Paradise on the Five Year Plan (Part 2)

I wanted him to take me. He is Mr. Death and I was ready to offer myself up, to get out of the infinite misery of what I had become in the course of one week in a hospital. A breathing dead man.

My daughter looked at me, and I spoke, my voice small, distant, empty. I said, “Goodbye, Jade. I’m leaving this world.” With death waiting, a warm, welcoming presence, ready to take me out of my broken body and on to another place, unknown but undeniably better than the one I lived in at that moment, how could I not want to get out? There was nothing to fear from that man waiting there. He was not grim. He was no horned devil. He was a man of peace, Mr. Death.

Jade looked at me, and shook her head. She didn’t believe me. I don’t remember what she said, only that it was not “Goodbye.” Nor do I know what she did or how it happened but she reeled me back. Back to the living world.

In retrospect that brief moment passing through the waiting room and seeing Jade and speaking to her has taken on a mythic character in my memory. At that moment my life hung in the balance, and the choice was mine. Simply by virtue of her presence, exhausted, confused, and yet like any teenager certain that her world as constituted included her dad, she made the choice for me. I couldn’t leave her and Donna.

Soon thereafter I then found myself in an airport in the midst of sand dunes near the sea. I watched the Superbowl on a giant television, and the game was real—Seahawks crushing Broncos—but that particular airport in the dunes was not of the living world. Then I arrived by ambulance at the real Puerto Vallarta airport, and was wheeled onto a plane. The airport in the dunes was the airport that would have lifted me out of this world forever.

Instead, this flight: the medivac airplane, and the ten thousand dollar twenty-minute leap from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara. Plane rattling and shuddering. My wife at my side, terrified I would die en route. Friends in Seattle had raised funds during the Superbowl to pay for the flight, denied on a technicality by our insurance company, since we did not have the cash or credit on hand. That technicality could have killed me. Eventually they gave in and we got our friends’ money back to them, but it took a whole year of haggling.

While Seattle won that big game, I nearly died.  The first doctor at the hospital to see me, one of the crew checking me in, took at look at me and said to Donna, “Senora, he has a ten percent chance of survival.” And then they put me under. Underwater.

Fortunately, another doctor, or doctora, in this case, a brilliant infectologist or infectious disease specialist called Norma Hernandez, took Donna aside and told her this after looking me over: “I can see that he is in good shape and he has a good diet, so he is going to survive.”

I rise up out of the ocean’s depths two years earlier, and find myself sitting on my beautiful green longboard at La Lancha, in morning sun on a perfect day with big waves. I draw in a breath of air, shake off the water, and look around. The waves surged in their rhythmic fashion, the ocean sparkled and shimmied, Terry and Nick sat waiting for the next set. The air was full of the sound of waves breaking, gulls crying, surfers calling out. “Did you see that barrel?” I said to Terry. “I got buried!”

He nodded, “yeah, yeah,” not wanting to demonstrate that he was impressed. I get a lot of waves out there and my friends get a little annoyed at my hustling harder than them at times. But not often. Mostly, we are blissed out together, riding waves, in love with the moments we’re sharing. Surfing without crowds works that way. Terry lunged onto his belly and went after one. I got in position and did the same, not wanting the wave wasted if he failed to catch it.

He did miss that one, and I grabbed it, got another long ride, and then paddled back out, feeling guilty at having bagged another one. Fortunately, goofyfoot Terry went flying by on the next one, carved a huge longboard cutback in my face and blasted me with a spray job that washed away my make-believe guilt. Yes, make believe! I am not guilty! If these dudes aren’t going to go after every wave, I am. I’m sixty-two and like another Sayulita friend, Patrick Hasburgh, a year or three older than me, said, “Justin, our wave countdown is looming.” And so it is.

La Lancha brought me to Mexico. Sitting around in my Seattle house running out of money sometime in 2008–everybody was running out of money in those days, thanks to Bush 2 and his gang of crony capitalists and warmongers–I took a Facebook look at a 45-second video posted by Mitch Roman, a friend of mine from San Francisco who had moved down to Sayulita not long before.  We had met Mitch and his wife Lina a couple of years earlier, while vacationing in Sayulita, and Donna and I shared with them the fantasy of moving down permanently, or at least for a while.

The video showed Terry Orr and Nick Sherman, two other gringos who had moved with their families to Sayulita in the previous year or so, pushing barbed wire aside and heading down a muddy road with scrubby jungle pushing up against it on both sides. At the end the muddy road opened onto a beach, a hundred yards of white sand framed between rocky headlands. Out in the ocean, small shapely waves broke and half a dozen surfers took turns. There were a few video snippets of Terry and Nick surfing, and then it ended.

I showed it to Donna and she said, “You want to be there, don’t you?”

“More than anything.” Seattle was cold and dark and wet and we were going broke. And so, yes, I wanted to be there more than anywhere else in the world.



Why it Ended.

