger – Undercover Bounty Hunter, Muscles, early morning runs, Muscles, address is a vacant lot, Muscles.  Excellent side characters include Stephanie’s whole family, with particular favoritism shown to her Grandma Mazur – a feisty old lady with a Jersey accent and a penchant for younger men, well, really men of any age.

(barnesandnoble.com)

So I picked up the title Three to Get Deadly.  This time around, Stephanie Plum is after the elderly owner of a candy shop!  What do you mean that doesn’t sound dangerous?!  Well, she does start out as one of the most hated people in the burg, but as Stephanie uncovers more of the story, there’s a reason she needs to speak to Mo, the resident ice cream guy.

If I may insist, this book is a book best read aloud, with a Jersey accent, which I happily practiced on the hammock with my honey.  He was very entertained, and I have fondness for impersonating Stephanie’s mother now.

*Note:  If you’re going to read this aloud and your neighbors are doing yard work on the other side of the fence, you should probably alert them to what you are doing.  Otherwise there’s just a sudden increase in swearing and shootings and coffee cake!

The author, Janet Evanovich, is a woman after my heart.  Just read the first paragraph from her author’s bio:

(goodreads.com)

“When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in LaLa Land. La la Land is like an out-of-body experience –while your mouth is eating lunch your mind is conversing with Captain Kirk. Sometimes I’d pretend to sing opera. My mother would send me to the grocery store down the street, and off I’d go, caterwauling at the top of my lungs. Before the opera thing I went through a horse stage where I galloped everywhere and made holes in my Aunt Lena’s lawn with my hooves. Aunt Lena was a good egg. She understood that the realities of daily existence were lost in the shadows of my looney imagination.”

Evanovich.com

That imagination never faltered.  Janet wrote weird stories and collected rejection letters enough to fill a box, and then, she burned it.  Shortly after her in flagrante delicto, Janet got notice that Second Chance at Love wanted to publish one of her manuscripts!  Receiving $2000 for her book, she quit her temp job as a secretary and began writing romance novels.

Now, she is the sole client for Evanovich, Inc.  A company run by her family, it is her children who created the Evanovich site and manage her publicity.  Fans of her work will love the Quote of the Day Feature from her infamous quirky characters.  Here are a few gems:

“You’re number ten on the Bad-Stuff-O-Meter when it comes to cars.” – Lula, Hot Six

“And then the Hobbit kissed the bottle, and said it was his precious.” – Eugene, Sizzling Sixteen

“Those are my choppers. Got them for free from the VA, but they don’t fit right. Can’t eat with them in.” – Fred, Three to Get Deadly

“I never have trouble with heartburn on account of I keep a positive attitude.” – Lula, Sizzling Sixteen

“I shot that sucker right in the gumpy.” – Grandma Mazur, One for the Money

See, wasn’t that fun?  You can check out more of Janet’s quotes of the day or weigh in on her pinterest boards for who should play Ranger or Diesel in the movies all by following her on twitter @janetevanovich.

For all you writers out there, did you know Janet wrote a book about writing too?  It’s called How I Write:  Secrets of a Bestselling Author, and it does seem to look at writing from a new angle than most.  It looks like more of a personal account into her process, writing hours, and characterization.  I’m adding it to my list of books to check out on craft!

So, does your summer reading list or book club need some fun infusion?  Pick up a copy of one of many bestselling books by Janet Evanovich!  Her newest, Wicked Business, a book about the seven deadly sins, was just released in June and Notorious Nineteen comes out in November this year!  

Loving Frank: A Book Review

Published in 2007, this recount of a seven year love affair between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, seems to be getting a second wave of publicity.  I can recall the cover being all over bookstore tables 2 years ago with posters all around.  Now that I picked this up from my “To Be Read Pile,” it would seem I’m not the only one circling back around.  Members of my book club brought the title up for a future read this year, and I’ve seen the historical romance appear in several magazines and book club lists as well.

Before I can tell you about the novel, I have to share with you what I learned about the author.  Nancy Horan was first introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work while living in Oak Park, Illinois for 24 years.  Horan even lived on the same street as Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who in 1907 commissioned Wright to build a home for her and her family.  On the local tours of Wright’s houses and in a few biographies she read, Horan began to wonder who this “Mamah” woman was.  (Mamah is pronounced May-muh.  A derivative of Margaret, though Mamah was always named just Mamah; her grandmother liked the sound of it.)  Little is told of the affair between Mrs. Edwin Cheney and the architect, most scholars stick to his work and pay little attention to the innovator’s personal life.  But Horan knew there was more to the story.  Coincidentally, the affair lasted seven years, and it took Ms. Horan that long to write the book.

