Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Merry Christmas 2010

Most of us have Christmas traditions and I am no exception. Mine is a fairly recent tradition, dating back to the winter of 1992, which was our first Christmas after my successful cancer operation in Australia. At the time, I felt pretty chopped up and scared. I didn't know if I'd get to see Christmas, 1993. 
James Houston Turner's first Christmas star
Broke, in debt, and in need of a roof over our heads, we left Australia (as required by my visa) and headed for my old hometown in Kansas, where my mom lived in a tiny little two-bedroom green house. She agreed to put us up until we could get back on our feet. We stopped by San Diego, loaded all our belongings into a rental truck (with "Old Blue," my 1983 Toyota 4x4 pick-up, on a tow-trailer on the back), and set off for Kansas. We nearly got stuck in a snowstorm in West Texas, but the skies cleared, the Interstate reopened, and we were able to push on.

That first year in Kansas was hard. Wendy and I washed windows to survive. We mowed grass. Washed cars. Cleaned houses. Shoveled snow. And cut hair. But we made it. And we were happy. The hard times bonded us together stronger than ever and made us resilient and close.

That first Christmas, we went out and got a tree. A farmer let us cut one off his property and we put it up in the little pink house where we were now living. (Yes, we actually moved from a green house to a pink house.) Anyway, we decorated the tree with a few ornaments. But we had no star. So I made one out of a coat hanger, wrapped it with tinsel, and stuck it on top.

As the years passed and I continued to defy the odds by living another year, that star came to represent hope and happiness in the midst of hard times. And that star reminds me to this day about the most precious gifts of all: life and love, family and friends. You see, when I was facing the real possibility of dying, none of the other stuff was important. Everything I owned was unimportant. Any success I had achieved meant nothing. I simply wanted to live. I was not afraid of dying, for I had a deep faith in Yeshua and knew my life was in His hands. But I didn't want to die. I wanted to live and keep loving those around me: my family and friends.

I got my wish. I beat the odds. Here I am. And that star still shines each year at Christmas in our home. That bent, cheap, hokey little coat hanger star made out of scraps. It's an ugly little thing by most standards. To me it's beautiful.
The coat hanger star still shines on James Houston Turner's Christmas tree
I guess I can relate to it on another level, too, because I was once refused a job here in Adelaide because I was too ugly ("unpresentable," was the word used, referring to the facial scars from my operation). Did that bother me? Sure, it did. But a lot of people have it worse. A lot worse. So I realized there were always going to be a few jerks out there who judged people by their looks, and I decided to got on with the important aspects of doing something with my life rather than complaining. So I put up that little star each year as a reminder of everything I do have. It's also a reminder that the hard years need not be unhappy years.

So this Christmas, I want to say thanks. For your love and friendship. And for taking the time to participate in the excitement of my new publishing contract by emailing and phoning me with your comments. It has been a long hard road to get here, but here I am. You didn't have to take the time to write, but you did. You took the time. You really didn't get anything out of the deal. It was your gift to me and I know that. And I am grateful. More than you can imagine.

God bless each and every one of you. May your Christmas be filled with love, life, laughter, and good health.

The rest is but tinsel on the tree.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Fine Art of Opening Champagne

All Cool Dude Writers know the fine art of opening Champagne. Whether aste spumante, sparkling cider, or the real stuff -- there is simply no better way to celebrate a book deal.
And celebrating I am, because I've just signed a contract with Comfort Publishing for my "Ludlumesque" espionage novel, Department Thirteen, which chronicles a week in the life of Aleksandr Talanov, a retired KGB informant who is happily married to a woman he does not love. But when a group of assassins from his past narrowly miss killing him and his wife, Talanov discovers he has broken the first rule of survival by unwittingly falling in love with the woman he must now fall out of love with in order to save her. It is the story of a man who is capable and suddenly incapable at the same time: fearless and afraid, ice-cold and yet struggling against the "thaw" that he did not had occurred in his protective insulation, which now makes him vulnerable. Set mainly in Australia, Vanuatu, and Switzerland, the book is based on Department Thirteen, the actual assassination and sabotage unit of the old KGB, as well as my years as a smuggler behind the old Iron Curtain.

Comfort Publishing is a mid-sized general trade book publisher in North Carolina that publishes about 30-50 books per year (similar to what Bloomsbury was for J.K. Rowling!). Department Thirteen is slated for release in mid-2011. Details about its upcoming launch and United States book tour in October will be posted soon on my website.
"What I like most about this book is its twisting, turning, completely unpredictable storyline," says Pam Tolen, Senior Vice President of Comfort Publishing's Book Division. "No wonder The Dallas Morning News called it "Ludlumesque," after the great novelist, Robert Ludlum. Not only that, Jim's novel is extremely timely in light of the Russian spies caught operating in the United States. The time is ripe for a hero like Talanov, who helped the West during the Cold War and whose experience in KGB sabotage and spy tactics makes him a valuable asset. Jim has a series of Talanov thrillers planned, and this one definitely has film potential. Studios call us regularly looking for books like this one."

