Meat and Cancer

Yesterday the World Health Organization released a study that said that processed meat is a carcinogen. They base this not-so-startling finding on over 800 studies.

Of course PETA was ecstatic, and the meat industry dismissive. But what confounds me is the reaction of my friends.

One says 800 studies are not enough. We need more. In other words, you can have my bacon when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. In fact, another friend actually said that.

Another said, since she was already smoking, she might as well pile on the sausage. I have another friend who said that every one she knows who has quit smoking has died of cancer, so she is not quitting.

I am astonished and dismayed by this very small, simple, unscientific survey of those I interact with on Facebook.

Those who have had cancer know that it isn’t funny, it isn’t something to be taken lightly. It takes a terrible toll on general health, finances, and families. It burdens our health care systems and makes our health insurance premiums go up. It causes excruciating pain, and horrific treatments that can be worse than the actual disease. Just listen to the drug commercials on the nightly news. Listen to the side effects they’re required to list.

And you think it’s fine to risk all of that because you want bacon? Are you insane? Have you ever talked with someone who has endured the treatments for colo-rectal cancer? Being so dismissive of this finding is an insult to everyone who has ever battled cancer.

So next to the “pray for Jennifer’s healing” post with a photo of a bald teenager fighting to graduate high school, and a call for a congressional inquiry into crumb rubber on soccer fields, is a friend of mine posting photos of plates of bacon and saying “yumm…”

We’ve all done stupid things in our lives, things that we should have known better to do. I baked myself in the sun in my teens and twenties, and am reaping the melanoma harvest of those stupid decisions. They say that God looks out for drunks and fools, and I think that’s true. But once you know that what you’re doing is likely to turn out horribly wrong for you ten, twenty years down the line, don’t you think you might forfeit a little sympathy when that time comes?

You risk not seeing your kids grow up. Never meeting your grandchildren or great grandchildren. We all die, but we don’t have to welcome the early onset of a horrible disease. For ham.

I am shocked and saddened.

If you don’t like the WHO’s 800 studies, do your own research. There is plenty of information out there.

Don’t be a fool. Make the right decision for your health, for your family, for the environment.

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Clean and Sober

Today I reach a milestone: I have been clean and sober for 35 years. I have lived more than half my life with a spiritual program that keeps me without drugs or alcohol—one day at a time.

I find it inconceivable that it has been 35 years since I had a beer or smoked a joint. Inconceivable!  (And yes, I know what that means.)

It is easier for me to believe that I got drunk last week and have been lying about it.

But it’s true. 35 years.

These have been monumental years. Years of amazing accomplishments, personal and spiritual growth.

As with everyone my age, big events have taken place. Marriages, divorces, births, deaths, creative accolades, cancers. Huge events. Emotional events. Certainly events worth drinking over, either in grief or in celebration.

truth and loveLife is not easy. But sobriety is its own reward.

All of these major life events are the stuff of the human experience, and I have been fortunate enough to be present and clear-headed for it all.

I think that’s our reason for being: to experience the human condition in all its intricacies.  Booze and drugs gloss over those intricacies, dull those edges, flatten out those highs and lows, fill in the cracks wherein we might mine for the gold placed precisely there for precisely us.

Drinking and drugging is a waste of time, a waste of money, and a waste of personality.

I am beyond fortunate. I am one of the very fortunate ones who have been able to get sober and stay sober. God willing, I will die sober. But I am in the minority. Drug and alcohol addiction is so sneaky, so calmly patient and doggedly persistent, that when we falter, it is there, waiting with a “fix” to whatever transient problem catches us at a weak moment.

But those aren’t fixes. They’re insulators. They’re a horror show in a bottle. They’re death by slow torture, and they take all our loved ones down with us.

I may be 35 years clean and sober, but I am only one drink away from disaster, and I think about that every single day.

Today I will go to a meeting and share my experience, strength and hope: If I can do it, you can do it. And that is absolutely true.

And then I will go about my life, living in gratitude. I am not only grateful for everything that I’ve been given in life, but grateful for every mind-altering substance I ingested that brought me to my knees and introduced me to the spiritual program that gives me solid tools for living.


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About Audio Books

I have come slowly to audio books.

