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Vamonos! by Bill Stephens
Two offbeat C&W musicians flee Austin,Texas, on their Harleys and find themselves in the Mexican Desert on a comical journey of redemption. Mankind's foibles, political oppression, greed, and illegal immigration are all confronted without a single gunshot
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Read It and Weep
by:  Bill Stephens
e-mail:  stephens.billy@att.net
web:  http://www.billstephensbooks.com
Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of- but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. Robert Heinlein
January 15, 2014

A New Low

From time to time I post some whining about writing and the publishing business in general. How unfair and difficult it is for a debut writer to get published. You know, that sort of thing.

I finally convinced myself that the process was never going to yield any acceptance even though I was for a time represented by a successful agent. Successful, that is, for her other writers. So I self-published – first through CreateSpace and then through Franklin Scribes Publishers. I must admit that the ego boost of seeing my work in print, though nothing like that of being accepted by a traditional publisher, was nonetheless rewarding.

This fuzzy warm feeling was not without its problems. One of the basic tenents of self- publishing is to have your manuscript professionally edited. I did this at great cost. Three times in fact, followed by five, count ‘em, five beta readers -- all very savvy and literate folks. Fortunately, Vamonos!-A Humorous Adventure Novel, was published on demand, because even after this grueling gauntlet of editing, there were typos in the text. This is one of the huge advantages of print-on-demand publishing. You don’t end up with a garage full of flawed books.

A number of books were already out in the public being read by (I hoped) reasonably illiterate readers, but I rounded up about thirty copies and quarantined them. What to do with flawed books? I Googled “books for prisoners” and discovered a group called Inside Books Project http://www.insidebooksproject.org in Austin, Texas, that ships donated books to prisoners in Texas jails.

Austin is close to my home, so the postage to get the books to this group would be minimum. I checked by phone to assure that what I proposed met their approval. They said it did and confirmed the shipping address. I dutifully packaged the books, included a check to help cover the postage to send the books to prisons, added $16.80 media mail postage, and sent the flawed epistles on their way.

Two weeks later I received a notice of a package to be picked up at the Post office. When I presented the notice, they rolled out the boomerang box of books marked “Unclaimed” along with a $16.80 bill for return postage due. OMG! This was a new low. I can’t even give these things away – to convicted felons with a lot of time to read.

The question of what to do with several dozen flawed books returned. I’ve ruled out dropping them from a helicopter over selected parts of the city -- a liability problem. Donating them to a Port-O-Potty company lacked a certain cache. Riding city buses all day, leaving copies on the seats might give me a renewed perspective on my hometown. Lurking on dark street corners hailing strangers with “Psssst, feeelthy books, only a dollar” could cover part of my postage costs. Of course there’s always recycling. I’m really hung up on this problem. Any suggestions?

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August 2, 2012

Spontaneity is the Soul of Joy.”

I take full credit for creating the axiom, “Spontaneity is the Soul of Joy.” It was my traditional mantra. Spontaneity in children is taken for granted, and often adults suffer its results. Then something happens. With maturity, spontaneity fades into consideration. Into concern. To caution. Thence to calculation, carefulness, and finally withers into stagnation and vegetation.

Money, health, and both social and political pressure can restrain spontaneity; however, credit cards were designed to solve the money problem. Health is direr but many spontaneously opted out of treatments to prolong life in favor of having a little fun before the end. If we let social and political correctness rule our lives, then we deserve the life we endure.

Recent events proved how easily spontaneity fades like mist in sunshine. My barista at the coffeehouse I frequent asked last week, “Why do you always order the same thing: Vente, skinny, half-caff, sugar free vanilla, latte.”

“That’s what I like.”

“Try something different. You might like it more.”

By this time she had finished my beverage of choice, and I was left to ponder her question while I sipped my drab old favorite.

Sometime later I visited an ice cream parlor for the first time in a decade. It featured two refrigerated marble slabs on which they folded various condiments into ice cream. Sixteen basic flavors of ice cream and thirty-two different jars held things with which one could defile vanilla ice cream. I ordered a two-dip waffle cone (they didn’t have a real cone).

“What flavor?’

“Vanilla, of course.”

“Both dips?”

“Why would I mix flavors?”

“What do you want in the vanilla?”

“Why, vanilla I suppose.”

“I mean condiments.” He gestured toward the jars.

“Why would I want to add something to vanilla ice cream?”

“To add excitement – to kick it up a notch.”

Serious reflection followed. The vague restlessness that plagued my waking hours came into focus. I realized I was about as spontaneous as a fence post. So that’s where the joy went.

