The Big Nine-Oh


My mother was born on October 29, 1918, in New York City. Ninety years ago today.



The big day is almost anticlimactic. She's been visiting my husband and me for the last week and will be here through Sunday. But we are all glowing from the celebration my sister and I planned for over a year, which took place last weekend. Most of Mom's grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to Wisconsin from different sections of the US: New York, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and Colorado. Upon arriving in town, most of us converged into someone's two-room suite at the Comfort Inn, which was turned into a swelteringly warm hospitality suite as people met and greeted while we waited for everyone else to arrive (most of the guests arrived within just a few hours of each other) so we could make a group appearance at our house, where Mom watched CNN, unaware that her entire family, including her sister, were gathered less than two miles away.
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I'm happy to say that the weekend went off beautifully. Thirty-two people from 8 months to 92 years convened to give Mom a birthday she'll never forget. From the time we yelled "Surprise!" in our basement early Friday afternoon to the time people began heading home Sunday, everything was perfect. (If you heard a squeal around 1PM Central Time on Friday, it was my mother seeing her older sister, who'd traveled from New York for the occasion.)
The majority of the family stayed here at the house (one of my nephews pitched a tent in the back yard), and we all pitched in to get food and cook it. Fortunately, it was warm enough to barbecue and for the kids to play outside. It was like a big pajama party, with people sleeping virtually everywhere: In my office, in the upstairs family room, in the living room, the great room, and all over the basement. Great-grandchildren made fast friends with their second cousins, with my good-natured baby grand-nephew being passed around like a joint at a 70s party and the 2-year-old and 3-year-old lovingly cared for by older cousins like treasured baby dolls.
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Saturday was a free day for everyone, and whether people went down to Chicago to explore or stayed in the area, everyone made it back in time for the dinner hosted by my siblings and me. After dessert we all shared memories of Mom, read notes from people unable to attend (both of which made several people, including the guest of honor, wipe their eyes), and played a trivia game I dubbed "All About Eva" (Mom's name). I divided the grandchildren into three teams, and I was frankly amazed by how much they knew about my mother's life. It just goes to show that kids pay attention . . . and they ask questions. We got awfully loud, but that's why restaurants have private banquet rooms. Then we came back to the house for a slide show celebrating both my mother's long life and that of the family she and my father created.
In honor of my mother's milestone, I present some of those photos, some of which include my grandmother, father, and siblings. Happy Birthday, Mom!
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We'll take her to dinner tonight, making sure we're back before that much-ballyhooed half hour purchased by Barack Obama, of whom Mom is a raucous supporter. Like so many of us, she hopes to see history made next Tuesday . . . another marvel she has gotten to witness in her 90 years.
































Maybe it's just me

Sunday night I made a quick run to the supermarket (we are fortunate to have a Woodman's, the biggest supermarket I've ever seen in my life, just 5 minutes from our house via back roads). I was surprised at how much traffic was on the service road coming from the other direction, especially at 7PM on a Sunday.

Then I saw the flashing lights on the adjacent highway. There'd been an accident.

Okay, so people slow down just to be aware of what's going on. It looked like a particularly bad crash. The people behind the crash scene, heading south on I-94 and less than a half mile from the next exit, had turned off their engines and lights, as if they knew they'd be sitting for a while. But as I drove, I saw five cars pulled over to the shoulder of the service with their flashers on . . . just looking.

I found this disturbing. Have these people nothing better to do but to gawk at someone's misfortune? A Life Flight helicopter was perched on the median, apparently to transport the more seriously injured victims, while two ambulances were parked nearby for other, not life-threatening injuries. Were these people actually hoping for a glimpse of broken and bloody bodies being loaded into the ambulances and helicopter? Do they consider that entertainment?

I never did find out any details about the accident, found out how many cars were involved, etc. I said a silent prayer for the recovery of those who'd been hurt, made my way to the supermarket, made my purchase and went home, keeping my driving foot alert as the car in front of me constantly braked to get another look (the helicopter had taken off). Apparently the crash wasn't considered important enough to be featured on the Milwaukee news.

But it certainly provided a fascinating time for at least 5 carloads of people.

I hope the bastards enjoyed it.


