Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gobbling Up the Whole World

Someone facetiously said that when an inveterate collector installs smoke alarms, the first one goes in the place he stores his collection.  I understand because I’m a collector without — I hope — being anally compulsive.
A few glasses from my collection of 300-plus.

I started with matchbooks in the ‘50s, especially those with Petty girl pinups.  And coins, stamps, arrowheads, junior pilot wings from airlines, and sugar packets with restaurant names as our family criss-crossed the U.S.  Now, more than ever, I relish those ephemera that have disappeared.  There were clever plastic styluses a woman used to dial a telephone without breaking a nail.  Pocket mirrors with advertising on their celluloid backs.  Toogles — the metal hooks with a faux jewel on the end women used to hang their pocketbooks on a table edge.  Other things are gone or going fast, like metal lunch boxes and fast food collectible glasses.

Collecting and the search was the basis for a short story I wrote about flea marketing (and love, with a happy ending) published in R.kv.r.y. magazine (at  My character of Archie Mezinis was “a boardwalk stroller, a country road rambler, a city street seeker.  His compulsion lay in taking an hour to walk up and down the lanes between the [flea market] tables.  His practiced eye could spot a three-inch Meissen figurine and know it was really Japanese, or a Murano cigarette time worth twice the asking price now that smoking was socially hazardous.  He didn’t sell the finds.  Instead, they went into a footlocker.  A single item in his pocket could validate his whole existence for the next week, reinforcing an existential question as to whether he was truly alive.”  Now, that’s collecting!

The value of collecting — and nature of love — were notably present in Cadillac Jack, Larry McMurtry’s haunting story.  Jack is a rodeo cowboy turned antiques scout who floats across the landscape of flea markets and auctions.  Unlike me and most collectors I know, McMurtry’s Jack was a womanizer and skirt chaser.   

Name a friend who doesn’t collect something.  At worst, it’s wanting to own one of everything in the world.  At best, it’s a desire to hold on to history.  Somewhere in between, it’s simply nostalgia.  I just don’t know where having over 300 glasses in my attic stands on the spectrum of collecting.  But you’re either part of this world — or not.  Ain’t no in-between.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Tempis Fugit, Write Concisely

Time slips through our fingers like (cliché warning!) sand.  Never enough of it to do all we want, especially never enough time to read. 
Just a reminder that Banned Books Week is Sept. 30-Oct. 6.

This is why flash fiction — generally accepted as stories of fewer than 1,000 words — is gaining in popularity.  It’s also accepted that flash is tougher to write successfully than a traditional short story.  Characters must be presented succinctly and in as few words as possible.  There is no space for meandering off into descriptions that don’t push the story line ahead.  Time is usually constricted to the immediate here and now and space is circumscribed. 

I gravitated to flash because the length and style can be applied to any genre — mystery, romance, thriller, “literary,” humor/satire, Western.  Unknowingly, I tripped innocently into writing and selling my first flash in 2007 with the sale of “Not My Wife” to the now-defunct mystery magazine Mouth Full of Bullets.  It started with my Hong Kong cop Jimmy Huang talking about a murder suspect….

Right now, I’m looking at this hwa-chiao, a Chinese-American tourist at the station house who’s bitching at Inspector Chan.  He claims he’s an important visitor.  He’s shaking his finger and saying, “I report my wife has disappeared, then I came back to find an imposter in my hotel room, not even a good duplicate.”  Of course, from his mouth it comes out like “fucking imposter” and “goddamn duplicate.”  Most perps use bad language to show their sincerity.  This guy is the slickest I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot of them, from Guangzhou to Macao.  His missing wife was Shanghainese and one of the richest broads around.  Now he claims this woman at the hotel really isn’t his wife.

The inspiration for the story was discovering a fascinating condition known as Capgras syndrome, after the French shrink who discovered it.  It’s when you think a close relative or spouse has been replaced by an imposter, an exact double.  (Send me an e-mail if you’d like to know how Detective Huang solved the murder in 744 words.)