While I love to listen to music on my iPod while doing this or that — pulling weeds, washing dishes, puttering around — I have always thought that reading should be a quiet activity, a reward for having pulled weeds, done the dishes and done all the necessary puttering.

But I’m changing my mind about that.

Lizard Wine Audio cover

Several of my books are now available in the audio format, and I have discovered that I enjoy listening to audio books. My favorite way to listen, of course, is still sitting quietly–so I knit and listen. But I can also listen while pulling weeds, doing the dishes and puttering.

Lizard Wine is now available as an audio book, narrated by the astonishing Voice of America, Jim Tedder. This is one of my perennial bestselling thrillers, and Jim brings a very nice depth of emotion to the narration. You can download a sample and then decide whether or not you are interested in listening to more.

Baggage Check, my latest thriller, is also available, narrated by Roger Wood.

baggage check audio cover

Lizzie Borden, of course, is also available as an audio book. As is my very first book, When Darkness Loves Us.

Lizzie audio cover

Sadly to say, my time to read for pleasure has shrunk in the past few years, but with audio books, I can “read” while driving, and while I’m doing almost anything else.

And, like browsing in a bookstore, I can “sample” a book before I buy or borrow.

Audio books have changed the way I read. I’m sorry that my life has come to this type of multi-tasking, but that is the current state of affairs. Maybe some day I will have a hammock and the type of leisure time to while away the day with superb fiction, but that isn’t my world today.

The point is, whether I have headphones or a tablet or paper book in my lap, whether I’m listening or reading, I’m still engaging with wonderful literature.

And that is my lifeblood.

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How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene

From my new book, now available for the Kindle, the Nook, and other electronic readers.

I decided to write this small book right after I got yet another call from a writer’s conference director asking me if I would come give my sex talk at her conference.

My sex talk.

For years, I’ve been teaching weekend workshops on writing erotica for women (and one memorable one for men—more on that later) and giving short conference-sized workshops on how to write well-crafted sex scenes. Sex scenes are crucial to good fiction; they’re excellent opportunities to reveal character, and there’s a simple structure to it. These classes are wildly popular, and they have made me an “in demand” instructor at writer’s conferences and conventions all over the world.

sex scene book cover

In fact, occasionally I will walk down the hall at a writer’s conference and hear furtive whispers: “There goes the sex writer.”

Sex writer! As if I were a pornographer. I could be insulted, but I’m not; I’m amused.

The classroom is packed with expectant faces. What is she going to do? (What do they think? Unbutton my blouse?) What is she going to say? (What do they think? Run down a list of dirty words?)

I talk about writing. I talk about the sexual nature of their fictional characters. I talk about the three-act structure of a scene, and the three-act structure of a sex scene. I talk about practicing writing. I talk about vocabulary and what to call body parts. I talk about the difference between pornography and erotica. I talk about revealing character to the reader, and revealing character at a most vulnerable moment.

Those in the audience, they hear me—they’re taking notes—but I know they’re not thinking of their fictional characters. They’re thinking of themselves. This is what makes these classes so popular. I don’t use any dirty words. I don’t name any body parts. I talk about writing, but they’re all thinking of themselves. They think of themselves as fictional characters and they look at their sexuality. My class gives them permission to do that. And it’s fun, because they can ask thinly veiled questions: “My character has this problem…” And we pretend she’s talking about her character. I make light of it, and I can do that without insulting her, because we’re not talking about her, we’re talking about a character in her novel. She can laugh and learn and everybody else laughs and learns.

Sex is, after all, pretty funny.

Occasionally, it gets a little heavy, a little dicey, and I am always the first to hold up my hand and claim that I am not a therapist; I am a writer. This class (or seminar) is not about pain or healing your sexual issues. We’re talking about fiction here. And even that gets a laugh.

Then I give them an assignment and ten minutes to practice what they’ve learned in the past hour. After ten minutes, I open the microphone and they line up to read the portion of a sex scene they’ve written.

It’s hilarious. It’s moving. It’s astonishing. They have no problem saying those words, naming those body parts.

And we all go home thinking of ourselves and our sexual nature in a little different way. Certainly none of us ever looks at our fictional characters in the same way again; most of us look at our spousal units in a very good way later that evening.

