Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book Cover

The cover of my book, The Well is now featured on the web site of the national organization, Sisters In Crime, a group dedicated to women writers of mystery and thriller fiction.  I also belong to the local group, which holds monthly meetings that are informative as well as lots of fun.  Check it out at

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why Is it Named The Well?

Why did I title my first novel “The Well”?

            Prime elements of the book’s plot take place at Montezuma Well in central Arizona.  The Well is a unique, spring-fed lake surrounded by ancient Native American cliff dwellings.  That may seem the obvious reason for naming my book The Well, but that’s not it.  (Strictly speaking, The Well is not a lake or a well, and Montezuma had nothing to do with it.) 
            I have vivid memories of turning a wooden crank to lower a heavy wooden bucket deep into the mysterious depths of an old-fashioned, man-made well.  During suspense-filled moments, I hear the creaking of the wood, metal and rope mechanism.  Will the bucket land squarely on its bottom and float, or tip and fill?  Then the faint “ploosh” sound as the bucket hits the water’s surface and sinks below it.  I turn the crank in reverse direction to draw the bucket upward, feeling its increased weight.  The wet rope and bucket release droplets back into the rock-lined shaft; their hollow, echoing “plink” sounds are both eerie and promising.  As I lean over to draw the bucket in and place it on the stone lip of the well, chill air rises to caress my hot face.  With a long-handled metal dipper, I lift the crisp water to my lips, sip, feel it wetting my mouth, flowing down my parched throat.  Sure, I have done that, but that’s not why I named my book The Well.
            The words evoke disparate images.  Does one think of Jesus and Mary at the well. . . of  an inexhaustible source of sustenance. . .of an oil well gushing black gold?  A well could be a symbol of the satisfaction of mankind’s most primitive needs. . .or in an opposing view, it could be a sinister pit filled with liquid poison lusting to slake the thirst of many victims.  From a more esoteric perspective, water represents spirituality and since wells are fed by a spring that offers up an ineffably pure substance, a well could represent a source of deep, upwelling spirituality.  But that’s not why I named my book The Well.
            Images and stories of wells are ubiquitous.  My beloved maternal grandmother wrote a novel which concluded with the main character falling down a well and drowning.  But that’s not why I named my book The Well.
            For years, on occasions of confusion or frustration, I consulted the ancient Chinese book of guidance and prophecy, the I Ching.  “The Well” is one of sixty-four essays in which the I Ching’s ancient wisdom is revealed. That essay tells us that a town may be deserted or moved, but the well remains; its existence transcends the needs and uses of mankind; it is simply an element as powerful as fire, air and earth.  Very often the I Ching answers my inquiry with “The Well.”  It seems to tell me to go deeper for my answers, that they lie within me, at a more profound level of understanding.   But that’s not why I named my book The Well.  The I Ching has a part in the novel’s plot, too, but it is only one of many internal and external forces working on and through me in the self-revealing act of naming my story.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Are You Made Up?

   No, no, if you're reading this we know you're real.  Don't you?  But are you wearing your makeup?  In the 21st century, it's a unisex question.  Following the lead of politicians and movie stars, plenty of hometown males are slathering on a bit of "BB" cream or eye liner before they hit the streets.  Why?  To look better; to feel better, of course.  My friend, a preppy New Englander, called cosmetics "armor for New York City," imputing to them a magical, protective function as well.
   The bare truth: the basic intent of makeup application can be classified as either decorative or remedial.  Product names clearly identify the intent of the purchaser.  Decorative:  Luscious Lashes, Scandal Blusher, Scintillating Shadow, Kiss-Me Lip gloss.  Remedial:  Age-defying Makeup, A Touch of Grey Hair Coloring, Young-again Lashes, Dark-shadow Eraser.  The demographics are spliced precisely on the age line.
   I remember the good old days when a quick swipe of blusher and lip gloss guided by my reflection in the bathroom mirror was my entire routine.  These days, I set up the magnifying mirror, gather my tools and utensils including, water, q-tips, tissues and brushes, retrieve my basket of age-defying emoluments and have at it -- for at least half an hour. In those early days, a brief moment of self-approval followed making-up.  These days, I wonder:  when can a woman call it quits?  When she retires?  When she turn 65...70?  When can she say, "This is it folks, I have wrinkles, I have sags, I have shadows, I have grey.  Live with it.  I do."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why I love American Indians -- Grandma, Part 2