Author Nancy Horan (source: globegazette.com)

Those of you who’ve read my book reviews before know I LOVE digging into how the author did their research and what drew them to the story.  The why’s behind why this particular author was the one to write the tale!  Having lived down the street from a Wright created home for so many years, that was the least bit of research Horan did.  The author amazes me immensely with the amount of research she did.  She read all about Wright’s architecture, the movement of modernism, Wright’s autobiography (in which he never outrightly names Mamah), his son, John Lloyd Wright’s biography, the translated works that Mamah did for Swiss philosopher Ellen Key, copies of the only surviving letters by Mamah, reminiscing books by the neighbors of the Cheney’s, and she traveled to places that Mamah lived in order to get to know her.  When first beginning the project, she was writing in several different points of view, but a few years later changed the whole thing to be from Mamah’s perspective.  You can hear more about Horan’s own love affair with the research for Loving Frank in her interview with BookBrowse.com.

Horan’s background is in journalism, and she has covered a range of topics in her years from politics to fashion.  After taking a creative fiction class at the University of Chicago, she discovered she rather liked it.  Loving Frank is her first novel, and she’s been praised for how confident her writing is as a debut author.  I couldn’t agree more!  The language of Horan’s book is beautiful and enthralling.  The story of this couple is tumultuous, as is usually the case when families become separated and new relationships are formed.  Despite the ups and downs of the characters, Horan’s writing maintains an intensity that I think Ms. Borthwick Cheney would be proud of.

Mamah Borthwick Cheney (source: google images)

Living during the turn of the century, Mamah was a woman who would latch on to change.  While the Woman Movement happened all around her, the Suffragists marching, Mamah’s ideals followed more so of expanding one’s own mind.  It wasn’t enough to have equal rights, one had to allow for constant transformation of person and ideas.  If Frank Lloyd Wright is one of America’s most profound natural architects, than Mamah Borthwick Cheney is arguably one of the least known, though best examples of transcendentalism and free thought.

One of the things Horan accomplishes in this book so well are the dichotomies Mamah faced in life.  In fact, that’s how Horan plotted the novel.  She took the major decision moments of Mamah’s life and plotted them down, then looked to define and develop how Mamah came to those decisions.  One of the biggest battles Mamah faced was her role as a mother.  She deeply cared for her children and there are many who would criticize her for the years she spent apart from them.  I think Horan was able to give the reader some perspective, selfish as it may seem in parts, of the whole picture and the grave seriousness of what was at stake for each person.

Frank Lloyd Wright (source: google images)

And then we have Frank.  The subject of so much devotion, Frank Lloyd Wright changed the life of Mamah, and she for him, forever.  While the fame of Wright today is vastly known and celebrated, that was not always so.  He was always awarded, his talent was undeniable.  But the architect needed constant beautiful things around him.  These shopping sprees and grandiose plans resulted in financial debt on more than one occasion.  He dreamed of a perfect world where students could learn from him and create their own projects, yet he was quick to judge and not forthcoming with praise, though he always wanted it for himself.

Frank had a family of his own too when he began the affair.  Six kids in fact.  But Frank’s version of time and Mamah’s were entirely different interpretations.  His work and celebrity afforded him more luxury than Mamah in the 1900’s and he was able to go anywhere he pleased.

The biggest dream of his was to build a home for he and Mamah in Spring Green, Wisconsin on the property near where he grew up.  Even while traveling in Italy and studying the architecture there, he couldn’t get the rolling hills of the midwest out of his mind.  That dream came true when he built Taliesin.

Taliesin (source: google images)

Loving Frank isn’t a book I would’ve thought to be spectacular.  It isn’t a story I would’ve sought out.  But I am wholeheartedly thrilled I took this book off the shelf and listened to its tale.  It didn’t matter to me that at times I agreed and disagreed with the decisions Mamah made in life.  I wanted to be her friend and talk feminism and philosophy with her over dinner at Taliesin.  I wanted her to share her thoughts with me even more on what it was like to be her.

So go ahead, walk over to that “to be read pile” or bookshelf, and pick a title.  You may just surprise yourself.  And if you’re not sure what to read next, might I recommend Loving Frank?  You won’t regret it. 

