Sinister Suggestions by Dr. Karen Stephen – Why is my mystery novel set in 1961?

To preview Sinister Suggestions, please enjoy my BOOK TRAILER.

The answer to the “why” of the setting and time period chosen for my third novel Sinister Suggestions is found in Chapter Twelve of my first novel, Degrees of Obsession. This chapter contains the most autobiographical material found in any of my works of fiction. My alter ego, protagonist Dr. Charlie Pederson, describes herself and her best friend Marietta growing up in La Jolla, California in the Fifties:

Marietta and I were on the cusp, so to speak, graduating from high school in 1961. We entered puberty in 1955 along with a generation of kids who spent their formative years crouching in dirty hallways, sweaty fingers laced behind their well-scrubbed necks, waiting for the A-bomb. We graduated at the peak of the SAT scores. Our parents were afraid of Sputniks, and we were afraid of our parents. There were rumors about poodle skirts, but I never laid eyes on one. I felt out of kilter with my own generation. My mother insisted I wear sturdy brown oxfords instead of the saddle shoes and Capezios that graced the dainty feet of my peers.  Of course, irradiating my toes under the shoe store fluoroscope negated the health benefit of good arch support. Actually, looking at the bare bones in my feet was the closest I ever got to obscenity. My political consciousness peaked at having two parakeets named “Ike” and a German shepherd with the same patriotic appellation. My family was not big on original thought.

In Chapter Six, Charlie describes her and, thus, my transition to college at Stanford University in the fall of 1961:

There was a saying that went:  “Nine out of ten California girls are beautiful and the tenth one goes to Stanford.”  I went to Stanford. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t break mirrors, but there were thousands of drop-dead gorgeous women in California, even in high school.  I was tall and naturally blonde…well, almost.  That brief stint in modeling school had served me well.  I had outgrown my awkward pubescent years and could manage a graceful stride when I put my mind to it.  Any shortfall I had in the looks department had been well compensated in the brain department.  Those top grades paid off.  Twenty-two of my classmates also applied to Stanford, but none of the others was admitted.  The day my letter of acceptance came in the mail, I had more than a few envious friends.  My ego was quickly deflated, however, when I arrived on campus, just another clueless freshman set loose in a seething mass of upperclassmen. I struggled through the maze of registration, jostled by the milling masses at Memorial Auditorium.  I fretted as I watched the IBM cards, each printed with one class opening, disappear into the greedy hands of the students ahead of me in line.  I breathed a sigh of relief when the precious card for Chemistry for Chem Majors fell into my possession. My relief was short-lived, however.  After I collected the rest of my class cards, I realized that two required courses had been assigned to me on the same days at the same hour.  I stared in dismay at the placards overhead that forbade any changes to the pre-assigned sections of either Freshman English or Western Civ. 

In Sinister Suggestions, my alter ego morphs into a new character named Mattie Thorne, a frosh student at Stanford that fall of 1961. She is suffering from amnesia due to unknown trauma from her past or present. Her journey and that of her rescuers, a determined and rebellious group of student staffers working on the campus newspaper, The Stanford Daily (click for archival issue from September 25, 1961), is told in this first book in a series of four murder mysteries entitled The Stanford Daily Mysteries.

In addition, staying true to my goal of blending truth into fiction, I have taken social, political, and lifestyle stories from the pages of the Daily from that 1961-2 academic year, added my own memories from the same period of time, and combined them with the requisite murders demanded by the mystery genre. The world itself was caught between Camelot and catastrophe in 1961 and many of the societal and political issues of that day plague us in the present, such as nuclear threats and sexual violence on college campuses.

Evidence that we had moved past Fonzie and the Happy Days of the 1950s, is shown in this list of a few of the world events that occurred in 1961:

  • UN General Assembly condemns apartheid in South Africa
  • Berlin Wall is built, dividing East and West Germany
  • American-backed Cuban exiles fail in an attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs
  • Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo is assassinated
  • Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completes the first orbit of Earth by a human

To preview Sinister Suggestions, please enjoy my BOOK TRAILER.

Just One? A KQED Perspective 2007

I finally came across a copy of the KQED Perspective I did in 2007. I had taken a class of how to write and present a topic for this well-known radio format and was thrilled when my offering was accepted. I recorded it at the KQED studios in San Francisco. It is no longer in their archives, so I was excited to find a copy in my own files. For all you single folk out there…enjoy!

