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Saturday, May 26, 2012

American Exceptionalism: George Washington & the Deerskin Torah


There’s a lot of talk these days about American Exceptionalism. Tea Partiers jingoistically assert America is the greatest country in the world with a divinely inspired manifest destiny, while Progressives counter America cannot claim such a title when it does not lead in the world in educating or providing healthcare and social justice for it citizens. They are both wrong.

Many countries have surpassed America in the criteria used to measure “greatness”. Our disappointing education system has produced successive generations of Americans ignorant of: the world around them and the history that has brought it to the point it is at today; great works of art and literature; any sense of geography; and devoid of creative thought, and analytical and deductive reasoning. While the primary purpose of any government is to protect and promote the general welfare and well-being of its citizenry, America is one of the few industrialized nations that views healthcare, not as a fundamental right, but as a privilege of those who can afford it.

Yet, American Exceptionalism does exists. However, it does not reside in our present achievements or status; to find it, one must look to look to the past. In 1492, Queen Isabella declared all Jews within the territory of the Spanish Empire must convert to Catholicism. Those who refused, or only pretended to convert while secretly practicing their religion, were subject to torture and execution. The Spanish Inquisition extended beyond Spain to its territories and possessions, as Jews who had fled to Portugal and later Amsterdam discovered.

Many of these Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition arrived in America and some made their way to Newport, Rhode Island. In 1658, they founded a Jewish congregation and, in 1763, built Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest synagogue. Jews found a haven in America that was nonexistent in the rest of the world. They could live as Jews and worship freely in Colonial America. Yet, even in the religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island, Jewish residents of Newport were denied the right to become naturalized citizens – they were not allowed to vote or hold public office.

After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was elected president of the United States of America. In 1790, President Washington, accompanied by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, visited Newport. He later wrote a letter to Newport’s Jewish congregation at Touro Synagogue. His words declared this new nation would be different from all others that had preceded it, in that certain rights – such as religious freedom – were fundamental rights men were born with, not privileges to be bestowed or taken away by a ruling class:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

America, its first president declared, would, from its inception, distinguish itself from every other nation on Earth, then or previous, by recognizing and protecting natural rights such as freedom of religion and speech, unlike other nations. This new nation would not tolerate bigotry or persecution. As I stood today, inches from the bench in Touro Synagogue that George Washington had sat on, gazing at a 500-year-old Torah handwritten on deerskin brought to Newport from Portugal, I realized the true nature of American Exceptionalism. 


(Photo: Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Guns or Puppies?


I was in Wal*Mart today observing a mother interacting with her little boy, who was about four or five. The boy had already tossed a toy gun into their shopping cart and was now clutching a stuffed animal. The mother insisted the child could only have one toy, and of course, the boy wanted both. I counted at least 10 refrains of “Which one do you want, the gun or the puppy?” Each time I heard her rogitate the question, it sounded more surreal.

If I had a five-year-old child, would I want him running around the house pretending to kill people or cuddling up in bed with a plush puppy that might become his new “friend” and security blanket? Has life changed so much that, instead of sending our kids to bed with a stuffed animal, we now feel the need to substitute a gun to provide them with a sense of bedtime security? Will they grow up to sleep with a real gun under their pillows?

“Which one do you want, the gun or the puppy?” haunted me. Puppies are cute and soft and cuddly; they represent love. What do guns represent? Anger, rage, hatred, violence, and fear. What subliminal message is this choice implanting?

In the end, of course, it is the parents’ decision. It’s just as easy to say, “No, I won’t buy you the gun; do you want me to buy you the puppy?” How many times a day do we each face a ‘guns versus puppies’ choice? Someone cuts in front of you, perhaps unintentionally. Do you respond in a calm polite manner, or, as I witnessed in the Wal*Mart parking lot, with a string of angry profanities? That driver, I assume, didn’t get the puppies growing up.

