Monthly Archives: January 2015

Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia, by Marija Bulatovic

Front Cover hi resTitle: Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia

Genre: Memoir

Author: Marija Bulatovic

Website: www.fantasticalbook.com

Publisher: SOL LLC

Purchase on Amazon.

SUMMARY:

It’s been said that the truth is stranger than fiction.  Marija Bulatovic’s dazzling debut, Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia, certainly underscores that adage.  Fantastical, Bulatovic’s reflections on her Yugoslavian childhood, is a mesmerizing memoir that takes readers on a wild and unforgettable tour of a country that has vanished from the map, but lives on in this lively collection.

With a pitch perfect voice, and a keen eye for capturing the absurd, the outrageous, the hilarious, the touching, and the sublime, Bulatovic weaves a rich tapestry.  Bears, gypsies, quirky family members, foiled plans, unusual and unorthodox neighbors, Fantastical has it all.  Lovingly told with an unmistakable fondness and deep affection, Fantastical is resplendent with humor, magic, and whimsy.

In this colorful, captivating and clever collection of stories, Bulatovic captures the spirit of the Slavic soul—passion and melancholy with a twinkle in the eye.  Fantastical charms with its wit, keen insights, and larger-than-life stories. Part memoir, part love letter to a place and a people that lives on in memory, Fantastical is irresistible.

An exquisite assortment of stories—each more delicious than the last—Fantastical is a tale to be savored.

Introduction

The gypsy woman shuffled the cards, blew on them, and cast them down, carefully, deliberately, with the skilled hand of a weaver of life and magic: 

You will travel the world,

A child will make you proud,

You will marry a businessman, but you will still work to make your own way,

You will live a life of adventure…                                                                                                                                                                      – Kraljevo, 1993 

The Yugoslavia of my childhood was anything but dull.  A fantastical place rich in history, populated with intense people, and shot through with wonders and deep emotions, it was part of the Balkans, otherwise known as the powder keg of Europe.  It was the birthplace of diverse luminaries – from Nikola Tesla, inventor of modern alternating current, to Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the Albanian nun who would become Mother Teresa, to top tennis star Novak Djokovic.

Touching Austria to the North, Italy and the Adriatic to the West, Greece to the South, and Romania and Bulgaria to the East, it was the place that started World War I, that pioneered its own grand experiment in socialism, and that would later be home to the infamous ethnic cleansing of the ’90s and some of the most sought-after mass murderers on the planet.

Given its strategic location, it had been in the path of many conquerors.  Everyone from the Visigoths to the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians to Soviet-era Communists had traversed its beautiful lands, leaving parts of their customs, language, and DNA behind.

The Ottomans brought foods and spices, the rhythms of the East, Islam.  The Austro-Hungarians imparted Western European tastes, their own musical preferences, and industrial-age improvements.  Finally, the Communists, the great equalizers of the diverse groups of people who now called this land home, were probably most responsible for the feeling of solidarity that I most strongly associate with it.

To me it was an amusing and intriguing place.  Strange happenings, outrageous gossip, black magic – all were part of the fabric of my childhood, along with the safety and stability of home that was always there in the background, the love embodied in my parents, grandparents, and the larger circles of family and friends.

As I read back through these stories, the word “fantastical” sticks in my mind.  Its meaning ranges from “existing in fancy only” to “slightly odd or even a bit weird.”  My Yugoslavian childhood was definitely both.  These stories represent a lost world.  Not only does the Yugoslav nation no longer exist, but the sense of solidarity among its peoples, giving way in the ’80s and ’90s to ethnic divisions and nationalist tendencies, will never be the same.

These stories also represent an odd world.  In a young socialist country with pagan roots, ancient and modern worlds slammed together.  The incongruities were sometimes jarring, sometimes hilarious.  As a child, I tried continually to make sense of it all.  As an adult, I feel lucky to have taken it all in.  I feel fortunate to have had such a start in life – a strange start, perhaps, but one lived openly and in full color.

I sometimes describe my childhood as “socialist meets gypsy Woody Allen.”  When I was eleven, a nurse on her way to work one morning was stabbed in the back by a coworker.  The two women worked together at the only hospital in our town and were part of a love triangle.  In the end, no charges were filed, and the three lovers went back to work as usual.  As local gossip had it, it was fortunate the event had taken place near the steps of the blood bank, ensuring rapid transfusion.

