Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Murder For Hire

I'm currently working on rewrites for my mystery novel, Murder For Hire (henceforth known as MFH). I've been working on MFH in one incarnation or the other for over 15 years now. It started as a joint project with my old writing partner, Maureen. We ran a theatrical mystery troupe (also called Murder For Hire) in San Diego for several years, and used to...

Well, I'll just use the description from my novel (a description which accurately portrays the real MFH troupe and the fictional one as well): "MFH is a theatrical group dedicated to parodying various genres in the mystery field. Our floating troupe of actors can and have done just about everything in the way of mystery-oriented entertainment. We've done full-out murder mystery weekends, staged kidnappings at parties, and pastiched, parodied and lampooned everything from gothics to Sherlock Holmes. No author, however revered, is safe from our heavy-handed pen and sometimes sledgehammer humor. "

It was a lot of fun. We once hired out Molly the Trolly (the local cable car), loaded our paying guests onto it with several actors already in costume and character, then proceeded to various points in San Diego to pick up the rest of our cast (for instance, the Big Game Hunter was waiting in front of the San Diego Zoo). One of the paying guests was actually a shill; we'd persuaded a friend to be our murder victim. We'd given Jeanne a box of chocolates as both a bribe and the means of her death (poisoned chocolates being a time honored murder weapon in the cozy mystery genre). We didn't count on the other passengers trying to extort chocolate from her. I have a vivid memory of Jeanne glaring fiercely at everyone around her as she clutched the box of chocolates possessively to her chest. No one else got any of the chocolate and none of 'em were sorry when she 'died' either.

MFH's specialty was a piece called "The Peruvian Pigeon" (if you can't figure out which classic noir mystery we were lampooning, I ain't gonna tell you), which we performed in a number of venues. It was the centerpiece for La Jolla's first Raymond Chandler Festival (Chandler was a well-known public figure in La Jolla during his heyday), the main entertainment for the big Gala Dinner held at the new La Jolla Library. Mo and I got along great with Bill, the head librarian and mastermind behind the entire Chandlerfest, but butted heads with Maggie, the woman in charge of the Gala. We weren't professional enough for her tastes and she tried her best to get us fired after attending a blocking rehearsal. I lost my temper and told her off, we didn't get fired, but Mo and I still wanted to kill her. Literary vengeance is a great creative motivator and so, MFH - the Novel, was born.

Mo and I split up the chapters and wrote in two different character voices, "Daphne" and "Connie," both thinly disguised fictional versions of ourselves. Okay, 'thinly disguised' as in wearing saran wrap. While it's true that the best writing usually happens when the author is working from things and places that he/she is familiar with (a place of truth, to be all hoity-toity pompous about it), it's also possible for a writer to be WAY too close to the subject and lose any and all sense of objectivity. And so it was with me and Mo.

We'd exchange chapters for the other's critique. Great glaring plot holes and ridiculous stereotypes were forgiven, even overlooked, but have Daphne wear jeans with a sweater? "I would NEVER wear that!" Mo would haughtily insist. "Well," I'd snap back, "I would NEVER be as bitchy as Connie is in YOUR chapter!" "Well, Daphne wouldn't do this!" "Well, CONNIE would never do that!" And so on. Never mind that in order to advance the plot, Connie and/or Daphne would indeed wear, do or behave in the contested clothes/action/behavior. Mo and I didn't care. Yeah, let's just say that there were two major problems: our egos.

We were about three quarters finished when we got the bright idea of sending out query letters to publishers. Anyone familiar with the publishing industry and the wait time between sending out a query and actually receiving a reply will understand the irony involved when I tell you that two weeks later, we got a letter from an editor at St. Martin's Press. Not a rejection letter. He wanted to see the finished novel as soon as possible.


Fueled by dreams of literary fame, lots of sugar, and white zinfandel (this was before either Mo's or my taste buds matured enough for red wine. Heck, this was back when I thought all red wine came in a box that had 'Burgundy' and 'Gallo' on it), Mo and I had three late night marathon writing sessions to finish our first draft. Mo didn't type in those days, so I hunkered down over my stepdad's word processor (something you'd now find in Ancient History museums, complete with its dot matrix printer) and pounded the keys, while Mo sat at my side and gave her input. About 3:00 in the morning, that would be along the lines of, "So if you were a supermodel, which one would you want to look like? I'd be Cindy Crawford." My reaction would alternate between "Gee, that's nice, Mo," to giving her questions thoughtful and serious consideration, to screaming hysteria "We're never going to finish! This is stupid! AHHHHH!"

