Twilight talk and lightning bugs

My son calls every weekend, usually after supper, when the long afternoon sunlight begins to dim. I sit in my apartment with the lights off, and as we talk, I watch the day turn from light to twilight.summereve

Tonight I asked him about lightning bugs: where there any where he lived? I couldn’t remember  — he is, for another few weeks, living in the town where he grew up. I did not live in that town nearly as long as he. There are many things I don’t remember about the town, or those days.

He said no, there aren’t any lightning bugs. I began talking about the Midwest summer evenings of my youth, being dismissed to the back yard after supper, to run and burn off energy, to get out from underfoot. Those evenings we waited for that moment when, in the thick summer evening air, the sky would light up with the dozens of neon green lights flickering from the insects we gleefully chased. We captured them, put them in jars, or pinched one between our fingers to write out names in the twilight sky. It was a childhood summer evening ritual.

I asked him if there were lightning bugs where he lived, and he said no. I asked if he had ever seen a lightning bug, and he said yes, the summer he was an intern in Washington, DC. Of course, I thought to myself. He would have, there. We talked a little longer, the day became night, and I said goodbye. I watched the twilight dim to darkness. I thought of lightning bugs and childhood, and him.

I know he’ll call next week. Sometime soon he’ll be returning to where I live, and he won’t be calling me on Sunday evenings to check in and see how I am. We’ll see each other nearly every day, and what we talk about will be different. We’ll talk to each other, and it will be good, but it will be a different type of conversation. It won’t be the talk of a son calling a father.

I’m going to miss the phone calls.

(Image from

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Five feet high and rising

My absence can be explained this way. I’m deep into editing book two of the Shig Sato Mystery series — finished the first draft, started making corrections, decided some chapters needed to go, others needed to be in different places — and while making the corrections, finding other stuff that needs attention, and even while watching TV or walking to work, thinking about new and different plot lines and details.

Sound familiar?

Writing is rewriting. This is a hard lesson to learn. I came up through the journalism ranks, the “Get it right and get it out” school of daily journalism where rewriting was a luxury only feature writers and editorial writers possessed. One of the hardest things for me to do is turn off the journalism/non-fiction switch and turn on the creative writing/fiction switch. I liken it to driving 55 mph and then slamming on the brakes and putting the car in reverse at 55 mph. (Please don’t try this.)

I am usually pretty good at shutting down the editor part of my brain while writing, so when the time comes to edit and rewrite, it’s as if the editor part is catapulted to freedom, to run amok among the words that are just-about-there-but-not-quite ready. And it likes to play. What I find incomprehensible is the flood of ideas that pass through my mind like a raging flood. It’s scary and thrilling at the same time. And addictive. It’s my favorite part of the writing process.

The rewrite — aka second draft — is about 70 percent compete. After that, another edit and then copies sent to beta readers. Then it’s on to book three.

I am getting closer, and going further.

I promise to be back. Soon.

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Moms always know

My writing journey began before the dawn of my consciousness. I’m convinced of this, because I’ve been told I was always reading, always had a book in my hand. I remember creating stories as early as the first grade. My brother told me he has memories of me sitting in our bedroom and writing.

Always with something to read.

Always with something to read.

It’s easy for dreamy, overly imaginative kids – like I was – to float through life with no sense of reality. That’s where my mother enters the story. She always, always accepted the idea that I liked words, writing, music, creativity, the arts. But she made sure that wasn’t the only thing in my life. Growing up in a household of a mom and dad and seven  brothers and sisters, sometimes it’s easy to stand beside the chaos and go off on your own. My mom was always there to reel me back. It’s the everyday stuff of raising a child, sure, but the one thing she never did was squash my dreams. She just made sure my feet were on the ground and I was going in the right direction.

I was always itching to go out into the world. My youth was spent away from the house – playing, biking, then when I was a little older, hiking, then a little older, camping. Then I left  home to work at a summer camp. Mothers see what their child is like and sense what their child will become. I’m sure my mother saw the restlessness inside me and saw that my life outdoors kept me grounded.