For more on:

Frank’s Architecture

Mamah and Feminism

Frank and Mamah’s Relationship

Scams: A Guest Post by David N. Walker

It’s another round of the Life List Club blog hop!  Here with me today is David N. Walker, Texan Extraordinaire!  He’s here today to teach us all a lesson about scams.  And you can find me over at Jenny Hansen’s blog, More Cowbell, talking about why wearing pajamas might be the best thing you do for your career!  Sort of…

You can also visit the other Life List Club crew by clicking on any of the names in the sidebars of our blogs and we’ll all be around in the comments section!  See you there!

Scams by David N. Walker

WANA: We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.

Not too long ago, everyone in my Yahoo contact list received an email purporting to be from me and stating that I was stranded in Madrid penniless and without ID because I’d been mugged. More recently I received this email.

Dear Sir/Madam,

My name is Barrister Manuel Francisco Suarez Calafell, an Attorney at Law, in Madrid-Espana.

I am writing to notify you of the unclaimed inheritance deposit (US$37.3Million) of our late client, Mr. MROTZEK GERD who passed on to the Great beyond on August 21st, 2008 in the Spanair Flight JK-502 2 Crash in Madrid.

I got your name and email address through a web search engine in my quest to get a reliable individual who shall work with me in claiming this inheritance deposit since all efforts to get the biological relative has proved abortive.

Conclusively, I await your urgent response to include the following:(1).Your full Names & Address. (2).Your Telephone and Fax numbers. (3).Your business name if any: for more information on how to release the inheritance deposit, procedure and legality of this claim via email: manuelfrancisccalafell.suarez@aim.com

Regards,
Manuel Francisco Suarez Calafell (Esq)
Attorney At Law

Has Spain become the new Nigeria? I haven’t received anything lately from any Nigerian bankers asking me for a processing fee so they could send me several million dollars. Maybe someone from Spain stole all their computers.

Have you been spammed with any junk like this letter? Had your email account commandeered or your identity stolen? This seems to be growing in seriousness.

David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since his retirement from insurance a few years ago, he has devoted his time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel himself.

A Most Memorable Thanksgiving: Guest Post by David Walker

Welcome to the great Thanksgiving Blog Swap!  Basically, today you will find me at David’s place, and David is here with me today.  We’re both talking about Thanksgiving.  I encourage you to hop over to David’s and learn about a very meaningful ancestor in my family tree, and here, David’s providing your humorous travel guide to celebrating the holidays in a chill new way!  Enjoy!

A Most Memorable Thanksgiving

When I was growing up, my family joined with two other families in owning a cabin in Ute Park, New Mexico, which is 54 mi southwest of Raton and 43 mi northeast of Taos and about 600 miles from our home in Fort Worth:

We enjoyed spending a week or so there every summer so much that Dad decided one year to go there for what ended up being probably my most memorable Thanksgiving. Before we get into details of the trip, however, I need to tell you a bit about Ute Park and our cabin.

Ute Park sits at an elevation of a bit over 7400 feet above sea level. This makes for wonderful summer temperatures with no airconditioning required. In fact, since the cabin was built as a summer getaway place, we intentionally left a space of several inches open between the walls and the roof, and, of course, there were no interior ceilings in a rustic cabin like that.

Okay, now to Thanksgiving. We were excited as we loaded our 1955 Pontiac Station Wagon for the trip up there. Even with four bickering kids in the car—well, three since I was always perfectly behaved—it was a reasonably enjoyable trip since the wagon allowed us to spread out a bit.

Although I don’t specifically remember, I suspect it was dark when we arrived, since it was nearing winter solstice, and the speed limit was 60 without a single mile of interstate highway. It was a long trip even with summer hours.

What I do specifically remember is that the low temperature the first morning we were there was six degrees Fahrenheit, followed by lows of four and five the other two mornings we were there. Anybody think about that year-round airconditioning built between the walls and roof when we planned this trip? I don’t think so.

Of course, a summer cabin doesn’t have any kind of heating built into it. The only source of heat we had was the range and oven. You should have seen us huddling around that! Or trying to ignore morning and staying under the covers in bed.

The daytime temperatures didn’t really bother us all that much. I guess after such extreme morning lows, even us Texans could handle the rest of the day. We had about as good a time as any family which included one daughter who could never get along with anyone.

The highlight of the trip was Dad’s decision to cut down our own Christmas tree and haul it back home. Why pay $25 or $30 (I think that was about what they cost back then) when you could cut your own for free? After all, we had acres and acres of pine trees around the place.

                                                        

My dad was a brilliant man. High school valedictorian, pretty much all A’s in college, high standing in medical school. Except when he had a brain freeze, which he did at this time.