Sex and Death: The Movie ends with Lucy engaged to Harold Ipswich. Before book 6, Utah, though, they break up. Here’s what happened:

The call came in the middle of the night in the middle of a shapeless week. He never called this late unless he was out of town.  Or drunk. Or both. He hadn’t even told her he was leaving. “Hey Luce, it’s me,” he announced breathlessly.

“I know, Harry,” she answered coolly, rudely yanked into consciousness. “Nobody else calls me at 3 o’clock in the morning. Where the f…”

“Hey, that’s what makes me special, Luce. My unpredictability…spontaneity…call it what you will, but it’s…”

“Irritating is what it is, Harry,” she said, unamused by his self-mocking tone. His antics, the feeble attempts at drollery, were wearing thin, becoming maudlin. And had been for a while, she had to admit to herself, coupled, as they too often were, with copious amounts of alcohol. “And not at all unpredictable. But never mind that,” she went on, and thought, where the hell is he? He wasn’t supposed to be out of town this week. “Is that the ocean I hear?”

“Yep,” he said. “I’m working. Got a late call from the man and so here I am in Florida. I was going to call you en la manana but then inspiration struck. So I’m sitting on the sand in South Beach looking out to sea, basking in Miami moonlight, and naturally I thought of you.”

She waited for more. She heard the waves, and Harry, breathing. He was probably stoned on palomas, this year’s drink of choice. and gone, out of town, without a word to her. Was this how life would be, if she married Harry? “So, what’s the point of  waking me up at 3 a.m.? To listen to you watching the waves? What’s the….”

“Jamaica,” he intoned, imbuing the word with major significance. Again, she waited. The silence stretched.

She broke it. “Jamaica?”

“Yes, Jamaica. Yes yes, I know that’s where the Evil One, the Verde Creature, came into your life, but it is also WHERE WE MET.”

“And you rip me from dreamland to point this out?”

“No, Lucy Ripken, I rip you from dreamland to tell you that I have stashed enough money for us to take our honeymoon there, on the island where we met. Jamaica. To rid ourselves of those ghosts. Port Antonio, five nights at The Estate, best hotel in the entire fucking Caribbean, dates to be…”

“Harry, are you serious!” He was, she knew, and she knew as well, with a sudden and painful clarity, that somehow, sometime along the trail she once thought they were walking together, they had gone separate ways. She had told him more than once, more than twice, probably a dozen times, that if she never, ever saw the fair island of Jamaica again in her life, she would be just fine. Now he wanted to have their honeymoon there?

What honeymoon!? “God, Harry…” She was literally speechless. How could he get it so wrong? She wanted to cry.

But then she knew: this was a last call. The bar was closing. Something was over. Life in New York was over. Buck up girl, she thought, and did so. This is part of getting out of New York. Harry, in his oblivious way, is making it easier.

Still, until this moment she had never thought of him as oblivious. He drank too much at times, and made bad decisions, but he had always known what was up. Now he didn’t.

It made her sad. “Harry, I gotta go. I can’t…”

“We’ll talk tomorrow. Dream on it.”

“Sure. Good night Harry.” She ended the call, put the phone down, and laid there in the dark, plotting her escape. Not dreaming at all.


Lucy knows in her heart that Harold Ipswich was the real thing for her–the guy she was meant to be with. However, she also senses that this knowledge is somehow bound up with her life in New York–that as long as she is in New York, Harold is that man. Their relationship might have started in Jamaica, but it is a New York relationship. And so, when she decided she had to get out of New York, she realized that she also had to break it off with Harold.

Most people who have spent much time in New York understand this–how New York gets into your blood, and then your life and identity get caught up in being in the city. Becoming a New Yorker is, or was, a singular experience for people from other parts of the US and the world. The city is like no other place in America, and once you’ve lived there for a while you come to understand this. New York Nation.
Maybe this isn’t so true anymore, I don’t know, I haven’t lived there in quite a few years now, but I know that my wife and I completely and deeply identified with the city after a few years of living there–and it was really difficult for us to tear ourselves away and leave. This is how I understood what Lucy had to go through. She’s stopped believing in the city, or at least believing in it as essential to her life. Yet getting out of the city simply will not be possible while she’s still involved with Harold, because she knows he will never be willing to leave. She has to get out of New York to survive, and if leaving her love behind is part of getting out, then she will do it. She does it.
Lucky for her, she found another man in Seattle, and her relationship with him helped change her back into what she always had been–a northwest girl.

Paradise on the Five Year Plan

We slog on, blogging on.

I have written all the blogs I have to write about the 7 books in the Lucy Ripken series. There will possibly be more of these books, I’m not sure right now. I did start an eighth Lucy Ripken book a couple of years ago, but unfortunately the computer that it lived in was stolen, and that time being pre-cloud and me being a not entirely practical guy, there was no back up. At least not one that I could find. I haven’t done a deep search yet but with some luck I might find that half-book one of these days. It’s called “The Death of Calvin Sweet” and takes place in grungy Seattle. I think it would have been and may yet be another good Lucy Ripken tale.

Meanwhile, not long after finishing the seven Lucy Ripken books, Donna and Jade and I moved from Seattle to Sayulita, that small Mexican beach town that has already popped up as a primary location in one Lucy book, X Dames. We first went there on vacation around 2000, and went back a few times before buying a small, cheap house in 2005. Four years later, as the American economy fell on our heads, we moved down there.

A lot of crazy stuff took place while we lived in Sayulita, both good and bad. After we moved back to Seattle five years later, I started writing a book about our years there. I’m going to be drawing on that unfinished book for blog material for a while, so what you’ll be reading here for a while is a memoir style blog.



I woke up in a white room. I knew my name, my self,  little else. I was in a nowhere place, emptied of time, strapped to a moving bed, a wheeled cart. Somebody pushing me, leaving this room with a window where daylight flowed in. A box of light, a window on the world, or another world. Had I been looking out this window? I couldn’t remember. I was turned away from the light to face a door, then rolled towards the door and through. I tried to reach for the frame, to stop the pushers from pushing me through, to assess the situation, to do something, to act. Who were these people? I needed to gain control or at least a sense of it.

I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t move. Paralyzed. Then I realized, from the undercurrent hum and the green-tinted light and the aroma of illness, that I was in a hospital. I lay on my back on a gurney flanked by strangers wearing white, my arms and legs restrained by canvas straps.

The situation fell into focus as I rolled down a hallway, with the anonymous face of an anonymous medical person visible directly above me. I was sick, very, very sick, and everything going on around me was on my behalf. I was helpless, as I had been for the past few days, or was it weeks? I no longer knew. I had descended into the realm of the seriously ill, the land of sickness, where time takes on another, shiftier character.

The strangers faded away and my wife Donna walked next to me, our friend Joann next to her. There were doctors and nurses flanking them like guards. Everybody talked quietly, intent on taking me on my journey. My journey to where? “Where are we going?” I murmured at Donna weakly. “Where am I?”

She moved closer so I could see her face. She looked wasted, weary, cried out. I saw this in a glance. We have been together for over 30 years and I know her face better than my own. “Oh buster,” she said. My longtime nickname. Hers as well. Her tears started again.  She sobbed, “We’re going to Guadalajara.”  Spoken as if that not-so-distant Mexican city was an outpost of hell. She put a warm hand on my arm, and I realized that my body was weirdly, unnaturally cool.

I didn’t feel quite there. Though I could sense the warmth of her love washing over me, surrounding and protecting me, I was being transported away from everything and everywhere and everyone I know. I was moving towards the light, to throw in a hackneyed phrase from books and movies. Only in this case for me it was not light or darkness, it was just…another place, outside the time and space of the place I traveled through on that gurney.

I was in an eerie interval there in that Puerto Vallarta hospital, neither here nor there, not in past, present or future, not myself or anyone else, body sick, mind wavering, everything in flux. I was dying, moving through the anteroom between life and death.

Yes, that’s it! I realized this as we passed though a waiting room. I was moving towards the end. My body was so wrecked and ruined by something that had happened to me—I couldn’t even recall what it was!–that there was no way I could go anywhere but into the big hole waiting at the end of the living world. That hole is just over there. As I passed through the hospital waiting room, with signs on the walls written in Spanish, I sensed two presences. One I could see: my daughter, Jade, sitting in a chair, one of several grouped around a low table on the other side of the room. A waiting area for relatives. Near her, next to her, hovering in the air in her vicinity, or maybe on the other side of the room, there was a kind of  “presence” that seemed to be everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time. A light floating in the air. A man sitting in a chair, reading a magazine, looking up at me. He was wearing a hat and seemed completely and utterly calm as he waited for me to make my move.

I wanted him to take me. He is Mr. Death and I was ready to offer myself up, to get out of the infinite misery of what I had become in the course of one week in a hospital. A breathing dead man.

My daughter looked at me, and I spoke, my voice small, distant, empty. I said, “Goodbye, Jade. I’m leaving this world.” With death waiting, a warm, welcoming presence, ready to take me out of my broken body and on to another place, unknown but undeniably better than the one I lived in at that moment, how could I not want to get out? There was nothing to fear from that man waiting there. He was not grim. He was no horned devil. He was a man of peace, Mr. Death.

Jade looked at me, and shook her head. She didn’t believe me. I don’t remember what she said, only that it was not “Goodbye.” Nor do I know what she did or how it happened but she reeled me back. Back to the living world.

Plotting, Perspective, and Burnout in Utah 2 (Warning, Spoilers)

I had a good friend I grew up with in California and like Lucy in this book, somewhere around the age of 30 my friend discovered that he had a half-brother than he’d never known existed. Their shared father made some efforts to get them involved in each other’s lives, but ultimately they weren’t, and I don’t believe my friend Christopher has seen this half-brother in twenty years at this point. They just weren’t interested, plus it complicated issues of inheritance and ownership of property and other rather important and often sticky matters.

