Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween! Jungle Red style...

HALLIE EPHRON: Halloween is a big deal in our neighborhood. People decorate, more even than for Christmas. My neighbor across the street has a giant inflated pumpkin. Next door skeletal hands reach up out of the ground. 

This year my husband won't be doing an elaborately carved pumpkin, though the door of his office at the college celebrates the holiday in special fashion with one of his signature rats.

My daughters have always gotten into Halloween. I'm not clever at all and I'm cheap, so they had to make their own costumes. They still do. Brilliantly. Here's them a few years ago, doing me proud. I crack up every time I look at this photo.

This year Daughter #1 is dressing up as her cat. (See photo at the end of this post.)

So what goes on with the rest of you at Halloween?

LUCY BURDETTE: Well, okay, we are in Key West for Halloween, and that means a week called Fantasy Fest, leading up to the big parade on Saturday. The week starts out with an unofficial event called the zombie bike ride. (I wrote about all this in KILLER TAKEOUT, which was loads of fun. John and I commissioned a professional face painter to do our zombie looks. )

THEN, as the week goes on, the costumes get raunchier and skimpier. As I was doing research, I persuaded the boys to participate in nearly everything, including the tutu party.  

The Key West locals parade is on Friday night, and the creativity for that event is stunning! 

There are several blocks on Duval Street, designated as the "fantasy zone," and that's where the dearth of costumes other than body paint becomes notable. (I will not share those photos, but you can Google.)

I have always loved costumes and hence, Halloween, but I never imagined living in a place where costumes rule!

RHYS BOWEN: Not having grown up with Halloween I have never seen it as the big deal that my children and grandchildren have made it. In fact my first year in the US there was a knock on my door and a child in cat costume stood there. Trick or Treat she said. I had no idea what she meant! And of course I had no candy to give her.

I used to love dressing up. Now it seems like a chore.

We're going to a Halloween party and as I write this I'm trying to come up with clever costumes that take no work. I'm thinking of a black veil over a long black dress and a picture of Oprah Winfrey tacked to it. I'll be the Phantom of the Oprah. What do you think? And John can wear his usual suit with the letter C on it and be The Old Man and the C.

Any better ideas?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Rhys! You are hilarious. Perfection.  Jonathan and I--see here? Went a few years ago as the Arcs:  Joan, and Noah. 


And funnily enough, I was reading an old diary from seriously, more than 30 years ago. In it, I was swooning over a guy I had met at a Halloween costume party. Will he call, won't he, all that stuff. I was--35 maybe. Very very single. And here's the BEST and purest diary line of all times, seriously. I wrote:

"And how can I even be sure what he thinks? He's only seen me dressed as a teabag."
Honestly, I can barely type now, I am laughing so hard at that. I was being completely and totally serious.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hank, that is the most hilarious line ever. Honestly, you could build an entire BRIDGET JONES-style novel around that one sentence (and of course, she has a costume disaster, when she shows up to a garden fete mistakenly dressed for a "Tarts and Vicars" party.)

We live out in the country, and Halloween is so low key we've taken to leaving a big bowl of candy on the front porch - and there's always plenty left by the end of the night. There are a limited number of children around, and only the youngest go house-to-house in our area. Once they reach the age when they start calculating how much candy they could be getting, they're off to the suburbs or to Portland.

Hank, I too met a young man on Halloween, when I was at school in London. Not having packed any costume material when shipping a wardrobe overseas for seven months, my best friend and I rented outfits from a Fancy Dress Shop. First and only time I haven't made my own. Anyway, I went as a sort of Gay 90s Burlesque girl - satin corset with velvet drapery fore and aft, fishnet tights with a garter, and some sort of plume thing in my hair. 


JULIA: We went to our local pub and then on to three different parties, and I got more male attention that night than I ever have before or since! I chatted with and made a date with one nice fellow I met at a party. I think he was horribly disappointed when I turned up for dinner in my usual garb of frill-necked shirt, sweater, and Laura Ashley skirt (it was 1982, and every girl dressed either like Diana Spencer or Madonna.) Maybe if I had been in a tea bag, he would have had different expectations.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: You are all so cute! (And Rhys, you are hysterical...) Now I'm embarrassed to admit that I am a total bust at Halloween. My mom didn't do costumes, and I just never got the hang of it. My daughter learned pretty early to cope on her own. But I love seeing the little ones in their costumes. We don't get many trick-or-treaters, but I like to sit on the front porch with a bowl of candy during the prime time to welcome the few who come by.

But this year I'm in London, and am going to my friend's house in Chiswick (west London.) They have hundreds of trick-or-treaters! Halloween has taken over the UK. And there are Halloween-themed decorations everywhere here. 

Back at home, Wren is getting off to a good start in her first Halloween costume!

HALLIE: Please, share your Halloween traditions! And if you email me a picture, I'll add it to the post.

To get us started, here's my daughter as her cat....  Is she adorable or what?

Thanks for this, from Edith Maxwell: "For many years my best friend and I dressed up in complementary costumes for Halloween, often with face masks. We'd go together to parties and not speak to try to fool our friends. Here's one from the early eighties." I think everyone will agree, these are two scary babes.

And here's Denise Terry, who says: "A few years ago I went to a Cape Cod Writers Center event in this costume which not one person could identify!  Gertrude Stein!!" We would have guessed it. Thanks, Denise! (Her tag says: Rose is a rose is a rose)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

My Vote for President

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Today, I'm here to make my endorsement for the Presidential election. This is my personal recommendation, and I do not speak for the Jungle Red Writers as a group, when I urge you all to vote for my mom, Lois Fleming, for President.

