Book Review – We Love Anderson Cooper, by R. L. Maizes

We Love Anderson Cooper, by R.L. Maizes

I’ve always felt that the test of a good book is that it is just as good on a second read as on an initial read. R.L Maizes debut short story collect, We Love Anderson Cooper, passed the test. And it’s now in my to-be-read pile for a third reading.

I am a big reader of short stories. And I especially enjoy collections where a common thread ties the stories together. The common thread in Maizes’ book is the unique perspective of each of the main characters. Maize has created quite a diverse collection of characters. They are all somewhat outsiders, whether by their nature, their actions, or circumstances.

The eleven stories cover a wide range of characters. And Maize is able to give each character their own unique voice. First, there is the young Jewish boy preparing for his bar mitzvah in the opening story, “We Love Anderson Cooper”. He has been assigned to read a passage from the book of Leviticus that condems homosexuality and homosexuals. There is a young girl in the story “No Shortage of Birds” who watched her professional golfer father get killed by an errant golf ball. She was too stunned to warn him of the ball coming at his head. The girl then has to deal with her mother buying a parakeet and naming it after the dead father. In the story “Ghost Dogs”, the sense of loss is handled differently, by a totally different character, this one a middle aged female lawyer. Her husband has just walked out on her and her dogs died, due to her negligence. Then the couch in her office, inherited from her grandmother, collapses. The painter in “Tattoo” doesn’t deal with the loss of a loved one. He is suffering from painter’s block. He turns his artistic skills and training into becoming a tattoo artists. He struggles from his own apparent success as his tattoos seem to help the sick and disfigured people who come to him.

The book is very well written. The stories flow quickly and smoothly. They are a real joy to read. And I loved the endings of pretty much every story. There are no heavy handed epiphanies, “lessons learned”, or morales to these tales. The endings may be a little unexpected, a little quirky, but perfectly suited to each character. There is the laid-off project manager in “Better Homes and Gardens” who has settled into a job as a pizza delivery person. He runs away from his wife and two daughters and moves in with a young single mother who was also laid off from her job as a computer programmer. The main character in the story “Couch”, is a female therapist. The couch in her office, inherited from her grandmother, seems to be the key to her success of her business as a therapist, until it falls apart one day. She finds a replacement couch, which almost destroys her business, as it helps everyone who sits on it to feel better immediately, so that they only ever come to see the therapist once. She had promised the owner of the shop where she picked up the new couch to make a donation to an animal shelter in lieu of payment. When she finally goes to make the donation, low-and-behold, a new couch. Just what she was looking for.

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Writers That Have Influenced Me

Head shots of five influential authors

Let’s not talk about how long I have been a reader. Suffice it to say that I have been reading most of my life, which is a very long time. For enjoyment, I read fiction, primarily mainstream or literary fiction.

I have read the entire “oeuvre” of many authors. When I find a book that I really like, I tend to read everything that the author has written. 

There are several authors that have really resonated with me. It’s usually a combination of subject matter, character, and writing style that draw me to an author. 

Ray Bradbury was the first author that really affected me. “Fahrenheit 451” was my introduction to Bradbury’s works. But it was his non-science fiction writings that resonated with me. Bradbury spent a key development period of his life in Waukegan, which at the time was a small rural town in northern Illinois. I spent most of my youth in a small town about 20 minutes west of Waukegan. Bradbury’s stories of growing up in rural Illinois in the 1920’s are timeless, and placeless. Growing up 30 to 40 years after Bradbury, I still readily identified with Bradbury’s young boy characters, their adventures, their feelings, and their growing up.

Being a child of the 60’s, of course I was drawn to Kurt Vonnegut. Like so many others of my contemporaries, I was attracted to Vonnegut’s ideas and views and his exposure of societal issues that still existed even in the supposed good times following WW-II. His cynicism was tempered with some love and hope for mankind, and the future. Vonnegut’s writing style stays with me to this day. His simple words, simple sentences, short paragraphs and chapters make the serious topics and ideas he dealt with seem easier to accept, if not downright obvious.

Richard Brautigan was another writer whose style really attracted me. As with Vonnegut, Brautigan kept his writing straightforward and simple. His books caught the zeitgeist of the 1960’s. They were based in normal everyday reality. But he expanded and stretched that reality mirthfully. He poked fun at the world and society, but with an underlying respect and fondness for his everyman characters.

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author who is close to my age. Although Murakami grew up in Japan, I can still understand and identify with his experiences growing up. His books, all of which take place in Japan, with Japanese characters, seem to be almost American, albeit with a metaphysical streak running through them. He really makes it clear that although we may have different physical characteristics and come from different parts of the world and very different cultures, that we are all pretty much the same underneath. We have the same likes, the same desires, the same fears, regardless of whether we are Japanese or American, or any other ethnicity or culture.

Richard Russo is another writer that is close to my age. What I like about Russo is that he writes books for grown men, middle aged and older, like me. I can appreciate books about female characters, younger characters, and characters of different ethnicities/backgrounds and orientation. But I can’t help but be drawn to books about “me”. And I like Russo’s writing style. His writing is very easy to read and lighthearted, helping his often serious subjects and messages to go down easier.

Well, that’s the five authors that have affected me the most with their body of work. There are many other authors that I read and reread. But these are the ones that I like to read for inspiration or when I am having trouble with my own writing. 

