The Perfect First Sentence

Tomorrow (Oct. 24) would have been my friend Carol’s birthday. We’re both at the age where we don’t like to be reminded and so a simple card or email (preferably something hilarious) would suffice. If the weather allowed, a hike would be ideal. We generally met at Inspiration Point, a walking trail along the coastal ridge. Looking east, you can see the Briones Reservoir and beyond, Mt. Diablo. Looking west you can see the entire Bay Area and on really clear days, even the Golden Gate Bridge.

Looking east from Inspiration Point

Last year we couldn’t meet because of the air quality. And also because she’d just gone on hospice. I’d known Carol for over thirty years. Aside from our walks, we also shared a love for writing. This mutual love led us to sign up for all kinds of crazy events focused on helping you formulate “the perfect first sentence,” along with the perfect blurb, the perfect bio, the perfect elevator pitch, etc., etc. In addition she joined many writer’s critique groups and attended many writer’s retreats. Carol did a lot better at those events than I did. She was always the loudest and friendliest person in any room. I stutter when I get nervous which is my perpetual state of being.

Anyway I spent those last few months of her life helping her compile a collection of her stories and publish them on Amazon. After her death I found this story on my old laptop. It should have gone in her book. It’s perfect. And so, in honor of Carol Teltschick, here is The Perfect First Sentence.

They whispered it to her as she rounded the corner of Rose and Thornton at thirty-five miles an hour, careening downhill out of control, as usual. It was the perfect first sentence. Absolutely perfect – every word, the nuance, the flow. Shaking badly she pulled off to the side of the road to try to trap it.

Damn! She snarled. She had nothing in the pockets of her spandex outfit with which to capture the wicked little beast. No pencil, no pen, no lipstick. And so she tore a twig from a nearby aspen tree and wrote the line in the mud by the side of the road. She would come back for it later; after the biopsy.

All these months (and money) I’ve wasted attending seminars and work shops, she thought as she peddled towards home. And there it was, all this time, on the corner of Rose and Thornton. I’ll be damned. All the blurbing and pitching sessions, the lectures from the agents and established writers all saying the same thing: you have to write the perfect first sentence otherwise your book will not sell. Like a maniac, spending hours in the saddle, whipping the poor first sentence like a tired old mule until it keeled over and died on the page.

They neglected to tell her that you cannot write the perfect first sentence – you must glide through it on your way to someplace else.

Last night I dreamt of Manderly… The first sentence can’t be too strained but must flow into the story like a stream.

Whenever it is a cold November in my soul…The first sentence must set the tone for the rest of your book.

I round the corner of Rose and Thornton and I am flying.

“I’d like to take your hand and throw it across the room. That’s what I’d like to do,” She screamed at the radiologist, after he explained he’d have to reinsert the needle at least five more times. She was laying face-down on a table with her boobs dangling through two holes like udders. The pain, indescribable. Remember, the words lying in the mud waiting for you to return. See them in your mind, she thought and then the needle broke through her skin again and she screamed.

Afterwards it was children she craved. Minds uncluttered by sympathy or guilt. She would be their auntie; take them when their parents had to work on long hikes or to the seashore. Bake cookies, read stories or just listen.

She forgot the perfect first line in the mud.

How cool are Black Holes

First bit of news … to those of you who have so kindly wished relief for those of us in the drought-stricken American West, the storm door has opened. We are now expecting at least five days worth of rain. Yeah!

Second bit of news … I’ve been working with Duke Miller on a darkly humorous mystery which will include the character of Fiona Butters from the 2014 book published by Booktrope and entitled Flipka. It may involve other characters from Flipka but at this point, I’m not sure. If you’d like to read about the original, click here.

And finally … in the shameless bragging about one’s offspring’s department, here is a video clip written and narrated by our granddaughter Audrey. We were there the day of the filming (which she also did) and she probably spent six hours in the garage working on it. By herself. She did have help with the editing from her parents. Afterwards we all celebrated with burgers and fries. Since the family is split between the meat eaters and the vegans we had to go to two different places. Thus, everyone was happy.