Since that time five years ago, I’ve written and published, in print and online, some 36 flash fiction pieces.  Half a dozen of them have appeared in one of the great online publications, Every Day Fiction.  You can read “Death in the Afternoon,” one of my early sales, at 

Best part of writing for immediate gratification is that I trip over loads of prompts.  “Number Eleven” concentrated on the terrible coincidence of the number of letters in a phrase or name; “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon made me think of a 51st event that might have won the Darwin award for stupidity; “Queen at the End of the Bar” ( was inspired by pollution causing biological changes in wildlife (and humans?); and “Where’s Old Bill Hughes” was prompted by a mythical passenger who has survived shipwrecks for 200 years. 

Now, someone help me with a story surrounding prosopagnosia, the neurological condition in which person doesn’t recognize faces.  I have a touch of that bad wiring in my brain, and can’t come up with a plot.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ooopsie, I’m Stealing an Idea I Gave to my G-Daughter.

Liberal arts majors are a diminishing species of college student.  In fact, I’m proud of the pre-med track my granddaughter is taking at Temple University.  Specially proud that she’s a good writer.

But in five minutes today, a slew of ideas crossed my mind.  I whipped them up as a series of prompts for Megan to develop for her erstwhile blog.  I know she’ll put her own spin on them, but meantime I’ll try them out on you….

Some Sharp Scribbled Sticks for Pointers

Anne Murphy Paul, a science writer, said, “Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure.”  In reviewing How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough in the New York Times 8/26, she explains that American children miss essential life experiences.  They’re insulated by doting parents who “baby proof” them and shield them from adversity.  Poor children, however, get little support to help them turn obstacles into character-enhancing triumphs.

Q.  Are young adults today floating on a cloud that carries them over obstacles, preventing them from learning from life’s difficulties?  How do you view adversity?  As something to be avoided at all costs or as a learning experience? 
* * *
Many schools have given up teaching cursive writing.  Indeed, with all the texting and typing we do, cursive may be a relic of the past.  Some research at Indiana University has shown, however, that learning and using cursive leads to more adult-like brain development in children who write by hand.  There’s more information on a blog at

Q.  Would you prefer that your kids learn cursive (even if they hate it).  And, do you think there’s still a place for people to use cursive?

* * *
Every generation looks back on youth and wonder, “Where is civilization heading?”  (Socrates, I’ve heard, also voiced this question.)  Young people seem predisposed to shake up their world — challenging authority, their teachers, government, culture.  Sure, there was the “quiet generation” in the 1950s, and people seem more restrained during hard economic times.  But the 1960s and ‘70s were a time of great demonstrations against the status quo.

Q.  Are young people predisposed to turn everything upside down, or should they just shut up and go along with the mainstream?

* * *
Most people seem to believe national prosperity leads to happiness, but one poll suggests a minority (47%) don’t believe money equates to “happiness.”  In fact, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently noted, “the ultimate objective of our policy decisions” is to promote well-being — a broader consideration than simply having more money.  The Himalayan country of Bhutan has even given up its “gross domestic product” measurement for a “gross national happiness” measurement.

Q.  Should the U.S. concentrate on physical, mental and spiritual health; time balance; social and community vitality; cultural strength; educational levels; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality and drop all this effort to make more money?  How would we measure “happiness”?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Searching for the Real McCoy

       Forest Grove in the 1950s

My passion for authenticity began in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Mom ordered me to run down to Cooper’s Grocery to buy the maple syrup she’d forgotten.  I had to put down my new Amazing Tales comic and turn off Bobby Benson’s Saturday morning program from the B-Bar-B Ranch. 

“And hurry!” she said.  “I’m ready to put the pancake batter in the griddle.” 
I trudged the long block down to 21st Street, another block past the Congregational Church, and a half block down Main Street to Cooper’s.  All blocks are long when your eight-year-old legs aren’t very big. 

Mr. Cooper was a daunting figure behind his brushy mustache and white apron.  Silently, he’d leave the counter and fetch the item you wanted.  I returned home with a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, thinking it was pretty clever to make a bottle in the shape of a woman wearing floor-length dress.  This was beauty combined with utilitarian value. 

Mom stared at me.  “Why, this isn’t Log Cabin!”   