World Traveler
Why should you vote for my mom?

1. She's traveled widely around the world and I can guarantee she knows where Aleppo is.

2. Mom is terrific at balancing budgets. She's single-handedly grown her and Dad's investments from the pauper's mite to a sum suitable for a comfortable retirement through smart investment and money management. As president, she will personally call everyone in America and remind them that putting the maximum in their 401(k) is getting free money, and why would you leave that on the table?

Supports cultural exchange with visitors to the US
3. Mom does not believe in debt! Under her administration, the country will charge only what it can afford to pay in full at the end of the month with its American Airlines card. All government travel will be paid for by mileage points from the card.

4. Mom will cut through the congressional impasse. She has been both a Republican and a Democrat, so she knows the score on both sides. She will call recalcitrant congressmen into her office and tell them she is Very Disappointed In Them. If this doesn't work, she will give them That Look, perhaps combined with the The Shoulder Pinch (which looks like a hand laid on the shoulder but really says You're going to get it when I get you back to the Oval Office.)

Strong supporter of the elderly
5. Mom has excellent manners, and always remembers she is representing the US when she's abroad. You will never catch Mom giving Angela Merkle a weird backrub.

6. Mom is completely transparent with her emails, often cc:ing them to several of her children at once. Instead of setting up a private server, she will have the government use, which is what she and Dad use now. After all, it is America on line.

7. In an average day, Mom will fit in a long walk, cut out a newspaper's worth of coupons, bake a dish for the Community Center dinner, set up the parish hall for the White Elephant sale the next day and attend a book group meeting. She has the stamina to be president.

8. A woman of education and refinement, Mom will never utter the phases "grab her by the p?$$y" or "Anthony Weiner's d!#k." In fact, she won't call Anthony Weiner by his name at all. She'll refer to him as That man. You'll know who she's talking about.

Understands blue collar workers
9. There will be no $300 toilet seats or billion-dollar bombers that can't fly in the rain when mom is commander-in-chief. She will make sure the defense department comparison shops - using Consumer Reports to get the best info - and then waits until an aircraft or destroyer is on sale before buying. Mom will frequent the military-industrial complex mark-down aisle to get good bargains.

10. If elected, Mom will have the most low-key First Spouse ever. Dad will spend his time in the White House designing virtual train sets and crafting miniatures. He does like drones, so we may have to watch that.

11. With an extended family that has straight, gay, white, African-American, Hispanic, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian members, Mom is a living part of the Rainbow Generation. Also, she really likes Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black. Mom knows "political correctness" is just good old-fashioned politeness. Why on earth wouldn't you call someone what they prefer to be called?

Party Loyalist
12. As the wife, mother and grandmother of service members, Mom knows what military service costs the families of this country. She believes most differences can be settled by sitting down and talking it over, but she also knows bad behavior must be dealt with swiftly before it becomes even worse. If necessary, she has what it takes to send men and women into battle, but honestly, she'll get pretty teary-eyed about it, because they all look like her grandkids now. And isn't that the kind of woman you want next to the nuclear football?

In conclusion, I believe my mom is exactly what this country needs in these troubled times. If you agree, I hope you'll write in Lois Fleming for president. Go ahead and put that young up-and-comer, Hillary Clinton, on the ticket, too. Mom would like that.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Escape the Election with Corgis, Kids and Concertos

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Yesterday I had to drive Youngest up to the University of Maine at Orono for a day-long theater conference. (She came back having learned how to fold and hang black-out curtains and how to help an actor quick-change in under 35 seconds.)

It's a good two and a half hours each way, and I was listening to public radio most of the time... until I just couldn't take it anymore. No offense to Maine Public Broadcasting, but if I heard ONE more story about politics, I was going to drive myself into the Atlantic. So I switched over to the classical music station. I was delighted to find that after listening to Mozart's bassoon concerto, I was relaxed and contemplative, instead of anxious and annoyed.

Clearly, the scariest thing about this upcoming Halloween is that there will be eight more days of campaigning to get through before the longest election season in all of recorded history is over. With that in mind, I offer the following to soothe and comfort us in the days to come. Go ahead and bookmark this page; you may need to return to it many times before November 8th.

The aforementioned Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major. Lively, yet relaxing, and it doesn't make me think of any European country in particular so I don't have to start thinking about Brexit and immigration and refugees.

Corgi Cooper approaches the water the way we should all approach life - with a bit of caution and a lot of derring-do.

The Carol Burnett Show's "Double Calamity." Are Steve Lawrence and Harvey Korman still alive? Don't tell me - I don't want to know.

This tape has given my family a new catch phrase: "Don't turn your back on him, Joel!"

A troupe of adorable girls performing Mark Keali'I Ho'Omalu's He Mele No Lilo (the opening song from Lilo and Stitch.) Even the flintiest heart will get gooey.

And finally: the greatest video ever to appear on Jungle Reds, after Lucy revealed she had once worked at a lab hand-feeding axolotls: the one, the only Axolotl Song!

Dear readers, what do you recommend to escape from the news?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Three Slow Cooker Meals to Make Your Weekend a Breeze

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Usually, I do recipes on Sundays - it's an old tradition on the blog, and a good fit for a day when lots of readers are spending most of their time offline. But I wanted to tackle food today, because I'm going to give you the easiest weekend menu ever. Okay, ordering out would be easier. But this is a lot cheaper.