And yet, somehow we got it done. Sent it off in a white cardboard box with a self addressed stamped envelope and the certainty that we'd be published authors within the year.


So 15 years and many solo revisions later, the most notable changes are: one author and one 'voice' . Mo lost interest and Connie took over all the narration; an improved, more mature writing style; and an ability on my part to separate myself from not only 'my' character, but the past. Sometimes the truth does not make the best story nor the author(s) the best heroine(s). And now I'm working on yet another round of rewrites to 'up the mystery.'

Let me quote MFH (The Novel) again: "The fact of the matter is that neither Daphne nor myself are any good at intricate plotting or figuring out solutions to the most simplistic Whodunits. Grafton or Christie we are not. I mean, let's face it. Whenever we're stymied as to explain how our detective came to his conclusions, all we have to do is have him toss off nonchalantly, 'I had a hunch.' "

This description definitely comes from a 'place of truth.’ Mo and I had originally circumnavigated our mystery plotting/solving inadequacies by having our characters gormlessly stumble across clues, all the while trying to avoid anything to do with playing detective. It worked in a plot-as-light-as-a-soufflé kind of way, but didn’t, according to an editor, ‘leave the reader with the impression that as each chapter progressed, they were that closer to figuring out whodunit themselves.’

This same editor, however, liked my writing ‘voice’ well enough to say that she’d consider MFH for publication if a: I was willing to do some more revisions and b: they were what she wanted.

And so, here I am. I started reworking MFH about a year ago, read the whole thing again from start to finish, made notes, came up with a game plan that seemed to work. But I made the mistake of stopping midway through the rewrites to work on another project and I’m now finding it very difficult to remember what it was about my ideas that I thought would work.

I re-read the whole book. Again. And I think I’m circling back in on the solution, although it keeps slipping away every time I’m sure I’ve got it in my sights. I’ll work for a little while, get stuck. So I’ll turn away from it and nonchalantly check my email. Circle around for another go at it. Get a little closer. More frustration as that sense of certainty that I had just a few minutes ago scampers into hiding yet again. I’m sneaking around like a cat trying to hone in on its prey without being noticed. And sooner or later I’m gonna pounce at just the right time and get it right.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Coming to Terms, Reader's Digest Version

I was down in Glendale this past weekend...lots of changes going on there. Rental prices, both business and residental, are souring. Music Express, a used record/CD store, is closing its doors for good after 19 years. Depressing.

They're building a new mall and, as a result, a bunch of little Mom and Pop businesses are no more. True, some of the shops were dilapidated and shoddy, but there always seemed to be customers coming and going. I'm a big one for embracing change as healthy. Stagnation is the enemy and it must be destroyed! But come on, folks. The Glendale Galleria spreads over a total of 6 blocks. How many Brookstones and Forever 21 stores do we need in one neighborhood, fer crissake?

I was reminded of all the reasons I wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, including the hot, smoggy summer weather and the noise from our Armenian neighbors, party animals to the extreme. Yet waking up in the morning while it was still cool, Shmoo and Sorscha curled up happily on my legs, I felt so peaceful. I looked out the living room window on the garden that I'd planted and nurtured through the heat, bad soil and my lack of expertise, thought about the years I'd spent there with Brian...well, I guess 'melancholy nostalgia' would describe my feelings.

Most of the weekend was peaceful. Positive changes were taking place as well. There was a sense of both familiar comfort and optimism for the future. My visit felt like it took place in a bubble floating out of time, not in the past, present or future. Despite the stillness, there was also a sense of anticipation, of being poised on the edge of something new.

I can't say I'm entirely at peace with my decisions yet. But that's okay. It's enough for now to not only remember why I'd left, but also, for the first time in months, be able to appreciate the reasons I'd stayed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Just in case I don't finish my post titled "Beach Walks" before I leave today...I accidently hit the 'publish' button right after I typed the title. There really is more to it than that!

Beach Walks

Picture by John Roberts

One of the things I love about my new home is its proximity to the beach. I've always envied my friends and family who live within walking distance of the Pacific, be it in La Jolla, Venice Beach or Pacific Beach. If I wanted to dabble my toes in the water, I had to get in my car and drive for a half hour... or take a bath.

Well, I no longer have to envy them (at least not for their nearness to salt water - I still envy Maureen her enviable ability to eat four cinnamon rolls for breakfast and stay slender) because now I live four blocks from Ocean Beach off of the Great Highway. Boska and I can be there in a matter of minutes without anything more time-consuming than getting her to stop wiggling long enough to get her in her halter and leash.