Once we picked out a tree and cut it down and hauled it back to the cabin, he tied the base of it to the back of the car and the top to the front bumper. Visualize that, although he didn’t. Pine tree limbs grow reaching upward, which means that once we had it tied in that position they were reaching forward.

Anyone see a problem with aerodynamics here? The whole time we were driving down the road, the wind was trying to spread the limbs open—and lift the tree off the car, which it did several times. I don’t know how many times we had to stop and retie it to the car, but we continued to tie it with the limbs facing forward.

The trip home didn’t really take a month. It just seemed like it. Funny, we never heard another suggestion from my dad that we go to Ute Park in the winter—or that we haul a Christmas tree 600 miles across the country to save a few dollars.

David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since his retirement from insurance a few years ago, he has devoted his time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel himself.

The Lost Symbol, Or Why I Still Like Dan Brown Books

I love Dan Brown books.  I do.  Most of America agrees with me.  But I also find it fascinating that there are many people in our country who absolutely REFUSE to read his works, most specifically The Da Vinci Code.  I’ve read three of Brown’s works, Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and most recently The Lost Symbol.

The Da Vinci Code was the book that put Dan Brown on the map, opening a door to the hidden belief that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, and that their descendants walk among us.  He created popular interest in the secretive and historical groups such as the Knights Templar and Opus Dei as well as the missing gospels.  What I found fascinating about this book was that rather than seeming blasphemous toward religion, I felt it made Jesus more real.  I’ve always been someone attracted to the human side of Jesus, the fact that he was a man, that he struggled throughout life to overcome his obstacles.  Being raised a Catholic and attending Catholic school for 9 years, I remember asking my mother why the Church wouldn’t allow priests to marry?  I thought that would solve a lot of problems.  For starters, a married man can better understand the family lives of his congregation; he’s experiencing the same ups and downs that occur when you’re compromising over what’s for dinner, how to discipline the kids, who’s turn it is drive or pick up groceries, yadda yadda.  Second, it’s a smart business move.  Even when I was in elementary school, the number of men attending seminary was less and less.  Not many have the strength and devotion to choose a life of solitude and move around a lot.  Why in the last 8 years, my family’s Catholic church has had at least 4 different priests.  It seems that whenever they’ve been around long enough to know all the families, they’re sent elsewhere and another one arrives.  If priests were allowed to marry, perhaps more men would devote themselves to the ministry.  But, we’re not here to discuss my views on religion, and I won’t argue with yours.  I do think The Da Vinci Code was a fascinating read that opened my mind to the human side of religious figures.

All of the books I read star Harvard professor of symbology, Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks in the movies.  Angels and Demons is actually the first book and again dips into the intricate and secret world of The Vatican.  Brown stirred up the press with this book discussing the underground society, The Illuminati, a group founded in the 1700’s with the conspiratorial goal of undoing the Church to find true enlightenment.

Hmm, I’m beginning to see why readers are in such a tizz.  Ok, so Dan Brown has a knack for finding and expounding upon ancient historical figures and the conspiracy theories and mysteries that surround them.  Now, this is why I think he’s a fantastic writer!  That’s adventure thriller novel gold!  The man was named one of the most influential people in 2005 by TIME magazine editors for:

“keeping the publishing industry afloat; renewed interest in Leonardo da Vinci and early Christian history; spiking tourism to Paris and Rome; a growing membership in secret societies; the ire of Cardinals in Rome; eight books denying the claims of the novel and seven guides to read along with it; a flood of historical thrillers; and a major motion picture franchise.”

http://www.danbrown.com/#/author/bio

I’d love to have that kind of impact on the world.  Sadly, I’m not sure I have the patience necessary.

In The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon is back and immediately flying to Washington D.C. to present at a conference for a last minute request by his former teacher and mentor, Peter Solomon.  No sooner does he arrive, than the life threatening forces begin to swirl around him.  The bad guy is a tattooed man with a thirst for revenge and the lost word that will make him the most evil minion of the dark forces.  He’s pretty much pure evil.  The secret society of this novel is the Freemasons.  Now, the freemasons historically consisted of many of our nation’s founding members, Presidents, and Supreme Court justices.  Benjamin Franklin, a Freemason, wrote a book about them with his printing press.  Mostly tied to Christianity, the Freemasons appear to be more open-minded, referring to God in a number of manners that suggest any religion could be a part of the Freemasons.  What makes them so intriguing in this book is that Dan Brown delves into the secret and lost (perhaps?) rituals of the society.  In the opening scene, a Freemason ritual is happening where the inductee drinks wine, meant to symbolize blood, from a real human skull.  It certainly paints a different picture than what most of us know about masons, like weird hats, man lodges, and secret handshakes.