Kids come into this world as blank slates. Their attitudes, prejudices, and responses to stimuli are learned behaviors. They learn from the people around them – peers, teachers, clergy, and family. You are a tremendous influence in the lives of the children around you. Use that power for good.

Besides, plastic guns inevitably break a few weeks later and end up in the garbage; a stuffed animal lasts indefinitely.

Oh,  yes. The little boy? He chose the gun. The world really is going To Hell In A Handbasket. Bet you thought I couldn't work in a book plug, huh?

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Best Seat In The House


“They don’t make ‘em like they used to!” You’ve heard it before, but it’s true. Quality and craftsmanship are things of the past. Fortunately, some examples have survived into the 21st century. The historic Vista Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles is one of them.

The Spanish-style facade belies its ornate interior. Built in October 1923 by architect Lewis A. Smith, the Vista Theatre is a one-of-a-kind movie theater notable for its Egyptian-themed décor. The 638-seat theater, originally called Bard’s Hollywood Theatre, was the site of vaudeville shows in the Roaring Twenties, although today it serves as a venue for films and movie premieres, the latter evidenced by cements slabs of celebrity handprints lining its entrance.

I’ve been to the Vista twice, most recently last week for the Dark Shadows Movie Premiere Party. I’m posting some pictures I took here on my blog, www.keithbdarrell.com, but if you’re reading this blog on an RSS reader you might not be able to view the photos, so go directly to the blog. You can also see some shots of the Vista on its homepage, www.vintagecinemas.com/vista/vistaphotos.html.

In 1986, Kathryn Leigh Scott, an actress from the original Dark Shadows TV series, published a book about her experiences on the hit gothic soap opera. Over the years, when I’ve remembered to bring the book with me to events where the cast and crew from the series were in attendance, I’ve had them sign the book. Sadly, many have since died, spurring me to start traveling with the book. Decades ago, in New York City, I attended a one-woman musical performed by Nancy Barrett (Dark Shadows’ Carolyn Stoddard) and chatted with her briefly afterwards, kicking myself for having left my book thousands of miles away. So, when I learned Nancy would be at the Vista for the Dark Shadows Premiere Party, I tucked my book into my suitcase.

I was seated with some friends in an absolutely wonderful spot at the Vista: dead center, two-thirds of the way back, behind a very short person affording me ample visibility over his head to the 50-foot screen. I left to find Nancy; we chatted and she added her autograph to the two dozen others in my book. Eventually, I worked my way back to my row, where I found a white-haired gentleman comfortably ensconced in my seat. My friends informed me the event organizer had given him my seat, over their protestations. I was a bit nonplussed, but I recognized the gentleman as someone I had met two years earlier: Sy Thomasoff, designer of the spooky sets on the original Dark Shadows TV show, the gothic soap opera I had been obsessed with a child and used to run home from school to see every day.

Sy looked up and graciously asked if I wanted my seat back. I immediately assured him he could stay put and I would find another seat (in the packed theater). As someone brought up to give up my seat on a bus to my elders, I’d certainly relinquish my seat for the man who was one of the creative forces behind the passion of my adolescence. Besides, when I refer to Sy as a gentleman, I mean it in every sense of the term: he’s one of the most polite, considerate, friendly, and down-to-earth people you’d ever want to meet. But as I turned to leave, an epiphany struck me and I pivoted. I passed the book in my hand to Sy and asked, “Hey, Sy, as long as you’re sitting there, would you mind signing this?”

I’m glad I’ve learned to travel with that book; you never know who you’ll run into.






Tuesday, May 8, 2012

An Excerpt: Lucifer Rebuilds Hell


- an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket to be published in May 2012. "Halos & Horns" Book 3:

Lucifer rose from his ivory throne of bones to address the demon contractor before him. "Abraxas, when I hired you as general contractor to oversee the rebuilding of Hell, you promised the job would be nearly completed by now. Instead, you've hardly begun."