I hope everyone is staying out of Black Holes! They don’t sound like nice places to explore.

The Queen Mary in Long Beach California. To the right of the ship is a cruise ship terminal and not a White Hole!
On the Coaster towards San Diego as a storm was about to come ashore. Trains really are the only way to travel.


Abstract for a writer’s soul.

tin hats

The weather is the only friend I have. I’d like others, but I’m too ashamed of who I am.

It’s hard for me to speak, to control my breathing. I end up in a kind of spotlight that freezes me in place, nailed to the boards. Sometimes I’m like a horse at the starting gate, thrashing about as the crowd groans, impatient. I’m crazy and won’t go into the gate. The race starts without me and they talk about putting me down. She won’t run, they say.

Give her more medicine. Something to numb her living. Turn her into water, circling round.

Everyone looks at me and eyes are knives.

Online I read the weather report, the projections fluttering on my face in the half-light. Please no sun, no clear days with kites in the sky. No spring flowers. I only want good weather, bad weather for you, but we’re…

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tin hats

Remember standing in line for that one crazy rollercoaster ride with anxious thoughts emerging in the back of your mind. Remember having your ticket taken and being ushered toward your cart with those unnerving thoughts moving closer to the fore. Remember sitting in your cart knowing this is your last chance to bail before the attendant comes by to check on your restraints. Remember the palpable sense of doom that descended upon you as the grim-faced attendant locked you in place. Remember the queasy knot tightening sharply in your gut when your cart lurched forward and began ratcheting its way toward that first big momentum producing hill. Remember, half way up the hill, when the stranger sitting next to you turned his head and said he used to work at the theme park but had to quit because of major depression. Remember when he looked at you with those sunken…

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Death Halves the Hearth

I’ve just finished complying the various genealogies, ancient documents and photos I inherited into one document and all I can say is: Don’t do it! Let some other poor relative take on the task of making sense of family history. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box. So hard to close.

It wasn’t so bad when I was writing about folks who lived hundreds of years ago but as I drew closer the present and began writing about people I’d met, no matter how briefly, it got painful. When I got to my parents, I just couldn’t do it. They lived, got married and died, the end.

I wish I could say I discovered many fascinating tidbits about my ancestors but alas, I didn’t. Probably the most amusing “find” was the official reason why my most famous ancestor, Deacon Samuel Chapin, was important to the colonial settlement that became Springfield Mass.

Deacon Samuel Chapin’s “delicate duties.”

Yes, the appropriate seating of the “Goodwifes” on the Sabbath was apparently the only thing that kept law and order in the colonies! Heavens, you simply can’t have Goodwife Chapin “sitt in the Seate” alongside any other lady than Mrs. Glover, the minister’s wife. (Don’t ask me why some ladies are referred to as “good wifes” and others as “Mrs” because I do not know!)

Thanks to a wonderful blogger from Finland, The Snow Melts Somewhere , I did solve one mystery: What was in the Swedish Letters that my great-grandfather didn’t want to reveal to his daughter. From what Snow was able to decipher, Great Grandfather Nelson wasn’t trying to be cruel. He was trying to shield his daughter. She was only sixteen when her mother died. He probably felt she did not need to know the heartbreaking side of immigration.

2b. But before I write more, we would like to let you know that we have received the money that you sent us, 17 kronor and 65 öre, for which we now present you our heartfelt gratitude. And we think it is nice since it is in any case of an assistance to us old people. We always think it is fun to receive your letters but even more fun when you think of us with donations. But we can’t send you anything except for our loving thankfulness and we shall pray for you and for all our children, for you are all equally dear to Him. May He give you good health and blessings and may He keep you from sin, for sin is an abomination to God. Instead, God loves (us) and offers (us) everything and we will hope for Him to give you everything.

