Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day Isn't Just For Citizens

I've put a bit of this story on Facebook the last week, so if you've already read some, I apologize. But here's more of the story.

My mom's father was named Guiseppe Ciccocioppo. A mouthful, right? He immigrated here from Abruzzi, Italy in 1912. In five short years, he was a private in the U.S. Army and his messmates were calling him Joe Chicco.

After his training, he was on a train slowly traveling through the south, at one point through a watermelon patch. Joe jumped off the train, grabbed a watermelon under each arm and let his buddies pull him back aboard. The incident earned him the name Watermelon Joe.

The army must have been impressed with his food procurement skills, because they made him a cook in the 154th Depot Brigade of the 2nd Training Battalion. Joe was sent to a new base built as a training facility, Fort Meade. No one ever remembers the regular soldiers who do the work at boot camps. In this case, the new recruits who went through Ft. Meade in 1917 ended up in the trenches of France. One of them, at least, remembered Joe Chicco afterward. His name was James Ronca.

After the war, James Ronca was at home when his younger sister brought home a prospective beau. James took one look at him and exclaimed, "That's Watermelon Joe!" Which apparently made the approval process go smoothly.

But the point of this blog is that Joe only became a citizen of the United States after the war, when he legally changed his name to Chicco and married Jenny Ronca. During his time as a soldier, he was still an immigrant.

Twenty plus years later, during World War II, Joe's two sons and most of his nephews were in the armed forces. One of his nieces, too, as an Army nurse. Joe walked the five blocks to the train station every day that he could, to welcome any military personnel coming home on leave. If they were from his neighborhood, he'd walk them home, carrying their duffels for them.

When Joe died in 1948, the VA provided a footstone for him with a flag holder attached to the side. For more than 60 years, that stone stood 4 inches above ground and every Memorial Day a flag was placed in the holder. This year, the cemetery decided to sink all footstones to ground level, so they could get riding mowers over them. They buried Joe's flag holder.

I contacted the VA to get a new one. They asked if I had Joe's discharge papers and death certificate. I didn't, but I took a photo of the footstone, and that was accepted as proof of his service and death. So today, I'll put the new WWI flag holder and flag on my grandpop's grave.

Occasionally, PBS reads off the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of those names are Latino. They are perhaps recent immigrants, or at least, the sons and daughters of immigrants. Their families deserve better than random traffic stops asking them to show proof of citizenship and other harassments.

American immigrants quite often do the work no one else wants to do, including fighting our wars. We need to remember that.

Happy Memorial Day,

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slipper Lust

My Favorite Moccasins
Go to and search on the words "shoe lust" and you'll get pages of photos of footwear, 99.9% of which are women's shoes with heels so high your ankle has to bend backward at an anatomically impossible angle for you to be able to stand straight in them. I traced a few photos to their web sources and the average prices for most of pairs seem to be around $750.

I've never quite understood this footwear fetish some women have. It's a relatively new phenomenon, I think. Oh, styles of women's shoes have come and gone forever, but I don't ever remember hearing about footwear obsessions before 1986, when Imelda Marcos, on fleeing the Philippino Presidential Palace during their revolution, was found to have left behind something like 2700 pairs of shoes. Sort of like Marie Antoinette, except the message here was "They can't afford platforms? Let 'em wear pumps."

After that, all of a sudden, you couldn't have a female character on TV or in movies and novels, who didn't salivate at the thought of a new pair of shoes. The characters eventually seemed to morph into a stereotype with the message: If a women doesn't crave shoe shopping, or wear outlandishly high heels (even when  chasing down criminals or lounging around her house), she isn't a real woman. Or at least, not a sexy, desirable one. I'm not dissing my friends who like shoes, but I'm kind of fed up with the stereotype. We've all admitted that Barbie's body measurements are a dangerously unattainable goal for our daughters to strive for, but we've never really let go of those oddly misshapen plastic feet of hers.

Okay, maybe this is no more than the grouse of an old fogey. My formative years were spent back when barefootedness was the summer norm for every young person, and when "in" foot coverings included earth shoes, desert boots and flat leather sandals that molded perfectly to your sole. My favorite shoes now are
slippers. Maybe I'm not sexy and desirable, but my feet totally love me and I'll stay faithful to them.

Not romantic, you say? I disagree. Here's the first draft of a poem by none other than Lord Byron. (He changed it slightly before publication, to read "She walks in beauty like the night....")

She walks in booties late at night,
In soleless shoes that have no ties;
All comfy warm and not too tight
Due to the slightly larger size;
Thus mellow'd more than in daylight
When dressy heels do agonize.