Soooo, can you see now why I've been into the Champagne? But opening it the right way is a must.
I was instructed in the fine art of opening Champagne (as well as how to dance tango and cook soufflé) by a close friend of Stanley Marcus, of legendary Neiman-Marcus fame. That close friend was none other than my Aunt Hazel. Aunt Hazel was a super cool, world class, jet-setting, socialite ballroom dancer -- the original Auntie Mame -- my mom's fiery, red-headed younger sister. I still have the full-length Neiman-Marcus faux-fur coat that she bought me just after I graduated from Baker University. Eat your heart out, fluffy pink bathrobe...
But back to Champagne.

"Piper Heidsieck, of course, is the only Champagne one should buy and it is to be opened this way," instructed Aunt Hazel in the formal dining room of her luxurious high-rise apartment in Dallas, on the banks of Turtle Creek. She carefully unfastened the wire cage, being careful to keep a hand on top of the cork to prevent it from shooting out unexpectedly. She then tipped the bottle to a forty-five degree angle, grasped the cork firmly and twisted the bottle. "Remember: twist the bottle, not the cork, at forty-five degrees. This is most important. The angle allows the carbon dioxide to escape without foaming the Champagne." She paused, an empty flute in one hand, the bottle of Heidsieck in the other. "Have you got all that?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "Forty-five degrees."
"Are you sure? One mustn't waste a drop. This is Heidsieck, you know..."
"I'm sure," I said, nodding toward the empty flute, my implication obvious: get on with it.
She raised a skeptical eyebrow and poured.
Some weeks later, my girlfriend from Kansas City came for a visit and I decided to impress her with my newly-acquired skill. I was in my research-paper-writing-days (a skill that enabled me to wriggle out of many a test), and -- naturally -- I considered myself a Cool Dude Writer of sorts. I mean -- I wrote. I drank the finest Champagne. And none of that cheap stuff with the plastic stopper, either. Heidsieck had a cork!
Ready to impress, I filled a picnic basket with the finest gourmet items, loaded everything into my dune buggy (bright orange, no less), and to the grassy banks of Turtle Creek we went. I snapped a blanket out on the grass, and with a confident smile, spread out our Provincial feast. I then produced my prized bottle of Heidsieck.
"M'lady," I said, allowing her to inspect the label.
She nodded, clearly impressed.
Turtle Creek is actually somewhat of a misnomer. It is not really a "creek" in the traditional sense (where it's often pronounced "crick"). In truth, Turtle Creek was more of a long narrow lake, the energetic stream of bygone years now tamed and lined with thousands of shade trees and flowering azaleas. With several black swans gliding by gracefully offshore, I handed my girlfriend two empty flutes, and with the cavalier flair of the Cool Dude Writer that I was, removed the wire cage from the neck of the bottle and tossed it aside.
An instant later, the cork shot out of the bottle like a bullet, smacking me in the forehead before richocheting out into the middle of the lake. Champagne spewed everywhere as I reeled back, unable to see anything but spinning white spots. By the time my vision had cleared, a large "goose egg" had appeared on my forehead.
It's not easy being a Cool Dude Writer. I mean, Lee Child, David Morrell, Michael Connelly, Rick Castle -- these dudes have got it down pat. Me? I keep practicing all the right moves, but -- alas and *sigh* -- someone always discovers the truth.
Which is not good for a guy who tells lies for a living!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jesus vs Christians

Ask anyone what they think about Jesus and most of the time you'll get answers like these: love, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Ask those same people what they think about Christians and quite often you'll get a different answer: condemnation, hypocrisy, hatred, division. What has happened? Why does Christianity as a religion provoke such a different response than the founder?

Have we as Christians turned Jesus from a blessing into a curse, not by our association with Him, but by His association with us?

To me, what gives Christianity a bad name are the protests, lectures, music videos of hatred, the glares of disgust and disapproval. Does our world have problems? Of course. Are there evils worth fighting? Absolutely. Combat, however, doesn't change people. Jesus does. He changes hearts. He reconciles people with God. Which in turn changes actions. Christianity, however, has too often emphasized a strict moral culture that focuses more on external actions than internal values. In other words, we've got it bass-ackwards.

That kind of church culture is what grinds a lot of people. Don't get me wrong: it's awesome hanging out with people who are bursting with love and joy. Enthusiastic people who help one another. Who reach out to others. People who laugh when you laugh. Who grieve when you grieve. Who accept you as you are. Who take an interest in you. Who want your involvement with them. People who bring you food when you're sick. People you can trust. People who become family because of your common bond of faith. That is church at its best, and there are huge numbers of Christians who personify those qualities.

But sometimes church becomes a sanitized culture that refuses admission to those who are different. People who don't fit the mold. I attended a church once that declared a ban on wearing shorts. It was stinking hot back where they were in summertime, but rules were rules and shorts were not allowed. Conform or get out. Never mind those who had already left because they were not allowed to drink "demon" alcohol.