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Bogbean Cafe in Roundstone, Ireland

Bogbean Cafe in Roundstone, County Galway, Ireland

One of my Favorite Coffee Shops/Cafes

My wife and I have been to Ireland several times now. As we plan our next trip, my fourth, her fifth, I started reminiscing about the places that we liked best. One of these places is The Bogbean Cafe, in Roundstone, County Galway.

Roundstone is a small tourist town on the Wild Atlantic Way in County Galway, in the Connemara region of Ireland. As you drive down the narrow, twisting almost-two lane road to Roundstone, you come around the corner of Monastery Road. Roundstone Harbor is on your left. On your right, encroaching on the road, are a couple of pubs, a convenience store, and a butcher’s shop. Further up the hill across from the harbor are the hotels and nicer restaurants that house and feed the tourists that flock to Roundstone. Pressing against the street on the left, hemmed in by the harbour, is a row of connected buildings with a couple of pubs/restaurants, a small sandwich and pizza shop, and the Bogbean Cafe.

As you walk into the Bogbean, you are greeted by the cheery round face and short golden blonde hair of Orla, the owner of Bogbean. Orla stands behind a glass counter to the left of the doorway at the cash register, which sits next to a plate or two of tempting freshly baked cookies. Typically, the seating area is full, or almost full, and on a nice day, there will be couples at small tables in front of and on the side of the Bogbean.

The Bogbean is a cute, little place, decorated in what I would call country/cafe cute. There is a bench, with scattered small square pillows, across the back wall. Three two-top tables stand in front of the bench, each with a chair or two. There is a bigger table in the corner, with three chairs around it to provide seating for five or maybe six people. There is a table with a small bench opposite the cash register, behind a small waist-high wall, with two more chairs. And there is a small, intimate table in the front right corner. Black and white photographs of the Roundstone area, taken by a local photographer, adorn the walls. Big windows across the front of the cafe and on the far side from the cash register and the white walls give the Bogbean a bright, light feeling that somewhat offsets the smallness of the space.

In addition to espresso drinks (nobody serves American type coffee in Ireland), a large assortment of teas, and fresh baked good, the Bogbean serves fresh, light food that is pretty typical for cafes in Ireland these days. The menu is maintained on a blackboard mounted on the back wall above the bench. For breakfast, there is the standard “Full Irish” as well as yogurt and granola, eggs, sausage rolls, and a fresh fruit dish. For lunch, of course there’s the ubiquitous vegetable soup, a quiche of the day, a sandwich or panini, and a fresh salad or two. Most of the items are on the light and healthy side.

The Bogbean Cafe is one of the main reasons that my wife and I like to visit Roundstone, in addition to the Roundstone Blanket Bog. The food and espresso drinks are good. But, what makes a coffee shop is the ambience. The cheery, friendly character of Orla is evident in the decor, food, and general feeling of the Bogbean. It’s a great place to sit with an espresso drink, or a cup of tea, and a fresh home baked scone while planning your day. Or for relaxing over a fresh light lunch after a morning of photographing the bog or maybe one of the nearby beaches.

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“Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery” by Mary Amato

Book cover for Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery
Book cover for Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery

I have an interest in old cemeteries – I love to take photographs of the old headstones, crypts, and monuments. And I used to drive almost past the Westminster Cemetery, the final resting place of Edgar Allan Poe, on my daily commute to and from work near downtown Baltimore, Maryland. So, naturally, I was drawn to Mary Amato’s novel, Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery.

The book tells the story of Lacy Brink, a 16-year-old “modern”. Lacy died unexpectedly and wakes up to find that she has been buried in Westminster Cemetery. Lacy is the first person to have been buried in the cemetery since 1913.While alive, Lacy would often go to the cemetery to be alone and work on her poetry.

Lacy finds that the cemetery is ruled with an iron fist by old Mrs. Steele. Mrs. Steele does not like Lacy and her modern look, her modern language, and her modern ways, and her son’s apparent infatuation with Lacy. Three violations of the arcane rules of the cemetery will result in Lacy’s “suppression” – having to remain underground at all times for eternity.

Amato is best known as an YA author. The themes in Open Mic Night should be familiar to YA readers. The conflict that drives the plot is the perennial struggle of youth to overcome the unreasonable rules and restrictions of the old fogeys. The is also the struggles of Lacy and her sister Olivia, who feels responsible for Lacy’s death, to come to grips and cope with Lacy’s tragic, early death. There is Sam, Mrs. Steele’s son, a want-to-be poet who died in the Civil War at the age of 17, trying to overcome his paralyzing lack of self confidence and shyness that stems from his mother’s overbearing control. And, towards the end, there is even the admission on the part of Mrs. Steele that she has long struggled with how to balance the need to maintain decorum in the cemetery without being too mean and overbearing.Open Mic Night is a fun, quick read. It is written as a play and is relatively short for a novel. But it is packed with plenty of conflict and interesting character development. Yet, I, as an old fart, with a not-so-old heart, I hope, can still appreciate the trials and development of the characters. The writing is smooth and the dialog flows well, even if it may not be entirely “period accurate” to the time that some of the characters. Author’s notes and asides deviate from the script format, but provide nice breaks and humor.

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My Favorite Coffee Shops in Santa Fe New Mexico

My wife and I just got back from a three week stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Whenever we travel, I like to check out the local coffee shops. I find it’s a good way to really get a feel for an area and the people that live there. And, as I explained to our landlord for the casita we were staying in, it’s not that I’m connoisseur of coffee, it’s more that I’m a connoisseur coffee shops.


