Have you ever written a book review?

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Golden Age of Civil War Publishing is NOW.

I was asked recently to write an editorial for Civil War News about the state of Civil War Publishing. Here is the article, which made the front page. I hope you enjoy it.



Advances in technology in general and the advent of faster computers, better software and the Internet in particular have turned every aspect of publishing inside-out.

The past couple of decades have witnessed radical change in the world of book publishing. Nothing has been left untouched, from how books are researched, written, designed, submitted, printed and proofed to how they are marketed, purchased, delivered and even how they are read.

Many people I speak with in and out of the publishing industry lament these changes, but I am not one of them because I believe readers have benefited the most from this technological tsunami.

Today, we readers have at our fingertips access to the broadest selection of Civil War titles we have ever enjoyed. We can order them from catalogs, purchase them in brick-and-mortar stores and at battlefields, buy directly from publishers, authors, or online stores with a few clicks.

We can even download them into our reading devices. We can read them in traditional print, listen to some on audio, or access them through digital handheld devices or on our home or office computers.

The breadth and depth of the subject matter has never been richer. Indeed, the giant smorgasbord of titles at which we feast adds credence to the slogan “So many books, so little time.” Gettysburg continues to overwhelm, but many of the titles on that well-tread subject break new ground.

The Western Theater is finally getting some of the attention it deserves with fresh studies on Shiloh, the battles around Atlanta, Stones River, and a wide variety of books on the various commanders and regiments that made it all possible.

Even the Trans-Mississippi Theater, the war’s redheaded stepchild, has been the subject of new studies. Indeed, no category under “Civil War” is lacking for new books.

This plethora of titles is the result of Internet-related technologies that have made research substantially easier, and cheaper, and the desktop publishing and its related software and spin-offs that came along with it, all of which combined to remove most of the entry barriers into the publishing world.

In the past, the only viable way to conduct adequate research was to personally visit the repositories of primary material (National Archives, Library of Congress, state historical societies, and so forth). Although I do not believe there is a substitute for personal research “in the stacks,” much of what we need is now available at our fingertips through the Internet.

Entire books (including many of the hard-to-find regimental histories) are now available free online, as are the Official Records and many other databases, documents, photographs, roster data and genealogical sources.

Combine this steep reduction in time and money regarding research with desktop publishing software that turns whatever you produce into at least something that looks like a book. The result is more books than you could ever read in your lifetime.

The spigot really opened with the advent of print-on-demand (POD). Traditional printing injects ink into the paper and requires a sizable number of copies to make it worthwhile to set up the press (1,500 or higher). POD, however, is a high resolution copier that puts toner on the paper.

With POD, you can produce a single copy or 1,000 copies, as needed. The expense per copy can get pretty steep, but there is no need to tie up thousands of dollars and warehouse space on inventory.

In addition, POD quality has improved so dramatically over the past half-dozen years that most people can no longer tell the difference. The physical quality of a book, however, has no relationship to the quality of the research, the writing, the editing, the organization or the presentation.

The merger of these technologies has been tremendous for readers of Civil War history. The rapid expansion of available titles, however, makes the Latin warning caveat emptor (“Let the buyer beware”) all the more relevant.

Anytime something is easier to do, more people will do it. This is overwhelmingly true in two publishing areas: any fiction in any genre — and anything related to the Civil War.

Exercise Discretion and Care when Buying Your Books

Without many of the traditional “roadblocks” in place, like agents, acquisition editors, developmental editors, copy editors, peer review, and so forth, it is more important than ever to exercise discretion before purchasing a book. If, in your opinion, the publisher and author have a good track record, a catalog description and announcement could be enough. 

Track records matter, whether it’s a car brand or a publisher. If this relationship is not present, and good research is important to you, then what’s in the bibliography?

Is the book footnoted? Is the material edited well and presented in an attractive, organized readable format? Is the book indexed? Is it well written? Can you read an excerpt before purchasing it?


What is important to you? This question is more important today than it has ever been.

With all due respect to the giants of yesteryear, Civil War books (in terms of research, writing, design, printing, and binding) have never been better. Indeed, the best material (in a secondary sense) is being published right now.

We are living through the golden age of Civil War publishing. Pull down one of your favorites from the 1940s, 50s or 60s, and compare it to one of your favorites of today, and you will immediately see what I mean.

