Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

Getting Your 200,000-mile Writer’s Tuneup

I wonder if the engine would like a CBD treatment rather than oil

My car just turned over its 200,000th mile. I do like milestones, so I should have prepared by putting a wet bar in the trunk a couple of months ago so I could have whipped up a roadside cocktail at the divine moment, but instead I just noted the passage with some bemusement, rather than amusement. 

Probably because it’s an old Toyota Corolla, and an insipid silver-grey at that. This most unprepossessing vehicle—which probably would be great for bank robberies, because of its blandness—is the most common car I’ve ever owned. Among the beauties I’ve piloted are a ’62 Caddy, ’63 Mercury Monterey, ’64 Dodge Dart, ’62 Pontiac Tempest, ’65 Ford Galaxie, ’64 Studebaker, ’71 Volvo p1800, ’81 Mercedes 380SL, ’81 Jag XJ6, and a bunch of old BMWs and old Volkswagens. I love old, interesting cars.

So, turning over 200,000 in a listless Corolla was kind of a letdown.

Writerly Roses Among Some Thorns

I bought the Toyota a bit back because the cash register hasn’t been ringing as often the past couple of years, despite my usual efforts in pitching both business writing and freelance pieces, as well as book editing and fiction writing. Those usually add up to something, but this year, nothing added up. Hello Corolla.

So, I’ve felt like it was me with the 200,000 miles under the hood, and needful of an oil change. Or more to the point, a writer’s tuneup.

But I did publish a novel in the spring that I feel came out well, and now I’ve just published another, so there’s some satisfaction in that. The latest is Swirled All the Way to the Shrub,  my first collaborative novel, written with my pal Rick Wilson. Here’s the logline for the book: 

Sozzled reporter and would-be author blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Great Depression Boston.

Uplifting, eh?

You can download a PDF of the book’s first three chapters at the bottom of the Shrub site’s home page.

if you’re not the Amazonian type, the Where to Buy page on the site has a number of other online vendors for the ebook. There are also some elaborations of historical references from the book on the site and some other amusements about our collaboration. And for you worldly types, drink recipes from the 1930s.

The deal on this shrubbery (“It’s got to be a nice one,” as Monty Python would say) will only be until year’s end. We’ll be tuning the ebook and print prices up from there.

An odd year, in so many ways, for me and of course, for our country. I think we’re all in need of a writer’s tune-up. But I welcome a new year—and I have many new thoughts on changes to my work, forging new habits, perspectives and challenges. Maybe I’ll even paint flames on the side of the Corolla. 

Happy Holidays to all!

Writing Rejections Give You a Glimmer of Hope


Having been a freelancer writing both nonfiction and fiction for many years, you get used to writing rejections. They used to chafe more years ago, but my skin has thickened, so that I normally can simply say “Next!” and mean it without too much teeth-gritting. Not too much.

But once in a while, rejections are motivational. And not just in the sense of “That blasted editor doesn’t know a good story from a cucumber! I’ll show him/her/it!” (“It” because I’m sure AI will soon be used to make editorial decisions in some offices.) Vengeance can certainly be motivational, but here I speak more of a connective motivation, an empathetic one.

Case in point: Glimmer Train, the fine literary journal and press, has been publishing writers for nearly 30 years. They often champion unknown writers, and are willing to dig around the edges in fiction and nonfiction to bring interesting and exciting voices to the page. I haven’t subscribed to their journal (shame!), but I’ve picked it up in bookstores here and there over the years, and have always been delighted in the reading.

And the yearning.

Getting to the Counter Before the Shop Closes

The yearning is this: I’ve known for a while that Glimmer Train is one of the premiere literary journals, and that to be published there is a new feather in any writer’s quill pen. But I haven’t had confidence in many of my short stories, so I’ve sent only a few pieces over the years. Looking at my submissions spreadsheet (I started tracking electronically in 2003), I sent GT stories in 2007, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s where the motivational parts come in. Early this year, I heard that Glimmer Train was going to shut down in 2019. Not from lack of success, far from it. The reason is easy to understand: the two sisters (one of the appealing things about the magazine—it’s been run by two sisters, all this time) have been the conductors of the train for 30 years, and they are ready to close the station. They read every story that’s submitted: I read somewhere that they read thousands of stories a year. Crickey, I’d be tired too.