Upon those feet, and under go,
So soft, so warm, so excellent;
She smiles as she sips her cocoa,
Forgetting hours of groaning spent,
Her toes all crushed in stiletto--
In booties now, she's so content.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Eagle-Eye View

When I was in grad school studying music composition, my teacher, Alice Parker, told us that beginning a new piece like being an eagle circling high above the earth. The metaphor works for writing as well.

At the outset of a project, your idea seems very far away. Your mental image is something like a blurry aerial photo. Then as you work on the piece, you circle lower, picking out details, seeing how parts of the landscape relate to other parts. At last you reach a point where you can identify buildings and cars and maybe even people, but you're still far enough away to see the big picture. You see how everything in that aerial photo makes sense together. Most importantly, you understand why that photo exists and why you need to share it with others. You start writing.

The problem is, in order to write it, you need to zero in on details and get them right. You circle lower and never see that big picture again. You have to rely on the memories of that snapshot to keep you true to your original vision. If you don't, you're likely to forget that first epiphany that got you inspired and excited enough to start writing the work in the first place.

I began a children's novel more than a year ago. The project was a departure from my usual mystery stories. Great fun at first, but I quickly became hopelessly stuck. I simply couldn't seem to make it work. I talked through the story with my brother and one of my writer friends. I changed some major plot points, but that only made things worse. Last fall I finally surrendered and moved on to other projects.

This week I was staying with a non-writer friend who I don't see very often. She asked what I was writing, and instead of telling her about my current work-in-progress, I found myself talking about the kid's book I didn't talk through the plot as I had before, but only gave her the basics. Sort of an elevator pitch, assuming
the lift was slow and headed for the penthouse of a skyscraper.

As I described the story, I found myself getting more excited about it than I'd been since last summer. Somehow, I'd recreated that "big picture" snapshot. Now I've got a better feel for what details and tangents led me away from my original vision.

So, back to work.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Multiple Author Syndrome

I attended the Malice Domestic conference last weekend. Malice is for mystery fans who love the "traditional" mystery, the kinds penned in the style of authors like Agatha Christie, usually with non-cop sleuths and small town settings. I've been to more than a dozen Malice weekends over the years. Probably a lot more. I've lost count.

This year they had a tribute to Barbara Mertz, who writes under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. I'm a big fan of all of her works. Her paranormal Barbara Michaels suspense novels certainly were a major influence on my Possessed Mystery series. Among the authors presenting the tribute to Barbara were Joan Hess, Dorothy Cannell and Margaret Maron.

Watching them, I remembered the first time I'd seen them together in the same room. The four of them plus Charlotte MacLeod and Sharyn McCrumb had come to my local independent bookstore for a signing. I was a yet unpublished writer, and here were some of my favorite authors, so I'd taken a long lunch hour from work to go see them.

I was struck immediately by the fact that these women weren't simply writers traveling together on a book tour. They were good friends.

Since then, I've done signings of my own. My book tour buddies are most often Robin Hathaway and Caroline (Charles) Todd. And yes, we're good friends. When you share hotel rooms and meals and long hours on the road, as well as a love of good books, it's inevitable. I have other writer friends, too, with  whom I've done local mystery panels and presentations. We all support each other's work, and we love to get together and talk shop, which is important in a profession that requires you to be home alone most of the time. The friendships writers develop while hawking books in unison are precious, and as Barbara, Joan and Dorothy reminded me last weekend, often lifelong.

In the last 15 years or so, I've noticed a definite decrease in multiple author events at bookstores. Some stores seem less willing these days to deal directly with authors, but only want to set up events through the publisher. And some publishers seem to keep a fairly tight rein on their authors' promotional activities, insisting they go through their publicists, discouraging their writers from appearing with authors from other publishing houses.

For many authors, especially new ones, it never seems to occur to them to try to schedule signings with other writers. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. More than one author at an event can generate larger audiences and more excitement. Fans attending to see one author are more likely to take a chance on the others. I've always sold more books at multiple author signings. And I can't name one big name author, on having to share space with a newbie, who has complained that his or her sales suffered.

At that signing years ago with Barbara Michaels, Joan Hess and the rest, I bought six books. One was the first novel I'd read by Margaret Maron. I've since read all in her Deborah Knott series. If only one author had been in the store that day, I might not have bought more than one novel, and possibly never discovered Margaret's work.

Happy fans, happy writers, happy bookstores.

Happy reading,


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors