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Beam Me Up

2020 — What a portentous number for the new year. The old adage that “hindsight is 20-20” won’t retreat from my head.

Join me in a little exercise: looking back from NOW, can you see any patterns of events/behaviors that have led up to your current situation? The incidents in question were probably so tiny at the time that you glossed over them, but now you see they were integral to your own cycle of life.

If it’s all good stuff, yay for you! If it’s not, well…

Life is rarely all good or all bad. What you do with what you find yourself in is what makes or breaks things for you. This seems to be the year that we all need to be accountable for ourselves, to sit down and take a hard look at reality. Don’t wimp out and put if off. See it for what it is. See your place in the equation. Are you part of the problem (most likely) or part of the solution (hopefully)?

It’s not as if we can tap our little Federation communicator badges and calmly demand to be beamed up and out of whatever mess we are mired in. (Apologies to the Federation.) Shoot, I’ll settle for a replicator…give me one of those, and it will solve a lot of my simpler issues. However, if we could simply beam the truly bad stuff out, maybe into the sun…

Blessings to all, whoever and wherever you are this year. Keep it real, keep it between the lines on the road, and keep moving forward. If we all do the best we can, life will improve.

Music, Words and Art

The Universal Voices of Humanity, a Communication Triumvirate

It always seems to be the simplest, least-prepossessing things that are actually much larger than themselves. Thoughts are uppermost on this list, such as we are able to communicate to each other. Monumental concepts are often revealed in small, humble sentences.

For example, I recently read an interview of author Vaddey Ratner on Shelf Awareness/Maximum Shelf. Ms. Ratner writes critically acclaimed novels/fictionalized histories, surrounding a small group of Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge many decades ago. One of the main themes of her latest book, “Music of the Ghosts” (Touchstone; release date 04/11/2017), involves the cultural and spiritual significance of music in Cambodian life. Ms. Ratner lamented that modern-day Cambodians have lost much of that deep personal connection to music. Her assessment of the inherent value of music stunned me:
“When words fail, music is our other voice.”

Such a simple concept, so apt. It was a statement of the taken-for-granted-mostly-forgotten obvious. It was a powerful comment on human communication. The visual artist in me, however, wanted to amend it ever so slightly: “When words and images fail…” Think about it.

Vocalizations were the precursors to basic image-making. Words and music had to evolve over many lifetimes to become the rich, divergent expressers of our thoughts, as did our ability to make visual art. The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” reminds us that as vast as our modern vocabularies are, there are still numerous concepts beyond their ability to describe.

And while art may elicit a wealth of emotional response beyond words, music is capable of generating perhaps even more feelings in a way that transcends the boundaries of time, geography, culture, religion, and gender. Music becomes, by default, the universal communicator – “our other voice.”

I have not read Ms. Ratner’s books, but I certainly intend to do so. And I intend to keep improving my communications, whether with words, visual images, or music. We all should.

Christmas Miracles and Peanut Butter Fudge

I received a much needed and highly unexpected gift this evening, something of inestimable worth. It lasted but a moment, but it was a moment of great significance and value because it gave me something I haven’t had for over twenty years – Christmas with my mother’s mother.

Grandmother, Mema, at Christmas


Mema passed away over two decades ago. She was a fixture in my life and we were very close.

What served as the vehicle for this miracle was a tin of homemade peanut butter fudge. One of my quilting friends, Sharon H., makes this fudge every year for our quilt guild’s pitch-in Christmas dinner. It’s always good fudge, but this year it was remarkable.

When I arrived at the guild meeting tonight and saw her carrying the festive holiday tin, I called out to her and told her I hoped that was peanut butter fudge inside that tin. She laughed, flashed me a conspiratorial look, and admitted that it was indeed, because no one would let her come if it wasn’t. We smiled and laughed, because that’s not far from the truth. Sharon’s fudge is legendary. Later, as we gathered around one of the large round dining tables to wait for the confluence of women to settle down and the event to begin, the conversation again turned to fudge. It was a serious discussion on the temperamental qualities of fudge, that even time-tested-and-trusted recipes seldom gave identical results. Irene S., another quilting friend, shared an opinion that humidity seemed to play an important role in the success of failure of a batch. Sharon remarked that this year her batch had turned out exceptionally well, her best ever.

