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“Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.” — Brian Tracy

Gratitude isn’t only for one day

By Jan S. Gephardt

Here in the United States, we recently celebrated Thanksgiving. As I noted in my last post, it’s supposed to be a time to reflect upon the blessings in our lives and be grateful. My purpose today is to make the point that gratitude isn’t only for one day a year. It’s better understood as a lifestyle.

It’s my lived experience that when one looks at the world with gratefulness, it’s easier to see the blessings that fill our lives. Even when our lives are hard. Maybe especially when they’re hard. And yes, this marks me as an optimist by nature.

I recognize that pessimists have an important place in the grand scheme of things. They do seem naturally better-suited for some essential roles in society. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fun or easy to go through life as one. And it doesn’t mean that the pessimists in the world don’t need us optimists around. If they’ll accept it, we can give them necessary balance when they start going totally sour on everything (as is their natural bent).

“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” — George Bernard Shaw
Balance in life and human society requires both! (Many thanks to Quotefancy).

Are We Wise Enough to See It?

An important part of bringing that balance into one’s perspective is a key awareness. NO human is a totally “self-made” person. That “self-made” poppycock is a self-aggrandizing fallacy. It flies in the face of human nature because we are a social species. Our primary survival mechanism is gathering into interdependent groups. All of us, no matter how independent-minded and  contrary, must depend on others in many ways and for many things.

Maybe our families bestowed riches, education, and advantage on us. Or maybe they did just the opposite. Whatever our history and personal level of success, we all have received favor and grace somewhere along the line from someone. From society’s basic infrastructure, if nothing else! If we are wise enough, we recognize that.

And if we recognize it, honesty demands that we be grateful for it. Gratitude isn’t a show of weakness – it’s an acknowledgement that our species’ greatest survival skill is active in our lives. That’s why I contend that gratitude isn’t only for one day (for instance, Thanksgiving. Or perhaps the day after Christmas. Or some moment when we can’t escape the obligation to write a thank-you note). Gratitude isn’t only for one season. It isn’t only for one year, or any other finite period. Properly understood, it’s perpetual.

"Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough” — Oprah Winfrey
Maybe not a law of nature, but certainly a law of human psychology. (Courtesy of Wow4u).

Seven Days of Gratitude

Back in 2017 I wrote a series of seven blog posts in a row. I posted one right after another on seven successive days. They were my response to a self-challenge to think about the things I was most grateful for. Now, as I just pointed out, if gratitude isn’t only for one day – and it isn’t only for seven.

But that exercise provided a learning experience. Several patterns of thought emerged. Had I pushed the experiment further, I’m sure I would have discovered more. But even though I clearly had lots more time to write blog posts back then, there were limits.

What themes did I choose for my Seven Days of Gratitude? They covered quite a range, from the personal to the broadly institutional. Considering them from that perspective, let’s take a quick look. Are these things you would have chosen?

“Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.” — Brian Tracy
Don’t just take my word for it. The lives of the grateful are richer in every way. (Thanks again, Quotefancy!)

Gratitude for Personal Things

As I said, some of the things I was (and am) thankful for were personal. Take for instance my family (that was Day Two’s topic). Cliché, much? Yes, “I’m grateful for my family” is basic elementary-school essay fodder, but that doesn’t rob it of validity for many of us. Some people’s families are real-life horror shows, but most of us regard our near kin more kindly. How do you feel about yours?

Another important point of gratitude for me was the companion animals in my life. In genuine ways they also are family. Pack is Family, after all! Even though I didn’t bring them up as a topic till Day Six, they are an active force that makes my life better. This blog is so pet-friendly, that won’t surprise you. Since pet-related posts often get more traffic, if you’re reading this post you probably feel much the same!

One “gratitude topic” that isn’t in the lineup of “usual suspect” clichés was another deeply personal one. I expressed gratitude for my callings. That is, for the things I do well and that give my life meaning and purpose. I believe that each of us comes into the world with a unique suite of abilities and predispositions. When we find ways to develop and express those “best things” in our lives, everyone in our lives benefits in some way. It is a supremely satisfying “fit,” even when it’s also a lot of work. What are your callings? How do you express them?

This montage consists of three quote-images. The one on the left says, “Gratitude: Today be thankful and think how rich you are. Your family is priceless. Your health is wealth. Your time is gold.” – One Bite Wisdom. The middle one reads, “I am thankful for my pets because they complete my family.” – Anonymous. The one on the right says, “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” – Leo Buscaglia.
How do these things work in your life? Do you see them as blessings? (See credits below).

Gratitude for Broader-Based Gifts: Food Security

Gratitude isn’t only for one day, and it isn’t only for one “level” of blessings. When I looked beyond my personal existence, I found yet more things to be grateful for. I’m privileged to be able to claim some of them. Take food security, for instance!

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in September that more than one in five Americans has experienced food insecurity this year. One in five! In the country that is the richest nation in the world! And speaking of “in the world,” we’ve got a global food crisis on our hands. So, if food insecurity is not one of your clear and pressing worries, you have a very great deal to be thankful for!

Those of us blessed with food security should lift up a hearty “thank you!” And then why not look into Charity Navigator’s excellent guide to giving opportunities that fight hunger? But for a few twists of fate, we could be among those on the “hungry” side of the line!

“Before you eat food or drink water, look at what you’re about to eat or drink and feel love and gratitude. Make sure your conversations are positive when you are sitting down to a meal.” — Rhonda Byrne
An excellent place to start! But don’t stop there. (Quotefancy comes through for me again!).

Yet more Societal Gifts: Peace

Number Three on my 2017 list was Peace. Yes, we’ve all seen the clichés and memes about “whirled peas” and beauty pageant candidates claiming they’re all in for world peace. But gratitude isn’t only for one day, and it isn’t only for my small part of the world. Anytime we feel blasé about peace, we need to remember what’s actually going on in the world.

What would Somali farmers say about peace in their part of the world? How would Palestinian or Syrian children (whether refugees or not) feel, if they could grow up in peaceful neighborhoods? Or schoolgirls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan? How would Rohingya refugees feel about the ability to live quietly in peace? Or, of course, the Ukrainian people spending this winter huddling in what’s left of their cold, dark homes?

And let us not forget violence in our own country. The murder rate in my hometown of Kansas City is nothing short of blood-drenched, although (for now) my little neighborhood is relatively quiet. We “only” hear gunfire once in a while (last night, for example), and usually a fair number of blocks away. No, I don’t take peace for granted at all, and neither should anybody! You bet I’m grateful!

“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” — Anton Chekhov
Freedom from violence makes all our dreams more possible. (What would I do without you, Quotefancy?)

But Wait! There’s More!

The last two items on my “Grateful” list deserve at least one separate blog post, so I’ll mention them only as a preview of future (and a reminder of past) posts. Kind of an “alpha and omega” for my thank-you roundup, the very first item on my list was freedom of religion, a topic I’ve already written about several times, including in my 2020 series on the First Amendment, and in a 2019 post about violence against places of worship.

The “omega,” but far from the least important on my list? Gratitude for the arts. I’m a writer and artist. My career history includes work as an art and writing teacher, a graphic designer, a journalist, and an art agent, among other arts-related work. I come from an artistic family (for one, my sister and publishing partner is the Director of Concert Operations for The Dallas Winds, as followers of this blog may recall).

My whole LIFE has been about, and suffused with, the arts. They have not only sustained me as the source of my most meaningful work, however. The amazing thing about the arts is that they can touch any human life with a near-miraculous gift of grace. They have lifted our spirits in times of dire darkness, helped us find meaning, and opened untold wonder for untold numbers of people. So I’d be pretty darned ungrateful to leave them off of my list!

The quote on the left says, "Religious freedom should work two ways: we should be free to practice the religion of our choice, but we must also be free from having someone else's religion practiced on us." — John Irving. The one on the right says, "Art gives its vision to beauty not always recognized. And it surrenders freely -- whatever power it possesses to every sincere soul that seeks it. But above all else--it presents us with the gift of ourselves." — Aberjhani
Gratitude for these blessings brings richness and joy to our lives. (Double thanks to PictureQuotes; see credits below).

So, then. That’s my list. And while gratitude isn’t only for one day, it also isn’t only for one person’s list. What’s on yours? Can you find seven things to be grateful for? Share in the comments if you wish. But more important by far is to recognize them. Cherish them. And do your best to spread the gratitude you feel into the world around you.

IMAGE CREDITS

And now for more gratitude! First of all WOW, Quotefancy! This blog post wouldn’t be the same without my access to your trove of image-quotes. See the individual credit lines in the captions for the four different, but highly appropriate, quotations from this resource. Thank you very much! I also owe a double debt of gratitude to PictureQuotes for the two images used in the final montage. They provided both John Irving’s words on religious freedom and those of Aberjhani on art.

To the rest of my image sources, I also am grateful to you! Many thanks to Wow4u, for the Oprah Winfrey quote-image. And three hearty “thank you!” shout-outs to One Bite Wisdom on Pinterest, Quotesgram, and Biblereasons. I loved being able to find the component quotes that I used to build the three-part personal gratitude montage. I appreciate all of you!

Neil Diamond stands with hiss back to the Fenway Park scoreboard and sings “Sweet Caroline” after the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Sweet Caroline

By G. S. Norwood

I was not hip in high school. Classical music ruled the day in my house when I was growing up, and I didn’t get into popular music until I was in the seventh grade. Even then, when my friends were extolling the virtues of Jethro Tull and Grand Funk Railroad, I preferred the gentler music of singer songwriters like Elton John, Carole King, and—nerdiest of all nerd choices—Neil Diamond, with his recent hit, Sweet Caroline.

Diamond came up through the Tin Pan Alley tradition amongst the songwriters laboring away in New York City’s Brill Building. He followed in the footsteps of such Great American Songbook tunesmiths as George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. There was a bit of Broadway and a breath of classical music mixed into the pop hits Diamond wrote for The Monkees, Cliff Richard, and Jay and the Americans. Diamond’s songs drew on American folk music and the Black gospel tradition, all of which delighted me.

The Brill Building and other historic places associated with Tin Pan Alley.
During the late 19th, and for much of the 20th Century, New York’s Tin Pan Alley was a center for popular music in the USA. L-R, West 28th St., and the Brill Building. (See Credits below).

But Diamond wasn’t a favorite around the campfire for amateur musicians who only knew a few chords on their acoustic guitars. As one such musician told me, when I requested Sweet Caroline at a party, “I can’t play that one. He uses some really weird chord progressions. Neil Diamond is hard!”

So how did Sweet Caroline, a song that’s too hard for easy playing, become a beloved fan favorite and an international anthem of hope?

Sweet Caroline

The way Diamond tells it, Sweet Caroline took root when he saw a photo of the young Caroline Kennedy, with her pony, Macaroni. He thought the name “Caroline” had a musical ring to it and jotted it down for future reference. Some years later, working on a love song for his wife, Marcia, he ran into a couple of problems: nothing interesting rhymed with the name “Marcia,” and the melody really needed a three-syllable name for the lyrics to work.

Sitting in a hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, Diamond tried the name “Caroline” with his melody, and it all came together. In an interview with the New York Times he recalled, “I always thought God came into my room that evening because once I had the title, the song came easily and chords that I never even heard of were coming out of my guitar.”

A 1960s-era photo of President John F. Kennedy with his daughter Caroline on her pony, Macaroni, and the original LP album cover for “Sweet Caroline,” which bore a photo of a very young Neil Diamond.
Neil Diamond later explained how the song came together. (See Credits below).

He recorded the song the next day and released it in May 1969. Sweet Caroline hit the Billboard charts at #4 and was certified gold in August 1969, having sold more than one million copies. It has been a staple of rock/pop oldies playlists ever since.

Love Song or Sports Anthem?

While Sweet Caroline is clearly a romantic song about a developing relationship, it has a strong association with sports teams. Where it began? Historians “can’t begin to knowin’,” but the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League claim to have been the first to play the song during their home games, beginning in 1996. In 1997 it became a regular eighth-inning feature of home games for Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox.

“That song may have transformative powers,” said Dr. Charles Steinberg in 2002, when he was executive vice president of public affairs for the Red Sox. “It may be able to take a melancholy crowd and lift its spirits higher.”

Team logos for the Carolina Panthers football team and the Boston Red Sox baseball team
Both the Carolina Panthers and the Boston Red Sox have played “Sweet Caroline” at games. (See Credits below).

Transformative Powers

It certainly brought the city, and the whole country, together in April 2013. Days after the shock of the Boston Marathon bombing, Diamond appeared unannounced at Fenway Park to sing the song. This might not be the best performance you’ve ever seen, but the fan reactions are beautiful.

Sales of the song jumped 600% in the week following that performance. Diamond donated his royalties to a fund that helped people who had been injured in the bombing.

Neil Diamond stands with hiss back to the Fenway Park scoreboard and sings “Sweet Caroline” after the Boston Marathon Bombing.
Diamond caught a redeye from California to sing with Boston, on April 20, 2013. (See credits below).

Hope in Bad Times

Fans have sung Sweet Caroline at football, baseball, soccer, and hockey games on the local and professional levels for decades now. The song has even been used to celebrate victories in boxing and mixed martial arts. As recently as this past week, the band of the Coldstream Guards played it to celebrate England’s Women’s Euro 2022 game against Germany.

But, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when stadiums were closed and sports fans had little to celebrate, the song took on an even deeper resonance. Locked in their houses for fear of spreading the disease, people all around the world needed a lift. Some of them spent a few of their homebound hours making their own Sweet Caroline videos. Then they sent them to Neil Diamond to let the songwriter know how much the song meant to them.

They sent so many videos, in fact, that Diamond’s team cut them together into a worldwide fan singalong that is, if you’ll pardon me, so good, so good, so good! You’ll sing along, too.

Hundreds of homebound people – many with musical talent – added to the singalong. Here’s a montage that includes many of them.
A screen-grab from the International Fan Singalong 2020 video. (Neil Diamond/YouTube).

Good Times Never Seemed So Good

Today the song is widely loved and enthusiastically sung by millions of people all around the world, more than fifty years after it was written. Diamond was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2000, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame gave him the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement award.

And, in 2018 the Library of Congress selected Sweet Caroline for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It looks like the good times will last a good long while for Diamond’s unexpected anthem.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many people’s work came together in the illustrations for this post. We appreciate all of them! Jan S. Gephardt selected these photos and created the montages. We want to thank Wikipedia and their contributors Beyond My Ken (Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0) and the modest soul who goes by the handle Epicgenius (Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0), for the photos of Tin Pan Alley-related buildings on West 28th Street and the Brill Building, respectively.

Our deepest gratitude goes to Photos in Berlin for the early-1960s photo of Caroline Kennedy with Dad and Pony, and Discogs for the photo of the vintage album cover from 1969. We also want to thank PNGItem for the Carolina Panthers Logo, and SportsLogos for the Boston Red Sox Logo. And we deeply appreciate the Hollywood Times for sharing the photo of Neil Diamond at Fenway Park in 2013, taken by Jim Rogash, Getty Images Sports.

Finally, many thanks to YouTube, Neil Diamond, and all the fans who contributed to that marvelous video of the global “Sweet Caroline” singalong! If you haven’t watched it yet, grab a hankie and prepare to be inspired!

A rocket lifts off for a Space Force mission in 2020.

Space Force!

By G. S. Norwood

Every year, for our July 4 concert, the Dallas Winds plays a medley of armed service anthems as a salute to veterans. This year, as I listened during rehearsal, I realized something was missing. As the music swelled around us, I leaned over to my boss and asked, “What about the Space Force?”

My question got a laugh, but it made me wonder: What about the Space Force? Was it a real branch of the military? Did it even have an anthem? I decided to find out.

A classic space battle image of Star Wars space ships in a confrontation.
Images like this iconic Star Wars confrontation leaped to mind. (See credits below).

Is the Space Force Some Kind of Joke?

On March 13, 2018, then-president Trump announced that “space is a war-fighting domain,” and he intended to establish a new branch of the armed services: the Space Force. He made it sound like the idea was just something he thought of one day, and he repeated the name so often it began to sound like a joke. Late Night host Stephen Colbert called it, “The president’s boldest idea that he got from a Buzz Lightyear Happy Meal toy.”

Those of us who grew up at nearly any time since 1967, when the original Star Trek hit the airwaves, immediately got onboard. We focused on images of Captain Kirk and—I dunno, Luke Skywalker? Commander Peter Quincy Taggart?—zipping through the black void in X-wings and TIE fighters to battle the evil . . . Aliens? Russians? Chinese? That part wasn’t really clear, but we knew it could be epic, even if it sounded silly.

A rocket lifts off for a Space Force mission in 2020.
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the AEHF-6 mission for the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile System’s Center lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on March 26, 2020. (See credits below).

A Little History

But the truth is, former president Trump didn’t just dream up the Space Force one day while he was shaving. The idea for the Space Force was born back in the middle of the twentieth century, even before the Russians launched the first artificial Earth satellite. The United States Army, and later the United States Air Force actively discussed the strategic importance of space from 1945 through the 1950s. When Sputnik went up on October 4, 1957, the race to control Earth’s orbital space began in earnest.

Military tacticians will tell you that whoever controls the high ground has the advantage in battle. Space is the ultimate high ground for our planet. Our national defense system relies, in part, on intercontinental missiles, and our whole, world-wide communications system relies on satellites. Your phone, your car’s radio, and your GPS navigation system depend on uninterrupted space-based communications capabilities. Any hostile force that can disrupt those capabilities would put the United States at a serious strategic disadvantage.

Once you understand that, the Space Force begins to make a whole lot of sense.

US Space Force logo on left and the Star Trek emblem on right.
BBC cutline from 2020: “The newly unveiled logo for US Space Force appears to have boldly gone where Star Trek went before.” (BBC).

Things Get Real

Then one day the government announced that they had a logo for the Space Force. It looked suspiciously like Starfleet’s logo. But never mind that. Had the former president really just waved his tiny little hands and created a whole new branch of military service? Surely, with our do-nothing Congress, there ought to have been an epic debate over the creation of a new armed service. How did I miss that?

Turned out, after decades of quiet discussion about the need for the Space Force, some PR genius at the Pentagon probably just caught the former president’s attention. Perhaps a power point presentation with images of epic space battles, mixed with some John Williams music? However it was done, it convinced the former president to champion the idea of the Space Force, claiming it as his own. The expense was quickly folded into the 2019 Defense Authorization Funding Bill. This annual not-much-to-argue-about spending measure funds the entire military budget with bipartisan support. And, hey, presto! Just like that, we had the Space Force.

In addition to information on COVID-19, the United States Space Force’s website landing page offers links for Leadership, Photos, Videos, a Fact Sheet, FAQs, and USSF Locations.
Get past the snickering and take another look. The U.S. Space Force actually has a lot going on. (USSF).

Today’s Space Force

So yes, there is a Space Force. It currently has around 10,000 members, but they are distinctly earth-bound desk jockeys, monitoring our nation’s orbital assets for signs of trouble. Collectively, members of the Space Force are called Guardians, following the tradition in the Air Force of referring to personnel as “guardians of the high frontier.” (No bio-engineered raccoons need apply.) Their ranks mirror the Air Force, with Specialists, Command Master Sergeants, and the Chief of Space Operations.

The Space Force Anthem

And they do have an anthem. It’s called The Invincible Eagle. John Philip Sousa wrote it in 1901 for the Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York.

Is a very traditional, somewhat fusty turn-of-the-last-century march the right anthem to lead our Guardians to infinity and beyond? A choral group called Voices of Freedom thinks not. They have written their own anthem for the Space Force. You can decide for yourself if it strikes the right note.

Or perhaps you will side with a conductor I know, who said, “They should just go with the Main Title Theme.” Whatever the Space Force choses, it’s clearly time for us to update that medley of armed service anthems we perform every year.

Backed by a huge US flag and surrounded by a burst of streamers and projected stars and fireworks in red white and blue, the Dallas Winds performs on the stage of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, TX.
The Dallas Winds performs their annual Star-Spangled Spectacular concert, possibly in 2018. (See credits below).

One More Question

While I enjoyed educating myself about the United States Space Force, and understand the serious nature of their mission, I still struggle with the snark. I want those X-Wings and TIE Fighters. I wonder if the Specialist uniforms will turn out to have red shirts. And I have one more burning question:

What kind of camo do Space Force Guardians wear?

IMAGE CREDITS

As ever, we owe many thanks to a lot of people for the illustrations in today’s post. Let’s start by thanking “CCA School Gurgaon,” source for a visualization of an iconic TIE Fighter-versus-X-Wing conflict. It comes with a product description that doesn’t credit an artist or explain a lot. But, whatever it is, it can be yours for only $43.99.

Air Force Magazine published the rocket-launch photo with its editorial about Space Force, “Seize the High Ground.” It shows a ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the AEHF-6 mission for the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile System’s Center as it lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on March 26, 2020. Air Force Magazine credits the photo to United Launch Alliance, which is a company that builds rockets to the buyers’ specs.

GEEK-OUT ALERT: ULA has a “build your own rocket” interactive feature that doesn’t seem to require any pre-payment guarantees. For the right person, just supply the imagination and they’ll tell you what they can build for you. Bonus: feel your eyes bug out at the price tag!

Getting Real

Both Weird Sisters Publishing and Artdog Studio have our roots deeply embedded in science fiction. So we, too, instantly saw the parallels between the logos of the USSF and Starfleet Command. The BBC similarly had no compunction about going there, when it came to a logo comparison image. Even so, they acknowledged the importance of a Space Force. See the article here.

On a more serious note, check out how much information you can find on the U.S. Space Force’s official website. There’s even a place where you, too, can sign up to become a Guardian. Have you got the Right Stuff?

And finally, Art & Seek published the Dallas Winds concert photo with an article previewing the Dallas Winds 4th of July concert in 2019. You also can access a YouTube video of the Dallas Winds performing The Star-Spangled Banner on this page. Photo by Sean Deuby, via Art and Seek. Sean Deuby takes photos in the Dallas area (scroll down on this site to see his atmospheric image from SMU), but he doesn’t seem to have a website or social media for his work.

Once again, many thanks to all of these folks! We couldn’t have created this post without you!

A baby in an Ewok costume stares at a couple of robed Jawas, Spider-Man strolls by, and a senior officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy strides toward the camera, while Lone Starr and Barf hurry past on the other side of the hallway.

A Kaleidoscope of Cosplay

By Jan S. Gephardt

I had so much fun at SoonerCon 30 – not the least of which came from the kaleidoscope of cosplay that I encountered everywhere. I had many lovely moments at this science fiction convention. But the cosplay was in a class of its own. The sheer, rich, visual diversity of these costumes provided a weekend of riches, just by themselves.

Even more than most of the other “cons” I attend (short for the admittedly-unwieldy term “science fiction convention”), SoonerCon is part literary con, part media/comics con, and part Anime con. It’s the latter two aspects that really focus on cosplay, or “costume play.”

Left-to-right, the passers-by included a woman in pink lace, a Goth lady, a pair of Jawas with glowing eyes, and a wizard in a cloak.
The people-watching at SoonerCon 30 was awesome! (all photos by author).

Costumes and Science Fiction: a Natural Match

The first science fiction cons (dating back to at least the 1930s) were literary cons, old-style fan-run conventions focused on written books, then later also the artwork that illustrated those books and the “fanzines” that connected often-isolated sf fans. Media conventions celebrate science fiction TV shows and movies, plus podcasts, music, and all manner of streaming media. Comics? Give you one guess. And then there’s the amazing and beautiful world of Anime, which originated in Japan, but quickly took the rest of the world by storm.

Every con has at least some costumed attendees, even if it doesn’t offer SoonerCon’s richly-varied kaleidoscope of cosplay. Costumes have been a beloved aspect of them since the dawn of sf cons. Compared to what walks in the door at the average science fiction convention today, those early costumes look amateurish, but they were pretty much always there. It’s like Halloween for kids of all ages, any time of the year. Indeed, many fans love Halloween more than any other holiday, including Christmas!

A baby in an Ewok costume stares at a couple of robed Jawas, Spider-Man strolls by, and a senior officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy strides toward the camera, while Lone Starr and Barf hurry past on the other side of the hallway.
The passing parade never stopped, and the kaleidoscope of cosplay seemed endless. (all photos by author).

Taking Their Costumes Seriously

By this point in their evolution, there are some amazingly skilled costumers in our midst. More than you might think make a part-time or full-time living, creating costumes of all varieties. Some costumers specialize in Anime, some in American comic and superhero characters. Some focus on creatures, in the form of everything from a small puppet to carry on one’s arm or wear, to full-body suits. Furry fandom is a whole other, amazing category of its own.

Some costumers specialize in Star Wars, Star Trek, and other media characters, and some focus on Steampunk or other niche categories (I’ve found more Steampunk at DemiCon than SoonerCon, however). Some costumers specialize so narrowly that they mainly make hats, masks, or high-quality corsets. The professionals have serious skills, but there also are gifted amateurs or semi-pros who can give them a run for their money!

Led by R2D2 and a gonk droid, a parade of Imperial officers and citizens of the Star Wars universe pass by Jan’s table.
The “Star Wars” was strong with these cosplayers. (photos by author).

Solid Support for SoonerCon’s Kaleidoscope of Cosplay

One enduring feature of SoonerCon has been the presence of Bernina of Oklahoma City. This year they were a Patron Sponsor of the convention. They had a big space in the Exhibitors Hall, where they showcased their machines, helped mend “wounded” costumes, and if you had a long enough string of badge ribbons, they’d even stitch them together for you. They helped offer a high-dollar sewing machine for the Masquerade Contest prize, and a simpler model for the Children’s Costume Contest.

It probably won’t surprise you that the ingenious costumers of science fiction fandom also have branched into other allied fields. You can’t create convincing aliens from any of the “Star” universes, for example, without skillful use of makeup and often-sophisticated prosthetics. And accessories (including weapons) makes up one of the most exuberant sub-categories at the con.

Sewing machines and science-fiction-themed quilts line the back wall of the Bernina Center in the SoonerCon Exhibition Hall.
The Bernina Center in the Exhibition Hall. (Photo by Tyrell E. Gephardt).

Accessories and Gizmos

There’s no match for a good blaster at your side (or other “ray gun,” complete with lights and sound effects). Unless maybe it’s your own light saber. Yes, we had light sabers for all ages at SoonerCon, too. A few weeks ago, you read about my friend Zac Zacarola, his dealers room table for Ziggy’s West, and his “Wall of Doom.” Weapons at conventions must be peace-bonded. But many fans cherish their swords, knives, battle-axes, throwing stars, Bat’leths, and other weapons. They often display them proudly in their homes.

Perhaps most astounding of all are the mechanized creations, be they animatronics or robots. One man at SoonerCon wore an astounding Iron Man suit with a faceplate that lifted up and a glowing “arc reactor” on the breastplate. There are R2D2 Builders Club members and chapters all over the world. We have one in Kansas City, and there’s another in Oklahoma City. Norman, where SoonerCon is held, is the third-largest city in Oklahoma, but it’s also in the Oklahoma City metro area. So of course, we had one at SoonerCon.

Left-to-Right, the Ziggy’s West “Wall of Doom” in progress; Iron Man; R2D2 and a gonk droid.
The Ziggy’s West “Wall of Doom went up Thursday night. The Iron Man suit had a glowing “arc reactor,” and a faceplate that went up and down. R2D2 and the gonk droid led the “Star Wars” parade. (See credits below).

Imagination and Playfulness are Key

Whatever they specialize in, the costumers who created the kaleidoscope of cosplay at SoonerCon have two things in common. They take crafting an eye-popping costume very seriously. And they don’t always take themselves seriously. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so good at playing. And one running theme throughout the convention was having fun. Among the Gaming Events, one could choose Muggle Quidditch, LARPing (Live Action Role Playing), and Nerf Wars, among other things. Style points for playing in a (durable) costume.

Folks in hall costumes often didn’t hesitate to deliver a speech in character, perform a skit, or just ad lib through their encounters. They staged impromptu parades. Throughout the convention center cosplayers banded together for group photos or posed for photographers who wanted to capture their individual costumes. With a kaleidoscope of cosplay all around them, it’s easy to see why everyone had their cameras out.

At left, Darth Vader stares up at the first floor balcony of the Embassy Suites and shakes his fist at Obi-Wan Kenobi, who shouts, “It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!” in a meme published by the SoonerCon Cosplay Facebook Group. At right, Kenneth Moore Jr. turned his mobility device into a dragon!
A “showdown” in the Atrium of the hotel, and a real-life dragonrider (Kenneth Moore, Jr.) offer examples of the creative fun with costumes at SoonerCon. (See credits below).

IMAGE CREDITS

Jan took most of the photos in this post, and made all of the montages. She’s also deeply grateful to Tyrell E. Gephardt and his Canon camera for others. Ty spent a lot of his weekend taking individual shots of cosplayers, as well as candid hallway shots and general convention pictures.

One of Ty’s photos, the pic of the Ziggy’s West “Wall of Doom” going up, anchors one end of the post’s 5th image. Next (L-R) comes the photo of the Iron Man costume, by Brian Hook, courtesy of the SoonerCon Cosplay Facebook Group. Jan took the photo at far right (R2D2 & the gonk droid).

For the sixth and final image of this post, we owe massive thanks to the SoonerCon Cosplay Group. They published the “high ground” meme, by Warguts, Inc. They also provided a forum for Ariel Mayumi Wolf’s photo of Kenneth Moore, Jr., riding his “dragon.”

Many thanks to all!

ConQuesT 53, Memorial Day Weekend 2022, Sheraton Crown Center, Kansas City, MO.

Pack Up and Do It Again

By Jan S. Gephardt

It’s time to pack up and do it again. When we have two sf conventions in one month, it’s something of an endurance run. My son Tyrell Gephardt and I just start getting sorted out and rested up (in my case this month also healed up), and it’s time to do it again.

As I noted last week, Demicon 33 was a good convention for me – but it also took a toll. Now it’s time to prepare for ConQuesT 53, my home “con.” I would hate to miss it, even though they expect it to be a low-turnout year.

Attending ConQuesT means I need to pack up and do it again, after it feels as if I just got home. But there’s a new wrinkle this time around. I’m doing the usual things – art show and some programming. But I’m also launching into (for me) an uncharted new adventure: a dealer’s table.

ConQuesT 53, Memorial Day Weekend 2022, Sheraton Crown Center, Kansas City, MO.
(Header Image courtesy of ConQuesT).

A Dealers Table? ME?

Yes, I recognize that many Indie authors make much or most of their income from dealers’ tables at conventions. It’s a marketing choice that can, and sometimes does, keep the con-going trip in profit-making territory. I respect that. But personally, I’ve always had several problems with this approach.

Most dealers rooms open by 9 or 10 a.m. But my circadian cycle is firmly skewed to the “Graveyard Shift.” Wrenching myself out of bed to be on time to open would mess up my sleep cycle and leave me a “sleep zombie” for at least a week afterward. I know this because I’ve tried it. It’s not pretty.

If you’re running a table, it’s important to always be there (as much as possible!) while the dealers room is open. This means if you’re going to connect with colleagues, network, be on panels, or visit other people’s panels or readings, you either do it at your table, arrange for someone to cover for you, do it after the dealers room closes, or you don’t do it. Your table is both your base, and your anchor.

And there is a lot of stuff to haul. I’m an older lady who walks with a cane for stability. There was a day when I could bend, lift, and haul stuff pretty well – but that was several decades ago. Nowadays, I have to be strategic about how I haul boxes of books. Hand trucks and my athletic son are my friends, but I can’t always assume they’ll be available.

Tables of displays from artists, crafters, Indie authors, and gaming suppliers in the DemiCon33 Dealers Room.
The Dealers Room at DemiCon 33. (Photo by Tyrell E. Gephardt).

A Little Help From Friends

When I first started bringing my book (singular) to sf cons back in 2019, I often could find a general bookseller in the dealers room who’d work out a consignment deal with me. But since the pandemic’s ebb (let’s hope it’s actually waning!), it’s hard to find general booksellers running dealers’ tables at sf cons.

Ty observed at DemiCon 33 that most of the folks in the Dealers Room were Indie authors selling their own books, artists, jewelers, artisans, or other craftsfolk with a specific line of products, or stores selling gaming gear. That was my observation at Archon 44 last fall, too.

But this is my “home convention,” and I know a lot of other writers in the area who really don’t have enough books (and other resources) to justify having a whole dealer’s table of their own. Three of us have banded together and decided to see if teamwork and our collected works can make a table worth the effort. So, we’ll give it a try, and see how it works. One of us has already said she can cover mornings (blessings upon her!), so at least that worry is alleviated.

But when I pack up and do it again this time, I’ll have considerably more to pack than usual.

A box full of books and other Dealers Room supplies, with covers for Jan’s three books, “The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick.”
I’m packing up my dealer’s table supplies. (See credits below).

Meet my Table-Mates

For this dealer’s table adventure, I’ve paired up with a couple of wonderful writers I met in local fandom and critique groups. From working with them in writers’ groups, I know they write good stuff. I’m proud to be associated with them, even if I am the “odd science fiction writer” in the mix.

M. C. Chambers

I first met Mary through KaCSFFS, the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, about which I’ve blogged in the past. She just looked like an interesting person from the get-go. We talked and discovered we have many things in common (including our birthday). I invited her to join my then-current writers’ group, and we’ve been friends ever since. Her work includes a bunch of wonderful short stories, several of which have won awards, and the fantasy novel Shapers’ Veil. She’s also the mother of five boys (“Mother of Heroes”), a flutist, and a variable print programmer.

Karin Rita Gastreich

I met Karin in a different writers’ group, and I’ve recently had the privilege of beta-reading her latest (really wonderful) novel, which I don’t believe is available yet. She’s also written multiple short stories and won several awards. But she’s best known as a writer for her woman-centered fantasy Silver Web Trilogy. All this, and writing is not even her “day job.” In the rest of her life, Dr. Karin Gastreich, ecologist and author, serves as Chair of the School of Natural and Applied Sciences at Avila University in south Kansas City.

M. C. Chambers’ Author photo and the cover for her novel “Shapers’ Veil,” with the three-cover collection of the “Silver Web Trilogy” and Karin Rita Gastreich’s Author photo.
My table-mates have written some cool stuff! (See credits below).

Pack Up and Do it Again: Art Show

It wouldn’t seem like I really was at a convention if I didn’t have anything at the Art Show. Moreover, ConQuesT historically has an outstanding art show, especially for a convention of its size. I don’t just say that because I was the Art Show Director for three years (a decade ago). People have long come to this show to buy art, and the artwork comes in from all over. It’s now run by the highly competent and awesome Mikah McCullough, who is a way better Art Show Director than I ever was!

I’m bringing essentially the same pieces to ConQuesT that I brought to DemiCon. That’s possible, because the work I sold in Iowa was part of a multiple-original edition. Not all of my paper sculpture artwork consists of multiple-originals, however. Some are one-of-a-kind. And Mikah has arranged for me to glom onto the end of a table for my Ranan mini-maps , so they’ll be displayed to their best advantage.

Jan’s paper sculpture on display at the DemiCon 33 Art Show.
My artwork at DemiCon 33. The display won’t look much different at ConQuesT 53. (photos by the author/artist).

Fewer Panels than Usual

I missed a key communication with ConQuesT Programming somewhere along the line, so I’m only on two panels this time. Considering my dealers table commitment, this is probably just as well. But this programming schedule is unusually light for me.

On Friday night, I’ll pair up with my friend Kathy Hinkle for a feature we’ve repeated the last several times we’ve had an in-person ConQuesT: SF & F Name that Tune (or Show). Kathy and I both love the music of science fiction and fantasy media. We’ll draw from our respective deep libraries of music we’ve collected, play selected cuts, and see how quickly our audience can name them. In past years it’s been a lot of fun.

Then on Sunday afternoon (after Art Show check-out, but before Closing Ceremonies), I’ll moderate a panel called Curiouser and Curiouser (on which my table-mate Mary is a panelist), about how protagonists’ curiosities can get them into trouble – and bring readers along for an interesting quest. Much to my disappointment, there are no author readings at ConQuesT 53. This is because when they had them they weren’t well-attended, and they’re restricted in the number of programming rooms available. I understand, but I’m still disappointed.

Time to Pack Up

And now it’s time to end this post and get back to work preparing for ConQuesT. Especially with this one, when I’m getting ready to pack up and do it again, it turns out I have a lot to pack!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to ConQuesT 53 for their website’s header, and to my son Tyrell Gephardt for the photo of the DemiCon 33 Dealers Room. I took the photos of my dealer’s table preparations and my DemiCon33 Art Show display. I’m grateful to M.C. Chambers and Karin Rita Gastreich for their author photos, and to Amazon for the photos of Shapers’ Veil and the Silver Web Trilogy. Grateful appreciations to all!

Francis X. Tolbert, his book cover, and a Texas-style bowl of red.

A Bowl of Red

By G. S. Norwood

We are in the middle of what passes for winter in Texas. Not like the deep freeze we had last winter, thank goodness. A typical Texas winter means we have many days when the temperatures hang in the mid-fifties during the day, sometimes dropping into the twenties overnight. And when temperatures drop in Texas, Texans make chili.

Frost on the grass in Dallas, with “Forrest Gump” meme: “And just like that everybody was making chili in Texas.
When temperatures drop in Texas, Texans make chili. (See credits below).

A Bowl of Red

Chili looms large in Texas mythology. Cue the image of cowboys sitting around the campfire, eating bowls of chili while someone plays a harmonica in the background. Back in 1966, beloved Dallas journalist, restauranteur, and historian, the late Frank X. Tolbert wrote what remains to this day the definitive work on chili. In A Bowl of Red, Tolbert offered up recipes, profiles of chili masters, and lots of tasty historical tidbits, all collected on his way to founding what is now called the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff, held every November in Terlingua, Texas.

For more than 50 years now, folks have been flocking to Terlingua, or simply starting their own chili cookoff competitions, in pursuit of the best, the ultimate, the absolutely perfect bowl of red. Along the way, the Terlingua competition has spawned many legends and inspired at least one classic outlaw country recording—Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua!—all of which have only added to chili’s mythic stature.

Please note that ¡Viva Terlingua! has nothing to do with chili and was actually recorded in Luckenbach, Texas. But the wide-open craziness of the Terlingua Chili Cookoff has resonance in Texas, and somebody must have figured the name would sell a lot of records. Which it did. (Luckenbach is a whole ‘nother story.)

Wide views of vehicles, tents and people at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, 2021, over a map of the Terlingua area.
Photos from the 2021 Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff. (See credits below).

Beans? No Beans?

Chili con carne is a basic of Tex-Mex cooking, but modern Texas chili has evolved far beyond a simple sauce of chili peppers and meat. Traditional Tex-Mex cooks treat chili con carne (chili pepper sauce with meat) more like gravy than a hearty stew than can make a meal all by itself. Chili con carne, like chili con queso (chili pepper sauce with cheese) is ladled over enchiladas and added to huevos rancheros. You can slit open an individual size bag of Fritos corn chips, drizzle a little chili over them, and add a whole pile of shredded cheese for Frito Pie. Uses like these give rise to the scornful snort you’ll often hear from chili purists: There are no beans in chili.

But c’mon. Let’s flash back to those cowboys, gathered around the campfire, out on the rolling plains. If you’re the camp cook and you have to provide a hearty meal for some hungry ranch hands, what are you going to do to make that chili pepper sauce with meat stretch? Add more expensive meat? Or throw in a bunch of beans?

That’s right. You go for the beans. Beans are cheap. When dried, they’re easy to transport from Beaumont to the trailhead in Abilene or Fort Worth without going bad. Your cowboys, whether Anglo, Black, or Hispanic, all grew up eating beans. It beggars the imagination that pintos, red kidneys, or navy beans never found their way into a pot of chili until folks from up north or back east started messing around in the chili pot.

Two historic photos of cowboy and chuck wagons.
“Cookie” had to feed a lot of hungry men out of that little wagon. (See credits below).

Man Mysteries

But that protest from the purists is a clue to another aspect of the chili saga. Like barbeque chefs, chili cooks are often men, and they raise the act of making chili to the level of a men-only sacred ritual. No girls allowed.

They do this by turning chili into Man Food, which is generally hotter, more complicated, and more extreme than the kind of food mere females create for mundane purposes like feeding the family. You think jalapeños make your chili hot enough to start brush fires? the chili men ask.  Try adding habaneros or ghost peppers. Wait! How about habaneros AND ghost peppers!

I firmly believe that food should not be painful but then, I’m a girl.

The meat in chili con carne also begs for masculine refinements. Beef is only a starting point. Some chili cooks swear by pork, others by highly spiced sausage. Or, hey! Why not a combination? Beef, and pork, and sausage! Or venison! Yeah! That’s the ticket. There’s probably even a cult following for Varmint Chili, using rabbit, raccoon, opossum, or rattlesnake as sources of meat. I wasn’t able to find a link for it, but you know if I thought of it, the manly chili connoisseurs are way ahead of me.

Francis X. Tolbert, his book cover, and a Texas-style bowl of red.
Frank X. Tolbert put Texas chili on the map with his classic cookbook, A Bowl of Red. (See credits below).

My Personal Chili Odyssey

Do you remember last week’s blog, where I said my mother thought Italian food was too spicy? Well, that went double for chili. It was a forbidden food at our house when I was a child—so much so that it became a bonding opportunity for my father and me. Several times when I stayed home sick from school, Dad took me to the doctor. Mom was a full-time high school teacher, but Dad, a college professor, had a more flexible schedule. It became our little secret that, on the way home from the clinic, we would pick up a can of Hormel and some saltine crackers and have a clandestine lunch of chili.

As an adult, I switched from Hormel to Wolf Brand—the preferred chili of Texas if you have to eat it out of a can. And, while Warren was very much a devotee of the Man Mysteries school of chili cooking, I discovered that he sometimes took a shortcut. He’d buy a Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili kit, which is a prepackaged collection of herbs and spices for your chili-cooking pleasure. Wick Fowler being the legendary chili cook who upheld Texas pride in that very first International Championship Chili Cookoff in Terlingua.

After Warren’s death, when I became the sole chili cook in the household, I fell back on Wick Fowler’s False Alarm Chili, which turns out to be a dead simple recipe for delicious chili that won’t burn the back of my throat away. Did I mention that I don’t think food should be painful? I’m not a chili purist, and I’m definitely a girl, so I feel no shame. Now, when the weather turns cold and I’m hungry for that bowl of red, I pull out the Wick Fowler’s, a can of Ranch Style Beans, and my big red cast iron Dutch oven. Because when the temperatures drop in Texas, even transplanted Missouri girls make chili.

Beef and tomato sauce, Wick Fowler’s chili kit, and Ranch Style beans make tasty chili.
A transplanted Missouri girl makes chili. (G. S. Norwood).

PHOTO CREDITS:

All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt. The frosty Dallas lawn photo is courtesy of LawnStarter, and the meme came from America’s Best Pics & Videos. Many thanks to Ghost Town Texas for the panoramic views of the 2021 Terlingua chili event (it’s worth a look at all the photos on their page – especially if you thought sf convention-goers wore weird costumes!). Thanks also to Google Maps for the satellite view of the area.

We deeply appreciate the archive of historical chuck wagon photos by Erwin E. Smith at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas! Jan used a little “Photoshop magic” to make the details easier to see on The Shoe Bar Outfit in for Dinner (1912) by Erwin E. Smith. That one is definitely from their collection. We found the other photo, Erwin E. Smith stops for a cup of coffee on the LS Ranch (1907) on Pinterest. The Pinterest poster attributed the photo to Erwin E. Smith (he did take several photos of himself) and the Amon Carter Museum – but we couldn’t find this exact photo in the Amon Carter’s online collection of photos, letters, and other materials by Smith.

Thanks very much to Alchetron, for the photo of Frank X. Tolbert. Amazon provided the cover image for A Bowl of Red, and the delicious-looking Texas-style “Bowl of Red” photo came (with a recipe) from Dad Cooks Dinner. Finally, G. S. Norwood herself photographed the stages of her own “Bowl of Red” recipe.

You have to create your own path and I’m up to the challenge. –Octavia Spencer

What do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

By G. S. Norwood

In the previous blog post, I wrote about my career in the arts. That started me thinking about all the bad career advice I got along the way—back when I was still trying to answer that age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Back then, in the Stone Age, little White American girls had two basic career choices beyond wife and mother. We could be a teacher or a nurse. Little Black girls were told they could be maids. Of course, even then, women performed a much wider variety of jobs, but society’s imagination offered us very limited options.

The newspaper’s Help Wanted section included columns titled “Jobs for Men” and “Jobs for Women.” Woe betide any women who aspired to a job meant for a man. I am, thankfully, a bit too young to remember similar columns designated for men and women of color.

A teacher, a couple of nurses, and a Black maid offer a glimpse of career paths for young women in the 1950s and 1960s.
“What do You Want to be When You Grow Up?” The well-meaning elders who advised the author had a limited view of young women’s career options. (credits below).

The Stereotypes Persist

Even today, in the stories we tell ourselves in film, the stereotypes persist. At 12:47 minutes into this 2016 interview for Vanity Fair, Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer spoke about how hard it was for her to find roles that offered any kind of variety.

“Right after I did The Help—it was barely in the can—I was all excited about the possibilities that were to come,” Spencer said. “And 90% of the roles were, ‘We have this great role for you,’ and it was a maid. ‘We have this wonderful role!’ and it was a maid.” And I was, ‘You know, I just played the best damn maid role written. I don’t have a problem with playing a maid again, but it has to top this one.’ And none of them did.”

Fortunately for all of us, Spencer got proactive about finding better roles, and followed the success of The Help by playing the strongly maternal Wanda Johnson in Fruitvale Station and mathematician/computer pioneer Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures.

You have to create your own path and I’m up to the challenge. –Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer passed up a lot of stereotyped roles to follow her dream. (Inspiring Quotes).

Be a Stripper

Young people are guided into careers in ways that are shaped by their family history and by the cultural norms of their time. When I was in high school, a new wave of feminism was just taking hold in America, although it hadn’t penetrated too far into my corner of Missouri. As seniors, about to enter our post high school careers, we were all given an aptitude test that was meant to identify jobs we might be suited for. I don’t know what that test was called, or what range of careers it included, but I do remember the ideal career it identified for me: Stripper.

I’m going to be generous and assume that a) the test was referring to someone who takes paint off industrial surfaces using solvents, or perhaps connects pieces of film into a continuous reel. And b) the test was primarily geared toward suggesting blue-collar skilled trades in traditionally male fields.

Editorial note from Jan, who worked in a print shop around the time G. got that test result: In the printing industry at that time, a “stripper” prepared photographic negatives to make photo-offset lithography plates to go on printing presses. It was a decent blue-collar job until the advent of desktop publishing a couple of decades later.

I don’t think “Stripper” was the test’s nod to my being female, with an interest in the arts. But where were the teachers and nurses? The college professors and directors of concert operations?

Adolescent test-takers in a classroom, circa 1978.
Bad career advice for creative people also may come from standardized aptitude tests. (credits below).

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

I profoundly hope that particular aptitude test is no longer on the market. But career options continue to be limited by society’s expectations. Not so very long ago nearly every college bound adult was told to go into computing, because that’s where the employment growth and competitive salaries could be found. Never mind that some of us have no aptitude at all for that kind of work.

A better approach, I think, is to guide people toward careers that use the talents and abilities they naturally have. As job seekers, we tend to believe that jobs have to be hard and involve ‘work.’ But the truth is, the best careers are built on the skills and interests we have had all along. The stuff we’d do for fun, for free. We discount our talents because those things come easily to us. We forget that they don’t come easily to everyone else and are therefore valued by the people who can’t do that stuff.

One standardized test I recommend to young people now is Clifton Strengths, developed by the management consulting company, Gallup, Inc. It helps you identify your own individual talents and suggests careers where you can use them.

My auntie who brought me up all my life, all the time she was saying, ‘The guitar is all right as a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.’ So I got that on a plaque for her and sent it to her in the house I bought her. —John Lennon
John’s aunt lived to see what spectacularly bad career advice she’d given in reply to “What do You Want to be When You Grow Up?” (credits below).