Yesterday, I was sitting in a different coffeehouse, drinking a Chai Tea, wearing a beret and an ascot, when a beautiful woman entered. Even through all her fashion I could see a beauty of indefinable, huggable femininity. The order line placed her next to my table. I couldn’t resist. Standing, I hugged her saying, “Please excuse me, but I just have to do this.”

The designer of her fashionable purse felt that brass tabs on its corners would make it more lethal. After the blow, I was stunned and bleeding from a cut on my face. She immediately regretted her overreaction and pulled out a package of tissue from that bludgeon of a purse.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, swabbing my face. “You surprised me. Please, let me drive you to an emergency clinic so they can look at this cut.”

The episode hurt a little, but God it was fun. We’re meeting again today for a Chai, except I think I’ll try something different.

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April 29, 2012

A Waist is a Terrible Thing to Mind.

Being weight challenged has plagued me throughout my food service and journalistic life. I’ve always carried a lot of weight around in the world of the gastronomy and gustatorial arts, in fact I bring a lot to every press trip, wine dinner, or food/wine luminary interview.

Help came in 1996 when the editor of my newspaper offered to send me to The Duke Diet and Fitness Clinic in Durham, North Carolina. I would spend month there while writing weekly columns about their program for the readers of the paper. The object was for me to lose one hundred pounds over a six-month period.

After checking into my efficiency apartment across the street from the Diet Center in Durham, I went to the store to stock up the kitchen. Wheeling down the aisle I realized that all meals would be eaten at the Center, and even a crust of bread in the apartment would compromise my mission. I bought a bottle of water and some instant coffee and went back to stare at the walls. The entire apartment house was filled with Diet Center attendees, but every night the sound of doors opening surreptitiously for the pizza man kept me awake.

The Center arranged activities for the attendees from golf tournaments to attending the Durham Bulls (made famous in the movie “Bull Durham.”) baseball games. I think the golf course shut down for a time after our golf outing to get the footprints out of the greens. We were recognized at the ballpark as a group from The Duke Diet and Fitness Center and asked to stand. When all these three and four hundred-pounders stood, I imagined the fans thinking, “Man, that program just isn’t working.”

The Duke Diet program is probably the best thought out and executed program available for the morbidly obese. For every hour they give you in nutrition, meal planning, and exercise, they give you two hours of psychological reinforcement for how to get yourself to do what must be done. I lost sixty pounds and kept it off for a reasonable time. But, as the Good Book says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Pussy the Gourmet Cat
Pussy was a gourmet cat
Who'd have a morsel of this
And a tidbit of that.
From ragons of lamb
And chicken every way,
To bacon and ham
And Beef Bordelaise.
With tastes like that
You become a gourmet cat.

During the years that my wife,Kay and I toiled at our restaurant, her indoor/outdoor cats fended for themselves from nine in the morning until after midnight. To compensate, she left a smorgasbord of cat food out for all five of the unappreciative little bastards. Trying to walk through our kitchen was a cat bowl mine field.

A cat had only to whimper, and the next sound would be the can opener grinding out a new feline culinary offering. Suzie only wanted shrimp. Shrimp? Sylvester only ate crunchy dry food which none of the others would touch. Rhett Butler preferred canned food but would eat another brand of crunches. Merry liked an occasional raw egg, which made cooking breakfast difficult with her under foot. They all were offended if tiny sacks of “treats” were not regularly offered. I have no idea what controlled substance was in those treats, but it kept Kay’s cuties strung-out and begging for more. That cat food came from cans with a $0.50 price tag meant nothing to these furry little reprobates.

Something reaches the darkest part of me when I see one of the little adorables approach a freshly opened can of cat food, take one whiff, turn around and start trying it to cover the food up like it had just taken a huge dump. But the urge to drop kick the persnickety little darling soon passes.

Kay and I have no children, and the cats fill the void for her. So every time I file a cat complaint, she reminds me that cats don’t require orthodontia or college educations. I have consoled myself with that thought over the course of our marriage.

Then comes the question of what do these fuzzy little despots do with what they eat and drink. I hoped since they were indoor/outdoor cats that they would have the decency to do their business outside, preferably in the neighbors’ yards. But these little feisties would tear down the backdoor to come in and crap. It still is amazing how creative the adorables are at hiding a turd in a house. Dropping a load in a cat box takes no talent at all. Hiding one where the odor becomes so intense that I selflessly call in a nuclear strike to save mankind, takes some doing.

You’ve probably guessed that I am not some simpering, soggy cat lover who does third person baby talk to these creatures. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can build a pretty strong case for feline extinction. I also hold the hope that the person who first invited one of these animals into his abode is spending eternity neck deep in them.

From all of Kay’s cats, there was, however, one sterling example of what any self-respecting cat should be. His name was Pussy. Pussy was a gelding, a condition that could produce psychological trauma in other toms whose load had been lightened. Not Pussy. He was totally self reliant and fearless.

