Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Memoriam: Dennis Brutus

I just learned that South African poet Dennis Brutus died last week, Saturday, December 26th. During his lifetime, Brutus made incredible contributions to the fight against apartheid, put his own freedom, health, and life at risk in doing so. The New York Times printed an article on Brutus here. NPR's program "Fresh Air" remembers the life and achievements of Brutus in this interview from 1986.

Here is one of Brutus's poem delivered while he was in Venezuela for the eighth meeting of the Network of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity and the World Forum for Alternatives, October 18, 2008.

There will come a time
There will come a time we believe
When the shape of the planet
and the divisions of the land
Will be less important;
We will be caught in a glow of friendship
a red star of hope
will illuminate our lives
A star of hope
A star of joy
A star of freedom

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Life Imitating Art


A December 29, 2009, story published by NPR indicates that Iran is close to clinching a deal to clandestinely import 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan, according to an intelligence report obtained by The Associated Press. Diplomats said the assessment was heightening international concern about Tehran's nuclear activities.

My novel, The Lion and the Sun, includes a prologue that tells the story of an early attempt to determine whether Kazakhstan had stores of highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the time of the Soviet Union's fall. They did, and a secret project was executed to bring the HEU out of Kazakhstan and secure it in the US.

 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Prologue to "The Lion and the Sun"

Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, March 2, 1993

A heavy spring rain was slashing across the wide sidewalk as Conte ran from the protection of the hotel entryway to the idling taxi. He was clutching the hood of his jacket with one hand to keep the rain from running down his neck, and reaching out for the taxi door with the other hand, trying to keep his balance on the wet pavement. He could see the driver inside watching him while eating what looked like sunflower seeds from a paper cone.
Although Conte had prevailed upon the taciturn hotel receptionist to call the taxi and instruct the dispatcher where to take him, the driver, a man with pronounced Mongolian features and hair that appeared to have been trimmed around a bowl, turned in his seat and gave Conte a questioning look.
This guy looks like one of the Three Stooges, Conte thought. Who was it? Moe -- Moe with a nasty scar from the edge of his right eye to his earlobe.
“Embankment Street, 158,” Conte said in Russian.
The driver nodded, said “Da,” and shifted into gear. A pair of felt dice wobbled from the rearview mirror as the driver made a U-turn, bumped over a curbing, and headed down the street.
Conte stared ahead, trying to make out signs at cross streets, but the glare off the glistening roadway, the lack of street lights, and the speed at which the taxi was traveling, despite the darkness and wet road, made it nearly impossible. Conte just hoped the driver could see better than he could, but at the moment, it appeared that the driver was more interested in checking him out than in watching the road. Fortunately, traffic was light to nonexistent.
“You are not Russian,” the driver said in heavily accented English.
Conte looked up at the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “No.”
“American?”
“Canadian,” Conte said. That’s what his identity papers said, and he was sticking to it.
The driver made an abrupt turn heading south towards the river, his headlights illuminating a stand of ghostly silver birch. Conte braced himself against the door. “Get there alive, please,” he said.
The driver looked at him and smiled, revealing a mouth sorely in need of preventive dentistry. “Canadians are okay,” he said. “Australians are better. Big drinkers,” he said.
Conte managed a half-hearted smile.
“You are a tourist?”
“Visiting friends,” Conte said. More accurately, meeting a total stranger. In fact, Conte was meeting with a former Russian Navy sub commander who had information about weapons grade uranium allegedly stored at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, some 20 miles outside the city.
“You like Ust-Kamenogorsk -- is nice city, yes?”
Conte paused before answering. Was the driver serious in thinking that this grimy, polluted, industrial hellhole in northeastern Kazakhstan was beautiful?
The driver noticed Conte’s hesitation. “Was better before Russians come.”
The trees along the wide street thrashed about in the wind and rain and the taxi went into brief skids as the driver down shifted at stop signs and coasted through, rather than stopping.
The driver pointed to the left towards the end of the block, “Is here,” he said.
“Drive past,” Conte said. He saw the driver’s eyes looking at him in the rearview mirror.
Conte surveyed the dingy apartment building as they drove slowly past. His contact was reported to be living in a corner flat on the second floor. There was a light on in the flat.
“Go around the corner,” Conte ordered the driver. “Park here.”
The driver did was he was told, while constantly glancing up into his rearview mirror, clearly suspicious.
Conte reached over the seat and gave the driver one hundred dollars in twenty dollar bills. “Wait for me, and there’ll be another five bills for you,” he said.
The driver wet his fingers and rubbed the money between thumb and forefinger, counted it, and then nodded to Conte.
Conte had to hope that the small fortune he was offering as an incentive to wait would keep the driver there. If it didn’t, he could be in serious trouble.

#

The wide, windswept street was deserted except for the leaves that raced pell-mell along the curbing and flew up in desperate whirls, as if reaching for the branches from which they’d fallen. Conte turned his head away from the bite of the wind and made his way towards the apartment building on the corner of Embankment Street. Every once in a while he glanced up to see if the light in the second-floor flat was still on.
The door to the apartment complex was open and led into a dingy, dimly-lit stairwell to his left and a hallway ahead that seemed to lead to the back of the building. Garbage containers shoved into a niche in the hallway were full to overflowing.
As he started up the stairs, he heard men’s voices coming from the back of the hall. There was an urgency to their hushed exchange. He stopped and listened. They were speaking Russian. He caught parts of the exchange; just partial phrases, but it was enough for him to know that things had gone wrong – terribly wrong. He moved cautiously along the hall towards the sounds.
There, at the back of the building, in an alley bracketed by fallow garden plots, was a van, illuminated by a pale porch light, towards which a man was being pushed and dragged. A broad line of red ran from his forehead to his chin. There was duct tape over his mouth.
Conte could make out four men, two standing near the building smoking, and two dragging the man to the van. When they got to the van, the doors slid open and another man inside the van helped pull the man in. One of the men got in after him and the other got in the passenger seat. The two men, who had been watching, turned and started toward the stairwell.
Conte moved quickly back down the hall towards the front of the building. He brushed by the garbage containers and a can lid went clattering to the concrete. He heard the men shout and then heard their footsteps running his way.
Conte looked right and left. If he went straight out, they’d surely spot him and would not hesitate to shoot. If he went up the stairs, he might be trapped. He might have a chance if he surprised them. He squeezed into the garbage container niche and pressed against the abutment. As he did so, a ragged, but well-fed cat dashed from behind the containers and headed down the hall. He heard one of the men curse the cat and from the yowl the animal made, probably kick it. Then the men stood laughing and cursing some more and Conte moved to the door, left the building, and keeping to the shadows, moved quickly to the place where his taxi was supposed to be.
The taxi was there, but the driver wasn’t in it. Conte looked around desperately and spotted the driver bracing himself against a tree while he peed, trying to aim his stream in the flow of the wind. Conte hissed at him in crude Russian and the driver zipped his fly and sauntered over wiping his hands along the outsides of his pants.
#
Back at the hotel, Conte again told the taxi driver to wait. Inside, he told the receptionist that he’d be leaving early in the morning. He’d paid in advance, in cash, so she just shrugged.
“Leave key in room,” she instructed. And then, seemingly as an afterthought, “Maybe you leave something for maid?”
Conte resisted pointing out that there had been no maid. Instead, he asked where he might find a good nightclub.
The receptionist sighed, as if to say, ‘men,’ and then handed Conte a dog-eared brochure from the desk and pointing to a photo, said, “Aloha, on Solnechnaya Street.”
As he turned to leave, the receptionist thrust out her hand. Conte handed her back the brochure.
When he got to his room, Conte put on all the warm clothes he could get into. He left his suitcase on the chair next to the bed. He removed his multipurpose military pocket tool from his toiletries kit and shoved it in his boot. He left the kit on the grimy sink. He peed, then walked out of the bathroom and looked around. Satisfied that the room still looked lived in, he left.
Conte wasn’t sure how long his erstwhile contact could hold out against his captors’ interrogation techniques, but he gave himself three-to-four hours before they’d extract the information they needed and trace him to his hotel. Ust-Kamenogorsk wasn’t on anyone’s ‘hot travel spots,’ unless by hot, you meant radioactively.
#
It took Conte three days to get out of Kazakhstan and another day and half to get back to the US. Tony Scigliasi did the extraction -- somewhat unusual now that Scigliasi was a station chief. But Conte and Tony had been friends for a while, and it was Tony who planned the Ust mission.
Scigliasi seemed amused by Conte’s description of the ‘nightclub’ the hotel receptionist had recommended. The sad little bar the receptionist had termed a nightclub had no dance floor, no music, and a TV still showing last winter’s snow. Conte had made a local call from the bar phone, and then made his way past the restroom and out the back. He used the pocket map he’d been given in his mission kit to locate his pick-up point near the Irtysh bridge.
When Scigliasi and the two men with him had Conte in their vehicle, a late model Moskvich 412 of indeterminate color, and were barreling west across the bridge, Tony, in the back sat with Conte, asked what Conte had seen during his aborted rendezvous. He had him go over his story several times.
After Conte had described the scene at the apartment building for what seemed like the umpteenth time, Scigliasi asked about the hotel.
“Did you see any evidence that your room had been searched?” Scigliasi asked.
“No,” Conte answered. “It wasn’t even cleaned.”
“Didn’t you have a maid?”
“No maid, no room service, no TV, no seat on the commode,” Conte said.
“And you didn’t notice anyone hanging around the hotel who might’ve been watching you?”
“No. Why? Was my cover blown?”
Scigliasi sat back and stared out his side window momentarily. Then turning to Conte, he said, “Probably not, Dan.”
Conte stared at Scigliasi. “Probably not?”
Scigliasi shrugged. “Well, our man in Ust was outed, and he’s just one in a long line of our agents who’ve been betrayed. Our KGB friend Kryuchkov seems to be having a field day, and it’s no accident.”
“What’s that mean, Tony?”
“It means we have a Russian mole in the Company, and if our guess is right, you know the son of a bitch.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sans Pericardium