Others died each year in horrific bus crashes, caused by the regular drinking of drivers ferrying people to their chosen vacation destinations – or, in this case, to their deaths.  Still others met their demise after eating poisonous mushrooms purchased at the local market.  Apparently, the sellers couldn’t tell the difference or just didn’t care.

Especially in more remote parts of the country, a few people each year would barely escape being buried alive.  Since no doctor was involved in validating death, the family would make the judgment on their own, sometimes mistakenly.  The deceased would then be left to their own devices, forced to bang on the coffin lid in the midst of the funeral procession to be let out.

Needless to say, all this unpredictability fueled the superstitions harbored by many.  At the same time, after more than thirty years of Communism, some things in Yugoslavia were very predictable.  In our traditional, homogenous society, before the economic crisis that was to come, no one was too rich or too poor, no one too well or shabbily dressed.  You could always count on some things to run smoothly and others not at all.  A case in point was the Yugo.  Voted one of the Fifty Worst Cars of All Time, it supposedly featured rear-window defrost so your hands wouldn’t get cold while you pushed it.

The Yugoslavia of my memory was wonderfully diverse, and in my world, at least, its various ethnic and religious groups lived together in relative harmony.  Those around me were generally happy and satisfied with life, frequently socializing with friends and coworkers.  The sense of solidarity was high.  People wanted to do good and contribute to the overall benefit of society, and they generally looked out for one another.

I also remember a strong sense of intimacy, with people deeply involved in each other’s lives.  It was common for everyone to know what you were cooking for lunch, and should the aroma leave some question as to the exact dish, it was perfectly acceptable to ask and have your suspicions validated.

Growing up, it was my grandparents’ world I was most familiar with and that colored my childhood.  While my parents worked, I spent most days with my grandparents in the large apartment complex they shared with other military families in the Serbian city of Kraljevo.  Communist-era buildings are typically presented as drab and gray, but I remember the balconies always beautifully adorned with plants and flowers, the interior walls always freshly painted in pastel colors.  I also recall the complex teeming with people coming and going, providing abundant material for the local gossip.

Other stories reflect my parents’ world, in Kraljevo and on the banks of the Adriatic where we vacationed each summer, still surrounded by family and friends.  Their world, too, was caught up in tradition, elaborate social norms, and the remnants of a more superstitious time, but it gestured toward modernity.

Some of these stories come to me solely though the gossip of neighbors, embellished in their own minds and later, in mine.  Some come through the lens of childhood, colored by my need to make sense of my own actions and an often confusing world.  Still, this place and time – the Yugoslavia of my childhood – is real.  Welcome, reader, to these tales of a time and place long gone, a world vanished from the map but not the mind.  Join me on this journey and let your own reality dissolve.

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Chapter Reveal: ‘Going From Undisciplined to Self-Mastery: Five Simple Steps to Get You There’ by Harris Kern

self-mastery-198x300Genre: Non-Fiction

Author: Harris Kern

Publisher: Koehler Books

Amazon

Going from Undisciplined to Self-Mastery is not a clone of all the other self-help books in the marketplace today. It is the proof not the hype. This book, based on hundreds of successful case studies featuring people from all walks of life, facilitated by the author’s life coaching and organization performance mentoring business to give them the discipline they needed to overcome the issues the author dubbed as The Dirty Dozen:

  • Severe procrastination
  • Failed goals
  • No motivation
  • No sense of urgency
  • Disorganized
  • Lack of structure
  • Not focused
  • Not managing sleep optimally
  • Poor performance
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of energy
  • Inconsistency

The author’s business focuses on helping people and organizations achieve self-mastery.

A key component for a successful life is acquiring discipline. The author believes that self-mastery is the defining element in your life. With it. you can achieve almost anything; without it you will struggle to exist.

To reach a level of self-mastery you first need to develop your self-discipline, by learning how to overcome The Dirty Dozen. The Five Steps you’ll need to take are:

  • Institute Structure
  • Prioritize Your Life
  • Manage Time
  • Hold Yourself Accountable
  • Seek Perfection

The author not only mentors his clients using these principles but he has actually been practicing what he preaches for more than four decades.