We picked Santa Fe for our vacation this year as there was a photography workshop my wife wanted to take. Her being tied up with the workshop the first week gave me a plenty of time to explore the local coffee shop scene at my leisure. In the mornings, I would drop her off at her workshop and then head out in our rental car for a morning coffee and something to eat. I would go out sightseeing. Often I would have time to hit a coffee shop for a an afternoon pick-me-up before I had to pick her up from the workshop. This gave me plenty of chances to check out some of the local coffee businesses several times, and at different times of the day.


One of the first coffee shops I found was Capitol Coffee, on Old Santa Fe Trail. It’s located next to an upscale grocery store in a small shopping center at the intersection of Paseo De Peralta and Old Santa Fe Trail, just east of the historic area of Santa Fe. It was fine, as far as shopping center coffee shops go. Nothing special, but better than a generic Starbucks. They served a variety of locally roasted coffees had had a decent selection of pastries. It was a typical storefront, with big plate glass windows across the front, and bright fluorescent lighting. There was a counter at the back of the store with the standard curved glass display cases for pastries. There was plenty of seating at small tables on the right half of the store. The clientele was about what you would expect for a shopping center – husbands and wives, small groups of two or three people taking a break from shopping or working in one of the stores, the occasional mother with one or two kids in tow. Most everyone looked like standard suburban types, except for two men that came in together. One was a typical middle-aged man, wearing a coat and tie. I figured he was probably a shop owner in the shopping center. The other guy was a little older. He had a long, droopy mustache and big ten-gallon cowboy hat to go with the standard khakis and button shirt, kind of the cowboy Sam Elliott look. Most of the clientele stayed to drink their coffees, not tarrying too long. There were very few take-out orders. Nobody seemed to be a regular. And, outside of myself, I noticed only one other person with their head in a computer or tablet. Overall, Capitol Coffee seemed like an okay place to stop if you were at the shopping center anyway. But probably not someplace to drive to for your coffee fix or to camp out to use their WiFi.


A much better alternative, just a couple of minutes away, was Downtown Subscription on Garcia Street. Downtown Subscription is a combination coffee shop-magazine stand. It’s tucked next to local bookstore in a very tight parking lot, just off Canyon Road. Luckily, there is another more accessible lot one building away. The magazine selection at Downtown Subscription tends towards the arty side, befitting the shops location near the Canyon Road art galleries. There’s plenty of seating, both inside and outside, in a small enclosed garden area.Inside are 9 square, worn, blond wooden tables, rigidly arranged in a tight 3×3 grid. Each table has 2 wooden chairs, the same color as the tables. It reminded me of elementary school desks in their regimented rows and columns. There are a couple of other tables along one wall and a couple of high top tables to the side of the service counter.  There are a handful of umbrella tables and chairs in the garden area for those many beautiful Santa Fe days.


Downtown Subscription was probably my second overall choice for coffee shops in Santa Fe. The clientele skewed older than most other coffee shops that I have been to, more to the middle aged and older side. The patrons seemed to be evenly split between people with their heads buried in their electronic devices and groups of 2 or 3 leisurely conversing while enjoying their lattes. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. The coffee was good, but I had better in Santa Fe. The ambiance was okay. I liked that it was a more mature clientele and the people seemed relaxed, but the regimented seating bothered me. I kept waiting for the manager to come through and make sure that all of the tables and all of the chairs were perfectly aligned in the neat little columns and rows.


The best coffee that I had in Santa Fe was at Ohori’s Coffee Roasters, on Cerrillos Road. Cynthia, our Santa Fe landlord, had recommended Ohori’s Coffee Roasters. Ohori’s has two locations. One behind a Walgreens on St. Francis Street. The second in a set of small semi-industrial shops on Cerrillos Road near the intersection with Paseo de Peralta. Both locations are very nondescript and have very limited parking. I couldn’t find any parking at the first location, and so ended up at the Cerrillos Road location.


The clientele at Ohori’s Cerrillos Road seemed to be mostly office workers from nearby businesses. There was a nice diversity in the ages of the patrons. Some were in their 20’s, more in their 30’s, and a handful of middle-aged people. There was limited seating, a couple of small round tables in the small space in front of the counter. Each table had 4 chairs, but there was really only room for 2 or 3 people, at most, at each table. There was a short counter alongside one wall with a couple of stools. The place was busy, but not crowded, a constant flow of people coming and going. Most of the business was take-out. Of course, Ohori’s had free WiFi. But the sign on the counter with the WiFi password noted, “At busy times, please use at counter”. I only noticed one person using the WiFi while I was there, and they were sitting at the counter.


My go-to coffee is an Americano, black, no sugar. My Ohori’s Americano was one of the best that I’ve had, and certainly the best in Santa Fe. But I wasn’t really taken by the ambiance. Ohori’s seems to know and accepts its place as a carryout shop. All of their drinks were served in paper to-go cups. If I worked in the neighborhood, I would likely go there most mornings, and probably each afternoon for a cup, to go. And, maybe on days where I really needed a break, I settle in a chair at one of the one tables and quietly enjoy my coffee for a few minutes.


My favorite coffee shop in Santa Fe was, hands down, Ikonic Coffee Roasters on Lena Street. It’s located in a faux/used-to-be industrial neighborhood near the intersection of 2nd Street and Cerrillos Road. The neighborhood is now mainly hip, artsy, creative shops and businesses. Ikonic is located in a section of what looks like old warehouses or light industry shops that sprawl over a couple of blocks around a small parking lot. The building is sheathed in what is supposed to look like aged tin, but is more likely new aluminum distressed to look like aged tin.