In early May, I didn’t send them a story, but a note:

Glimmer Sisters, my stomach dropped when I read that you guys were going to pull the shades on the train and picnic in green pastures. You have done such great work for writers for so long, it seemed like you were a perennial season—Spring comes to mind.

Thank you for your deep and generous work, Tom Bentley

And got this back the same day:

What a kind message, Tom. Thank you. Susan
P.S. Our stomachs dropped, too!

Sending the Story Before It Turns into a Pumpkin

At that point, I hadn’t been writing fiction for a while, spending all my time getting a novel published and marketed. But knowing that the train was pulling into the station, I was motivated. I’d had a story idea for a while and went for it; I sent it off to one of GT’s summer contests, hoping not to get a lump of coal. The “Sorry, no dice” form letter came through yesterday.

That didn’t cut too deep, despite my disappointment, so I sent them this message:

Susan and Linda, thanks for taking a look. Hope things are going well as you prepare your final salutes to a fine publication.

thanks, Tom

And again, a same-day response:

What a kind – and welcome! – message. Thank you, Tom. Susan

Motivation again: they are still accepting submissions through May of 2019. I have another idea for a short story. They are going to get it first.

You have to take your writing motivations where you can get them. If they come from the (rejection) kindness of strangers, all the better.

Antiheroes and Villains (Chinatown vs Our New Book)

Of course, a detective HAS to be nosy

I watched Chinatown a couple of nights ago, for the fourth or fifth time. It’s an atmospheric film with sharp acting, particularly the lead, Jack Nicholson. Though Jack seems to be playing a variant of many Jack Nicholson characters—snide, cynical, violent—he does it with such panache that it’s a thing of glory.

As the work develops, the story arc gets darker and darker and the villain who emerges turns out to be volcanically more villainous (and amoral) than first imagined. The script has several moving parts, but they are well greased, so that when the gears whir, they move you forward, into a fine mix of alarm and dread.

I’m talking about this because as I watched the movie, I was considering it against the collaborative novel of mine and a fellow writer’s that will be published soon. Jack’s character, detective Jake Gittes, is a kind of antihero, though in his two-steps-up-from lowlife role, he has no small charm. Gittes is like that line from a Dylan song, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” He adheres to a creed, even if it’s a bit crusty.

External and Internal Evils

Antihero or not, the villain in the work, the Noah Cross character, is actually evil. There’s a strong contrast between Detective Gittes’ ethical ambiguity and Cross’s crossed-every-line corruption. My Prohibition-era novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, doesn’t have a clearcut villain, excepting for the lead character’s (Pinky DeVroom) poor judgment and impulsiveness. His villain seems to be his own consciousness, which despite his best efforts, keeps throwing him into absurd and emotionally dangerous situations. The Great Crash and subsequent Depression is also villain of sorts, exerting strong pressure on the story.

Pinky mistakenly thinks one of the secondary characters in the book is a villain, and that mistake turns into an emotional and practical disaster for him. But later in the work, an evildoer does come into view: corporate criminals wreaking societal havoc. Pinky finally has actual scoundrels to combat, drawing on resources that he might or might not have. Books and film scripts can work with both sharply drawn external villains and more ambiguous internal ones.

Interestingly (and I’m guessing you’ve seen the film, but if not, spoiler alert!), Chinatown has far from a Hollywood ending. The suggestion is that the villain will get away with it, and many people will pay harsh consequences.

I won’t tell you how Shrub will end, but I will say that it’s good writerly practice to see how film scripts work, to try and discern what forces try to tear the protagonists down, whether external or internal, and what’s left of the characters in the end. You will want your readers to be able to dramatically visualize your characters on the page in the great movie screens of their minds.

And of course, if we sell the movie rights to Shrub, Jack is a natural to play Pinky.

This Is Your Brain on Writing

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

I wrote a newsletter post last month about the weird compost-heap-of-the-mind phenomenon that happens with writers: you witness some event—and it might seem trivial at the time—in your past, put it on ice in the frosted back fridge of your brain for years, and one day you’re eating your pickled rutabagas for lunch and it happens: the event resurfaces, and you think: Why, that’s a story, that is!

