Sunday, January 31, 2021

Meditations on a Snow Day

 -- Susan, every other Sunday 

It's difficult to believe how much the world has changed in only a year. A year ago this weekend, I saw a weather report suggesting it might snow in Hakone--a mountain onsen town a little more than an hour from my home in Meguro, where I made many climbs during my 100 Summits year. On impulse, I made a reservation at the highest-altitude ryokan I could find, jumped on a train, and headed for Gora (one of the many small towns in the greater Hakone area).

The seasons play a vital role in Japanese life, as they have for centuries. Even now, the diet and culture of Japan has a distinct (and distinctive) link to the changing seasons. Since ancient times, Japanese poets and artists have celebrated the seasons in their work:

Calligraphy mine, author unknown

The poem above was included in a famous 10th century collection of Japanese verse, and translates:

O warbler, sitting on the plum tree branch / you sing to welcome spring / but in the air, the snow still falls.

Since finishing my 100 climbs in the spring of 2019, I have tried to infuse my own life with that this appreciation for the seasons, which includes regular trips to the mountains to experience the seasons, as those ancient poets did.

I arrived at Hakone-Yumoto station and stepped out into a cold, steady rain. There was no snow at all. I felt keen disappointment--not unlike the Heian-period poet who wrote:

I left the city and found my way to this place / longing to meet you / yet my journey was in vain / for now we must say farewell.

I boarded a bus for Gora, hoping that the rain might turn to snow in the night, if it continued raining. As the bus climbed up the mountain, the rain transformed to slush, and then to snow, before my eyes.

Snow! As seen from the bus climbing into Gora

By the time the bus stopped at the base of the Hakone Ropeway, the world was transformed into a black-and-white wonderland. Snow fell around me in fat, lazy flakes that seemed in no rush to reach the ground--and I felt in no rush either. I boarded a gondola for the trip up and over the Owakudani caldera.

Hakone Ropeway in Snow

The caldera of Owakudani, a live volcano in Hakone

The scene put me in mind of another old poem, this one by Minamoto no Moroyori (1068-1139):

Wide the meadows where / upon my charcoal kiln / the snow is falling in sad solitude / The smoke arises.

I had lunch in a little restaurant atop the volcano, watching clouds of steam rise from the caldera to meet the falling snow. The weather was cold enough that the snow prevailed, reached the ground, and piled up in drifts everywhere except the fumaroles where the volcanic steam emerged from the earth.

After lunch, I headed for Gora Park, which sits on the mountainside just below the ropeway. As I hoped, the park (which is also home to a number of historic teahouses, moved there for purposes of preservation as the Hakone area was developed) offered a perfect opportunity to experience winter as Japanese poets did. The snow had stopped falling, but I was almost entirely alone at the park. 

As I walked the silent, forested paths, I felt an ever-deepening awe at the silent beauty of the trees and snow. 

Gora Park, January 2020

In Japanese poetry, snow is often used as a metaphor for age (a reference to the white hair people fortunate enough to live long lives are privileged to acquire). As another tenth century poet wrote:

The spring sun cannot melt this snow [and reverse the effects of age].

Snow also carries many other meanings, and appears as a central feature of Japanese poetry throughout history.

The snow lingers on, and / my deep mountain retreat is so cold, that / not one sign of spring can I see at all. -- Daishin Gito (1656-1730)

Upon the plain of heaven / of spring, there is no sign in sight. / A memento of the year that's gone / Snowfall with the dawn. --Fujiwara no Ariie (1155-1216)

Early in the morning / The storm wind / over my garden gusts, yet / Upon the fallen snow, no trace it leaves. --Fujiwara no Tsuneie (1149-1209)

Time to light the lanterns once again / And the painter, aging / has frost brushed upon his temples. --Basshō (1692)

To folk from the capital / First of all, would I show my mountain home’s mossy garden paths / where
The first snow has fallen. -- Nakazane

The stark black and white landscapes of a winter garden offer excellent opportunities for reflection, and it's easy to see why poets often associated winter with age, silence, and endings--but also with promise, and with the spring that would eventually return.

Snow serves as a powerful metaphor, in Japanese poetry and elsewhere, and it seems particularly powerful now, as the world waits for a post-COVID spring to thaw the ice that holds us in place, in many cases, apart from those we love.