Recently, our stove stopped working. Ross and I were getting a good head of indignation up, because it wasn't that old, until he pulled it away from the wall and we discovered... mice had gnawed away part of the cord and casing the stove plugged into. The very old cord and casing, as it turned out, when the electrician came over to take a look. The electrical conduit for the oven begins in the cellar, disappears into the horrible crawlspace beneath the kitchen, and somewhere mysteriously changes into an entirely different cord. Rewiring it may involve removing and then rebuilding part of our back foundation wall, (ah, the joys of 200 year old houses!) so while we're waiting for that to happen, I've been cooking dinner daily in the crockpot. As a result, I've been planning menus ahead in a more organized fashion, since my default "Let's just boil some pasta," is a lot more time consuming now.

Here's one shopping list for Borscht, BBQ Beef and Rice and Corn Chowder for your weekend (with leftovers for lunches!)

3-4 pounds of chuck, the cheapest pot-roast grade you can find
5 pounds red potatoes
Three onions (but just get a bag)
5 or 6 beets
3 green peppers
Pre-minced garlic (I love this stuff. It saves so much time spent fiddling with papery cloves)
1 can tomato paste
1 28oz can diced tomatoes
Bag of rice
1 box each beef broth and chicken broth (I look for the low- or no-sodium versions)
16 oz bag of frozen corn OR one can each corn niblets and cream-style corn
Sour cream
The little bitty carton of whipping cream

I'm going to assume you have the pantry basics: flour, spices, etc. When you get home, cut the beef into thirds. 2/3 goes into the freezer for the BBQ Beef and Rice, the remaining 1/3 you dice into bite-sized bits for the Borscht. These are recipes for four, so adjust to your family size accordingly.


1 lb stew beef, diced into bite-sized pieces
5-6 beets, peeled and sliced
4-6 potatoes, diced
1 c sliced carrots
1 onion, finely diced
1 t minced garlic

Toss it all in the slow cooker with a bay leaf. Then whisk together

2 c beef broth
1 can tomato paste
6 T red wine vinegar
3 T brown sugar
1 T dried parsley
1-2 t dried dill weed (I used seeds for a more robust flavor)

Pour the liquid over the meat and veg. Cook on low 8 hours or on high 4 hours. In the last 2 (low) or 1 (high) hour, add in 3 c shredded cabbage. You can also substitute kale.  Serve with dollops of sour cream. Don't tell the kids they're eating beets until afterwards.

Corn Chowder

I adapted a recipe from Damn Delicious, and it really is. The author of the site, Chungah Rhee, has some wonderful crockpot cookery ideas!

24 oz potatoes, diced (is what the original calls for. I basically fill my slow cooker about 2/3 with potatoes and call it good. My family really loves potatoes.)
16 oz bag of frozen corn or canned corn niblets
1/2 onion, diced fine
1t minced garlic

Toss the veggies with at least 3 T flour; you will need more if you use as many taters as I do. They should all be lightly dusted. Sprinkle with

1t thyme
1t oregano

Add 6 cups of chicken broth. Cook on low for 6-7 hours or on high for 3-4. Add 2 T butter and 1/4 c whipping cream and serve. (Rhee points out the soup freezes well if you don't add the dairy products, so I gave every bowl a pat of butter and a splash of cream before ladling in the soup. She was right, it DID freeze well for later lunches.)

BBQ Beef and Rice

2 lbs chuck
2 onions, sliced
3 green peppers sliced into strips

Put the beef, onions and peppers into the slow cooker and generously cover with your favorite BBQ sauce. Cook on low 8 hours or on high 4 hours. 2 hours before serving, add 1 c rice and 1 1/2 c beef broth (I like to use a mix of water and broth.) You can bulk it up with more rice - I usually do. Just keep the proportion of 1 c rice to 1 1/2 c liquid the same.

You'll see I don't have any directions about adding salt in any of these recipes. Two reasons: 1) Ross has high blood pressure, and we're trying to go as low sodium as possible and 2) I've noticed the slow cooker intensifies flavor, so what salt is already in processed food (the canned corn, the tomato paste, etc.) really comes out. Please season to your taste (and blood pressure!)

Okay, dear readers, what are you going to do with all the time you'll save cooking this weekend?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

You Can't Get There From Here: Reds Nominate the Worst Places to Drive

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As I mentioned earlier this week, I took Youngest to the Boston area on a one day college tour. (Her high school gave the day off to juniors and provided their own tours, but they were to schools Youngest has no interest in, ie, they were in Maine.) We saw Wellesley, which we both liked very much, and then attempted to make the noon tour and info session at Boston College. Attempted being the operative word. Despite its name, BC is located in Newton, which shall henceforth be known as Frikkin' Newton. I've tangled with Frikkin' Newton before. On a past college trip with the Smithie and friends, we visited Mount Ida College, getting lost in both a park and a cemetery before stumbling onto the campus.

This time, Youngest and I managed to find Boston College after backing and forthing several times on Route 16. We just couldn't get ONTO the campus. Despite having GPS and printed directions from the Admissions Office, we couldn't find Admissions, or the parking garage they suggested for us. We went this way and that, through suburban streets, always and ever finding ourselves returning to Beacon Street, like some sort of Twilight Zone episode. Finally we bushwacked our way back to the interstate and headed for Providence and the end-of-the-afternoon tour of Brown. Sorry, BC.