Lucy and Loretta start off badly—very badly—but because of who they are as individuals, they are able to work through their problems, and end up like “real” sisters. They each move a little towards the middle, that ground between them where, well, Lucy can convince Ellen to give up her baby, and Loretta can understand why Lucy believes what she does about freedom of choice. In the end, given Lucy’s personal struggles with wanting to be a mother and yet not ever getting to a place where this was possible, the painful and not at all simple resolution of Ellen’s pregnancy turns out to be the best of all possibilities. Ellen surely pays a high price—not just juvenile detention time but also the guilt she feels at having done what she did. A justifiable homicide, yes…perhaps—but a homicide nevertheless. She doesn’t get away with murder…or does she? I wrote this story believing that what Ellen did was completely justified. There are surely those among you who might disagree, mildly or vehemently. Please feel free to weigh in. My arguments are not particularly sophisticated, but I think they are sound. Tell me otherwise. Convince me otherwise.

Everybody lives “happily” ever after, except maybe Ellen’s two brothers. We know Loretta will be better off away from her evangelical authoritarian husband. We know Lucy will be a great mother, and that she and the lawyer will love and respect one another. Ellen might fall apart again—she’s got a burden to bear—but she has a fighting chance at making a life for herself, thanks to Lucy.

Donna and I were going through some struggles before and during this time, in a vain effort to achieve fertility so we could have a baby. We were over 40 and it didn’t work out.

Instead, eventually, we went to China and adopted Jade, our daughter, who was 14 months old at the time and is now 17 years old and a junior in high school. She is a bright girl and the future looks good for her. We have taken good care of her, loved her well, and she is as happy as any 17 year old could be. At a certain point, you make a choice, and it turns out to be the right one. At least it did for us. And for Ellen and Lucy as well, at least so far.

What the future will bring to Lucy remains to be seen. I have a story half-told in my head. One of these days Lucy will make me tell it.


Plotting, Perspective, and Burnout in Utah

At long last, UTAH. This is Lucy’s farewell to New York, her get-out-of-town story and as such it is full of high drama of all kinds. This is the book I wrote before, during and after my own departure from New York.

At the time of writing I was burned out on Lucy and her travails, which, however obliquely, did reflect some of the troubles my partner—my wife!—and I had been going through in New York. So, as it played out in real life, our crazed, hectic and very complicated departure from New York also played itself out in the book UTAH. On an emotional level this book was probably closer to the truth of what I was feeling at the time we left.  It was a difficult time.

First of all was the departure itself, with all its attendant awfulness brought on by the unexpected appearance of the landlord on a Saturday. This guy was Jewish and he should have been home or at temple, somewhere other than at the building. Hias absence was critical to our plan, which was based on the notion that once our loft buyer was in possession of the loft, there was no way the landlords could get him out. But like I wrote it,  the landlord did show up, and we had this awful confrontation which was fundamentally unresolvable because we had committed to leaving that day and getting the truck to the west coast in a given number of days, and we had left no time for error. So, when Lucy decides to just close up the truck and get the hell out of town, hope for the best from the legal system, she is doing exactly what Donna and I chose to do the day we left. Walk away, and hope that the lawyers could sort it out in our favor at some point down the line. Unfortunately the guy to whom we had sold the “fixtures” (in what was a marginally legal but acceptable transaction, at least according to the then-current laws regarding lofts and fixtures) was a weasel and a coward, and instead of fighting he chose to try and suck up to the landlord with the hope that said landlord would give him a break.

This landlord would not then or any other time give this putz any such break, and so when Lucy left—when we left—we left a lawsuit in the making. Later, we would lose that lawsuit, mostly because we weren’t there to argue it. Later still, that poor sap to whom we sold the fixtures ended up committing suicide. A sad ending for a sad, depressed, and miserable guy. He didn’t get what he deserved, nobody deserves to hate life that much.

You might say that New York killed him, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Driving cross-country with the big yellow truck was a lot easier for Donna and I, in reality, than it was for Lucy, alone. We did meet some weird characters. Donna, alone in the truck stop for ten minutes while I was making a phone call, got approached by an aggressive creep. We did sneak the dog (and our cat as well!) through a window into a hotel room in Tremonton, Utah. More importantly, when I approached the bathroom at the Denny’s across the parking lot from our hotel in Tremonton, a girl came out of the womens’ bathroom and gave me a look—and it was that girl who became the star of my show. A broken-hearted teenager. I have no idea if she was pregnant but I watched her sit down with her two brothers and her mother and father, and the story just presented itself to me, fully-wrapped. Obviously, many details and plot points and other elements emerged later, but somehow that story found me. Perhaps because of all the “Choose Life” billboards that we drove past en route through Utah. Not sure. I do know that I am not one to really…well, is “trust” the right word? trust people of the Mormon faith in many ways, because of their fanatical pro-life positions. Not to mention the polygamy, not “legal” in the mainstream Mormon church but winked at nonetheless, and definitely still ongoing in some of the more, shall we say, “traditional” branches of the Latter Day Saints. And so, bad little writer that I am, I went after them.