“It’s the same thing,” I said defensively.  “Anyway, I like the bottle.” 

“It’s not one hundred percent maple syrup!” she explained, as though I had introduced heresy to our church service.  “It’s not the real McCoy.  Go back and tell Mr. Cooper you want the real thing.”

I plodded back.  Red-faced with embarrassment, I said, “Mom wants Log Cabin maple syrup.  The real McCoy.”  He nodded wordlessly and went down one of the dark aisles to fetch the syrup in the metal can shaped like a log cabin.  They were good cans, worth saving to build a town of homogeneous houses, a tabletop version of a pioneer town, but I already had several.  

The real thing was important.  Dad told cautionary tales of people in Germany so desperate they put chicory — whatever that was — and other foreign matter in their coffee.  He said, “During the war, the Germans were so poor they would eat grass.” 

Authenticity was paramount.  Usually.  Butter was always butter, for example, until Mom brought home a strange invention.  “It’s margarine,” she explained. 

“But it’s white,” I whined.

“It’s Parkay, and it’s white so people don’t think it’s real butter.  It’s the law that you can’t fool people into thinking something is the real McCoy.”

The plastic bag resembled cheese curd from the creamery in our town, but with the addition of a little orange dot of dye.  Invariably, I was ordered to massage the bag for half an hour until it all turned yellow.  We knew it wasn’t real, but it was novel and cheaper, and so a trade-off was made.

Choosing between the real and the novel was a dilemma as the 1950s appeared.  A Safeway supermarket opened two doors away from Cooper’s, and an entirely new item appeared: TV dinner:  A TV dinner meant, by definition, eating in front of a television. 

“We don’t have a TV,” Mom explained.  “They’re much too expensive, and there’s only one station.”

“C’mon, Ma, buy some TV dinners,” I urged, although the only TV we knew about flickered in the window at Montgomery Ward’s.  Several times she relented.  Somehow, the thin slices of turkey didn’t taste like Mom’s cooking, and the mashed potatoes had so few lumps we wondered what they were made of. 

The whole reality question came crashing back when my kids were growing up.  My wife cooks scratch, and we’ve always had the smallest bag of tins and bottles to recycle.  Meat, stir-fried vegetables, rice, salad — preparation takes a while, but the cooking goes together in a few minutes.  Then I’d watch my kids' friends at the table.

“What’s that?” one would ask my son, and nudge him in the ribs.

“Beans.”  Or spinach or broccoli or cabbage, usually with pieces of chicken, beef, or bacon.

“It doesn’t look like it.”  Then, they’d settle for white bread and margarine.  Reality had to come in brightly colored packages.

About that time, I was shocked to see Log Cabin had reduced the maple syrup content to 8 percent.  Coffee with chicory from New Orleans is now a delicacy.  Instant food became the norm for people who have a parking meter in their brain measuring time.

It’s tough finding the real McCoy in a world that’s accelerating. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Waiting for God to Be Your Tour Guide

The Rose and Thorn Journal was kind enough recently to publish “Test of English as a Foreign Language” (at  It was a piece I felt strongly about, and it took the better part of five years to bring it to a publishable state.

Rose and Thorn has also asked — kindly, of course — what on earth I was thinking of.  The germ of the story has gnawed at me for many years — since 1979 when I returned to Taiwan on a business trip.  I met up then with my wife’s girlfriend who had married an American, lived several years in the States, and came back when her husband was reassigned to Taiwan.  It was awkward when I saw her treated in Taipei’s marketplace as an American hwa-chiao (foreigner on a homeland visit), but as a bargirl when she tried calling her husband stationed at a military post.  

She was no longer Taiwanese and not yet American.  Of the many stories I know about bi-national people, this one stood out.  And deserved to be shared.