There are always exceptions. The pens of many brilliant writers and thinkers we hold dear went still many decades ago. Douglas Southall Freeman, Allan Nevins, Edwin Coddington, and Bruce Catton, among others, leap readily to mind. These men will always be in the pantheon of the magnificent. Indeed, all of us stand on their shoulders and owe them a debt of gratitude we can never repay.

However, a large percentage of the rest of the titles published in their day — some of which we still regard as “classics” — are, like many of the movies of our younger years, not quite as good as we remember them to be.

Hundreds of Civil War-related titles will be published this year and hundreds more next year and the year after. Because it is easier now than it has ever been to research and produce books, the smorgasbord table from which we read will always be a bounty of riches for those with the patience to choose wisely.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Being an Author Means Never Having to Say . . .

. . . I can't write off a lot of expenses from my taxes.

But do you?

Here is the other title to this article: Get books from your publisher and SELL THEM, and keep track of all your expenses.

I am not a CPA. I don't even play one on TV. But here is what I know: As a published author, if you set up a dba (doing business as) entity, you can file a Schedule C and itemize your deductions.

Now, before you do anything, it is imperative that you speak with your tax adviser first. (I am not giving you any financial or legal opinion here upon which you should rely, because every situation is different.)

However . . .

As a published author, long ago I spoke to my CPA about how to make that aspect of my life a business and write off my expenses. It was simple, and essentially free.

What it means is that I can write off the cost of the computers I use to work on, research, ink, paper, toner, folders, some gas and food, some utilities, some of the cost of research trips, photocopy charges, marketing and promotion efforts, business cards, stationary, and . . . the books I purchase to sell. Those books are my "inventory," if you will.

How many of authors do this?

I took a very rough survey once a few years ago and discovered it was fewer than  . . . one in ten. When I explained to one author at a trade show just how much money he could write off each year (and he had several books and a lot of years behind him), he did his best imitation of Fred Sanford by grabbing his chest like he was having a heart attack, staggering around threatening to join Elizabeth.

Then he and I discussed self-employment tax. When you get a 1099 for royalties, you get to pay double taxes on that amount (that's right, and your CPA can explain it to you). And most do, without really realizing all the deductions waiting at their fingertips.

Just pencil out how much you spend to produce the manuscript that will become your book. Then your after publication costs. Your ongoing costs. Do you drive to events? Write off the gas. Do you eat away from home? Sleep away from home? Postage? Phone costs? Even wear and tear on your car might be a tax write-off. Home office? Don't be a afraid of triggering an audit. If your deduction is legitimate, it is yours to take. It is, after all, your money.

Books as inventory: When you purchase X numbers of books and pay your publisher at your 50% author discount before the end of the tax year, you can take that expense and write it off that year's taxes. As noted earlier, situations differ, so I am offering a general layman's opinion and you should speak to your tax person.

But I know of what I speak and I keep meticulous records for every penny spent on my own writing career. (This is separate, of course, from my corporation Savas Beatie, which is a publisher.)

Here is the bottom line: You are a business. Treat yourself like one. Keep track of your legitimate expenses, work with your CPA, file a Schedule C, and save money.

We are moving into the last quarter of the year.



Saturday, July 4, 2015

I Will Not Publish Gettysburg Books. (Yeah, Right.)


“I have to tell you,” texted a customer through Facebook yesterday. “You are officially my Gettysburg publisher of record.”

That was a humbling statement. I thanked him for his support and the kind words, of course. But that statement triggered a little flash of a decade-old memory and a deep chuckle.

In 2003, Russel H. “Cap” Beatie, the author of the multi-volume The Army of the Potomac study (cut tragically short by the silencing of his exceptional pen), reached across a continent to lasso me back into the world of independent publishing.

We had never personally met. With Savas Publishing I had accepted his first two volumes, but I didn't publish them because the company was sold in 2001. We remained in touch with his weekly call to me to discuss everything from publishing to Popes and politics, to medicine, the Medici's, and medieval warfare. In that regard we were certainly kindred spirits. We were also both attorneys, though I was (hopefully) on the path to redemption, while he was tramping along the other one.

I resisted getting back into publishing as an owner because I loved what I was doing—ghost-writing books for agents, authors, and other publishers, working on my own research, and coaching little league. Life was good and calm.