Foreword 

I was contacted by Roger Bengtsson after he searched the Internet using the keywords self-discipline and mentor. He sent me the following email:

“I’m not proud about my self-discipline lately. Too much television, no regular sleep rhythm, and so on. I’m ashamed. Not long ago I had self-discipline and I felt fine and I probably had my best days in life. And now, back to zero again. No goals, no hunger for a new day.”

He had other challenges:

  • Severe procrastination
  • Slept too much—nine-to-ten hours
  • Wasted two-to-three hours lounging around in bed every day
  • No motivation
  • No sense of urgency
  • Not energetic

His career was going nowhere. He was a security guard in Sweden. At the age of  forty-two his life seemed pretty dismal. His only consolation—he wasn’t alone. Most people I meet have very little, if any, self-discipline. No matter how intelligent or creative someone is, without being disciplined it is almost impossible to excel in life.  That’s why the self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar gold mine. So-called experts know that very few people become successful just by reading a book, listening to motivational audios or attending a seminar on success.

Roger was no different; he read several self-help books and was constantly listening to audios for inspiration,  everything he tried was a short-term fix. He needed more than canned advice. He needed a mentor who walks-the-talk, has a time-tested process and who could hold him accountable for his daily routines. He needed a roadmap—not a lecture.

Although we lived on different continents, I felt that I could turn his life around. This book is designed to take you on a similar journey from being an undisciplined casualty of bad habits, like Roger had been, into a master of your own fate. It will walk you through the time-proven five steps needed to become more productive and enthusiastic about life. These easy-to-follow steps you’ll take on this journey will help you develop the self-discipline you’ll need in order to live the rest of your life in a constant state of high level enthusiasm and purpose. Once you master all five of these steps, you will be able to combat the top issues affecting many people in the world today—I refer to them as The Dirty Dozen:

  • Severe procrastination
  • Failed goals
  • No motivation
  • No sense of urgency
  • Disorganized
  • Lack of structure
  • Not focused
  • Not managing sleep optimally
  • Poor performance
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of energy
  • Inconsistency

Even though this may seem like quite a list, really it’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. Individuals the world over are struggling every day to do more with less.

For your benefit, this book is divided into three major sections.

  • The first section is an Executive Overview. It highlights all Five Steps with simple flow diagrams and brief descriptions.
  • The second section describes the Five Steps in detail.
  • The third section highlights The Proof not the hype to help individuals and organizations get structured by featuring:

─   Easy to-follow process flow diagrams of the five steps.

─   Case studies from dozens of one-on-one life coaching sessions and actual organization consulting engagements from Fortune 500 companies.

─   Multiple examples and exercises to help you get proficient in time management.

─   Exercises to help you train your mind to hold yourself accountable.

In the event you are wondering just who would buy this book consider the following.

  • Every dieter, who can’t stick to a plan,
  • Everyone who wants to get into shape, but lacks the motivation,
  • Every college student going out into the world for the first time,
  • Every job seeker looking for that edge,
  • Sales managers who want to get more out of their team,
  • Real estate agents who need to remain disciplined through slow periods,
  • Companies that need to be more cost-effective,
  • Pretty much anyone or any organization that wants to be more productive.

Going from Undisciplined to Self-Mastery describes how to acquire the most important ingredient for optimal success in one’s lifetime: Discipline. Those who are willing to work hard to acquire discipline will not have aspirational roadblocks.

What does it look like? How does this system work? Here’s how we plotted a path for Roger.In the first half of the table below, I documented the actions taken to mentor Roger, and in the second half of the Table are the results attained from our one-on-one mentoring sessions.

Action Taken
1 I facilitated an assessment of Roger over SKYPE. I asked approximately one hundred questions covering every area of his personal and professional life. The first step was to understand his strengths, weaknesses and goals. Once I completed my discovery exercise, we reviewed my findings and discussed a strategy to move forward. After the evaluation we established three priorities: career, health and relationships (family and girlfriend).
2 I designed a strategy based on his goals and three new priorities. The strategy also included mentoring him to develop his self-discipline skills using the five steps highlighted in this book:

1.     Institute Structure

2.     Prioritize Your Life

3.     Manage Time

4.     Hold Yourself Accountable

5.     Seek Perfection

3 We established a new routine to help Roger be more productive. I wanted him to treat everyday equally. My objective was to eventually train his mind so he can hold himself accountable . The routine included:

  • Training seven days a week.
  • Writing thirty minutes a day.
  • Practicing English daily.
  • Following and maintaining his to-do list every day!
  • Maintaining structure throughout the day.
  • Reducing sleep time from nine hours a day to six.
  • Eliminate lounging in bed.
  • Wake up with a purpose.
  • Focus on daily milestones not his goals.
4 I continuously reminded him that it’s now or never, that the old Roger is dead and gone. He needed to quickly make up for the years of laziness. I wanted to instill a sense of urgency.
5 I made sure he created a to-do list each evening.
6 I held Roger accountable several times a day, even though he resided in Sweden, using SKYPE calls and email. We reviewed his milestones¾what worked and what didn’t work.
7 I trained him to follow the same routine, to-do list and constantly reminding him that he doesn’t want to go back to the lazy and unproductive Roger. We had many conversations throughout the week to ensure ongoing success.
Results
1 Roger is productive every day.
2 He trains each day.
3 Writes consistently, both blogs and books.
4 He holds himself accountable.
5 He makes every minute count.

·       No longer watches TV for hours at a time.

·       Doesn’t lounge around in bed.

·       Doesn’t procrastinate.

6 New goals are thoroughly planned with realistic milestones.
7 He’s always organized and clutter-free, which allows him to be creative and even more productive.

.

How it Started

My neighbor, Jim Jarman, was in his forties when I was thirteen. What a specimen: intelligent, handsome, exercised every day, great physique. I looked up to him.

On one of those typical warm summer California days, Jim was outside mowing the lawn with his shorts on and his shirt off. We would always be clowning around together, trading sarcasm. On this particular day, he said the five magic words to me that changed my life forever: “Harris, you look like shit.”  (As you can imagine, we were pretty good friends.)

I could tell immediately that he was serious. He was right; I knew it. At the time, I stood six feet tall and weighed 135 pounds.  If I turned sideways, you would not be able to see me. I was that skinny. It was a disgusting sight!

I looked at Jim and said that I knew it, but genuinely did not know what to do about it. I ate everything in sight but could never gain a pound. “Harris,” he said, “Eating massive amounts of food is not the way to approach your problem. Your body needs a major overhaul, and it doesn’t start with your mouth.” At thirteen, I did not understand what he was trying to tell me. How else do you gain weight?

“If you decide to follow my instructions to the letter than I will help you out.” I said sure, not having a clue as to what was forthcoming. “I want you here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. What time do you usually get home?” I get home at 3:45 p.m. each day. “Okay, on those three days, I want you at my house by 4:00 p.m., and don’t be a minute late. If you’re late, the deal is off—no second chances.”  This was Saturday, so we started that Monday.

I was really looking forward to my first session. Maybe, just maybe, I could obtain a body like his in no time.

What a rude awakening. He put me through hell! A very stern exercise program. What do I mean by stern? I mean three days a week of torture, always pushing me harder than the week before. There was weight training, running, swimming and most importantly lecturing me as we were exercising. He would always keep me focused on the exercise and our long–term objective. It was continuous badgering. There was no time or place for social talk.

He would also teach me not to rely on anyone for help. Why not? Is it not okay to rely on your friends occasionally? Not for acquiring Discipline. It is one hundred percent you and no one else. Athletes know that 80% is upstairs (in the mind), where it all starts, especially on those days that you’re too tired, or stressed out and not in the mood––that’s when you need to push yourself the most. He was training my mind more than my body, although I did not know it at the time.

Jim was like a drill sergeant. He was instilling me with Discipline. I figured if he was willing to give up his precious time to help me out, the least I could do was show up on time. Besides, after I agreed to do this, he actually dared me to quit or show up late. He tested me every day.

Looking back now, I realize what an illusory mind game this entire ordeal was. His tactic was very effective, scaring me into never being late. I did not know it back then, but he was training my mind, starting with the easiest form of Discipline: punctuality.

Do you realize how difficult it was for a thirteen-year old kid to pull this off? Think back in time to the number of distractions you had to constantly deal with as a young teen.  Yet I never missed a day.

Walking the Talk

There are many successful self-help gurus out there with many publications to learn from, however what sets me apart from the pack is the fact that I have walked the talk for decades and even now while in my sixties my passion to accomplish and excel is second-to-none.  For me, life ia sll about accomplishments and leaving behind a legacy.