I also wondered if perhaps we’re all expatriates of one sort of another as we swim through any murky pool filled with strangers.  I’ve always had a creepy feeling about being a tourist — buying a vacation, looking confused in a new city, acting gawky and “foreign.”  Perhaps it’s because I used to scorn the clots of vacationers clustered in midtown Manhattan, holding maps and looking at the skyscrapers as though God would be their Gray Lines tour guide.  While I was in a suit and tie rushing across town on some mission of capital importance, I’d have to stumble and detour around these Ausländers in their blousy sports shirts and khaki shorts. 
So add to the expatriate syndrome in “Test of English” the despair of a dead child and a divorced husband and you have the making of universal tension.  Key to writing the story was the characters’ realizing how hard it is to be accepted.  Rightly or wrongly, Shirley felt Americans were “predisposed to believe that American men only married bargirls.”  Orville, too, had difficulty with his environment, saying, “It was all getting to me.  The telephones and car horns.  Fire sirens, even chatter at parties.  It was all like a toothache. It was getting on my nerves.”

How can feeling like a stranger be otherwise when store clerks answer an expat’s question by turning to her spouse, when locals are perplexed by an unfamiliar accent, or when an in-law ingratiatingly says all children or women in [insert country name] are beautiful or intrinsically smart or better at sports?  These are the preconceptions — if not prejudices — that all Asians are good at math (and, by extension, at gambling), that immigrants must all have come from a certain class or occupation, and that some people have in-born diet preferences.

Let me make a case that there’s a universal feeling of discomfort among expatriates, beginning with Moses coming back to Egypt announcing, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”  I’ll grant you, it’s easier to be an expatriate in the U.S. than in, say, an insular nation like Japan.  America is a nation of immigrants.  A Hungarian engineer once told me, “I worked in Germany for several years, but to them I was always a Hungarian.  In the U.S., I’m called a ‘new American.’”

“Test of English as a Foreign Language” tries to approach this situation of apartness.  Writers feel compelled to connect with people, to cross cultural bridges, and to obliterate barriers.  Perhaps through writing and reading — passing our test of English as a foreign language — we can all become assimilated.  For aren’t we all “new Americans” in one way or another?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Score: Lincoln Loses, So Does O’Reilly

Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 was as shocking as President Kennedy’s almost a century later, but reflected a country still polarized by war.  Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard unrolls the drama leading up to John Wilkes Booth’s infamous act while unveiling the band of amateur conspirators.  In fact, history classes tend to skip over the widespread rabid hatred of Lincoln and the motley group that conspired to murder the President.  Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of such things.  O’Reilly earlier wrote Killing Kennedy, so let’s hope there are no more presidential assassinations.

But how true is the fictionalized treatment?  A seven-page index offers no sources, nor does the prologue, but O’Reilly fills his work with interior thoughts and imaginary conversations the way an éclair is puffed up with cream filling: light and airy, but not nutritionally good.  The Huffington Post also uncovers additional factual errors. This is history for non-history buffs, delivering a quick back story of the Civil War generals and their final battles, the political animosities blocking the generosity of our “greatest President,” the nationwide chase to find the assassin, and the tragic aftermath of hanging a possibly innocent Southern woman sympathizer.  It’s a fast read and will deliver information you never learned in school.

This is not a bad book, but somewhat thin after wading through Drew Gilpin Faust and Bruce Catton.  By the middle of June, the book has spent 36 weeks on The New York Times list and is in fourth place among non-fiction works.  This may say more about American reading tastes and Bill O'Reilly's popularity among a certain demographic than it being an original contribution to history.

Historical novels are an enchanting genre that leads readers into the dark corridors of the past.  We walk unseen next to characters — some we’ve heard of and some fictional — who are explorers and adventurers, romantic lovers and nefarious brigands.  Politicians are exposed, the self-righteous are quashed, and the meek inherit the earth before everyone goes home for the day.

Killing Lincoln is a  non-fiction adventure set against a historical backdrop.  Can we dare imagine the guaunt Presidet (with "furled brow") walking alone through cheering throngs at war's end, heedless to the warnings he mght be assassinated?  Do we gasp seeing General Grant show up at the peace table in Appomattox with muddy boots to remind the impeccably dressed General Lee how he was upbraided for sloppiness during the Mexican War?  Do we titter to overhear the conversation between Lincoln and his wife in the closed carriage on the way to Ford's Theatre?  