I was trying to give my heart to my cardiologist, let’s call him Dr. Sing.
“Why would I want your heart?” he asked in his soft, singsongy voice, a little smile on his round, brown face.
“For research,” I said, holding out my hands as if they were holding the very heart I was offering.
“I’m not doing any research,” Dr. Sing protested. “Besides, there are plenty of hearts to be had if one is to be looking.”
“But my heart has been without a pericardium for over forty years now,” I said. “Surely that means something to medical researchers.”
I had chronic pericarditis as a young man and my pericardium had to be removed. Without going into all the gory details, think of the pericardium as a partially inflated balloon into which the heart is shoved. The balloon, the pericardium, forms around the heart and acts (I’m guessing here) as a kind of shock absorber. Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium. It can have a variety of causes. Mine was caused by an unknown and very persistent virus. After many episodes, my pericardium had begun to constrict the heart and so had to be removed. Think of peeling a peach; a peach that has a lot of arteries attached to it.
“Medical researchers are very much acquainted with pericarditis,” Dr. Sing said. “In fact, last week I had a man come in with chest pain and as soon as I listened to his chest I knew what it was.”
“You heard a rub?” I said, showing off my knowledge of the so-called pericardial friction rub caused by the outer and inner walls of the inflamed pericardium rubbing against each other.
“Yes, of course,” Dr. Sing said, handing me a slip of paper. “This is an order for a chest X-Ray.”
I took the X-Ray order without looking at it. I’d derailed my argument by trying to show off. I tried to get back to it. “Yes, there’s a lot of information on pericarditis, but what about information on what happens to the heart when it has to get along without a pericardium?”
“Well, your heart seems to have done just fine,” Dr. Sing said. “Look at your stress test.”
The stress test involved hooking me up to an EKG and having me run on a treadmill, on which Dr. Sing kept increasing the incline until I was about to fall off the back. When I quit, breathing hard and drenched in sweat, Dr. Sing said, “I’m disappointed.”
“Why?” I asked. “I went longer than I did last year. What was it, eleven minutes? More?”
“Well, I had a man do almost twenty minutes,” Dr. Sing said. “Of course he was half your age and a tri-athlete,” he said, chuckling.
He was beginning to get on my nerves.
I was seeing Dr. Sing because I had been experiencing a recurrence of upper back pain, mostly under my left scapular. I have had chest and back pain on and off ever since my pericardiectomy in 1965. My doctors over the years had explained it as very probably inflammation of pericardial tissue remaining around major arteries.
“They can’t get everything,” one doctor told me, squeezing my shoulder reassuringly.
“Ouch!” I replied. When I asked about why I got back pain from inflamed tissue around heart arteries, I was told the pain was “referred.”
I learned that referred pain happens when nerve fibers from one region of the anatomy converge with nerve fibers from another region at the spinal cord. Nerve impulses apparently jump the track and cause, for example, that horrible, aching pain that runs down the arm during a heart attack.
But I digress. After all these years of living without a pericardium, I was wondering why we have it in the first place. Maybe, I thought, it’s vestigial, like the appendix. If so, removing it would probably have about as much impact as removing the appendix, although recently, medical researchers may have changed their mind about the usefulness of the appendix, describing it as a little factory that manufactures “good bacteria.” Surely the pericardium has a useful function, as well. Maybe it manufactures good acne. Wouldn’t it be useful to know what happens when a person has to get along for most of his or her life without one?
I started researching the question of what effect removal of the pericardium might have and came across an abstract in the International Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine that began, “The removal of the pericardium does not appear to have…” This could be what I was looking for. I brought up the article itself and read on. “The removal of the pericardium does not appear to have any deleterious effect in the normal dog.” Well, that was a start, wasn’t it? What about the bovine?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Earth

I have despaired of ever finding words
To describe my feelings about nature and the earth
About the beauty of waterfalls, trees, and birds
The wonder of a plant’s dying away and its rebirth
As the seasons ebb and flow

To hold a seed and see how it will grow
Into the towering cedar rising from the forest
Like a sentinel amid the lush ferns on forest floor
Oh miracle, that with such majesty have we been blessed
And miracles abound as we our earth explore

If only I could find the words these feelings to convey
But they elude me, leave me open-mouthed in wonder
Speechless in a quiet glade, or gazing rapt across a blue-green bay
As roiling clouds gather black against the sky and thunder
Reverberates against my chest like a beating heart

I am struck dumb, have not the art
Of expression, exposition, or refrain
How can I not love thee Earth, birth mother
Your rich womb my sole domain
Mother, sister, father, brother

All that I am and would be
Bound to you by all I cherish
I cannot speak, but you hear me
My beating heart sings my wish
Hold me, hold me, hold me

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I try to think of something comforting to say

I know this will be a hard time for you
I wish I could think of something to say
I wish there were something I could do
Some small truth I could convey

That might provide some modest comfort
That might ease in some small way
The ache and emptiness in your heart
That might help you through this cold December day

Sadly, nothing comes to mind
I can only hope that altogether
You will be a family and will find
That in each other’s love there is a tether

That will bind you each to each
And whether in silence or in prayer
Your communal knowledge will surely teach
That whomsoever is not there is there


For Maureen

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Skating

The morning air is crisp and cold. There's a pink glow in the morning sky. I cross a dry creek bed, then climb up a rise and surprise a covey. The quail dash about, hither and yon.