Remembering Levi

I just heard of the death of Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops. He was 72 years old. No cause of death was given, but he had been in declining health for years now, having suffered from both a stroke and an unknown type of cancer. I saw a photo of him in a wheelchair in Jet magazine a few years back.

I always admired the Four Tops. Unlike The Temptations, there seemed to be no squabbling or infighting among group members, and their lineup remained consistent until they began to pass away (only one original member, Duke Fakir, still survives). They were a little older than most of the Motown acts and maybe more mature.

Success came to the group rather late, in 1964 (by which time most of the groups had already been established). A string of hits followed their first, Baby, I Need Your Loving, most of which required Levi to sing at a higher pitch than his natural baritone, to make his vocals sound more heartfelt and desperate (he was, after all, singing about lost love much of the time).

Levi Stubbs stayed with the group for his entire career, taking on a memorable solo job as the voice of Audrey, the man-eating plant, in the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors.


Unfortunately, by the late 1970s, the group was pretty much turning into an oldies act, with few new hits (I read once that Joe Jackson feared his boys would meet the same fate, a factor in the Jackson Five's move to another label).

Here is my all-time favorite tune recorded by the Four Tops. Rest in peace, Levi Stubbs. Enjoy!




TGIF (3rd Friday in October)

It's mid-October, early voting has begun and Barack Obama is leading in the polls. I do hope that Chuck Todd of NBC, who predicted that the way it stood in mid-October would be the way it went, was correct. But one thing I do wish: it hurts my heart to hear people making fun of John McCain's somewhat odd stance and the way he holds his arms. He was tortured, for heaven's sake. He's fortunate to be able to function. I'm not happy with many of the things that have sprung from his campaign, but I do believe that making fun of someone's injuries is hitting below the belt. So please, try to be nice.

On the writing front, my storyboarding is going well. The bones of the story are all there. I'm just trying to work out the details of something I've never included in my books before: a murder. I'm thinking back over every crime-and-punishment movie/TV show I've ever seen to make this realistic and believable. It might take a few more days, but while I try to resolve that outstanding issue I will see if I can complete my synopsis, because after all, the details go into a manuscript, which comes much later.

In case you haven't noticed, I've got a new set of poll questions up in the left hand corner, so please take a minute or two to anonymously answer. Thanks in advance.

And now it's time for you to choose your favorite version of two covers of the same song. I'm really dating myself with this week's selection. The faster version of this tune, by a group called Creative Source, was recorded around 1973, a few years before the disco phenomenon really hit. Although I was too young to go to the legendary New York nightclub The Cheetah, I do remember being out dancing like crazy to this song. I can still see those flashing lights! I didn't know until years later that Bill Withers had recorded this song as well (and he may have written it as well, since he was also a composer).

For me, these two versions sound like different songs, because of the change in beat (think of the very first song I chose for this feature, I Heard it Through the Grapevine). While Creative Source still sounds good to me, now that I'm a middle-aged lady, I must say that I prefer Bill Withers' version better.

I have no idea what happened to Creative Source. Bill Withers, well into his 70s by now, is presumably retired. I always admired his talent, but he never looked like a happy man to me. Of course, some people just have a natural dour look about them. But I hope that whatever he's doing, he's happy and content, the way "Grandma" of Grandma's Hands would want him to be. He brought a lot of joy into people's lives with his musical gifts.

Which do you like the best?




Bill Withers




Creative Source


Have a wonderful weekend, and a good week as well! (I won't be posting much next week; my mom gets in from Florida on Tuesday and the party starts Friday.)




Chewing the Fat with . . . Gwynne Forster

Yes, I'm back with author interviews. I changed the name, since "Five Questions for . . ." was starting to pop up as often as morning toast (although these are still five-question interviews, for the most part, because authors are busy). The alternate title for these columns was right in front of my face. Don't know why I didn't think to use it in the first place.

Gwynne came to my rescue on this very busy week, in which I'm finalizing preparations for my mother's 90th birthday and trying to get some things together for my editor and preparing to change jobs and all that involves: running for labs, pre-employment physical, filling out paperwork and all of that, by providing me with a completed interview. She'd been working on a deadline herself, and I didn't think she'd get to it this quickly. Thank you, Gwynne!