     Grandma sat at her desk writing with a pencil on lined notebook paper.  I was twelve now, much older, and so was she.
     "What are you writing, Grandma?"
     "Oh, this here's a story for the Baptist Sunday School magazine.  They don't pay much, but I surely do enjoy writing stories for children.  This'n here's about a baby pig.  Would you like to read it, Hon?"
      I sat on the floor beside her desk to read while she continued to write.  I was entranced by the simple story with a moral and by this newly glimpsed aspect of this half-Cherokee, down-to-earth farm wife, my mother's mother.  With her permission I emptied the big drawer of her desk of more written pages and was soon surrounded by stacks of her work.  Most of it had been done, she told me, during the long, cold winters.
     Reading more, I was impressed by how grammatical and correct her writing was, in contrast to her speech, and by the volume of her work.  Over a period of thirty years she had written and sold hundreds of stories and articles.  (She called them "ar-tikles" -- with the accent heavy on the first syllable.)  She had been published in a rural-life monthly news magazine, The Grit, and in various church magazines.  And, she was a regular contributor to the gardening section of the local newspaper.
     With a small huffing sound that reflected her age and rounded body, she turned to look at me with faded blue eyes.  "Look here, Hon, here's the notebook where I kept track of the money I earned.  Don't know why I did that.  Just to be tidy, I reckon."  She gave it to me with hands that were work-worn but steady.  I saw that the entries, with royalties ranging from fifteen to fifty dollars, totaled several thousand dollars.
     Remembering her now, I think how typical that her record keeping was not for the sake of her ego or for the benefit of the IRS.  She and Grandpa were innocent of taxes.  Like virtuous, wise and simple people everywhere, they were free of  many common character flaws, and mercifully ignorant of many of life's unpleasantries.
     Before the end of our visit that summer, she revealed to me the existence of her novel, but to my questions and requests to read it she said that she had submitted it to several publishers but it had been rejected.  When my curiosity persisted, she would tell me only that it was about the Civil War, and at the end its heroine fell down a well and drowned.  To this day, the unpublished book remains a mystery.  After she died it was never found.
     Someone once said that a story is just a set of data with a soul.  Gathered words imbued with a soul.  My heart calls it truth, but my mind wonders if the story's soul is the captured essence of its characters or of its writer.  In that novel of Grandma's, I still don't know why the main character had to die and I grieve for her, that fictional heroine and her lost story, with a melancholy that is quite real.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Guns, Violence, Mental Health