It’s no wonder Dan Brown writes about religion with intrigue.  His father was a math teacher and his mom a church organist.  He grew up with both a passion for science and religion.  He combines the two in each of his novels.  In fact, they’ve essentially become his belief system.  In a Q & A he did for The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown said:

I’m fascinated by power, especially veiled power. Shadow power. The National Security Agency. The National Reconnaissance Office. Opus Dei. The idea that everything happens for reasons we’re not quite seeing. It reminds me of religion a little. The power that religion has is that you think nothing is random: If there’s a tragedy in my life, that’s God testing me or sending me a message. That’s what conspiracy theorists do. They say, “The economy’s terrible? Oh, that’s not random. That’s a bunch of rich guys in Prague who sat down and…”

Brown originally attempted a career in the music industry and lived in L.A. for awhile.  Not fitting in, he moved east and became a teacher.  For all you starving, struggling writers out there, listen to this schedule:  When Brown decided to write a book for the first time in his life, he woke up at 4 in the morning every day, wrote until 8, then biked 12 miles to teach spanish at a grade school, biked home, showered/ate and taught English at Phillips – Exeter.  He finished his book Digital Fortress a year later.  By the way, if you want to get really creeped out about a secret eavesdropping society, check out the true event that inspired Dan Brown to write Digital Fortress, a novel centered around the National Security Agency.

Clearly I’ve expressed my profound admiration for the writer Dan Brown and his suspense novels.  If you’ve only seen the films, you’re missing out!  They have too much to tell in too short a time, and the movies almost make the story unbelievable.  The hold your breath, edge of your seat reading of his books is a much better experience!  ESPECIALLY for Angels and Demons, the book has a TOTALLY different ending, which I much prefer.

Have at it!  What’s your opinion of Dan Brown and his franchise of religious suspense novels?  Have you read his works?  What’s your favorite?  Has anyone read his earlier novels, how do they compare?  What thoughts and opinions do you have about his subject matter?  Do you ever stop on a page and wonder, you know, if it’s possible?

Life Lessons from a True Pilot

It’s Life List Friday again!  I hope you all enjoyed the Milestone Party and took time to celebrate your own milestones on your life lists too.  I’m happy to welcome back David Walker, Texas Ranger (sorry, David, I couldn’t resist).  I can be found over at Jennie Bennett’s blog today talking about indulgences, and why you need them.  See you all soon!

David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather and a grounded pilot. He cofounded Warrior Writers Boot Camp with Kristen Lamb. You can read more of his posts at http://davwalk.wordpress.com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx. Today’s blog is not about life goals, but rather about a life lesson learned.

The Arapahoe Airport

My private pilot’s license was less than thirty days old as I pushed the throttle on the Cherokee 140 to the firewall. The 150 horsepower engine came to life, and we began to roll down the runway.

The long runway at Arapahoe Airport—now called Centennial Airport—runs north and south. It had larger planes than mine stacked up for takeoff, so I was directed to the shorter east-west runway. Not to worry. I was used to flying the 140, and in all of my experience I’d never come close to using all the space we had available for takeoff.

Did I mention I had three adults and two small kids piled into this four-place airplane? Did I mention my little sister had brought a suitcase full of used cannonballs? No sweat, though, we still weren’t overloaded since my daughter and nephew were both preschool age.

As we rolled down the runway something seemed amiss. We weren’t gaining speed as fast as we should. Hmmm . . . About two-thirds of the way down the runway I pulled back on the yoke to lift us into the air, and the red stall light came on.

My first thought was thank God the 140 didn’t have a stall horn like Cessnas did. My sister would have gone into a panic, and there’s no telling what might have happened.

Second thought was did I have time to brake to a stop before I ran out of real estate? Someone had thoughtfully put a barbed-wire fence at the end of the runway to separate it from a deep valley just beyond, so overshooting was not an option.

Maintaining a calm exterior somehow or other, I waited until the last second to get all the speed I could and then jerked hard on the yoke to try to lift us into the air. At this point, you’ll just have to take my word for what happened. God sent a couple of angels to toss the plane into the air and over the fence. After figuring out what the problem was, I realized there was no way the plane could have become airborne on its own.

That deep valley I mentioned became very important at this point. I was soon several hundred feet above the ground and could point the nose down slightly to gain airspeed. After a gradual climb to a safe altitude, I relaxed a little and began to ponder what had gone wrong.