Our table’s time came to go through the food line. Desserts are always at the far end of the line, and I hoped there would still be fudge left. When I reached it, the tin was half-emptied. Given the impressive number and quality of sweets brought in, that says a lot about Sharon’s fudge. I greedily snagged two pieces for my dessert plate.

After eating fried chicken, buttered carrots, green beans and scalloped potatoes, I began to nibble away at my desserts. Quilters like to sample lots of things, so desserts are normally cut into many small portions. I had banana bread, a dark chocolate brownie crowned with tiny chocolate morsels, and Sharon’s fudge. The bread was mine. It had turned out well. The brownie was excellent. And then I bit into the fudge.

I actually had a flashback. The rich roasted peanut flavor, the creamy texture with just a hint of sugary graininess – it was a perfect match to the fudge my Mema made every single Christmas as I was growing up. As the fudge melted in my mouth, the sensation conjured up memories of being in Mema and Grandad’s home on Christmas Eve, with huge white plastic containers filled with peanut butter fudge, and chocolate fudge – with and without nuts. The containers came from the little corner grocery store that my grandparents owned. Originally packed with bulk foods for the deli counter, the 2 – 3 gallon tubs were saved and scrupulously cleaned afterward, for multiple purposes, but none so wonderful as being literally filled with homemade fudge.

In retrospect, I wish I could say that tears filled my eyes, that I choked up and embraced Sharon, sobbing with joyous nostalgia, but that did not happen. I did tell her, though, that her fudge was perfect, that it was the closest thing I had ever had to my grandmother’s fudge. It turns out they used the same recipe, the one on the jar of Kraft-brand marshmallow crème – with one small difference. Sharon uses peanut butter chips with a scoop of real peanut butter for enhanced flavor. My grandmother always used straight peanut butter. Peanut butter chips had not been available when I was small, and she never altered the way she made her fudge. But the confectionary experience of eating Sharon’s fudge was close – darned near identical.

With every bite of fudge – and I managed to euphorically devour two additional pieces, I was allowed to relive treasured bits of childhood, if only for a moment. And in those moments I received one of the most priceless yuletide gifts anyone could ever ask for.

Xmas Tree 2014

Thank you, Sharon, for the gift of a small miracle.

Predatory Labeling Goes Too Far

Label of predatory publishing goes too far

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock (213109372)

Wow. I feel so victimized, and I haven’t even been touched. Why? Because I operate a small publishing company that is for all practical purposes a subsidy press. The national writers’ organization I belong to has chosen to label all such endeavors as “Predatory Publishers” and virtually every renowned blogger is currently dousing the Ethernet with vitriol about these “unethical, greedy, deceitful scam artists.”

Really. I take personal offense, people. We are not all that way. My little publishing house is tiny, and was set up primarily for my own work (read: self-publishing). For a very short time I agreed to publish books for two other people, both of whom knew exactly what I offered and did not expect anything different. You see, when I first began floundering through the learning curve of setting up as a small publisher, I quickly realized I would never have the resources to deal with other authors the way large traditional presses do. There was no way I could afford to front others’ expenses, pay thousands of dollars for advances, nor put my family’s finances at risk on the hopes that my authors’ books would sell and make any significant profit. My own books could not guarantee me those things.

The Romance Writers of America hesitated to let me join because I owned my little business. I had to assure and promise them that I had not, did not, and would not solicit other romance writers to publish through me. I also had to agree, or should I say I was “told,” that I would always be ineligible for all RWA contests, special promotions, and election to any office. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I believed the relationship was still worth the pain, so I joined. There have been numerous times since then that the bitter taste rises in my throat, when I wish I could enter contests, or purchase advertising, or simply be accepted into the Published Author Network ranks. I do have two novel-length books out there, with modest but positive reviews, but since they haven’t earned the minimums recently defined for acceptance into PAN, I continue to sit on the sidelines. Actually, I am not overly hurt on that one. If an author can’t market herself enough to earn those minimums, then maybe she hasn’t finished paying her real-life dues yet. Point taken.

What truly does bother me, though, are the all-encompassing, scurrilous “predatory” labels attached to everything “subsidy.” I may not promote my services, but there are other writers out there who have queried me from time to time about using my company to quasi-self-publish their work. I’m not totally averse to that, but so far I’ve declined. With all the bad-mouthing hitting the internet right now, it is probably not in their best interests to purchase anyone’s services – and that puts all of them at the mercy of Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble and all the other giant publishing corporations. I’ve been fortunate to possess a lot of the skills and software necessary for my publishing process, including a regular publisher account with Ingram/Lightning Source. I do not, however, have the knowledge or temperament to deal with eBook file conversion – I hire others to do that for me. Does that mean those people are “preying” on me? Hardly. The lady who does my file conversion is also a personal friend, and she has been far more conscientious, flexible and generous with me than most of the other people in the industry with whom I have dealt.

I hesitate to use the term “conspiracy” but why is this hostility being broadcast at roughly the same time? Are the traditional powers-that-be uniting to drive all subsidy presses, and perhaps all small presses, out of business through fear and intimidation? Understandably, the handful of companies that have indeed been victimizing thousands of naive but hopeful authors have been dragged into courts for some time now. It seems appropriate to let the public know that those entities truly are scam artists to be avoided at all costs – and cost they do. I remember looking into several of them prior to finishing my first manuscript. Even then, I realized how much money was wanted to simply provide the setup and initial print run of a single title, and how little else was furnished – no advance, no advertising or marketing – all of those items were pricey add-ons. Authors were essentially on their own to sell that first copy and every copy after that. Traditional publishers certainly provided more, but even they were gearing up to have their stable of authors provide ever more of their own marketing efforts. The time and effort required to track down agents and/or publishers who might be interested in my books seemed overwhelming.

Another staggering issue was having to be tied to a publisher’s timetable. I had – and still have – a full-time career outside of publishing. It pays virtually all the bills. No publisher was going to work around my primary work obligations. Hence my decision to self-publish. That choice has yet to work out well money-wise for me, but the flexibility allows me to continue earning a living until such time as I can devote more hours to self-promotion. I have faith in what I write. I even have a small group of fans who continually ask when the next book is coming out. That little bit of encouragement helps me to keep working toward that goal.

So, having meandered all over this subject of irritation and frustration, I find I am no closer to having any answers to my questions. Nor am I likely to have changed any minds higher up the food chain about their unfortunate choice of social labeling that includes those of us who are anything but “predatory.”

Veterans Day 2015

Break out the poppies ‘cause it’s no bed of roses.
Is it any tougher to be a Veteran today than it was nearly 240 years ago? In some ways yes, in others no. For those who served and survived combat, surviving the awkwardness of life after it has always been difficult. Some Veterans have been honored and supported. Some have not. It is our individual responsibility to give respect and support to our Veterans and active military. Veterans Day 2015 - it's no bed of roses

Back in the day…
Veterans find their return path to home strewn with obstacles of many kinds. Those who fought on their home front in the infancy of this country possibly received more understanding and deference than those who served in the great World Wars. Soldiers returning from Korea and Vietnam received a disconcerting mix of negative and positive responses. 40, 50, even 60 years passed before those particular sacrifices and service were acknowledged and appreciated. Far too late, unfortunately, for many.