Killing Lincoln is populist literary drama for our times, in which the past and present coexist contemporaneous with each other.  It's branded "history" that really isn't history.  The drawing room drama of Mary Todd Lincoln's ressentment and state-room drama of Lincoln casually dropping in on Secretary of War Stanton could be played out today in a soap opera or on a calbe channel.

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland calls this new literary genre Translit:  “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.”  The contemporary reader is tossed into the past without having to leave the present.  It’s almost as if, Coupland says, one “can travel back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb.”

In this case, we’re given gripping moment-by-moment drama.  O’Reilly and his partner Dugard adopt the narrative tricks of short writing sections and quick cutting worthy of “breaking news” on Fox News, where O'reilly stated, "I wasn't interested in another boring history."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shred Your Library (after You’re Dead)

That’s called an attention-getting headline, taking us into a narrative hook.  Truth is, no one wants your bookcases just because they’re full of your memories.  Your kids and other survivors will sweat, wondering what the hell to do with books when you’re gone. 

You can truck them down to your library and they’ll give you a note with a fill-in-the-blank for the appraised value.  The books will go on their shelves for sale at 50 cents each.  I’ve gleaned the unwanted books from my “library” and put them in the bathroom, inviting guests to take one, or two or three at no cost.  Thing is, people go into the can and don't come out, with or without a book. 

Books don’t get the respect they used to.  One of my kids had a carton filled with a score of copies of a detective story.  The same book.  Twenty copies of Silent Partner by Jonathan Kellerman.  Why?  “I use them for target practice,” he said. 

For years, I had the toughest time not finishing a book — even a free book.  I had a moral obligation to read the entire goddamn book.  (Traumatic memories of Mom telling me to clean my plate.)  Then I learned certain books are meant for skimming, others to read and re-read, and a sizable number tossed aside because they’re badly written (Thomas Matthews’ Rejection: a Lou Drake Mystery), or boring (Cockpit by Jerzy Kosinski), silly (anything more by Jasper Fforde) or offensive (The Island, Peter Benchley). 

In my hormone-filled high school years, I read Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse three times in English and once in French, mooning over the exchange student on the school bus.  Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is another I became enthralled with in 1969 and again in ’06. 

I’m religious about taking care of a well-printed and bound book.  (I always use bookmarks.)  The potboilers I buy for four bits each at the library are also treated with respect.  Some, like Allen Ginsberg’s first edition City Lights copy of Howl, is carefully preserved.

I’ve assiduously kept a list of every paper or electronic book I’ve read since 1973.  The inventory tells me to stop reading facile feuilleton (as Herman Hesse called them) and begin reading more fiction by Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, or non-fiction by Nathaniel Philbrick and Bruce Catton.  The list memorably reminds me that a hooker in Korea passed along my copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, obviously left behind by a previous visitor.  There were periods when I snatched up everything by Junichiro Tanizaki, Richard Condon and Philip K. Dick.  I still buy everything by Elmore Leonard, Martin Cruz Smith, Caleb Carr and Pete Hamill. 

Now, the titles tumble in my brain like socks in the clothes dryer.  Why did I buy a second copy of Elmore Leonard Killshot?  Forgetfulness.  And, which of William Gibson’s foresightful novels haven’t I read?  I grit my teeth and know that I either need to carry a 26-page printout or find some cranky electronic device like an iPhone to store the document.  But, wait!  I think I can save the list as a PDF file and transfer it to my wheezy old Palm Pilot. 

Sorry, now, but I gotta run. Just had an idea.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Tree in the Trail, the Newest Septuagenarian

Tree in the Trail will be 70 years old this year — not a long time in some trees’ lives, but an eternity for many books. Still, readership of this evergreen classic (no pun) continues to grow. Parents are still buying the book for their children, as are grandparents who want to share a country whose values are changing too quickly.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Home Is Where the Heart Rests

Having a foreign-born spouse immediately places a man — or woman — in the curious cultural position of sharing in two worlds. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be quick to say that living in Taiwan, the Republic of China, for a year gave me a second home. It also gave me a first (and only) wife.