That kind of squeaky clean culture is not what Christianity is all about. Scottish clergyman, Lord George Fielden MacLeod (1885-1991) said it this way: "Jesus was not crucified between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves. On the town garbage heap. At a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write the charge against him in three languages. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gambled. That is where He died, and what He died about. And that is where churchmen should be, and what churchmen should be about."

To do this, you've got to be made of tough stuff. Jesus was. He wasn't the cuddly stuffed doll we've been led to believe he was. Nor were his followers. They were rough, rugged, flawed individuals who defied the world rather than chased it, as is the case today, where outward affluence is valued more than inner character. I wonder: would that apostolic vagrant, Paul, be welcomed in church as a teacher today? Would Jesus? Maybe...if they wore long pants.

The fact is: Jesus changed lives by hanging out with people on the street. He partied with them: "Out of wine? Here, let me make some for you." (And we're not talking grape juice, either, but the good stuff. Better than a South Australian shiraz, if you can imagine that.) He associated with drunkards and prostitutes. With (gasp) non-Christians. With the reviled of society. With the sick. With atheists. With people of all religions, at the crossroads of the world. With people in need.

I once spent two years in seminary -- aka "cemetery" -- and found it so distasteful and lifeless I dropped out. Theology, I discovered, doesn't change lives. A changed life may decide to study theology, but theology itself doesn't change lives. Love does. That's why Jesus was such a revolutionary. He was, quite literally, God among us. And in that, showed us what God was all about.

Tony Campolo is the associate pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadalphia, and an emeritus professor of sociology at Eastern University. On that campus is the Campolo School of Social Change. It serves inner city schools as well as AIDS hospices and Christian service programs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Africa, and Canada.

When Campolo gives speeches, he sometimes opens them this way: "I have three things I'd like to say. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation from diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. [And third] What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

That kind of coarse language might offend people, and that's exactly my point: quit being offended about the stuff that doesn't matter and start caring more about people. Incidentally, the apostle Paul beat Campolo to the punch when he said, "More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but shit in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).

Years ago, I belonged to a church that wanted to have a foot washing service for members, who were invited to bring along friends and neighbors. Church leaders wanted to do it because Jesus once washed the disciples' feet, thus demonstrating how Christians should serve others. I agreed with their motivation but suggested they wash cars instead. To me, that was meeting the needs of people in our area. My idea was shot down. It wasn't spiritual/biblical enough. The foot washing went ahead and was poorly attended. Friends and neighbors were simply not interested.

I'm not sure how to end this blog, because I don't pretend to have all the answers. And what is right for me may not be right for you. I do know when I decided to write mainstream fiction and not Christian fiction, I caught some flack from a few Christians. But I have never regretted my decision. I love gutsy non-conformist lovers of God who enjoy a stiff tequila or a swig of shiraz. People of character and integrity who live and die defending the lives of others. That is who Jesus was (okay, without the tequila, although I've toasted Him with blue agave on numerous occasions). And those are the characters you'll meet in my books.

Now, if only they'll hang out with me wearing these baggy cargo shorts...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Those Pompous, Arrogant Know-It-Alls

No, I'm not talking about the Idol judges. I'm talking about writers. You know the type: rodomontading, bombastic raconteurs, forever gasconading with big fancy words.

Thankfully, I'm not like that (as you can tell!). But it's not because I haven't tried. I just couldn't get away with it. Let me tell you what I mean.

Near Checkpoint Charlie, old East Berlin.I was in Poland in my early days as a smuggler behind the old Iron Curtain. The East German guards had reluctantly allowed our car past, having looked in every imaginable hiding place with sniffer dogs and mirrors on long handles. Finding nothing, they had waved us on. It was a warm, Indian summer day and I was bringing hard currency for the support of a contact.

After making our delivery, I paid a visit to a retirement home. It was more of an institution. A dilapidated old house with barrels outside where sauerkraut was prepared. The place was full of lonely old people. Much like today. Shuffled off to some other place so as not to interfere in the lives of their kids. Through translators, I spent a few wonderful hours chatting about our favorite topic: food. Not surprisingly, no one mentioned the sauerkraut.

James Houston Turner behind the old Iron Curtain

Photo by former Iron Curtain smuggler, James Houston Turner.I then had the privilege of attending a children's camp in a neighboring village. Ranging between the ages of nine and fourteen, the children spoke no English except for a beaming young boy named Norbert, who ran up to me yelling, "Pizza ... Mickey Mouse ... Disneyland!" That was the extent of his English. He gave me a hug and called his friends over. His friends all hugged me and began talking in rapid Polish. They were wonderful kids: generous and giving and honest in their affection, as kids usually are.

The town where the camp was located had a dilapidated train station that saw an old steam engine hiss to a stop twice a week with its string of sooty carriages. Huge trees shaded streets of broken pavement, and along each side were large three-story houses with louvered shutters, slate roofs and crumbling plaster walls. Years of war and Soviet occupation had been hard on the people. No one could afford the upkeep. Coal was the main source of heating. The air smelled of it. Food was also scarce. Bread lines were more common than bread.