Gwynne Forster was one of the earlier Arabesque authors. I vividly remember her very first novel, Sealed With a Kiss, (at a time when I was an aspiring novelist and was reading every romance that came out) and I was struck by the high quality of her writing, as well as the rather unique and emotional storyline of that particular book. which to me set her books apart from the others (Bette Ford's marvelous bold style was also a standout for me). Anyone who thinks romance novels are silly, badly written fluff should check out Gwynne Forster. You won't catch Gwynne using hackneyed and clich├ęd phrases.

I was too rushed to ask Gwynne for biographical information, but to learn more about her, just visit her website.

Without further ado, heeeeeeere's Gwynne:




Bettye: You just had a new women's fiction release from Dafina Books. Tell us about it.

Gwynne Forster: My latest mainstream fiction release, A Different Kind of Blues, is about a woman who, at age thirty-six, gets a shock that causes her to take a look at her life, and she’s not proud of what she sees. But making amends for her past is more difficult than she expected. The first and hardest step is admitting to her teenage daughter, Krista, that her supposedly dead father is very much alive. Then there’s the neighbor whose husband she had an affair with, the former coworker she got fired, and many more aggrieved acquaintances. Far from setting her free, the truth brings more complications, for the past had best be left to time. Yet, the incidents open up her life in surprising ways, bringing her experiences for which she had longed but didn’t have the courage to embrace, and offering her one last chance to start over for real. Publisher’s Weekly called it an “ode to life…wise and wonderful.”

Bettye: Sounds like a wonderfully unique and intriguing storyline (I know I said that already).

You are one of the handful of writers who writes catetory romance, single title romance, and women's fiction. Which genre is easiest for you to create? Do you have a favorite among them? Do you find you need to change settings/mood when moving between the three? (Okay, so I snuck/sneaked in 3 questions).

Gwynne Forster: Bettye, my preferences are in this order: mainstream women’s fiction, single title romance; category romance. I prefer mainstream fiction because there are no guidelines, and I can write what I see as truer to life. I can create characters and situations compatible with my understanding of socio-psychological phenomena, intra-familial relations, and my observations of human behavior. There’s less fantasy and more reality. In single title romance, which is closer to mainstream than to category, I am able to include subplots and more characters and the kinds of scenarios that can bring a story to life. Category romance is limiting, and I struggle with it. I never write two books at a time, so I don’t move between them. Since I write character driven stories, my problem is not mood, but in roping in the characters when I’m writing category. Subject matter takes care of the difference between mainstream and single title romance.

Bettye: Interesting that you complete one book at a time. I know what you mean about the different genres. I love writing mainstream, where essentially anything goes. I was also fond of single title romance. When Arabesque streamlined I was invited to write for Kimani, but since they haven't liked what I've sent them so far (my stories have too much story, they tell me) I'm thinking now that I'm simply not a category romance writer.

Your bio says you belong to your church choir. Do you have a favorite hymn?

Gwynne Forster: I certainly do. How Great Thou Art.

Bettye: Your bio also says you are a gourmet cook. What's your specialty?

Gwynne Forster: I’m supposed to be a gourmet cook. What’s my specialty? Mouth watering deserts, I guess. But I try to make every course gourmet level. For a real dinner party, I serve seven courses. For a more casual one, I serve five.

Bettye: Wow, seven courses. That makes me think of a wonderful cruise I took on the Celebrity Line . . . except I don't think even they serve that many courses!

What lies ahead for Gwynne Forster? Can you give us a sneak peek at upcoming books?

Gwynne Forster: I have a mainstream and two romance novels due out in 2009. The mainstream, A Change Had To Come, is a Kensington/Dafina book. My three Harlequin romances are Private Lives, Finding Mr. Right and Stranger In My Bed. In addition, Harlequin is reprinting three of my early Arabesque books for release in 2009. They are, Fools Rush In, Swept Away, and Scarlet Woman.

Thanks so much, Bettye, for interviewing me for your blog.

-----

Thanks so much, Gwynne! I didn't notice until I put this column together the similarity in cadence between the title of your new Dafina mainstream, A Different Kind of Blues, and my upcoming Dafina mainstream, A New Kind of Bliss. Coincidence? Or from the mind of the same clever editor? I wonder . . . .

For those of you interested in learning more about Gwynne's novels, in addition to her website link above, click here to be routed to her Amazon page with all her novels listed in descending order of publication date.

