Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Book Review : The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer

After reading Rescue Me and The Starter Wife, I was interested in meeting Grazer’s latest strong female protagonist in The After Wife. Hannah Marsh Bernal has the perfect life – an entertainment industry job she loves and a husband and daughter she adores. But it all falls apart on one fateful Saturday morning. Her husband John, a professional chef and author, leaves home for the local farmer’s market and is killed in a hit and run accident. Hannah tells us what it is like to have her life changed forever. In a few short hours, she goes from a woman making love to her husband to a widow in a world not sympathetic to sadness. “Grieving widows, a living sign of human vulnerability, are as welcome as chlamydia.”

I quickly became enmeshed in Hannah’s world. We go along with Hannah and her “Grief Team” – best friends Jay, Chloe, and Aimee – to the yoga studios, spas, cafes, and landmarks of Santa Monica. But Hannah also has more ethereal visitors. First, it is a voice in the backyard intoning, “It’s not true what they say.” A few months later, Hannah has another encounter with Trish, the deceased former owner of her North of Montana Avenue (NoMo) home, Casa Sugar. At a spa, while talking to best friend Aimee about a V-Steam, she sees a man sitting next to her, who she later discovers is Aimee’s deceased grandfather. When her daughter Ellie gets kicked out of a prestigious pre-school for mentioning that she still sees her father, Hannah sees the principal’s deceased grandmother. When she contacts a spiritualist on Halloween, she is told that her backyard is full of the dead. She loses her job when the dead relatives of her colleagues interrupt a crucial production meeting. Then she starts finding messages in the food in the refrigerator. But when John finally contacts her, he tells her that the police report is wrong. Now, not only does Hannah have to deal with living as a widow, she has to find her husband’s Range Rover-driving killer and listen to all of the dead people who have decided to use her as a conduit.

After coffee dates with a handsome widowed banker, they decide to go on a real date. That’s when Hannah finds out that she also sees the newly departed. She sees the deceased mother of the principal of her daughter’s new school minutes before the principal receives the phone call. She sees her best friend’s dog minutes before a coyote’s howl and the dog turns up missing. What does it all mean? Is Hannah destined to have a foot in both worlds? When she discovers a secret about one of her best friends, she asks herself, “Was I helping people with this ‘gift?’ Or hurting them?”

But life goes on, even for those visited by the dead. The bills pile up, but no job offers are on the horizon and no life insurance payment either. Hannah loses a job as a barista and accepts an offer to sell Casa Sugar and leave NoMo. But of course, that doesn’t happen, once Hannah discovers that she can contact the other side for profit. She is able to save her house while giving others closure with their departed loved ones. The final chapter solves the mystery of John’s death and lets us know that Hannah and her “Grief Team” have a lot of happiness in their future.

I liked Hannah, the reluctant widow who learns to reinvent herself while picking up the pieces of her life and the clues to her husband’s demise. Her descriptions of life North of Montana Avenue made me chuckle. Fate made Hannah realize that her lifestyle was a fleeting one. “I was gawking at my future – typical Santa Monica homeless woman – and she was mocking her past – typical Santa Monica latte-slinging, hand-wringing, hybrid-driving, liberal-voting, yoga mat-toting bourgeoisie.” But in spite of the humorous descriptions of Santa Monica residents, it is obvious that Hannah, and Glazer, love the residents of Santa Monica. A fun, uplifting read and another success for Gigi Levangie Grazer.

The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer will be published on July 10, 2012, by Ballantine Books


Spam Guard is On


How did I get on these lists? Almost none of these messages have anything to do with MY life, but I get over a hundred a day. I decided to spend a few minutes of my oh-so-valuable time on reading the headings from a page of spam. Spam – I used to like Spam™ (the canned meat product). It made for a tasty lunch treat, even though the other kids looked at me funny. Maybe I’ll try that new turkey Spam™.

Back to the topic at hand. Recently, I printed out a page of spam messages from my e-mail account to see what relevance they had to my current lifestyle. But I will not give any of them free advertising by mentioning their names. Just because I like Spam™, I’m not stupid or anything.