Inside, Ikonic also sprawls around. There are two entrances, one off of the parking lot and one that opens onto a small courtyard hard along Lena Street. Coming in the parking lot doors, the interior space curls off to the left, in front of an large, old, unused coffee roaster. The roaster is tucked under a spiral staircase that leads off to nowhere, a closed-off second floor. There is a small cozy seating area next to the staircase, with a couch and two upholstered arm chairs around a low coffee table. Just past the little seating area, around the corner from the parking lot entrance, is the counter where you order.  A wooden counter with several bar stools extends from the ordering station, separating the kitchen and coffee prep area from the main seating area. There is a large rough cut wooden table with black slat back chairs running down the middle of the space. A bench runs all along the outside wall. Five or 6 small tables, each with a chair, face the bench.


One of my favorite things about Ikonic is that they have a good size menu for a coffee roastery. In addition to pastries, they offer standard breakfast fare of bagel sandwiches, omelettes, breakfast burritos, and of course, this being New Mexico, huevos rancheros. For lunch, they also offer things like lamb or salmon sliders, and a Korean Steak Bowl. And, in line with the youngish, hipster/artsy clientele, they also offer dishes like grilled cheese (either with roasted tomato, spinach, and pesto, or brie with a berry compote), organic ramen or quinoa bowls, and a plate of roasted vegetables.


The coffee and food were very good at Ikonic. But I really liked the clientele and vibe of the place. By the middle of my second week in Santa Fe, I was going to Ikonic pretty much every day. It was a comfortable place to work on my tablet computer, or to just people watch. Most of the clientele was young, 20’s maybe early 30’s. Maybe a third of the people were middle aged, especially on the weekends. People came mostly in two’s. I liked sitting at the large communal table in the middle of the floor, with my tablet computer and keyboard open. I could eavesdrop and make notes on several conversations at a time, to really learn what the area was like.


There is a second Ikonic location nestled in the Collected Works Bookstore on Galisteo Street in the historic, touristy section of Santa Fe. It serves the Ikonic Coffee Roastery coffee and the same pastries. Parking, being that the shop is located just a block or two from the historic Santa Fe Plaza, is limited. But there are a few big pluses for this location: it is part of a small, but packed bookstore, the coffee shop area isn’t very crowded, and the seating is very comfortable. And, it shares the same friendly, customer driven staff as the Lena Street Ikonic.


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“Banged-Up Heart” by Shirley Melis

Banged-Up Heart Book Cover

Banged-Up Heart Book Cover

“Banged-Up Heart” by Shirley Melis

Banged-up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss”, a memoir by Shirley Melis, tells the story of a strong, resilient as she copes with loss, love, and life. Melis, was in her mid-60’s, just getting over mourning the sudden death of her first husband when she meets another love of her life, John. She and John, recently retired to pursue a dream to become a successful photographer, have a whirlwind courtship. John lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Melis lives outside of Washington, DC. He courts her via email and long weekends spent together in her condo. After Melis proposes to John during a two-week visit, he talks her into retiring to travel the world with him and to pursue her dreams of writing books. After an exotic safari to Africa as their honeymoon,they make plans to travel to places like the Galapagos Islands, France, and across the world.

The second half of the book takes a serious, deadly turn. John had mentioned at their first meeting that he was battling a rare form of cancer, but that it seemed to be under control. The cancer comes back with devastating affects about one year into their relationship. John’s struggle against the inexorable cancer is more of a delaying tactic than a life-and-death struggle. Melis has her own struggles. She is totally wrapped up in John, his fight, and the dreams he won’t live to realize. While supporting John’s medical needs and wishes, she has to deal with the logistics of caring for a tall man who is being debilitated by illness while battling with insurance company and medical and care institution  bureaucracies. And there is the issue of having to take care of her own health and mental well being.

The part that hit home with me was Melis’ struggles with the realization that their dreams of living out their golden years together will not be realized. They will run out of time before John’s dream of having his own gallery show of his photographs can be realized; the  trip to the Galapagos Islands they had planned for the fall will not happen; their dream of publishing a book of his photographs accompanied her writing will not happen.

But Melis survives. After his passing, she finishes furnishing John’s house in Santa Fe and splits her time between Santa Fe and Reston. She works with a local gallery to mount a small show of John’s photos. And she goes on the trip to the Galapagos, by herself. Melis is scarred by the loss of two husbands, one totally unexpected and one, while not as unexpected, probably more  traumatic and crushing.

While we often think of people, especially woman, in the 60’s and older as being weak and somewhat frail, Melis disproves this idea. She comes out of her experiences bent, maybe, but certainly not broken. Is she “stronger” for the experience? Nobody is stronger for having gone through what she did. One has to be strong, maybe unknowingly, to survive such an ordeal. And Melis demonstrated this inner strength.  She is a survivor and seems to be doing quite well. She has had a long-time plan to write a book about strong, thriving women in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. “”Banged-Up Heart” shows that she would be a good person to include in the new book.

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Getting Older, Sliding into Getting Old

I’ve come to that point in my life where I can no longer fool myself, or anyone else for that matter. Actually, I probably haven’t been fooling anyone else for 15 to 20 years. I’m not just “getting older” anymore. I am just plain “old”. It was probably in my late 40s that I first admitted to “getting older”. Maybe I wasn’t as young as I used to be, but I wasn’t “old” yet. Grandparents were old. My parents were old. But I didn’t look or act like them. And I was a Baby Boomer. So I couldn’t possibly be old yet.