The undampened spirits of kids in an Iron Curtain children's camp.But these hardships did not dampen the spirits of the children, who were singing happily as we walked to the station to watch the train arrive. It was the way kids hung out together in a country without shopping malls.

The station itself was an old wooden structure with scalloped trim. Once grand and picturesque, it was rundown like everything else. With the smell of coal heavy in the air, we marched up the ramp and onto the concrete platform as the train ground to a stop. Passengers paused to look at the music and laughter filling the air.

We approached an old woman with a wooden push cart piled high with strawberries and cherries. She was bent over with age and wore a faded floral dress. She had a bandana tied over her hair. The kids pooled their meager savings and bought two small paper sacks bulging with fruit. I offered to buy each of them a sack but they wouldn't hear of it. Nor would they permit me to buy a sack for myself. Instead, they then offered me some of theirs. Over twenty kids sharing two small sacks of fruit.

I will never forget the magnificent taste of that fruit. Or those children that taught me so much about generosity and happiness. The joy for those kids wasn't in getting everything they wanted. The joy for them was in sharing.

NorbertMeals for the camp were furnished by a local restaurant. Breakfast consisted of a huge pot of spaghetti boiled in milk. Lunch was a huge pile of sandwiches made of dense bread and homemade jam. Dinner was chicken and vegetables. Remember, these were Iron Curtain days and food was both scarce and expensive. The East Bloc existed purely for the benefit of the Soviet Union, which took the best of everything Poland (and other occupied Eastern European countries) had to offer. I have personally stood in a bread line for over three hours, starting before dawn, in order to buy our rationed loaf of bread. On a train, I once gave a small "brick" of coffee to a woman. She grabbed me in a tearful hug and said, "This would have cost me two month's salary."

DorothaDinner the first day consisted of chicken breast and vegetables. On the second day, we had chicken thighs and vegetables. On the third day, we had chicken wings and vegetables. And on the fourth day, we had what was left over -- chicken intestines and vegetables.

Yes, chicken intestines. They had been prepared in a sweet and sour sauce in order to masquerade the taste of intestine, not to mention the gelatinous giblet paste that had been packed inside them. It looked terrible. It smelled revolting.

But I wasn't about to let these kids see me as a spoiled Westerner. No way. I was a Cool Dude Writer. I knew big words. I could eat anything and not complain. So I dug in and made a big deal of how much I loved the meal.

"Ummm, yum," I moaned with mock delight while nodding and smacking my lips.

I could see the kids watching me carefully while they picked at their vegetables. Vegetables only, mind you -- while ignoring the intestines -- which should have been a major clue. But I was oblivious to the clue because I was so focused on letting them know how cool I was.

I sliced off more bites - "Ummm, yum," I exclaimed while washing them down with the artificially brilliant yellow drink we had been given.

Suddenly, nearly every kid at the table began scraping their sweet-and-sour intestines onto my plate. "I'm not eating this stuff," they all began saying. The translaters, who interpreted for me, howled with laughter at the shocked look on my face.

Yes, those kids taught me a valuable lesson: don't try to be someone you're not.

So you see: being a know-it-all Cool Dude Writer isn't something I'm very good at. Someone always discovers the truth. My abruptly grounded ego notwithstanding, I have never eaten chicken intestines since.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Australia's Political Message to the World: Grime Pays

Australia recently held an election and the subtext of that election was this: grime pays -- he who plays the dirtiest wins.

Or, in this case, "she".

It was a sad day for politics. Not that politics has ever been for sissies. It's hardball. Your life becomes the proverbial fishbowl. Every detail is scrutinized, analyzed, sensationalized, paraded, caricatured, cartooned, berated, and blogged. You know the drill. "Par for the course," as the familiar golfing metaphor goes. People who go into politics know this. They've got to be tough. It's not just a recommendation; it's a requirement.

Be that as it may, we still expect a certain amount of integrity from those we elect. We trust them to do what's right for us and for the country. That doesn't mean each individual gets everything he or she wants. It should mean the needs and concerns of individuals get heard and balanced with the needs and concerns of other individuals ... that decisions will then be made which benefit the greater community. In other words: it's about serving the people.

The background of the Australian election is this: Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister in 2007 on a platform of educational reform, cutting greenhouse emissions, and increasing Australia's profile in world affairs. Youthful, energetic, and full of promise, Rudd was swept into office by a landslide. But Rudd's progress stalled. His popularity plummeted. And Rudd's Australian Labor Party (ALP) did what any good political organization -- or tin-pot dictator -- would do: they staged a coup. They killed off their leader. In Australia's case, I'm speaking politically. But the similarities are tragically similar.

You see, these days politics is not so much about policy, it's about popularity. How in the world is a leader supposed to lead -- to make tough choices -- when his party cares more about winning the next election than doing what's right by the people? No wonder nothing gets done. No one wants to make a tough choice for fear of falling ratings.