Wait a minute . . . density altitude! I’d read about that in my training. I knew that as the ambient temperature rises the effective altitude rises also, but in my flying around Oklahoma City I gave it little thought. So what if the density altitude was 2000 or 2500 feet instead of the actual 1300 feet. No real effect on performance.

But this airport in the suburbs south of Denver sat just under 6000 feet. With the 95 degree heat, the density altitude probably approached the service ceiling of the little 140. How stupid was I?

People had told me that a private pilot’s license is just a license to begin learning to fly. I’d thought of it as a bullet-proof shield. That arrogance and inattention had almost got my daughter, my mother, my sister and my nephew killed.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that was the last mistake I made in flying, but it was the last time I made that particular one. Never again would I just blithely plan a flight without considering the effects of the loaded weight, the altitude of the airport and the heat of the day. Like the Missouri mule, I could learn if you whacked me in the head with a two-by-four to get my attention.

     A graduate of Duke University, I spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of my career was spent in Texas, but for a few years I traveled many other states. I started writing about 20 years ago, and have six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since my retirement from insurance a few years ago, I have devoted my time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel myself.

Madams, Ministers, and Playboys

Allow me to transport you back in time to the early 1900’s when cities were just sprouting up around the country all vying to make a name for themselves.  And the charming Everleigh Sisters, Minna and Ada, were in search of a place to set up shop.  So begins our journey into New York Times Bestselling biography, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul.

     Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history–and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago’s notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club’s proprietors, two aristocratic sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons, into their stately double mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh “butterflies” awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Suzy Poon Tang, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. Whereas lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac.

Not everyone appreciated the sisters’ attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. But the sisters’ most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”——the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, including the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City is Karen Abbott’s colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation’s hedonistic impulses and Puritanical roots. Culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers, Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America’s journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity.

If we’re going to be discussing a book about brothels, we’ve got to set the tone a little.  Maestro, la musique!

Due to an increase of work travel I’ve had, I picked up this historical gem at my library (who will be hosting it as part of their Chapters Book Discussion, but not until May 2012 and I couldn’t wait that long to read it).  So, I grabbed the audio copy and let the daring, and need I say, revealing story of the Everleigh sisters unfold.

Ada and Minna Everleigh

We’ll start at the beginning.  Ada, the elder sister, though she’d never say and lied for many years about the truth of her age, was the quiet and intelligent brains behind the brothel.  She was relied upon to always have just the right words to use when interviewing wishful new courtesans, making deals with the police, and escorting gentlemen out of the club when their checkbooks became sparse.  Minna dealt with promotion of the The Everleigh Club, disciplined the harlots when necessary, and mingled in the parlor with “her boys.”

What the Everleighs, also known as The Scarlett Sisters, set out to do was never before seen or heard in any levee district of its time.  They traveled to all the top brothels and spoke to the best madams.  They listened to the advice of those who had come before them, and then they shaped it into the destination of choice for all men of money, including royalty.

The Japanese Thrown Room

They chose a two-story house in the middle of the Levee District of Chicago, an already notorious town for it’s moneymakers and fine tricks.  Every room was lavishly decorated.  Rich fabrics, fresh florals, a gold piano.  Fountains of the god Dionysus, whom the sisters felt a close kinship to.

Every man who entered went through more security checks than current airport scans.  The Everleighs requested bank statements from their guests, and charged scandalous rates that offered them their dream’s desires.  They catered to big shots like Marshall Field Jr., Lionel Barrymore, and even the Prince of Prussia.

As for the girls, the Everleigh club was not one to house aging, pick-pocket queens with too much rouge and fishnet that barely concealed.  Minna and Ada made sure their courtesans wore evening gowns, ate gourmet meals, were seen by a physician, and even received an education while living in the mansion.  Minna dubbed them “the Everleigh Butterflies” as she was so fond of the creatures’ ability to transform into something beautiful.

Portrait of Minna Everleigh

Of course there were bound to be bad apples and snafus in the road to pleasure infamy.  Before the Everleighs came to town, the Levee District was run by Madam Vic Shaw, an overly-plump sourpuss who bribed “butterflies” to share information, plant evidence, or come to her club instead.  Twice Vic Shaw tried to pin murder on the Everleigh’s, and with one dead body of retail heir, Marshall Field Jr., things looked bleak.