I think she saw my love of reading and writing in the same way. I didn’t fully realize this until I was much older, in the Navy, home on leave, and I was with my mother somewhere, and she introduced my as ‘an aspiring writer.’ It surprised me. I don’t ever recall really talking to her about it. Maybe it was too obvious for words.

But the truth is, she got it before I ever did. And for that I salute her.

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Entering Act III

Recently, I read  about millennials finishing college, finding a job, closing in on 30 and getting serious about their life. And they are struck with all sorts of realities: being single means being lonely. Being married means sacrificing. Having children means saying goodbye to whatever life you thought you had. Work is a grind. Life isn’t fair. And friends drift away, seldom to be replaced by new friends. And nostalgia doesn’t seem so stupid after all. (The creators of How I Met Your Mother knew this — and the show lasted nine seasons.)

Turning 30 is big. To me, though, it’s just the end of Act I.

It’s what I’ve come to think about life, and how things go. Let’s say life is like a play, and if a person is lucky enough to get their three score and ten, and maybe a little more, it’s easy to see how it can be broken into three acts.At_Computer_silloette
Everyone’s life is unique, so there are no hard-and-fast rules to this. Speaking for myself, my first act ended at 31. It was the last year I was in New York, working for a newspaper, unhappy with my life, unable to shout down or ignore the voice inside me saying “Go out and see the world, it’s your last chance!”
I had been lucky in the seeing the world bit: Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic, North Sea, eight countries in a six month cruise — and then I was ordered to Asia.
It was heaven for someone who knew in his bones that he wanted to write. Not knowing what, or how,  didn’t seem to matter. Working as a journalist seemed to be a good way to get my feet wet. So from traveling to journalism school to newspaper work — and all I could think of was how I missed traveling.

Enter Act II.

I went to Japan, and my life changed in ways I could  not image  ways unimaginable. Simply put, I found myself in Tokyo, working as a copy editor, teaching conversation English, editing English language textbooks, falling in love, and in the blink of an eye, becoming a husband and father. Totally unprepared, mentally, emotionally, financially. One thing I knew was as big a schmuck as I probably was, what I’d be graded on for the rest of my life was ‘was he a good father?’ I spent the next 20-plus years trying to live up to that. My jobs in the newspaper industry really didn’t amount to much because deep down the guy who wanted to write novels battled the guy who was editing newspapers and moonlighting for extra cash and taking jobs every few years to be closer to his son. It was all I could do to muster what little brainpower I had to get through the day. But, time passes, kids graduate high school, then college, and the angst of raising children becomes a memory. Now son and father are launched into the world. He’s beginning his own Act I.

For me, it’s time for Act III. And like the storytelling gurus suggest, there are things from Act I and Act II that are the key to Act III — admitting that I’d rather write fiction than work in the news business, admitting that back-to-back  job loses that resulted in an anxious move to a new town really did turn out well, after all. Realizing surviving long-ago health issues that became to big too ignore will put one in a grateful frame of mind. Coming out the other side of those episodes whole and better helped me decide that, like the old gent in Slomo said,”Do what you want to.”

I hope that everyone, in their own Act III, finds a grateful place, and do what they want to.



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Sato and Abe are called to a murder scene

(An excerpt from The Gangster’s Son, a Shig Sato Mystery)clip6275

The police inspector knelt over the dead woman. He gently tilted her young, battered face. Her hair, dusty with debris, fell at odd angles. Sticky crimson blood oozed out her nose, ears, and mouth. One eye stared into the night, and what remained of the other was a swollen bloody mass. He pressed his finger against a plum-colored cheek split open. Some bone was still intact.

As he got up, he noted how her legs were oddly twisted beneath her. The sleeveless silk blouse and short black skirt she wore did not look disturbed. Nothing lay beside her. In the harsh crime scene lights, he thought the girl looked like a broken mannequin, carelessly discarded and alone.

It was a still, humid Tokyo evening, past midnight. Detective Ken Abe watched Inspector Shig Sato. Five minutes had passed since Sato said he wanted to take another look at the body. Abe wondered if his friend had lost his ability to concentrate, with his wife so ill, and this being his first night back in Criminal Investigations after two years of diplomatic security duty.

“Inspector?” Abe believed he hid the concern in his voice.

Sato raised his hand to shade his eyes from the blinding lights.


Abe pulled a cigarette from his lips.


Sato took another long look at the young woman, walked over to Abe, and said, “She was probably surprised, then beaten and left for dead. Probably dropped to the ground where she stood.”

Abe was relieved to see Sato focusing on the crime, putting what he saw into some sense of order.

“You said she’s a waitress at the jazz club?” Sato asked.

“Yep. Right in there,” Abe said, pointing at a neglected brown door. “A jazz club. Called the Down Low.”

There were many scattered anonymous doors along the alley. Some led to long, narrow, dim bars selling grilled chicken and beef on sticks to whet the appetite of the tired businessmen drinking beer after lonely beer. The meat’s lingering aroma, the grease, the alcohol, the sweat of the cooks, all clung to the thick night air. Behind other doors, sushi denizens had watched countermen slice their tuna and eel and octopus, caress their roe and rice, priests preparing their offerings. In tiny cabarets with low and plaintive jukeboxes, hostesses rested their aching feet while night managers quickly counted the evening take after rousting patrons from their drunken stupors.

The inspector saw these doors, once open in the vain hope of catching a midnight breeze, now closed tight against the bad luck that came with a dead body.

“It is too quiet here,” Sato said to himself. He did not like the quiet, not in that part of Tokyo, on the fringe of nightclubs and cabarets and bars and restaurants, that place where two alleys met, where a girl lay dead.

Sato took another look at the dead girl, then turn toward the medical examiner.

“It looks like somebody struck her across the face so hard it snapped her head back against that concrete wall,” the doctor said. A slight, bald, fidgety man, the doctor was truly at ease only when performing an autopsy. He hated making definite statements at crime scenes, but knew Sato needed to hear something. “Blunt force. Caused some type of bleeding in the skull, I’d say. And then maybe something snapped. She slumped to the ground, and that was it.”

Sato looked back at the body, then at the doctor, and paused before asking, “No one moved her, touched her in any way?”

“No!” If it had been anyone other than Sato, the doctor would have been insulted.

“Any signs of resisting? Bruising? Rape?”

“I don’t know.” The doctor hesitated, scratching his ear. “Her underclothes don’t look like they’ve been disturbed, and there’s nothing strange about her thighs or buttocks. I mean, there’s no strange marks or bruises. Like I said, it looks like she just dropped. Some kind of smack in the face, her head hits the wall. Probably burst something in her brain. Anyway, it probably shut down her central nervous system. That’s probably what killed her. We’ll know more later.”

Abe watched as Sato talked to the medical examiner. He watched Sato’s face harden as the doctor gave his assessment.

“She was pretty,” Abe said.

Sato turned to look at the girl once more.

“What was she doing in a dark alley so late at night?” he asked. “What could have happened that would lead to this?”

“This is Roppongi,” Abe said. “She probably liked the excitement. Nightclubs. Music. Lots of strange new people.”

“People.” Sato grunted.

“This club has a lot of foreigners come listen to jazz.”

Sato frowned. “Foreigners.”

“Young girl looking to meet foreigners, maybe have an adventure.”

“Adventure.” Sato shook his head.

“Hey, Tokyo’s booming,” Abe said. “It’s 1991. Things are good. Lots of people come here from all over the world, looking to make money, have a good time.”

“Maybe she had a boyfriend,” Sato said. “Maybe a jealous boyfriend.”

“Maybe a secret admirer,” Abe said.

“Yes, maybe.”

(Read more here.)

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The Times are A-Changin’

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was reported so nearly instantaneously it boggles my Philip Seymour Hoffmanmind. It shouldn’t. In this day and age, someone with a smartphone can take a picture and send a tweet and take over a news cycle.