They remind me of the mechanical ducks in the shooting gallery at the skating rink. She was trying to teach me to skate. I was hopeless. My ankles kept popping in, then out. I’d jerk forward, then back. Finally, down I’d go. Sometimes just to make her laugh. The last time we went there -- when she told me -- I wouldn’t leave. I stood at the gallery and kept shooting the ducks. Clang, turn, clang, turn, clang, turn. She stood with her arms crossed watching me. Finally, she left.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Burren

The ruined castle rose from the barren land, a towering rock outcropping, looking as if slabs of limestone had been lifted from the Burren by some gigantic hand and placed like cratered dominoes to form a rough imitation architecture. Mullioned windows, hollowed and cracked, gave the building a foreboding, institutional look, something between a prison and an asylum.

County Clare was our last stop before returning to Dublin for our return flight to the States. Madeleine and I had been in Ireland almost two weeks and I was ready for the vacation to be over. Two weeks of overcast, damp, chilly weather was enough for me, to say nothing of navigating the goat paths the Irish called roads. I had not been enthusiastic about vacationing in Ireland in the first place, but Mattie had been going through a bit of a rough spell emotionally, and when she expressed a desire to visit her ancestral home, I acquiesced.

We had just come from the Burren, a geological anomaly in the northwest corner of County Clare. It was 300 square kilometers of karstic limestone slabs denuded of soil by ice age glaciations -- a bleak place dotted by the remains of megalithic habitations and burial sites, Celtic crosses, and a ruined Cistercian Abbey from the 12th century, and more recent remains of villages abandoned during the famine. The area was popular with archaeologists, as well as occasional tourists, like us. It was also popular with spelunkers, who had discovered that the crevices between the stone slabs often led down to extensive tunnels and caves.

Artifacts discovered in the Burren had been traced to a Mesolithic people that first came to Ireland about seven thousand years before Christ. Some artifacts recently discovered in caves under the Burren were puzzling to archaeologists, because they seemed to predate the earliest archaeologically accepted human habitations of Ireland, and because some of the items discovered appeared to be associated with witchcraft.

Had I known then what I later discovered about the castle we were about to explore, and the former inhabitants of the caves beneath the Burren, I would never have brought Mattie to the accursed place.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Con te Partiro


When I’m alone
I dream on the horizon
and words fail;
yes, I know there is no light
in a room where the sun is absent,
if you are not with me, with me.
At the windows
show everyone my heart
which you set alight;
enclose within me
the light you
encountered on the street.

I’ll go with you,
to countries I never
saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
on ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer;
wjth you I shall experience them.

When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.

I’ll go with you,
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer,
with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
Which, I know,
No, no, exist no longer;
with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you,
I with you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Excerpts from The Starving


I recently submitted a query to a small press that publishes supernatural and horror fiction. I inquired about them publishing my story, The Starving, a horror story based on the true-life experiences of our Jamestown colonists. I posted on the story previously. The press I queried asked for excerpts. Here's what I sent them. I wonder, do these brief bits from this 11,800 word story make you want to read it?

From Chapter 1

Dear Reader, the story you are about to read is true. I have transcribed it from the original manuscript as accurately as possible given the degraded condition of the vellum upon which it was written, and the English usage prevalent in that day, which opens to question the meaning of some words and phrases. You will be shocked by what you read. Those of you with delicate constitutions may wish to forego the reading altogether. I strongly recommend that this document not be shared with school children, for it is a part of our history best confined to the dusty corridors of academia. Nor would I recommend it for overly sensitive adults, or those whose mental faculties are frail or impaired in any way. That being said, I should explain to you how I came upon the manuscript from which I have transcribed the story.

My name is Alfred W.C. Dixon. I am an archaeologist specializing in the study of human skeletal remains. My specialty is forensics – I study skeletal remains in order to determine how people died. I will not burden you with details on how I do my work or indeed why, except to say I find it interesting and instructive. It is the latter that compels me to publish this report, for should we ever wonder what is the true nature of man and under what circumstances his nature will escape from the confines of his socialization, we need but reacquaint ourselves with this terrifying story of our forebears.

From Chapter 4

The two young people, kneeling in what looked like an oversized grave looked as through they were painting a fresco. Jalal, a slender African-American man who looked to be barely out of high school, was holding a trowel and Katie, whose light complexion and freckles didn’t bode well for a career doing fieldwork, was holding a painter’s wide-bristle brush.

The twosome said “Hi,” to me and then looked at John.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

The young woman, Katie, said, “Same-o, same-o.” Jalal just smiled, holding his trowel to his shoulder like a soldier at order arms.

John turned to me. “We removed a skeleton we think belongs to one of the original settlers, and Katie and Jalal are making sure we didn’t leave anything in the hole.”

John raised his hand in an abbreviated goodbye to Katie and Jalal, who went back to work without a word, and we continued our walk around the cemetery, where there were several large, rectangular holes dug.

“We think this site will reveal the remains of most of the original colonists. I’m sure you know that more than half of those original one hundred and four colonists died in the first year,” John said.

“Sixty-six, if my memory serves me,” I said, showing off a bit, perhaps.

“Yes. Well… The problem we have, of course, is that the skeletal remains have to be handled with great care, so as soon as we see what we have we dig a trench around the remains and remove dirt and all to an enclosed facility – that large, boxy building you may have seen as we came in – where we can treat them and study them out of the elements. I’ll take you over there in due course.”
It was getting progressively darker in the tent and our two companions had ceased their work and were heading out. I was anxious to hear more about why John had felt it necessary to bring me here and, although not wanting to be rude, was less interested in a cook’s tour than in getting to the point. I preempted John’s next foray into forensics.

“John, pardon my being blunt, but you brought me here for a specific reason having to do with cannibalism. What is it, if I may be so bold?”

“Right, sorry. Didn’t really want to get into it with Katie and Jalal here. Let me show you something.”

John walked me over to another grave; this one quite large and only partially excavated.

“We’re finding that there are several bodies in this grave.”

I looked into the hole and indeed I could make out two skulls, and several clavicles, and likewise, numerous femurs and other bones of the leg. “Odd…” I said, half to myself. I looked at John.

“Mind you, we’re only just beginning to understand this, but our assessment is that the colonists – what was left of them – were in a desperate hurry to bury the dead.”

“Not surprising, given the climate, but this…”

“It wasn’t just the climate, the graves we’re excavating now are from the fall and winter of 1609--”

“Ah yes, the so-called starving time.”

“The starving time, yes. People were dying at such a rapid rate, not just of starvation, but of disease, and from attacks by the Indians. Those remaining were weak and terrified of becoming infected. We’ve found bodies buried face down, with buttons under the bones.”

“Buttons?”

“They were buried in the clothes they were wearing.”

“Ah, yes…”

“Another thing,” John said. “We’ve excavated three skeletal remains with bones missing.”

“Bones missing? You mean you haven’t yet completed the excavation where these remains were buried?” I had an odd sensation as I watched John’s face. His right eye was twitching, and his mouth was a tight, straight line.

“Arms and legs,” John said.

I frowned. What the devil was he trying to say?

From Chapter 12

Hauntings have been reported at Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown, and throughout those ancient areas of Virginia that once served as habitation to our earliest settlers. Ghosts are today, a cottage industry in what has become one, sprawling American theme park. It is, in my opinion, poppycock.

I could say to John, ‘Good gracious, what a coincidence, I too have had a dream.’ But which of us hasn’t dreamt of some horror that makes us shout out and start up clutching our bedclothes, only to find ought but silent night about us?

From Chapter 14

When we met the next day I told John I thought we should give over the day to searching for Lizzi’s remaining remains. “After all,” I said, “it’s the least we can do for the poor girl; she suffered so much.”

“You had a dream, too,” John said. My, he was looking absolutely haggard this morning.

I laughed, and said I’d eaten too late and had a bit of dyspepsia during the night. I don’t think he was fooled.
We found the skullcap after much hard searching. Once again, it was Jalal who spotted it half submerged at the water’s edge. One might have mistaken it for a clamshell. We found two of the lumbar vertebra in the laboratory among some bones not yet matched up with their brethren. John and I had donned the Tyvec suits and were working to assemble what we had of Lizzi’s skeletal remains. The last piece to put in place was the skullcap and as I went to place it I notice some odd markings in the crown.

“Hmm, what’s this, I wonder?”

John looked over my shoulder. “May I?”

I handed him the cap.
He’d retrieved a magnifying glass and was peering through it at the markings I’d observed.

“It’s been scraped. Probably with a spoon, although sometimes they used mussel shells.”

“Good lord!”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Minor

There were no ribbons
And the cake was black
Someone was singing off key
But meant well
We never know
When it will mean something
Strike a responsive chord
Or A minor
Of course
Ribbons aren’t always necessary
Sometimes just black crepe is enough
It all depends on who’s singing
Doesn’t it?

I took the photo at an organic blueberry farm off Sandridge Rd. on the Long Beach Peninsula off the Washington coast. I have no idea who created the tile-decorated statues.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Snow Leopard

I am reading The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. Full of Zen thought on the meaning of life and existence, the book is as much a spiritual journey as a physical one, although physical, strenuously physical, it is.

As a review of the book states,"The spiritual lessons of this book aren’t relegated to romantic abstractions or heady epiphanies, but to a gentle reminder that life consists of what each moment brings us; that it’s futile to obsess on the workings of the past and future if you’re missing out on experience of the present moment."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Getting Published: What do publishers really know?

James Lee Burke's work has been awarded an Edgar twice for Best Crime Novel of the Year. He has also been a recipient of a Breadloaf and Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant. Two of his novels, Heaven's Prisoners and Two For Texas, have been made into motion pictures. His short stories have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, New Stories from the South, Best American Short Stories, Antioch Review, Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review.

Burke's novel The Lost Get Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, and upon publication by Louisiana State University press, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Writing of The Lion and the Sun

I set out to write a spy novel, on the premise that one should write what one knows. I began with a time of great promise and even greater threat – the fall of the Soviet Union and Russia’s anarchic rebirth. The USSR’s vast nuclear arsenal was vulnerable in 1994 – the period in which the story takes place -- neglected by a demoralized military and coveted by a burgeoning band of Islamic extremists bent on destroying the West. With this as a backdrop, I developed a plot involving a missing Russian plutonium pit (the core component of a nuclear weapon), an obscure Iranian terrorist group, and an American CIA agent sent to discover the whereabouts of the pit and the intentions of its prospective new owners. I began writing, and then I discovered Daniel Conte, the protagonist in this twisted tale of intrigue, betrayal, and regret, and Conte took over the story.

I found Conte in the midst of a failed marriage, dealing with a nuclear-armed failed state, working with a Russian agent he couldn’t really trust, having an affair with a British agent he couldn’t afford to compromise, and under suspicion of being a traitor to the country for which he’d sacrificed so much – talk about a mid-life crisis.

The CIA’s Nuclear Proliferation Center believes that the missing Russian plutonium pit is either headed to Iran, or to terrorists sponsored by Iran. In either case, they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to recover the pit, even if it means working with the Russian intelligence service. That’s where Conte comes in. He has a long-standing professional relationship with a Russian agent named Anatoly Balakirev who, the CIA believes, is privy to sensitive information regarding the location of the pit. The Russian intelligence service has managed to place Balakirev in a key position with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, in Vienna, and that’s where Conte is headed when we first meet him.

Conte’s contact in Vienna is a British MI6 agent, Kaitlyn Clarke, who is working under cover as Balakirev’s secretary at the IAEA -- a case of spies spying on spies. Kaitlyn is beautiful, brilliant, and single. Conte is divorced, despondent, and lonely. One thing leads to another. The conventional wisdom is that it’s bad practice to carry on an affair with a professional colleague. Conte’s not your most conventional operative, but in this case, he’d have been wise to abide by this homily.

Conte gets mugged in Vienna by a couple of thugs who turn out to be working for a Russian engineering firm for whom Balakirev just happens to be turning nuclear tricks. By the time Conte finds this out, he’s in Istanbul, Turkey, following up on a lead concerning a front company that may have the plutonium pit.

While in Istanbul, Conte and Balakirev, working with Turkish intelligence, learn that the plutonium pit has ended up in the hands of Islamic terrorists. The two agents devise a plan to determine the location of the pit and succeed in arranging a joint Russian-US recovery effort. It’s an unlikely collaboration and things go wrong from the start.

When Conte and Balakirev find themselves fighting the terrorists in Iran’s desolate Baluchestan region, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be shooting at whom. Conte is seriously wounded during the action and is air evac’d back to the States, while Balakirev returns the plutonium pit to Russia. There are unpleasant surprises awaiting both men on their return home, and revelations going back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution will spell the end of one of the agents’ careers.

From Vienna, to Istanbul, to Tehran, Conte’s mission uncovers repressed memories of past betrayals and leads to new ones that challenge the very core of his beliefs in his mission, his country, and in himself.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Midnight Golf

Jack felt bloated. Mexican food did that to him, to say nothing of the three beers he’d quaffed with dinner. Well, you couldn’t eat jalapeno poppers without beer -- just not possible.
Jack switched off the Golf Channel, slipped on his tennis shoes, and started for the door. “I’m going for a walk, Honey,” he shouted into the kitchen, where his wife, Doris, was finishing with the dishes.
“At this hour?” she shouted back.
Jack checked his watch. “It’s only ten.”
He was out the door before his wife could say anything else, like put out the trash.


Jack lived across the street from the Canyon Meadows golf course and liked to walk along the canal that ran through the course, reliving the good golf shots he’d made that week and going through the rotten luck he’d suffered as a result of the ‘golf gods’ exercising their perverse sense of humor at his expense.


Hmm, it is dark out here, Jack thought, as he picked his way carefully along the canal. As he made his way along the 9th Fairway he heard a kind of ‘click’ that sounded suspiciously like someone hitting a golf ball on the sweet spot. Can’t be, he thought. Too dark. But then he heard voices. Someone said, “Good shot.”
Jack edged closer to the fairway and, squinting into the dark, made out four shapes moving along the fairway. A thin layer of ground fog made them appear to glide.
Jack followed as the players walked to their next shots, all grouped nicely in the middle of the fairway. All the players were carrying their bags. From the players’ size and the timbre of their voices, they appeared to be men.
The players hit their approach shots, which arched high into the air and quickly disappeared from sight. And yet, the men congratulated each other with; “Nice shot!” and “Pin High!” and “Putting for a tweet.”


Jack walked up on the cart path that overlooked the 9th green and watched as the men took turns putting, demonstrating incredible accuracy given the conditions.
“Hey, you guys are something else,” he shouted, walking out of the shadows. The men turned and looked at him.
Jack walked down to the green and stood looking at the golfers. They studied him with undisguised interest.
“You guys always play golf at midnight?”
“It’s not midnight,” one of the men said.
“Hey, how about I join you?” Jack said. “Play the back nine?”
“We have a foursome,” another said.
“So what?” Jack said. “It’s not like there’s anybody out here pressing you.”
“Where are your clubs?” Another of the men asked.
“I’ll borrow from you guys.”
The men looked at each other.
“Come on, be sports. I won’t take too much of your money,” Jack said with the lopsided grin he’d used so successfully with the girls in high school.
“All right then, you can join us.”
“But,” said the guy, “You should know, we play for blood.”
The men smiled.
That’s when Jack noticed the fangs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Earth Song

Patter of rain
Burble of brook
Rustle of wind
      in the tall Birches
      their sun dappled leaves
      dancing

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fathomless

She walks, head down, on the flat, wide beach
Close to the water’s edge
Oblivious to the spent waves
Washing weakly over her bare feet

Her eyes are focused
On an indefinite point
Far beneath the featureless, gray sand
The infinite horizon stretches out before her

Her thoughts are fathomless
What brought her here?
What keeps her here?
What will bring her release?

And the waves
Gray, and green, and frothy white
Roll, and roll
And roll

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Story Idea

I heard a story the other day while playing golf about golf clubs being stolen right off the golf cart as the foursome was on the green putting. It happened in Las Vegas, where apparently, the economy is so bad that it's a wonder the thieves didn't steal the whole golf cart, clubs and all.

The course where this happened has fairways that run along a major highway. Thieves park their vans on the shoulder of the highway and watch for golfers who park their carts on the cart path close to the highway. When the golfers are on the green engrossed in trying to put the little white ball in the little green hole, the thieves run out from their hiding places, grab the golf bags off the carts, race back to their van, and speed off down the highway. It's likely that the golfers have left their cell phones in their golf bags, so they won't be able to call 911 until they get back to the clubhouse and by then, their golf clubs are already being advertised on Craig's List.

I am writing a short story based on this. It's about a guy who has his golf bag stolen in this way and can't let it go, because among his clubs is his favorite wedge. He buys new clubs and tries playing a few rounds without the wedge, but his game is in the toilet and just no fun anymore. He becomes obsessive about finding the wedge and begins haunting pawn shops, golf driving ranges that sell consignment clubs, Good Will stores, and the like. He also checks eBay and Craig's list, but is overwhelmed by the quantity of golf clubs being auctioned on line. He's spending all his free time hunting for the wedge and neglecting his work, his health -- everything.

The story will be about loss. It turns out that my protagonist, call him 'Jim,' has recently been divorced. His wife got the house and the pool. Jim got to keep his dog, but soon after the divorce, the dog is diagnosed with some fatal dog disease and has to be put down. In the meantime, Jim's knee has started acting up -- an old football injury -- and he has to have ACL surgery. No more mountain biking for Jim, and his ex-wife has the pool, so swimming is out. Well, he'll be damned if he's going to lose that wedge on top of everything else!

That's basically the plot and theme. I think it has promise.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sorry Honey, I'm Blogging

"I had a cat once, who, when he felt the need to clean me up, would come over to where I was sitting, put his front paws on my thigh, and stare at me with a kind of fierce desperation. If I didn’t immediately invite him into my lap, he’d dig his claws into my thigh. Hilde was looking at me that way now. Her felt need was sex. I just didn’t feel up to it. Having sex with Hilde was like extreme cagefighting without gloves. Hilde always ended up on top and her screams of ecstasy were like a Viking battle cry invoking the Norse god Wodan."

That's how my latest flash fiction piece starts out. It's about an out-of-work SW programmer who feels 'used.' Since it's only 711 words, telling you any more would be... well, redundant.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Man's Best Friend

Harry Denton was talking suicide again.
“What’s the use?” he asked. “I’m all crippled up; stuck here inside. Might as well put a bullet in my head.”
“Now Harry, don’t talk that way,” I said.
I volunteered for a church-affiliated charitable organization that called shut-ins to find out if they were okay, listen to their problems and frustrations, and offer a sympathetic ear. I’d ended up with Harry on my call list. Sometimes I dreaded calling him. What do you say to someone who feels that life isn’t worth living anymore?

Today, Harry sounded more discouraged than usual, and that was saying something. It turned out he’d fallen at the doctor’s office.
“For crying out loud,” he said. “Rode rodeo all my life. Never got broke up like this.”
He moaned. “Might just as well be dead.”
“Tell me about your rodeo days,” I said, changing the subject.
“I won three all-around cowboy titles,” he said, his voice picking up a bit. “Pendleton, Lewiston, and Calgary.”
“That’s really something,” I said. I'd heard the story numerous times, but this was better than talking about suicide.
“Yes, sir,” he agreed. “Back in the Forties. The Roundup, the Roughriders, and the Stampede.”
“Hmm, hmm,” I said, scanning my call list.
“The other riders called me a ‘wolf,’ Harry said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“A rider’s that good,” Harry said. “Bareback and saddle bronc riding, Brahma Bull riding, calf roping; I could do it all. That’s why. I was a wolf. ‘Was’ being the operative word.” Harry put a verbal break between ‘oper’ and ‘ative.’
“Well that’s--,” I started to say.
“Now I cain’t hardly walk, let alone ride.” Another moan.
God don’t let’s start talking suicide, I thought. I glanced at my notes. Harry had a dog named ‘Sugar.’ “How’s Sugar?” I asked.
“Sugar?” he said, his voice rising and taking on a reverential tone. “Why she’s right here by my side. She’s just the best damn dog a man ever had. Best thing God ever done was make the dog.”
This is good, I thought. We’re not talking suicide.
“But then God made man,” Harry said. “That low down, cheating, greedy sonofabitch who’ll call you friend one minute and write you a bad check the next.”
“Did you take your medications, Harry?” I asked.
“I took ‘em. Don’t know what for,” he said.
“Someone has to take care of Sugar,” I said.
“Well that’s the truth. One of God’s greatest creations.”

That was the last conversation I had with Harry. The next time I checked the call schedule, Harry wasn’t on it. I called the church coordinator.
“I notice that Harry Denton isn’t on my call list,” I said.
“Denton? Just a minute.”
I had a bad feeling.
“He died last week.”
“Oh…” I said.
“He’d had a fall at the doctor’s office.”
“Hmm hmm,” I said.
There was a pause.
“What about his dog, Sugar?” I said.
“Oh that old dog of his? They found her lying at his feet. She was gone, too.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blue or Red

I’ll always be here for you,
She said
I wondered, was it true?
I looked down. Her toenails were painted red

Remember that,
She said
I smiled the smile of a Cheshire cat
Conveying a sense of dread

She reached out, put her fingers on my arm
Her fingernails were painted blue
I thought, I’d like to have one for a good luck charm
Well, that’s very kind of you

I said
Wondering if she had a tattoo
And if so, would it be blue or red?
From the evidence so far, difficult to construe

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Memories of Tehran, 1978

Daniel Conte lies in a hospital bed at Landstuhl Army Hospital, Germany, after having barely survived a fierce gun battle with the terrorists who possessed the plutonium pit stolen from a Russian weapons lab. An IV drip dispenses a pain killer whenever Conte presses the little red button at his hand.