We go nearly every day - Boska's advanced years seem to slip away whenever she steps onto the sand and I let go of her leash. Flocks of seagulls scatter in her wake as she charges into the surf. Arthritis in her hips? What arthritis?

I love the fact that she's well-behaved enough that I can wander along the beach and either read or scan the sand for interesting artifacts. Sometimes Boska helps me with the latter. Together we've found a dead seal with shark bites, a sick murre, and the head of a leopard shark. I had to stop her from nibbling on both dead seal and live murre. She wasn't interested in the leopard shark.

At low tide the beach is covered with shells and rocks - a collector's delight. There's a plethora of sand dollars. On days where the ocean is relatively calm, I've found as many as 20 or so intact sand dollars within a hundred feet of each other. After rougher surf, there are dozens upon dozens of sand dollar halves and smaller fragments.

There are also hundreds of smoothly polished rocks in varying shades and sizes. I have a jar full of nothing but green ones, ranging from a pale jade to dark forest green. There are red ones, Martian red, some the color of blood oranges, others fire engine red. Some of the rocks look like pieces of chocolate, a dark velvety brown. I love the ones with stripes around the center - there are dozens of perfectly round or oval rocks in black, red or white that have a solid stripe of a contrasting color around the center. And don't forget the beach glass. Bottle green, brown and white, edges worn smooth by who knows how long in the ocean.

I don't know how many bags, jars, boxes and assorted tins I have, filled with rocks, shells and glass I've collected over the years. I have all sorts of grandiose decorating plans, craft and how-to-spiff-up-my-garden-with-shells ideas garnered from issues of Coastal Living and books with titles like Seaside Interiors and Crab Shells into Craft Shows. So far I've managed to put sand dollars and clam shells in my bird bath, and scatter assorted rocks, glass and smaller shells on book shelves.

Every time I go to the beach, I tell myself, no more! No, Dana, you don't need any more green, red OR white rocks. Your kitchen sieve is still filled with sand dollars from your last walk, waiting to be rinsed and given a jar as their new home. Their new temporary home, of course. Someday I'm going to rinse them in a solution of white glue and water to make them more durable, then glue 'em to...to...to something! Just wait and see!

At least I didn't bring home the dead seal.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Peaches the Ocelot & Bloggers Default

I have had a low-grade to near migraine headache for the last
two days and suspiciously, the near migraine part of it kicks in whenever I try to write. I'm trying, however, to be at least somewhat consistent with my blogging and other writing, so once again I'm using the classic default: Cute Animal Pictures!

This is Peaches, an ocelot that was the public relations ambassador for EFBC before she died of a stroke at the ripe old age of 20 years, 11 months. Approximately 105 in people years, btw. Peaches loved nothing more than to sit on someone's lap and suck on their thumb and fingers - some days she had to test out each and every digit in order to find just the right one to suit her taste at the moment. Getting your fingers back was the challenge; Peaches had the suction power of a Hoover. There was also the knowledge that she could bite through your finger like a chicken bone, if she was so inclined. Peaches got a lot of lap time.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

My Adopted Son

This is Caesar, a tiger of undetermined origin. He came to EFBC when he was four months old, confiscated by Fish & Game after law enforcement offficials found him in the bathroom of a Burbank apartment during a drug bust. The tranquilizer used on Caesar during the bust was not the right kind to use on a tiger. Plus his diet had consisted at least partially of clay kitty litter, so Caesar was one sick boy when he arrived at EFBC.

It was touch and go for a few days, but now he's a full grown tiger, dwarfing our Bengal female, Jasmine. His lighter coloring and large size indicates that Caesar is at least part, if not all, Siberiantiger. His good temper and mischievious nature are simply part of his personality.

Photo by Nancy Vandermey

(Caesar is one of the few 'rescue' cats at EFBC, which is primarily a breeding facility for endangered felines.)

Random Pallas Cat Blogging

Originally uploaded by zhadi.

This is Sonya, one of EFBC's resident Pallas cats, and her three kittens. In the winter, Pallas cats are just big puffs of fur with eyes...about as cute as you can get...

(photo by Nancy Vandermey)

Monday, July 11, 2005

With a Rebel Yell...