Our own Hank lives in Frikkin' Newton, on a street with no discernible name at an address that doesn't appear on GPS and befuddles taxi drivers. This is not unusual - the villages of Newton have any number of streets with no visible names, opening onto commercial avenues that take the hapless driver right back out into the tangled residential areas. The area was the early settlers' New Town, dating from 1630, and the streets were apparently laid out in the 17th century over cow paths and in the 19th century by developers with inner ear balance disorders.

I'm not even going to talk about the time Hank had to drive in front of me to get me from the charming New England Mobile Book Fair (which in the best Newton tradition is neither mobile, nor a fair) to the highway home. If it weren't for her and Jonathan, I'd be trapped there still. It's a wonder Youngest and I made it out.

For this and so much more, I vote Newton, Mass as the Worst Place to Drive in the United States.

Reds, where are your nominees?

HALLIE EPHRON: So little time, so many confusing places. I vote for the entire Boston area, where cross streets usually aren't labeled. And my GPS runs off its little rails whenever I drive through downtown through what we fondly remember as The Big Dig. The message: if you don't know where you are, you don't belong here. If I had to pick one place it's coming onto Storrow Drive and trying to get to Mass General.

Further afield, there's also a bridge you have to navigate through coming in or out of Pittsburgh with signage to too many connecting roads that is so confusing and comes too late. Ring a bell, anyone??

This is why I love GPS. When it says "Turn left, then turn left, then turn left..." it sounds so calm.

RHYS BOWEN: Oh yes, we had a fun time driving in Boston, taking almost an hour to get to an event with Hank that should have been fifteen minutes away. But things are just as bad on the West Coast. I pity people driving through LA for the first time because the freeways have names and don't actually say where they are going, and the off ramp is sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, across four or five lines of really fast traffic.
GPS makes things easier but I have learned the hard way to check their directions first... as when I was heading north from New Jersey and the GPS took me on a "short-cut" across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan during morning rush-hour.

Italian roads outside of cities are perfectly signed, however I once navigated John onto a street in Florence that was for taxis and emergency vehicles only. And once on this network of streets we couldn't escape because everything was one way. Luckily we didn't get caught. I think India probably takes the cake for the worst roads in the universe ( cows, camels, donkeys, overloaded trucks etc and only one strip of sealed road they compete for, but we've always had a driver so can just shut our eyes and pray)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Well, see, here's the thing. In Massachusetts, there's I-128. If you want to go south on 128 from our house, you have to take 128 North, because it goes north first. It's sometimes called I-95. It's kind of the same thing. The North End of Boston is east of Downtown, and South Boston is kind of east. And there's a neighborhood called the West End, but I'm not sure what it's west of.  93 South is called the Southeast Expressway, but you can't go any farther east, really, because you'd be in the ocean. I mean the harbor.  Routes 1 and 3 are also called the Southeast Expressway. And I live in West Newton, which is North of Newton center.

So, yeah. Italy is worse.   And our house is SO easy to find. You just have to know where it is.

JULIA: And they say Maine is where "you can't get the-ah from he-ah."

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh this is a really hard choice. I've ridden in the Boston area while intrepid Hallie drove. I couldn't get over the maniacs rushing past us in the right hand BREAKDOWN LANE! But LA is hideous as Rhys notes, and driving down the length of New Jersey is an exercise in taking your life in your hands, and around Miami is dreadful too, because of ridiculous drivers. I'm becoming one of those people who is constantly looking for back country road "shortcuts!"

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I'd have to say anywhere in UK traffic (I will be driving for a few days later on this trip, but not in city traffic!) but my worst ever driving award goes to the city of dreaming spires and Inspector Morse--Oxford. Even my English friends agree that Oxford is even worse than driving in London!

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What are your navigational horror stories?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I Say, Good Sport

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm writing this sitting at an archery range. Not inside, where the shooting is going on, but in the echoing outer room, where the overflow parents sit on plastic chairs and talk about equipment and tournaments. Why, you may ask, am I here? For one reason, dear reader: I've been deeply unlucky in my children's choice of sports.

Now on one hand, I recognize my privilege. I'm not a hockey mom, who has to get up at 3:30 because the middle school players' ice time is at 4am. I'm not a swim mom, paying $$$ toward the team – I could never understand why swimming was so expensive! Surely twenty centimeters of Lycra can't cost that much. I've never had to put in hours and hours of fund-raising time like the football moms, although to be fair, I've brought in quite a few casseroles and plates of brownies and bought more than my share of candles and wrapping paper for the drama club. (Let's not even talk about the mattress sale. Dear God.)

But here's the thing: those moms at least get to watch spectator sports. Hockey and football games are exciting! I've paid good money to watch them. Basketball is fast-paced and exciting. Swimming is explosive and you get to sit in a warm, moist environment. 

My two older kids did cross country. If there's a more mind-numbing sport to watch, I can't think of it. At least with curling, you can see all the players. With cross country, you stand at the edge of a field, bundled against the growing autumnal cold, and cheer wildly as your student-athlete races off with a pack of teammates and vanish into the woods. Then you wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, after a half hour or so, the first runners come back out of the woods, and the more determined parents start cheering again. (There are always a few so resolutely peppy and full of spirit you secretly want to key their Volvo station wagons in the parking lot.) 

They also did indoor track, and track and field, two sports that involve waiting around for interminable periods of time between races and other events. During the winter indoor track season, you try not to die of heatstroke in the arena, and in track and field you need binoculars to spot your kid because the events are spread out over an area the size of the Pentagon. Also? You never, ever know how your kid did with running sports. I would ask, “What was your time?” only to hear, “I dunno. Coach will tell me Monday.” The scoring is so arcane the officials don't know who “won” a track and field meet until two days after the event takes place. I believe they use slide rules to calculate the total points.

(The Sailor followed up cross country with rowing in college, which has a similar long, long stretch when parents are left staring at the river with no boats in sight. The bright spot is that no one judges you for drinking cherry whiskey at a regatta.) 

In the past two years, Youngest has taken up archery, a sport that combines the visual thrill of cross country with the clear, simple scoring of track and field and as an added bonus, requires upgrading some piece of equipment every three months. It's true that archery sounds exciting – Robin Hood! Merida! The wind in your hair as you fire off shot after shot! 

Needless to say, it's a little more constrained in real life. The instructor sets up the targets, then pipes a little whistle to tell the archers to take their position. Once the field is clear, the instructor pipes again. Everyone shoots three arrows. Then they all wait until the last person has shot, and when the instructor deems the field clear she pipes again and they all retrieve their arrows. This ritual, as inflexible as a Japanese tea ceremony, is of course designed to make sure no one gets an accidental arrow in the butt. However, for the patiently waiting parent...zzzzzzzz.

The targets are fifty-four feet down what looks like a bowling alley, and don't tell Youngest, but I can't make out if she shot well or not. As long as the arrow doesn't bounce off the floor, it's all the same to me. She's elated or cast down by arrows that hit a few centimeters apart, and I try to follow her lead. The tournaments are just as fast paced, with the additional bonus that the spectators must remain absolutely silent. It's like watching the chess grandmaster tournament, if the game boards were eighteen yards away and you didn't have the cultured British announcer whispering, “Karspinsky has just executed the Dunning-Kruger move!”

Oh well. At least she's not interested in riding. Right, honey? Right?

How about you, dear readers? Tell us your sports stories in the comments...

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What I Learned from Being a Woman; a guest post by Lance Hawvermale

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Yesterday, I toured two colleges with Youngest (yes, dear reader, I'm doing it again) and one of the things I learned was that incoming students are assigned rooms based on the gender with which they identify. Since I've known quite a few young people who are any sort of shade between male and female, this strikes me as useful. As an author, I know we all have the ability to identify with both men and women; if we didn't, how could we write believable characters of a different gender?

Why is this relevant for today's guest? I'll let Lance Havermale, author of the fascinating new thriller FACE BLIND, tell you himself.

I had to become a woman to get published.

When I was 19, I wrote one of the greatest action thrillers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, not a single literary agent in New York agreed with my assessment. So I wrote another, received more kind rejections, and wrote yet another. Result: several stacks of “no thank you” notes because this was pre-email and editors killed a lot of innocent trees on my behalf back then.

I spent a decade with an ever-rising pile of unpublished manuscripts crammed with derring-do and dashing male leads. Like James Bond or Indiana Jones, my protagonists were larger-than-life, and so were their adventures and love affairs. I couldn’t understand why the publishers weren’t driving one another off the highway in a race to get to my front door.

Then something happened. For no particular reason, I wrote a book about real people, saying real things, colliding with real challenges. The lead role in my women’s fiction novel Seeing Pink (Five Star, 2003) was shared equally by five female characters, heroines who fought everyday battles. In breaking out of their routines, those characters showed me what it means to be extraordinary. That novel was released under the woman’s pseudonym of Erin O’Rourke.

Becoming O’Rourke and writing as her for years eventually brought me here, to my thriller Face Blind (Minotaur Books, 2016), where I finally get to be myself. Here’s what my journey has taught me about writing and about being a man:

  • The best heroes are normal people forced outside their comfort zones.
  • Women talk to other women in a way very different than how men talk to other men.
  • Every horrible thing that happens should be balanced with something magical.
  • Romance is important, no matter your age.

These days the pages of my novels are shared equally between women and men. And those fictional characters frequently remind me that—in the end—gender doesn’t really matter at all. These are human problems we’re facing, both in books and in the real world, and human hearts that we’re breaking.

I’ve learned a lot from my lifelong love of reading and writing. What about you? What secrets of life can you share that you first found in a book?

FACE BLIND: A man with a neurological disorder that prevents him from recognizing human faces confronts an enigmatic killer in Chile's Atacama desert--the most lifeless place on earth.

Gabe Traylin is face-blind, unable to tell one face from the next. Content to earn his living well away from civilization, he works as an astronomer at an observatory in the earth's driest desert, where no rain has fallen in 400 years. But when he finds a man murdered, he is compelled to leave his self-imposed exile and avenge the dead. Gabe's investigation brings him face to face with the killer, but he's unable to provide a description to the police--and soon he becomes their suspect in a series of horrific and unexplained mutilations. To discover the truth before he's arrested for crimes he didn't commit, he must put his trust in three strangers: a fearless young adventurer, a washed-up novelist who thinks he's bulletproof, and a woman with a face he'll never see.
Together they unearth the secrets of Chile's fascist past, a time of kidnappings, torture, and political turmoil. Following the clues given to them by one of the country's most notorious war criminals, they venture further into the desert, discovering the secrets of revenge as well as the secrets of themselves.
 You can find out more about Lance Hawvermale and read an excerpt of FACE BLIND at his website. You can also friend him on Facebook and find him on Twitter as @LanceHawvermale.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Dress Your Age - Do or Don't?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Yesterday, in the NYTimes Sunday Review, I read a terrific article by Julia Baird entitled "Don't Dress Your Age." In it, she points out the many, many ways in which women's appearances are policed as they get older, whether it be from well-meaning store clerks or magazine articles on how to disguise your widening middle or minimize your wobbly upper arms. I loved this line:
"We are also told to monitor our appearance in a way men are very rarely told to. Find me a man leafing through a magazine that tells him to upturn his collar to hide his neck wrinkles, and I will upturn it for him."
My first encounter with the question, "Am I dressing too young" came not with clothing, but with my hair, which I had colored since my gray became noticeable at the age of 26. After two decades, I was tired of the expense and the bother (not to mention having to touch up my roots every three weeks) and was ready to go natural. But I admit, part of my calculation to stop dying my hair was to allow myself to be gray before I looked too old. In other words, I hoped people would see my white hair and then my not-yet-wrinkled face and think it charming, rather than decrepit.

I'm fortunate to live with my 24- and 16-year-old daughters, who will always answer when I ask, "Is this too young for me?" Actually, they often encourage me to push the envelope a little more, which I appreciate. But I wonder: when did I absorb the lesson that I had to "dress appropriately?" That my hair might be too long, or my nail color too wild? I'm not talking about the kinds of imposed-from-without fashion trends many of us have voluntarily eschewed, like wearing high heels or trendy but uncomfortable cuts. I mean the voice in the back of your head which, if you're over 40, will ask you, "Isn't that a little too much?" as you look at yourself in the mirror. Does it sound like your mother? Maybe.

Men do not hear that voice. Men wear shorts and T-shirts identical to those worn my their five-year old grandsons. They don't switch from bikinis to one-piece swimsuits with skirts attached; they show up at the beach and let it all hang out, Or over. They don't cut their hair differently at twenty and at fifty - although there may be a lot more arranging to cover the bald spot going on. So why do we do it? Should we worry about being "mutton dressed as lamb?" Or, in the vein of Rhys deciding she's going to wear white clothing when she wants to, in season or not, should we all say the hell with it?

What say you, Reds? Have you ever had that "this is too young for me" moment? And what do you wear if you're not dressing your age?

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh I loved that article Julia! I had never heard of that awful expression--a mutton dressed as a lamb. I don't wear high heels, but that's because my feet hurt and has nothing to do with fashion. But maybe I am guilty of wearing what teenage girls might wear at home--jeans and a hoodie. I don't show my belly, but then I never did!

This summer we attended my nephew's wedding in Malibu--it was going to be a truly happy celebration, but we all stewed over what to wear in order not to shame ourselves in front of the LA crowd. (Trust me, you can't keep up with LA fashion, so it's best not to try.) Anyway, I came up with this dress and definitely brooded over whether I was too old to carry it off. Such a silly waste of good worrying! I'm ready to sign a pact saying, we are who we are, and we wear what we like and where we like it:)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I've certainly had the "too young for me" moment, many of them, and so relieved I thought so! Dresses that look like babydoll pajamas or cheerleader outfits, with random weird places cut out, or midriff showing (why?) or so low cut that you couldn't possibly sit down. It's embarrassing! Yes, I remember my mother cringing at my too-short skirts, which they were, I suppose, but I was sixteen! Still, and I don't mean to be judgmental, but some things are inappropriate. And there's nothing wrong with seeing that. It's about self-respect.

I don't think it's about age, I think it's about what makes you feel good, and what's appropriate for the situation. I have to look business-like for work, and wear suit-type things and high heels all the time. I'm comfortable, it's fun, I'm happy. I'm not much of a risk taker, but loved what I put together to be toastmaster at Malice. It's a dress and leather jacket. And my shoes were...well, great. They didn't show, but I knew they were there.

 That's what's fun about fashion and clothing. At ANY age. Wear what you love.

HALLIE EPHRON: Men's clothes are boring. It's so much more fun to be a woman. And yes, I once wore very (very) short skirts. Didn't my generation invent the micro-mini? With knee-high boots, of course. And no, I wouldn't wear that today, but more because now I dress for comfort. I'd be forever tugging at the hem and feeling a cool breeze up my behind. And boots? Am I the only person whose feet sweat?

Weddings are always a challenge. I have a wonderful little black dress (Yay, Eileen Fisher) that I wear to almost everything. I've got a black skirt of the same material I can wear under the dress to make the hem longer.The trick to making it work is accessories! I have a sequined dickey that makes it glamorous. My pink pearls for more sedate but classy. A paisley shawl for more casual.  Jackets, of course.

RHYS BOWEN: There are certain items of clothing that nobody over fifty should wear. Knees are not an attractive part of the female anatomy, especially as they get older and wrinkly. So why is every dress above the knee these days. I love dresses and can never find one that looks smart, well cut and finishes just below the knee. I don't like droopy mid calf and maxi dresses are hard to wear.

I don't like exposing any part of me that droops or wrinkles. So no bikinis for me. Oh and leggings. Nobody over sixteen should wear leggings without a long top or dress over them. I have settled on the tailored look and I have to say that I like most of Hilary's pantsuits. If I had time I'd start a clothing line for my age--not what male designers think women over fifty should look like but well tailored, smart, longer jackets,I used to wear Ralph Lauren a lot but recently he has gone younger and brighter than I like. I saw a Lauren dress this week that was above the knee, pink with brown and green flowers. Not me at all!  I have a couple of Eileen Fisher items but I don't look good in black or brown and her colors are all a bit drab for me.