“Find new flirts!” I have been on a few online dating pages, but not this one. (At least I don’t think so.) They all lure you in by telling you how free and easy everything is on their website, tempting you with photos of handsome couples frolicking, dining, or getting married. “This could be you,” is the silent message. If you enter your information, after a few days you may get alerts indicating that members of the opposite sex are interested in you. Want to get to know those flirts? Want to look at their photos? Well, pull out your wallet – that is going to cost you. But I don’t want to gamble with my hard-gained money on the odd chance that one of these “flirts” may not actually BE odd. Or maybe it is a free site. Unfortunately in the online dating world, “free” means “loser.” I joined a free site once. The photos were amusing. Jail photos, photos obviously taken decades ago, photos taken in front of a mirror in a messy apartment, photos with ex-wives or girlfriends edited out – everything was there except photos of nice looking guys. I saw a photo of a man with his dog and wanted to date the dog. One desperate single father wanted me to raise his daughter. I’m not saying that I won’t try online dating again, but it won’t be with a site that sends me a spam message every day at 9:04 am.

“Earn your degree today!” I already have two degrees. But I can get started in a new career in just a few short months. I don’t want to work in the fast growing medical field or the fast growing computer field. And how would I pay for this new degree, when I already have a fast-growing student loan that I won’t have paid off until I am 102? I get at least four new degree messages a day, three of them from the same school. Is this really the ideal recruitment method? Aren’t the sides of buses, the backs of comic books, and ads during afternoon talk shows bringing in enough new students?

“Find expert home repair companies right now!” I haven’t owned a home since 1984 – the year, not the book. On a good day, I live in an apartment. On a bad day, I live in a homeless shelter. And even if I had a house, I would probably solicit recommendations from other homeowners for any household repairs. I definitely would not be contacting a company that sends me messages every day at 10:50 PM. Are the providers of these home repairs the same people who attended those schools that send me spam at 9:53 AM? Is home repair a fast growing field?

“Test drive a new car!” Everyone is having sales on new cars. Did anyone check to see if I had a license? The payment of the aforementioned student loans does not leave much room for car payments. The nonpayment of the aforementioned student loans does not gain me any positive points on  my credit rating. But all I need to do is come into the office and all obstacles were will be eliminated. Sure they will. That’s how my last car got repossessed, which is public knowledge and can be retrieved on the Internet. There are no car dealerships open at 5:11AM. Virtual test drives don’t count.

Which brings me to my favorite ads – the ones for male enhancement products. I am neither a male nor do I need any enhancement, at least not any enhancement that a little pill could provide. The prices are reasonable, the results are guaranteed, and no longer would I have to wonder about being a real man and pleasing my woman. Do these advertisers know or even care that I am a woman? Or are they assuming that at 9:39 AM, I got out of my bed and rushed to my computer, hoping against hope that there would be some magic elixir I could get for my husband or boyfriend that would turn him into the man he hoped to be or once was and could be again? I’ll cross that bridge when I find my soul mate on a online dating site.

This is just a small sample of the offers I receive daily in my spam folder. I could also spy on my partner, clear up my skin, find a rich lonely man, and fix my teeth – all starting with a click of a mouse. I can send photos of my breakfast to 362 of my closest friends on Facebook, but I can’t eliminate having to read about male enhancement pills several times a day? Now I’m tired, distraught, and hungry. Turkey Spam™ sounds good about now…


Some artifacts have the power to keep us connected to those we have loved and lost. They may look like useless items from another time, but they contain the essence of those who have touched our lives. Just one touch can activate many memories.

Gold Ring

I keep Daddy’s union ring in a small jewelry box. The gold is tarnished with age, but the words “U.M.W. of America” can still be deciphered on the front. Daddy was a proud member of the United Mine Workers of America. He worked in coal mines for many years, from eastern Kentucky to western Pennsylvania. Each month, he would peruse the UMWA Journal, even though he couldn’t read or write. Coal mining was the portal to a good livelihood, giving him the means to take care of his family. And the Union made it possible. Before I knew who George Washington was, I knew the importance of John L. Lewis.

