Talk about tragic!

Some days it seems like the world is coming to an end. Hurricanes one after another. Fire burning up Montana and now California. Earthquakes in Mexico. Mass shooting in Las Vegas.

But I just heard about a tragedy that tops them all. Some fungus is attacking cocoa plants which means there could be a shortage of chocolate! OMG! Anything but that!

And then I read that it’s not just any fungus but one that can clone itself. Doesn’t that sound like science fiction? Clones are attacking the one plant that can help us survive hurricanes and fires and earthquakes! (Not to mention semester finals, dates with jerks and crummy performance reviews.)

These clones cause “frosty rot pot” which is devastating chocolate production in Central and South America. The good news is cocoa plants are surviving in Brazil and West Africa, for now.

I asked about this fungus at my favorite chocolatier, The Grocer’s Daughter in Empire, MI. They had heard about it but said it hasn’t affected their supply, which I must say is fantastic.

Think I’ll go nibble some right now, in case another catastrophe hits and I need cheering up!

Tomorrow’s another day


I call her Scarlett after the heroine in “Gone with the Wind.”  And considering the weather forecast, I may regret that choice.
           My Scarlett is a 2004 burgundy Mustang, 40th anniversary edition, with about 40,000 miles. It’s my Keys car, a spunky convertible for trips to the beach or Key West when I am enjoying my 4-month snowbird residence on Big Pine Key. I bought it in 2014 from another Big Pine resident who always cared for the little lady, keeping her safely tucked away in a garage.
            She’s had to adjust to slightly rougher times under my ownership, being stuck under a cover in an outdoor storage lot for eight months of the year.
             But she’s tough. Always ready for a trip into the city. She loves parading down Duval Street. Going to hear writers lecture. Or toting volunteers to the house walk. Or heading the other direction to Marathon for the Celtic Fest. She’s a feisty dame.
            This weekend, however, she may have to tangle with an even stormier broad: Irma. An evacuation order is in effect for tourists and residents starting today. But spunky Scarlett will have to hold onto her soft fitted cover and hope for the best.
            I know when lives and homes are in danger, worrying about a second car sounds trivial. And as much as Scarlett enjoys attention, she would never want pity. She will make it through. 

Obsessed with pot

Traveling with a group of senior citizens often means the guide needs to know as much about area restrooms as the historic sites.
            While I was  visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, our guide encouraged members of our group to “wait 15 minutes” for much better rest room facilities. But when we arrived at The Peter and Paul Fortress, the restroom she had been touting was horrifying. Parked in the open square was an old bus that had been turned into a restroom. After our guide paid our admission, the line of ladies entered one end of the bus, where each collected a handful of toilet paper. We proceeded down the narrow bus aisle selecting an available stall, no larger than the space between bus seats. Even with partitions we were all in one narrow space, sharing verbally our frustrations at not having enough room to pull down our pants. We were all laughing as we emerged, whether the job had been completed or not, to run our hands under a faucet at the other end of the bus.
             If this was “better restrooms” we feared our trip was doomed. 
             Yet,  later in the day,  while visiting St. Isaac’s Cathedral, we happened to visit the Lions Palace Four Season Hotel just across the street. The elaborate marble and gilded public restroom there was suitable for the tastes of Catherine the Great!

             But our opinion of Russian restrooms reached new heights while we were visiting the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Known for its high-tech, interactive museum exhibits, this new facility was not about to offer anything ordinary. The toilets by Panasonic featured push button controls for spraying and blow-drying every orifice.  And the seats, of course, were heated.
             Gives new meaning to the “hot seat.”

Russian Rainbow


  I had been wanting to take a Viking River Cruise through Russia for years, but I’ll admit I was a little bit afraid.
             It wasn’t just the mounting evidence that the country tampered with our election process. I also read about  growing fears in the Baltic States that Russia was preparing to invade. In March, as I was making arrangements for my trip, Sweden re-instituted its military draft partly because of these  fears. There was the chemical warfare in Syria backed by Russia.
            And then there are all the US sanctions against Russia. Costly sanctions that are getting in the way of oil drilling in Siberia, as well as the more recent sanctions expelling Russian diplomats from the US.
             But I trusted Viking. I figured they wouldn’t take tourists into harm’s way. And I must say the trip went off without a hitch– except for an airline snafu on the way home. The Hermitage, the ballet, Red Square… all lived up to expectations. And the guides’ comments about various political situations helped me to see their perspective.
            In the daily newspaper provided by the ship, I followed as the issue of sanctions came to a head in Congress and Putin responded by announcing plans to cut the number of American diplomats by September. It made lots of headlines but didn’t effect our scheduled tours in any way. 
            One afternoon, as we were cruising across a lake, a rainbow came out. Suddenly I realized that  God’s promises are not just for Americans. It’s a big, complex world. They have sunshine and storms everywhere. And yes, there are rainbows in Russia. 

From Russia with Love

When friends hear that I visited Russia recently, they ask little about the art or architecture or landscape. They want to know about the people. What are Russians like? Are they rude? Violent? Noisy? Drunk? Pushy? In other words, are they what we expect the enemy to look like?

