Sunday, April 26, 2009

Please Hold Paws

Weddings celebrate commitment, the beginning of a shared community between two souls. Not who you were expecting? Meet Winthorp and Annabelle joined forever in photo fame the day their best friends Michael and Mokwani were wed.

The humans in this story are my nephew and niece who decided once they had a home of their own they would get a dog. They met Winthorp and Annabelle at a shelter and couldn’t leave without both of them. The big guy is a Mastiff mix and the little lady, a Lab mix.

Winthrop had some social shortcomings—he chewed on people; not all people, just an occasional unsuspecting visitor. Annabelle was a darling from day one. Love and patience on the part of their human friends brought Winthrop and Annabelle to a better life.

When Michael and Mokwani decided to marry, a double wedding evolved. The pooches did not attend the ceremony but this photo was in small pewter frames at each place setting.

I keep the photo on the piano with the other family pictures. To tell the truth, it gets the most attention. Handsome couple indeed!

Luisa Buehler

Monday, April 20, 2009

How Does My Garden Grow?

Spring renews my spirit and no where more so than in my garden. I have gardened for 25 years. I never knew I wanted to garden. I resisted helping my mother in her perennial garden. As a kid, I’d pull weeds because I had to. There was no appreciation of the breathtaking beautiful flowers blooming effortlessly every spring in the gardens of my childhood home.

I chronicle the phases of my garden each year. I love the fresh look of the tender shoots, so brave to appear in April. The entrance to my tumble down garden invites me to walk the path.

I became a homeowner with a yard and a strange sense of ‘earth’ came over me. I began with a small plot (pulled up the grass by hand after spring rains) and planted bulbs and annuals. I remembered the Iris and Peony, flowering Almond, Roses and Lupine my mother tended and asked for donations.

The garden expanded each year until it ran the length of the yard on one side and across the width at the back of the house around the deck, down one side, around the pond…well, you get the idea.

When my son was a toddler (he’s 20 now) I brought him into the garden to enjoy the soft touch of Lamb’s Ear and the shelter of the Sun Flower and Morning Glory House I planted for his enjoyment. Too many critters ate portions of the tender shoots so the shelter was more imaginary than real. The keyhole lock is still nailed to the evergreen that led into a small copse at the back of the property that led to our version of “The Secret Garden.” The overgrown entrance is now the backdrop to my sitting area where I enjoy a coffee and contemplation most mornings above 40 degrees.

By reading garden magazines and books on gardening I learned that some of the plants in my garden were poisonous: Jimson Weed, Pokeberry, Foxglove, Autumn Monkshood, forms of Larkspur, Lilly of the Valley. These all grow in my garden and the hardiness of these plants gave me the idea of how to poison a character in The Lion Tamer: A Caged Death. Since then I’ve developed a program for library visits called “Plotting while Potting.” During the program I explain how to use garden variety plants to kill characters in books. The program is complete with slides and music.

My affection and appreciation for my perennial garden has grown in directed proportion to the hours of comfort and joy spent in the dirt. Cheaper than therapy, I lose my worries and angst among the flowers. I’ve even learned to appreciate some weeds…flowers not yet recognized as such.

The first Sunday in May signals the renewal of my Sunday morning routine—coffee and journal in hand I sit and contemplate and record my flowers, my thoughts, my joy.

Luisa Buehler

Friday, April 17, 2009

Spade & Archer

In an earlier post, I wrote that I was looking forward to reading the new noir mystery "Spade & Archer" by Joe Gores, a prequel to Dashiell Hammett's 1929 classic, "The Maltese Falcon."

Gores did not disappoint. The novel did an excellent job of recreating the Hammett-esque world of 1920s San Francisco, with its grifters and dubious cops and longshoremen. I felt his Samuel Spade and Miles Archer and Effie Perine and Lieutenant Dundy were dead-on, and the dialogue, if at times somewhat stilted, generally crackled.

In the Feb. 8 New York Times Book Review, David Gates took issue with some of Gores' phrasing, including his overly detailed descriptions of people, which was a Hammett hallmark. Fair enough. But Gates also conceded in critiquing the dialogue that "Anyone who undertakes to impersonate a beloved and highly mannered writer has...problems."

He then went on to write that "When Robert Goldsborough channels Rex Stout, his Nero Wolfe naturally has to say 'pfui' and 'satisfactory.' " (I appreciate the mention, as my name doesn't pop up in The New York Times every day. And were I ever to write another Wolfe book, those Nero-isms no doubt would reappear.)

With minor reservations, I recommend "Spade & Archer." It nicely echoes that shadowy, gritty, and essentially urban world created by Dashiell Hammett.