The cock-headed demon slithered to the throne's side on his serpentine legs. "Lord Lucifer, that was merely an initial estimate. At the time, I had no idea of the considerable damage to the infrastructure that had been done. It's like a war zone out there."

"Of course it's like a war zone! It was a war zone. Have you forgotten the realm was invaded and attacked by the Netherspawn? These repairs are taking far too long, Abraxas."

"You must understand, some of the affected areas have no power to supply our equipment. Many of the fire pits have dried up and are caked with earth."

"I realize the fire pits are not functioning. Ukobach has promised to get the Infernal Furnace back to full capacity shortly. However, the repairs —"

"The repairs will take much longer without power. My goblin crews have had to resort to picks and axes. It takes far longer to do everything by hand. Of course, if you want the crews to work longer, that will mean overtime. The bill could be quite expensive."

Lucifer rubbed his forehead. "It's all about the payment with you contractors, isn't it? Your goblins never show up on time and they're completely incompetent. It's as if they were born with an innate inability to do anything right the first three times."

"Now, Lord Lucifer, that's hardly fair."

"And you, Abraxas, offer nothing but excuses and more promises and then disappear for weeks at a time."
"I do have other projects I must complete."

"What other projects can you possibly have in Hell?"

Abraxas pulled out a notepad. "There's the new brothel being built on the second level; the torture chamber on the seventh level; the doghouse for Cerberus — you'll recall your son requested that and you approved it back on —"

"All right, all right." Lucifer threw up his hands. "You don't fool me, Abraxas. You're an unethical, negligent, arrogant, deceitful, and lazy contractor."

Abraxas shrugged. "Count yourself fortunate general contractors are all like that, else you'd never find one in Hell. You realize they can't get a damned thing built in Heaven — no contractors up there, you know."

Lucifer sighed, as the chuckling demon left his throne room. He looked up when Asmodeus entered. "It's bad enough I have to deal with the work of rebuilding Hell without having to contend with demonic contractors. It's going to cost thousands more souls than originally estimated."

Asmodeus shook his three heads. "You don't want to run over budget. The last thing we need is a contentious budget debate. The dukes and lords are already riled."

"What is it this time?"

"It's your push toward democratization. Hell has always been run as a dictatorship, with ruling classes of dukes and lords, the military led by Evil Tail, and the secular church headed by President Valac. There's a pecking order from the dukes and lords to the upper-level demons, the lower-level demons, the goblins, and finally the Damned. You've pushed through civil rights for the goblins and now you've allowed political parties to form."

"I'm simply applying what I've learned topside. Political parties are a wonderful source of corruption, bribery, and lies. We should have had them down here years ago."

"Perhaps, Master, but the concept has unsettled the upper classes. They feel they may lose prestige and power."

"Nonsense. They can participate in the process, as well. All they have to do is register as either Demonrats or Reprehensibles and they'll have an equal vote."

"That's precisely the point, Master. They don't want to be equal; they like being superior."

"Pshaw!" Lucifer exclaimed. "Once they realize they can rig the system the way humans do, they'll welcome the idea with open arms. Politics was made for Hell."

"Be wary, Master. The demons of the Underworld are unused to the new freedoms you are offering them.
There is the potential for your newfound democracy to slide into anarchy."

- an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket to be published in May 2012. "Halos & Horns" Book 3 -- Third time's the charm!

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Excerpt: Real Vampires Don't Sparkle!


- an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket to be published in May 2012. "Halos & Horns" Book 3:


She glanced across the room and saw Pandora reclining in a chair, absorbed in a book. “What are you reading?”

Pandora folded her page and looked up. “It’s the new Paige Turner Nightfall novel. It’s wizard!”

Sharon sighed. “How can you read that drivel, Panda?”

“Everyone reads Nightfall. It makes it cool to be a sucker.”