I think that’s the real reason these classes are so popular. Even though I don’t talk dirty, I don’t tell smutty jokes, I don’t demonstrate anything vulgar on stage, everybody in the audience employs their largest sexual organ—their brain—for the hour and a half (or weekend) we’re together, and they learn a little bit about human nature. Their nature. Which is what writing is all about: Fearless, relentless introspection.

Of course the writer in me is always worried that I’ll drop dead some day soon and be remembered for giving the sex talk instead of the short stories, essays and novels that I so agonize over.

But in the meantime, I’ll go to another writer’s conference and give my “sex talk” and laugh and have fun, learn a little, teach a little, and best of all, spend time with other writers.

And now there’s a book.

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How to go from Vegan-Curious to Full-Fledged Vegan

I was lucky; I was highly motivated to change my diet. I was getting older and my numbers (cholesterol, weight, blood pressure etc.) were getting worse. I made the change to vegetarian in one moment after a visit to the doctor, and then a couple of months later, after reading about eggs, milk, and cheese, decided to go vegan. It has been—well, not effortless, but an interesting, rewarding, and delightful journey.

So what if you want to take this step but don’t know where to start? Here are my suggestions.

  1. Find a vegan group. I found mine on We have gatherings twice a month where I learn new recipes, can ask questions, find new cookbooks, and find out a lot of information. (Thanks, J.J.!) People who are vegan-curious go to those meetings as well as those who have been vegan for 35+ years. They’ve got a lot of information to share, like “Where to get your protein?” The answer? Everywhere. Cows are vegan. Elephants are vegan. They seem to get enough protein.
  1. Educate yourself. Here are some films to find and watch: Forks over Knives; Cowspiracy; GMO OMG, Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead and Dr. Greger’s three amazing videos from Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day–Preventing Our Most Common Diseases, and From Table to Able–Combating Disabling Diseases with Food. Some of these are only about nutrition, and some are about environmental issues. None of these have footage of tortured animals, but they will change your idea about how meat, cheese, and dairy is produced, marketed, and delivered to the table. It ain’t pretty. Read The China Study, and The World Peace Diet.
  1. Buy a couple of vegan cookbooks. I have amassed a nice collection, but the one I seem to continually come back to is Vegan on the Cheap, because it has good recipes for vegan mayo, vegan sour cream, a delicious mushroom gravy, and all those basics that I threw out and didn’t want to replace with expensive ones in the grocery store, especially if I didn’t know whether or not I would like them. Vegan yogurt? I still haven’t tried it, but I do love vegan cheese—in small doses. Baking without eggs can be tricky, but The Joy of Vegan Baking has never failed me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  1. Know that you’re going to have some failures. Not every culinary experiment is a winner. Annotate your cookbooks. Make adjustments. Cross out the terrible ones.
  1. Make a journal. This is an entirely new way of eating for our household, and I didn’t want to get stuck making the same three things over and over again. So when I get a new vegan cookbook, I read it, and mark the things I want to make. I write those down in the back of my journal. Then when I make them, I put them in the front of my journal, along with a grade. Some things I’ll never make again; some things have become staples.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  1. Make a menu and a shopping list every week. I do this, and once the food is in the house, I only have to look at my menu and know what I’m going to cook for the evening. Sometimes these recipes have what seem like exotic ingredients, but once your pantry is stocked, you will be amazed at how little you spend on food every week. This week, for example, for two evening meals we’re eating leftovers from the freezer (love that Crockpot!), and for two other meals I only needed to buy a cabbage and some red bell peppers. I already have everything else. (Note: I have a soy milk maker, so I make our own soy milk and almond milk. (Thanks, Karen!) The appliance cost about $110, and I buy organic, non-GMO dried soybeans in 25-pound bags, so a quart of soymilk costs me about 25 cents.)
  1. Stock your kitchen with the basic appliances. I love my Crockpot, and have a couple of vegan Crockpot cookbooks. I was on this culinary journey for 18 months before I bit the bullet and bought a Vitamix and now I can’t imagine living without it. (Thanks, Jerry!) Soymilk maker. A rice cooker is mandatory, (Thanks, John and Mike!) as are good vegetable chopping implements, like quality knives and a mandolin.
  1. Take the time to look and appreciate at how beautiful your food has become. It has a variety of colors, textures, and flavors. Notice how you can actually feel the micronutrients energize your cells after a good meal with healthy food. Watch your numbers come down and know that you are reversing the heart disease that the Standard American Diet has created in your arteries.
  1. Don’t be afraid to go out to eat. I can always find something to eat. Most kitchens are happy to accommodate my requests. And when they do, I make an extra effort to thank them, and post reviews on Yelp and Happy Cow. Best is the great array of vegetarian and vegan restaurants that are popping up all over. People are becoming aware.
  1. If you don’t want to commit, don’t. Start with Meatless Mondays. But the more you know, the less meat and dairy you will consume. It’s not just a health thing, it’s an environmental thing, it’s an animal thing. And because of all that, it becomes a spiritual thing. But whatever you do, don’t stick your head in the sand. What we eat has significant consequences.
  2. Let me know how it goes. I’m interested.