He finally flew out for two days of face-to-face discussion. When we were about ten seconds away from a handshake across the table, I made this na├»ve stipulation: “I will not be doing Gettysburg books. I want to make that clear,” I insisted. “It has been done to death. There are a lot of other topics in that war that need to be explored.”

Cap was fine with that since he pictured Savas Beatie as a general military history publisher. He knew I wanted to produce Civil War books and that my following was in that genre, but he wanted to do more ancient material, Napoleonic, Indian Wars, and so forth. Gettysburg was irrelevant to him.

As it turned out, it wasn’t irrelevant to readers, researchers, writers, or the bottom line. Manuscripts and queries from exceptional authors began pouring across the digital transom. My first inclination was to get out a Bic lighter and ignite the stack, puff a cigar, and enjoy the glow.

Thankfully, good sense and a little patient reading convinced me otherwise. And boy was I wrong. The original material was staggering, the insights and research fresh and invigorating. Rather than “stop the madness,” I was more inclined than ever to ramp up the Pennsylvania insanity. And so it has come to pass.

Below, in very rough order of appearance, is our Gettysburg-related list of books that have either appeared in print or are in the final stages of development. (I have the nagging feeling that I have missed one or two, and if so I apologize in advance and please leave a comment and let me know.) Off the top of my head, we have another six or so under contract as I write.

I welcome your thoughts on this list. Favorites? Any you are looking forward to reading? Any here you had never heard of?

As always, thanks for your support.

*     *     *

Silent Sentinels: A Reference Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg, by George Newton

The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 - July 13, 1863, by Bradley Gottfried

The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, by Robert Wynstra

The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties, and Maps, June-July 1863, by J. David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley

The Complete Gettysburg Guide: Walking and Driving Tours of the Battlefield, Town, Cemeteries, Field Hospital Sites, and other Topics of Historical Interestby J. David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley

AUDIO / cd: Complete Gettysburg Guide: Audio Driving and Walking Tours, Volume 1: The Battlefield, by J. David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley

Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg, by James Hessler

Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, by Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi

One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4 -15, 1863, by Eric Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi and Mike Nugent

Protecting the Flank at Gettysburg: The Battles for Brinkerhoff's Ridge and East Cavalry Field, July 2 -3, 1863, by Eric J. Wittenberg

Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth'sCharge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, by Eric J. Wittenberg

Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expeditionto the Susquehanna River, June 1863, by Scott L. Mingus, Sr.

The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook: Facts, Photos,and Artwork for Readers of All Ages, June 9 - July 14, 1863, by J. David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley

Those Damned Black Hats! The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign, by Lance J. Herdegen 

Confederate General William "Extra Billy"Smith: From Virginia's Statehouse to Gettysburg Scapegoat, by Scott Mingus, Sr.

“The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, by Eric J. Wittenberg

"Stand to It and Give Them Hell": Gettysburg as theSoldiers Experienced it from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round, July 2, 1863, by John Michael Priest

Fight Like the Devil: The First Day at Gettysburg,July 1, 1863 (Emerging Civil War), by Chris Mackowski and Daniel Davis

Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the MostFamous Attack in American History, by James Hessler, Wayne Motts, andcartography by Steve Stanley

The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas, by Chris Brenneman, Sue Boardman, and Bill Dowling
In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg: The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade and its Famous Charge, by Lance Herdegen and William Beaudot

Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June –July, 1863, by Tom Ryan

Out Flew the Sabers: The Battle of Brandy Station,June 9, 1863--the Opening Engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign, by Eric J. Wittenberg and Daniel Davis

The Second Battle of Winchester: The Confederate Victory that Opened the Door to Gettysburg, by Eric J. Wittenberg and Scott L Mingus, Sr.

Second Day at Gettysburg: The Attack and Defense ofthe Union Center on Cemetery Ridge, July 2, 1863, by David Schultz and Scott L. Mingus, Sr.

The Last Road North: A Guide to the Gettysburg Campaign 1863 (Emerging Civil War series), by Dan Welch

Double Canister at Ten Yards: The Federal Artillery and the Repulse of Pickett's Charge, July 3, 1863, by David Shultz

The Gettysburg Encyclopedia, by Bradley Gottfried and Theodore P. Savas. (Yes, this is not a rumor and is very close to being finished.)

*     *     *

And there you have it.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Work With and Trust Your Publisher. Otherwise—What’s the Point?