And sometimes the prompt might even be something you’d read long ago, and even if you don’t dredge up the adjectives and adverbs, the tingling verb of the original story touches you: Why, I could make a story out of that story! Heck, it might even happen to you when you’re listening to a Paul Simon song and you think, Man, that guy’s short. No, I mean, you think: That song puts me in mind of a story.

You don’t even have to eat rutabagas for that to happen.

The Benefits of the Fermenting Brain

OK, that wonderful thing that is the fermenting brain does do some remarkable work, particularly when you just let it simmer for a bit. Case in point: in the article I referenced above, the idea for the story air-mailed itself into my mind like the cat grabbing for that live tuna you mistakenly left in your lap.

So I did write the story, with my usual hemming and hawing, delay and diversion. But I didn’t have an ending. Endings are a fine way to end a story, and I didn’t have one. But my sweetheart Alice gave me an ending opening: not the ending, just a suggestion for the vocations of some ancillary characters who come to visit my main character. Yeah, yeah, that’s good, that will add something.

It did: it added the ending. Just in the way that stories drop from the sky onto a writer’s addled pate, such did an ending for the story screech up in a taxi. And when I say that, I mean truly: this was a case of the entire ending, involving a full scene with all the story’s characters, coming into the brain like an injection. There’s something wonderful, scary and bizarre about how that happens.

Ponder and Incubate

I have read of many breakthroughs, often in science, where the scientist puzzles furiously over some insoluble problem for a week, then shuts the door on the problem while she relaxedly takes a bath—and zounds! The solution appears, a rabbit out of the hat. (Like all of you, I too wear a hat when I bathe.)

Here’s a short article, with a short video on this process, called The Four Stages of Creativity. It’s clear that you do have to engage the problem, in this case the ending of a story, before your story yeast is going to rise. There must be incubation. (Sorry I’m mixing cooking and gestation metaphors here, but the burners are on.) But the miracle of this is always so unexpected when an idea becomes bread, in an instant.

I don’t quite understand how it works, but I’m grateful. Now, whether the story is any good or not, that’s a different issue. I’m sending it out to see if anyone agrees. Have you had these hit-by-lightning story moments?

For Writers (and Readers), Sometimes Simple Is Best

I jump around a lot in my reading, from fiction to nonfiction, genre to genre, era to era. My current novel is O Pioneers!, written by Willa Cather in 1913. At that point, she was living in New York, having left the hardscrabble life of the Great Plains far behind. But that hard land, with its hard light, was in her blood, the source of her Prairie Trilogy of novels, of which Pioneers is the first.

Below is a passage from late in the book, where an omniscient narrator is describing Alexandra, the contained, self-sufficient protagonist of the work. I read this passage several times, noting that its cadence, simple word choice and weight are carriers of what I so often admire in fiction—and perhaps, because my own writing is so different, a literary vein whose mind feels closed to me.

There are a number of authors whose work is painted with spare and simple language that in the reading delivers a kind of haunting gravity. I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s many novels, Kent Haruf’s work, some of Cormac McCarthy’s, a story like Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. There’s a flinty character to how words are strung together that entrances me.

If you haven’t read the work, you won’t have the context of who Alexandra is (nor of Emil, her younger brother), so the impact will be softer. But still, read and listen to the work of the words:

Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors.

 

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil. There were days, too, which she and Emil had spent together, upon which she loved to look back. There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land. They had made an early start one morning and had driven a long way before noon. When Emil said he was hungry, they drew back from the road, gave Brigham his oats among the bushes, and climbed up to the top of a grassy bluff to eat their lunch under the shade of some little elm trees. The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it ran in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.

 

They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, “Sister, you know our duck down there—” Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.

 

Most of Alexandra’s happy memories were as impersonal as this one; yet to her they were very personal. Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

 

Simple Is Seductive

And if you lived through one of those late 19th-century Nebraska winters as Cather did, you’d have known serious times too. But what gets me about this little stretch of writing is its clarity and modesty. Its basis is that simple—perhaps entirely forgettable—memory between the siblings, and speaks of their deep bond, which is explored throughout the book, as well as Alexandra’s controlled yet-never-stiff reserve. Beautiful stuff.