And yet, the spring will come again. The world will thaw, and although the world may seem bleak now:

In a roadside field stands / a leafless willow tree. / Spring will come, and then / the wonders of long ago / will all return. --Sugiwara no Michizane

Until then, stay safe, keep faith, and remember that every day is still a blessing--even (or perhaps especially) when it's wrapped in a blanket of clean, white snow. 


Saturday, January 30, 2021

Guest Blogger: Dennis Palumo. How Writers are Coping with Covid



Earlier this week I read an article published in the Writers Guild of America Bulletin, titledPsychotherapist Dennis Palumbo gives an update on how writers are adapting after 10 months of staying safer-at-home” 

Aside from his widely respected reputation as a psychotherapist to those in the Arts, Dennis is a fellow Pittsburgh native (who moved to Southern California), Poisoned Pen Press author, and friend. His article was so on the mark that I immediately asked him if I could run it on Murder is Everywhere, if only to provide some solace to my mates. He agreed—no doubt relieved I wasn’t calling to challenge his professional skills by soliciting advice on my methods for Coping with Covid.

For three decades, Dennis Palumbo has been a licensed psychotherapist for working writers and others in creative fields. To the therapy setting Dennis brings his own experience as a sitcom writer {‘Welcome Back Kotter”), screenwriter (“My Favorite Year”), and crime novelist (2018’s “Head Wounds” is the fifth installment in his Daniel Rinaldi series). His non-fiction book “Writing from the Inside Out “(2000) was an adaptation and expansion of his regular columns for Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, and his articles and reviews appear regularly in such publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet, and Psychology Today. Dennis also served on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

So, take your seat…or place on the couch…and read on.


Here’s a question I’ve been asked recently:

“Now that we’ve lived through more of the pandemic, do you see a shift in how your therapy patients are coping?”

My answer: Yes and no.

Yes, in terms of a shift in responses among my writer patients, though it ranges all over the place. Some patients seem to have a kind of resignation to the fact that we don’t know how, or if, this lockdown will end. For these patients, this has meant a deeper hunkering down. Unhappy but resolved to hang on for the duration, they also report that since their initial stunned reaction to the pandemic has faded, they’re better able to focus on writing. It seems to help if they have contracted deals to work on projects, but even those working on specs report being more focused.

Other patients, encouraged by the news of the various vaccines, are feeling more upbeat than they have in months. There’s an end in sight, they believe, so their overall mood has lightened. Again, and more expectedly, their ability to focus on their writing has risen as well.

One important point: whether patients are accepting of an indefinite timeline for the lockdown, or else see it as ending soon, the effect on their families vary widely. Marital tensions, issues around virtual schooling for their children, and financial worries provide the context in which each individual writer has to work. And, therefore, the stresses of these various contexts are different for each household.

But what about those patients whose feelings and attitudes haven’t changed much since the lockdown began? Usually, since March, their general reaction has been anger, fear or frustration—or some combination of the above. The length of the pandemic and its restrictions hasn’t changed their reactions. Even the promise of a vaccine has done little to cause a shift in their feelings.

Why not? Remember, each of us lives in our individual subjective world, formed by a combination of our childhood experiences (which help mold our personal mythology about how life works), filtered through our firmly-held intellectual beliefs of how life works, and the personal and professional events in our adult lives. To put it bluntly, people tending toward pessimism or holding a dark view of the future see in the pandemic a confirmation of their worst fears. As one of my writer patients said when a long-fought-for project was scuttled once the pandemic hit, “See, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop... and now it has.”

If, however, a patient tends to be more optimistic (admittedly, for a therapist who treats Hollywood creative types, these kinds of patients are rare), the pandemic has been seen since it started as an opportunity to just write, unburdened by the other tedious obligations of their show business careers.

Then there’s a third category: writer patients who’ve complained in therapy over the years about never having had an extended period of time to work on their dream project—that big, special, personal script or play or novel that they just can’t get to because of their daily paying writing gigs. Yet when forced into staying home, suddenly having uncounted hours of free time, they were so psychologically impacted by the pandemic that they were unable to write. Anything.