Aim Low?

Your parents love you. They want you to have a steady income and secure employment. Maybe that’s why parents so often tell their children to curb their aspirations, as Mimi Smith told her nephew and future Beatle John Lennon. It’s safer than shooting for the stars.

Or, as novelist Deborah Crombie’s mother used to tell her, “If you go to secretarial school, you’ll always have a job.”

She wasn’t exactly wrong. What she should have said was, “Typing is a skill that’s highly portable, and can be used in many fields.” And that, I think, is the key to finding your career bliss. Have a lot of useful skills in your toolbox. Typing, coding, generating new ideas, balancing books, and listening empathetically are all useful in a wide range of careers. Even stripping.

End credits list visual effects artists for “Avengers: Endgame.”
It takes literally hundreds of creative people to make a movie. (credits below).

Your Job Hasn’t Been Invented Yet

But the truth is, your ideal job might not have been invented yet. I advise students whose parents don’t think they can make a living in the arts to take the folks to any Marvel movie. Sit through all the closing credits. Hundreds of names will scroll by—all of them people with jobs in the arts. Perhaps more importantly, many of those people have jobs that weren’t even invented when the adults who advised them last considered the job market.

When you combine your unique talents with the skills in your toolbox and the needs you see emerging in the world around you, you may invent a whole new answer to that age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

IMAGE CREDITS

We have a lot of people to thank for the pictures in this post. Photos for the “Women’s Work” montage and the John Lennon quote were selected and arranged by Jan S. Gephardt. All three of the vintage photos for the “Women’s Work” montage have backstories worth sharing!

WOMEN’S WORK

Virginia Woodard is the tired teacher in her classroom. This was the end of her first day of teaching in 1960 at Mission View Elementary School in Tucson, AZ. The school still serves students today. Dan Tortorell photographed her for the Tucson Citizen. According to the information on Tucson.com, “She told the reporter she almost decided to turn back after getting within a block of the school.” For perspective, 1960-61 was also Jan’s first grade year.

The photo of the two unidentified nurses, taken by Gordon A. Larkin, dates to 1954. We used a detail. Scrubs Magazine identifies it as Photograph 825 from the Mount Saint Vincent University Archives.

Jan found the 1960s-era photo of an unidentified Black maid and White child on Bettye Kearse’s excellent post, “Mammy Warriors: An Homage to Black Maids.” It’s written from the perspective of a Black woman whose ancestors included slaves. She critiques the persistent stereotype and pushes back with a blast of reality.

CAREER ADVICE

The Octavia Spencer quote-image came from a compilation of the Oscar-winner’s wit and wisdom on “Inspiring Quotes.”

The classroom full of adolescent test-takers shows students taking a standardized test circa 1978 at Cook Jr. High. At least the decade is right, even if these kids are a little younger than G. was when her test results advised her to be a “stripper.” Lawrence Cook Middle School (current name) remains an active school in Santa Rosa, CA. Many thanks to the Santa Rosa-based Press Democrat for the photo!

Take a look at an (unidentified) 1970s-era print shop stripper in action. It’s the second photo down on this page of photos by Dan Wybrant. That guy looks a lot more like the print-shop strippers Jan knew, than her sister ever did.

ENTERTAINERS EXTRAORDINAIRE

Jan illustrated the widely-available John Lennon quote with a detail from a photo by Andrew Maclear and Redferns. It was captioned, “John Lennon of The Beatles performs with The Dirty Mac on the set of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus.’” She found the photo on Cheatsheet.com.

For a case-in-point for G.’s argument that a Marvel movie requires hundreds of (gainfully employed) arts workers, see this post on Polygon. It explains what the VFX (visual effects) artists did to create Avengers: Endgame. If you read it, you’ll also see where Jan found the screen-capture from the movie’s end credits.

The research was fun, and we thank all of our sources.

Some of G.’s famous passengers and co-conversationalists.

How Did I Get Here?

By G. S. Norwood

It’s the time of year when many of us look back to review the year we’ve just lived through and look ahead to what we want for ourselves in the year to come. And yes, I’m doing that, with all my journals and planners and pens loaded with different colored inks. But lately I’ve had more than a few lifetime-level “Pinch Me” moments, so today I’m going to look back at my career, and ask myself, “How did I get here?”

Fountain pens in a ceramic holder, and a handcrafted Journal.
G.’s trusty pens and journal: photo originally published in a 2020 post on The Weird Blog. (see credits below).

The Kid From Missouri

Let’s face it. I am just a kid from Missouri. I grew up in small towns, the daughter of two public school teachers. We weren’t rich. We weren’t well-connected. And, although liberal, we were hardly members of the “Liberal Elite.” I went to a state university, not Harvard.

Nor was I born into a famous family, or a social circle with members of international renown.

My parents, and eventually my sister, were all teachers. I figured I would be, too. What else did I know? In fact, when I decided NOT to pursue a teaching degree, my mother openly worried that I would never be able to support myself. Clearly her career expectations for me were modest.

“When I decided NOT to pursue a teaching degree, my mother openly worried that I would never be able to support myself.”

G. S. Norwood

A Life in the Arts

And yet . . . A friend once said of me, “Gigi has met more famous people than anybody else I know.” I’ll be honest. I’ve met a lot of famous people, from Poul Anderson to Sonny Landreth. In the process, I’ve realized that fame is frequently restricted to the professional circles you move in. Plenty of people reading this blog post will have no idea who either Poul Anderson or Sonny Landreth might be. Others will say, “Wait. You’ve worked with who now????”

The thing is, I wanted a life in the arts. I didn’t have to be some fabulous Broadway star, but I learned early on that I loved the work of putting on a show. You can find real magic in creating experiences to share with audiences. I was adapting fairy tales and directing plays in my back yard by the time I was in the fourth grade. I learned to make costumes in a professional summer stock theatre company as a junior in high school. Scholarships and my work as a paid staff member of Missouri State’s Tent Theatre got me through college.

Writer Poul Anderson and guitarist Sonny Landreth.
Science fiction grandmaster Poul Anderson (L) and world-class guitarist Sonny Landreth (see credits below).

Iconic Conductors

That kid in Missouri listened to a lot of classical music, but I never dreamed I’d meet internationally acclaimed conductors. Conductors were distant icons, like Leonard Bernstein. And yet, I once found myself sitting at my dining table in a rural part of west Texas, interviewing a highly respected German conductor via an international phone call. No big deal for a woman who wrote the newsletter for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where the conductor was scheduled to appear. But that little girl from Missouri, who still lives in the back of my brain? She was saying, “Wait. How did I get here?”

Missouri Girl piped up again that time my friend, the internationally acclaimed novelist, wondered how she might interview someone at the New York City Ballet about The Nutcracker. The New York City Ballet is an icon of the American arts world, as far above local ballet companies as the gods on Olympus. Then I realized, “Oh! I know Andrew Litton, their conductor.” How did that happen?

The Dallas Symphony, Andrew Litton, and New York City Ballet.
L-R: The Dallas Symphony on stage for Christmas 2021, Conductor Andrew Litton, and two dancers from the New York City Ballet (see credits below).

Composers in My Car

And then there are the composers. I grew up thinking composers were dead guys like Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. These days I get to fist-bump a whole pantheon of contemporary composers, some of whom are writing commissions for my own Dallas Winds.

Which is how I have found myself chatting about cars with Omar Thomas, recommending Italian restaurants to Frank Ticheli, and winding up with a Bacon number of 2, thanks to Steven Bryant. I’ll always cherish the 45-minute one-on-one conversation I had when I drove the revered wind ensemble composer David Maslanka to a speaking engagement in Fort Worth. Ditto the lunch I shared with composer/conductor/choral music superstar Eric Whitacre.

Some of G.’s famous passengers and co-conversationalists.
Clockwise from left: Omar Thomas; David Maslanka, Steven Bryant, Eric Whitacre, and Frank Ticheli (see credits below).

Just Say Yes

I don’t say all this to brag about my friends or my accomplishments. I’m just a woman who works hard to support myself, in a field I find fascinating. And how did I get here? I knew I was most comfortable working in the arts, so I said “Yes!” to the opportunities I encountered. But it would never have happened if I hadn’t believed it was possible.

When I went looking for jobs, I didn’t look at the listings for bank teller or retail clerk. I looked in the arts. And I wasn’t super picky. Over the years I’ve worked as house manager for small-scale folk music house concerts. I’ve written newsletters and grant proposals for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and shepherded a bus full of Dallas Winds musicians through rural Oklahoma to a concert gig in Arkansas. Rarely was it glamorous, but it was always fun.

G.’ little red Mustang.
This Mustang, “Roze,” has carried many famous composers to places they needed to go. (Photo by G. S. Norwood).

Make Your Own Opportunities

In 2011 the Dallas Winds recorded a collection of Christmas music. The record company didn’t know what they wanted to do about liner notes. I told them I had an idea, and they invited me to have a go. They liked what I wrote, so if you ever happen to check out the Dallas Winds CD Horns for the Holidays, you’ll see the result.

On the way home from our most recent Christmas concert, I tuned in to WRR-FM, Dallas’ fabled classical music station. The announcer was introducing the next work with words that sounded strangely familiar. “That has to be Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music,” I thought. Sure enough, and it was the Dallas Winds’ recording of it. Every classical music lover in a four-state region had just heard those liner notes I wrote on an off chance back in 2011.

That would not have happened if I had opted for a career in education.

The “Horns for the Holidays” album cover, and the Dallas Winds onstage.
The Dallas Winds holiday album mentioned in the post, and the wind ensemble in a recent photo with conductor Jerry Junkin (see credits below).

So . . . How Did I Get Here?