Black Hat

Daddy was a volunteer fireman in my hometown of Hills Station. When the siren pieced the air, he would grab his black hat with the big “1” on the front and head for the fire hall. A few minutes later, I would see the white fire engine racing down the street with Daddy on the back. Hours later, he would return with stories about the blaze he helped to contain. I display the hat in my living room, a reminder of Daddy’s bravery and sense of duty.

Gray Camera

 Daddy loved gadgets, especially instant cameras. I have one of his Polaroid Land cameras from the fifties, still in its original gray box with matching flash, as well as a box camera from an earlier decade. One afternoon, Momma and I stood outside for hours while Daddy took pictures of us. We stood around watching as the images developed slowly in black and white. Once it was ready, he would smooth the emulsion over the photo, preserving the image. But Daddy was always the photographer, as he rarely allowed others to touch his expensive equipment. I still have some of his photos in an old black photo album.

Silver Whistle

Daddy was also an auxiliary policeman. When on duty, he wore a navy blue uniform with a badge on the front and another badge on his hat. I thought he looked very handsome in his uniform. The silver police whistle was used to direct traffic during parades, funeral processions, and at Halloween. I keep the whistle on a keychain with my keys. It makes me feel like Daddy is still protecting me.

Brown Bat

When he was young, Daddy played baseball in one of the local amateur teams. Over the years, he never lost his love of the game. When I was young, he attended Pittsburgh Pirates games at Forbes Field with his best friend. As he got older, he never missed a game on KDKA, whether it was on the radio or on television. A slender, light tan Louisville Slugger kept vigil in his closet for many years. When I moved to California, I left the bat with my best friend, who kept it near her bed. Each time that I go back to Pennsylvania, I hold the bat in my hands, feeling the roughness of the black tape that Daddy put on it to improve his grip. One day, I’m going to bring that bat to California, if I can get it on a plane.

Even though Daddy has been gone for almost thirty-seven years, these keepsakes remind me of the man who taught me how to tie my shoes, ride a bike, and persevere in spite of obstacles. I celebrate the legacy of John Hogg on this Father’s Day.            

N 40˚ 18’, W 80˚ 07’


      Where am I from? According to a show I once saw on the History Channel, I am from Appalachia, a word I have always had a hard time spelling. And its pronunciation has changed since I was a little girl. I still say App-pa-lay-sha, but the modern pronunciation is App-pa-la-chia, or something like that. If I use the facts relayed by that program, the boundary between Washington County and Allegheny County that was about two miles from my home was similar to the Mason-Dixon Line, separating Appalachia from the Industrial North of Pittsburgh and points East.

Whatever. I grew up in a coal mining company town, in western Pennsylvania, in Washington County, in Cecil Township. I tried to look up my hometown on Google Maps, but all I got was a satellite photo of some railroad tracks. Maybe the name is the problem. My hometown was Hills, named after some guy named Thomas Hill. But when the railroad went in at the bottom of the hill, the stop was called Hills Station. But the post office was Lawrence, PA 15055. The local coal mine was Montour Four.

About nine years ago, after reading an essay about my hometown in a workshop during my MFA residency in Los Angeles, another student made a remark about what he called my experiences growing up poor in a coal mining camp. I could feel the invisible hackles start to rise. I crossed my arms across my chest and rolled my eyes – the international black girl symbol for “no you did not just say that.” I quickly set him straight in a manner that would have made John L. Lewis proud. Yes, I grew up in a company house, but it was an eight-room house and my parents owned it. My father drove a Cadillac, which he paid cash for, trading one in for a new model every few years. We didn’t have sidewalks, but we had indoor plumbing, gas heat, and electricity. My mother hung her laundry outside because we had a big yard and it made the clothes smell like sunshine. I may have gone to a two-room schoolhouse for the first three grades of elementary school, but Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Spillman were the best teachers a child could have. I was a spoiled only child who never wanted for the necessities of life. Sure, I didn’t get every Barbie or even every book I wanted, but I got most of them. After my unplanned tirade, he apologized. He was from West Virginia; he should have known better.