I did buy a fabulous black silk tuxedo for an award ceremony this year. It looks great on me.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I don't worry too much about what is "age appropriate." On the other hand I'm not baring my midriff for anybody, but I don't see too many under-thirties that should be baring theirs, either. I do like my skirts above my knees, but maybe I should reconsider:-)

But while I think high heels were invented as a conspiracy against women, I'm a bit horrified to see that I am turning into my mother, who had trouble with her feet and for years wore leather lace-up walking shoes. You all have photos of cute outfits. I have shoes. I bought a pair of very pricey, supposedly VERY comfortable, boots for London, but I didn't have time to break them in. In my packing panic, I decided to leave my old, shabby, incredibly comfortable boots at home. You can probably guess the next bit.Two days in London and my feet hurt so much I thought I would die.

So I bought THESE and they are heaven. (You can't tell from the photo but they are actually more mauve than tan, so very funky.) My mom would have loved them. The good thing is that here in London most women of ANY AGE are either wearing trainers (tennis shoes in American) or something similar, because everybody walks, everywhere.

JULIA: Debs, you keep wearing short skirts if you like! I think that's the point of Baird's essay - not to wear what's suitable "for your age," but to wear what's suitable for you. How about you, dear readers? Do you think some looks are in or out based on your date of birth? Or should we all say to hell with it and dress like Iris Apfel?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Confessons of an Over-packer

DEBORAH CROMBIE: On Wednesday afternoon, I leave for a month in England, so I am in the usual packing frenzy. Unlike many of our friends here on the blog, who can pack for six weeks in Europe in a roll-aboard suitcase or a small backpack, I am a chronic over-packer. By the time I've filled a big suitcase to the brim, it usually hovers right under the 50 pound mark, and, then, not only do I have to lug the thing around and get it on trains and up and down stairs, I have the stuff in my carry-on, too.

I put over-packing down to some inner lack of confidence. People who are super-packers, (like our own Hank!!!) probably never worry about having the right thing. 

There's also an emotional comfort element in this over-packing thing--how can you be homesick if you've taken most of what you own??

But this trip my suitcase will at least be a little lighter. When I was in California week before last (and I was very proud of myself for packing for five days in a roll-aboard) I had a day out with Rhys and friends Terry Shames and Diana Chambers. We saw this fab luggage in a little shop in Sonoma County. It's called Lipault (French for feather), it comes in really pretty colors, and it's amazingly light. The 28 inch rolling suitcase weighs just under 7 pounds. I checked the specs on the suitcase I've been using for the last few years, which is supposed to be ultra-light, and it weighs 18 pounds. And that's EMPTY. 

Decision made.

I found Lipault here in Dallas (Container Store carries it), picked a color (purple), and I also bought this adorable little rolling tote made by Baggallini. It fits on the handle of the big suitcase, but when it's on its own, its handle pulls up and it rolls. It also fits under your airline seat. Hopefully this will solve one of my most hated things about traveling to the UK, which is standing in the Customs and Immigration queue for an hour or two while trying to keep a heavy tote on my shoulder.


AND I got one of these cool packing cube things. You are supposed to be able to fold up to eleven pieces of clothing in one of these. Hmm. Has anyone tried them? Should I have bought two? Or three?

Now, I just have to decide what I'm going to wear for four weeks, and what I can live without.

What about you, REDS? Give me tips, please!!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Aw, Debs, so lovely of you! Yes, one suitcase, carry on. No matter how long a trip. A big nylon tote bag, Longchamps, (red!) which allows me to put my purse inside so it looks like it's one item, under the seat. I have to admit I am so in love with my suitcase, I cannot tell you--it's TUMI. It is amazing, and as magical as Mary Poppins' satchel. EVERYTHING fits.  Can't wait to hear about the packing things, Debs!  I am a devoted tissue paper girl. Tissue paper is amazing--it takes up no room, and keeps everything unwrinkled. Somehow. Magic. Anyway:  Two black dresses, stretchy. Sweater, pashmina, two jackets/blazers. Leggings, big top. Scarf or two. No shirts. 

Put something flat and unwrinkleable on the bottom, then an article of clothing, flat, top with tissue, then fold the rest of the article over. The tissue paper prevents the fold lines! Add another thing, then tissue, then fold over.  Everything flat, nightgown on the top, tighten the strap over it all. Unpack the moment you arrive. But hey. You are going to LONDON! Buy something if you need it.

BIGGEST HINT: No one remembers what you wear.

Bon voyage, dear Debs! We want to hear about every minute.

LUCY BURDETTE: We are in a packing frenzy too, only for Key West rather than Europe! And we are driving, because how else to drag the senior citizen animals along? And that means special digestive problem dog food, kidney problem cat food, dog bed, cat pan with bags of kitty litter because we never can find Cedarific below the Mason-Dixon line. And special low sodium snacks for me, etc etc. John spends weeks rolling his eyes. Oh and don't let me forget, I want to bring the remaining beets from our garden and as many Macoun apples as we can pack...

But if it's just me, on an airplane, a carry-on only. And I have to be able to lift it! And yet somehow I never manage to look like Hank. Maybe it's the tissue paper thing LOL.