Which brings me back to the initial question, and my somewhat meandering answer: while some patients’ attitudes—their fears and hopes and beliefs—have shifted, there are an equal number who feel the same frustrations and fears for themselves and loved ones that they’ve expressed in therapy since the pandemic began.

As in all aspects of clinical work with patients, there is no one-size-fits-all model for providing therapy. As the context of our lives changes, so do our emotional responses.

So my only advice is to try to live embedded in the moment, day by day, and resist feeding yourself catastrophic meanings about what the future holds.

Because if the year 2020 has shown us nothing else, it’s that predicting the future is a fool’s game.

Thanks, Dennis.


Friday, January 29, 2021

On An Outgoing Tide

 Happy Publication Day to Me.

An odd day  in an odd week.

We have had havoc  at work caused by a covid infected person  coming in for treatment . Let's just say that generates a lot of paperwork,  testing, phone calls, cancellations and general chaos.

Then  a fabulous new deal was put in front of me via my agent. With a note from my agent saying don't accept this. There were more than a few phone calls,  emails, something described as a 'fierce exchange '  and then I got a deal that was better than the already marvellous deal. So I am very chuffed, once I have worked out what it all means.

I also think I have two books coming out  this year, and one is coming out today. It's the 12th book in the Anderson and Costello series. 

Which makes the one I am writing the  13th. Which might be an omen.

 On An Outgoing Tide is about old people being murdered. ( Or it might not be about that!) I dedicated the book to Alan's parents which they thought was a very nice idea until they read it. Now we are slightly worried that the book might have given them ideas.

It's both a  written in lockdown book and  a written about lockdown book.   In what other circumstances  could complete strangers  knock on your door and say they are here to do your shopping for you. Where else could you have the conversation  'I can't really describe her, she had a mask on.' and 'There were no fingerprints because they all had gloves on.'

The initial reviews are good with one overall complaint,  something common  in every review.

So  my chief detective  Colin Anderson has a wee rescue staffie called Nesbit. I have no idea how old Nesbit was when Anderson rescued him in a storyline about illegal dog fights, but a few years have passed and Nesbit was really getting so old he should have been in the Guiness Book Of Records. In human years he was about 140. 

 So I did the  right thing, and got him put to sleep. On the page so to speak. He didn't just disappear in the intervening  time between books. Poor wee Nesbit.  Tears all over the keyboard.

Then the murder victim dies ( obviously), an old man who lived on the top of a hill. He was in his late eighties and had a wee mongrel wiry dog called Norma who is now all alone in the world. Then DCI Anderson comes on the scene and.... well you can guess what happens.

The reviewers did not like the fact that Anderson replaced the dog in his life so quickly.

They were ok with the old man being  nailed to his chair though!

Crime readers are lovely, but just sometimes, a bit odd....    

Thursday, January 28, 2021

A hand of cards


Michael – Thursday

For those who don’t know, Bridge is a card game that four people play in partnerships of two who sit opposite each other. Since I’ve always been attracted to collaboration, and have worked with other people in many areas of my life, a game that involves that as well as an intellectual and tactical challenge has a natural appeal for me. It’s not a question of how well you do, but of how well the partnership does. That’s what collaboration is all about whatever its context.

18th century playing cards

Card games with pretty much the current 52 cards go back a long way – at least to the 15th century. (Although that makes it a lot more modern than chess whose origins are probably 1,000 years older than that.) The modern enthusiasm for card games for adults started with Whist, a game with a variety of rules and variants. The variant that led to Bridge started life as Biritch in the 19th century. The name is thought to be the English spelling of a Russian word meaning an occupation of a diplomatic clerk or an announcer. (While Bridge players will recognise the connection, it does suggest that the Russian civil service wasn’t doing all that much at the time.) In Biritch, each player is dealt 13 cards with the dealer or his partner choosing the trump suit. Then each player contributes a card to each trick, following suit if they can, with the player playing the highest card (or trumping) winning the trick for the partnership.