Feed the Compassion

Where were the killers, the mass-murderers?  In Tucson, in Aurora, in Newtown.  Where were the killers’ family members, class-mates, friends and neighbors?  Were they residing in Denial, looking the other way, ignoring the specter of mental illness in my family, among my friends, my neighbors?  Such is the stigma, the cloud of fear, ignorance and denial that surrounds mental illness in this allegedly civilized country of ours.  As a mental health worker and a person whose own family was afflicted by mental illness, I understand the painful dilemma surrounding mental health diagnoses and treatments.
I am not implying that family members and others surrounding the shooters were to blame for the deaths of so many innocents.  Of course not.  Those mass killings and the ones which may be coming are part of a complex social issue involving many causes.  Inadequate gun laws and poor access to mental health services are just two slices in the pie chart of shameful culpability.  Here is how I apportion the causes and here are my recommendations.
Culture of violence, 30%.   Films, video games and TV shows that glorify killing are pervasive and ubiquitous, presenting blood and gore as entertainment.  They offer multiple excuses to justify atrocities and allow participants to enjoy the (virtual) thrill of slaughtering victims: “it’s war time and they’re the enemy...they’re zombies...they’re evil aliens from another world...they’re vampires.”  The purveyors of this stuff are the vampires.  Boycott them.  Supervise your children to shield them from such assaults on their innocent humanity.  Those forms of “entertainment,” unfed by your dollars, will shrink like a leech deprived of blood.
Inadequate gun laws 30%.    We love our guns, here in the United States.  Many people hunt with guns, not just for pleasure but for subsistence.  My own son owns a gun that probably saved his life on one occasion.  And yes, we need to be prepared to defend ourselves from internal and external threats to our freedom.  But can you at least begin to see that we are afflicted with a National paranoia, a pervasive fear of extinction, and that we use guns to assuage that sick fear?  Ironic, perhaps, in that our country was founded on gun violence and aggression justified by the claim of “Manifest Destiny.”  Consider the recent evidence of guilt and fear induced paranoia:  in what other country in the world would an upper-middle class woman, secure, educated, who lived in a peaceful little town among friends, own pistols and assault rifles and take her mentally/emotionally disturbed son on target practice jaunts?  To me, that is almost as shocking as what happened because of it.  Who was it who said, “We have met the enemy and it is us”?  Support sweeping changes to gun laws.  On the day of the 2-year anniversary of the January 8 shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others here in Tucson, I signed another petition demanding change.
Mental Health Issues 30%.   This is the toughest issue to confront, both collectively and individually, and the most complex, but our focus here is very narrow:  mental health and violence.  Statistics show (sorry I can’t cite specifics right now) that the vast majority of crimes are not committed by the mentally ill; and the vast majority of the mentally ill do not commit crimes.  The best predictor of violence by any person is a history of violent behavior.  But the Tucson and Newtown shooters had no previous history of violence and only the Aurora shooter (as far as we know) had been diagnosed with a mental illness.  Then how can we predict and thus prevent violent behavior by the mentally ill?  We must look for indicators of mental illness and potential violence in those near to us, and take action when needed.  A few profiles that may suggest future violence:  males in their 20s, those with paranoid schizophrenia with a history of violence, those with sociopath personality disorder with a history of violent, abusive or coercive behavior, and those with bipolar disorder in a manic phase.  Another potentially dangerous condition is depression in men, which on rare occasions manifests as a smoldering anger that flares into violence.   We must not ignore the fact that the vast majority of mass killers are male.  Is this surprising in a culture of male superiority and dominance that feeds the male ego and can render such things as loss of a wife or girl-friend or loss of a job as excuse for rage and vengeance?   Teach our men and boys that violence is the act of a helpless, impotent person, and going out “in a blaze of glory” is a disgustingly misnamed act that is not only desperate but cowardly.
   In the end, recognizing when someone is “just not right” mentally/emotionally is the easy part.  Taking action is the hard part.  Living with or around a person who exists in a different reality and is sure there is nothing wrong with him or her can be excruciating.  A family member of one of my clients once told me, “Living with a crazy person is making me crazy!”
If you know someone who is obviously disturbed and refuses to get treatment, the State of Arizona (and, I believe, most states) provides for what is called a Petition for Involuntary Evaluation.  This allows mental health workers to go to the person’s location and conduct a mental status exam, even if the assistance of the police is required.  If the person is deemed a potential danger to self or others, they can be hospitalized for 72 hours, which allows time for two psychiatrists and other mental health workers to evaluate their condition.  If found in need of treatment, they can be hospitalized longer and required by law to receive treatment.  There are adequate safeguards in the law to prevent this from being used maliciously or inappropriately, to protect the rights of those who are mentally ill as well as those who are not.  I believe it is the responsibility of every family member and yes, every citizen, to know such details about mental health law in their area, and to act on it when necessary.
Unfortunately, even when an ill person enters treatment, he or she doesn’t always stay with it.  The major flaw in the country’s mental health laws and their delivery, in my opinion, is the inability of professionals to adequately force medication compliance on those who have been court-ordered for treatment, even those who have demonstrated or threatened violence.  Change mental health law to enable professionals to force medication compliance on those who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and present a significant threat to others.
The last slice in my pie chart of causation and responsibility is:  Individual and Collective Moral Values 10%.  What can one say here?  What about the Quakers among us, who abhor violence and refuse to participate, even during war time?  What about the Christian Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill?”  What about those of the Baha’i Faith, whose founder told his followers not to resist their tormentors because it is better to be killed than to kill?  We human beings are endowed with a penchant for violence and with an equally strong penchant for empathy, kindness and compassion.  These opposing capabilities remind us of the story about the two beasts within our breasts that are locked in a struggle for dominance.  Which one wins?  The one we feed.  Let’s feed the one within us that embodies our intellect, our compassion, and our humanity.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mount Algebra

