Sunday, August 31, 2014

Flash fiction: Blind Date

Faith ate the last bite of her watercress while Tom wiped hamburger grease and ketchup from the corner of his mouth. This was her umpteenth blind date since her divorce went through last year, and she’d finally found a good man. Tom went to the gym six days a week and called his parents every Sunday. He’d talked with her about books and movies and admired Meryl Streep in Iron Lady. He’d said “It’s about darned time we had a woman president.” He’d actually said darned. The man didn’t even swear! He had a square, manly jaw and blue eyes that made Faith think of Adonis. And did she really see a ray of sunlight glint off those perfect teeth?
The waitress placed the check between them, and Faith reached into her purse for her Visa card. Dutch was fine, of course. She expected that. Warmth suffused her face. Oh, to be alone with this man.
Faith looked at her watch. “Well, I have to get back to work,” she said with a twinge of regret. “I really enjoyed your company.”
Tom smiled. God, could he smile. “Me too, Faith. It’s good to get out of the salt mines once in a while.”
She wondered if she should take the initiative or wait for this terrific guy to speak up. A bit nervously, she said, “You know, I would really like to see you again. Do you think—?”
“I would, Faith. You’re very nice, and you’re a great listener.” Tom pushed his chair back, ready to leave without glancing at the check. “But no. I don’t date fat women.”
Later in the afternoon, Faith explained these events to the detective in Central Booking, but she couldn’t explain the steak knife in Tom’s chest.


Friday, August 08, 2014

Death and the Maiden

This is a brief excerpt from my novel in progress, Death and the Maiden:

We held each other quietly for a few minutes. With my fingertips I felt the soft skin of her neck, then gravity—or a force even stronger—lowered my hand to the top button of her blouse. Against my face, her breath felt like an elixir that might forever entwine us inside Alladin’s Lamp.
Before I realized how mawkish that sounded, my cell phone rang. Beethoven’s four V for Victory notes meant it was Willis Chubb. The ringing stopped and started again, Willis’s signal that it was urgent. Hope’s left breast felt like a hot plate. We looked at each other, Hope’s eyes showing a mixture of lust and resignation. She nodded toward my phone.

I reluctantly answered it. “Hey, Willis.”

“Am I interrupting something?”

“Yes. What’s so important?”

“How’s Hope? I heard.”

“Just fine. You’re on days. How’d you know?”

“Eyes and ears, twenty-four-seven, you know me. It took the city’s finest a half hour to find the perp at Saints ER. The douchebag’s name is Chuck Roswell. He showed up with one of your friend’s fancy fingernails stuck in his eyeball, he’ll probably trade it in for a glass one.”

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Review: Mastering the Art of Quitting

This review was first published by the Internet Review of Books on July 11, 2014.

Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

By Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein
262 pp. Da Capo

Reviewed by Bob Sanchez

Your job isn’t what you expected. It’s not only harder, it’s unsatisfying. You’ve invested untold hours trying to become a competitive swimmer, insurance salesman, or ballet dancer.  It’s my fault, you may be thinking. If only I try harder…. Persistence pays…. I think I can, I think I can. Over and over you repeat the mantra, Winners never quit, and quitters never win.

And you may be right. Or not. Never giving up worked for Churchill, but his country’s very existence was on the line. It worked for salesman and professional optimist Zig Ziglar, and of course for countless others, depending on their goals. So when is it okay to quit and not soldier on?

In Mastering the Art of Quitting, authors Streep and Bernstein assert that there are times to see a goal through, and there are times to change direction. To quit. “American mythology doesn’t have room for quitters,” they state, but “Quitting not only frees us from the hopeless pursuit of the unattainable but permits us to commit to new and more satisfying goals.”

Don’t stick with something that’s no longer right for you, they say, just because you don’t want the “quitter” label. The authors cite the example of a competitive swimmer who injures her shoulder and decides to work through the pain—no pain, no gain, and all that. As she persists, her shoulder gets so bad she can hardly lift her arm, let alone swim. By the time she finally quits trying, she has a lifelong injury.

A problem is “our inability to assess ourselves and our talents realistically.” Most of us tend to rate ourselves as above average, and sadly, we are not our own best judges.

Another danger is the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.” We all tend to reason that we have invested so much into this job, hobby, marriage, or college education that we have to continue in the same direction. Perhaps the most tragic example:

…the logic that pervaded the thinking of America’s leadership about sending troops to Vietnam even as it acknowledged that winning, in the conventional sense, was impossible.


…how could the possibility of more people dying justify the deaths of others who came before?

And then there is another problem: What if reaching your goal will no longer make you happy? “Our belief in staying the course doesn’t take into account that who we are and what we want may change over time,” the authors write.

Psychologically, quitting can be difficult. Luckily, the book offers strategies and “skill sets” for quitting or disengaging. It certainly doesn’t mean stomping off your job, and it doesn’t mean a guarantee of future success. One of the tools the authors suggest is a “goal map” outlining what you want in life, work, relationships, and learning.

Mastering the Art of Quitting is well documented, well thought out, and easily readable. Almost everyone can benefit from its commonsense advice.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

What's your favorite e-classic?

