The day my Money went to NY (without me)

I’ve never been to New York, though the rest of my family has. My mother and grandma were both born in the City; my kids went there last fall. My sister goes there so often she can direct the tourists to stops on the Circle Line. But, I’ve never gone to New York. And I’ve been pretty much okay with that. Well, I’m not completely okay, d love to see the place (you can’t be an English Major and not want to see New York; it’s a mecca for readers and writers.) But financially, it’s never been a good time for me to fly to New York.  So I  dreamed and figured someday I would go there.  I just never thought my money would get there first.

aerial architecture blue sky buildings
Photo by Lukas Kloeppel on Pexels.com

It all began…

In that uncertain time between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent, before the juggernaut of December really takes off. A few friends and I decided to get together for a quiet drink after work. It was great, with everyone talking and laughing together and everything was going well until I decided to pay for a round. And realized my ATM card wasn’t in my wallet. Or my purse.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I occasionally misplace things, so I tried not to panic. I just paid for the drinks (using most of my cash) and excused myself to look for the card.  I still didn’t panic as I researched first my wallet, then my purse, and finally my Jeep for the card. Then, I went home and searched the house while I checked my bank balance.  And that’s when I hit “Red Alert”.

money pink coins pig

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

See, almost all the day-to-day funds in our joint checking account had disappeared.  The Grocery money.  The Light Bill cash.  The payment on my husband’s dental bill.  Entire paychecks worth of cash vanished from sight, like Brigadoon, or Judge Crater.  I killed my cash card with a phone call and cried.

When I showed up, still panicked, at my bank the next day (the minute they unlocked the doors) the bankers there were sympathetic.  Yes, they could make sure my missing ATM card was dead and yes, they’d help me with the identity theft claim.  A teller and I pulled up all the account transactions to figure out which we’d need to dispute and that’s when I saw how my money (literally) took flight.

Where did it go??

First, there was the airline ticket.  “Was that you?” the bank representative asked.  No, I haven’t flown since 2016 and I haven’t bought a ticket since then.  Then there was the charge for the Empire State Building Observation Deck ($102.00!) and something called Statue Cruises.  And then there was an admission to MMA, which turned out to be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Met? My money went to New York?

I don’t know whether the Bank’s service representative or I was the more stunned.  “Well, on the one hand, these charges obviously weren’t made by you.” the banker lady said.  “You’re here in Alabama, not New York.  Still…”  “I know,” I said, looking at the computer screen.  “Someone’s taking a cool trip through the City.

In fact, if the thief had thrown in theatre tickets, that’s a trip I would have loved to take.  It’s the trip I’ve been dreaming of (and putting off) for decades because I couldn’t afford it. Along with the panic and anger, I felt, I began to get downright envious.  The Empire State Building? The Museum of Modern Art? These were places I’d wanted to see.   Someone out there has lousy morals, but their taste is not all that bad.  The only problem was they were getting their culture with money my husband and I had earned!

I found out some things because of that theft. I learned that banks have to deal with this a lot. And that some bankers are really nice.  I’ve learned that the police are careful about jurisdiction.  I had to drive to four separate stations before I found the one able and willing to take my report. It’s been a royal mess getting the checking account straightened out and protecting the rest of my financial identity.  But this crystallized a resolve in me.

I’m not putting off the chance to see New York anymore; I’m going there myself, and soon.  No longer am I content to imagine being there while by looking at TV or  Google Earth.  It’s time I saw those streets for myself.  There isn’t enough time or money enough to do everything. But I will see something of that fabled place, and listen to that cacophony of sound. See, I don’t mind my money going to New York.  But this time, I’m taking it there.

 

 

 

 

 

The Unseen Connections that Bind: Lethal White

There are unseen connections in this world.

I’m not (necessarily) talking about back-channel diplomatic communication lines or conspiracies here.  No, I’m talking about the ties between people. We’re all connected by friendships, family, work or some interest.  We’re bound to events and people in our pasts, as well.  These connections are invisible when we walk down the street but they impact every move that we make.

Cormoran Strike, hero of Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)’s mystery series, knows how the past still connects with the present.  After all, his military injury affects his everyday life even though the accident happened years ago.  But, in Lethal White, those unseen connections not only affect his missing leg.  They string together secrets and murder.

