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Memories of—and Lessons Learned from—my Mother, Ottilie Tag

My mother, Ottilie Tag, known to her friends as Tillie, died of natural causes not related to COVID this past Monday, the 28th of December 2020. She had turned 97 the previous day.

I’d like to tell you first about the family Mom came from. By knowing her upbringing, you’ll know more about Tillie, the person.

My mother came from a generation that grew up during the 1930’s and 1940’s. She was one of six children. In 1913, Grandma and Grandpa Kern (her parents) had immigrated to Pennsylvania from what was then Russia—although they considered themselves German. They had three boys and three girls: my Uncles August, Gus, and Julius, and Aunts Susie and Hilda. Mom was the last to go—Aunt Hilda died just a few weeks earlier, on December 7th. Uncle Gus had been killed fighting in North Africa during World War II.

Mom and her family grew up on a farm during the Depression, leading up to World War II. Tom Brokaw referred to that generation in the title of his book, The Greatest Generation. By today’s standards, and perhaps even then, Mom’s family was poor. The advantage of living on a farm was that they always had something to eat. Working on the farm was demanding, daily work. And, as Mom told it, once the boys left for World War II, she and her mother inherited all of their farm responsibilities. At Mom’s seventieth birthday, my brother Keven said that what he admired most was her strong work ethic. I have no doubt that came from her years on the farm.

So, what, specifically, did I learn from Mom? Many things, of course, but I’d like to tell you about three that have indeed shaped my life to this day.

The first thing I learned—I was probably four or five years old—was that I must always make my bed in the morning. I was a little kid and didn’t know much, but I got the impression from my mother that if I learned nothing else in this lifetime, I would always know to make my bed. And so I do. Becky can attest to the fact that I occasionally do this even in hotels.

A few years later, the second thing I learned was that you had to eat everything on your plate, that it was a sin to leave anything behind. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about, making my bed every morning, I now had to worry about leaving a clean plate. I was a serious kid anyway, but now I was becoming a nervous wreck.

What bothered me most was the sin part. And I knew about sin. Why? Because I attended our Lutheran church every Sunday and knew to avoid sinning at all costs. Previously, I had had no idea what sin was, but then I knew: leaving as much as a kernel of corn on your plate at supper time.

I was a few years older—maybe seven or eight—when Mom taught me my third lesson. I remember the situation to this day. Mom and Grandma were downstairs making pancakes for breakfast, and the pancakes smelled good. Somehow I had come across a bad word, a swear word, and I came up with the brilliant idea of incorporating this word into my exclamation about how good the pancakes smelled. I’ve since forgotten what that bad word was. So, I did. I made my statement.

Have you ever seen a movie where the video transitions to slow motion? In the seconds that followed, that’s what I experienced. Grandma and Mom turned slowly in my direction, alarm evident in their eyes. I’m thinking that maybe the house had caught fire. In that slow motion experience, I half expected them to say, “Paul, run for your life. Save yourself.” Instead, the two of them came down on me like a ton of bricks. In no uncertain terms, they said that I was never to say a bad word like that again.

Over the years that followed, I learned more lessons from Mom. Lest you think that all of her advice was sound, I can tell you that it was not always. It was about 1952 or 1953 when Mom bought a brand new Chevy, and it was black. I asked Mom why she had picked black. She told me that she had picked black because it would not show dirt. Mom was a quick study, though; when she bought her next car, a ’55 Chevy, this one was yellow and white, two-toned.

Until I left home to go to college, I have to say that the most important lesson I learned from Mom and her siblings was that of thrift—not to waste anything. I’m sure that precept originated from their experiences during the Depression. But, to this day, I appreciate the three simple lessons I learned from Mom early in my life: 1) to make my bed in the morning, 2) to eat everything on my plate, and 3) not to use bad words.

In summary, I will miss Mom. But although I could choose to be sad now, instead I’m taking a different point of view.

Imagine this: A woman born on a farm that had no telephone, no indoor toilet or other modern conveniences, and used horses to plow—and who died in the age of the iPhone, the Internet, space travel, and cars that drive themselves. Mom witnessed it all! And all the while, experiencing life’s joys and happenings that make us what we are as human beings.