The old way of playing Bridge

This led to Auction Bridge in 1904 where the first part of a given hand is an auction for a partnership to make a specific number of tricks in the nominated trump suit, or in so-called “no trumps” where all the suits have the same rank. It took an important tweak of scoring that targeted a certain number of tricks in each suit to get a significant bonus to make Bridge a bidder’s game and a true partnership game. It added intrigue and extra difficulty. That was developed in 1925, and after that Bridge was on the road to being one of the most popular adult card games ever. In the 40s nearly half of US households hosted Bridge players, and the top American players - the Culbertsons, Vanderbilt, and others - were treated like sports heroes. That was until television made its appearance. But even today, it’s estimated there are 25 million players in the US alone.

A tense match with Eli Culbertson on the left and a crowd of spectators

Bridge collaboration sometimes has fraught moments, especially when spouses play together. I remember many years ago playing a match at a couple’s house. The wife was the better player by quite a way. Halfway through the match, the couple and their team mates were ahead and all was pleasant. But in the second half, things started to go awry for them. As in all games and sports, temperament is critical. The wife started pointing out her husband’s mistakes - politely at first, as in “Darl, wouldn’t it have been better to… What do you think?” But it got more fractious as the match swung in our favour.

Eventually after a particularly disastrous hand, the wife said sharply, “That time the only thing you did wrong was—”

“The only thing I did wrong,” he furiously interrupted, “was marrying you!”

The rest of the match was icy. We won by a big margin.

On the other hand, the cut and thrust of the game can be the most enjoyable part. It's satisfying to make a good hand by careful analysis and careful play, but it's often even more fun to persuade the opponents to make a mistake that allows you to win. Victor Mollo, who was an international player, had a wonderful sense of humor, and his books featuring a suite of characters from the menagerie are as funny as they are instructive. The Hideous Hog (HH to his friends) is the most enjoyable character anywhere that one loves to hate and secretly admire at the same time. If you like Bridge, you'll love the Menagerie.

Bridge competitions take various forms, but before last year they all involved sitting with other people and handling cards other people had recently handled. Pretty early in the covid piece it was clear that was not a very healthy way to behave during the pandemic. Fortunately, there were already a number of different internet systems around. Stan, who only started playing the game a few years ago, knew all about them because he was in South Africa playing with Mette in Denmark as his partner and with another couple in England as opponents. I had amused myself with Bridge solitaire on occasion – where the computer plays for your partner and the two opponents – but I hadn’t discovered the platforms that enable multiple people to play at once and, as is required in competitions, play the same hands essentially at the same time. After a pause in Bridge games during the height of the first lockdowns, players rapidly became accustomed to using the computer. Not only was it a distraction while housebound, but you could keep in touch with the game. The internet Bridge platforms initially took a lot of strain...

The new way of playing Bridge

As with everything that moves online, there have been some gains and some losses. One of the attractions of playing Bridge socially (as opposed to a competition) is that you can chat a bit between the hands (some players chat continuously all the time!), break for tea and snacks and socialise, even have a meal together before or afterwards. The social aspect is much reduced online. The hands are computer dealt and you can type messages to the table, but that’s not real interaction. On the plus side, you never have to scratch around to find a fourth person to “make up a game”, and you can play, as Stan and I now do, with people scattered around the world. And cheating is harder. As the joke goes, ankle injuries are more common in Bridge than in Football…

I suspect this is how it will be in the future – at least for competitive games. We’ve made the change, we’re used to it, why would we go back? It’s just another small way in which the post-covid world – when we eventually get there – will be different from 2019.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Angst of Small Dogs

 Sujata Massey

Daisy, what do you think?

Less than 40 miles from here, some big dogs moved into a big house.

Two German Shepherds. The old one, at age 12, is a fellow named Champ, and the younger one, Major, is two. Major had been left by his previous owner at an animal shelter in Delaware. After President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden adopted him, he's now the nation's second dog, or perhaps vice-dog? Champ, with his years of experience, is clearly Top Dog.

Stop your kvetching. Yes, Champ and Major are show-off, macho names. However, a flower name like yours seems incongruous. What's that? You worry they look like they're partly wolf? There's controversy over whether wolves were bred into the German Shepherd community in the late 19th century. It might be. But remember, all dogs, large and small, are descended from wolves. 

In any case, shepherds are intelligent, loyal, and protective--just like Yorkshire terriers, but at upwards of 80 pounds. They are working dogs, often used on farms and with the military and police.