Recalling the drama of ancient Rome, when Julius Caesar was stabbed by his good buddy, Brutus, Rudd was unceremoniously "knifed" by his deputy, Julia Gillard, who led a blindside revolt against Rudd's leadership. The ALP voted him out and installed Gillard as Prime Minister just days after Gillard was proclaiming her steadfast loyalty, insisting she was positively not interested in the job. Three cheers for the "grime" of politics ... for playing dirty to get ahead. Thankfully, the deed did not go unnoticed by the world, as this video spoof from Taiwan illustrates (subtitled in English).

Did Rudd deserve what he got? Was a change in leadership warranted? If he was a waffler on making important decisions, then his advisors should have kicked his butt. That's why you have trusted advisors. To tell you hard truths you need to hear. But that didn't happen. What happened was a betrayal.

The rub for me wasn't that change occurred. It was needed to get Australia back on track. The rub for me was that the people Rudd trusted lied to his face and then stabbed him in the back. What does this say to the governments of other nations? It says beware of Australia. They will betray you if it serves their purposes, no matter what they tell you to your face. It means "fair dinkum" -- doing what's right and fair -- no longer is the Aussie standard. It's an unfortunate message, because there are many honest, hard-working people in government. Sadly, in this election, that's not what people saw.

The good news is that a major segment of the Australian public voiced their disapproval at the ballot box. At least on the street (in many places, at least) "fair dinkum" still rules.

"We the people." It's something elected representatives should never forget.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

White Death

I'm a junkie. An addict. And I have been for a long time. It's a confession that's hard to make, especially here in public, but "white death" has been a part of my life for a long time. Too long. It's a situation that probably wouldn't have changed had I not spread rose hips jam on my scone that fateful day. Never mind the butter. I'll save that for another day.

James Houston Turner

My wife, Wendy, sometimes gets on health kicks. She did it with millet. This time it was sugar. That friendly sweetener in the white porcelain bowl with the cute little spoon. The sweetener that put Hawaii on the map. The sweetener that made rhubarb pie edible. The sweetener that's naturally low in calories. Only 15 of the little buggers in every teaspoon. Which is not a lot. Except when you drink twelve of them in a can of soft drink. Or spread a hundred of them on a scone as I was doing.

And I got caught.

"Do you have any idea what you're doing?" Wendy asked.
"Making this scone taste really good," I replied. "Not that the millet didn't do the trick..."
"How can you say that when Otto Heinrich Warburg won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for proving sugar consumption causes cancer?"
"Otto who what?"
"He says the primary cause of cancer is sugar fermentation in the body. Sugar! White death! The stuff you're slathering on that scone! From now on, sugar is banned."
"You mean like pornography, assault rifles, and microwave popcorn?"
Wendy was in no mood for jokes. Sugar was banned.

My wife can sometimes take a hard line when it comes to health. No nonsense. Cut to the chase. And she can be rather "enthusiastic" with her convictions. This time, as usual, she had reasons that were pretty convincing. The rise in cancer did, in fact, match the rise in sugar consumption. Eating foods or drinking drinks with added sugar spikes insulin, which in turn promotes inflammation and acts as fertilizer for tumors (says neuroscientist, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, in his excellent book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life, pages 76-82 [Scribe Publications, 2008). He writes: "Those who eat low-sugar Asian diets tend to have five to ten times fewer hormonally-driven cancers [ie, breast and prostate] than those with diets high in sugar and refined foods. All the scientific literature points in the same direction: people who want to protect themselves from cancer should seriously reduce their consumption of sugar [including high-fructose corn syrup]. There is no limit on fruit, so long as it is not sweetened with sugar or syrup. Another option is to use natural sugar substitutes that don't cause a rise in blood glucose or insulin."

And this is where it gets interesting!

I came home one day to see money changing hands in our dining room. A wad of bills was being given to Wendy by a friend in exchange for a "key" (kilo) of white powder. The exchange was not taking place in some dark, seedy alley. It was taking place right there, in our dining room, in front of the gorgeous photos of our grandchildren.

Wendy was trafficking white powder. A mysterious white powder called xylitol.

Originally manufactured from birch bark (although now made from maize/corn husks and cobs), xylitol is a natural sugar substitute that tastes exactly like sugar. But it does not spike insulin levels like sugar and so is advertised as being safe for diabetics. And because of its anti-bacterial/anti-fungal properties, xylitol can be used to treat sore throats and ear infections. It has also been shown to strengthen bones, thus showing promise as a treatment for osteoporosis.

I had heard of xylitol because it helps remineralize teeth. Contrary to sugar, xylitol does not cause tooth decay, but actually helps restore teeth by killing bacteria. It also allows bio-available calcium to penetrate teeth. Having had massive radiation treatment on my face after my cancer operation, I now use a tooth mousse with xylitol that helps prevent gum erosion (a side-effect of radiation treatment). The results for me have been astounding.

So while sugar has indeed been banned in our house -- except small quantities for baking (xylitol's properties kills the yeast in Wendy's perfect bread) -- we now use this fantastic substitute.

But Wendy does not do things half-heartedly. She decided to order it in quantity. A large quantity. Meaning a big carton of the stuff arrived on our doorstep one day. It almost took a forklift to get it into the house. We took to selling it to friends and neighbors to whom she enthusiastically preaches the xylitol message.