It wasn’t talent, or connections, or blinding ambition that got me where I am right now. I simply held out for the adventure. I wanted a career in the arts, and looked for any opportunity. When you do that, opportunities open up. Composers and conductors hop in for a ride in my little red Mustang. The liner notes from that Christmas CD led to liner notes for a John Williams recording. That recording wound up being nominated for a Grammy Award. A slightly surreal moment for that kid from Missouri.

Which is all just to say that, if you dream of a career in the arts, go for it. Your mother may fear for your solvency, and your more conventional relatives may sniff at the way your jobs reconfigure themselves every few years. But you can make your living in the arts. You may not get rich and famous, but you’ll have a whole lot of fun. And, someday, you may look back on the whole crazy trail you’ve left and wonder, “How did I get here?”

IMAGE CREDITS

G. and Jan have ourselves to thank for a couple of the photos used in this post. One is the “Journal and Pens” photo by G. S. Norwood, first used for the post “Necessary Indulgences” a little more than a year ago. The hand-crafted journal is by Iona Handcrafted Books, and the pen holder is by Janet Rodriguez of Hart Street Pottery. The other is the photo of Omar Thomas, originally from his website, first used almost a year ago in the post, “Why We Need to Represent.” G. also provided the photo of her red Mustang GT.

The photo of master science fiction author Poul Anderson is from his Amazon Author Page, with a glimpse of a few of his books courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to The Ark in Ann Arbor, MI, for the photo of world-renowned guitarist Sonny Landreth, doing what he does best. We also appreciate the public Facebook pages of The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, The New York City Ballet, and conductor Andrew Litton for their representative photos.

There are lots of people to thank for the montage of marvelous composers. We’ve already mentioned the wonderful portrait of Omar Thomas, above. Our thanks also go out to Steven Bryant and Frank Ticheli (Photo by Frank Ticheli – Sent by subject; also published on the J W Pepper Blog, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons) for their photos. David Maslanka’s son Matthew Maslanka provided the photo of his father composing (presumably his 10th Symphony). And the wonderful photo of Eric Whitacre in his “Choir Geeks” T-shirt is by Marc Royce, via WOSU. Finally, we thank Reference Recordings for the Horns for the Holidays album cover, and the Dallas Winds for the photo of that ensemble taking a well-deserved bow (led by Conductor Jerry Junkin). All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt. Deepest gratitude to all!

Charitable giving opportunities abound.

Giving of Ourselves

By Jan S. Gephardt

Sometimes the best way to beat supply-chain issues is by giving of ourselves. If that sounds so sweetly altruistic you can’t even stand it, please hold on. Don’t give me an eye-roll just yet!

Last week I wrote about solving supply-chain issues for holiday gift-giving by focusing on locally-available goods. And especially those bought from small, locally-owned businesses. But the smallest, most local resource at our disposal is right here in our own homes, inside our own skins. It’s us.

And there are all kinds of ways to give of ourselves that don’t involve huge sacrifices of time, labor, and money. Actually, giving of ourselves in the ways I have in mind often are fun to do. And many are cheaper than buying more traditional stuff. So hear me out.

Handmade fiber art from G. S. Norwood: crochet, quilt, and knitting.
My sister G. S. Norwood gets crafty in several fiber art media: L-R, my daughter’s terrier Anika approves of her crochet project (on my bed); a “Log Cabin” quilt she created more than a decade ago; the beginning of a cable-knit project from 2020. (Photos by Jan S. Gephardt; G. S. Norwood).

Our Crafty Side

Many of us do not believe we are creative or artistic, but don’t sell this one short. There are many ways to create cool stuff without having to be Picasso or Mozart. Last year my sister wrote about her needlework and gardening, along with other “lockdown pastimes” people developed. The post is Get Crafty! (exclusively on The Weird Blog).

Perhaps you, too, have honed some skills during lockdowns. I’m not only talking about knitted booties or crocheted afghans, either. Do you know great recipes to share? Print up a little collection of them to slip into a holiday card. Suddenly, you have a nice little gift! It’s practical and tasty, too! Not to mention economical.

Four examples of hand-decorated wrapping paper.
How to make hand-decorated wrapping paper? at left, Marian Parsons used stencils (top) and stamping. At right, Morgan Levine made simple prints using a pencil eraser (top) and a wine cork (see credits below).

Giving of Ourselves by Adding Flair to the Delivery

Maybe we have a gift package, but we want to give it with extra style. Giving of ourselves by adding personal touches requires some imagination. And maybe a little paint or fabric, etc. Back in 2016 I ran a series of four blog posts about crafty wrapping strategies.

One post offered Five Slick Tips to Make Our Own Wrapping Paper. None of them required artistic talent, though a good eye for color and design helps. Stencils and stamping strategies meant no drawing skill required, though you will need craft paint, possibly glue, construction paper, and a few other household items.

Fabric of the Imagination and Repurposed Wraps offered clever on-site recycling suggestions for old boxes, tins, fabric, ribbon, and much, much more. While Does Your Gift Wrap do Impressions? suggested some themes one could explore.

Stage play, kids at a zoo, and historic steam engine.
A stage play, trip to a zoo, or a ride on a narrow-gauge train are only a few ways to give and share experiences. (See credits below).

Beat Supply Chain Issues by Giving Experiences

A less homemade “giving of ourselves” approach is to give our loved ones well-chosen experiences. Perhaps they’re excursions to enjoy together, such as a zoo or amusement park trip with a child. Sometimes the greatest gift is spending time with someone you love.

But even if you’re separated by vast distances, there may ways to place someone’s wished-for concert tickets in their hand. Or to give them an admission pass to a place you know they want to go. In an age when we can buy tickets online, tickets to practically anything – anywhere – can be had. Concerts, plays, restaurants, parks, zoos and aquariums, nature centers, and museums are within reach practically everywhere. We just need to keep the recipients’ tastes and preferences foremost in mind!

Respite care and yard work photos.
L-R: Offering help with caregiving, joining a yard crew team (this is Madrona Group Real Estate’s team, center), or helping a neighbor rake her leaves are all great ways to give of ourselves. (See credits below).

Giving of Ourselves through Our Service

While we’re talking about spending time with those we love, I’d be remiss if I said nothing about gifts of service. Giving of ourselves in service to someone else’s need is a profound – and often profoundly pleasant – thing to do.

Giving of ourselves through individual services, such as babysitting, pet-sitting, or offers of respite for caregivers can make a huge difference for someone in need of help. We may have someone on our list who needs this kind of help.

Do you know someone whose leaves you could rake? Perhaps an elderly or sick neighbor whose drive or walk you could shovel when it snows? Letters or groceries delivered to their door, gutters cleaned out, a ride to an appointment . . . We may never know how deeply they appreciate it, until years later. When it’s our turn to be on the receiving end.

Charitable giving opportunities abound.
There are many ways to give to charity. Boxing Day and Giving Tuesday offer special opportunities. But whenever you give, I suggest Charity Navigator as a good guide. (See credits below).

Giving of Ourselves through Donations

Volunteering through agencies or organizations is another way that giving of ourselves can help others and benefit our community. And as I noted in my post “The Value of Volunteering,” making a difference in someone else’s life is a satisfaction few other pleasures can match. We should start early with teaching our kids this joy, too.

Some of us may have people on our lists who “have everything,” but who might be touched and honored if you dedicate a donation of gifts or services in their name.

Donations don’t always have to be of money, although that’s often the first thing we think of. And it’s certainly true that money is always the right size, the right color, and the right flavor. We don’t have to wait for special days such as Giving Tuesday or Boxing Day, although we may be able to compound our gift through matching funds on such days. We also might consider setting up a monthly gift for a special cause that we or an honoree on our gift list would really love to support .

Household donations, a child hair-donor, and a blood donor.
There are ways to give of ourselves that literally cost nothing—but some might just save a life. (See credits below).

Giving Literally of Ourselves

Donations in kind are also often greatly appreciated by recipients who need them, and the holidays are a time when many of us do most of our charitable giving. Donate gently-used clothing or housewares and toys to thrift stores that support charitable organizations. Donate food to food pantries (give them things you would like to eat, or choose from a list of most-needed items). Also consider paper goods, and other household necessities. Diapers and feminine hygiene products are always needed!

While we’re giving of ourselves, don’t forget we can donate blood (through the Red Cross or a local blood bank) or other tissue and literally save someone’s life. Those with long hair like me can ask our hairdressers to help us donate some of our hair. And, each time we renew our driver’s license, we can make sure we’re registered as an organ donor! Once we’re done using them, parts of our bodies can make a world of difference for someone else. What better way to say “goodbye with love”?

A word cloud of “Thank You” in many languages.
No matter how you say it, “Thank you” is a message all of us appreciate, but we hear it too seldom. (Image by “dizanna” via 123rf).

Giving of Ourselves Through Gratitude

Even for someone who’s not normally much of a writer, there are two kinds of writing that any literate person can do. First, we can write (and tell and show) the people we love how very much they mean to us. We should tell them what we love about them. And tell them why we think they’re special. Second, we can write sincere “thank yous” when they do something for us or give us something.

In this hurry-up world, people don’t get thanked enough. We should try to remember to thank the harried sales clerk who helps us find what we’re looking for. And thank a person who does a thoughtful thing for us.

We should thank the front-line workers who stock our groceries, deliver our mail and packages, or pick up our trash. Once again, I’ve written blog posts that may be helpful. Take a look at “Three Creative Ways to Thank a Veteran,” “Three Great Ways to Thank First Responders (Plus a Suggestion),” and “Another Way to Thank a First Responder.”

The Opportunities are Endless

Giving of ourselves is far more than just a simple strategy to beat the supply chain issues of the moment. This kind of giving can become our joyous offering to the world. We must find the ways that work best for us. There’s a special niche for which each of us is uniquely best-suited. And when we find it, it’s fun and rewarding to make giving of ourselves a lifelong habit.