Robert Goldsborough

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Underground Railroad Quilt

I asked a friend who quilts to make a 2’x2’ quilt depicting Underground Railroad symbols. I never expected something so grand. I suggested a few symbols assuming she’d choose one. I never expected a sampler of symbols. She used several books to find the symbols and chose these.

The quilt features some of the symbols used by freedom seekers to guide others to safety or to relay messages.

Most quilts would have one message/symbol stitched into the piece. This quilt shows four symbols. The four corners depict the Monkey Wrench (get ready to leave—gather tools you may need). Between the corners you’ll see Flying Geese (directional prompt—follow the spring migration). The left panel depicts Crossroads (advising a change in direction). The last panel is The Log Cabin (directing them to seek shelter or advising them of a safe haven).

Since slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write it was imperative that an oral and visual system of directions be created. It would be dangerous for any directions or safe house descriptions to be written in case the papers were found by slave catchers.

My book, The Innkeeper: An Unregistered Death, has elements of the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Sue made the quilt for me to raffle off at my book launch at Centuries & Sleuths. The owner, Augie Aleksy, thought so much of it he's putting it in the window as a display. Some lucky attendee will win this quilt.

Now that I’ve seen it and seen my words about the struggle for freedom come alive under her talented fingers I wish I hadn’t been so cavalier in giving it up so easily.

Luisa Buehler

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Doll House "Doctor"

"What do writers do when they're not writing?"
It's a question I--and many author colleagues--get asked frequently. I suspect we have widely varying answers, though these answers have one thing in common: A desire to plunge into something completely apart from writing as a way to stay fresh.

For me, the most recent non-writing project has been the rehabbing of a house. Well, not a REAL house exactly, but...well...a doll house. Here's the story: My middle daughter, mother of four-year-old twins and their two-year-old sister, asked whatever happened to her old doll house. That led my wife, Janet, to suggest it would be nice to fix up that old doll house as a surprise for the girls--and their mother.

Boy, did it need fixing! It had spent decades in the attic, enduring viscissitudes of extreme cold and extreme heat. Then during an attic clean-up, it got moved to the garage, if anything a worse environment.

Where to start? The tar paper on the roof was in shreds. The once-white sides of the two-story colonial now were a pallid and stained gray. The front door was off, hinges long gone. The wallpaper in every room, which my daughter had so painstakingly applied, had peeled and discolored. And on and on.

Fortunately, a miniaturist friend suggested I go to Hobby Lobby, a nearby chain store with a dandy selection of doll house materials and accessories. For the next few weeks, I was a regular there, frequently the only man in the sprawling emporium. First I bought cedar shakes, applying them to the roof a row at a time. Then hinges for the now-bright-red front door and new paint for the exterior. Then after removal of wallpaper, paint for the walls, a different color in each room. And flooring--white patterned tile for the kitchen, hardwood for the bedrooms, carpeting for the living room.

Janet resurrected doll house furniture and people that had been put away in boxes years ago, and we furnished the "fixer upper." Would the little girls like it? Janet cautioned me that they might well be blase and move on to the many toys we keep at our house for them.

But happily for this aging do-it-your-selfer, they loved the "new" dwelling, and the three stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they moved furniture and doll house people around in the newly rehabbed rooms as their mother looked on with approval.

Now about those things that need doing in our "real" house...

Robert Goldsborough

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Let me show you my incision!"

Why do post op people feel the need to flash their incisions at friends, family and unsuspecting passersby? Is it basic competition—my scar’s bigger, better, thinner, longer, redder than yours?

It was twenty years ago and I’d offered to drive my mother to her lady friend, Margaret’s, home. Florence and Ingrid, octogenarian cronies, were to be there also.
The plan was to drop off my mom, go into the office to do some catch up work and collect her in three hours.

Margaret had had surgery and the ‘girls’ were stopping by with casseroles and chit-chat to cheer up their friend. I planned to stay long enough to be polite and to help set out the luncheon they’d prepared. They urged me to eat. They'd made enough food for twelve; I was a bit hungry and the spread looked delicious.

That is until Margaret rolled down her elastic waistband a few inches to show off her gallbladder or some other missing organ scar. I looked away, swallowed hard and tried to forget my hunger. Maybe I could make a plate and leave.

Too late! “Let me show you my incision,” chirped Ingrid.

“Mine is from here to here,” said Florence pointing from her breastbone to somewhere close to the critical mass area below her ample tummy.

I knew where my mother’s incision was and wasn’t going to wait for her offer.

Fast forward twenty years. My nineteen year old son had knee surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital on April 1st, yeah, no joke. He ripped the ACL in his right knee when he caught his ski edge and twisted in a manner that knees don't do well. They reconstructed his ACL using a third of the tendon that runs up the knee cap. To do this they had to cut into the front of his knee. I was an English major so that’s all I know about that and I'm sure I messed up the correct surgical terms.