As Conte pressed his little button his mushy mind called up to semi-consciousness images of those last days in Tehran in 1979. The disenfranchised poor pouring out of their hovels to join marauding students stampeding down Kourosh-e-Kabir street and swarming over the walls of the British Embassy to smash windows and set buildings aflame. Huge columns of grey-black smoke boiling up into Tehran’s cerulean blue sky. Army tanks and APCs rumbling through the streets. Army troops, APCs, and gun emplacements at the corners of Shahyad Square. And incongruously, the scent of roses in the greenhouse at the US Embassy where Conte said a hurried goodbye to Taraneh.

Conte remembered her pulling him back to kiss again as he turned to go. He would never forget the look in her eyes. She knew what he would not let himself even consider. He wondered now at his naïve belief that the small parcel of US territory called an embassy, surrounded by a nation gone mad, would ever be an island of safety.

%%%%%

In Chapter 21 of my novel, The Lion and the Sun, I mention Doshantapi Air Base, Tehran, a main base of the Royal Iranian Air Force (RIAF) and, in the novel, the launching point for the novel’s protagonist, Daniel Conte, in the last leg of his mission to recover the missing Russian plutonium pit. The primary action in the novel takes place in 1994, but Conte was in Tehran in 1978-79 and his return brings back troubling memories.

I spent five weeks in Tehran beginning October 2, 1978. Martial law had been declared in Iran the previous month due to strikes, violent demonstrations, and riots.

I was in Iran with three other Air Force officers assigned temporary duty with the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). We were placed in temporary billets at a decrepit apartment building in downtown Tehran that had been reserved for US personnel supporting the RIAF. The apartment building was surrounded by a frail-looking barbed wire fence that would’ve provided little obstacle to the rioters, had they gained knowledge of our existence and decided to come in for a discussion of US support of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

The entry to the building was guarded haphazardly by two Iranian soldiers. Each carried a matt black, pistol grip Uzi, which they slung around casually by a strap hung over their shoulder. They spent most of their time in a tiny guardhouse at the gate, where they drank tea and played checkers. They seemed to pay no attention to us as we entered or left the building. Our attempts at friendly greetings were met with sullen nods of the head. Every night we heard gunfire in the streets.

We were bussed to and from Doshantapi and often met armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets. We had two guards aboard the bus; conscripts with rifles across their laps, often pointed at one of us across the aisle. We were prohibited from carrying weapons.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

Daniel Conte has just come from the American Embassy in Vienna, where he reviewed information on a missing Russian plutonium pit. The sky is threatening and he takes shelter in the Palais Liechtenstein.

Conte thrust his hands in his overcoat pockets and hurried along Boltzmanngasse towards the U-Bahn station. A towering bank of thunder clouds had built up in the south-east over the Danube and a gusting wind was blowing what was left of the Autumn leaves erratically down the cobblestone street. Lighting slashed through the cloudbank and the rumble of thunder reverberated through the narrow streets.

Conte didn’t want to get soaked. He had too few clothes to fall back on. He turned down Strudlhofgasse, practically running now. Dead ahead was the Liechtenstein Museum. He made it to the entrance just as the deluge slammed down out of the lightning lit sky.

The Palais Liechtenstein had seen better days. The Baroque palace, still owned by the Liechtenstein family, had been opened to the public and displayed, among other things, their private art collection, but they didn’t appear to be putting a lot of money into maintaining the magnificent, old building. Still, it had a kind of grand decadence about it.

Conte checked his overcoat and climbed to the second floor where there was a small coffee bar. On the way up he passed an oversized photorealistic portrait of a young woman. The painting was so large it covered the entire wall over the landing. Conte could make out the fine fuzz on the woman’s cheeks. Her eyes seemed to follow him as he turned up the steps. Kaitlyn’s face, her lovely eyes and soft lips, came suddenly into his mind.

There were only a few people in the coffee bar. He sat at a small, round table, wrought-iron legs and marble top, sipping his mélange and occasionally glancing at his watch.

“May I join you?”

Conte looked up at a woman trying to balance a small silver tray with a coffee and some sort of pastry, while lugging a soft-sided leather briefcase. There were scattered raindrops on the case. She had her left shoulder elevated to prevent the strap holding her handbag from slipping, giving her otherwise attractive body a somewhat deformed aspect.

Conte rose quickly and held her chair for her. “Please,” he said.

She smiled, and went about placing her tray and arranging her belongings. Once she was settled she glanced over at Conte and said, “Beastly weather.”

Conte watched her and marveled yet again at how women seemed so adept at lugging purses, briefcases, shopping bags, and often children without seeming to miss a beat. It was something he’d noticed about his wife, who, determined to maintain her career, had managed to ferry their two kids here and there, while doing all the things required of a mother, and a professional woman.

Glancing again at his watch, Conte said, “I hope the rain lets up soon. I’m really not dressed to go out in it.”

The woman took a sip of her coffee. “Are you here for the exhibit?” Seeing the puzzled look on his face, she continued, “They are hosting a special exhibit of erotic art. It’s been so popular they’ve decided to stay open today.”

Conte shook his head. “No, just came in out of the rain.”

The woman wore a knit wool skirt, long-sleeved, white cotton blouse, open at the neck to show ample cleavage, a casual blazer, and a brilliant orange, silk scarf. Several gold bracelets slid along her wrist as she raised her cup to her lips, glancing under her eyebrows at Conte.

“I made a special point of coming by, though I’ve been earlier in the week. You really shouldn’t miss it, you know.”

She pronounced ‘been’ like ‘bean,’ and her ‘A’s, aah -- aspects of an upper class English accent -- but her speech was somewhat wooden and she rolled her ‘R’s. There was the remnant of a ‘V’ sound in her ‘W’s.

Conte smiled and nodded, wondering briefly where she’d learned her English.

The woman took a bite of her pastry, something with a flaky crust covered in powdered sugar, and then dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her paper napkin, careful not to smear her cherry-red lipstick.

“I know a little something about erotica. Would you like me to show you around?” The rolled ‘R’s and the remnant ‘V’ a bit more pronounced as she said this.

Conte had a difficult time reading the expression on the woman’s pale, attractive face, but not her meaning. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I have to be going.”

The woman watched Conte as he rose from the table. “You’ll be soaked. Perhaps we can share a taxi. Where are you staying?”

“I can get to my place quite easily via the U-Bahn,” Conte said. “But thanks anyway.”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “Ah, too bad,” she said.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

Daniel Conte is in Vienna following up leads on the disappearance of a plutonium pit from a Russian Weapons Lab. One of the people he interviews is at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Demitri Protopopov is the director of the division responsible for WMD inspections in the Middle East.

Protopopov had a face like a basset hound, full of folds and furrows, sad, brown eyes, with several layers of bags under them. He was able to see the humor in some of the shenanigans that went on around the Agency and he got a twinkle in his eye when discussing the strategy of how to get something through the bureaucracy. He shuffled around his office in his stocking feet, smoked, and drank his tea after heaping four teaspoons of sugar in it. He had crayon drawings tacked to the wall behind his desk. One showed three stick figure children with a ball, an animal of some kind, a tree on one side of the drawing, and a big mushroom cloud on the other side.

Conte reflected on the fact that Westerners assigned to the IAEA, Americans especially, tended to be frustrated by the dance that’s required before any real business was possible. Generally, the first meeting with someone was all about creating “rapport.” The weather was discussed, of course, your trip over, where you’re staying, the sad state of the IAEA cafeteria, and so on. You shook hands and on the way out said, “Oh by the way, I would like to come back and discuss…” whatever it was you were there to discuss in the first place. An appointment was made. You said your goodbyes, and the next stop was lunch.

Protopopov was not one to violate protocol, but Conte was. “Mr. Protopopov…” Every gentleman at the Agency was referred to in formal settings as ‘mister,’ even if they were a director, a doctor, or a mail messenger. “I understand that you are negotiating a new safeguards agreement with Iranian nuclear authorities?”

Protopopov smiled, rearranged the penholder on his desk, and said, “Of course. The Agency has a safeguards agreement with Iran. It was brokered by AEOI, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Developments during the recent war requires that it be modified.”

Protopopov and Conte sat in leather chairs arranged around a beaten copper coffee table of the sort one finds in the bazaar in Esfahan or the exotic furniture department at a New York department store. Conte sat forward, hands on knees. “Is Iran making a complete declaration, or are you going with what they’ve provided in the past?”

Protopopov reached for another biscuit. Holding it a few inches from his mouth, he looked at Conte and said, “Of course we expect a full declaration.” He popped the biscuit in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

“Mr. Protopopov,” Conte took a sip of tea while Protopopov was chewing. “Are you concerned that perhaps Iran has nuclear facilities that are not on the Agency’s list of sites?”

“Well, Mr. Conte, that is a matter for our Deputy Director General to address during his visit with Vice President Habibi next week in Tehran.”

“I see. And pending the outcome, when do you expect Agency inspections to resume in Iran?”

“A team has already been to Tehran to discuss the matter with the AEOI. These things cannot be rushed, Mr. Conte. You must understand that sovereign nations take their sovereignty seriously.” Protopopov fairly beamed at Conte, thinking that he had surely scored diplomatic points with this utterly obvious observation.

“I’m just wondering, Mr. Protopopov, if you’re at all concerned that Iran may be following in the footsteps of Iraq and trying to pull the wool over the Agency’s eyes?”

“I see.” Protopopov studied Conte for a few seconds before going on. “As I recall, you were an advisor to our Iraq Action Team and spent some time in Iraq.”

Conte just nodded and waited for Protopopov to continue.

“We were amused by that exercise, Mr. Conte.”

Conte cocked his head slightly, “How so?”

“Well, everyone knew that your people were sending information back to the US CIA, but at least it was somewhat subtle. These days the Americans’ ‘research’ is so much more obvious. It reminds me of an old joke we used to tell in the Former Soviet Union. It seems that a notice was posted on the swim club bulletin board informing the members that a certain member, Comrade K we shall call him, was being dropped from the club. A friend of Comrade K approached the club chairman and inquired as to why this was so. The chairman said that Comrade K had peed in the swimming pool. But comrade chairman, said the inquiring member, we both know that members often pee in the pool. Yes, said the chairman, but not from the diving board!”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Who is Daniel Conte?

He is the lead character in my novel, The Lion and the Sun. Someone asked me recently what my novel was about. When I was first writing it I would have answered, it's a spy novel. But as I wrote it I realized that it's about a man who happens to be a spy.

Daniel Conte has been in the espionage business almost 20 years. He came to it after serving in Vietnam. He came to it with a duty, honor, country attitude. He thinks he's made sacrifices in the service of his country. And he has, but so has his family, and not willingly.

Conte wants his wife to understand that he does what he does because circumstances demand it; America's national security is always at risk. The world no longer fights wars that have point-in-time beginnings and endings. It simply fights battles in one interminable war in the global power struggle.

Conte and his wife are undergoing a trial separation, but Conte thinks he can fix things. He's done it before. After all, that's the business he's in -- fixing things: power struggles in foreign countries, loose nucs in places you never heard of, bad people selling weapons to other bad people, and unfortunate situations that impact exchange rates. Conte knows he can fix his marriage. Only this time, he won't get the chance.

Conte, on his way back to the States from one assignment is turned around and sent on another, one that will come close to terminating his career with prejudice. Conte will survive the bullets, but the mission will uncover repressed memories of past betrayals and lead to new ones that will challenge the very core of his beliefs in his service, his country, and in himself. And in the end, there are no heros.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pass me another piece of biscuit, please

My Uncle Ugo worked as a pan greaser in a south side bakery in Chicago. It was a good job, because he could bring home broken biscuits. We had more biscuits than we could eat. I fed the stale biscuit pieces to my pet pigeons. That worked out okay until they started demanding strawberry jam.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

River of Pain

I left my love behind, and hid my thoughts of her in the labyrinth of my mind. I walked along the river, watching the waves and whirls and waiting for the pain to wash away. And here I am again, wondering if it ever will. Willing myself to walk away again. Wondering if I will.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

The taxi pulled up to the entrance of the Marriott where I was waiting. The weather was overcast and cold in that bone chilling way that seems to be unique to the concrete jungles that form the core of our major cities. The Christmas decorations around Crystal City looked sad and neglected and did nothing to brighten my mood. For Christ sake, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
My taxi driver was a burly, dark complexioned guy wearing a turban. He had a full beard partially hidden by a heavy winter scarf. The name on his chauffeur’s license was Jagtar Singh. As he slipped out into traffic a book fell from the top of his dash into my lap. I turned it over and read the title. “The Puzzle Palace,” by James Bamford.
“You reading this?” I asked.
The driver spoke to me while he watched his side mirror. “Sure I read it. You know this book?” Without waiting for me to answer he went on, “All about America spy agency, NSA.” He glanced at me. We were on the way to CIA headquarters. What was I supposed to say? I just smiled and raised my eyebrows.
“Where did you get it?”
“My son gave me this book. He is in US Air Force,” the driver said, abruptly changing lanes and gunning the cab.
“What’s he do?” I asked.
The driver made another abrupt lane change and charged on to Jefferson Davis Highway. “He’s a good boy,” he said, glancing at me.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shadows of Shapes

And out across the silence
Of never-ending streets
Twisting into hopeless conglomeration
And into the black night
Flooding out through endless space
In shadows splayed through sightless eyes
And silhouettes of shadows
And shadows of shapes
Shapes of images
Images of stone

The deep moan of loneliness
Through the solemn stillness roared

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Memories and Music

I am listening to opera arias as I work at editing my novel, The Lion and the Sun. Nessun Dorma came on, my eyes glazed over, and I had to stop reading and just listen. It is a beautiful aria and brings back beautiful memories.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Song of the Weddell Seal

Uruhngnn chut chut sprnnghn
Chut chut sringrn kik kik kik
Shrung shrut shrut pinge enng
Shrut shrut sprnnghn kik grik

Song of the Weddell Seal

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Puccini's Tosca - Vissi d'arte, Renata Tebaldi


Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.
Sempre con fè sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fè sincera
diedi fiori agl’altar.

Nell’ora del dolore
perchè, perchè, Signore,
perchè me ne rimuneri così?
Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

She seeks a lover

She is discrete, of course
More than that, quite proper
She sits alone at the small table
Sipping her Chartreuse cocktail

Yellow Chartreuse
Mixed with gin and orange juice
Poured over ice
She disdains the orange spiral

How infrequent her lonely outings
Or not lonely -- alone
Without her children in tow
Without her distant husband

The broad sidewalk
Is filled with people
She watches a couple
Walking hand-in-hand

She is shielded by the cafe's
Small cabinets de verdure
And by her own
Garden of Gethsemane

What will she say
When the man asks
If he may join her
"I am just about to leave?"

Or will she gesture
To the empty chair
And with the hint of a smile
Say, “Ah, mais, oui.”