IMAGES

Many thanks to G. S. Norwood, for the images in the first montage (originally published in her blog post “Get Crafty!”). Likewise, the full image credits for the second montage can be found in Jan’sFive Slick Tips” post on creative giftwraps. The ones in the montage are courtesy of designers Marian Parsons and Morgan Levine, who is now a celebrated ceramics artist. All montages in this post were collected and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt.

Photos for the “Giving Experiences” montage came from far and wide. Many thanks to “What’s on Stage” (London) for the Johan Persson photo from the production of Some Like it Hip Hop. We’re grateful to the Ft. Wayne, IN Children’s Zoo, via Vet Street, for the pic of kids with one of their giraffes. And the great photo of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge’s steam engine (with actors to add flair) comes from Nick Gonzales and the Durango Herald of Durango, CO.

Deepest appreciation to Visiting Angels, Darts, and Upworthy, for the “Yard Chores and Caregiving” photos. For the “Charitable Donations” montage, we thank Giving Tuesday, the BBC and Getty Images, Charity Navigator, and Checkbox Accounting. Finally, for the “Literally of Ourselves” montage, we thank Love to Know (in-kind donations), The FDA (donating blood), and “Still Playing School” for the three-part image of “E” donating her ponytail. And the “Thank You Word Cloud” comes from “dizanna” via 123rf.

Covers for G. S. Norwood's novellas, "Deep Ellum Pawn" and "Deep Ellum Blues."

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue: An excerpt

By G. S. Norwood, abetted by Jan S. Gephardt

00-HEADER-TWO-DEEP-ELLUM-COVERS

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Deep Ellum Blues’ publication, and some of our readers want to know. Will the Deep Ellum stories continue?

To that, we’re happy to answer an emphatic yes. Ms. Eddy’s adventures aren’t nearly over yet. But when’s the next story coming? Well, that’s a little harder to say. Death in Deep Ellum, the working title for the third story, is a murder mystery. It’s required some theological thinking and some careful interweaving of the plot elements, while G. also works on several other exciting fiction projects.

Oh, yes, and her job. Concerts are starting up again, and the grant proposals never did let up. So G.’s a busy lady in her day job, too.

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue

But yes. Rest assured. The Deep Ellum stories continue! To prove it, this post includes a first look at Death in Deep Ellum’s opening. But before that, a quick look at how we got here.

In the first story, Deep Ellum Pawn, we met Ms. Eddy Weekes, proprietor of Deep Ellum Pawn. Her shop is always there when you need it, and she rocks the most epic storage room and garden-with-water feature that you may ever have encountered.

“The Golden Fiddle is back. The Hell Hounds are Ms. Eddy’s problem now.”
The e-edition of Deep Ellum Pawn in a visualization from Book Brush. Cover artwork © 2019 by Chaz Kemp.

Deep Ellum Pawn Description

The Golden Fiddle is back. Can Ms. Eddy break its curse this time?

What’s a pawnshop owner to do? The cursed Golden Fiddle keeps coming back to Deep Ellum Pawn, the shop where Ms. Eddy Weekes stands guard over the historic Dallas, Texas, neighborhood of Deep Ellum. Each time the fiddle shows up, it leaves a swath of broken dreams and shattered lives, with a pack of fearsome Hell Hounds hot on its trail.

Music, magic, and legends intertwine in Deep Ellum, and things long buried have a way of coming back ‘round again. Only Ms. Eddy can end the fiddle’s curse, but first she must learn its secrets.

Will she have the tools she needs to fend off the Hell Hounds and get to the heart of the Golden Fiddle, before an ancient evil brings the darkness back to Deep Ellum forever?

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue with Deep Ellum Blues

We published Deep Ellum Pawn in November 2019, preceded by three successive blog posts with excerpts and a release-day announcement. People enjoyed it, so G. got to work on a second. You might also enjoy another post with some of the story’s background, and another one on the making of the cover.

We rolled out Deep Ellum Blues not quite a year later, again with a series of blog posts. They included an excerpt, an interview of G. by internationally-bestselling mystery novelist Deborah Crombie, and a look at the making of the cover. We also posted a Setlist with YouTube videos of Mudcat’s songs (scroll down), and a release notice. And we followed its release with a post by G. about the famous song Deep Ellum Blues.

“Mudcat Randall is flirting with disaster. Can Ms. Eddy break through, or will an old and tragic story make Deep Ellum sing a new kind of blues?”
The e-edition of Deep Ellum Blues in a visualization from Book Brush. Cover artwork © 2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Deep Ellum Blues Description

Free will is a rule she doesn’t break.

As the genius loci of Deep Ellum, Ms. Eddy Weekes is a hands-off goddess who won’t micro-manage human affairs. She’d rather sit on the sidelines and enjoy the show. Her motto? “People have the right to make their own hideous, life-altering mistakes.”

But there’s something different about the young blues musician Mudcat Randall.

Maybe if her old friend Waylon hadn’t called him to her attention, she’d have let things be. Maybe if she hadn’t glimpsed something special in his music . . . But Mudcat is flirting with disaster. Eddy’s old adversary wants him to sign a tempting management contract, and there are deadly strings attached.

When a third force enters the fray, everything Mudcat has ever prayed for is suddenly on the line, and Eddy knows the game is rigged against him. Can Eddy break through to the headstrong musician? Or will an old and tragic story make Deep Ellum sing a new kind of blues?

Coming Next: Death in Deep Ellum

We promised you an excerpt. Here’s a glimpse of the current draft’s opening.

Chapter One: Prayer of the Dying

There is no prayer like the prayer of the dying.

As the genius loci of Deep Ellum, the historically Black, funky, happenin’ heart of Dallas, Texas, I hear those prayers, whether the people praying live here or just come to hang out for a while. Think of me as the neighborhood’s resident goddess. You can call me Ms. Eddy Weekes.

I heard Perkins’ prayer just after dark on a scorching summer evening. Perkins was an alcoholic, and a member in good standing of the homeless population that still drifts through Deep Ellum despite all the developers’ efforts to gentrify. I’d kept my eye on him for the past couple of years, but I hadn’t anticipated any sudden downturn in his condition.

Ms. Eddy, a detail from Chaz Kemp’s Deep Ellum Pawn cover.
Ms. Eddy, ©2019 by Chaz Kemp.

When he called, I was with him in an instant. I found him curled on his side by a back-alley dumpster off Elm Street. He’d been shot three times in the gut, and blood was everywhere.

“I’m here, Perkins. I heard you. I can fix this,” I said. The day’s heat radiated up from the crumbling asphalt as I dropped to the ground, but Perkins’ skin was already going cold, his dark skin going gray.

He rolled onto his back, his head on my knees, and I put my arms around his shoulders, trying with all my will to knit his shattered intestines back together.

“It’s my time, Miz Eddy. Don’t worry ‘bout me. It’s my time.”

His voice was a thin thread, only sustained by the force of my will. He had called out to me in need. I had to know what he wanted me to do.

“What happened?”

“I’ze jus’ here, and he come up out of nowhere. Shot me. Didn’t say a thing. Then he’s gone.” Perkins bucked a little against my legs, racked by a cough, a shiver, or some spasm of pain.

“What can I do, Perkins? How can I help?”

“I don. Wanna go. To the bad place. I bin. A drunk. But I ain’t. Bin bad.” His breath was coming in short gasps now.

“You won’t go to the bad place,” I promised. I could see his soul starting to spin out and away from his body, so I reeled it in, holding it close. “What else?”

Perkins made a supreme effort. He used his very last breath to ask one more thing of me.

“Get that son of a bitch.”

He sagged in my arms as I drew together the last tattered fragments of his soul, winding it into a tight ball. Holding it in my heart, as well as my hands, I said aloud, “Nathan Allen Perkins, I see you. I see you in your entirety. I see your heart. I see your mind. I see your soul. You are worthy. You will be missed. You will be remembered. You are safe in my hands, and free to move forward without fear.”

Then I tucked his soul into a pocket of time and space not even my old foe, Nick, could hack into. I sent the little pocket to the store room of my pawn shop, where Perkins’ soul could rest until I delivered it on up to the next level.

That done, I paused a moment to absorb the loss of a man I had liked. I’d given Perkins sandwiches from the shop down the street. He’d kept an eye out for Morsel, my wandering cat. We had shared gossip, and the news of the neighborhood. Perkins’ belief in me had fed my being just as surely as my sandwiches had fed his. I am far too old to trade in human relationships but, as far as it was possible, Perkins had been my friend. I would miss him.

So I took the moment to mourn. Something vital was now gone from Deep Ellum, and I felt the loss.

A detail from one of Chaz Kemp’s working drawings of Ms. Eddy.
Ms. Eddy, ©2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Then I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and called 9-1-1.

It would only take the cops a few minutes to get here.

In those few minutes, I took a look around the alley. I wasn’t interested in the three brass shell casings I spotted at the corner where Crowdus Street intersected with the alley that ran behind a rag-tag assortment of take-out restaurants. I didn’t much care about the view from the youth hostel that loomed above me, or the rusty, reeking dumpster that must have all but hidden Perkins unless someone was looking for him. I saw the bottle he’d been nursing, smelled the rotgut that had spilled from it.

And, faintly, under the garbage, the booze and the blood, I smelled something else entirely. As I rose from the pavement to stand guard over my friend’s body, I caught just the barest trace of brimstone. Somehow, in some way I could not yet see, Nick had had a hand in this.

I would help the police, if I could, to find the man who pulled the trigger, but Perkins had asked me for more than mere human justice. He’d asked me to “get that son of a bitch.” That meant I was going to have to track down the Devil himself.

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue

We hope you’re looking forward to Death in Deep Ellum as much as we are. And we’ll keep you posted on progress!

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers for Deep Ellum Pawn and Deep Ellum Blues are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Chaz Kemp. The character developments for Ms. Eddy are also ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Chaz Kemp. Many thanks!

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