On the second day of post op, we removed the ace bandages layered around his swollen knee. We were at his first session of rehab therapy. My son directed me to take a picture, using my cell phone, of the incision still covered by thin strips of surgical tape. It wasn’t infected which is all I cared about.

We returned home and he settled in with laptop, iPod, cell phone, DVD and TV remotes.
(After my emergency appendectomy at eight years old I remember recovering with a coloring book and crayons and a stuffed dog.)

Within minutes he called me over to the couch and invited me to see his new Facebook photo—yep, his incision! The text reads, “My awesome incision. It’s my knee!”

When you Facebook my son (I think it’s used as a verb—forgive me Strunk and White) you see a swollen, plastic looking blob with a patch of white covering a thin line of dark something which without the text would not be identifiable except perhaps by the surgeon.

Cyberspace equivalent of Margaret rolling down her waistband?

I’d like to think that he wouldn’t have ‘exposed’ to his Facebook friends a body part that wasn’t as mundane as a knee. I’d like to think that.

I am curious to see if anyone responds to him with a scar of their own; one that’s bigger, better, longer, thinner…I think I'll go color!

Luisa Buehler, author of TThe Rosary Bride: A Cloistered Death (A Grace Marsden Mystery Book One) (Grace Marsden Mysteries)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Art of April Fool

Dying art? Do people perpetrate April Fool pranks in the grand style of days gone by?
Are we too serious, too depressed, too downtrodden to lighten up for one day and prank someone? It takes thought, planning and verve to pull off a great April Fool.

My father, Mike Scala, always had a trick or two up his sleeve on April 1st. His best stunt became known as the ‘miracle of the tomatoes’. He planted tomato plants in pots every year so his plants would have a great start since Chicago springs could start and stop several times between April and May. My dad and uncle argued about the best way to grow and nurture the plants. Being Italian, tomatoes were key in our diet and the two brothers had a friendly competition.

The year of the ‘miracle’ began differently. He had a series of shelves built in under the stairs leading to the basement. He’d set up grow lights to shine on every inch of the shelves onto which he’d crammed peat pots filled with rich, dark potting soil and one lucky tomato seed. Did I mention there was a priest from the neighborhood church who blessed seeds? I think he got a cut of everyone’s harvest.

What was different this year was that he’d planted them earlier than usual and he’d staked each one with a piece of green florist wood. Newly sprouted tomato plants are spindly and tender. We all thought his departure from the usual was strange but he insisted it was a new method that would yield more and larger tomatoes and yield them sooner. He explained, at great length and usually at dinner when my brother and I would sooner eat fast and get back outside to play, that he was adding special soil nutrients and using only rain water to feed his plants.
This was the late 50’s and our city water was fluoridated, a chemical that my father said delayed blossom time. He ground up bits of egg shells, orange rind, nuts, and fish heads using his ‘miracle’ mixture to amend the soil of each tiny peat pot. He added his coffee grounds and Nonna Santa’s used Lipton tea bags. The sprouts grew to sturdy little plants standing tall with the aid of the florist sticks.

On April 1st he rose earlier than usual and perpetrated the hoax. He carefully added the ‘miracle’ to each plant. My father had passed a needle and thread through cherry tomatoes he'd purchased from a market outside of our neighborhood and looped the thread around the stick allowing the tiny red orb to hang near a set of leaves giving the illusion of fruit on the vine. He added two or three tomatoes to each plant then waited for the miracle to be discovered by Nonna Santa who lived upstairs from us. We lived in a three flat and her custom was to come downstairs to have breakfast with our family. She always wore her house dress and mules and left her hair in one long braid. Her habit during the growing season was to visit the tomatoes in the basement. And this day April 1st was no different.

Her shouts of, “Miracolo. Un miracolo dalla St. Fiacre” bounced up the stairs and into the kitchen. We rushed down the stairs and stared at the sight of twenty baby plants drooping from the weight of bright, ripe tomatoes. My mother whispered, “Miracolo” and made the sign of the cross.
It was about this point that my grandmother reached for the tempting fruit and before my dad could stop her the prank was undone and he shouted, “April Fool”.

My brother and I laughed long and hard mainly at the look of incredulity then chagrin on our grandmother and our mother's faces—maybe a little at ourselves. Amid language that I couldn't’t translate my little grandmother chased her son around the basement brandishing one of her soft sided mules. Had this been later in the day she would have been wearing her daytime slippers and those hard heels were murder on your shoulders or backside.

Eventually we all went our separate ways except my grandmother. We found out that evening at dinner that she’d spent the day fooling her lady friends, Assunta, Florence and Philomena, inviting them to hurry and see the ‘miracle of the tomatoes’.
My dad never topped that prank but he did get us with other ones through the years. He enjoyed the planning and the inevitable shouted punch line, “April Fool.”

Luisa Buehler