Another fine mess…
Young and old soldiers alike have been deployed to the Middle East for over 25 years now, rotating in and out of deserts, rocky hills and devastated cities. They want to make a difference in the world, to build rather than destroy, and to make the world a safer place to live in, but politics thwart their every move. A sad fact that undoubtedly has plagued virtually all armed conflicts since the dawn of humanity. Leaders at the highest levels appear to be at cross purposes, intent on their unshared personal agendas. They ignore what the boots on the ground have come to know. Our soldiers do not want to be disposable pawns in this insane game of chess, nor do they deserve to be left hanging out to dry when unspeakable nasty stuff hits the fan.

Meanwhile back at the ranch…
Professional agitators stir the melting pot – not to blend, but to separate us. Salt is poured into partly healed wounds while creating fresh ones that should never have been made. Caught in this vortex of fear, ignorance, outrage, and blatant corruption are our military. Strident voices shockingly call for the castration or even dissolution of our forces, at a time when they are needed most on the home front.

Stand by your man/woman (in uniform)…
A growing tide of voices clamor for a lifetime of promises made to our men and women in uniform to be fulfilled – while silently praying that all those oaths taken to protect this country from all threats foreign and domestic will hold millions* true to their word. It may be that the most difficult battle for our active military and all living Veterans has yet to begin. I pray that battle will not need to happen.

* — According to a March 19, 2015 newsletter article at referencing statistics from the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans Day 2015 - break out the poppies  - it's no bed of roses

Cover Wars and Other Epic Battles

Over at, fellow authors are competing for a prize — marketing opportunities. It’s a tough world out there for authors. Millions of other books are already out there, with hundreds of thousands of new books entering the market each month. Seeing a book’s cover is the first time a reader notices the author’s work, and on average a cover has a piddly amount of time…maybe 3 whole seconds, to do that job.

There are companies devoted to producing book cover art, custom or template. It’s a big market. Some authors create their own, but unless you’re a wiz at it, it’s best to let a more objective artist take a shot. Much like self-editing, it’s difficult to distance yourself from your cover art ideas. If you do hire someone else, be sure to check out their work, talk to references, etc. Treat it as you would any other significant financial dealing, after all, it has to be fabulous — and fabulously attention-grabbing —  for at least 3 seconds and for a lot of people!

Courtesy of Morguefile.

Courtesy of Morguefile.

You Can’t Ban Freedom of Thought


Censorship is a hot-button topic, particularly in our politically correct world. Our concern that any one person might be grievously offended by another’s train of thought has led to extreme compromises of personal liberty and values – all on the off-chance that anything we say or do might somehow besmirch or belittle someone we don’t even know. Such a stilted way of living is fundamentally at odds with humankind.
Humans are the embodiment of curiosity and experimentation. Our lives center on acquiring knowledge, by whatever means are at hand. Failure leads to eventual success. We come to understand each other by learning from the failures (sometimes epic ones) or successes within our relationships. It’s how we build relationships between individuals, cultures and countries.
So what does this have to do with Banned Books Week? Language is how we best express ourselves – our theories, our findings, our hopes, our fears – and the sharing of those things has been through the written word. We come closest to pure communication via words that have been chosen with the utmost care, that reflect as perfectly as possible the exact nuances of meaning the author of that communication intended.
All other forms of creative expression depend on significant input from a receiving individual, leaving the originally desired connection subject to random chance. True, sometimes a visual or auditory offering will resonate an emotional chord buried deep within one’s soul, on a primal level that sophisticated language cannot drill down to. All things do have their limitations.
Were it not for works of fiction – and even some nonfiction – that raise topics or questions well out of our collective comfort zones, humans would discretely sidestep those issues until forced into dealing with them.
Words require us to think. Words that strip us of our misconceptions and prejudices perform a service to us all. We are forced to ponder uncomfortable things such as the darker sides of our natures, or the fallacies of the status quo. In doing so, we can choose to rise above those situations and conditions. We can choose to improve the world, one person at a time.
Ronald Reagan challenged his post-Cold War counterpart to tear down the Berlin Wall. The books that have shocked, shamed, or shaken us likewise challenge us to tear down the walls in our minds and set our greatest asset free: thought.

Kristen Lamb

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