Now, I'm off to see if I can find those doggone discussion questions I seem to have misplaced . . . .
















TGIF - Second Friday in October

These are some scary times, but along with the uncertainty there is always hope. The song I have selected for this week reflects that.

This song is closely linked to Sam Cooke, who, I believe, penned it. His recording was released after his murder and became a huge hit. I hadn't previously known that Otis Redding had recorded it as well. Both these men died prematurely, of unnatural causes (Sam Cooke was shot by a motel manager in 1964 under circumstances that remain murky to this day, and the plane upon which Otis Redding was a passenger crashed in a lake here in Wisconsin in 1967. The lone survivor of the crash, a member of the Bar-Kays, clung to a seat cushion in the icy waters until he was rescued.

Both these marvelously talented men, in my opinion, would have become superstars had they lived. There is no question that Sam Cooke liked the ladies - this fact figured prominently in his death - but womanizing ways or not, he had a wonderful vision that, as we all know, turned out to be true. One pundit predicted that the candidates' standing in mid-October will pretty much be how the election goes, which means that Sam's vision could become truer than any of us had ever dared hope.

Which version of A Change is Gonna Come do you like the best?




Sam Cooke





Otis Redding


I wish all of you a weekend both restful and productive. See you Monday.


Feeling good on 10/09/08

My brother Peter, who passed away in 1992, would be turning 56 today. He would be positively tickled by the cadence of this particular date. Love you, bro!

I've been holding my breath ever since I finally submitted my overdue manuscript. If my editor didn't like it, I'd be up the creek (and the fact that I missed two deadlines wasn't helping my cause any). A New Kind of Bliss will be, well, a new kind of story for me, one with a lead character who isn't as genteel and understanding as the others I've written. This girl's got flaws. Well, yesterday I received word from my editor that she loved it. "Winning, flawed, comforting, real," were her words for my lead character.

Of course, that is no guarantee that readers will feel the same way, and that is where the real chance-taking comes in. No writer - no, make that most writers - wants to write the same sweet, understanding characters over and over again. Even if readers don't agree with the thoughts of Emily Yancy, they will feel as though they know her . . . and sympathize with her dilemma, even if they haven't experienced it themselves (few have).

At least I hope they will.

Here's a sneak peek of what is officially not a WIP, but an upcoming novel that will be available for purchase in May (and y'all know I'm gonna let everybody know when it's available for pre-ordering). This is not the opening chapter, but it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what's going on, so enjoy!

***

The bloom, as they say, is off the rose.
It certainly didn’t take long. We buried Pop the day before yesterday, and already I’m wondering how I’m going to cope with living in Euliss again. The old town is dirtier and noisier than ever, a fact I’m made aware of every time I leave my mother’s quiet street. Crumpled milk cartons and soft drink cans and bottles missed by the alleged street sweeping machines lined the curbs. A variety of hip-hop CDs, with language too raw to be played on the radio, competed for listeners at top volume on boom boxes positioned in windows like fans. And it’s full of vehicles in desperate need of Midasizing.
I went to the supermarket for Mom the other day. Residents on the black side of town – Euliss might be in New York, but it’s segregated as 1950s Alabama, with blacks and Latinos for the most part kept west of the dividing line – were thrilled when a major chain opened in the neighborhood with the promise that their prices would be the same as they were at their location across town. This was a novelty, as their competitors’ prices at their stores in the black and Latino neighborhoods bordered on larceny, like two dollars for a single green pepper. Not a more exotic red or yellow pepper, but an ordinary green one. I doubt Leona Helmsley would have paid two dollars for a single green pepper . . . unless it was for that dog she left all her money to. I can hear her telling her maid, “Skip the green peppers. Only the little people eat them.”
Anyway, the first thing I saw upon entering the market that was the crown jewel of Euliss’ west side – a windowless dull brown brick structure that reminded me of a prison – was a crudely hand lettered sign that said, ‘Please do not spit on the floor.’ I rolled my eyes. People in Scarsdale don’t have to put up with this shit.
I kept reminding myself why I was here. Mom needed me. Sonny's circumstances in terms of proximity and time off made him the ideal candidate, but that girlfriend he'd had here in town changed everything. I didn't want to contribute to any more problems between he and Nell. They'd been married thirty years, and I'm fond of my sister-in-law. I also know firsthand how difficult it is to survive infidelity. Nell must be a better woman than me, because I couldn't bring myself to do it. If I’d stayed married to Al I would have spent the rest of my life worrying about what he was doing every minute he was out of my sight. Frankly, I feel I deserve better. But staying with Sonny was the choice Nell made, and I respect it.