A neighbor had a tomcat named Peter, and the two cats were bitter enemies. One night a howling cat fight broke out in our backyard that awoke both Kay and myself. She went to the window, returned to bed, and announced, “It’s just Peter fighting Pussy.” Kay went to sleep while I lay in bed for two hours bursting out laughing at the semantics of the occasion.

On another occasion I saw a large German Shepard mistakenly enter Pussy’s front yard domain. From ambush, Pussy landed on the dog’s back launching a diminutive version of a circus dog-and-pony act. Nearing the street, Pussy jumped behind the dog swiping him across his rear and literally “tearing him a new one.”

Pussy had two other completely endearing qualities. First, he ate anything that did not eat him first. His favorites were the leftover treats Kay brought home from the restaurant. The more haute the better the cuisine for Pussy. Second, I never saw where he did his business. I’m talking about near feline perfection here.

Pussy waited ever so stoically each evening in the driveway for our return from the restaurant. He leapt into the car with the door in mid-swing, and dispensed just enough loving to insure the continuation of the ritual. He then proceeded to the business at hand – exploring Kay's ever present brown bag containing his evening treat personally delivered.

He definitely was a different kind of cat. I could appreciate his love for good food, and he had no bad habits. He was not hyper like most cats when they relate to humans and to their own kind. Constantly in control and always completely confident of Kay and me, his serenity and composure were ever intact.

His most endearing trait; however, was his passion for being outside where the action was. A cat that only comes around for short periods of time is something that a non-cat lover can really appreciate. Pussy and I had years of enjoyable détente.

When Pussy died a victim of feline leukemia, we asked the vet to save his remains. Somehow it just didn't seem right for an old friend to end in a plastic sack in a garbage can.

Kay asked me to bury him in our backyard so he would be close. I think also she felt two hours of digging in the limestone infested Texas Hill Country would keep me from continuing to wish for the early demise of her other four cats.

Befittingly, we buried Pussy in a Chateau Trottevieille St. Emilion wooden wine crate. As I lowered him into the ground, I noticed the Chateau's quality designation branded into the wooden box end - "1er Premier Grand Cru Classe."

Yeah, that was old Pussy.

Good Fortune (Cookie)

It was the 1960’s, and I traveled the world selling construction equipment during an eight-year hiatus between marriages. Because our equipment would be used to construct the San Mateo – Hayward Bridge across San Francisco Bay, and because several large contractors called San Francisco home, I spent many days per month in “The City by the Bay.”

There were no complaints, as San Francisco was already an addiction. Now, decades later, I’ve not broken that habit. Back then I could give you a better-guided tour of San Francisco than of my hometown in Texas. The Hippie culture was fascinating. I once sought out the house on Stanyan Street where Rod McKuen lived and sat on the front steps reading his poetry. Café Treste in North Beach was a favorite haunt. While there, I always stopped by Walter Keene’s Gallery on Broadway, and eventually bought two of his paintings of sad-eyed, tear stained children’s faces. Okay, I’ll admit it; on a few occasions I strayed into The Condor Nightclub to see Carol Dodo introduce this new phenomenon called “topless dancing.” You could call Carol a lot of things, but “topless” was not one of them.

I helped put Dungeness crab and abalone on the endangered species list. Scoma’s and The Trident restaurants, both built over the water in Sausalito, were must stops for me. Don’t get me started on San Francisco restaurants, but back in Jack’s Restaurant’s heyday, there was no place west of New Orleans that could bring up classic cuisine of their caliber. Think about a restaurant so successful they had an unlisted phone number.

Since I was not spending my own money, I stayed in the Clift Hotel and started every evening with several Old Fashioned Cocktails in the Redwood Room. The making of an Old Fashioned is an art form, and no one did it better than the bartender at the Redwood. Years later, after Four Seasons began managing the Clift, the Redwood Room Old Fashioned still holds forth in its proud tradition.

Chinatown was not a curiosity for me. It was an avocation. I loved Kan’s Restaurant and Johnny Kan taught me how to cook Chinese food with his cookbook, Eight Immortal Flavors. My return

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June 4, 2010

Exception Rejection

I’ve been doing serious agent querying for my current project, and I’ve learned that agents have discovered something more demeaning and insulting than the “Dear Author” form letter/post card/email rejection. I’ve dubbed it the “Exception Rejection.”

Here’s how it’s explained on the agent websites: “We receive such a high volume of queries, that we respond only to those in which we are interested. If you have not heard from us in four to six weeks then consider that we have passed on your project. Do not under any circumstances inquire about your submission or we will put your nuts/tits in a vise and force you to watch us eviscerate your first-born. ” Actually that last part I added.