Hoffman’s death is Exhibit A. And I offer the Farrow-Allen saga as Exhibit B.

An event months in the making, pro football’s Super Bowl dominated our media culture one cold February Sunday until these stories broke. And how.  Both the Hoffman story and the Farrow-Allen story came from different places: Hoffman’s untimely death was news. The Farrow-Allen story has been around for 20 years. Each commanded attention, and in a way print or broadcast journalism cannot compete. Because it’s not ‘right here, right now.’

The tragedies in Newtown and Boston gave the world examples of up-to-the-minute reporting for all its good and its faults. What’s different about the Hoffman story is how it evolved, from a tweet to a story on the web to as-it-happens details from police and other officials, all of which painted a bleak picture of Mr. Hoffman’s recent past and last hours.

The Farrow-Allen story is the type of story that simmers, then boils over when something new occurs. I don’t know that the new in this case is news, and I don’t think the rehash of sordid details does anything except reopen wounds and creates a climate where public figures must endure the harsh criticisms of strangers.

Most evenings I’m at my day job – a newspaper. Anachronistic, you might say. In this day and age, it seems so. So many people now are tuned into social media that one person saying one thing at one moment can take over the mediasphere.

Has technology changed the way we get and use information? Yes. Has it changed the news business? Definitely. It’s arguable that no other industry has been as affected by this type of change. What has changed in my business since the late 1990s is the volume and variety of information available to readers and the speed in which they receive it.

I use the examples of Hoffman and Farrow and Allen and Newtown and Boston because I don’t believe people get the whole picture of a situation or event when they receive it in bits and pieces. People who are familiar with Hoffman’s or Farrow’s or Allen’s troubles may be able to piece together what they hear with with what they know and believe and make a conclusion, but is this really what the story is about?

People believe what they want to believe. But I don’t think the public is served by someone tweeting something and as a result, the media herd mentality taking over.  I believe that taking a step back and allowing a story to percolate, take off, settle or disappear is a good thing. News doesn’t go stale as quickly as you might think.

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Diligence is the word

I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order and thdiligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.
– Charles Dickens

Some writers can only write when inspired. Some suffer from writer’s block. Other’s cave in to popular culture or conventional wisdom. So, when they get around to writing words, they write words that are false, sentences that are flat, stories that are dead the moment the final period is placed on the page, then wonder why their their writing isn’t up to scratch. These writers become dejected, and repeat the process again and again. I know I have.

I think this because for writers, even young writers, the enemy is time. We are all guilty in luxuriating in the nonsense that is ‘waiting for inspiration’ or ‘ I need to research this in order to understand the subject’ or ‘when I accomplish ___________ then I can REALLY get down to writing.’

My first notion of writing a story came at 6 years of age. I wrote my first story at  10.  By age 14 I had written, in large print, on white ruled paper, nearly 100 pages of forgettable juvenile nonsense. I knew I had writing deep in my bones, but allowed interests in other things to overwhelm me – I lacked punctuality, order and diligence to keep at writing regularly.

And when I acquired a modicum of those habits, I really had no idea what to do with them, so far as writing went. Because I had no sense of urgency. I still believed I had time on my side. Then I turned 40. Time had slipped through my fingers, and I had nothing to show for my efforts but notebooks and short stories and a life contemplating writing without really doing anything about it. So I set out to write what was in my heart and on my mind. I resolved to be published in my 40s and earn my living from my stories  by the time I was 50.

I’m 56. Things are just now starting to come together.

It’s inevitable that one’s life takes over one’s art, unless one’s art is one’s life. I’m not talking about earning a living, raising a family, or being a productive member of society. It’s making time to write, or paint, or compose, or build, or cook – whatever it is – because, as every athlete or musician or painter or writer knows, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. And that takes habit, punctuality and diligence.

Jeff Goins says that  in this new year, writers need to focus on resolve: that a write needs to commit, to develop new habits. I agree.

Still, I think Charles Dickens said it best.

So, diligence is my 2014 word of the year.

Time to get back to it.

What about you?

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