Oh, so now you're bragging about your own working dog origins. It's true that Yorkshire terriers were originally used to catch mice in the mills and factories of England. However, the last time that you were in the room with a live mouse, I was yelping, and you were sleeping.  

I understand that the arrival of Champ and Major at the White House makes you nervous. And while I've met some great German Shepherds, some have been a bit more mouthy and assertive than made me comfortable. But I haven't heard anything crazy about these dogs. I believe the Bidens can shepherd these Shepherds. 

You'll be fine, Daisy. We aren't going on a march in D.C. to protest these newcomers. And don't ask me for my credit card number. Move On is not taking contributions to fight for your cause.

And I promise, even if I do go to the White House someday, I won't pet them.

Monday, January 25, 2021


Annamaria on Monday

Nukes are back in the news because newly installed President Biden is moving toward a five-year extension of the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia.  UN officials are calling nuclear weapons "obsolete," a word that drew my attention.  I was a baby when my country became the only nation on earth to use them.  I have lived with their threat all my life.

By the time I first learned of their existence, US bombs had been dropped on Japan.  Those attacks were being credited as the reason the US won that war.  The destruction, it was postulated, had convinced the Japanese to surrender, negating any need for an invasion of Japan and thereby saving the lives of a million Allied fighting men.

There was also talk, of course of the dreadful loss of life in Japan, which was countered at the time with reminders of the enormous cruelty of the Japanese toward the populations of countries they conquered, most notably in China. I had desperately missed my daddy while he was away fighting in the Pacific and was so happy that I got him back. My father, I eventually understood, was one of those million who might have died invading Japan.  I harbored ever afterwards a guilty relief that the bomb that destroyed so many had preserved him.

By then the threat of nukes was part of the air one breathed.  All public buildings had designated fall-out shelters.  People were digging them in their own backyards.  School children were put through drills.

A relic of that age still displayed on the stairwell of the building where I live.

I grew up, of course, completely opposed to the very existence of hideous nukes. Come the 60s and 70s, when I became a peacenik, I joined many efforts to do away with them.  The most successful of those, took place on 12 June 1982. Then President Reagan, an avowed military hawk, was in the White House. Many, many people wanted to send him a strong message.  They came from all over the US to join with New Yorkers and staged the, until then, largest peaceful protest ever to gather anywhere.

A million people showed up!  A million in Central Park!  Here is what it looked like where I was:

Ronald Reagan, who professed to be against nukes, then chose a strange way to eliminate their danger.  He shocked the world by what he called a Strategic Defence - the creation of an anti-missile system to shield the USA. Nobody ever thought that would do the trick.  What it did do was calm down the fears in enough people and, by doing so, took a lot of the steam out of the anti-nuke movement.

The current ready bottle

My husband David and I once discussed what we would do if we got word that an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead was on its way to us.  We knew that New York would be a prime target.  We also understood that, though there would be a considerable warning period, we would never be able to escape our densely populated island home in time.  We decided we would just sit on our stoop and drink champagne.  We, and now I, have kept a chilled bottle on hand ever since.  If it is drunk for some pleasant other reason, I quickly replace it.

When the Cold War ended, an opportunity arose for world powers to deal with the nuke threat.  But there was no political will anywhere to do that deed. The moment was wasted. Johnathan Schell writing in The Nation said it was, "as if people believed that a mortal illness could be dealt with by forgetting about it."

Then, during Bush 1, the first START was negotiated and signed. It does not banish nukes.  But it does control them.

President Obama negotiated and signed START 2.

Trump was too busy doing other things at the end of his term in office to pay attention to the fact that the 10-year span of  START 2 was just about up. President Biden (how I love typing those words together) is looking to rectify the omission.

There is a connection between nukes and other ills of our society.  One surfaced in 1982, pointing to the the link between the money Reagan was spending on nukes and the depth of poverty in Black communities. As in the 80s, people are now raising awareness of the connection between the economics of nukes and societal ills like race and gender inequality.

Influential people in the United States and Europe are saying that the weapons are obsolete because they are so morally reprehensible the countries that have them could never survive the shame of using them.