I am going to begin with the punch line: the quality award-winning book you are currently reading did not start out that way, and is almost always quite different than the original submitted manuscript.

This post was prompted by a couple recent exchanges between one or our developmental editors and an author, and myself and an author. One of these turned out positively, when the author listened, respectively disagreed on an issue, but understood our expertise and appreciated our time and guidance and graciously dug in to make his manuscript better. The other author, well, his ego got in the way of his work (more on ego below). One got the feeling he was used to telling people what was what, rather than listening and cooperating with people who knew more than him. He is no longer with us (his request, happily granted).

Both experiences ended up well for Savas Beatie.

As an author myself who has produced a number of books with several publishers foreign and domestic, I know how this game works from both sides of the fence, up close and personal.

Seeking out a specific publisher in the hope of the acceptance of your manuscript is an important step for any author. It is often a daunting and lengthy process that usually ends in rejection. The purpose of this post is not how to go about the submission process, but what you, as an author, should do once your book is accepted. The answer is simple: cooperate in every regard. Leave your ego at the door and listen.

Those who do, succeed. Those who do not usually fail in demonstrable ways.

Few if any successful marriages begin by picking a random stranger out of a crowd and proposing. Assuming you care about your manuscript’s future prospects, choosing a publisher is not that much different than choosing a spouse. You find someone you like and have things in common with, including a compatible vision of your future course. You watch them in action in a variety of settings, and judge accordingly. In other words, you select a publisher with a winning track record of stellar (and repeat) authors, award-winning titles, outstanding book design, aggressive marketing, quality customer service, and so on. And then you follow their advice.

Once you find that publisher (“spouse”), how do you handle your relationship going forward from acceptance of your manuscript through editorial development, design, publication, and beyond?  Do you view it as an adversarial relationship or a partnership with someone who knows more than you and has your best interests at heart because both of your are joined at the hip?

Do you really listen (as in to listen to understand?), or do you listen only so you can formulate a push-back argument? Do you resist most substantive suggestions, argue about key points, get heated when your editor offers ways to improve your work, and then knock the board game to the floor? Surprisingly, some authors do. This is not only a good way to end up in divorce court rather quickly, but also to never be accepted by that publisher again and earn a negative reputation in what is really a very small community.

Editors and publishers talk. A lot. Especially after the second gin and tonic. When books leave us, I often get an email or a phone call asking, "What's wrong with this author? Or is there an issue with the manuscript? Why didn't you fight to keep it? Should I accept it?" On occasion, I make those phone calls, too.

Pull up a chair and let me explain.

Think of your publisher as you might an architect or engineer. Do you hire an architect with decades of experience to design your house and then argue about where support beams go? Or what building materials are up to code? Or whether too many windows weaken a wall? Do you insist on a roof the architect repeatedly tells you is too heavy? Or demand a design the expert explains will destroy the resale value of your dream house?

One would hope not. These are all fundamental matters that go to the heart of the viability of your building, whereas adjusting the width of a hallway or making your kitchen a little larger do not. You have seen this architect’s successful and award-winning work before—that is why you hired him. Signing a contract with him does not magically give you a degree in that subject or the decades of experience he has under his belt in the pond you now wish to wade into.

A publishing company puts its own time, expertise, and money—lots of it—on the line with your manuscript. You selected that company because you know the quality of the final product. Those great books don’t magically end up looking and reading as they do. There is a process along the way that is often grinding and time-consuming. And well worth it.

The Schedule.

When the publisher sets a schedule, or asks you to wait patiently because the company has its own internal ways of doing things—listen. Patience is a virtue. You have one book that consumes your thoughts. The publisher has scores of them in various stages of acceptance and production. You send one email to a publisher and don’t get an immediate reply, but the publisher gets 150 a day—and deals with everything else. Everyone at the company who needs to know, knows you exist. When your turn comes in the schedule, rest assured you will hear from your publisher.

The Development.

Most publishers assign a developmental editor (they have different labels at different companies) to craft your manuscript into a book. This includes everything from the length of chapters and chapter order, to what should go into the footnotes, proper transitions, what belongs in the appendices—the works. When they speak--LISTEN to what they tell you. If they tell you there is too much “fat” in your book—LISTEN. If they suggest cutting your work from 150,000 words to 120,000 words because of redundancy—LISTEN. They understand the pitfalls most authors cannot see—and will warn and advise you accordingly.