So while my sugar addiction's been broken -- and without any night sweats or hard prison time -- I am now a dealer of xylitol for our sweet-toothed friends and neighbors. I don't know what my mom would think of all this: she was pretty old-fashioned about sugar. My dentist, on the other hand, is over the moon.

However, I'm still working pet names to replace the banned names of "sugar" and "sweetie."

A cool-dude writer with no remaining sugar addiction, author James Houston Turner pushes xylitol and writes thrillers from his home in Adelaide, South Australia. You may visit him at www.jameshoustonturner.com.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Three Women Who Changed The World

Every Mother's Day, and every late August and early September, I remember three women -- three mothers -- who changed the world. A wide spectrum of individuals and nations, families and fans, anonymous and infamous mourned when they died. Each woman is a powerful illustration of the impact one person can have on the lives of others.

Princess Diana
Diana, Princess of Wales. Photo courtesy The Sydney Morning Herald
The first was a woman of exceptional beauty and style. Born Diana Frances Spencer until her 1981 marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, "Princess Diana" was tragically killed in a car crash on August 31, 1997. Ten years later, her extraordinary life was commemorated with the spectacular Concert for Diana, in London's Wembley Stadium. Playing to a sellout crowd of 60,000 and a global audience of more than 500 million in more than 140 countries, the concert featured Sir Elton John, Rod Stewart, Fergie, Nelly Furtado, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Duran Duran, Josh Groban, and a host of other luminaries. Organized by Diana's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, the concert was a virtual Who's Who of the music world.

And while the performances were outstanding, I was more impressed by the love and devotion of two young men who simply missed their mother and wanted her life and accomplishments to be celebrated. Even Australia's "Sixty Minutes" got in on the act by airing an interview with Prince William and Prince Harry. I felt an immediate bond with those two young men, mainly because I lost my mother just over a week after they lost theirs.

And whereas Diana was a passionate champion for the rights of the disadvantaged and people with AIDS, my mom was a passionate champion for a little fat kid with a wild imagination.

Born in Kansas in 1904, Vera Anna Florance Turner was ninety-three years old when pancreatic cancer took her life. She was a petite woman who loved dirty jokes, butter fried chicken, designer labels and White Zinfandel wine. I'll never forget her serving up a pot of boiled turnips that looked just like mashed potatoes, then laughing so hard she almost wet herself when we spit them out.

Vera Anna Turner
Vera Florance Turner
I learned a lot about laughter and pranks from my mom. She also cultivated in me two extremely valuable qualities: curiosity and imagination. She encouraged me to build things, collect things, invent things. I once drilled holes in my bedroom door, much like the points on a compass, in order to make an electric combination lock. She helped me build a photo lab in my closet and a chemistry lab in the basement. It's a wonder I didn't burn down the house. She taught me to cook and sew, and she attended every one of my football games, many of them in driving rain. Neighborhood kids were always welcome at our house, and often stayed for dinner (unannounced, of course). My mom was a wizard at making food stretch. I learned about sacrifice and giving from my mom. I also had the privilege of being with her the final weeks of her life, where we talked about life's lessons and the good ol' days. It was a chance to say good-bye ... to say things that needed to be said.

Although blind for many years, my mom loved strawberries. Especially Arkansas strawberries. If you've ever had one, you know what I mean. They are magnificent. One day during her final weeks of life, I happened to see some in the store and bought them. When I returned to her hospital room, I held one in front of her nose and said, "Here, Mom, have a sniff."

"Oh, Jim, that's an Arkansas strawberry!" she exclaimed at the unmistakable fragrance. And she proceeded to eat the whole punnet ... after which she said she wanted a hamburger and fries for dessert! She was always one for doing things her own way.

As she sat there in bed eating her strawberries, she admitted she was frightened at the prospect of dying. So I read some verses from the Bible that talked about eternity and how there will one day be no more disease or suffering or getting old ... how we'll be skipping and dancing and singing ... and of course eating strawberries.

When finished, I said, "Mom, I don't know everything, but I do believe this: the strawberries will be sweeter in heaven. Even better than these Arkansas berries. So if you happen to get there ahead of me, would you pleeease save me one? I know you have a tendency to eat every one you can find." She laughed and squeezed my hand. "I'll do it!" she said. "I'll save you one! I may even save you a couple."

My mom died peacefully on September 9, 1997. A woman of newfound faith. A woman at peace. A woman I will always remember and whose life I will always celebrate in my writing.

But there is another woman who died about the same time as Princess Diana and my mom. I wonder if anyone will ever give her a concert? I wonder if Sixty Minutes will ever devote any air time to her life? You certainly don't see her on many magazine covers, and to my knowledge she has never been listed in the Top 100 most beautiful women in the world. I reckon she should be, because she radiates warmth and love like no woman I've ever seen. Her name is Mother Teresa.

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in Macedonia, in 1910, Mother Teresa felt the call of God at the age of twelve. At the age of eighteen, she left home and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. Soon after, she took her vows and began teaching at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta, where she was so moved by the suffering and poverty around her that she started an open-air school for slum children.

