The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 1

Over the summer, I had the privilege of meeting Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain who authored the acclaimed memoir On Living. Kerry is perhaps the most famous hospice chaplain in America, having been featured on NPR and in the pages of the New York Times. Obviously “famous hospice chaplain” is a bit of an oxymoron, like “tastiest lima bean in the school cafeteria.” Kerry’s book, though, stands on its own merits. The book’s cover states that it reflects on “the spiritual work of dying” as related through the experiences of her patients. That sounds awfully dreary, and indeed the book is literally existential, that is, concerned with existence and non-existence. The word “existential” is so often paired with “crisis,” but in Kerry’s stories, what emerges isn’t crisis or trauma, but a sense of calm reckoning, coupled with a profound sense of wonder.

One chapter that has stuck with me for several months describes the last weeks in the life of a Cherokee woman who was dying of brain cancer. The woman led a remarkable life, born as the illegitimate, ultimately estranged daughter of the famous Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, sustaining severe injuries while rescuing a young man from a burning car, and uprooting her life to be with a woman she met online. Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that according to the woman’s daughter, almost none of this amazing life story was actually true. The dying woman had been a serial liar and con artist, well-practiced in art of manipulation. She wasn’t Wilma Mankiller’s daughter. In fact, she wasn’t even Cherokee. Kerry only came to discover this alternate reality after she and her dying patient had taken part in a powerful Native American religious ritual together. How can we reconcile the profoundly transformative experiences the woman had in her final weeks with the likelihood that most of what she had shared with her own partner and with Kerry was false?

This divergence between the facts of our lives and the narratives we create about them is a conundrum nearly everyone has struggled with — hopefully in a less extreme, less unscrupulous form. Whenever we misremember a childhood incident, painting it with overly-rosy or overly-dark hues, we engage in an act wherein the meaning we create around an experience has more resonance than the nitty-gritty realities of that event. My mother and her sister have an amusing version of this that is perhaps common in families. They often substitute themselves for the other sister when telling a story. So often, in fact, that they sometimes forget which sister was the protagonist in the real story.

Kerry comes away from her encounter with the faux Cherokee woman choosing to hold onto the essence of their shared experience. That essence, that feeling, was the existential truth of the woman’s life.

That’s what’s really important, right? Well, not to me. Not anymore. I think this story has stuck with me because its tidy conclusion caused me to reevaluate my own understanding of truth versus truthiness. Stay tuned for more philosophical ponderings in the next installment of The Kindness of #alternativefacts…

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Sisyphus’s reading list

With apologies to my parents and the various governmental and charitable bodies that funded my higher education, I have to confess that I remember almost nothing from my undergraduate courses. One obscure factoid, however, stands out with surprising clarity: the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza read every book in print during this lifetime.

The Gutenberg press was invented around 1500, and for the first few decades almost all books were printed in Latin. Despite the obvious improvements from the days of hand copying, books were still relatively rare and expensive commodities. Only tomes of great importance, written by men of means, were deemed worthy of publication. To possess a vast library, or even a single book, was a mark of distinction. Throughout the sixteenth century, though, printed books became more and more commonplace, and the array of printed matter increased exponentially with each passing decade. By the seventeenth century, when Spinoza lived, there were hundreds of presses across Europe and the entire canon of classical Greek texts (Plato, Aristotle, and various other toga-ed toffs) was in print. During Spinoza’s lifetime and after his death, this proliferation only increased as books and pamphlets in vernacular languages flew off the presses. By 1800, a new kind of press could churn out almost 500 pages every hour.

Walk into even the shabbiest small-town library and you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of printed paper arrayed before you. I despair of ever finding time to finish Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s wonderful Clare Fergusson mystery series, much less read every book in print. Getting through my reading list can feel like a never-ending task, a “to do” that will never, ever be done.

Spinoza had a couple of advantages over you and me. First, he didn’t have kids or a spouse or a regular job, and, though I can’t prove it, I suspect he also didn’t have a demanding miniature schnauzer. Most importantly, though, he lived during the sweet-spot era of knowledge creation and dissemination when there were thousands, but not yet millions, of books in circulation.