Imagine that!

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The Harsh Reality of Snagging a Literary Agent in the Year 2020

 

I am writing this blog to summarize my recent experience trying to find a literary agent to market my latest thriller, Retribution Times Two. To provide perspective, I offer some background. After a career as a research scientist for the Navy, I changed professions, pursuing my dream of writing fiction. Initially, I spent five years penning short stories to learn the craft. Emboldened, I next wrote a trilogy of thrillers that I self-published. As self-published books go, they were moderately successful. I next tried historical fiction, with a novel that revolves around the Japanese internment of World War II. For this book, I found a traditional publisher, Cedar Fort, who treated me well. All four novels received minor awards.

Fast forward to October 2020. After a three-year effort, I completed the sequel to my thriller trilogy; it’s called Retribution Times Two. My elevator pitch: What if the United States fell victim to two simultaneous terrorist attacks? Two individuals who will never meet in space, by chance cross paths in time—and bring the planet to the edge of oblivion.

As previously for the trilogy, I went in search of a literary agent. (Thrillers are not a Cedar Fort priority.) I knew the drill because I had been through this process with each of my thrillers years earlier. Starting this past July and finishing in October, I queried 164 literary agents, ones who had indicated an interest in the thriller genre. Each received a formal, one-page letter. As of this writing, I’ve heard back from less than a third; NOT ONE has asked to read the entire manuscript. As you may be aware, most agents request a synopsis and a chapter or two to decide whether to request more.

So! What’s going on? From my side, I considered two possibilities. One is that I had written a poor query letter. I doubt that because, over the years, I’ve had a lot of practice; besides, several agents complimented me in that regard. A better reason would be that I had written a lousy book and, without thinking, had foolishly positioned the worst chapters at the beginning. However, there is reason to believe that wasn’t the case either.

For this book I decided to hire a professional fiction editor, someone who delves into the book’s innards to make sure the story works. Long story short, I stumbled across a story editor by the name of Bill Thompson. As you’d expect, Mr. Thompson provided many good suggestions to improve the story line. However, he also said the following and gave me permission to quote his words: “Retribution Times Two is terrific. I read the script watching for problems in characterization, dialogue, plot developments, pacing. I didn’t find any, which may be a first for billthompsonediting. I was absorbed in the story from start to finish.” Why, you ask, was I jumping up and down when I read this compliment? Because Bill Thompson was the editor who jumpstarted the careers of Stephen King and John Grisham.

So here I am. I know that my novel is worthy of at least a read by an agent. But what I have learned is apparently no secret. Mr. Thompson (and others) tell me that today’s publishing world is far different from that of yesteryear. These days, publishers seem to be especially interested in making quick money, with either proven authors of fiction, or perhaps from someone who, let’s say, has a famous relative. Alternately, if you have finally decided to expose your secret affair with Osama bin Laden, there is a good chance you will find an agent to represent you.

It therefore seems that, for the above reasons, literary agents choose not to push manuscripts for which they know publishers consider the odds of creating a blockbuster to be low. For authors who have not already achieved significant success, it is a sad—and discouraging—situation indeed.

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Stories From My Life, #14: How the pop star Tony Orlando played a part in snagging my wife, Becky

 

I met Becky in early 1983. I was thirty-seven years old at the time, and my parents were convinced that I would never marry. As the months passed, I realized that my chances of ever again finding another female as beautiful and smart as she were tiny indeed. Add to that the fact that she had the stamina to tolerate the antics of a classic Virgo (all ducks in a row, that sort of thing) was noteworthy. And so, I started to make plans. Somehow, I needed to trick her into thinking that I was worthy of consideration as a long-term mate.

Fast forward to the fall of 1983 when I decided to impress her by taking her to Lake Tahoe for a weekend, to see some live stage shows. One that was playing at Harrah’s was Tony Orlando. Many of you will remember Tony Orlando and Dawn and their 1970’s hits, including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” and “Knock Three Times.”

Determined to demonstrate that I was someone who could get things done, I made sure that Becky saw me slip the maître d’ a bank note of significant size, accompanied by my whispered comment: “Any chance of getting a better seat somewhere near the front?” I expected a better seat, but was surprised indeed when he marched us up to the very front tables. So far, so good!