In 1950, she started what would become known as the Missionaries for Charity. Its purpose was to care for the hungry, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for throughout society, including lepers.

Mother Teresa
"Mother Teresa" Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu

For Mother Teresa, serving God meant showing love and mercy to anyone in need. What a difference from those who claim to serve God but turn a blind eye to the suffering of others ... who blow up hospitals instead of building them.

In 1979 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of all the lives she had saved. Not surprisingly, she asked that the $192,000 award be given to the poorest of India.

Some fundamentalist terrorists were recently discovered working in England as doctors. They were cloaked with mantle of helping people while secretly plotting to kill them. Mother Teresa, by contrast, once commanded a temporary cease fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas in order to rescue thirty-seven children trapped in a war zone hospital. When the Iron Curtain collapsed a few years later, her Missionaries of Charity initiated numerous projects in the former Soviet East Bloc. By 1996, she was operating over five hundred missions in more than one hundred countries. THAT, my friends, is serving God.

If you believe in the "butterfly effect" – that the tiniest of actions can cause a chain of events leading to a large-scale result - then your actions and mine can lead to consequences that can and will affect others. Perhaps one, perhaps one million – who knows?

And while I don't know everything, I do indeed believe this: one person CAN make a difference. These three did.

Three women who changed the world.

Three women who changed my world.

From his home in Adelaide, Australia, James Houston Turner writes suspense thrillers filled with these same kind of men and women. You may visit him at his website: www.jameshoustonturner.com.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Cool Dude Writer Eats His Own Words

How can you respect white bread? I mean, c'mon. Soft, airy-fairy, doughy, wimpy stuff that you can wad up into a tiny ball. Bugs won't eat it 'cause it's got zero nutrition. Mix it with water and it melts into this gooey, sticky mess. When the Bible says, "Cast your bread on the water and it will come back to you," I think it was referring to white bread. People on the other side of the lake don't want it. They send it back. Keep trying to send it to them and they'll come and burn down your village. Especially the bakery. No white bread.

I once had an upperclassman in my college fraternity who made me clean his room when I was a freshman pledge. He then took a slice of white bread and wiped the room down. Door tops. Tops of door casings. Chair rails. Places I didn't think to clean. He then made me eat the bread to teach me a lesson. Soon after, I switched to wholewheat.
Cool Dude Writers, of course, are kitchen magicians, and these days in our house we bake our own bread. I used to knead it by hand, but now we have a bread maker that makes the job real easy. We put in some water, olive oil, wholewheat baker's flour, dense wholemeal flour, whole grains, and a bunch of other stuff that magically turns into this fantastic elastic dough. You can then let it stay in the bread maker, where it bakes to golden perfection, or yank it out and divide into baguettes or little rolls, or pound out flat, throw high in the air in a circular motion, let flop on the counter, smear with tomato sauce and other goodies and bake as pizza on a stone in the oven. Over the years, Wendy and I have fine-tuned this recipe to our liking. It was perfect. Life was good. I was happy. No more white bread. Ever.
However, Wendy sometimes gets on health kicks and wants to start messing with perfection. You can see it in her eyes. They get this glassy, determined look, like a tiger about to strike.
And she had that exact look in her eyes the day she came home from the Adelaide Central Market and announced: "I'm adding millet to our bread."

If you don't know what millet is -- it's, well, bird seed, simple and plain. I once had a parakeet that loved millet. Parakeets are called "budgies" here in Australia -- short for budgerigar -- with the tight little Speedo swimming shorts that men wear called "budgie smugglers," for reasons I won't go into here.
Anyway, some countries consider millet a staple food. It's a grain that is extremely high in protein, as well as being alkaline. Too many acid foods and beverages -- like coffee, soft drinks, meat, white bread -- can create conditions favorable to disease. Alkaline foods help fight disease. That's why we need to eat fruits and veggies every day. Besides being full of nutrients, they are alkaline. So is millet. Which is why Wendy wanted to add it to our bread mix. Our perfect bread mix.
"I already eat enough alkaline foods," I explained. "Besides, our bread is perfect."
"This will make it better."
"You can't improve perfection."
"We won't know unless we try."
"Millet's bird seed! It'll ruin the bread!"
"No, it won't."
Foot down. Executive decision: "Yes, it will! Not going to happen!"
With glassy, determined look in her eye, like tiger about to strike: "Wanna bet?"

Wendy started to pour the millet into the bread maker.
I tried to stop her.
She dropped the cup.

Had it been flour, it would have made a messy pile on the counter and I would have wiped it up. But it was millet. And each of the thousand or so little grains was perfectly spherical, like micro-BBs. The stuff scattered everywhere. And then rolled even farther. Under furniture. In tiny cracks in our wooden floor. All across the living room rug. In fact -- all over the house. I knew I was in trouble by the dagger looks I was getting from the tiger.
"Oops," I said, smiling sheepishly. "I'll help you clean it up."
"No, you won't be helping me. Nor will I be helping you when you clean it up. The vacuum's in the garage."