In spite of my obvious prejudice I believe that by the end of the book I presented a fairly nuanced if none too complicated debate on the abortion issue.  I tried to show where the gray areas can be found in this endless, endlessly unresolveable argument. Maybe I made a few people shift their points of view half an inch, I don’t know. It did make for some fun plotting in any case.

The other noteworthy thing here is the point of view—who is telling the story. Perhaps one doesn’t really think about that consciously while reading books like these, but the writer certainly has to. And so—fanfare of trumpets!!!—this is the first book where we get outside of Lucy’s head and into the minds of various other characters. This opens the story up, as we experience events through Ellen’s eyes, through the eyes of a couple of cops, through Ellen’s mother’s eyes, through Loretta’s eyes, and so on.

This opens the story up and it also notches up the suspense, for each time you leave one character, you leave the reader hanging, wondering, what next?

Behind the Scenes: Sex and Death: The Movie

And now we come to Lucy Ripken’s last New York story, SEX AND DEATH: THE MOVIE. There will be other Lucy Ripken stories to follow, but this is the final one Lucy will experience while living in the SoHo loft that has been her home base since the first book.

By the way, I did want to mention—in case you hadn’t noticed–that unlike most mystery books series featuring one character going through many adventures, Lucy Ripken is aging throughout the course of these stories. I’m not keeping a strict watch on this element of the story, but Lucy is a 30something single woman in the city, in and out of love, in that zone where having children is still an option but less so every year. She is aware of the ticking bio-clocks and the friends with kids and all the other things that remind her that her life is not your normal one. She is beginning to think maybe she wants something more normal. And so this last blast of mad New York energy—the Sex and Death scenario–reminds her of that in its perverse ways. Reminds her that chasing these stories down will at some point not be enough to keep her motivated and/or happy. I don’t like to dwell on these things, because they can become a distraction from the story, but I have mentioned them enough to remind readers that these ongoing worries are part of her life.

And so there are reasons for Lucy’s departure, some personal, some not so personal. On the personal level, there is of course the loss of her father and the murder of her friend: these two events that took place in the last book have undermined Lucy’s already wavering desire to live in New York.  But above and beyond all that, there is New York itself, undergoing changes in its usual relentless and unforgiving manner. The city is becoming less Bohemian, less artistic, less “free” in every sense of the word. New York has always been a money town but it has become more so with every passing year, and as this happens, it naturally affects people like Lucy in profound ways.

The kind of life she has lived in Manhattan is increasingly unattainable without more money than she has ever been able to make.

The economic and cultural changes brought on by the money surge are reflected in the movie Lucy is asked to work on. The movie, unofficially called A Movie About Sex and Death, is, yes, about that—about old men with younger women, about dark, destructive family conflicts re-emerging—but it is also about how New York, more particularly Manhattan, is changing, from the 19th and 20th century immigrant metropolis that had room for people from all over the world and every economic class, into a place where rich people come to park their money in real estate and play the stock market, the money market, all the markets that make money not by making things but by making deals. Don’t get me wrong, immigrants from all over still flood into New York, but mostly into the outer boroughs now. Nobody moves into Manhattan without a driving desire to “make it” on some public stage or other, or to make a lot of money, or to attain fame, fortune or notoriety.  Few people come to Manhattan to simply get a job and make a life.

In real life, a good friend of ours was shooting a low budget movie on the Lower East Side a few years ago. We spent a day with him, or half a day, and as I watched the movie get made, or at least this little piece of it, this new Lucy Ripken tale offered itself up to me.

In this fictive version of the film-making story, Lucy gets a call from an old friend, Paul Wittgenstein, a photographer who is in the middle of directing his first film, a low budget feature set in the East Village and the Lower East Side, long known as outposts of immigrant Jewish culture, layered with Puerto Rican and Chinese and other cultures, other peoples that wandered in, and further layered with the hipster/bohemian underworld that thrived in downtown Manhattan from the 1940s until, well, the 21st century, when the money took over.  Manhattan, especially downtown, has always been a mishmash of a place, where anything could happen and everything often did.