I rarely write about expatriates or the pain of leaving a home behind. Or about the richness of bringing up our family in a Sino-American culture with twice as many holidays. Of the many stories I’ve heard about bi-national people, one stood out. A friend did cross the world to live in the States, did return to Taiwan on homeland visits, and did lose a husband and child. It was poignant when I saw her treated as an American hwa-chiao in Taipei’s market, but as a bargirl when she tried calling her husband at the military post where he was stationed.

The memory of this situation led years ago to drafting “Test of English as a Foreign Language.” I wrestled with the story line, the character and location until, just a few months ago, the ending resolved itself. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe’s wise words, “You can never go home again.” You can read “TOEFL” at Rose and Thorn Journal ( I hope you’ll enjoy it, appreciate the fact of having a home if that’s your situation, or embrace your homelessness as an adventure if you don’t.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Self Scrutiny, or Through a Mirror Skeptically

I ran across this old bit of Q&A chatter about “The Case of the Checkered Murder” that I’d put up in a writing group after having a satirical murder mystery published in June 2008 by Mystery Authors, at

Q Walt, would you stop scribbling for a moment and explain what you were doing with this story?

WG The detective yarn is ripe for satire. This is a send-up of the clichés found in Raymond Carver, Agatha Christie and, currently in a New York Times serial, by Cathleen Schine.

Q Isn’t that sort of like mocking one of the Little Golden Books? Detective fiction is easy picking for satire because it’s so stylized. Satire indicates the writer feels he/she is superior to the work being satirized—but your choice of subject doesn’t have the greatness to be poked at.

WG Satirical pulp is a good place to start. I asked whether these writers had a sense of humor, and no one said they did. I could also do a send-up of sci fi (bug-eyed monster at the supermarket) or New Yorker fiction (characters who do nothing, go nowhere, and then wonder just what happened). I also like the inherent irony of the detective genre — the combination of circumstance or a result that’s the opposite of what’s expected or considered appropriate. Besides, I have published some detective stories.

Q Okay, we start with the stereotypical tough Private Investigator with a hangover...

WG Who’s a woman and not a man, but who still talks in staccato bursts and drinks rye. Then there are the “usual suspects.” A checkers theme instead of the usual intellectual chess metaphor. An ending right out of The Maltese Falcon.

Look, this is humor — not literature. Just check out the crap that passes for drama for humor on TV. Soap opera, for example, is inherently histrionic and two-dimensional. Isn’t there something worth thinking about here?

Q Don’t be defensive — but that cheese sandwich ploy is rather lame? This little piece took you — what? Five minutes to dash off?

WG More like half an hour — plus rewrite. But I don’t have the patience to write something serious. It all gets rejected.

Q Writing is such an artificial form of communication, and assumes readers will actually interpret words and ideas in the way you mean them to. Why on earth don’t you get a real job?

WG I truly believe less than a small percentage of personal communication gets through to both parties. She asks, “Do you want to see a movie?” when she really means “I’m bored to tears.” You say, “I don’t mind seeing that Oscar nominee,” when you’re saying, “Damn, I’d rather sit at the PC and install that new program.” Having made this somewhat defensive statement, I write because I failed semaphore in Cub Scouts, no one knows Morse Code, and English has the largest number of words in any language. If we can’t communicate — thoughtfully, calculated, precisely — in English, how else can we?

Q So you took a shot at satire. What’s the value of writing that never gets read? It’s the old “if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest...” conundrum. And, you’re not exactly Michael Crichton or Stephen King.

WG It isn’t a question of why, any more than you ask why a fish swims or a bird flies. I write because pursuing a character or an idea in the formal framework of a short story or an article is cathartic. Moreover, it’s fun. At the very worst, “desk drawer” writing is akin to peeing in a blue serge suit. It gives you a nice warm feeling and no one notices.

Q Any more, er, plans to write satire?

WG Well, blogging is a good subject. It’s the new oral tradition — people chatting on a level you’d expect among strangers on an elevator. But they spill their guts about the most amazing things!

Note to friends and readers: This was a self-interview. If you’d like more serious fiction, try “Queen at the End of the Bar,” published by Gumshoe Review, at

Monday, April 2, 2012

The New Immortality, Digital Version

Who was the writer who suggested — fictionally — that someone remains immortal until his or her last friend passes on? Seems sort of abrupt, doesn’t it? Given this dollar-store theology, I’d opt for saying you’re “alive” until you’re no longer remembered by anyone. I didn’t invent statues collecting bird shit in the town square, nor tombstones in the marble orchard. But I can do them one better and suggest the World Wide Web is a good option for immortality.

Several years ago I idly Googled my grandmother’s name. She had been a lecturer on the Chautauqua Circuit from 1908 until the ‘20s, traveling the country as America’s Foremost Cartoonist. It was fascinating to discover the University of Iowa had an extensive digital collection of Chautauqua information. I added to the trove with a carton of Marion Fisk’s papers, photos, lecture notes and anecdotal stories. The archivist at the U of I libraries exclaimed, “We had notes and programs and schedules, but until now we had no idea what the actual content of the programs involved!” Marion Fisk was given a new lease on life, at

Through this grandmother, whom we affectionately called “Moms,” I brought her father to life again with a piece of our family history, at Moms would tell my brother and me stories as we curled up in her rope-strung four-poster. One of the stories was about the most famous song to come out of the Civil War — “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.” It was the song that made the name of its composer, Walter Kittredge, known and loved all over our country a century and a half ago. Kittredge would visit my great-grandfather Ballou and they’d sing “Tenting Tonight.” The warmth of the “tent” formed by Moms’ canopied bed and the warmth of all those memories can still comfort us.

I confess to doing a Google search of my own name and of other family members. But that’s a story for another time.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Movin’ Right Along, but Never Fast Enough

An obsessed writer with grandson, tightwiring in Cambridge a few days ago.

I hate to be hyperkinetic, but then O. Henry used to knock out a short story every week against deadline. And Howard Garis, creator of Uncle Wiggily and copywriter for The Newark News, did a daily children’s tale. Somehow, I’ve felt compelled to write short genre fiction and get them the hell up, online or in print, for pay or for peanuts. Is there a psychological term for that? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or something.

Doesn’t matter. “Another Way to View a River” was published Feb. 12 by Short-Story.Me (at I liked this character-driven crime piece. There’s a short time when you’re on a roll — hot car, slick girl and some money — before things start sliding downhill. Then you need to sit back and figure out what just happened.

A day later, “Nun on the Run” ran in Every Day Fiction (at A late-night cab ride can become an invitation to realize a fantasy. And where are the dividing lines between the living and the dead, the real and the pretext in New York City? Readers either laughed till the tears ran down their leg or else they hated it.

Upcoming is “What Charlie Left Out in His Letters Home,” accepted by Writer’s Haven Feb. 18. It’s tough adapting to New York City when there aren’t any ground rules for survival. And some things are best not included in the letters home. It’s a look into an urban legend…but I have friends who swear the incident really happened. I'll put a link up when the story goes live.

So, back to this OCD writing problem. I figuratively tripped over a humor piece I’d written and forgotten. “Bin Laden’s Journals” was published in The Short Humour Site on Feb. 4 (at See? It’s either write or bite my nails.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing Update: Darcie Chan’s and Mine

A couple of things have been going around this week. I just finished reading Darcie Chan’s e-book, The Mill River Recluse. It’s the very articulate story of a disfigured, wealthy Vermont widow living alone in her marble mansion. At her death, she bestows her fortune on the townspeople who barely know her. Only the town’s priest — her sole contact with her neighbors — knows her secret phobia created by a childhood rape and an abusive husband. This is a story of triumphs over tragedy, insights into friendship, and love that comes from unexpected places.

It’s also an amazing accomplishment for Ms. Chan. First, I enjoyed the story enough to send a thumbnail review over to Anne Bendheim, books editor at the Asbury Park Press. (It should be in print shortly.) Second, the “amazing” part is that Chan is a youngish lawyer who drafts environmental legislation — not a novelist. Recluse is her first book, and was self-published when publishers rejected it. Word of mouth, I presume, garnered sales of the 99 cent book, she took out some advertising and — voila! — sales have gone over 400,000 copies. She’s now on the New York Times best seller list.