But I’ve just turned 65. There’s no denying it any more. I’m not just “getting older,” I’m old. Sure, literally speaking I’m still getting older. I mean, I guess we are getting older our whole lives. We get older from the moment that we’re born. And we continue getting older until we die.

“Getting older” is just a stage of life, like childhood or adolescence or middle-age. There’s a certain state of mind that comes with “getting older”. It’s “I’m not as young as I used to be, my body may be slowing down, but at least I’m not ‘old’ yet”. As kids, we are “growing up”. We grow bigger and taller. We learn new things and develop mentally. In our late teen years and early 20’s, we are “maturing”. Our bodies and minds continue to get stronger and we continue to develop. Then, in our mid- to late-20s, through our 30s, and into our early 40s, we kind of hit a plateau. At some point by our mid-30s, our bodies do start to show signs of getting older. Our skin starts to sag and we start to develop wrinkles. Some of us start to get gray hair. Others of us start to lose their hair. But we are still, as they say, “in the prime of our lives”.

By the time we hit our mid-40s, it’s apparent that we are on that downward slide. Mentally we still feel sharp, until we read one of those studies that say how so many scientific and artistic breakthroughs are made by people in their 20s. For men, we start seeing athletes that we watched through their whole careers retire. “Wow, he can’t be retiring. I remember him when he was just got out of college.” For me, I suddenly realized that I was “getting older” when the doctors and dentists were younger than me. I had gray hair and I was gaining weight. And I couldn’t ignore the fact that I couldn’t perform at the same level in sports anymore. I was definitely “getting older”.

But still, the slide was gradual. And I could still fool myself that I could fight the aging process. When I was 40, I saw the eye doctor. He took some basic information from me. After I told him my birthdate he said, “Well, I see that you’ve turned 40. You’re going to need bifocals.” I asked him if he wanted to check my eyes first. He condescendingly agreed, and it turned out that I didn’t need bifocals. See, I could fight the aging process.

But the evidence of aging continued to mount. Steve, a slightly older friend told me that 42 was the watershed age. “Before you turn 42, if you hurt something, it gets better. But after 42, if you hurt something, it never gets better.” Another friend, Vik, was from India. He supported the premise that 42 was when things went bad. He said that in India bifocals are called “42’s”, because that’s the age you are when you get them.

Sure enough, as I aged through my 40’s, my body didn’t always seem to heal. I managed to hold off on bifocals until I was 43 or 44. And I was able to pretty much control my weight, and stay in fairly good shape. I continued to play volleyball, swim, and coach youth sports.

The truth was catching up to me though. I was playing sports with the same friends. Since we were all aging together, it wasn’t real apparent how much we were slowing down. When I was in my late-50’s, I hurt my knee playing volleyball and needed arthroscopic surgery. When I went in for the surgery, the nurse measured my height. I told her 5’ 10 ½”. She measured and said, “Nope. 5’ 9 ½”. You lose an inch a decade after turning 50.” Oops, indisputable proof of aging and deterioration.

So, now I’m 65 and I’m in the “old” stage of life. But, I carry on. I’m still out playing sports with my “old” friends and some younger but still “getting older” friends. On the volleyball court we joke about missed plays, boasting “You know, 10 years ago I would have made that play.” On the baseball field, our coach reminds the outfielders to “move in, nobody can hit it that far anymore. And even if they do, nobody can run farther than 2nd base.”

And I’m working hard on not becoming an old fuddy-duddy, another symptom of being “old”. When I was still in my early-40s and just beginning to be “getting older”, I was still listening to the same music, the same groups, the same albums, that I had listened to growing up. I starting hearing myself complaining about music that the “kids” were listening to – “How can you listen to that crap? It’s just noise.” And I just didn’t “understand these kids these days” and the way they wore their clothes, with their butts hanging out showing everyone their underwear. I was resisting all types changes. I was even resistant to new technologies. A surprise for someone in the computer industry. I could almost feel my brain calcifying and stiffening. I wasn’t going to become an “old fogey”. I made a conscious decision to break out of my rut. I decided to make a conscious effort listen to new music, read new authors, try new foods, go back to school. Just be more open to new things.

And so far, it seems to be working. I may not like or understand all the new music, literature, or fashions, but I try not to be judgemental. After all, we Baby Boomers had plenty of our own new ideas.

So, I’m “old”. Okay. And it’s not all bad. I’m retired and I have the chance to do new things. My wife and I travel, I’ve taken up writing, I have more time to spend on photography, and I have the time to take classes and workshops. And, I have a built-in excuse for getting out of some bigger chores, like mowing the lawn, snow shoveling, or painting the house.

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Scandamerican Literary Find – Review of “The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic” by Christopher Merkner

Book cover

Going through “The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015”, edited by Laura Furman, I was really taken by the story “Cabins” by Christopher Merkner. So taken, I just had to read more by Merkner. A search of Amazon uncovered “The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic: Stories”, Merkner’s short story collection, published by Coffee House in 2013.

I feel a certain kinship with Merkner. We were both raised in the northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin area; we are both of Scandanavian descent; as a husband and father, I could identify with the narrator of most of the stories. Additionally, I have always had a strong attraction to American writers of the 60’s, and early 70’s. Merkner’s writings shows significant influence from postmodernist writers such as Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, and Richard Brautigan. Markner’s language is simple, straightforward, and spare.