Monkey Inn night ~ Berkeley Early Sixties ~ where music and mayhem were born

monkey-inn-barOne of my fondest memories from my wacky sophomore year at Cal Berkeley in 1962-63 was chugging $1 a pitcher beer at the Monkey Inn on Thursday nights. Proof that it cost $1 a pitcher is right there on the wall behind the bar in this photo. 25 cents a mug and a guarantee of 5 mugs to a pitcher. Such a deal! My three roommates and I would hop into my 1959 Morris Minor and drive the mile or so from our off-campus digs in a Parker Street duplex just off Telegraph Avenue. This was the year before Sproul Hall and the Free Speech Movement, so frat parties, beer kegs, and panty raids were still in. And I had in hand. not a fake ID. but a real CA driver’s license saying I was 25 that I’d obtained by taking an actual driving test and dressing “older”. Later my mother, viewing a Berkeley police report when I went temporarily AWOL would see a reference to a certain Karen Veazie AKA Karen Scott Billings and would exclaim, “My daughter’s not a criminal!”

Today I decided to do an internet search and see if I could find any reference to the Monkey Inn in that day. And, boy, was I surprised!

bill-erickson-trioThursday night was indeed Monkey Inn night. The superb Bill Erickson jazz combo: Frank Goudie (clarinet), Jimmy Carter (drums), Bob Mielke (trombone) and Bill Erickson (piano) held sway Thursday nights at the Monkey from the late 50s up through 1962. Do I remember the music? No. I called my best friend, and she didn’t remember it either. Just the beer and the frat boys (mostly the bad boy Betas AKA Beta Theta Pi’s or the notorious Fijis AKA Phi Gamma Delta’s). Needless to say our little quartet from Parker Street did not represent the prim. round-collared, pearl-bedecked sorority girls of the day.

I found an account that said it was a beer and pizza joint near the Oakland border that was a rough UC Berkeley student hangout with sawdust on the floor and, “fraternity guys out on their first beer benders. It got pretty rowdy sometimes.”  I guess no one noticed that there were at least four “girls” out on their first benders as well. The account added that the musicians rarely sounded happier than when playing primarily for themselves, and only secondarily for a mostly indifferent college crowd. Must be why we don’t remember the music.

karen-and-mary-louBut when I read about what happened the next year, I was even more astounded. By 1964 my best friend and I (I’m the tall one!)had returned to La Jolla where we had grown up and found a minuscule apartment under the front stairway of a Spanish mansion across from the famed Wind ‘n’ Sea beach. I attended the 3rd and 4th of my undergraduate schools (yes, Berkeley was school number two after a freshman year at Stanford, but I finally went to grad school, got a Ph.D., and was a therapist for 40 years and still work in the mental health field at age 73–so there!). My best friend got a totally cool job at the new Saks Fifth Avenue store in La Jolla.

Meanwhile back in Berkeley, a new band, known as Blue Velvet, arrived at the Monkey Inn to perform in the Spring and Fall of 1964. Formed by John Fogerty, Doug Clifford, and Stu Cook at El Cerrito High School, Blue Velvet played instrumentals at the school dances, and later backed John’s older brother, Tom Fogerty. They also played at frat parties at Berkeley. I had no clue that we came that close to witnessing the beginnings of Creedence Clearwater Revival. One historian remembers listening to what was to become CCR at the Monkey Inn and having peanuts and beer for dinner.

There is even a mention of the Monkey Inn during the 1964 Sproul Hall events: It is difficult to reconstruct what happened next, for later campus reactions to the events left few people willing to talk about their roles in the affair. Dean Rice believes that three groups of male students converged just outside the Bancroft-Telegraph entrance to the campus. One group apparently came down from Channing Circle, another from Larry Blake’s, a popular fraternity drinking place, and a third from the Monkey Inn, another beer-drinking spot popular with fraternity members. (These are hearsay reports, rather than firmly documented descriptions.) An aside, Larry Blake’s was certainly our second most favorite venue for finding beer and boys.

In 1968, the Monkey Inn moved closer to campus, to the corner of University and Shattuck Avenues. The new club at 2119 University was called The New Monk. It had local rock bands headlining on weekends, but most of the time it was just a beer and pizza place for college students. In the middle of 1971, however, The New Monk started booking higher profile club bands. Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders played there on June 4 and 5, 1971, and then again on June 26 and June 27.

So here’s the end of the story. In 1992 I began work as a psychologist at a Bay Area Kaiser. During my first week of work, my boss, the Chief Psychiatrist, took me to a luncheon event. We got to talking and discovered that we were at Berkeley at the same time. Then he asked if I ever went to the Monkey Inn on Thursday nights! He told me he and his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers never missed it. My life flashed before my eyes as I frantically searched my memory and hoped against hope that I hadn’t cozied up to him at the bar or even worse! I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw not a hint of recognition on his face.

After my internet search, the Monkey Inn has become even a better memory for me. It is now the home of La Peña Cultural Center promoting social justice, arts participation and intercultural understanding. We’ve all come a long way, baby!

Moving On

art-of-moving-onNot too many days ago,
my mind developed a mind of her own.
It happened almost the very second that my eyes read
that sappy online blog.

You can make a choice about moving on.