Secrets, Secrets

First, there’s the mentally-ill man who wanders into Strike’s office.  Is this poor man crazy to think he witnessed a murder as a child or did witnessing a murder help drive the poor lad insane?  Is he connected to the government official who wants Strike to stop a blackmailing scheme?  The official won’t explain who the blackmailers are or what he’s being blackmailed about.  He just insists “it was legal in the past.” Strike’s junior partner, Robin Ellacot, goes undercover in the minister’s office and finds more connections and schemes instead of the extortionists. And the secrets continue to multiply and spread until one of the secret-keepers turns up dead.

Then, it’s up to Strike and Ellacott to untwist the lies and excavate the connections. That’s no easy task, for clients who want leverage, not the truth.  The search is even harder because of the ties and secrets both detectives are trying to keep from themselves.

Followers of this series have known for years that Strike and Ellacot belong together, personally as well as professionally.  They share core values and have complementary skills.  They bring out the best in each other.  But both have ties to their pasts that keep them from acting on this mutual attraction.  This conflict often makes communication difficult.  It deepens their unspoken romantic feelings for each other.  And it drives both of them into dangerous places.

Changes & Connections

This unacknowledged passion often echoes in the epigraphs of Lethal White’s chapters, all of which come from Ibsen’s play, Rosmerholm. Because the theme of Rosermerholm is that while progress means change, it conflicts with the immutable past.  See, people change as they age They either continue to learn and grown or they stultify.  They become more or less tolerant with time.  And none of us are exactly alike, to begin with.  So change drives formerly close friends apart, even as their history and affection bind them.  And that creates conflict.  This conflict between changing outlooks and unchanging ties can fuel a lot of misery and drama.  And, as entertaining as those fights can be, they can also harbor a lethal distraction.  Because, when we’re being whipsawed by change and conflict, we may not see the puppetmaster manipulating us through our connections. The shadowy one who trades in secrets.  The bad guy who smiles and smiles and still remains a villain.

Lethal White has a large cast of characters, layers of story, and a definite point of view.  It’s not a quick read but it is entertaining.  It’s worth re-reading too, just to sort out the ties and the secrets.  And discover the smiling villain.

The Odd Kid On the Block

Whatever happened to the Odd Kid on your block?  Everybody grew up with at least one; I’m talking about those kids who seem to be born outsiders, who say and do unpredictable things and never fit in well with the rest. The kids that even surprise the adults when they talk. You know the ones I mean.  And if you don’t have one of these kids in your memory, you might have been the class misfit. God knows I was one.

So what? I can verify that most of us card-carrying weirdos eventually discover friends of our own.  We become reasonably functional adults.  But time has stood still for Eleanor Oliphant.  At thirty, she’s still the Odd Kid on The Block, although now she’s an Oddball at Work.  She doesn’t have any friends (unless you count Vodka and Mummy). And, despite the title of Gayle Honeyman’s brilliant first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is NOT Completely Fine,

Stuck in a Rut

Eleanor is, if anything, stuck in a rut, one she’s carefully constructed.  Every morning, she dons black pants, white shirt.  She does (and eats) the same thing each day on her lunch break.  Eleanor always takes the same bus.  She talks to Mummy on the same day of every week and drinks from Friday night until well into Sunday.  Part of this is a habit, but part is how Eleanor copes with the world, a place that has rarely been kind.  She’s constructed routines for protection.  But even Eleanor doesn’t realize all the things she’s hiding from or how much good there is in life to uncover.  And it’s a joy to discover it with her.

No Filter/No-Nonsense Girl

Listening to Eleanor describe her own life is by turn hilarious or incredibly painful as she is the original No-Filter-Girl.  She describes some horrors from her past with such emotional detachment that you wonder what ails the poor girl.  Anyone else recounting this kind of personal experience would be sobbing all over themselves.  But Eleanor reports her history with such matter-of-fact acceptance that many readers debate whether her response is due to Autism or the profound abuse she’s endured.  Whatever the reason, we become mesmerized by her voice.

For Eleanor does have a voice, stunningly original and perceptive about the human condition. “These days, loneliness is the new Cancer” she observes, “a shameful, embarrassing thing.” And for all of her independence, Eleanor is a lonely woman.  But the story of how this unusual woman starts breaking her self-imposed isolation is the hit of the year.  Eleanor can make you laugh and cry but most of all she makes you glad you’ve found her. Eleanor Oliphant may be the Odd Kid on the Block but she’s also a good person and friend.