Northwestern University, my alma mater, is organized around approximately 10-week “trimesters” rather than semesters. This gives students the opportunity to cram in more courses during the academic year than is typical. I must’ve taken close to 40 different courses during my time there, and this anecdote about Spinoza is what has stuck with me. If you love reading as much as I do, the idea of being able to read every book inspires awe and envy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have time to really read each word that passes in front of your eyeballs? And to savor your favorite passages?

As you glance at that pile of unread books on your bedside table or file yet another friendly suggestion of a “must read” book into your mental Rolodex, maybe you, like me, will give a jealous thought to Spinoza. We live in an ever-expanding universe of words that continually stretches further from the Big Bang origin of the invention of the printing press. Quit your job and spend every waking minute with your nose stuck in a book, and you’ll barely have begun. But take heart. Though you didn’t live at Spinoza’s perfect moment in publishing history, you can take some comfort that you live in the era of indoor plumbing, Oreo cookies, and Dr. Who.

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You secretly believe life is fair.

A friend of mine is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer. She has two young daughters who are, for the second time in a year, having to watch their mom fall ill from treatment, lose her vitality and probably her hair (again), and fight for her life. This same friend’s brother died of cancer last week, after years of often agonizing pain. Oh, and her mom is currently in rehab after a debilitating stroke. She’s holding up incredibly well, but the Bible’s Job is probably looking at her like, “Damn, girl. That sucks.”

I confess. Although I am within sniffing distance of my fourth decade of life, I still secretly believe that life is fair. Or at least that it ought to be. I’m guessing you have the same irrational fantasy. Like toddlers complaining that Timmy got more turns on the slide than everybody else, we harbor a feeling that there should be a universal sense of justice, some kind of correlation between the way we live our lives and the things that happen to us. We see this instinct in action every time tragedy rains down. I often think of the public outcry when, a few years back, a toddler was killed by a rogue alligator at Disney World. Comments sections all over the internet filled up with outraged voices asking why the parents would let the boy get so close to the water. Why weren’t they watching their son more closely? Why didn’t Disney take more stringent measures to clear the lake of alligators? Why hadn’t employees warned people not to be near the water at night? The plain fact is that it was a terrible, terrible accident. Like most tragedies, if a hundred small things had gone slightly differently, it could have been prevented. But things went the way that they did, and a young, innocent life ended as a result. How unfair.

I see this same dynamic with my friend’s cancer diagnosis. People will ask her, “Is there cancer in your family?” “Were you exposed to X chemical?” “Did you eat too much of X or drink too little of Y?” As if there’s an answer. As if we must make this logical and fair somehow in our minds.

I think I write in part from this same deep-seated human impulse to make things fair. I’ve given my main character, Lindsay Harding, a lot of baggage. Deadbeat parents, adoption by an aunt whose ideas about child rearing bordered on Dickensian, a traumatic betrayal by her fiance, frequently being targeted by violent criminals. Like me, Lindsay knows that, despite her belief in a benevolent God, life isn’t fair. She even has several conversations in A Murder in Mount Moriah about this age-old philosophical dilemma. But what Lindsay doesn’t know is that <<SPOILER ALERT>> when all is said and done, she will get her happy ending. I get to make things fair for her. That’s the power of creating a fictional world. I’ll kill off the worst of the baddies and reward most of the goodies. That’s how most books and movies work, and I’m not cruel enough to deviate from that formula by subjecting my readers to an ending that results in Lindsay’s slow, painful death. (I know I’m not alone is still being mad at John Boyne for the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.)

Admit it. You know rationally that life isn’t fair. But when you see good people suffering I’m willing to bet that you, like me, have to fight an internal battle against the belief that it damn well ought to be.

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I’m in love with a weird, evil Yoda creature

I’ve been pretty busy these last few weeks, bringing forth the miracle of life in all its wriggling, pooping, chubby-cheeked glory. Our latest addition, a boy, was born in early June and has kept us on a pretty short leash since then. I’ve been a little hesitant to post here, even when I’ve had the odd spare minute (and spare minutes are very odd these days), because my command of the English language seems to have disappeared along with my nights of unbroken sleep. The other day, for example, I found myself writing “yous” when I meant to write “use.” I guess sleep-deprived Mindy is a wise guy from New Jersey.