When an editor explains that your manuscript isn’t grounded in enough firsthand sources—he is telling you your structure does not have enough of a foundation to stand on its own. He is your architect. To argue is akin to replacing your brain with your ego. When expert readers review your manuscript and think it is confusing or difficult to follow, or poorly structured or reasoned, and offer key substantive suggestions on how to improve it—are you listening, or is your ego pushing back against the very expertise you “hired?” Work with them, not against them. Cooperate.

Cooperation, however, does not mean bow down and always say “yes.” It means know how and where to pick your battles. Make your own respectful suggestions and do your best to work hand-in-hand as you would with your spouse on matters of import to you and your family. Never forget (there is that “ego” thing again) that your experienced developmental editor crafts rough manuscripts into polished books on a daily basis. You don’t. He has gone through this same process dozens of times. The odds are, you have not. He understands weight-bearing walls and inspection codes better than you do.

Here is another way to look at it: Who is more likely to be the better judge of the end product, someone working with editors and outside reviewers, all of whom agree on X, or an author who does something entirely different for a living digging in his heels and demanding Y. The author is betting his ego, while the publisher is betting his livelihood. Clarifying, yes?

Now think of what you, as an author, do for a living. Now, whatever that is, imagine someone who does not do what you do asking your advice, and then arguing with this and with that and then rejecting it. No one is always right, but if you are advising on matters within your area of expertise, the odds are pretty good that your advice is sound--especially if you have a long track record of success.

Ask any person who has achieved success in their chosen field how they became successful. Nearly all of them will candidly tell you they sought out people who had already done what they want to do—people who knew more than they did. They then put their ego aside, listened, cooperated, and followed their advice.

My mentors were Tom Broadfoot, Bob Younger, and a friend who worked in high places in publishing in NYC. I was a lawyer and had written a few things that had manged to get into print--but I was not a publisher. But I wanted to be one. So when experts like Tom and Bob told me things--I LISTENED. I LEARNED. I COOPERATED. I put my ego aside and used my brain to think. Success heals any bruises your ego might suffer along the way.

If there is a true roadblock on a key matter, you might respectfully ask for another set of eyes on that issue in particular. Maybe like this: “On this issue we see things differently and it is very important to me. Before you make your decision, would you mind if the managing director or another editor takes a look at this one issue? I would appreciate that.”

I don’t know of a single publisher or editor who would not honor that wish. That is much better than getting heated, pushing back, complaining, and leading with your ego instead of your brain.

Leave your ego at the door. Enjoy the journey. Reap the rewards.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This is How I Came to Publish Books

She sat on the floor with me, scissors in hand, and trimmed the paper I had written upon. The story itself I have long forgotten. It wasn't very good, of course. The longest I recall was about a dozen pages.

 I drew out a cover on a thin piece of cardboard.

 She helped me put holes through it all, bind it together, and voila! We had a book.

 I was seven.

 Who knew.

*     *     *

 All of us kids were blessed twice.

We had a wonderful mom, and we knew it. And we made sure she knew that we knew it. She wasn't perfect, and she made mistakes; most small, some not. But the measure of a parent is the yardstick that is her kids. I bring down the mean a bit, but overall, we are a good reflection of this wonderful gal.

She is in every book I have ever written, edited or published, and in every piece of music I have ever written or performed. She loved that I practiced law, loved the books and publishing company even more, and taught me all about business, employees, management, accounting, and life in general sitting with her each Sunday doing the book work and banking for our own business.

Maybe there is something here that will help you with your life, your family, your kids. That would please mom.

Let me introduce you to her.

 *    *   *

Maria T. Savas O'Brien, 84, of Mason City died Wednesday, April 1, 2015 at the Muse Norris Hospice Inpatient Unit. Mason City, Iowa. She was born on June 25, 1930, to Theodore and Evyenia Potiriades.

God blessed her with the voice of an angel, and she moved to North Hollywood, California, for her final two years of high school to pursue professional opera training. At some point she met and sang with Beverly Sills. I wish I could recall the details. We have records she made while in Hollywood singing opera, and on one she talks and wishes her parents Merry Christmas. She was 16.