This character Paul W is based on this friend of ours who is a photographer and now a film maker, like the character, but without the compromised morality that casts a shadow over Paul. In “real” life our friend has been married twice but remains happily married to his second wife. His first wife did play a role on a fairly well-known and highly regarded TV show a few years back. As far as I know Paul has never visited any sex clubs in New York City, although I know such clubs exist because I have stumbled on them once or twice, and in the old days of free love and sex, such places, or more innocent versions of them, were well-known: Plato’s Retreat was probably the most famous, but there were other, more intense places that offered…well, more challenging sorts of sexual game-playing. In New York City, if you have the money, the time, and the desire, you can fulfill just about any conceivable sexual fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong, New York is still loaded with cool people and artistic energy, but more people than ever before spend way too much of their time making money to find the time to make art or political noise. The heart of New York has moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn; but in this story, Lucy’s trips to Brooklyn are like visits to another country. She doesn’t know a thing about the place. In the years since I wrote this book, Brooklyn has become the most desirable place to live in New York. So much so that Brooklyn, too, like Manhattan before it, is getting too rich for the working class and the artistic class to live there. So it goes.

A Movie About Sex and Death is Lucy’s first attempt at real screenwriting (as opposed to the “reality” TV writing she did in X Dames) and she rises to the challenge with her usual skill. The movie within the book works as a kind of counterpoint to the book itself, both book and movie mirroring and commenting, one on the other, until in the ultimate inside-out twist to this interplay, the line between them is tragically erased. Yet this story is also about corruption of all kinds: sexual, financial, creative, emotional. There are a lot of dark secrets unraveled in the course of this narrative, and in unraveling them Lucy finds herself visiting some seriously skanky underworld scenes: sex clubs, particularly of the S&M variety, are part of the story here. As is an underground poker game. As is the suggestion of incest. As is a guy who is deeply into autoerotic games. He pays a price, and therein the mystery takes off. In the end everything shakes out as it always does with Lucy. The murder is more or less figured out, Lucy saves the script, Paul gets his movie made, and everybody lives (un)happily ever after. The end is not entirely without its sense of unfinished business, of things not quite being resolved, but that’s life.

The story weaves “reality” and the movie into a hopefully seamless web, or a hopelessly tangled plot, depending, I supposed, on how carefully you read it. But I wrote it carefully and I believe it all adds up and makes sense, although there are moments when it is hard to remember if you are in the book or in the movie, or both at once.  Feel free to let me know if you find any holes in the web I’ve woven.

Problems a Chinese Billionaire Can’t Solve

Nobody I knew personally got murdered in New York City, so the whole tragedy of Lucy’s friend’s death is entirely fictitious.  I never had any real dealings with homicide cops of any kind in New York City, although God knows there are have been so many hundreds of hours of TV police shows set in New York City that we all feel like we’re part of the NYPD. However, murder or no murder in my real life, this much is true:

We had a very good friend who lived the life ascribed to the woman who dies in the book, victim of her own willingness to suspend judgement when it came to men with money: a beautiful, talented, smart, funny and altogether wonderful soul who was so caught up in the get ahead, get rich, get famous world of New York that she couldn’t escape. She had to have that uptown apartment, and that endless supply of new clothes, and the European travel via the Concorde, and the famous and preferably wealthy friends. Above all she desperately wanted to be a bauble, a rich man’s kept woman if not wife, an object. For all her intelligence and talent and beauty, she saw herself as a sex object. She abandoned her principles and went after these characters whose stories were suspect at best, and complete bullshit most of the time. She fell in with one of them and he almost destroyed her. Then another. She got tangled up with this “guru” type guy who convinced her that her problems stemmed from some repressed sexual molestation her father had done to her way back when. She was convinced it was all Daddy’s fault. At a certain point in her life, she was hooked up with this old man from Brazil, a billionaire of Chinese heritage, who did exactly as described: bought her an apartment in Manhattan and covered her living expenses, no strings attached, other than that she be available to him on his infrequent but regular visits to New York to do business.

There were plenty of women who pretended, on hearing of this set-up, that they would go for it in a New York minute had they the choice. And yet, in the end, for Lucy, the stretch to make that accommodation was not quite there.

On the other hand Lucy had no trouble getting involved with a punk rocker, and later had no real qualms about taking hard drugs. She has her own problems, which surface in some crazy ways in this book as she deals with her family’s tragedies as well as those of her variously complicated friends.  She falls apart, but as per usual, has the wherewithal and the emotional strength to put herself back together. Know going in that there is some heartbreak in this story.

Living and Getting Lost in New York

After the exotic tropical locations, I moved to the most exotic place of all for the fifth Lucy Ripken book, LOST IN NEW YORK. That is to say, Manhattan, where I lived with my partner for 13 years. Yes, to my way of thinking, New York City is the most exotic place in the world. I haven’t been everywhere on earth but I’m certain that New York is one of a few, maybe half a dozen, cities in the world that in some ineffable way transcend nationality and can truly claim status as an international city. A city of the world. New York is also the most exciting, glamorous, stimulating, and, well, dangerous city I’ve known. Dangerous not only for the literal, physical dangers in the streets, which used to be far worse than they are today—as for example during the crack plague of the 1980s–but for the psychological danger—the damages that can be inflicted by the city’s relentlessly competitive, take-no-prisoners energy.  This is not a forgiving place. A seemingly endless supply of schemers, con men, connivers, thieves, poseurs, gangsters, and soul-sucking vampires populate New York City along with its millions of great, striving souls, and if you live there long enough you’re bound to come across a few of them. You might even find their hands in your pockets, or in your underwear.