I, as usual, rejected the pop psychology blather.
Sure, I said in my best know-it-all sarcastic voice.
I’ve tried for six years, count ‘em, six years,
With help, without help,
praying, ranting, practicing the old fake it ‘til you make it.
All to no avail.
But, somewhere inside my head, I repeated the corny line
with the perfunctory obedience of a stubborn child.

Instantly, my mind,
which had spent a lifetime lurking unseen, unheard,
somewhere inside my left parietal lobe,
came to life and grabbed on to the new revolutionary idea.
In a flurry of celebration, my mind shouted,
We’re moving on? Awesome!
I’m so sick of thinking those same useless thoughts,
so bored with your futile wishing and hoping.
How many times are you going to make me plod through the same daydream,
the one with your version of a happy ending,
the one that gets rid of the wife and his bad habits,
the one that rights all the wrongs,
and vindicates six years of avoiding reality?

At the same time my mind seemed to have compassion for
the five year old me,
the child inside who still wonders why Daddy left,
why no one asked her to the prom,
why the years without love have far outdistanced
any moments of bliss, and
who still wants her fairy tale ending.

But now that my mind has finally spoken up
And has convinced me that torturing her
isn’t going to solve my problems,
I can’t seem to go back.
The fact that the very next day I had not one but two offers for
coffee and conversation, and a third close on their heels,
added a karmic underscore.

As with all things
life rummages about and finds
chinks in the armor of even our
best intentions and insights.
The cancelling of one offer,
a disappointing turn of events with the other,
and tears surged over the spillway of my cheeks,
creating deep gouges of despondency.
Thoughts of revenge clamored for my attention,
pounding on the door of my mind
with a battering ram of malevolence.
A full out assault demanding
justice for wrongs done.

My mind, without comment, declined to cooperate.
Once liberated,
out of patience with my lifetime of self-pity,
of conjuring up happiness in my head
instead of creating it in my real life,
my mind refused to send the emails that would
illuminate then destroy their lives.
Then, she sat with me on the edge of the bed
until the gush of tears turned to a drowsy drop or two,
coaxed me under the covers and
lullabied me to sleep.

Upon waking this morning,
she got me dressed and fed,
sat me down to write this poem,
put on my make up
and shuffled me out the door
for lunch with prospect number three.
No promises, she reminded me,
but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Oh, please!
But out the door I went.
Moving on.
Awesome!

You’re NEVER too old for Legos!

So I’m in Sacramento for a business meeting and I drop by the local mall to take an air-conditioned walk and what do I see but the Lego Store. A few days before I’d gotten an email about their Speed Champions set. Marked for ages 8 to 14, I figure at 72 I’d have it made. So back to the Hilton and I begin to build the Porsche 917 K.

A few days and 732 pieces later, it all comes together. I dare you to find the photos of the real cars? Love the detail right down to the wrenches on the wall and in the drawers, the video monitors, the hydraulic lift that goes up and down, fuel line, and air guns for tire changes, and all the itsy-bitsy decals (a little difficult for arthritic fingers!). And I watched this Sunday’s Indy race at Long Beach while I was putting it together. So I’m a happy camper, except that Helio Castroneves didn’t win and Simon Pagenaud got away with murder. Someone asked my if I’m going to share my new creation with my grandchildren…no way! However, my six-year-old granddaughter has already managed to break Mimi’s rule. Okay…I’ll share.

IMG_1670IMG_1672porsche-917-kh-short-tail-team-salszburgIMG_1713porsche-919-hybrid-6 IMG_1681IMG_1682IMG_1683IMG_1684IMG_1707IMG_1709IMG_1708IMG_1688IMG_1687

An ode to my alter ego by Doc Flamingo

flamingo_closeup_peeping_md_clr__stperfectly balanced
knobby-kneed leg tucked under
a fountain of pink fluff
bold black beak
ending in scimitar curve

2014-01-20 10.18.52instantly recognizable in any form
elegant
comic
tropical
plastic
neon

shall I compare me to thee
deserve I your name?
“doc” is well earned
“flamingo” perhaps
misappropriated

flying namibiado you scoff at my timidity
compared to your bravado
soaring en masse over wetlands
in the Carmarque or Namibia
or regally planted on lawns
dignity never lost
never needed

do I draw the same admiring looks
spark the same smiles
or do I swim listless in a sea of
beige humanity

Maddux Flamingos do I catch the collector’s eye
as you do
alive with form and color
or do the connoisseurs pass on by
leaving me to gather dust
on a nameless shelf
cluttered with equally
non-distinguished folk

would I keep your sense of humor
if caricatured in pastel hues?
or would I bristle
with high and haughty hubris

even faded and forgotten
in the aftermath of some raucous party
you remain an icon of delight
absent the rage I would feel
to be so ill-used

flamingo_sunglasses_drink_md_clr__stbut I stubbornly keep your name
and hope you will forgive
your pink passion gives off
a secondary glow
making me into what
I aspire to be
I can always hope for reincarnation
as the real thing
in my next life