She married Michael Savas in 1949 and had four children: Stephanie (Prohaski), Anthony, Theodore, and Kris (Christensen). They opened and operated "The Poodle" lounge in 1964, the "Cheers" of Mason City, for nearly a quarter-century. It was always busy, and what a place. Mike and Maria thrived in their business. My dad held court center stage (he was a very funny guy, uneducated but well read, a veteran of the Army Air Corps in WWII, and loved. He died in 2000). My mom oversaw it all. Mom loved her customers--all of whom comprised her extended family. We can't tell you how much she loved being with you every day, and how concerned she was about your individual lives. She really cared. And all of you knew it.

Maria married James O'Brien in 1986 and enjoyed a long marriage until his passing in 2011. (Jim was a WWII Marine--Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa, and then he fought in the Korean War. Boy, the talks we had, the books we read together and discussed. I miss him a lot, too.)

Mom showed her love by giving — her time, her energy, her wisdom, her compassion.

To her children she stressed love, kindness, education, hard work and, most of all, peace and forgiveness. Harmony in families, married or divorced, was her top priority. She never had an unkind word to say about my dad after they divorced in 1977, and that is why none of us kids were ever sucked into "adult divorce politics," and why we all get along so well. There are NO divisions in our family at my siblings' level, period. She would never allow it. Today, we would never allow it.

Here is a classic example: Whenever I came home from college, the first thing mom would ask is, "Have you seen your dad yet?" Usually the answer was "no." Here reply was invariably, "Go see him. He misses you. Have a cup of coffee, spend an hour. He loves you.... When you come back, I will cook dinner. But not until then."

That was my mom.

She sculpted souls gently.

Despite working seven days a week (often till 2:00 a.m., and book work, cleaning, fixing, etc. on Sundays), mom always had time for us. She was fond of telling us, "I want you kids to be able to do all the things in life I won't be able to do. And you will."

And so we have.

One of my earliest recollections was laying on the floor on a pillow watching and listening as she played the violin, her friend the cello, and my older sister the piano. And she would sing. I was about four.

She was always up to make breakfast and pack our lunch. We were never late for school. And somehow she always had dinner on the table, and baked. We were almost always at church on time, even though we did all we could as kids to knock that schedule off kilter. Sorry mom.

She had time for reading, education, hobbies, walks, puppies, horses, trips to the library and of course, music lessons. Lots of music lessons. We all had to take one year, period. None of us stopped after one year. And thanks for that, mom because your love of music has enriched every aspect of our lives--and now we get to share it with our friends and families. How she put up with our various rock bands in the basement for so many years being so tired is beyond me. (The first thing we did to her new floor was burn a big hole in it experimenting with flash pots. She had the patience of Job.)

When I was 16 and 17 and playing out of town (with adults!) and often out of state on the weekends, she would wait up all night or all weekend, unable to sleep. She would finally be able to close her eyes when we pulled in about dawn. I didn't learn that until much later in life when I would sit with her and talk about such things.

We put her through a parent's own kind of Hell. But she understood. She gave me room to breathe and the space to grow up, fall down, fail, and rise again. She taught me how to make my own decisions. She never made them for me. And mom never, EVER, micro-managed my life in any respect. However, she insisted on good manners. She was relentless on that score. These are some of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.

Mom loved California. It was her "favorite place." She was especially pleased when I decided to move there after law school, get married, and raise a family. We loved it when she visited; we cried when she left. She came out to help with newborns, clean, cook, bake homemade bread, and was never anything but generous. We used to sit on my deck, drinking coffee and watching the kids play in the yard or the pool. "I would love to live here again, someday," she would wistfully tell us.

Someday never came.

Growing up in Iowa, Christmas and Easter were times of wonderful warmth and joy in our home. Sure there were problems, and it wasn't all perfect, but what is perfect in life? The good FAR outweighed anything else. When I began having kids, hosting holidays with my own family, working long 60-hour weeks, and so on, I finally learned how hard it all is to juggle and do well. How she managed is beyond me, but she did and we all have nothing but fond memories of our family gatherings.

As a youngster, few days passed when we were not lying together on the floor flipping through "The Book of Knowledge," an encyclopedia set she scrimped pennies for months to buy for us at a time when we were very young and poor. She would make suggestions, I would find topics, and then she loved having me read the entries to her while she baked, cleaned, ironed, etc. I only learned much later in life I was helping to educate her, too.