RHYS BOWEN: Debs, I'm so glad you bought the suitcase we saw. Amazing. I want one now, although I did buy a super-light carry on in England this summer. Also after dragging large cases on and off trains all over Europe this year I made a vow. From now on everything has to be washable in my hotel sink, neutral colors, mix and match so that I can take the minimum to survive and dress up outfits with a scarf, pashmina or jewelry. Of course this won't work if we take a cruise that requires formal evenings, or if I'm in Europe to give speeches/meet editors and have to wear suit or blazer. Then perhaps the answer is to find a toy-boy who can carry my bags for me!

HALLIE EPHRON: I pack super light, but I'm usually not going to spend a month in the UK in the fall. My trips are usually a few days. If it's a few months I'm usually headed somewhere warm and therefore not as much needed.

I never check luggage except when they make me. One small rolling bag and I'm good to go. Most hotels have irons in the room so I don't worry too much about wrinkles. The right clothes are the thing -- black. Of course. And I swear by Eileen Fisher - a dress, a long skirt that I can wear under the dress or alone, a few tops, and black pants all in more or less the same fabric with a scarf and a pashmina. Wash out in the sink in a pinch. For all the parsimony in clothing I never go without at last 2 pairs of shoes. Comfort first.

DEBS: Hallie, I'm too short to wear Eileen Fisher! 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: My packing trick, such as it is, is to pick three colors and stick with them. (If I could pare it down to black, black and black it would save me even more space!) I recently went on a ten-day trip: one week in Colorado Springs followed by four days driving back to Maine. My entire wardrobe for that trip was navy, khaki and coral. I've collected clothing that does double duty over the years - I have several light cotton cardigans that can be worn as shirts or as sweaters, for instance.

My favorite bag is the Vera Bradley large duffel. Minuses: no wheels! So I do have to schlep it by shoulder. Pluses: It's squishy, so I can fit almost anything into it, it will shove into improbably small spaces, it's VERY lightweight (mine came in at about three pounds) and it's impossible to miss on an airport carousel or a train station because of the very distinctive prints. 

I've also been wanting to try out Hank's tissue paper technique!

DEBS: Hank, I think the packing cube thingy probably is the high-tech answer to your tissue paper:-) But they say you have to watch the video, and when am I going to find time to do that??? I think Hank should make us a tissue paper video instead!

Lucy, I can't imagine your packing task, and I think anyone who travels with cats gets extra points. (Do Yoda and Tonka know the routine by now?)

Rhys, that day was the most fun. And I'm with you on the toy-boy idea...

READERS, all hints appreciated, and I'll let you know how the new stuff works.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The County Fair and a Pumpkin Crumb Cake #recipe

Jeannie Daniel

LUCY BURDETTE: Earlier this summer, I noticed a post on Facebook about a friend entering her cake in her local county fair—and winning. Doesn’t the sound of that bring back simpler, cozier days? I thought you would enjoy hearing about her experience. Welcome Jeannie!

JEANNIE DANIEL: The excitement starts building around July for farming communities in the south as they eagerly await the Fall fair season. It all begins with the arrival of the Exhibitors Catalog, containing all of the categories that you can enter. Each fair is a little different—they all have the usual categories such as canning, cakes, pies, candies, crafts, poultry, pigs, cattle, vegetables, flowers. But some have odd categories like Pinterest Interest and Lego building contests.

I enter two different fairs, one is a county fair and the other is a regional fair. The county fair is smaller than a regional or state fair, and the money that you receive  is normally a little smaller too. I always enter the crafts categories and the baking. 

Meghan Atchley, Jeannie's daughter
My daughter enters her jams and chickens and her sons also enter the poultry categories. The fun starts when you go through the catalog carefully and decide which categories you are going to enter and then you start perusing all of your time worn recipes in hopes of winning the blue ribbon.

Each category has different drop off dates, so you have to map out your dates and times. You have tags that have a bar code and your name, but your name is hidden so that the judges do not know who made what until after the item is judged. The day of delivery (and usually judging too) is always interesting because everyone is checking out what every one else has brought in. If you win, your stuff and animals stay there and if you don't it goes back home with you.

There is nothing quite like the satisfaction that you have received a blue ribbon for something you have worked hard on. I was lucky enough this year to win 2 blue ribbons, a best of show, and a second. I won a blue ribbon for my pumpkin crumb cake, blue ribbon for a snowman painted mason jar in Pinterest Interest class and best of show with my decorated fair themed cookies. I received a second place for my chess pie. 

Roberta/Lucy asked if I would share my recipe. I am sharing a quick version of my winning Pumpkin Crumb Cake recipe. All baked goods have to be homemade from scratch, no box mixes, no boxed kits or frozen doughs; so when I made this for the fair the yellow cake recipe was my grandmother's.

Jeannie Daniel’s Pumpkin Crumb Cake

1 yellow cake mix
4 eggs
1- 15 ounce can pumpkin (you can use fresh pumpkin you have prepared for pies)
evaporated milk
brown sugar
butter 1/2 cup melted

Set aside one cup of the dry cake mix. Mix together remaining yellow cake mix, 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 egg. Pat into the bottom of a 13 x 9 pan.

Mix together 1 can pumpkin (about 2 cups), 2/3 cups evaporated milk, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 3 eggs. Mix well, pour over crust.

For the Topping: Mix the 1 cup of reserved cake mix, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/4 cup unsalted butter until crumbly. Sprinkle on top of the pumpkin mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. When slightly cool, drizzle caramel icing or caramel ice cream sauce over the cake. Can be served warm or cold. Really good warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!

LUCY: I told you this would be fun! Reds, what would you enter in the county fair?