 

Remembrance of Playwright Past

Everyone remembers people and events that shaped and changed their lives.  Long after they leave the world’s stage, these individuals and events inform and direct us through memory.  That’s how I feel about Neil Simon’s plays; they are touchstones from my childhood. That’s reasonable: when I was young he was the King of Broadway. His movies set some of my first standards for comedy.  But, that was a long time ago and Mr. Simon hasn’t had a hit play in years. So, I’ve been reading plays by other authors.  Still, when I heard of his death, I did something I haven’t done for a while: I read something Neil Simon wrote.  Not his plays this time, but his memoirs.  And I’m still thinking about what I read.

Rewrites

Rewrites is Simon’s memoir of the first half of his life, and to some extent, it’s like his early plays.  This book covered his early, energetic years as a writer when hope was built on promise and potential.  The book is a charmer, and it confirmed two things I guessed but didn’t know before.  First, Simon’s stories all have strong autobiographical elements and that the art of plays is in the re-writing.

According to Mr. Simon, the tradition of opening a new play out of town is part of the alchemy that creates a show.  Responses from Out-of-town audiences tell the cast and creative team what works and doesn’t work in the show.  And Simon rewrote the show after each early performance making the show tighter and funnier. Like Moss Hart’s Act One, Rewrites is a master-class in the art of playwrighting as well as a glimpse of American Theatre in the 60’s and 70’s.  But it’s also the story of a young, hopeful man

 

The Marrying Man

In “The Play Goes On”, Simon’s sequel to “Rewrites”, one thing becomes clear:  Mr. Simon never escaped from his past.  After a childhood in an insecure, chaotic family, he tried to create a different life as an adult. Still, he never trusted the good times when they came.  And the early death of his first wife left a man who wanted to love again but couldn’t keep her ghost from haunting his later relationships.  It’s not surprising Simon remarried four more times.  It’s sad how his pursuit of happiness was often undermined by remembered joy.  This is the mature, tempered Neil Simon, less charming, less hopeful, a bit more self-serving. But whatever his shortcomings, the man possessed a work ethic and talent. And those things are why he’s remembered.

The Constant Writer

Celebrated or panned, joyful or depressed, married or single, Neil Simon remained one thing: a constant writer.  For more than 50 years he churned out at least that many plays and screenplays (as well as these Memoirs). His quick-fire wit and urban “comedy-dramedy” forms are imitated today.  And, if some of his jokes became horribly dated or if his last plays were less hit than miss, he still taught us a lot.   Simon wielded humor as a weapon as well as a shield and he showed us that, even in the middle of the worst time of your life, the right joke can still keep you going. And Laughter will help you prevail. Now, that’s a memory worth keeping.

Into the Woods

The first time my Dad saw my adult home, he muttered, “I don’t know why you and your sister moved back into the woods.” Although I hadn’t realized before, I instantly knew what he meant. Although we grew up on the plains, both my sister and I chose homes in densly forested areas. I can’t speak for my sister, but I must say that I do love living surrounded by trees.

The Woods Behind my House
My woodsy back view

The Forest Primeval

Then again, I’m not Sayward Luckett. Sayward is the central voice of Conrad Richter’s novel, The Trees, and she has good reason to hate the forest.  It’s the late 1700’s and her father’s transplanted their family from a village in Pennsylvania to the endless woods of the Ohio Valley. The tree trunks (or Butts, as Sayward calls them) hem them in wherever they turn. High branches shut out the sunlight. No sunlight means it’s impossible for the settlers to grow crops. The forest isolates them from other pioneers and it’s an easy place for little children to get lost. Too easy. The woods are not a safe place to be.

Still, Sayward is the sympathetic, tough, resilient person needed to make a home from the wilderness.  She tells her story in a matter-of-factly in the settler’s dialect and rhythms that author, Conrad Richter discovered researching this novel. Her common-sense voice leaps off the page.

“Whether you liked it or not, Death was something you had to go through life with.  Plenty times you would meet up with it if you lived long enough, and you might as well get used to it as you could.”– The Trees, Conrad Richter

Everything happens to Sayward and her family as they carve a life out of the forest. Good and Bad both come their way, joyful moments and terrible loss. And her family’s story parallels the story of America’s development. Sayward and some settlers who live long enough even learn to appreciate the world they’ve known and seen.

THE TREES (Awakening Land)

Even a world filled with trees.