I don't go to a lot of concerts. I went to see Heart, back when they wore faux gypsy style clothing and used the mandolin in their instrument line-up, and Adam Ant during the height of his penchant for swashbuckling, romantic outfits, and two drummers. Both of these concerts were in San Diego and the biggest impression they left was that I enjoyed both bands better when listened to on a record player (we're talking early '80s when CDs were new and 30 bucks a pop), no crowds, no drunks spilling beer on me, and no ear plugs required. So when Gayle asked me if I wanted to go see Billy Idol at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Jose, I wasn't exactly wildly enthusiastic.

I loved his music, sure. The Best of Billy Idol had become our road trip music; Gayle and I never started any driver shorter than two hours without first cranking it up on the car stereo. But go see him live? Have my eardrums blasted out by music cranked way too loud for anyone not already deaf? My toes stomped on by clueless morons?

Then again...it was Billy. Billy Idol, who looks like Spike on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Or does Spike look like Billy Idol? Like the chicken and the egg, it doesn't really matter. They're both hot.

Besides, I hadn't been to a concert since my early '20s, so maybe it was time to give it another try. And it was so worth it!

Not only is Billy's voice still in excellent form - he sounds as good live as he does in his recordings - but he still looks as good as he ever did back in the day. Either he's using Botox or the man's got a self-portrait in his attic. And...he took his shirt off. Did I mention he looks like Spike on Buffy? And that one of my favorite things on Buffy is when Spike takes his shirt off?

Okay, back to the music. The band was excellent and the musicanship (guitarist, drummer, bassist, keyboardist and two additional guitarists as needed) was stellar. True, the lead guitarist had a 'do that looked like a brunet Rod Stewart, but damn, could he play! And they all seemed to be having so much fun, Billy included. Billy would give his trademark sneer, then grin at the audience as if to let us all in on the fact that he wasn't taking himself seriously. The performance, yes. But the whole rock'n'roll diva mentality? If he's still got it, it wasn't evident.

They played most of the old Idol classics (White Wedding, Rebel Yell, Dancing with Myself, etc.), as well as some tunes off of his new album, and a kick ass cover of "Who Are You." I can't think of a weak number in the two hour set. And he took his shirt off. Did I mention that?

Wildlife Adventure - Part Two

The drive to San Rafael was gorgeous. Rush hour traffic had died down and the fog, coming in thick and fast in my neck of the woods, evaporated as I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I played nouveau flamenco on the CD player as I drove. I heard fluttering noises from the cat carrier and thought that the bird approved of my choice of music. We drove past Sausalito and the houseboats, through San Anselmo, and into San Rafael, a cute little community with lots of trees, funky shops and restaurants on its main drag.

I found Wild Care easily - it was only a few blocks off of the freeway, yet set back far enough to avoid the noise and traffic. Parking was along the length of an athletic field of some sort; a Little League game was in full swing when I pulled in. Across the way was a little footbridge and a wooden gate. Signs clearly marked it as Wild Care. I carefully lifted the cat carrier and took my bird across the footbridge. Pushing open the gate, I found myself in a little courtyard. There was a pond populated by pelicans, a half dozen or so enclosures which housed various species of birds, including a truly gorgeous golden hawk. Sitting on the edge of the fence which surrounded the pond was a large bird with a coronet on its head, watching all comings and goings carefully. It reminded me of a grumpy old sentry and I later found out that the Wild Care staff called it The Freeloader; it was a local bird that knew a good thing when it flew into it - free lunch for the rest of its life.

I took my bird up a ramp through a glass sliding door and found a tall blonde woman in blue scrubs. I announced myself as the woman from San Francisco with the injured gull. She was the one I'd talked to on the phone, friendly, helpful and appreciative that I'd made the drive. They took the bird straight into the clinic, I filled out paperwork and made a $10 donation towards my bird's rehabilitation.

They told me that I'd rescued a murre, not a gull, a bird that only came to shore to lay its eggs. Wild Care had been seeing a lot of murres in their clinic because of the warm currents in the ocean causing the fish -- the murre's main source of food -- to swim deeper than the murres could dive. A lot of them were starving to death and my murre was no exception. It was less than half of its usual body weight and suffering from the cold and damp as well.

In their own words, Wildcare is "a unique organization located in Marin County, California, that provides care for ill, orphaned or injured wild animals, and nature/environmental education for children and adults. With a small corps of paid staff and over 300 volunteers we save more than 4,000 animals each year and inspire thousands of children." I took some brochures to give to Gayle, thinking she might be interested in volunteering. I left, feeling good about leaving my murre here.

They'd given me a patient ID number so I could call and check up on its progress. I called the next morning, anxious to hear how it was doing, and found out that they'd transferred my murre to another facility that specialized in water fowl. When I called the other facility (I don't remember the name), I found out that my murre had died in the night. It was too far gone to respond to any treatment. The woman that told me tried to reassure me that at least it had died warm and comfortable in an incubator. I thanked her, barely able to get the words out before starting to cry.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Wild Life Adventure, Part One

Photo of a Murre, by Patrick J. Endres

Quote from antrhopolis.com.

"Can you imagine a seabird that can dive almost the length of a football field straight down below the surface of the sea, and travels up to 6000 km a year in migration - covering up to 1000 km of that distance by swimming?"

Well, I certainly couldn't until I found a murre while walking Boska on the beach the other night. I had no idea it was a murre at the time; I just assumed it was a seagull, like 99.9 percent of the birds that were dive bombing the area, hoping for a snack off of one of the many local fishermen's bait buckets.

I noticed the bird as we were wandering along the shoreline next to the water. I'd been reading as I walked, while Boska alternated between checking out the various effluvia washed up on the sand and exchanging greetings with other dogs by way of sniffing each other's butts. I don't usually notice anything outside of my book when I'm reading, but something about this bird made me stop. It was the shape and size of a seagull, with a brown head, back and wings. Nothing strange there, it looked like a gull. But it was sitting, not standing, right on the edge of the surf, just staring out to sea. Several people walked past it, close enough to send your average bird fluttering away. Not this one. There was a bizarre sort of resignation in its posture, like some sort of avian fisherman's widow, waiting for the husband who would never return.

I went in for a closer look. So did Boska, who decided that the bird looked like a good chew toy. She ran in before I could stop her and snapped at it; it shyed away and pecked at Boska, wings barely fluttering. It was obvious that the bird was injured or sick, and couldn't fly. I reached towards it and barely evaded a peck from its two inch beak. I debated whether I should run and call the SPCA or someone more experienced in bird rescue; give me a litter of feral kittens to catch and socialize any day.

A wave came in and the bird was caught in the backwash; it was pulled helplessly towards the the ocean. Oh, hell. No time to think about it, so I took off my hoodie, dropped it over the bird so everything but its head was covered, and scooped both hoodie and birdie up. It barely struggled, just looked around as if trying to figure out why it was suddenly off the ground. I kept my face away from its beak - I knew what damage they could inflict. Hey, I've seen The Birds!

I walked back along the beach - I'd found the bird approximately 8 city blocks away from home. It was cold and foggy; my tanktop wasn't doing a lot to keep me warm. Neither was having soggy fabric and bird cradled against me. Boska trotted along beside me, her leash trailing in the sand. When we went up off the beach into my neighborhood, the Outer Sunset, however, I had to grab the leash again, so I was wrangling Boska, my book and the bird, which was starting to get antsy under my hoodie. I tried not to hold it too tightly, but kept seeing visions of it wriggling up out of my arms and going after my eyes. Too many horror movies.

I made it home, eyeballs intact, and put the bird in a cat carrier lined with a towel, then got on the phone trying to find a place that did wild life rehabilitation. After a half hour of being passed from SPCA to the Marine Wildlife Center and number of places I don't even remember in between, I finally reached the emergency line of Wild Care in San Rafael. They were closed, but the woman I spoke with said that they'd wait for me if I wanted to bring the bird in right away.
Figuring that the life expectancy of a bird in a house with 9 cats and two dogs wasn't that good, even inside a carrier, aside from the fact that I had no idea how to care for a sick or wounded bird, I decided the 30 minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge would be worth it.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Joining CCR's Efforts to close Guantanamo

I'm part of a blog roll to spread the word...for those interested in taking part, go to Booman Tribune and sign up!

Here's what CCR has to say:


WHY is it important to close Guantánamo?

Guantánamo has become a world-wide symbol for the Bush Administration's arrogant disregard of basic human rights. In the past weeks, world leaders including Presidents Carter and Clinton have joined leading human rights groups in calling for the closing of Guantánamo and other illegal prison facilities around the globe. Countless others have joined the call for an immediate independent investigation and/or special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the numerous allegations of torture and abuse taking place on Guantánamo.


July 4th is just the beginning! Keep the movement going on Tuesday, July 5th!

Participate in a massive telephone and online campaign to continue the petition to members of Congress.

Torture is Immoral and UnpatrioticShut Down Guantánamo
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