Can I share a secret? I really don’t like having a newborn baby. I was first struck by the unusual nature of this feeling when we were still in the hospital. At the birthing center where I delivered, they fit newborns with a little electronic ankle bracelet — the baby version of those plastic tag alarms they put on leather handbags to keep shoplifters from swiping them. I’ve heard stories, and I know there are desperate people out there who have tried to steal babies. Sure, babies are cute when they can sit up and gurgle adoringly at their caregivers. And who doesn’t love a cuddle with a cherub-faced two-year-old who has just awakened from a 12-hour nighttime snooze? By all means, covet one of those. But to want to steal a NEWBORN? Newborns are wrinkly little Yoda-looking blobs who fuss constantly and are essentially super glued to your boob six or seven hours a day. They make creepy little hand gestures and give suspicious sideways glances like they’re villains in a silent film. They use those tiny, powerful lungs to let you know how pissed off they every time they have to fart.

Even though objectively no one should want to endure a hellacious pregnancy, an excruciating delivery, and then several months of Guantanamo-style torture at the hands of a tiny tyrant, somehow there are still seven billion of us on the planet. How to explain this? For me, the magic is encoded in our DNA. Coiled in every cell in our bodies, we have about two meters of DNA strands. Six feet of the stuff! In every cell. The DNA to build a complete human evolved very slowly over millions of years and gosh darn it, it wants to live on. So in those impossibly thin, tightly packed DNA strands, there are adaptations that make us delight in the weird little faces of our babies. And that let loose a hormonal barrage that bonds mother and child. And a thousand other little bits of code unfold to ensure that however we may objectively feel about newborns, we do our darnedest to keep them alive, thriving, and happy. Perhaps the most important of these adaptations is the one that makes us forget all the (very) bad parts and fall madly, irrevocably in love with our children.

Must dash. The evil overlord, um, I mean sweet little baby needs to be super glued to my boob again.

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Think of it as a murder time machine.

If you follow my blog, you’ll already know that work on book four of the Mount Moriah Mystery series ground to a halt earlier this year when I spent the better part of four months vomiting. I’ve recovered from BarfFest 2016, but still haven’t made as much headway as I’d like on the latest Lindsay Harding adventure.

malice_anthology_coverI haven’t been entirely unproductive this year, though. In addition to incubating my fetus, I also managed to publish a short story in the brand spankin’ new Malice Domestic Anthology, Mystery Most Historical. Malice Domestic is the world’s premier cozy and traditional mystery fan conference. It’s a mystery geek’s paradise. Think Disney World, only with fewer costumed princesses and more alcohol and murder. This year, there were well over 100 authors attending, all of whom write in the traditional mystery genre–i.e. no excessive sex or violence and typically involving relatable protagonists and “puzzle” type mysteries with clues. For fans, it’s a great chance to mingle with your favorite authors and stock up on all things mystery.

I was honored to have my story, “The Blackness Before Me,” not only selected for this year’s volume, but also chosen as the lead story for the whole collection.  I’m the lead-off batter, y’all! All the stories in the collection are set prior to 1950, and all of them prove that murder and mayhem are by no means modern phenomena. My story rides the murder time machine back to nineteenth-century South Africa, where a naive governess finds herself caught up in an intricate murder plot. The collection includes stories by well-known authors like Charles Todd and Catriona McPherson in addition to works by humbler folks like me.

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That girl is strange, no question.

If you are a woman of a certain age or the parent of a such a woman, no doubt the title of this post immediately got you humming the opening number from Disney’s 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast. My family owned that tape on VHS; in fact, I think it’s probably still somewhere in my parents’ basement. Even though my sisters and I must have spent the better part of our childhood and adolescent years watching it, I hadn’t thought about it again until recently. Last week, my ten-year-old daughter went to see the new live-action version of the film and fell every bit as in love with it as I did with the original.

Revisiting this touchstone of my childhood got me thinking. The movies both open with the same set up — intellectual misfit Belle chafing (in song!) against the quotidian conformity of her fellow townsfolk. The divergence manifests itself in lyrics like this:

Baker: Good Morning, Belle!
Belle: Good morning, Monsieur.
Baker: And where are you off to, today?
Belle: The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk and an ogre and a –
Baker: That’s nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!
As a bookish kid, I was 100% Team Belle. Her love of literature clearly made her superior to oafish townspeople like the Baker, and especially to that Philistine-in-Chief, Gaston.
Watching the same thing play out from the perspective of adult experience, though, I had a slightly different take. When I look at this same scene now, here’s what I see:
Baker (being polite): How’s it going, Belle?
Belle: Let me start to tell you the really long, convoluted plot of a fairy tale I just read…
Baker (realizing that a grown woman is about to fill his entire morning with a painstaking, blow-by-blow summary of a children’s book she’s irrationally excited about): Oh, hey, Belle. Um, that’s cool. I just realized that I’m super busy with these baguettes, though. Later!
Belle, like so many Disney heroines, is a child trapped in a woman’s body. Sure, we all love characters with child-like exuberance. That’s why the internet gets such a kick out of things like this gnarly old dude tearing up the skate park. But this is especially true for female characters. Think of an iconic, lovable female character from a book or movie. Now ask yourself — is that woman fully an adult? I can think of male characters who manage to be magnetic, while still maintaining their dignity. You wouldn’t see Aragorn from Lord of the Rings breathlessly wasting someone’s time with a dizzy recounting of a book he just read. And Atticus Finch doesn’t go around befriending birds and flowers à la Snow White. Mr. Darcy may be uptight and arrogant, but he’s a compelling adult. James Bond, despite his Jack-the-lad demeanor, exudes manliness.
I can’t, however, think of a single adult female character who fully embodies an adult role while still remaining lovable. This is true, I admit, even of my own Lindsay Harding character. She’s trying to be a grown-up, but she’s got a long way to go. Remove the fun from a fictional heroine, and you’re left with a stick-in-the-mud. Or, worse, a bitch. Even the fact that female characters, like Belle in the song lyrics above, are often called girls is telling. Lots of iconic female characters actually are girls or at least very young women, from Anne Shirley to Alice in Wonderland to Katniss Everdeen. Am I wrong about this? I sure hope so. If you have a counter-example, leave it in the comments section.

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What a North Korean assassination can tell us about our souls

If you’ve been following the news the past few weeks, you may have come across a series of stories describing the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled older brother of North Korea’s secretive dictator, Kim Jong Un. This type of thing–the flagrant murder of a political enemy by state-sponsored killers–is reassuringly rare. And when it does occasionally happen, as when Kremlin-backed murderers poisoned former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko in a London restaurant, the killers are usually careful to cover their tracks, making it nearly impossible to prove that the hit was orchestrated by a government. I recently heard a radio commentator discussing why such killings aren’t more common, and why governments go to such lengths to hide their crimes. After all, if you’re a nefarious dictator, killing your enemies seems like a pretty straightforward way of dealing with dissent. There are a variety of international laws and treaties that explicitly prevent this type of behavior, especially when it occurs on foreign soil.

You may be wondering why this international intrigue piqued my interest, and if I’m planning to abandon the world of cozy crime and make an abrupt shift to writing spy thrillers set in the world of bad haircuts and imported cheese. Luckily for the reading public, the answer is no. Rather, my interest comes down to the word the commentator used: “prevent.” As in these laws prevent this type of behavior. It got me pondering the age-old question of inherent evil. This is Philosophy 101, Hobbes vs. Locke. If laws weren’t around to prevent, curtail, strongly discourage, etc. us from being horrible and violent, would the world just be one big Lord of the Flies-style foray into the darkest cesspools of the human soul?

I’m not talking here about laws that prevent jaywalking, insider trading, and other selfish or thoughtless acts. I’m thinking specifically of killing. Setting aside the small number of people who are utterly detached from reality and social norms, those who are, say, deranged by severe mental illness, caught up in a war, or scarred by childhood abuse, is it true that the fear of legal punishment is what prevents us from committing violent crimes? I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve invented characters whose compelling motivations and character flaws combine to cause them to commit or attempt to take another person’s life.

My feeling is that most basic laws against violence weren’t codified to try to scare people into reining in a natural propensity toward murdering other people. Instead, I see laws as arising from the inherent belief that 99% of the world’s population already shares–killing people isn’t something most of us would even want to do, even if we were assured that we would never be punished. Unless a very specific set of circumstances and personalities are in play, killing doesn’t happen. Sure, I’ve been angry enough to want someone dead. Just the other day, someone (obviously deserving of death) bought the last package of whole grain waffles right out from under me. But if you actually put a knife in my hand and said, “Go for it. No questions asked and no consequences…?” I, along with most people, would take a pass. Even many nefarious dictators would think twice.

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