When I wanted to collect coins or stamps, she signed me up for a mail-order club and was as excited as I was when they arrived. "This is a good way to learn about all the countries," she told me. "Write something about each one so you learn. One page on the country and coin [or stamp] will do."

Every day was an education without me knowing it. And it was fun, too.

We were very poor during my early years, but when I turned 11 we moved out to a lovely turn-of-the-century brick home on four acres (three acres of woods, one acre with 32 oak trees I had to spend 5 hours a week mowing). It was just outside town. A rock quarry, sand quarry, caves, hills, trails, horses, motorcycles, etc. were all within walking distance.

Living on Plymouth Road in Mason City, Iowa, was paradise for a kid like me.

One of the first things I wanted to do was build a fort in the woods. Within a day or two Mom got me a real (as in REAL) hatchet, handed it to me, and said, "Go get em Daniel Boone."

When I wanted a fish tank, she saved S & H Green Stamps and took me to the basement of Damon's Department store on North Federal to pick one out. Then she took me to the library to get a couple books so I could read how to care for the fish. She helped me set up the tank, and marveled with me at the babies, the colors, the wonderful life. To this day I have aquariums and I take good care of them. And I marvel, still.

When I wanted to build a tree house, she had a customer of ours haul lumber over in his truck and dump it north of the driveway. I remember being so excited when I first saw the giant stack that  jumped off my bike as I rode up the driveway. Mom was standing by the back door, smiling. I built a four-decker tree house--the top a small crow's nest (it doubled as a pirate ship, of course). The affair was high in a large grouping of four basswood trees. "Don't fall off that platform!" she would yell up at me. "I only have two sons."

She let me build rafts and wild rope swings, dig real tunnels in the woods, and erect cool forts in the garage, ride horses bareback at breakneck speed (shorts only, no saddle, no boots, no shoes, no helmet), and play in the attic "as long as you don't fall through the ceiling," she chided. "That would be expensive."

She put her foot down when she found out that a friend and I were actively designing a submarine to use in the large pond. "Are you out of your mind?" she gasped. "Absolutely not." Yeah, that venture had success written all over it. Good call, mom. :)

When I wanted to put together a laboratory in the basement fruit cellar, she had another customer who dealt with such things bring me a giant box of test tubes, flasks, etc, got me a microscope, a chemistry set, etc, and took me to Carter and Gillis, a local hobby store, to buy chemicals and more. I had everything down there--bats, mice, fish, insects, etc. It was truly an amazing room. I still think about it to this day. And it was MINE. "Just don't blow up the house," she cautioned. (She had no idea how close I came to doing that a couple times.)

What more could anyone ask of a mom?

Her favorite dog was our German Shepherd Holly (1968-1979). Many reading this recall her. She was mom's dog. Her fifth child. When we had to put her down on the kitchen floor that cold and rainy November afternoon so long ago, Holly unable to walk and feverish, mom held it together until she was alone. And then I heard her tears.

Spending time with her grand kids was like gold to her, whether the Savas line or the O'Briens. She loved them all. She taught them everything she taught us--and more. She always had a game ready to enrich their minds by teaching basic math with a dice game, how to write short stories, and think critically through calm, logical discussion. She loved to bake with them, too, especially homemade bread and Greek pastry.

Taking them to church or seeing them there--well, that made her heart swell.

Ask any of her grand kids today what they think of their Yia Yia. Sometimes I would catch her with a tear in her eye and ask her what was wrong, and she would say, "I won't live long enough to see all the wonderful things they will do with their lives." My grandpa Ted (mom's dad), who I am named after, told me the same thing once about his grand kids. Funny, now I am beginning to think the same way about my own mortality.

Maria gave back to her friends and community many gifts and touched many lives in untold ways. She lifted her voice in song from the East Park Band shell on warm summer Sunday evenings in the 60s and 70s, where hundreds of cars would pull in, like a Drive-in Theater, to listen to the band and then hear my mom sing. She was a force in local music clubs. She sang at scores of weddings, and untold funerals. She taught Greek in the basement of the church, and had a ball teaching non-Greeks how to Greek dance. And let me tell you, that lady could dance.

Every Sunday for decades, she sang in the loft of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. She directed the choir and so loved it and the church . My sister Stephanie filled her shoes in the choir when mom was no longer able, and that made her very proud. Mom's church and her religion were especially meaningful to her.