Mount Algebra

Some years ago I was a (politically correct) “returning student,” (read old person) at the local community college.  I had taken five or six fun and easy courses, each rewarded with an “A” and a ratchet up in confidence.  Finally I felt ready to take Beginning Algebra.  Be impressed.  This move demonstrated a bravery equal to falling on a live grenade, considering the fact that I have a math phobia and had managed to graduate high school innocent of even rudimentary contact with said algebra.
That first day in class I realized that my peers, most of whom were less than one-half my age, had taken algebra before and this class was designed for them, not an algebraically uninitiated like myself.  The teacher blithely rattled on about formulas, equations, real numbers, natural numbers and irrational numbers.  Perversely, she wrote letters on the blackboard, instead of any of the aforementioned numbers and some were embraced by parentheses, which I had foolishly assumed were used only to cozy up groups of words.  The teacher’s language was worse than gibberish.  I felt as if I were about to become an irrational number, so at the ten minute break, I exited and didn’t return.
Next semester I took the same class with a different teacher.  Same result, except this time I controlled my panic attack until class was dismissed.  Devastated, I dropped the course.  But I had committed to working toward a degree, which would be the first in my family of origin, and follow my daughter’s college degree.  No one would award that coveted B.A. until I had passed College Algebra, four courses and a universe away.
Before the start of next semester I asked around: who was the best algebra teacher in the school?  I made an appointment to talk with that awesome lady.  I related my humiliating story and in anguish, asked, “Will I have to give up getting a college degree because I can’t do algebra?”  She reassured and encouraged me.
I prepared for that class like plotting an assault on Mount Everest.  I purchased the text book weeks beforehand and perused it until it sent me and my irritable bowel to the bathroom.  (Maybe I should have just left it in there for bathroom reading.)  When I talked to my next door neighbor, who was trained as a teacher and was home-schooling her children, she agreed to help me with homework if I got stuck.  I made the acquaintance of the math lab at the college, where they provided free tutoring any time during school hours.  The first day of class felt like a long workout on a balance beam but I stuck the landing -- er, the first class and the second, and the first week.
This wonderful teacher had a precise grading system.  She awarded points for tests, of course, but also for each class attended, for each homework assignment handed in, and for each of a limited number of extra credit assignments.  Together, the points totaled 100, for a perfect A.  As I looked at the syllabus with that grading system, an outrageous idea struck.  Maybe I could get an A in this class, to match all the others:  a very seductive prospect.
As the weeks went by, this possibility was nurtured by modest success.  I did every homework assignment.  These weren’t graded for content or accuracy just checked briefly to see that the student actually did the work instead of entering a solution from the section at the back of the book.  I did check my work with the answers in the book, and the few times I had to consult my next door neighbor it was because the book’s answer was a misprint.  It was tough.  Each homework session produced a pounding headache, the result of new algebra synapses firing in my brain, I was convinced.  One day I just couldn’t take it; I decided to skip class.  No problem.  Next week I was back plodding away, still reasonably on track for my A.
Before the final exam, I checked my accumulated points and knew I had to get at least a 92 to get the coveted A.  The exam was excruciating.  I was the last person to leave the classroom.  We knew the teacher posted exam results on her classroom door, identified by the last four digits of the students’ social security numbers.  I held my breath as I located my grade.  91.  Mount Everest, ha!  I had failed to reach the summit; it was nauseating.  I felt like I was suffering from altitude sickness.  A sympathetic friend told me to ask the teacher to give me an extra point.  I considered it, but what stopped me was the though of that one day I had skipped class.  One day, one point.  I got what I deserved.  Two weeks later when my grade report for all my classes came in the mail, lo and behold, an A in Algebra, stacked sweetly in the column with the others.  To this day, I wonder:  did she give me a pity A, or when I totaled class points, did I make a mistake in my math?