A nice thought, but we know that heads of state are quite capable of making morally reprehensible or just plain stupid decisions.

Dangers still exist.  No country that has nuclear capability has, thus far, been attacked by a country that does not possess them.  This makes countries that don't have them want them.  Stopping nuclear wannabes from developing them is a chancy game as we are well aware, given the news from Iran and North Korea.  Pakistan and India both have them and also have some awful mutual grievances.

And then is the lively black market in plans for making them and for the materials needed.

Attention needs to be paid.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Fear of Flying

Zoë Sharp

Imagine for a moment that you’re in an airport departure lounge (if your memory stretches back that far). You are waiting to get on a flight. You’re a little nervous, however, because only a week or so ago, an armed group of people attempted to hijack the very same flight.


They wrecked the plane and stole bits of it.


Five people died in the course of the exercise.


(Many of them claimed the pilot had invited them on board.)


But today you are somewhat reassured to notice that the airport has installed another set of metal detectors before the jet-bridge leading to the aircraft.


Your flight is called. The passengers begin to line up in front of the metal detectors. Some of the passengers are sitting on the left side of the plane and some on the right side of the plane. At the moment, there are slightly more passengers on the left side than on the right side.


Some of the passengers are not happy about being asked to comply with this new level of security, saying they were not consulted about the decision to install the devices.


“You’re taking valuable resources completely away from where it needs to be, and you guys did it without any consultation,” one of them yells, going on to call the metal detectors “bullshit.”


Another passenger shouts at the security staff manning the detectors to “get back” and “don’t touch me.”


Yet another passenger refuses to go through the detectors and skirts around instead. “You can’t stop me,” he sneers. Ten other passengers follow suit and bypass the metal detectors.


The next passenger obligingly passes through the detector, but when it goes off he refuses to be searched. “Nah,” he says, “I’m not going to do that.”


The next passenger in line also sets off the detector and he does agree to be searched. When a (presumably legal) concealed handgun is found in his jacket pocket, he asks a colleague to hold the gun while he gets on the plane.


(The colleague refuses on the grounds that he doesn’t have a firearms licence.)


The next passenger is a woman who has been telling everyone that she has a loaded handgun as she is small in stature and that crime is “skyrocketing.” She dismisses the installation of the metal detectors as “a stunt” and refuses to allow her bag to be searched.


A further passenger claims the detectors are impeding the ability of passengers to board the plane and that they have been “strictly designed” for this purpose. “We now have to go through intense security measures, on top of the security we already go through. These new provisions include searches and being wanded like criminals,” adds another female passenger.


A number of passengers who had been aboard the hijacked flight claim they saw other passengers giving reconnaissance tours to the hijackers, the day before the incident took place. They have signed a letter to the airline to this effect. These alleged tour-guide passengers are being allowed to board the plane today without restriction or investigation.


A BAME passenger who was on the hijacked flight was concerned that other passengers with racist tendencies would particularly point out her location to the hijackers. Strangely, all the emergency call buttons in the row in which she was sitting had been disabled prior to the hijack, so she was unable to call for help.


Another female passenger who was on the hijacked flight tells a TV reporter that she is nervous about boarding a flight where her fellow passengers are armed. The TV reporter suggests that the armed passengers might simply be trying to keep everyone on board safe. “I don’t really care what they say their intentions are,” she replies. “I care what the impact of their actions are and the impact is to put 435 (passengers) in danger … it is absolutely outrageous that we even have to have this conversation.” 


What about you? Will you get on that flight?


This week’s Word of the Week is grawlix, meaning to replace a swearword with a string of typographical symbols, such as @$&%£*!, especially used in comic strips. The invention of the word was credited to the late cartoonist, Mort Walker.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Free World (finally) Exhales



For those of you who wonder just how dramatically US leadership over the past four years has differed from that of other world democracies, these two photos sum it up nicely. One shows Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis seeking to mobilize his nation’s support for the pandemic vaccine via a public display of him taking his shot, while the other shows EX-President Trump taking his.


 But enough about the past. Here’s how many of the world’s newspapers and magazines reacted to THE NEW U.S. PRESIDENT AND VICE PRESIDENT. 




And in conclusion, here is late-night US television host Jimmy Kimmel’s contribution to the moment.