“As if!” Sharon rolled her eyes. “That dreck’s not about suckers. All her vampires are hot guys, her women are helpless imbeciles, and no one in her books ever graduated from high school. And what’s with that nonsense about her vampires twinkling in sunlight? Until the Great Eclipse, we’d have fried after three seconds in the sun.”

Pandora closed the book. “If you want to know, you should read the series,” she replied in a haughty tone.

“I don’t want to know. It’s dumb. It’s ludicrous. It’s downright insulting. She makes us look like glow-in-the-dark Care Bears!” Sharon grabbed the book and tossed it into the trash. “As a vampire, you should know better than anyone: Real… vampires… don’t… twinkle!”

Pandora pouted for several seconds before an epiphany brought a smile to her face. “We could, if we sprinkled ourselves with glitter. They do it at all the raves now, Sharon.”

Sharon fumed. “We’re vampires, not Glitter Goths, Panda!”

“You used to be a lot more fun.”

Sharon gave her a stern look. “We don’t twinkle. We don’t sprinkle. We don’t glitter.”

Pandora grimaced. “Could we sparkle?”

“Arrgh!” Sharon raised her hands to her head in frustration.

“You’re working too hard. Let’s go find a rave tonight. We haven’t been out in ages.”

Sharon sighed in capitulation. “Oh, all right. But no glitter.”

Pandora whipped out a plastic tube of glitter. “Not even if I score you an autographed copy of Nightfall? Cody’s been hired to design the cover of Paige Turner’s next book. She’s coming to Las Vegas, and I may even get to meet her.”

“Oh, joy!” Sharon’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Maybe you could sink your fangs into her and see if she glistens.”

- an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket to be published in May 2012. "Halos & Horns" Book 3 -- Third time's the charm!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

An Excerpt - Meet Siofra... or Not!


Siofra (pronounced Shee-fra) is a 13-year-old Irish changeling: a cruel, evil supernatural creature. Kaya is a naive 10-year-old Japanese girl with a dark secret. A pair of bullies have just made a big mistake targeting them. Tori Amos isn't the only one who can write about strange little girls...


Siofra stepped between Kaya and the bullies. She spoke in a calm, yet firm tone. "Kaya, run down the path and wait for me. Dinnae turn around and dinnae come back. Understand?

"But-" Kaya began.

The changeling faced her and Kaya saw her eyes blaze red. "Dae as I say," she barked, in a peremptory tone.

Kaya acquiesced, racing down the path they had followed. The short girl attempted to chase her, but Siofra caught her wrist and flung her to the ground. Her companion advanced on the changeling, but Siofra plunged her fist into the girl's solar plexus, sending her to the ground, writhing in pain. Siofra returned her attention to the short girl, kicking her head several times before she could rise. She scooped up a handful of sand and forced it into the girl's mouth. As the prostrate teen tried to spit it out, the changeling brought her foot crashing down on the girl's stomach, causing her to inhale and choke on the mouthful of dirt.

The tall girl climbed to her knees, still gasping from the blow to her solar plexus and surprised by the viciousness of the changeling's attack. Siofra turned and dropkicked her, ripping her kimono in the process. The girl fell back and Siofra was atop her in an instant, her knees pressing into the incapacitated bully's shoulders while she bitchslapped the girl's cheeks - right, left, right, then left again - like an avenging human metronome. She continued until the girl was barely conscious. The changeling stood and yanked the girl up by her hair, dragging her to the other teen, who was still trying to spit out what little dirt she hadn't swallowed. Siofra dropped her unceremoniously on her coccyx.

Siofra spotted a thick stick lying in the underbrush and retrieved it. The helpless teens stared up at the malevolent changeling with terror-stricken eyes as she fondled the wooden stick. "Dae ya ken I used tae skin cats alive back home for fun? Dae ya think it cruel tae derive pleasure from torturing defenseless animals? Nae, ya enjoy it as much as I dae, dinnae ya? We have that in common. But ya only think yar mean girls." Siofra's black eyes flared red. "Let me show ya what tis tae truly be a mean girl."