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Two Years Vegan

I embarked upon the vegan adventure two years ago today.

They say that the longer one is vegan, the more reasons one finds to stay vegan. I have found this to be true.

First, let me say that I do not miss animal protein one bit. No meat, milk, cheese for me. It was easy to give up. And I am convinced – without a shadow of a doubt – that what I am doing is reversing the heart disease I spent 60 years acquiring with my standard Midwestern meat, milk, and cheese diet. I have read that those eating the standard American diet have heart disease by the time they’re ten years old.

Let me also say that I effortlessly lost 35 pounds, bounced back up 5 pounds, and here I have stayed for over a year. I have never maintained my weight in my life. I was always dieting — gaining or losing. This seems to be my body’s weight, and I’m happy here. I eat everything I want (well, almost everything – I still have to watch my intake of bread and sweets), as much as I want, as often as I want, and my weight remains the same.

My cholesterol and blood pressure are down. I usually have two or three or four colds a year, but my immune system is so rock solid now that I haven’t had a cold in two years. Vegan food is much less expensive. All we eat are fruits and vegetables and grains and legumes. The least expensive food in the grocery store.

How is it that it took me this many years to find this lifestyle? Better late than never, I guess.

Food is delicious and nutritious and beautiful. There are amazing vegan restaurants in town, and while traveling, I never have to worry about finding vegan food, mostly because of the extensive directory of vegetarian and vegan restaurants on Happy Cow, but also because restaurants and chefs seem to have gotten the message. Recently, on a trip to Washington, D.C., when I asked about vegan options, I was actually brought a separate vegan menu! You just have to ask.

I came to this lifestyle for health reasons. I stay not only for health reasons, but because I see no reason to eat an animal. I love animals. I see no difference in eating a cow or a pig than eating my dog, and you know I would never harm a hair on sweet Jook. There are many animal activists in the vegan community who blast us with horrific images and information about how animals are treated in the meat and dairy industries. I don’t want to look at that stuff because it’s so disturbing, but my awareness has expanded, just because I hang out with vegans. Not everybody comes to this lifestyle for health reasons. And I truly appreciate the activists’ efforts.

I saw a statistic not long ago that said if everyone in America went meatless on Mondays, the carbon footprint effect would be that of taking 69 million cars off the road. That is the effect of the meat and dairy industry on our ecology and our climate. Add in antibiotics and meat-borne diseases, and the fact that no other mammal drinks milk after weaning – especially the milk of a different species – and going vegan begins to make really good sense.

I have joined a vegan Meetup group. This weekend, I am going to VegFest in Portland, Oregon. It is through these efforts that I have learned the right cookbooks to have, some tips and tricks, what meat-and-dairy-substitute foods taste good (vegan cream cheese, vegan cheddar, vegan sausages), how to bake without milk and eggs, etc.

My husband has been a very willing participant, and although he has not embraced the vegan lifestyle as I have, we maintain a vegan home (except for the salmon he catches – he prepares and eats that himself), he eats very little meat when we go out. Like as not, he orders from the vegan menu as well. He can tell the difference the past two years has made in his health.

Here are some resources, in case you’re vegan-curious.

  1. – Dr. Greger scours the scientific reports on nutrition and posts his findings. Don’t miss his informative, entertaining and enlightening hour-long Year in Review videos, Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day: Preventing Our Most Common Diseases, and From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food. These are available for free on his website; they’re also on YouTube if you want to stream to your television.
  2. The China Study – the most comprehensive study of human nutrition ever conducted.
  3. Forks Over Knives, the documentary film, available on Netflix.
  4. Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, the documentary film, available on Netflix. Very entertaining and inspiring. I hear Joe Cross has a sequel out now, FS&ND2, but I haven’t seen it yet.