***


Ever Wonder Where They Find People for Those Focus Groups?

So do I. I still don't know. All is know is that my husband's sister called him yesterday and told him to watch her on CNN as part of a focus group of undecided voters in Columbus, Ohio. I don't know how she got there . . . but there she was! She was the only black female in the group. Unfortunately, only a few people in the group actually got to speak.

We're usually MSNBC watchers, watching CNN only because of my sister-in-law's appearance. But I will say this . . . CNN earned points from me for not speaking to representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties, who, of course, always praise their candidate and trash the other guy, whether their guy got trounced or not. I appreciate that, CNN!

So, does anybody remember seeing my sister-in-law?


Alphabet Soup: LPs to CDs



It seems that no matter how low I'm feeling, there is one thing that can instantly cheer me up, and that is music. I remember turning on the radio after leaving the hospital the night my father died, on the way to my brother's funeral, and other dark and difficult times in my life. Music would help me forget the pain in my post-surgical abdomen, make me feel better during the relocation my husband and I made from Florida to the Midwest, when he needed to get to his new job right away and I had to stay behind for nearly three months to pack up the house, (a monumental job after which I took half a year off).

Even today at work, when word drifts back to me that a "strange man" had been sighted in the break room who turned out to be a fellow who works on the other side of the building, a man appropriately dressed for our casual work environment but who happens to be a brother (if you're black, you're likely familiar with Overreacting White Woman Syndrome). Okay, so I did roll my eyes and mutter that if his pigment had been a dozen shades lighter he would not have seemed out of place to her, but after that I promptly put on my headphones and started listening to Michael Franks, forgetting about how quickly some people are ready to call Security on people they feel in their little narrow minds don't look like they belong. But that's a column for another day.

With the comfort I get from music it is no wonder, then, that I have cartons and cartons of LPs that I couldn't bear to throw out. But recently we made a purchase that puts me a little closer to labeling all those old vinyl records for the monster garage sale we will eventually hold.

I don't keep up with technology that much; I've long since decided it moves too damn fast for me. I don't have a Blackberry or an MP3 player. I don't even have a camera in my cell phone, at least I don't think I do. But when I saw that a local store was selling a CD recorder that works from both albums and cassettes, I told my husband and we sprung into action, buying one the very next day.

It's an old-fashioned-looking contraption that kind of looks like the one pictured. (I'm pretty sure it's not identical, since this one is advertised at $399 and we paid $169 for ours, less than half that sum). I am thrilled to have treasures like Hugh Masekela's Latest, originally recorded in 1967 (he does an absolutely beautiful rendition of the Lennon/McCartney tune Here, There, and Everywhere that still sounds current 41 years later) and Masekela, his famous South African protest album from 1968, on CD at last.

I've already made a deal with myself to keep things from getting out of hand: I can create one converted CD from albums for every three boxes I unpack!

Have you held on to your old LPs? Do you ever play them? Or have you already converted yours to CDs?




TGIF

Here in Wisconsin the leaves are changing color, making driving along the highway a pretty scenic experience. We've had the heat on (quite a contrast from my sister in Jacksonville, who was in her pool swimming laps in 88-degree heat when I called her the other day).

In honor of it being fall, I've chosen a weather-related song for you to pick your favorite. Baby, It's Cold Outside was written for the movie Neptune's Daughter, a vehicle for swimming star Esther Williams, back in 1949. Not surprisingly, it won the Oscar for Best Song that year. It's become a classic and still sounds great!

Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded a version in 1961 that, in my opinion, still holds up today. Years later, Vanessa Williams got Bobby Caldwell to sing it with her on her Christmas CD, Star Bright. Their version, as you'd expect, is a little more fast-paced and modern. I think both of them are great, but to me this is yet another case of an oldie but goodie winning. Ray all the way!
What do you think?




Ray Charles/Betty Carter




Vanessa Williams/Bobby Caldwell


Have a great weekend, and if you haven't yet registered to vote, please do it before it's too late!