She ponders this
Sitting at her small table
Looking in her glass
Only the ice is left

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Christine Falls

I am reading Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black, a pseudonym of John Banville, the Irish novelist and journalist. I read The Sea, by Banville, a year or so ago, and enjoyed Banville’s prose and found the story, a very personal introspective, intriguing. I don’t remember how I happened upon Christine Falls; I had written the title down on the back of an envelope, and I was surprised to find that Banville wrote under a pseudonym.

Whereas The Sea is literary fiction, and Christine Falls is crime fiction, the latter is equally literary and I found myself rereading excerpts of the book for the shear enjoyment of Black’s/Banville’s prose. Here is Black describing the entry of a nun, Sister Anselm, into the room where a couple is waiting, hoping to adopt a child from the convent’s orphanage. A short, square-shaped nun was approaching. There was something wrong with her right side, and she walked with a wrenching movement, dragging her hip after her like a mother dragging a stubborn child.

Monday, May 11, 2009

If at first you don't succeed

My novel, "The Lion and the Sun," had been rejected by prospective publishers and agents more times than I care to say before I gave up this first attempt to be a published author.

I began my quest with the thought that I'd written and had published many scientific and technical papers; why not fiction? Is there really that much difference?

Yes. There's a reason technical journals have a very limited readership -- the writing is, to put it mildly, dry.

One of the critiques I received of my manuscript, on those few occasions when I received anything more than, "Not for us," told me that it was clear I knew my subject, but I wrote as if I was preparing a report. No! When I tried to add "color," I was criticized for writing a "tour guide." When I wrote action sequences involving hand-to-hand combat, I was told that my description of the battle was "interminable." I was also informed by one cocky agent that he "didn't buy my premise." When an agent with little or no knowledge of the subject you're writing about tells you this, you've chosen the wrong agent. Choosing the right agent is a science and an art in itself.

I postponed my exciting debut. I decided that just as I'd spent more hours, days, and years than I care to mention learning my trade craft, I needed to spend more time (not as much, because I don't have that much) learning the craft of writing readable fiction. And I needed to discover the resources available to aspiring authors. It turns out there are lots and they are available on the web. There are links to some of them on this blog.

I've started writing short stories, flash fiction, and micro fiction and have been successful having some of the efforts published. But I've had a hard time putting my novel out of my mind. So finally, a few days ago I decided to revise and rewrite it; not for the first time -- this will be revision 38. But this is a major rewrite. I'm changing from first person point of view (POV) to 3rd person. I think I was reading a Jack Reacher novel (Reacher is a character invented by the author Lee Child) when I decided to write my first novel in the first person. Child does it so well. Maybe I thought it would be easy. People who are really good at their craft, authors, professional athletes, make things look easy not because they are easy, but because the people are so good at it, whatever it is, hitting a golf ball, writing a scene, imitating a British accent.

I think that when I wrote in the 1st POV, I let too much of who I am slip into the writing, or maybe I tried too hard to not let who I am intrude. I don't know, but on rereading the manuscript I felt that the character came across like a cardboard cutout with someone putting words in its mouth.

So here I am rewriting in the 3rd POV. It isn't easy. Every "I," and "my," and "me," changing to a first or last name, and "his," "him," "himself," all the while watching for dialogue, where the rules don't hold. Universal "find and replace" doesn't work. But I have to reread the manuscript anyway. My goal is to cut out at least 1/3 of the narrative. I want the novel to be under 100,000 words. It's hard. That description of the Italian meal my main character had in the charming little restaurant in Vienna was worthy of a gourmet magazine. "Be brutal," I tell myself. After all, my hero operates in a brutal world. He'll understand.


What if you thought you’d dedicated your life to preserving and protecting your country from its enemies, placing yourself in grave danger in the process, and watching your marriage disintegrate over the years, only to be accused of treason by the masters you serve?

Daniel Conte is a CIA field agent. He’s assigned the mission of tracking the whereabouts of a missing plutonium pit and determining the extent of Iran’s involvement in its disappearance from a Russian weapons lab. Conte has just returned from an overseas assignment, committed to marriage counseling with his wife. Instead, he heads back across the ocean on a quest that takes him first to Vienna, then Istanbul, and then Tehran, where a personal tragedy fifteen years ago still haunts him. Along the way he will come face-to-face with a shadowy group of terrorists that trace their heritage to the Assassins of Alamut. Conte’s mission will uncover repressed memories of past betrayals and lead to new ones that will challenge the very core of his beliefs in his mission, his country, and in himself.

The Lion and the Sun is a story of intrigue, betrayal, and regret set against the threat of nuclear terrorism. The story spans the years 1978 to 2008, although the main action takes place in 1994 during the rise of the Russian Federation from the ashes of the Former Soviet Union. For Daniel Conte, the only thing that changes over those thirty years is his marital status. In the rarified world in which he plies his trade, nothing else really changes. The Lion and the Sun is topical, compelling, and credible, and will appeal to readers who enjoy Alan Furst or Charles McCarry espionage novels.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Grandma Boogler Takes a Trip

Grandma Boogler’s going to take a trip to see her grandson, Bobby, in Vienna.
She needs a trunk, a bag, or grip to pack her clothes in for the trip.
But she and Grandpa Boogler have only one trunk and Grandpa Boogler stuck it under his dusty, musty old bunk.
“Where is that darned trunk,” says Grandma Boogler with a shout. “I’ll bet old Grandpa has it somewhere,” Grandma says, as she looks about.

Grandpa’s climbed up on the roof to fix the old TV antenna.
Grandma hollers up at him, “Hey Gramps, where is that trunk we had? I need to pack it for my trip.”
“What, what did you say?” Asks Grandpa, whose hearing’s not so good.
“A bag, a trunk, or grip. I am packing for a trip,” shouts Grandma.
“Oh don’t you worry Grandma dear, Grandpa says. “I’m hanging on and I won’t slip.”
“Slip, I don’t need another slip, I need a suitcase for my trip,” Grandma yells.

To make a long story short, Grandma Boogler finally found a trunk.
She packed it up with all her clothes, her lipstick, rouge, and other junk.
Then she went out and hollered, “Grandpa Boogler, come in and carry out my trunk!”
So Grandpa Boogler carried the trunk out and loaded it in the bed of his truck.
Grandma jumped in the truck and Grandpa cranked the engine. He was in luck.
That old truck started with a snort, and Grandpa and Grandma Boogler drove down the road towards the airport.

It was a very bumpy road. And Grandpa’s truck was carrying a big load. Not only did he have Grandma’s trunk, he also had a big box of frogs that he was bringing to Farmer Boggs pond to eat the mosquitoes that were pestering Farmer Bogg’s hogs. “Take it easy!” Grandma yelled, as Grandpa sped down the road. “You’re bouncing my trunk all over the place.” And sure enough, Grandpa hit a big bump and Grandma’s trunk bounced right out of the truck. The trunk flew open when it landed and all her clothes went flying up in the wind. “Why lookee there,” Grandpa said, “Is that pajamas up ahead?”
“What did you say?” Asked Grandma. “You want to be fed? Why ain’t you had lunch?”
Neither Grandma nor Grandpa knew that Grandma’s trunk had flown out and gone “crunch!”

By the time Grandpa pulled up to the departure gate at the airport it was almost time for Grandma’s plane to leave. Grandma jumped out of the truck and ran into the airport to get her ticket. She yelled back at Grandpa, “Grab my trunk and carry it up to the counter, Grandpa!” And old Grandpa Boogler ran around the back and grabbed that box full of frogs and huffing and puffing, he carried it up to the counter and Grandma told the airline agent, “Check that trunk through to Vienna, will yah honey?” And the agent did.