There is the problem. No one who didn’t grow up in the area knows anything about western Pennsylvania. Even in 2012, I’m still educating people on the difference between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. (No, they are not near each other. Didn’t you have geography in grammar school? Get a map.) And Heaven forbid if I have to explain about the West Virginia panhandle. (It involves hand gestures.) The Cecil Township web site only has a photo of the Township municipal building. I think they should add some photos; maybe hire a good photojournalist who can capture the spirit of the place. They could ask for donations of pictures chronicling parades, picnics, carnivals, and other local events. I don’t know about the rest of its current and former residents, but for me, Hills was a wonderful place to grow up. It took many years of reflection to come to that realization, but I’m glad that I did.

So I will tag this essay accordingly. I will spend the rest of my years writing about the town that made me the person I am today. I will wax romantic and poetic about my memories of decades gone by. Because I didn’t grow up on a tiny black spot on a Pennsylvania map. I grew up in a great town, among great people, in an area that deserves to be recognized. That’s where I am from. Put that on your map.

Why I Rock

Photo by Pat Soberanis

After attending a free rock concert, I felt my usual melancholy once I realized that it was over. But this time, I decided to decipher it, while I waited for the ringing in my ears to dissipate. For more than thirty years, I have loved attending rock concerts and meeting bands, the perpetrators of the sound. If a good rock show is playing my town, or a town that I can get to in a few hours, I will spend months anticipating the event. If it is one of my favorite bands, I will count down the days like a little girl waiting for Christmas. On the day of the show, I will spend extra time getting ready, putting on the outfit that I picked out days earlier, spritzing my favorite scent, and gliding my favorite hair product on my natural curls. And of course, this is all done to the accompaniment of a CD or cassette (yes, I still have them) of that night’s headliners.

I will join my friends, who may already be with me if it is an out-of-town show and we have rented a hotel room. In town, we will drive to the club, theatre or arena or meet at the door. If I am alone, I head to the venue early, pumped up and ready to enjoy the show. When the lights go down, my heart speeds up. I scan the dark stage for the first glimpse of a favorite musician. The first chord is strummed or the first drumbeat is struck, the lights come on – and away we go! If it is a good show, the band and the audience unite, taking each other to a higher level. When the band is cooking and the crowd is sailing along on the sight, sound, and feel of the music and the band, there is nothing better.

After the show, the excitement level drops somewhat, but I still feel invigorated. I don’t want it to end. Maybe we’ll meet the band. Maybe we’ll just spend the evening reliving the show, comparing notes over drinks or a late night snack. But I never want to just go home after a show. I still want to rock. So we stand by the backstage door, waiting for the band. I’m always afraid to speak, awed by the talent of these alchemists who add so much to my life. Or maybe we’ll go to the hotel bar, watching the door to see if anyone interesting comes through. Or maybe it’s just walking around among the crowd, hanging with other fans that are too high, literally or figuratively, to go home. Even though I might make jokes with girlfriends about the physical attributes of some of my favorite musicians, it’s not really about sex. Let’s face it — I’m neither young, tall or blonde nor young, petite and exotic, so my chances of bagging a rock star are slim to none, unless the venue is a retirement home. But that’s not the fun part, anyway. That’s not the mystery. It’s the music that’s important, not the composition of the messenger. When a band is good, I want to know why – how do they do it? Where do those sounds come from? How did you capture them – take them from the ether and put them in your mind, hands, and feet? I want them to tell me all about it, why they give up their families, their friends, and what others consider a conventional lifestyle to follow the music, to live on the road, traveling thousands of miles just to play for two hours each night. Why do some do it for twenty or thirty years or more?

But why do I rock? If I had unlimited discretionary income, I would go to at least three rock concerts a week. If my favorite bands were on tour, I would follow them from town to town, like I used to go to Dead shows back in the day. Rock music makes me happy; it makes my life worth living. The right sound must stimulate a pleasure point in our brains, like a drug or a touch from our one true love. I can’t imagine a world without live music. I wouldn’t want to exist without feeling the omnipresent rumble of a bass, the aural assault of a lead guitar, or the primal pounding of a drum. Others may live for classical or rap or country, but for me, only rock will do. It is essential as the air that I breathe, the water that I drink or the blood that courses through my veins with the rhythm of my heartbeat.

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question. There is no answer, I guess. It is what it is. In the words of the late, great, Ronnie James Dio – “We rock!”

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