Partners in Business and Art

Let’s tell the truth about Creative Artists; we already know the myths:

Myths About Creative Types

  1. All Creative Artists are right-brain, impractical people,
  2. Given a choice, creative people tend to wear shabby clothes and messy hairstyles.
  3. Creative people all keep odd hours and disorganized lives.
  4. Artists are profligate, spendthrifts who don’t understand the value of money, and;
  5. Damn few artists have enough sense to run a successful business.

The Truth

Anyone who believes these stereotypes needs a copy of Something Wonderful, the new biography of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Not only does it recount the history of a creative partnership, it shows the practical businessmen that created that art.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were both successful men of the theatre before they teamed up together.  They’d both written hits and flops. And they’d both worked with other partners before so they knew how to give and take.  Neither man felt like he knew the other.  But neither of them let that get in the way of creating great songs together.

In Something Wonderful, Todd Purdum reveals how the R&H songs we know, the ones where words and music fall so naturally together that they almost seem inevitable, were the results of lengthy revision and multi-stage efforts.  Hammerstein agonized over each word and phrase, spending weeks to craft the right lyrics.  Then Rodgers, in a separate time and place, would sweep in a lyrical melody, so quickly it infuriated the lyricist. Sometimes they’d debate, very politely, over details in the work.  And, outside of business, the two men tended to lead separate lives.

But, inside of the theatrical business, they were indivisible partners.  They forged and reigned over the Rodgers and Hammerstein empire, creating and casting tours of past successful shows while they created and produced new ones each season.  And, despite all assumptions about artists, both men kept tight hold of the money.

If you’re a theatre geek or a  musical freak, you’ve probably already read this book.  If not, pick up a copy anyway.  You should know the truth about artists.  Sometimes the truth can be Something Wonderful.

 

A Modern Irish Murder

Fact: Ireland is a Modern Country

Sad Fact: Few people outside of Ireland realize this.

Thanks to the impressions of popular culture, many Americans still tend to think of bombs, booze or leprechauns when they hear the worlds “Irish” or “Ireland”.  Those who read, remember Yeats or the Potato Famine.  Movie-fans recall Darby O’Gill or The Quiet Man.  Few of either group think of murder.

Yet, Murder in a very modern context is the background of Tana French’s brilliant debut, In the Woods.  It’s the story of Irish police working a contemporary crime site that, unfortunately, has ties to the past.  It also has one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in several years.  Rob Ryan tells the story of when past and present collide in the head of a traumatized survivor and the damage that radiates from that impact.  And he tells it in a beautiful, lyrical voice that hints but never tells you what’s what.

In the Woods is also the brilliant first novel of what is known as the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  So far, each story is told by one detective on the Squad who may (or may not) appear in later tales.  Each character is brilliantly developed in their own stories so we get to see how different people view the same incidents.  And we also see the toll this job takes on detectives.  Thankfully, we also get to see Ireland, complete with cell phones, office buildings and the concerns and issues facing contemporary society.

Along with murder, that most ancient of crimes.  Because some things, it seems, never change.

A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.

Cross Creek Cookery

I’ve written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida.  One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie’s own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II and her rhapsodies on the Joys of Southern Food made an awful lot of American soldiers homesick.  One fellow, who loved food, wrote to her saying, “Lady, [after reading your book] I have never been through such agonies of frustration.” In response, Marjorie published “Cross Creek Cookery”, a collection of recipes and anecdotes that are equally enjoyable.  For example, there is the time she confused an electric ray with flounder and shocked herself trying to catch it.  There is also the tale of Godfrey, a Florida version of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson who considers serving collard greens beneath his dignity. (Godfrey must have been out of his mind; collard greens are the first vegetable that made me fall in love with Southern Cooking.)  Cross Creek Cookery is the first cookbook that made me laugh out loud.

Recipies of My Life

 

But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear.  His cookbook, describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people.  I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life.  Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes.   Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter’s Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food.  Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision.  A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal.  That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!

The Murder Mystery No One Expects

At one point, there was just Jane Austen.  A British lady, (by which I mean gentlewoman, not a member of the aristocracy) gifted with humor, keen powers of observation, and the tenacity to create fiction in a time where few men and no women were encouraged to write. Her novels were known to humorists and English Majors but considered too esoteric for the hoi polloi.  In those days, she was just Jane Austen.
Now, Miss Austen is an industrial source.  Her six major novels have been analyzed, adapted, pillaged, and parodied beyond belief (I have friends who debate the merits of filmed version of P&P), there are shelves heavy with revisionist tales drawn from her original stories and Jane-mania  has spawned at least two books of its own: Austenland and the Jane Austen Book Society. None of this surprises me.  In our culture, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. What I did not expect was murder, that darkest, most obsessive of crimes, would be linked to Jane Austen. And yet, the tie may be true. Of course, it would take a crime writer to see it.