A few pages later, Siofra explains...


"We cannae change our nature. We are what we are: Dark Fae, whose souls are filled with evil and cruelty."

"That's not true. You protected me from those girls. You're my best friend. I know sometimes you shout and do nasty things like rip up my lessons, but you're not evil, Siofra."

The changeling turned on the ingenuous child, and her soulless black orbs locked onto Kaya's eyes, penetrating them. "Dinnae delude yarself. I am nasty. I am mean and cruel and everything ya fear at night, huddled beneath yar covers. I am a wicked creature, a spirit of evil clad in stolen human flesh, thriving on others' torment and pain. I am yar worst nightmare come tae life and ya cannae trust me and more fool ya if ya dae."

- an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket to be published in May 2012. "Halos & Horns" Book 3 -- Third time's the charm!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

An Excerpt: Meet Morgana le Fay

Only a few more days before To Hell In A Handbasket, Book 3 in the "Halos & Horns" series is published! We saw a lot of Mordred in the first two books, but his mother, Morgana le Fay (Sorceress Supreme and lifelong foe of Merlin), figures prominently in Book 3. Fans of Arthurian legend know Mordred grows up to kill his father, King Arthur. Perhaps I should have retitled this excerpt "The Origin of Mordred".

An Excerpt: Morgana le Fay


Morgana’s grimoire grew over the next decade. She studied her spells and incantations, becoming adept with sorcery, and biding her time. She saw Uther Pendragon die, yet hid her ebullience, content to play the grieving stepsister to the newly crowned 15-year-old king. Morgana realized Nimue had been right: as a Fae, time was on her side. She would have her revenge, in one form or another, sooner or later.

And so, she waited. Patient, like a predator stalking her prey, poised for the opportune moment to strike. When it arrived, Morgana was ready. On that night, Arthur had retired to his bedchamber with only a flagon of ale for companionship. Heavy weighed the crown on one so young and still mourning the loss of the only parent he had ever known. Yet, as sovereign, he could ill afford the luxury of showing weakness, so instead he sought succor through the dulling effect of alcohol, in the opulent but lonely chamber. This Morgana knew, as she knocked upon its door.

The sheets were soft and the bed enormous, befitting a monarch. Was it loneliness or alcohol that had seduced him? Morgana wondered. Perhaps the young king had wanted to add an older woman to his conquests, or maybe he had been attracted to her all along. It didn’t matter. Morgana closed her eyes, as Arthur planted the seed of his own destruction.

- an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket to be published in May 2012. "Halos & Horns" Book 3 -- Third time's the charm!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sneak Peek of A New Book To Be Published This Month!


Here's a sneak peek at the cover of To Hell In A Handbasket, Book 3 in the Halos & Horns series, due out this month! The new edition also includes a massive bonus interactive "Guide to the Halos & Horns Series". The new cover is part of redesign of all of the book covers in the series. Tomorrow, I'll post an excerpt from To Hell In A Handbasket

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Halos & Horns Book 2 Has A New Look


And A Child Shall Lead Them, Book 2 in the Halos & Horns series has a new cover for its revised Kindle edition. The new edition also includes an added preface and a massive bonus interactive "Guide to the Halos & Horns Series". The new cover is part of redesign of all of the book covers in the series. Tomorrow, I'll post the cover of Book 3: To Hell In A Handbasket, which will be published this month!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A New Look For Halos & Horns!

Paved With Good Intentions, Book 1 in the Halos & Horns series has a new cover for its revised Kindle edition. The new edition also includes an added preface, a director's cut version of "The Avatars", and a massive bonus interactive "Guide to the Halos & Horns Series". The new cover is part of redesign of all of the book covers in the series. Tomorrow, I'll post the new cover of Book 2: And A Child Shall Lead Them.