Before the show began, we had the usual drinks served at the table. Soon the show began. Not long into the show, Tony began perspiring, took off his jacket, and threw it back to the band leader. Becky and I were having a good time, particularly being so close to the stage. And then it happened! Tony asked for someone from the audience to join him on stage. After making a show of looking around, his eyes found mine, and he motioned for me to come on stage. My mother raised no dummies; I was keen to the opening I was being presented: Here was my chance to impress the hell out of one Rebecca Ann Tolbert.

I arrived on stage, and Tony explained that he wanted me to help him out, but that I needed to be more relaxed and casual. I was wearing a jacket and tie (common back then). In one smooth motion I took off my jacket and hurled it directly to the band leader standing to the rear, just as Tony had done earlier. When the audience started whooping it up, I knew then that I had them where I wanted them. Tony then mentioned my tie. I took it off, balled it up, and flung it into the audience. By then, the audience was howling and thought that I was a plant.

The rest of my appearance involved leading a song that had me alternately leading the left and right sides of the audience. That went well. Because there was music involved, I proceeded to dance and displayed a fancy slide step I had developed years earlier. Tony seemed particularly impressed with that and tried in vain to duplicate my move. The excitement ended with me returning to my seat where Becky and I shared (with others at our table) a bottle of champagne that I had earned for my hard work.

Addendum Number One: As Becky and I left the table, we were presented with the picture you see above. I asked the photographer (Barb) if she would please ask Tony to sign it. She did, he did, and you see his written words.

Addendum Number Two: Becky and I were amazed at the number of people who afterwards came up to us and wanted pictures. A twenty minutes of fame kind of thing. The most common question: Was I part of the show (see Addendum Number Three)?

Addendum Number Three: To this day, Becky has no idea how much of that evening had been planned ahead of time and how much was pure coincidence.

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Stories from My Life, #13: A Tribute to my Stepbrother, Bud Lancaster

We remember things differently, you and I. What stands out to one person from the distant past means nothing to another. This is often true for siblings. And so it happens that one will say to the other, “Don’t you remember when Dad did this or Dad did that?” “No,” the other says. “But surely… View Article


Ode to the Coronavirus

    They call it coronavirus, a genetic aberration, a mutation damnation, an intimidation plaguing the world’s civilization. How long will this devastation affect each nation, halting transportation, mandating segregation and stay-at-home habitation?   It came from the East, its birthplace origination, a gestation foundation seeking personal validation and world domination. It spread in every direction,… View Article


Stories from My Life, #12: My Uncle Gus, Killed in North Africa in 1943

Every year when Veteran’s Day rolls around, I think of my Uncle Gus Kern, who died in World War II. Over the years, the details that I heard were minimal: that he was killed in Tunisia, in North Africa, somehow involving military tanks. Also, that he was awarded a Silver Star medal for bravery. On… View Article


Rebecca’s High School Reunion: Reflections from a Spouse

My wife—AKA Becky—went to her high school reunion: rah-rah! to which she invited me, avoiding hints of complicity. (ha ha) To Kansas City on Southwest Airlines, via Las Vegas on the way, we eventually arrived in Emporia, Kansas, all on the same day. I learned that Becky’s school was not of the ordinary, but a… View Article


Class of ’63 High School Reunion

I attended my high school reunion, it happened last week: we’d graduated fifty-five years earlier, an amazing streak. It was good to see friends from a lifetime long past, when times were much simpler, and life wasn’t so fast. I saw friends, I saw girls whom I’d loved from afar, I saw those who’d been… View Article


The Heaven We Ignore

I’ve made an acquaintance named Jayne—not her real name— who’s seen troubles a plenty, that have set her life aflame. She struggles to stay on course, to fashion a stable life, but the curse of depression dangles over, a Damocles’ knife. That’s not to say there have not been good times as well; there have… View Article


Jada’s Revelation

  At five years, petite and slender, she saw something more; she wondered, searched her brain for not having seen it before. Her cousins, her family, they must have known her history, so why had they said nothing, to help solve this mystery? Within seconds, she confronted her parents headstrong, who promptly confessed that they’d… View Article