Back in the Underwood Typewriter days, agents/publishers would not accept carbon copies of query submissions. There was the taint of multiple submissions. They expected authors to query exclusively with original drafts. Then wait six to eight weeks for a response. That meant an author could query a maximum of six agents/publishers per year. Any author over fifty years old might not live long enough to get an agent acceptance.

I ran the numbers and here are the statistics of agent querying:
65% will accept only email queries. (“We are a green company blah, blah)
20% will accept both hard copy and email queries
Of the 85% who will accept email queries, 80% will only accept a one-page query (“We will contact you if we wish to see more of your material.”)

Reading these one-page email queries from the screen takes less time than printing them, so I did some research on the time required to respond to an email query after reading:
1) Click on “reply” - 3 seconds
2) Paste in the “Dear Author” rejection - 15 seconds
3) Click on “send” - 2 seconds
Total time required to respond to an email query - 20 seconds.

So what the “Exception Rejection” agents are saying is, “All the time, money, and expense you’ve invested in this query is not worth 20 seconds of my time.” So we authors sit around for a month or two wondering did the query even get to the agent, will I get a response, or what the fuck is gong on here – when the agent could have responded in 20 seconds. Oh! Yes I did study the time taken responding to the SASE. The response averages 30 seconds to stuff the “Dear Author” rejection into the SASE and seal it.

Some “email only” agents set up auto responders on their websites that notify the author that their query was received. This is very easy to do and costs almost nothing. I think this shows a little respect for the author’s efforts.

Short of asking authors to write their own rejection letters, I don’t see any worse affront coming down the publishing pipe than the “Exception Rejection.”

It leaves me wondering why bother with the whole agent/publisher (or self publishing, for that matter) thing, when July 1st, an author can place his or her book in the Kindle Store and receive 70% commission on every download sold. Hook up with a good Internet marketer and laugh all the way to the bank.

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A R C H I V E / H I G H L I G H T S

To Write or Not
originally posted: November 18, 2010

For God’s sake let’s quit whining about how the cold cruel world stands between us and our chosen profession of being a universally loved and disgustingly wealthy author. We blame our lack of writing time and effort on distractions heaped upon us by family, friends, responsibilities, professions, politics, economic necessities, weather, business associates, church, the neighbors’ lawnmowers, the three-hundred pound tap dancer upstairs, television, Internet surfing, blogging, video games, debilitating flatulence, and myriad other rationalizations.

A universal axiom of human behavior: we find a way to do those things we really want to do. So the only thing standing between us and writing is not the world out there. It’s us.

The only blog I’ve ever followed and/or commented on is www.betsylerner.com. I accidently discovered it after reading both of Betsy Lerner’s books (Food & Loathing snd The Forest for the Trees). Lately I’ve studied how much time it takes to read Betsy’s Blog and the comments and possibly formulate a personal comment. Many other BL blogees comment almost daily. About half of them have their own website or blog. I started tracking their stuff, and found they all list “Links or Blogs I Follow,” sometimes exceeding fifty URLs. If I were to follow twenty-five to fifty blogs, I would have to hire two assistants.

The troubling truth about writing is that it’s a hobby. Making a wild ass guess, I would approximate there are a few hundred living authors that became stinking rich with their writing. Add in a thousand more who’ve made a comfortable living writing (not including those with real jobs writing for periodicals). There is a significant number that every year or so knocks down a $5,000 to $20,000 advance.

Then there are the rest of us who, unless we are wildly gifted AND wildly lucky, will never see our manuscripts bathed in printer’s ink by a major publisher. I’ve been told by two agents and an editor within the last six months that any male debut novelist’s chance of being published by a major house in today’s market is somewhere south of their finding Osama Bin Laden.

If after understanding that we are our only impediment to spending time and effort on our manuscript, while realizing that we are enjoying a hobby, we still are willing to sit our butt in a chair and write – then maybe we really are writers.

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A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

During the last twenty years Bill Stephens has written over 1,000 weekly columns and features on wine, food, travel, and outdoors for Murdoch, Harte Hanks, and Hearst newspapers. His features and contributions have appeared in national periodicals like Chef, Wine Spectator, Wine News, Wine Enthusiast, Field & Stream, and Food & Wine. He has published two short stories “The Decanter, A Christmas Story” and “Toby Tire and His Erratic Curve Ball”

At one point during his three-decade food service career, he concurrently owned and operated a leading white tablecloth restaurant, three airline in-flight kitchens, three employee feeding facilities, catered a dinner train, and his company was third largest full service off-premise caterer in South Texas.

Stephen’s catering clients included Texas governors, presidential candidates, the family of the King of Saudi Arabia, The Prince of Wales, Pope John Paul II, Tom Jones, Neal Diamond, Willie Nelson, and many other notables.


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