What's your favorite e-classic? That is, a literary classic you've read on your e-reader? So far, mine is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read it on my iPhone only while pedaling a stationary bicycle at the gym, and my cardio chores went by quickly that way. Decades ago I'd read it in paperback, and the author's racist observations had been largely lost on me at the time. The writing quality is splendid, but the attitude toward Africans doesn't come close to modern standards. But it accurately reflects the times--late 19th and early 20th century, when Europeans felt that Africa was a land God gave them to despoil. But it's a compelling story with writing that's all the more impressive given that Conrad learned English as an adult.

If you're like me, you have a long list of oldies plucked off, say, Gutenberg, maybe more than you'll ever read. So if you could read only one classic, what would it be?

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What's on your Kindle?

Ebooks are such a great invention. Even though I love physical books and regularly acquire new ones, books for my Kindle and iPad are just as important to me. The classics in particular are works I'd likely never have on my shelves, but in e-form they are just collections of a few trillion or so electrons. Over half a century ago, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and The Merchant of Venice were foisted on my immature brain, and I hated them all. Never even finished reading them, actually. In the last couple of years I've read them and others through to the end--oh, wait, I still gagged on David Copperfield halfway through, but that's the great thing: the ebook keeps my place forever, so in a weak moment, perhaps with onset of dementia, I can resume following Master Copperfield's adventures.

Jane Eyre turns out to be a good story, but why assign an anti-semitic play to a poor ninth grader? As it happens, not much penetrated my brain back then, so no harm was done. Other works began to seep into my brain before high school was over, but it's only now that they are making significant impressions. Take The Iliad, for example. So far it's mostly fighting, with spears ripping through skulls--and darkness fell upon him. The brutal fighting gets a little old, but Homer's similes are humdingers:

He rushed across the plain like a winter torrent that has burst its barrier in full flood; no dykes, no walls of fruitful vineyards can embank it when it is swollen with rain from heaven, but in a moment it comes tearing onward, and lays many a field waste that many a strong man hand has reclaimed--even so were the dense phalanxes of the Trojans driven in route by the son of Tydeus, and many though they were, they dared not abide his onslaught.

My ebook collection is heavy on the classics, poetry, and self-published novels. If I'm blessed with a long life, maybe I'll get to read all of them.

So, to paraphrase the Capital One TV commercial, What's on your Kindle?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Maggie and Kim: dear leaders?

Last night we watched The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as the aging Margaret Thatcher. Say what you will about Maggie's politics, she was one tough woman. Streep portrays her brilliantly as a widow who hallucinates that her husband is still alive and who has moments when she flashes back to her glory days in Parliament. No one, but no one, ever pushed her around. When she was Prime Minister, she declared she had no interest in managing Britain's decline; her goal was to put the "Great" back in Great Britain.

The movie is a stark contrast to the memoir I just finished reading, Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee--A Look Inside North Korea by Jan Jing-sun. The author had been poet laureate for Kim Jong-il, which gave him the status of "Admitted," one of the very few people with the despot's blessing. In North Korea, no one is allowed to write anything, including poetry, unless officially directed to do so, and the only permissible poetry is praise of the Dear Leader. Jang was assigned to write an epic poem about Kim's glory, and at some point he and a friend had enough of the lies. They attempted a dangerous escape into China.

Thatcher was eventually challenged for leadership of her party, and she stepped down. Kim held absolute power until his death, as likely will his son Kim Jong-un.

I'm planning to write a review of Dear Leader for the Internet Review of Books. Meanwhile, the book and the Thatcher movie are well worth your time.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A murder and its consequences

Gavrilo Princip, assassin
of Archduke Ferdinand
This week, we've been reminded, is the 100th anniversary of the assassination by Gavrilo Princip of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, considered to be the trigger that ignited World War I. Princip had thrown a bomb at the couple's carriage, but it bounced off the top and failed to hurt them. Only when they kept going and their carriage driver took a wrong turn did Princip, by pure chance, meet them again and succeed in killing them.

But what if that assassination had failed? Maybe the Great War would have started anyway with some other spark. But let's assume not. What might today's world look like if the War to End All Wars had never taken place?

Let's see. The Russian Revolution was a direct outcome of the Tsar's disastrous participation in the war. World War II flowed from the reparations and resentment from the first. Where would Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin have been without all that misery and destruction? Perhaps they would have been no more than long-forgotten thugs. Mao Tse-Tung learned his ideology from the Soviet Union, so China may not have had Mao and his Great Leap Forward. The United States would not have sent troops to Europe, thus ending our isolationist outlook forever. Historical artifacts such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires would have lingered, if not lasted. European powers would not have redrawn the Middle East into countries with artificial boundaries, as with Iraq and Syria.

And what about the Cold War? No communist Eastern Europe, no American troops in Europe, no Holocaust, no Israel (maybe), no nukes, no space race, no satellites, no Internet or GPS, no Korean or Vietnam Wars, no European Union. No President Truman, a World War I hero who integrated the military, helping to advance the cause of civil rights. We might not have had an interstate highway system, at least in part because war hero Dwight Eisenhower would not likely have become president. Of course some of our technological advances might have happened eventually, perhaps generations later, spurred on by other wars.

Of course, other disasters might have--surely would have--happened instead. How today's world would have looked without the Archduke's murder is impossible to know, as unpredictable events cause unpredictable chains of consequences. That war was utterly wrong and pointless, yet its destructive energy yielded, for both better and worse, the society we live in now.