I cooked up a couple of these New York scammers  to inhabit the dark side of this book.

By the time this story begins, Lucy is getting a little burned out on New York. She is, after all, a west coast girl at heart, from Portland, Oregon. As I learned in my years in New York, if you aren’t born in the neighborhood and/or have family around, you have got to be rich or terminally ambitious to stick it out in Manhattan.  It is just too hard a place to live after while. Or was, at least, for my partner and I.

We had a great place to live, a country house to run to on the weekends, reasonably interesting and fulfilling work, and plenty of friends. But it wasn’t enough, not in the face of hard-ass unforgiving New York. Family might keep you there, and money obviously provides the necessary buffers—weekend houses, large apartments, the wherewithal to live well, eat well, go where you want and do what you want—but without one or the other or both, family and money, at a certain point you ask yourself, “Why am I living here?” Perhaps this will happen as you are donning your emotional armor along with your clothes in order to walk a block and buy a quart of milk. Perhaps it will happen as you are pushing away the hands of a man attempting to grope your body on an overcrowded subway train on a hot afternoon in August.

Many people get to a point where they can’t imagine living anywhere else, but we never got to the point.  Nor did Lucy Ripken. You can live a wonderfully creative and fulfilling life in New York City without being well-to-do, but it is not easy.



Costa Rica, Tourism, Prostitution, and Lucy’s Money 2


Lucy heads down with a couple of jobs on her hands: one, to do the guidebook; and two, to figure out an investment scheme for a group of her friends who want to buy into the country, Costa Rica being a relatively safe, stable offshore place to park and make money. This second “assignment” naturally complicates the first assignment, and also draws Lucy into a seriously fraught situation involving  real estate exploitation, cocaine, child theft, illegal adoption, a really nasty “boot camp” for wayward American teenagers, leftover contras from the Nicaraguan war, and, well… on the other hand, some really good times surfing, volcano-watching, bird-watching, and other such activities.

There’s some short term romance as well, with a man who is based on a guy I met down there while standing at a bus stop in dingy downtown Puerto Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side. This guy was an Indian American from Huntington Beach, California. We started talking and within fifteen minutes became fast friends. I saw Suresh Krishnan every time I went back to Costa Rica for years. He decided to live there permanently, and started up a successful adventure travel company. I used him in the book in a major way. If you should happen to be headed to Costa Rica, look up Desafio Adventure Company in La Fortuna, near the Arenal Volcano, say hey to Krish for me.

I also based a character on Michael Kay, the founder and owner of the largest tourism travel company in the country. Michael first went to Costa Rica around the time of the Viet Nam War, in an effort to avoid said war. He found some rivers worth running and some waves worth riding and some mountains worth climbing, and stuck around, sensing an opportunity. Now he’s a mini-mogul, the king of Costa Rican travel. I also created characters based on a couple, Louis Wilson and Marianela Pastor, who had opened an eco-hotel on the beach at Playa Grande. These two were instrumental in creating the Las Baulas Marine Sanctuary, established to protect the nesting sites for the world’s largest turtles, the leatherbacks, which have been nesting on Playa Grande for millennia. They remain a threatened species, but the work Louis and Marianela did several years back has been instrumental in raising people’s awareness of these amazing creatures.

The stories these “characters” tell in the context of the book are fundamentally true, or true with a little added spice. The bad guys are also based on true stories I heard, about so-called “investment companies” which were fronts for all kinds of illegal activities ranging from money-laundering to weapons smuggling. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica, with its mix of Rastafarian Jamaicans, low-budget European hipster tourists, and the usual array of outlaws and shifty characters, can be a dangerous place, especially for travelers who feel entitled or privileged.  One could spend months there and never even notice the dark underside of Costa Rica, but if you start turning over rocks, all kinds of stuff comes squirming out. And as we know by now, Lucy Ripken never met a rock she didn’t want to turn over.

As per usual with my books, I started with some three-quarter truths and blew them up to fit my story. But any exaggerations are likely understatements compared to the reality behind Costa Rica’s relatively placid façade. The country’s crossroads location and relatively stable civil society make it a natural destination not only for nature-loving tourists but also for all manner of marginal characters looking for a place to blend in, go legit, or just disappear into the jungle. And Lucy Ripken, naturally, manages to find her way into the middle of some crazy shit. In the end Lucy wins another round in her fight for truth, justice, and the righteous path, but it doesn’t come easy, ever.

Costa Rica, Tourism, Prostitution, and Lucy’s Money

LUCY’S MONEY, the fourth book in the series, starts on a plane en route from New York City to San Jose, the capitol city of Costa Rica. I decided to write a Costa Rica-based Lucy story because I used to know Costa Rica pretty well, having written and/or updated a couple of guidebooks to that country several years back.