4a. And I cannot be alone. (…) It isn’t nice for me (…) but I must ask the Lord for good health. (…) 
Johanna, she won’t be home with me more than yesterday, she can’t come home with me, she gets nothing from it. She can ask the master (?) to make a little bit more but she is young.
Now (.…) is having (…)+ (…) and growing, but we are having bad times here, I don’t ponder it much but I’ll take what I can++ 344 and death halves the hearth, my friend by my side, out of grief (…) I ask God (…), I am weak, save me from (…)+++
…parents, children gone away… so empty, watch out for the soul’s wellbeing

To families left behind in the mother country, hearing from children who have traveled thousands of miles from home to achieve a better life must have been bittersweet indeed. I’m sure they were proud to know that their children had found communities to be a part of and did well enough to send money home. But the cost, from these letters, was very high.

Thanks again to Snow for helping me solve the mystery and giving me more appreciation for my great grandfather’s struggles.

Roads And Borders

Reads like the beginning of a novel, doesn’t it?

tin hats

He was sick. Something vague, but growing. He had nearly always been sick. Not as a baby, but by three he had real trouble breathing. Oxygen tents and concerned people. The lung difficulty stayed with him as an adult, until he stopped eating certain foods. Innocent breads and cakes delivered the allergy. Poor breathing eventually gave way to other diseases, other injuries, but he didn’t mind so much. Everyone was hurt around him, a constantly changing hospital or sometimes a morgue was there, just outside his door. Illness and death were part of his lifestyle away from home.

It was 5:00 in the morning. He was just waking in the partly destroyed trading post. He could imagine the Englishman behind the counter, barking at the tribesmen. The driver and vehicle were both asleep. He looked at the dead fire. He felt safe. No one would kill you this early. The…

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A Change Of Gear #thoughts

A solemn reminder …


It’s a happy week, this lead up to No.1 son’s nuptials on Saturday. There’s lots to do, what with the reception happening at home. I’ve a lot of jobs to do and while I do them I listen to the radio. It’s full of the constantly moving story that is Afghanistan.The BBC interviewed one Afghan who twice since 14th August has been told he and his family can join one of the escape flights and twice told his application has been rejected. WTF. These stories are heart wrenching because we all can’t really believe the Taliban will be any better than before. As I listened my mind drifted back 4 years to a holiday in Cambodia. On our last day we visited one of the notorious Killing Fields. This is what I wrote then…

We travelled to Cheong Ek, the Genocidal Centre based at one of…

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Only Lived and Died

I haven’t been blogging much of late because I’ve taken it upon myself to transcribe a thirty page, hand-written history of my grandfather’s family tree that dates back to 1590. It was written between 1910 and 1925 by a lady named Daisy Jameson who was my great uncle’s wife until the dirty dog left her for another woman. Of course, this bit of sordid family history was never mentioned while my mother was alive. And so I had to figure out it myself. Hum, why is Daisy buried in Chicopee Mass but Henry is buried in Virginia and who’s this Marie Ange woman buried in the same plot as great uncle Henry? That kind of thing. Thank goodness for google and funeral registries.

Anyway, it’s easy to understand why the document is just a collection of births, marriages and deaths (taken from church records) and snippets from letters and bits of family lore passed down through the generations. After old Henry dumped her, Daisy probably wanted nothing more to do with the Jamesons! Making sense of this document is further complicated by the huge number of offspring on both sides who lived to adulthood and propagated like rabbits. Especially in the coastal seaports of Maine and the town of Chicopee Massachusetts. It’s depressing to know that I am not a rare bird from an unusual family but just a chickadee from Chicopee. But, although they might have been just common folk, they did live through some interesting times: The Siege of Derry, voyages to America, battles with the Indians and French, injuries during the Civil War, etc, etc. And so I’m peppering the narrative with accounts of what it must have been like to live during those times. Then I can seal the document away and forget about it.