I vacuumed millet for the next half hour, and to my surprise, I occasionally still find it hiding under bookcases and in other tight spots. And I'm a pretty good house cleaner.
But by far the greatest surprise was the bread. The millet added this kind of wild prairie taste that absolutely took our "perfect" bread to a whole new level. It was fantastic! And I cannot tell you how hard it is not to overdose on the stuff, especially when it comes fresh out of the oven. This stuff is perfection!
I feel obligated to take some of the credit here, because had I not protested the way I did, Wendy might have wimped out at the last minute and not added the millet. Think of what we would have missed out on had it not been for me. (I know, I know -- I don't swallow it, either. But I had to try.)
So this Cool Dude Writer had to eat his words that day. But by far my greatest surprise -- and pleasure -- was eating that bread. That perfect bread. So the next time you come over for dinner...
Originally from Baldwin, Kansas, author James Houston Turner takes partial credit for making perfect bread in his home in Adelaide, South Australia, where he writes thrillers and does his best to keep Wendy away from buckwheat, another alkaline grain. He loves flying Qantas and is astounded the company hasn't asked him to be their chief bread consultant. You may visit him at www.jameshoustonturner.com.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Trapped By My Great Expectations

Trapped. In a rut. Caught in the grind.
James Houston Turner feels trapped by Great Expectations

This pretty much describes how I've been feeling lately. I have an editing deadline I'm trying to meet and the last few days haven't been going all that well. The reason: my Great Expectations.

And the harder I try to meet those expectations, the harder it gets, and the harder it gets, the harder I try, which means it gets even harder!

Stuff like this happens on occasion. I set unreasonable goals, get tunnel vision, forget to take breaks and find myself working longer and harder in an effort to finish.

But longer and harder doesn't always cut it.

So I decided to make pizza. I knew I needed a break and making pizza is this hands-on, romantic tango between me and this pile of raw ingredients. And it is a romance: a coaxing and teasing out of flavors ... a whisper of hints and subtleties from just the right spices. I get flour and dough up to my elbows, millet iseverywhere (those little buggers can sure roll a long way), and the kitchen is this insane war zone, with utensils all over the place, onions and vegetables sizzling in a century-old, four-generation blackened cast iron skillet, music blaring, and me -- occasionally -- swearing because I never follow a recipe and things -- occasionally -- go awry. It's a zany adventure into uncharted culinary territory each and every time. Which is why I love it!

Writing, on the other hand, is quiet, solitary work. Which is a good thing because I like working on my own. I like my own company and I'm a disciplined self-starter. I get up every day at 5:15, check emails, do my exercise, take a shower, eat my breakfast, then show up for work at my laptop by 8:30 or so.

But the very nature of writing means it's hard to share progress reports. There are no visible cues as in, say, cooking pizza.

"How's it going?" my wife, Wendy, asks.
"I'm at the fifty-six-thousand word mark! Only forty-nine thousand to go. That's using a twelve-point Times New Roman font, double-spaced, which equals about 370 pages, at about 272 words per---"
"Stop!" she says, her eyes glazing over. "You lost me at fifty-six thousand."

So I tend to push on so that I can finally announce, "I am done!" Those are the words Wendy likes to hear. Those are the words I like to hear. They are words to celebrate, even if we both know another edit may be just around the corner. I am done!

And this is what gets me into trouble.

The reason: writing, like pizza making, is a romance between me and this pile of raw ingredients. Sure, it's work, and there are days I don't feel like working. But I do because that's just the way it is when you've got deadlines and people are waiting. You suck it up and do what needs to be done. That's the business of writing.

But writing is not like house cleaning (and I have done my fair share of house cleaning over the years to support my passion to write). It's an art as well as a discipline. And there's a huge element of creativity that goes into it. It is not simply physical labor. So I must nourish my creative side, and that means hitting the "refresh" button now and then. It means taking a break.

I was reminded of this when I was standing in the kitchen with flour all over my face. I was on a break and loving it. I was refreshed and rejuvenated ... I was singing and dancing and throwing large disks of dough up in the air. When Wendy came in to see what the commotion was all about, I began talking about my story with excitement and animation. (That was after she got over the shock of seeing the kitchen.)

It's such a simple and obvious lesson -- taking a break -- but one I had forgotten in my Great Expectation to be more of a writing machine than I am. The romance had slipped away. I needed to get it back. So I stepped away from the laptop and made a massive mess that was more satisfying than I can fully articulate here. (Yes, I cleaned it up!)

And guess what: when I sat down again at my laptop, the romance had returned.

Which goes to show what a miraculous food a good millet pizza can be.

Like I said, working longer and harder is not always the answer. Working smarter is what I need to keep doing. And that means taking time to live and laugh (and bake) "in between the lines" of my writing.

Hence, when the time comes to celebrate the release of my latest book, you can guess what I'll be doing.

Let's see: will that be pepperoni or picadillo...?

Originally from Kansas and a self-confessed pizza fanatic, author James Houston Turner writes thrillers and bakes pizza in his home in Adelaide, South Australia. You may visit him at www.jameshoustonturner.com.