You don’t have to go all-in. Start with going meatless on Mondays. Check out a vegan cookbook from the library and try a few recipes. Do a little research on the internet.

It won’t kill you. Quite the opposite, in fact.


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A Vacation in the Nation’s Capitol

I think Washington, D.C. is one of the world’s great cities, under appreciated by Americans. I lived there for seven months back in the ‘90s (another story for another time), but my husband, a Vietnam veteran, had never been. I think everybody should go and see what belongs to us, and particularly the moving memorials.


One of three remaining Gutenberg Bibles – at the National Archives

This was as perfect a tourist-vacation could be. If you’re thinking of going, here are some of the things we did that made it so sweet.

First, the right travel agent. We use Mary North Travel. They are, for my money, the best in the biz. They made perfect flight arrangements and got us an excellent deal at the Kimpton Palomar Hotel. Highly recommended, not only for the price we paid, but for the superb location. (They get a demerit for sucky television reception.) There were excellent restaurants of all kinds within walking distance. We ate at Turkish, Syrian, Indian, and Chinese restaurants, all within two blocks of the hotel, found an excellent breakfast place where we ate every morning. I’m vegan, and had no trouble finding accommodating menus, particularly because I use Yelp and HappyCow for research.


Details of the ceiling at the Smithsonian Castle, an architectural marvel.

Second, do your research about getting around. We bought a unlimited-ride week pass on the Metro (subway trains) for $28 each, and boy did we get our money’s worth. Metro stations are conveniently everywhere, and the system is clean, well lit, supervised, safe, and pleasant to ride. We traveled with friends who are fans of Uber, the non-taxi service, and we utilized that regularly when we were with them.


The nine seats where the Supreme Court sits.

We flew into Reagan National Airport (DCA), which has a Metro station, so we just jumped on the train and it took us to within three blocks of our hotel.  And back, when it was time to leave. Very convenient.

Third, make a list of things you want to see and prioritize them. I lived there for seven months and when I wasn’t working, I was busy doing the tourist thing, and I never even scratched the surface. We spent all day in the National Art Gallery and only saw a fraction. TripAdvisor is good for the top 60 things to do/see, and that’s a good place to start.


Al, a veteran of the Vietnam war, looks for names of his lost Army buddies.

I wanted Al to see the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and Arlington Cemetery (we got there just in time for the changing of the guard – a bonus). Our traveling companions wanted to see the Air and Space Museum (one of the 30+ Smithsonian museums), the Smithsonian Castle, The Supreme Court, and The National Archives. Al wanted to see the National Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Through our friends’ congressman, we got a White House tour, which we all agreed was the lowlight of our visit, and that the National Archives was the highlight. In addition, we spent $20 each to see the Newseum, which was not all that great except for the beautiful display of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, which moved me to tears.


Mike Sack, me, John Saul, and Al after lunch at the National Archives cafeteria, with the capitol dome in the background. A nicely overcast day.

We needed to schedule a Pentagon tour 15 days in advance, but opted instead for the White House tour. We would have enjoyed the Pentagon more.


Looking across the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and the Capitol building beyond. Taken from the steps of the Lincoln memorial.

We spent a day on Capitol Hill, my old stomping grounds, visiting old haunts, a little trip down memory lane of 20+ years ago, and walked and walked and walked. (tip: Take two pair of shoes and alternate.) Then we went back to the hotel for a nap, went out for dinner, and roamed the city after dark. We felt completely safe in the neighborhood of our hotel (Dupont Circle), on the Metro, and on the national mall, where all the monuments are beautifully lighted.

Finally, see a show at the Kennedy Center, if you can. We had dinner on the waterfront before we went to see the whodunit comedy “Shear Madness,” an overpriced but delightfully funny show geared toward the mostly middle-school, high-school audience members.

All the monuments are free, all the Smithsonian museums are free, all the federal buildings are free. They all belong to us.

Take your camera, take your travel journal, but most of all, take yourself and take your kids. It’s a trip worth taking.


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