Thematically, Merkner provides a fresh, updated look at ground previously explored by John Updike in “Rabbit Runs” and the rest of the Rabbit series. While the Rabbit series neatly progresses in chronological order, Merkner’s stories hop around most of the adult narrator’s married life. The stories are all evidently about the same character. Stories about the narrator’s life after his son has grown and left home are intermixed with stories about a young married couple and stories about a couple with young children. Which allows us to see the development of the narrator and provides some insights into his relationship with his grown son.

Like Barthelme and Brautigan, Merkner steps outside of what we expect as the ordinary. Yet his characters don’t seem to be aware that they are acting oddly. At times, timelines seem to be surreal. In the story, “Scandamerican Domestic”, the father tells his children, out of the blue, that he’ll “take them to Sweden in the morning”. And in the next paragraph, they are on the plane to Sweden, and then they are staying in a dream/nightmare like hotel room/cottage.

The actions and reactions of the characters in his story are also often “not quite right”, and sometimes actually downright disturbing. In “Last Cottage” (the last story in the collection), the townspeople of “Slocum Lake” have been trying to get rid of out-of-towners who own the last cottage on the lake that has not been commercially developed. The steps taken by these, in their own view, normal, hardworking people, go way beyond what we would normally consider “normal”, or even “sane”. In the view of the townspeople the Larsons are a nice enough couple, with four-year-old twin children. The Larsons have been coming to Slocum Lake for 15 years, trying to “live the traditional way for vacationers.” Which the locals find “depressingly outmoded.” The town bands together to sabotage the Larson’s property. Their actions always seem to result in the Larsons not only surviving, but coming out stronger. The story climaxes with a tragedy that is at least allowed to happen by the townspeople that have been staking out and spying on the Larsons on what is probably the Larson’s last trip to Slocum Lake.

With the exception of the last story, “Last Cottage”, names are not used. And then, there is only the last names of the outsiders and the last name of one townsperson. This language, the lack of names, unreal timelines, and outsized actions of the characters, Merkner elevates the stories beyond the feelings and experiences of a single character. He helps us to look beyond ourselves and to see a more universal condition.


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Top-10 Books of 2017

Reading Book

I read for several reasons. Entertainment is the primary reason, not is more satisfying than a good book. I also read to expand my knowledge of the world, to learn about people and places that I haven’t or can’t visit. And, as a developing short story writer, I read to see how other writers “do it”. How they construct their stories, how they use language, how they deal with themes.

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of short story collections, a bunch of novels, and a couple of non-fiction books. I’ve purposely searched out new-to-me authors. And I’ve returned to several of my favorite authors, reading both new publications or rereading some of their classics.

Here are my favorite reads of 2017. This is my list, very specific to me, my likes and prejudices, and my goals in reading. I would be interested in hearing which books you liked this year, both new and old, as I’m always looking for new authors to read.


  1. The O. Henry Prize Stories, 2017” by Laura Furman. This is a really strong collection of 20 of the “best short stories” published in the US in the previous year from a mix of emerging and established authors. Most anthologies of “best” short stories seem to have a handful of really strong stories, and then some not so strong. But I didn’t find a weak one in this bunch. An added bonus is the short essays by each of the judges about their favorite stories in the collection.
  2. Slaughterhouse-Five”, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. One of my “oldest and dearest friends” that I visited this past year. I’ve always been a big fan of Vonnegut’s simple, straightforward writing style. I’ve tried to keep my writing simple and concise as well. But when I found my writing was getting more complicated and dense that I would, I decided it was time to reread Vonnegut’s masterpiece. It’s been years since I last read Slaughterhouse-Five, but I was happy to find that it has stood up well. The simple, concise, straightforward writing still propels the story and allows Vonnegut’s message to slip into your subconscious, almost without notice. And the story about the horrors of war, so timely when the book was written in the late 1960’s, still resonates today.
  3. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty” by Eudora Welty. Eudora Welty was a new friend that I made this year. Although she is widely regarded as one of the great writers of the American South, I haven’t read anything by her except in school. This collection, containing 41 of her stories, is a must for anyone interested in writing short fiction and anyone who loves a well crafted short story.
  4. 4 3 2 1: A Novel” by Paul Auster. Another new friend. This was the first book that I’ve read by Auster. The novel is built as four parallel threads that explore how the life of Archibald Ferguson could change given slight different circumstances or happenings. Auster deals with the age-old question of Nature-or-Nurture, breeding-or-upbringing. Each thread starts with the same boy with the same parents. But then, life happens, a little differently in each thread and Ferguson’s life veers off into slightly different paths. Which leaves the question “is each Ferguson a different person, or the same person in different circumstances?”
  5. Men Without Women: Stories” by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is another dear friend,  one of my favorite contemporary authors. I first ran into Murakami when my son gifted me with “Kafka on the Shore” in 2005. And I have since read just about everything that Murakami has published in English. I was drawn to this new collection of stories, not only because it was more writing by Murakami, but for the theme of the book – grown men and and their relationships with women. Murakami, being Japanese and setting his stories in Japan, shows us that even if we speak different languages and have appear culturally different, the human condition is the same all around the world.
  6. Why Poetry”, by Matthew Zapruder. I’ve become interested in poetry in the last couple of years. I’ve wanted to “like” poetry, but I’ve felt that I “just don’t understand” it, and modern poetry has left me especially baffled. Zapruder has written this book for people like me. It not only dispels many of the myths of poetry that we have picked up in school, but contains good insights into writing and the visual arts in general. After reading this book, I’ve become much more comfortable with poetry.
  7. Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman. Another new friend. Being of Norwegian descent and interested in myths in general, this was a “must read” for me. And it didn’t disappoint. Gaiman has put together a fun to read collection of Norse myths that provides a good overview of the mythos that inspired the Vikings.
  8. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” by Salman Rushdie. I’ve been interested in reading something by Rushdie since the days of “The Satanic Verses”. In this book, Rushdie builds on the story of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights. “Two Years . . . “ tells the tale of a war between the jinn and our earth and the conflict between rational thought and faith. The writing is a little dense, but so rich. I would have really liked to underline and bookmark multiple passages that just resonated with me. But, alas, I was reading the public library’s copy of the book. I guess I’ll just have to purchase my own copy and reread it.
  9. Rabbit Redux” by  John Updike (3rd read). A dear, old friend. Rabbit Angstrom is just a couple of years older than me. I’ve read all of the Rabbit books by Updike as they have been published, gaining insight into my life and struggles. My writing covers many of the same themes as Updike does in the Rabbit saga. I periodically return to the series to better understand my life and struggles, and to see how a real master handles the themes of men progressing through the various stages of adulthood.
  10. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)” by Francine Prose. It’s often said that if you want to write, you need to read more. But is just reading enough? Prose, author of 16 books of fiction, talks about how a writer can read with purpose. While you can learn something from well written books, almost by osmosis, you can learn some much more if you read to improve your writing. Prose talks about what types of things to look for in other’s writing. I learned a lot about writing just by looking at her examples and discussions of them.


Runners Up (in no particular order)

  • Huck Out West” by Robert Coover. I’ve read several previous novels by Coover, I loved his 1971 novel “The Universal Baseball Association”, and of course I’ve read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” several times. So, this was a natural to read. It’s an interesting spin on what became Mark Twain’s Huck and Tom Sawyer, with cameos by Becky Thatcher and even General Custer. It’s an interesting storyline and takes the characters places that Twain probably never envisioned, but seem quite appropriate in looking back.
  • The Accomplished Guest: Stories”, by Ann Beattie. A new collection of short stories from the respected American novelist and short story writer. I really enjoyed this collection and will have to read more of Beattie’s work in the coming year.

Trajectory: Stories”, by Richard Russo. I’ve read pretty much everything Russo has published. His books “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool” are classics. In “Trajectory”, Russo strays from his usual theme of men in dying, blue-collar towns. It was nice to see Russo expand beyond his standard dying, industrial New England, and deal with themes that he has likely been encountering in his life after becoming a successful writer.

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Saying Goodbye to Rudy









We said goodbye to Rudy Saturday morning. He had blessed us with his personality, companionship, and love for almost 8 years.

Rudy was a “rescue” dog that my wife, Janet, and I had adopted from the Humane Society. He was a mixed breed, listed by the animal shelter staff as being part German Shepherd and part some type of Retriever. Rudy seemed to combine the best personality traits of a Shepherd and a Retriever. He combined much of a German Shepherd’s intelligence with a Retriever’s playfulness and loyalty. And he was extremely well behaved. He obeyed almost every command immediately. And we could let him out into our unfenced yard without worrying about him leaving, not even to chase a cat or squirrel. And he was very affectionate. While Rudy could sometimes be demanding for attention, he gave back way more than he took. Intelligence, playfulness, obedience, and a loyal, loving nature. Rudy really was just about the best dog ever.


Rudy loved to play ball. He loved chasing after a thrown ball, running as fast as he could after it, the farther the better. He would grab the ball and then run back with it in his mouth. He would stand in front of you chewing the ball to make sure it got it good and slobbery, until you told him “Rudy, drop it”. He would then drop the slimy, saliva covered ball at your feet and turn and take off again for your next throw.

He would often jump to try to catch the ball if it bounced high enough off the ground. Sometimes he caught it, and sometimes it would bounce off of his nose. And if it ended up in the bushes or long grass, well, he seemed to get even more enjoyment out of looking for the ball. You would see Rudy’s head and shoulders disappear in the bush or grass, with just his butt and tail sticking out, wagging rapidly. And when he did find the ball, you could see the pride on his face as he trotted back triumphantly with the prize in his mouth, his tail wagging like a propeller behind him.

His other game was his own invention. He loved to tease you with one of his toys. He liked to approach you carrying a toy in his mouth, being part Retriever he always seemed to have something in his mouth. He would offer it to you like he wanted to play tug-of-war. But he was very adept at understanding the limits of your reach. He would manage to stand just out of your reach, teasing you with this treasure. Oh such a wonderful toy I’ve got here. Aren’t you jealous? Don’t you want it? And when you reached for it, he quickly turned away, keeping the toy just out of your reach. Nope, you can’t have it. It’s mine. And then quickly turn back towards you to tease you so more.

Sometimes, I would pick up one of his other toys, feigning disinterest in the one he had in his mouth. Of course, Rudy would try to get the one you had, so that he could get back to teasing you. At first, he would drop the one in his mouth and reach for the one in my hand. I would drop my toy and grab the one that he had dropped. That put him in a quandary. Now, he couldn’t tease you. Sometimes, he would try to grab both toys in his mouth at the same time, which almost never worked. It seemed that when he opened his mouth to grab the second toy, the first one fell out.

There were times when I could see Rudy pondering the situation. He saw that I, with my grasping human hands, could hold a toy in one hand while reaching for the second toy in his mouth. He tried to emulate me. Holding one toy in his mouth, he would reach out with his paw for the toy that I held. But without grasping fingers, he couldn’t grab my toy and pull it away from me.

Finally, Rudy figured it out. If we both had a toy, he would drop his toy and hold it on the ground with his foot. Then he could reach and get hold of the toy that I had with his mouth. And, if I tried to reach for the toy under his foot, he would push it back further out of my reach.

After you played these games with Rudy, or paid him special attention in any way, his loving and devoted nature would really show. He would follow you around like, as the saying goes, a little puppy. At first, I had interpreted this obsequious behavior as him looking for even more attention. But I came to realize that he was just happy to have someone like you who would play with him and give him so much attention.


The animal shelter had estimated Rudy’s age as around five when we adopted him. We had him for 7, almost 8 years. So he was getting to be around 13-years-old. He had developed a lot of gray fur around his muzzle and he was putting on a little weight. Aren’t we all? And, he now trotted back with the ball after fetching or catching it. No longer running back as he did when he was younger. But other than that, he seemed to be in pretty good health.

Then, last spring, we noticed some sores on Rudy left flank and a couple of lumps around his face. The vet took some biopsies at his next check-up. The news wasn’t good. Rudy was diagnosed with “epitheliotropic lymphoma”, a disease sometimes found in older dogs. The symptoms are ulcerative sores, scaly patches of skin plaque, and lesions around the mouth and eyes. The disease seems to affect mainly the skin with little less impact on the internal organs. The veterinary oncologist gave us the prognosis. Rudy could live for anywhere from 6 more months to 18 months or longer. With epitheliotropic lymphoma, we were told, it wasn’t generally the disease that led to death. Dogs were generally euthanized when the discomfort of their skin condition became too severe.

Rudy was put on a steroid to address the skin irritation and itchiness, and he seemed to do pretty well through the summer. He was getting more and more skin lesions and more sores around his mouth. And sores were starting to show up around his eyes. But they didn’t seem to have much effect on him. He didn’t seem to be in any major discomfort and his mood didn’t seem to have changed. His eating habits were unchanged, and he still loved playing ball and his version of keep-away.

But in the fall, the progress of the disease seem to accelerate. It’s was like Rudy’s body finally wore down in its defense against the effects of the disease. The number of sores and lesions seem to grow rapidly, many becoming open bleeding, oozing sores. And, more importantly, Rudy’s demeanor changed. He no longer spent almost all of his time underfoot, looking for attention, trying to get us to play. Instead, he was spending more time laying off by himself in quiet, warm spots on the kitchen floor. At night, he used to get up and wander. If you got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, you never knew where Rudy would be lying by the time you went back to bed. But now at bedtime, he would go to one of the dog beds, curl up in a tight ball, and lie there almost the whole night. And that was unusual for Rudy, to curl up. He usually liked to lie all stretched out, the better to trip you when you passed by. And there was the constant licking at his sores. Often during the night, you could hear Rudy licking and licking, finally giving up with a big sigh and quietly whimpering until he went back to sleep.

Janet and I both came to the conclusion that it was time to say goodbye to Rudy pretty much at the same time. It was a hard decision. He still perked up to go outside and play ball. And he still got excited at feeding time, especially since we began replacing some of his dry food with canned food, to make it easier for him to chew and swallow. But he was obviously in a great deal of discomfort and probably pain. In the last couple of weeks, he had even pretty much quit trying to get us to play his keep-away game.

Janet called the vet and made arrangements for us to bring Rudy in for the last appointment of the day on Saturday. Rudy had a hard night Friday. He had stayed in one spot the whole night. It didn’t seem like he slept much, spending much of the night licking and quietly whimpering. The first snow of the season started falling Saturday morning. Rudy had always like the snow. He loved to eat it, taking big mouthfuls and giving himself a “brain freeze”. Which made him whimper, but not stop eating the snow.

Shortly before it was time to leave for the vet, I took Rudy out for one last game of ball. He almost acted like the old Rudy. He raced after the ball as I threw it, either jumping trying to catch it or chasing it down. I purposely threw the ball into the bushes a few times so he could root around looking for it. But once we went back inside, he found his spot on the kitchen floor and curled up tightly.

We got to the vets right at the time of his appointment. Janet hadn’t wanted to get there too early, to limit the stress on Rudy. The vet was running a little behind. So, we took turns walking Rudy around outside while one of us waited inside the vet’s waiting room for her to be ready for Rudy. Rudy seemed to somewhat enjoy walking around the parking lot at the vet’s office, even if it was a little cold and the wet snow was falling on his fur, and I’m sure, all of the sores on his skin.

The vet was very kind and gentle with Rudy. She knew Rudy from treating him for over seven years. She liked how Rudy remembered where she kept the treats and marveled at how a dog of his size could sit up on his haunches, almost standing on his hind feet, to ask for a treat. Her demeanor and soothing voice seemed to put Rudy at ease in the treatment room, and the end came quietly.

When we got home later that afternoon, Janet and I both felt that we had done what was best for Rudy. We felt that we had balanced his pain and discomfort with the times when he still acted like the old Rudy. We hadn’t waited too long, but we hadn’t rushed things either. And we both felt that today had gone as easy as possible for Rudy. Janet had paid him special attention this morning and I had taken him out in the snow for one last game of ball. And the vet had done everything that she could to ease any discomfort for Rudy.

Later that afternoon, after taking the trash out, I stood on the back porch, enjoying the slight chill. I watched the snow falling over the backyard. And there, in the inch or two of wet snow, I could still clearly see the path that Rudy had made running back and forth when we were playing ball for the last time.

Posted in pets, Rudy