I wrote Chan, “I'm a few weeks late in telling you I loved The Mill River Recluse,” and have drafted the thumbnail book review. She responded, “I am thrilled that you enjoyed Recluse, and I am so excited about the review! Thank you so, so much. You probably know that it is very difficult to get any kind of review of any self-published book into any mainstream newspaper, so I really appreciate this.” Don’t tell me it’s tough getting reviews. I have two collections of short stories just waiting.

Second item is that Every Day Fiction — one of my fave online publishers — has accepted “Nun on the Run.” This will be the seventh story of mine to go up at EDF. The 800-word story covers a late-night cab ride that becomes an invitation to realize a fantasy. And where are the dividing lines between the living and the dead, the real and the pretext in New York City?

“Nun” was actually written in 2006 in response to a prompt put up on Wordtrip, but I never submitted it. Rewriting it with some added depth to diminish the ending collected these comments: “This one made me laugh. I wasn't expecting the ending,” said one reader. The publisher commented, “The ending is a bit of a punchline, sure, but the storytelling is strong enough to make it work for me.” Look for it in March or April.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Belly Up for an Egg Cream

I had one of those Proustian moments last week when The New York Times ran a story on preservation efforts in the Lower East Side of the city. Happily, they didn’t call it the “East Village,” named when the hippies left and the kids moved in using Dad’s credit card. The story included a photo of Gems Spa at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place in 1969. That might even be me — if you squinted — standing at the window waiting for my egg cream.

Marcel Proust immortalized the past in his recherche du temps perdu. I wrote Cruising the Green of Second Avenue to fictionalize those golden moments in 1969. In “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge,” published in Lunch Hour Stories shortly before the book came out, I relied on my memory to describe that “The long, sun-drenched evenings usually started with a group of us sitting on a stoop drinking beer. Maybe we’d go up to a bar. Then someone would suggest walking over to Second Avenue to get a bialy smothered in cream cheese and onions and pickled herring. Saturdays, there were demonstrations and protests to watch, but no one got involved. It was too hot, and carrying a placard was depersonalizing. Our Tar Beach was the rooftop on East Sixth Street. We'd wait until after sundown for a breath of air floating up from the river, and then, if we were lucky, we'd listen to the sounds of Country Joe and the Fish or the Fugs playing a free concert a block away in Tompkins Square. Always, there was the sound of drums echoing down the street.”

Who were the Fugs? A garage band without a garage, participants in the Peace Eye Bookstore, attendees in exorcising the Pentagon, and players of a certain amount of unexpurgated musical diarrhea. It didn’t matter what kind of diarrhea back then if you were stoned and the concert was free. For three decades I’d squirreled away a mimeographed copy of The Fugs’ song book, a treasure of the past.

Same week as the preservation story appeared in the Times a note also reported that Ed Sanders, leader of The Fugs, had written a new book. Lunch Hour Stories is out of business, but Ed’s still alive. The Fugs song book also has been preserved in the archives of the U. of Connecticut’s Babbidge Library, along with the underground comix I donated.

Time rolls on, but some things get caught in an eddy of the river. They’re preserved the way Carl Gossett’s 1969 photo of Gems Spa has been filed in the Times’ morgue. Ed is still playing with his group (, whom the Voice’s Robert Christgau called “the Lower East Side’s first true underground band.”

At the conclusion of “Big Willa,” Jake says, “Willa had asked the universal question—‘You gotta hope, else, what’s left?’ And she was right. But I wish it were easier to believe in miracles and magic. That the dead will come back to life and long-lost lovers will be reunited. Instead, we go to the movies. We cheer Peter Pan. We click our heels together and bring Dorothy back to Kansas. I didn’t tell Willa that the Donnas come and go, illuminating us with a hot, bright light until they disappear into places like Atlanta. The Carolyns hit town as comic relief, and then they’re gone, too.”

If this teaser sounds interesting, send me an e-mail and I’ll send you a copy of “Big Willa.” You can also buy a download of Cruising the Green of Second Avenue at Barnes & Noble or other online retailers. And stop by Gems Spa for an egg cream.