Young Madam Vic Shaw

But Shaw wasn’t the only problem.  With the rise of human rights issues brought about by the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reformers were now demanding change against “white slavery.”  Newspaper stories and court trials flared up speaking of kidnapped girls, sold girls, raped and forced to pay for debts that shouldn’t be their own. Women would do well not to leave their homes and families unescorted and to never partake of the drink, lest they be drugged and wake up finding themselves far from home in one perverted prison.

The Everleigh Club

But the Everleigh sisters did not run that kind of brothel.  They actually agreed with the raising of the legal age for consent from 13 to 16.  And they made sure their courtesans would want for nothing, keeping them paid well above their competitors so that these women might be able to support those that depended on them.  Minna and Ada gave explicit directions about what to eat and when to eat, keeping their butterflies looking as young and healthy as possible.

Despite their field of business, Ada and Minna were incredibly smart businesswomen.  They kept up with current events, who the competition was, and they were trendsetters.  One example that you may have heard of is sipping champagne from a shoe?  It became custom at all the noteworthy venues of Chicago’s 1900’s after one Everleigh Butterfly lost her shoe dancing on the table for the Prince of Prussia.  When one of his men picked up the shoe that had tipped his champagne glass and spilled inside it, he cracked a joke and sipped the bubbly out of the shoe, proclaiming himself most fortunate to drink from the shoe of such an exquisite dancer.  Soon every man at the party was tearing off the shoes of the nearest courtesan and pouring their champagne inside them to drink.

Karen Abbott

As for the author, Karen Abbott lives in New York and credits “sixteen years of Catholic school, a tenure that gave her a freakishly photographic memory, a tendency toward rebellion, and a finely tuned sense of guilt” to helping her write this book.  Her website is full of fascinating links to all things burlesque and history.  Her second book, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee picks up where she left off, in the roaring 20’s and looks equally titillating.  I highly recommend checking out the book’s trailer on the page I linked to.  I’m giddy with excitement.  I’m definitely adding this title to my “to read” selection.

What’s your opinion?  Do the Everleigh Sisters sound like colossal businesswomen or strumpets of the night?  Would you want a chance to go back in time and meet an Everleigh Butterfly?  Would you drink champagne from a shoe?

I love hearing from you!  What’s on your mind?

***And be sure to tune in again on Friday for the Life List Club’s First Ever Milestone Party!  All contributors are giving away some awesome prizes to commentors, sharing our progress on our goals, and we want to hear what life lessons and accomplishments you’ve achieved so far!  Be there or be square, my pretties!***

Breaking a Taboo

Hello friends!  It’s another round of blog-hopping bliss with the Life List Club!  I’m blogging at the marvelous Marcia Richard’s blog and I’m talking about Boot Camp-the Life List kind.  And I’m pleased to welcome a brand new contributor to the Life List Club, guest posting here FIRST on the Happiness Project.  Give it up for David N. Walker, live in Wisconsin from the Texas range!  Ok, maybe not live, but he’s HERE!  Be sure to say hello to the other Life Listers by visiting their blogs using the Life List Club sidebar, or join the twitter party at #LifeListClub.

David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather and a grounded pilot. He cofounded Warrior Writers Boot Camp with Kristen Lamb. You can read more of his posts at http://davwalk.wordpress.com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx.

Breaking a Taboo

Women can do anything they want. Men have to be more careful. They must be macho at all times. There are certain things we men just don’t do.

For instance, women carry purses, but men can’t do that. Well, okay. I guess some men do. Maybe that wasn’t a good example.

Well, women wear skirts. Men certainly can’t do that. Oops. Guess I’d better not tell anyone in Scotland. They might think I was belittling their traditions.

All right, women wear heels. That’s something men absolutely don’t do. Well, except for Western boots. Or lifts. Or . . .

Hmmm . . .

Okay, women wear makeup. No man would ever do that. What? They do? Are you sure? Oh, well, yeah, of course actors do. Even John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone wore makeup to look right under the lights and cameras. I’m talking about normal men. Really? Are you sure some men do?

Well, maybe my dirty little secret isn’t so earth-shaking after all. I wasn’t going to admit it to anyone, but maybe it’s okay.

You see, last spring my wife and I spent several days with two other couples in a condominium on South Padre Island. One morning the girls left us to go get pedicures. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Spending money just so you don’t have to clip your own toenails.

When they came back they couldn’t quit talking about how good it felt. You’d have thought they’d been to visit male prostitutes or something the way they carried on.

We left to return home the next day, and I thought about all the things they’d said about their pedicures. And I had plenty of time to think on the trip back to Fort Worth. How many of you can take a 618 mile drive, one way, without even leaving your state?