The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen

Enter Lindsay Ashford, a crime journalist, late of the BBC.  With a reference from one of Ms. Austen’s last letters and the analysis of a lock of Jane’s hair, Ms. Ashford realizes Chic Lit’s premier author may have expired, not from Addison’s disease, or tuberculosis, but arsenic poisoning. Add in some research, a few other strange deaths of near relations and the result is  The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, a story that irritates as much as it charms.
Sunny, sensible, practical Jane Austen: is there any less likely candidate for murder?  Yet, Ms. Ashford concocts a theory, narrated by Anne Sharp one of the few non-relatives the real Jane Austen corresponded with.  As a governess once employed by Jane’s brother, Edward, Miss Sharp has the education and sense to recognize literary genius when she sees it. She also has the perspective to see the tangled relationships and characters in the Austen clan.
Character is something Lindsay Ashford occasionally does well as she brings a younger brother, Henry, to life.  This Henry, who reinvents himself and survives on his charm, has some characteristics of Jane’s ne’er-do-wells like Wickham and Henry Crawford but he is also his sister’s champion. Unfortunately, Jane Austen had six brothers and, in the interest of setting out her murder plot, Ms. Ashford forgets to give each of them the necessary distinguishing detail needed to understand her theory.  In the end, you can see Jane’s murder was one in a series of attacks on the Austen family and you can see who had means and opportunity.  A reasonable motive for this act is what’s lacking.
Still, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is fascinating in the research behind it and the questions it poses.  Why did Austen die at the young age of 41? Who were the real-life models behind her classic characters?  What was contained in so many of Jane’s letters that after death, her sister, Cassandra, was compelled to destroy them? In the absence of real answers, we at least have the joy of imagining what they may be.

Blossoms of Evil

The Memory

Everyone has memories they don’t like but can’t shake.  This is one of mine.
I was small and my parents were driving back through a desert in the southwestern states.  We hadn’t seen a town for hours, and I’d gotten used to seeing the endless miles of saguaro, yucca, and empty skies. So, when we started to pass a row of shacks that lined the empty road, I was surprised.  These structures didn’t seem to be part of any town or village, and it would be generous to describe them as houses.  With concave walls, covered with tarpaper and tin, they were the worst excuses for houses I’d ever seen but, judging from the faint light coming from the windows, someone seemed to be living in them.  Even odder, each shack’s sway-backed porch seemed to hold at least one shiny, white, refrigerator or washer and dryer. My mom made a noise of disgust.
 “It’s terrible the way they are treated,” she said.  I asked what she was talking about.

 

Then, with a soft, but angry voice, Mom related this country’s history concerning Native Americans as if she was telling me an unhappy bedtime story.  Attacked, betrayed, segregated and undermined for years by the white colonists and their government, the indigenous Native-Americans had been systematically corralled onto ever-smaller and poorer tracts of land and relegated to a marginalized existence.  Mom said the row of shacks we were passing was part of one reservation.  She added, “And see how the government treats them? Some official probably thought these folks would be fine if they just had modern appliances. Did you notice they don’t have electricity?”

The Book

In a way, Killers of the Flower Moon is just another chapter in Mom’s sad tale about how white men treat American Indians.  But, instead of a misunderstanding and callous government making mistakes, this story’s a lot more personal.
Imagine a tribe actually choosing the land where they will build a reservation.  In the 1870’s, as they were being relocated, the Osage Indians did exactly that. They sought and purchased a tract of Oklahoma they believed was too rocky and poor for any white man to ever desire it. Unfortunately, neither the Osage or the U. S. Government realized the land in question covered a deep, rich, oil reserve.
Killers of the Flower Moon details what happened to the Osage tribe once the drillers struck oil. A host of schemes and deals to separate the Osage from their dividends were put into play, including price-gouging, theft, and outright murder.  This fast-paced history reads like a suspense thriller, detailing not only the conspiracy that exterminated almost an entire family, until the FBI intervened but an even wider number of Osage victims whose murders were never addressed.
It’s a fascinating story, but one that can make you rethink old ideas.  Where I grew up, everyone thought striking oil and becoming rich would be a wonderful thing.  The Osage could argue that striking it rich is the surest way to shorten your life.
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