How I landed this fun if not very lucrative job is written into the story: a guidebook editor friend called and asked me if I was interested in doing a new edition of a guidebook to Colombia, which was at the time the major cocaine supplier for the United States and most of Europe. The country was a battlefield, with cocaine cartels from all points on the political spectrum fighting it out for control of an impossibly vast and lucrative drug trade. Does the name Pablo Escobar ring any bells?

Eventually the cartels lost out and the Colombian drug kingpins got killed, jailed, or disappeared. And I never went to Colombia, not wanting to chance walking into a stray bullet or a kidnapping opportunity for some revolutionary desperadoes. Instead, I passed, and sure enough not too many weeks later this same editor friend called back with a much better offer: updating a guidebook to Costa Rica.

Now we all know at least a little about Costa Rica’s sterling reputation as a safe and friendly environmentally-correct destination for tourists, overflowing with natural wonders including plentiful wildlife, especially birds and monkeys, along with active volcanoes, great beaches, excellent surfing waves, jungles, mountain ranges, cloud forests, etc., etc. All very user-friendly. Not a place to be afraid to visit. I signed up on the spot.

So, I did a couple of years of annual monthlong trips to Costa Rica, revising and editing two different guidebooks—once you’ve done one for one company you’ve got credibility, and you can do one for another company if they aren’t competitive. In my case, the first was an American guidebook—Fodor’s, which I did for two or three editions—while the second was an English guidebook, written for the Automobile Association, the British version of the AAA, which had some sort of cross-promotional relationship with Fodor’s but was not competing with them.

Although I was not in-country for more than three or four weeks at a time over the course of a five-year stretch, while researching and updating these guidebooks I got to know the country well enough to use it as a location for a Lucy Ripken mystery. At the time, of course, that was the last thing on my mind as I raced in slow motion (very bad roads!) on buses and in rental cars, “getting the story” of Costa Rica. Or, in the case of guidebook writing, doing the grunt work: confirming the cost of hotel rooms, surfboard rentals, fishing trips, and other such mundane information. This is not a glamorous job, believe me. There is a little creative writing, doing guidebook updates, but mostly there is a lot of walking into hotels and other tourist destinations and taking fast photos and fact-checking conditions and prices. Still, it got my partner and I out of New York and down to Costa Rica in the middle of a cold, dark  winter on that first trip. For a couple of years after that I went down alone, my partner being entirely underwhelmed by Costa Rica.

Understandably underwhelmed. People seeking the kind of cultural history and artistic expression that makes Mexico (and much of Latin America) such an utterly fascinating place to visit are inevitably disappointed in Costa Rica for its lack of cultural and/or indigenous history. What few native peoples there were in Costa Rica were pretty much wiped out by Christopher Columbus and his cronies, who beached a few ships on the Caribbean side on one of his voyages, and proceeded to wreak death and destruction on the locals in the usual European pursuit of gold and other shiny rocks. Although a small indigenous crafts trade has sprung in recent years in response to the burgeoning tourism industry, most of the crafts sold in Costa Rica are imported.

What Costa Rica does offer is an amazing wealth of natural wonders, as I mentioned. This is Mecca for birdwatchers, white water rafters, volcano lovers, jungle trekkers, and surfers!

Unfortunately, it is also Mecca for dirty old men, with prostitution legal and many prostitutes scarcely of age. Or so it looked to me when I was there a few years back. And from what I hear, the influx of Colombians in the past decade has made the problem worse.

I first heard about this dark side of Costa Rica while riding back to San Jose from Bocas del Toro, a lost little town/island on the Caribbean side of Panama, which I was adding to the Costa Rica guidebook as a side trip for those tourists intent on visiting the Caribbean side of Central America. Bocas del Toro is a great spot if you don’t mind taking a couple of buses and a boat to get there from the Costa Rican border, and once there waiting out the incessant rain, the mosquitoes, and the sleazoid types who mingle with the good hearted eco-tourists and adventure travelers who are drawn to the area mostly because it is, or was, very much off the map a few years back. The town was whacked by a big earthquake some years ago, which has left many of its buildings twisted like corkscrews. You walk into town and feel like you’r entering a deranged funhouse of some sort. Or did. I haven’t been there in a while so things might have changed. But the tennis court was under a foot of water out in the harbor. Very strange.

As for the sleazoid I met—he was a crusty, grubby middle-aged American man in cheap clothes who cornered me on the bus back to San Jose and told me all about his friend who ran this crappy little hotel in San Jose and always, always when this guy came to town his hotelier friend would have a girl waiting for him. “A really young girl,” he said with an evil smirk. Why did he think I needed this information? But he did tell me as well about this investment company that guaranteed a forty per cent return on your dollars, and this became the basis for a certain business that Lucy gets tangled up in.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to Lucy’s Money…