By the time I got home I’d made up my mind I was going to try it. I not only thought about the pleasure the ladies said they got from their pedicures—I thought it might solve a problem I’ve been having in recent years. My arms have been shrinking. I used to be able to sit in a chair and reach my toes with ease. Nowadays I can barely see them.

Oops. Shouldn’t have said that. Now your going to think it has something to do with something growing around my middle instead of my shrinking arms. Well, whatever. Point is, if some pedicurist took over the chore of taking care of my toenails, I wouldn’t have to struggle with that.

When I mentioned it to my wife, I didn’t know whether she’d laugh or file for a divorce or what. Actually, she just said she thought it was a good idea and that I should go for it.

The following morning I stole my way into Wal-Mart. Well, I guess I sorta sidled. Had to keep an eye out to be sure no one I knew was watching when I ducked into the salon. Whew! Made it.

The young lady kept a straight face when I told her I wanted a pedicure. Maybe I wasn’t the first guy in history to do this.

She led me over to this nice, comfortable chair, had me put my feet into this miniature hot tub, and began filling it with warm water. Then she pressed a button that started something in the chair back massaging my back.

Wow. Maybe the girls were right. Maybe there really was something to this.

She spent the next 30 or 40 minutes trimming my toenails, filing them, buffing them, scraping my perennially cracked heels, rubbing unfathomably strange lotions on my feet and lower legs. Did she really have to stop sometime? Couldn’t we just spend the day doing this?

That first time hooked me. I’ve been back four times since then. The first girl did it better than the other two I’ve tried, so I now have her name and a phone number to call for an appointment when I’m ready for my monthly pedicure.

Okay. You macho guys laugh. You don’t have to try this if you don’t want to learn. Just don’t get in my way when I head over there for mine.

What do you think?  Have you ever tried something that’s taboo and found you liked it?  What are the benefits of breaking taboos?  Do you see any disadvantages?  

Paranormal Wisconsin: The Bat Man of Briggs Road

The Strange Wisconsin sightings just keep coming!  Paranormal investigator and author Linda S. Godfrey came to speak at my local library a few months ago.  I had the pleasure of talking with her and hearing in depth information about the strange sightings in my current town of a “Bat Man.”

Bat Man as depicted by the Eye Witness, Wohali

In my last post about Paranormal Wisconsin, I mentioned that Godfrey found a unique correlation between werewolf sightings and Indian Effigy Mounds.  It’s really all too strange, that a 2006 report of a 6 foot tall Bat Man with a wingspan of 10-12 feet was made by a Native American man named Wohali, right here in La Crosse, WI.

The report says that Wohali and his son were driving home when a large, dark creature flew up to their windshield, screamed at them, and flew upward to the sky.  The creature was reported to have leathery, bat-like wings, human legs with claws, distended ribs, and very sharp teeth.  Minutes after the sighting, both Wohali and his son became violently ill, pulling the car over to vomit, and the sickness lasted a full week.

Enter Godfrey.  The investigation took place 18 days after the sighting, so Godfrey notes it was not a prime investigation date, but she, Wohali, and an uninformed third party (which makes this quest seem so much more fun) drove up to Briggs Road and walked the woods next to the encounter site.  No Bat Man.

What they did uncover was nonetheless disturbing.  Located in the woods not too far from where the alleged Bat Man flew, they found a grizzly looking carcass of a deer.  It’s possible it was hit by a car, it’s possible another animal killed it, or that a hunter had killed it.  But, there was NO BLOOD.  And the deer’s body was missing its hind limbs and all its intestines.  (Sorry, graphic, I know).  Don’t you think that’s strange?  The body showed no bullet wounds, teeth marks, or signs of being dragged.  And if was a hunter, why leave the best parts of the deer meat, taking off only the hind legs and somehow draining the animal of blood without leaving a trace behind?

Of course, there’s no way to prove how the animal died.  Or if a Bat Man is flying around dairy country, hiding out near the Mississippi.  I guess it’s just another example of Strange Wisconsin.

Want more spooky stories?

Check out moonslipper.com, a paranormal blog that includes ghosts captured on photo. (Sorry no Bat Man. Yet!)

Happy Friday, the 13th!  Beware of things that go bump in the night!  And bats the size of basketball players with freaky bone structure and flappy wing-arms that tap on your windshield!

Update: Driving home today before a big storm, and no joke, MASSIVE swarm of bats in the sky!  Anyone volunteering to check under my bed tonight?

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