Oh, another writer comes to mind too: Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky is an almost hallucinatory novel that uses razored, acute (and often very plain) language to describe shattering happenings in both the minds and lives of its characters and in the descriptive passages about North Africa. Whew! I have to read that again.

This care with language and the ability to weave existential weight into spare descriptions fascinates me. Something to aspire to in my own writing, but always to enjoy, regardless.

Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

Nine Lives Aren’t Enough

Abe on the way to the next stage

Have you had that experience where you meet someone you take to immediately, where something about their manner, their look, maybe even how they hold their head, has an irresistible charm? And how sometimes that person needn’t have two legs to qualify, but four?

My sweetheart Alice and I were house-sitting for a few days in Sonoma County a bit back, visiting friends and spending time out on the coast for an article about Ft. Ross. We’d arranged to swap houses with a couple in Santa Rosa, them taking care of our cat and us taking care of their cat, Abe, who was 20 years old. Now, 20 years old isn’t merely elderly for a cat—that’s an age where they’ve been receiving feline Social Security for a couple of generations. That’s a venerable cat, a centenarian, one of the ancients.

So we had some trepidation about caring for him—could he get around, could we leave him in the house alone, what if he got sick? When we first saw him, he was sleeping so soundly that it was hard to get a handle on his ways. Not that our noise could wake him, because he was essentially deaf. But when he first rose and came out to us in the living room, that instant appreciation happened: he had a distinctive way of soft-stepping with each paw, a dainty way of gently moving his long, lean frame forward that was delightful to watch. He was immediately curious about us, coming close, looking into our faces, appreciating our petting with a soft squeak.

The squeak was the most his old vocal chords could muster in the way of a meow. But we loved him right off. Abe the cat, Old Abe, Honest Abe. When he wasn’t sleeping his long hours, he was quite alert and notably conscious of human company, looking you in the eye for acknowledgment and conversation, even one held in squeaks, falling on closed ears.

A Cat’s Charm Sticks

He slept on the bed with us that first night, fast friends, and I was afraid I would crush him by turning over on him. But it worked out fine, though his frailness concerned us when we left for hours at the coast. But he was happy when we returned and happy over the days we were there. When Alice and I returned to Santa Cruz, we remarked several times about his charm. We had to return ten days ago to Santa Rosa for a memorial for one of Alice’s oldest friends, a sad thing, but we were happy to see old Abe again and renew the acquaintance.

But we’d been warned that Abe hadn’t been doing that well, having had some respiratory trouble, probably with allergies. So we were more fearful now than when we’d first heard that he was 20. But he was again charming, friendly and responsive, and through the sadness of the memorial, we were happy again to be with Abe. I spent a while sitting with him on the house’s big rug right before we left, petting him and telling him we hoped to see him again.

So when we heard the other day from Abe’s owner that his breathing problems had become overwhelming, and that she had to have him put down, it was a blow. She had cared for Abe as family for all of his 20 years, and indeed he was her family. Her and her husband’s loss is tremendous, but it surprised me how much I felt it. But maybe not so surprising, because as I suggested at the beginning, some people charm you from moment one, and Abe was that guy.

The Soul’s Lasting Light

Despite my long years of Catholic school (or maybe because of them), I don’t believe in a paternalistic God, looking down on the billions of us with loving benignity. But I do believe there is something immortal in us, however it dwells within us, and that it continues on when the body fails. And I also believe that animals have a soul—you can see it when you look, with attention, into their eyes.

And I’ll probably sweat in hell for this too, but I don’t buy the standard concepts of heaven either. But here’s how it should be: heaven is a baseball game in a beautiful old stadium, where the beer is a dime and hot dogs a quarter. The home team is ahead by two runs and you’re feeling good, with family and friends. (And there are no damn Yankees.)

And if we go extra innings, Abe, I’ll get you another beer.

Save Yourself from Toxic Novels

We all know that literature can rot your mind. Or was that candy corn? Regardless, many people don’t know that books are literally dangerous, particularly new releases. Here I examine my new novel, Aftershock, for cholera, plague, St. Vitus Dance and other conditions. All in the name of keeping you safe.