Tradition was her watchword.

Speaking of "tradition," her favorite musical was "Fiddler on the Roof" (mine, too). We loved musicals. I took my mom to San Francisco in 2009 to see "Wicked." Just her and I. It was a magical evening. It was our last musical. I knew it would be even before I pulled out of the driveway.

Mom had some dementia then, and I suspected this was going to be her last "active" trip to the West Coast. As it turned out, she had one final trip left in her in 2012. "I know I am an old lady," she told me on the phone, but I am coming to California one more time." God bless her.

During that final visit we did as much as possible--dinners with my brother's family, quiet time, patio time. We even spent an hour watching Seinfeld bloopers on my laptop (she loved that show, but never had much time for TV). We reminisced about a lot of things.

"I would still like to move here," she confessed during a moment when her mind was clear.

"I know mom. We would love to have you here." We both knew it would never happen. I had to turn my head away so she couldn't see me for a few seconds.

Given her dementia, she ignored or forgot my directions and somehow managed to get upstairs and into a bath tub--but she was unable to get out. It was more than a little embarrassing for me, but she laughed. As I dried her off and helped her get dressed, and she chuckled, "It's only fair. Think of all the times I had to do this for you!"

I recall my dad helping his mom during her final days, cleaning up after an accident and trying to get her out of the bathroom. He told me he was trying hard to make up for all he failed to do for his dad when he needed him and he wasn't there. "Dad," I assured him, "You have made up for it--and more. Don't worry about it. No one else is." I hope my kids know when they look back later in life that I did the best I could for my parents.

Below is a photo, the last one with several of mom's grand kids. Left to right: Demetri (son), Rachel, Alex (daughter), and Nikkos. Rachel and Nikkos are my brother's kids. They are good kids, all, with good futures ahead.

Maria was always busy. She was a counselor to Miniature Matinee Musicale, served as past president of Philoptochos ("Friends of the Needy"), worked as office manager/seamstress/"grandmother to all" at Dance Unlimited (my sister's dance studio), and volunteered as a docent at Music Man Square in Mason City.

My son Demetri and I flew back to Iowa in January of 2015 to see her in the nursing home. She was surrounded by a few mementos and objects that whispered of the life that was now behind her--photos, a dress framed she wore to a wedding as a flower girl when she was just four, a special vase, a framed photo of loved ones. She was not doing well. She was down to 90 lbs., and could only whisper, her angelic voice silenced forever.

When she lost the ability to sing fifteen or so years earlier, she told me it was the hardest thing she ever dealt with. "It is like someone cutting off my arms. Imagine if you lost fingers and could never play piano or your bass again."

I was returning home from a scuba trip in the Cayman Islands on the penultimate day of March in 2015 when I got a call from my sister Stephanie. I was standing in customs in the Houston airport. "Mom is failing and is in the emergency room. You need to come home."

The trip from Texas back to California was the longest three hours of my life. I took just enough time to wash some clothes, book a flight, and flight "home" to Iowa. We were there, in hospice, holding her hands when she passed away. Even my step-brother Tom, who had driven up from Iowa, was there. He and mom had a special bond. She always loved Tom, even when he was about 20 and used to come into the bar for some beer.

She knew we were all there too, because she would nod briefly when we asked questions. When we finally told her it was OK to leave us, she did. Quietly. The sound only she could hear were the angels singing as they welcomed one of their own. All four of us were all there when my dad died, too. For that we are eternally thankful.

Being an orphan at 56 is an odd, empty feeling. I know many of you who have lost both parents know what I mean. We grieved, of course, but I didn't as much as I thought I would. As I think about it, I believe this is because none of us had any real regrets. I didn't even really cry. I just smiled a lot. I was thankful. I was grateful. I appreciated everything she had given me.

Humans usually grieve because we wish we had said X, or not said Y, or done A but not B. We said it all during life; we know we did all we could, and we refused to let deeds or mistakes or bad decisions and words ill-spoken under stress stand in the way of the larger picture of what is really important.

Family, and your love for your family is really all there is in life.

Everything else is just "stuff."

*     *     *

If she had a Master's in Finance, she could have run a Fortune 500 company.

If she was a school teacher, she would have been your favorite.

She never went to college, but she had the most important degree of all: MOM.

 And we spell it: L-O-V-E.

--The Savas Clan