Not at all.

Take Ludemilla, for instance. She hosts a tea for  a dozen or so Viking River Cruise passengers several times a month in the summer. Her large 1936 log home is just a block off the main street in Yaroslavl.The exterior is decorated with gingerbread frames around the windows, a large vegetable garden in the back yard, a rustic gazebo for outdoor dining and a large sandbox for her grandson. Black rubber slipons to protect her shoes from the muddy garden lean against the doorframe.

Potted plants filling the deep window sills can be seen through the sheer living room drapes that are decorated with garish orange eyelash curls. The room is wallpapered with stripes of green ivy. Among the toys and books and knickknacks on the shelves is a huge faux wedding cake made of fabric and wrapped in cellophane. The fake cake is much larger than the small television. Framed pictures on the walls range from family photos to a paint-by-number treasure to a classic landscape.  The table is spread with a pink checked plastic cloth, china plates and water glasses painted with assorted fruit.

Ludemilla serves plates of sliced vegetables — the cucumbers are from her garden but not the yellow peppers she explains — cheese slices, dark bread, pickles and a white cake with raspberry topping. And homemade vodka. The “moonshine” is the centerpiece of the Viking visit and our guide, Dimitry, teaches us how to guzzle quickly to avoid the bitter taste.

Ludemilla, 60,  has lived in the house 40 years. Her late husband was a member of the communist party and they came to Yaroslavl for him to work as an accountant  in a nearby district office. Now her daughter and grandson live with her. Although Ludemilla doesn’t speak English she tries to answer our questions as translated by Dimitry. At one point she rushes from the room and returns with a sweater to try and answer one woman’s question about fabric care. She bustles about the room non-stop attending to her guests.

Her home is much more spacious than the Kommunalka we visited a week earlier in St. Petersburg.  After the 1917 revolution, the large apartments of the wealthy were divided up among several families so each person could have equal space, about 27 square feet. Most of these have been torn down over the years but a few still exist. Larissa, a retired nurse and widow of a seaman, served us hot tea and a delicious cheese-filled coffee cake in her one-room  portion of the apartment.

 The four unrelated residents share an entry hall crowded with their shoes and coats. They also share a common kitchen which is narrow and old-fashioned. They share common bathroom facilities which have a clawfoot tub in one room and toilet and basin in another. The whole building is aging with crumbling concrete steps and wavy floors. But Larissa’s one room portion is well furnished with a makeshift bunk over her office space for when her son visits. She has a shiny new stainless steel refrigerator in her private room, as well as a computer and printer. A shelf unit separates the office area from the formal living room with a sofa that makes into a bed. The room is also home to a friendly cat, a noisy bird and lots of potted plants.

Larissa purchased her  share in the Kommunalka about 10 years ago to be near a daughter and grand children who live in St. Petersburg. She remembers communism as being more “calm” than the current democracy and enjoyed the availability of plenty of schools and gym facilities when her children were growing up.  The people have more freedoms today, such as the freedom to travel, she says, but that is only a freedom for people who have lots of money. She wore a cross around her neck and said she attends the Russian Orthodox church a little more regularly  now than during the Communist regime.

She has a car and drives to her “dacha,” family property she inherited about 10 miles from St. Petersburg where she has a garden. She can’t afford to build a house on the property but considers it her summer getaway.

We met lots of other Russians more briefly. The young woman who smiled and moved aside when a group of tourists invaded her car on Moscow’s subway. The woman with a stroller who waved as our boat passed her in a riverside park. The fishermen who never even looked up from their task as our boat passed. The young motorcyclists that filled the sidewalks near the Moscow University.

They served us food, they guided us through their cities, they sang and danced for us. Some of them speak highly of President Putin; others not so much. They seemed very much like Americans.

Warming to camping


Camping has come a long way. Every year about this time I go to the Lake Michigan Camp near Pentwater. Along with friends Sue Willison and Mary Kay Williams, I rent a platform tent that comes with six cots. It’s got a power pole within extension cord distance so we cook on an electric skillet, heat water in an electric tea kettle, have a lamp on the table and a fan if it gets hot.
          But this year, for the first time since I started going to the camp 10 years ago, it was cold and rainy. Instead of going over the dune to the beach we stayed inside and played Jokers and Pegs. But even with our sweatshirts and hoods we were still cold. Then we discovered the extra heat generated by the crockpot that was cooking our dinner. We put the pot at our feet under the table, stretched that beach blanket over the knees of the three tentmates, and stayed toasty warm while we played.
         Wonder what our pioneer ancestors would say?