So I will be blogging less than usual but here are some pictures of a winery near Santa Rosa, beautiful even in the smoke. And my attempt at an artistic peach.

Down the rabbit hole once again

Today, by way of a church liturgy from 1945, I bring you this puzzle: What do these three things have in common?

  • The so-called Romance of the Worms*
  • A commune comprised of runaway slaves, abolitionists, and utopians
  • Theodor Geisel

Here’s a clue: It involves a “mania” that swept the USA in the 1830s driving the price of a certain tree up to astronomical heights.

*newspaper article written about the “mania”

A house on a street in Springfield Mass named after the tree (although the tree in the photo is probably not the type of tree in question)

Here is the document that inspired my trip down the rabbit’s hole.

I found this liturgy in a bible that belonged to my mother’s cousin. She died childless and, because her care had been turned over to the state, they sold everything not reeking of cigarette smoke. Except her bible. That was sent to my mother.

My first thought was “What was Cousin Gloria doing in Florence Mass?” Not that it was any of my business but let’s be honest. Writers are busybodies who are constantly sticking their noses in where they don’t belong and following clues to mysteries that are probably only mysteries in our overripe imaginations. It’s a writer’s curse. Anyway, my mother and her cousin were polar opposites. The only thing they had in common was they both attended UMass in Amherst and guess what? Amherst and Florence are sister cities. So I had unearthed a fascinating fact: In December of 1945, a young woman named Gloria attended services at a church near her college. Big deal. However, when I found out what the village was famous for, well, I was intrigued.

  • The town started taking shape in the 1830s when a local entrepreneur planted 25 acres of … you’ve probably guessed by now … mulberry trees in a meadow north of Springfield Mass. And the reason: “The Great Mulberry Mania” which griped parts of the country and drove the price of these trees up to astronomical levels. Why? Because silk worms like mulberry trees. Why not challenge the Asian market on silk goods?
    • Okay … I’ve acted on stupider ideas. But this fellow knew someone who’d invented a way of spinning silk thread that was smooth enough to use on a sewing machine so, hey. Not so stupid right?
  • Apparently the entrepreneur and the silk thread spinner were chugging along successfully when in 1843, David Ruggles, described as “an African American printer,” came to town to practice hydro therapy. Turns out he was actually one of the first conductors for the Underground Railroad and had put his life at risk by writing and publishing anti-slavery articles in NYC papers.
  • Now, here’s where it gets interested. The silk thread spinner soon became involved with the abolitionist movement and in 1845 Sojourner Truth moved to town. Together the three helped form a utopian commune where all people regardless of color, would have equal rights and opportunities, even women.

Eventually the silk industry in the US ran its course. Silk worms are finicky creatures, taking care of them is extremely labor intensive and mulberry trees only have the life span of an average human. The commune also dissipated however, you can still take a guided tour of their grounds via the David Ruggles Center for History and Education in Florence.

Of course all of this has little to do with Theodor Geisel Seuss, aka, Dr. Seuss. Except, of course, the mulberry tree.

From Bing images

Anyway … that was my trip down the rabbit hole this week. Oh, I forgot about the fictional superhero quartet of anthropomorphic turtle brothers who also call Florence home from time to time. Can you guess their names?

The Bummer Speeds Up

tin hats

“He woke up most days before dawn. Two sleeping dog faces near his head. The three bodies formed a breathing blanket that stretched over the mountains and the snow and up to the northern climes. The fire was down to coals and the room was icy. He could see the red glow reflect off the breath of the dogs. He could see his own face in the coals. It looked troubled, like most faces burning in a fire.

Usually, he felt good enough at the beginning of the day, but after a few hours the depression set in and the interconnections of life on Earth weighed down upon him. He would often think of his wife and daughter. Dead was not a very difficult word for him to say. It never had been. The two women had found pleasure in the small things of life, even as humanity had become…

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