Shoe fetish


         Remember pet rocks? Well I have a pet shoe.
         In some ways she’s like an abandoned kitten that I rescued from the animal shelter. With her stately red heel, satiny pleats and tiny black bow, you know she has an exotic past. I imagine she was originally purchased for a wedding or prom or to complete a very special outfit.
        But I didn’t get the shoe as an addition to my wardrobe. I was looking for a red shoe with pizazz to use as a model for the cover of my second mystery, One Shoe Off.  I found this beauty at a used clothing store in Hudsonville. In the meantime, however, my graphic designer, Ryan Wallace, had already created a hauntingly iconic open-toed shoe for the cover design.
       But my classy shoe didn’t get her bow in a snit. She’s a team player. She holds bookmarks at book signings and always steals the show.  Everyone asks where she came from.
        There’s something intriguing about a solo shoe. In  One Shoe Off, newspaper editor Zelda Machinko disappears leaving only a shoe behind. The abandoned shoe pops up thirty years later and reopens the investigation into the Zelda’s disappearance.
       Zelda’s spirit has been extra restless this summer. My pet shoe  has been popping up all over, from beaches to mountains, graduations to barnyards. And now I hear she’s headed to Russia to track down who’s responsible for all those reports of election tampering.
        You never know where #1shoeoff will lead.


How’s your summertime?

            Today as I was setting up this photo as part of the #1shoeoff promotion for my second mystery, I thought of the song “Summertime” from the operetta “Porgy and Bess” by the Gershwin brothers. It’s always been one of my favorites.
            The show opens in a black tenement in Charleston, South Carolina. A mother sings the lullaby to her baby, extolling the easy life of  summer. The song fantasizes a bit that the child will have an easy life because “your daddy’s rich and your ma is good lookin’.” Life can be like summertime.
           Then I realized that nobody in Charleston, where I lived in the 1970s, would call summertime easy. It’s hot as hell, drippy humid and swat-craze buggy. February and March are much nicer. In fact rich folks from the Charleston Lowcounty used to escape inland in the summers, which accounts for the founding and naming of the pleasant little town of Summerville.
            Ira Gershwin, who wrote the lyrics to “Summertime,” lived in New York. He probably saw summer as a welcome reprieve, as did most of the New Yorkers watching this show on Broadway. Ira used his view of summer, not the character’s view.
             It reminded me of a mistake most of us make. We see the world from our perspective and assume that perspective is true for everyone. Many of our disagreements over “truth” are just a matter of perspective.

Is it the goal or the game?


Cabin mates Angela, Shirley and Wendy.

              I was really looking forward to spending my annual week at the Peninsula Writer’s Retreat at Glen Lake. Back in 2010 I polished my first novel “Great News Town” here. In subsequent years I wrote several chapters of each of the next two: “One Shoe Off” and “Full Moon Friday.” I really needed a week to concentrate on writing my current historical novel, “Crown of Gold.”
             I arrived with a goal to write the next three chapters. Instead I rewrote the first chapter three times.
           And climbed to the top of Alligator Hill to look out over North Manitou and South Manitou islands in the early morning fog.
            And watched a sunset that made the hill look like it was a forest fire.
            And listened as a rumbling team of earth movers gobbled up the old log cabins next door and replaced them with carefully layered gravel and sand and topsoil.
             I reconnected with writer friends I hadn’t talked with in years and met new ones whose enthusiasm and creative ideas warmed my soul.
             But no, I didn’t reach my original goal.
            “My business training tells me to set goals,” said cabin mate Wendy Schweifler. “But if I go off kayaking or enjoying a good meal it’s important too. It’s part of the process.”
             “I spent a whole day trying to create a better narrative arc,” reported cabin mate Angela Sweet-Christian. “The next morning I decided it was too forced and went back to the original. I thought I had wasted a day, but I didn’t because that work was valuable too.”     
              “I’ve been slacking on my writing for too long,” said our third cabin-mate Shirley Jones.”My goal was to become re-impassioned about a book I’ve been working on.  And, wow, the muse was with me!”
               Our speaker Mary Ann Samyn told us writing is about revealing the truth in ourselves. That is the ultimate goal, not a certain number of pages or words or chapters.
                Hmmm… sounds like confession.

Executive order from the past


“Order #11” sounds like something from the recent  parade of presidential pronouncements. Was that the Muslim Ban? Or the one about dumping coal waste into streams?
          Actually it’s the name of a 150-year-old painting by George Caleb Bingham. It depicts an 1863 order by Union General Thomas Ewing that evacuated four counties in Missouri, confiscating all property of the residents and burning all the farms.  The order was in response to a raid by Quantrill’s raiders on Lawrence, Kansas. Guess you would call Quantrill’s Raiders the terrorists of the 1860s.
        And like most knee jerk reactions to terrorism, the order went too far, punishing people who had nothing to do with the crime. Some of my son’s ancestors, the Mockbee family,  were among those run out of their home and forced to flee halfway across the state. The Mockbees weren’t slaveholders. They weren’t even Southern sympathizers. They just had the bad luck to settle in Missouri where the disagreement between Missouri and Kansas was the hottest.
          Those four counties became a barren, burned-out graveyard dotted with crumbling chimneys where farm houses used to be. They remained deserted until well after the end of the war two years later. Bingham was a Union supporter but he painted this work to show the world that the Union had gone too far in Missouri.
          I was back in my home state recently to do some genealogical research in the State Historical Society and was pleased to discover this painting on display there. It really brought to life a little bit of family history.