I am highly successful and growing my legacy by leaps and bounds. My children and the love of my life Mayra are going to be the beneficiaries of more than just a hefty bank account. They will inherit prime real estate property and multiple businesses. They would also have a vast collection of books I authored in the family library and vivid photographs on the mantle to remember me by. In my mind, they would continue to abide by the morals their mother and I instilled in them. I also assumed they would adhere to the same top three priorities that I did  and continue to develop their self-discipline so they’d wake up every morning for the rest of their lives with a purpose. Just like their dear old dad, I wanted them to accomplish as much as possible every day. Faith, balance, and discipline would always be the catalyst for their own success.

Looking back over my sixty plus years of existence, there were plenty of major accomplishments to write home about. One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that at the age of sixteen, I purchased, in cash, a brand spanking new car and paid for my own insurance. My disciplined mannerisms and tendencies manifested themselves at an early age. At the age of thirteen, I threw myself into the labor market with a vengeance.  I desired money and truckloads of it—quickly, especially after having netted approximately $700.00 in cash, checks and bonds and at my Bar Mitzvah in 1967.

To appease my never-ending hunger for money, I worked multiple jobs after school and on the weekends. There was no job big or small that I wouldn’t do; yard work, babysitting, delivering newspapers, filing brochures at a travel agency. At one time, I even worked at an auto junkyard pulling batteries from old clunkers. It was a dirty and dangerous job but someone had to do it. I’ll never forget the day that I pulled out a battery from a car right before it was being hoisted up for demolition. As I stood there and watched it being lifted by a crane, a large rattle snake fell out and scared me. That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. I never went back after that.

These jobs were all performed between the ages of thirteen to sixteen, with one hundred percent of the income being deposited into my savings account. It was the only way I could purchase a new car by my sixteenth birthday. Growing up, I was mentored to be frugal and save money. My parents always used to tell me:“Never purchase small insignificant items like  records, beer, media paraphernalia, and knick-knacks at the mall. Forget all about the latest craze and  always eat at home.” Their sound advice has served me well throughout my entire life.

While other teen-aged boys were busy scamming for girls or getting into all kinds of trouble, I had already entered the corporate world. I was only eighteen years old when I accepted an entry level position in the Information Technology (IT) Department of a large company in the San Carlos California. Back in 1972, it was referred to as Data Processing and shortly thereafter as Management Information Systems (MIS). Removing the carbon sheets from computer generated printouts wasn’t exactly a glamorous job. Although it was a dirty job, it was the proverbial foot in the door that I needed to gain full admittance into the very exciting world of technology.

It was a full-time job, but I completed my duties in approximately five hours time. The rest of my day was spent helping out in other departments—learning, growing and striving to get on the management’s radar screen as a quick learner, efficient, and someone who had a ton of initiative. My goal was to be promoted out of that function as quickly as possible—the sooner, the better.  I had bigger fish to fry.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget what my dad said to me at an early age. “Son, if you rent an apartment or house it’s like flushing your hard-earned money down the toilet.” Needless to say, I took these words to heart. Living on my own became a goal of mine, one that turned into reality at the age of nineteen, when I purchased a home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My life changed drastically when I bought my first home without any financial help from anyone. It was a two-bedroom townhome about fifteen minutes south of San Francisco. I was scared to death of getting tied down to a mortgage at such a young age—it was nerve-racking to say the least. However, it was a fairly conservative strategy, putting down a larger down payment of 20 percent so the monthly payments wouldn’t strap me down. Investing in property at an early age was one of my smartest undertakings.  After two years, I sold it for a nice profit and moved to a nicer neighborhood.

After dabbling in real estate, I turned my focus to muscle cars. There were millions of nice muscle cars out there but I wanted to have so much more than just another fancy hot rod. What I yearned for was something wholly unique that would win “Best of Class” at all the premier car shows in the U.S. At the age of 21, my muscle car and matching speed boat were featured on the front cover of  the July 1975 issue of Hot Rod Magazine.

The top speed boat and muscle car with a matching maroon with flames paint job, which belonged to me, were showcased at the granddaddy of all car shows in Oakland, California. They won the top prize—best of show. I named the boat Dirty Harry and the car Sano SS. Winning “Best of Show” was the ultimate honor for the combo until I received a phone call from Hot Rod Magazine a few weeks later. A representative saw the car and boat at the car show and wanted to feature them in one of the magazine’s summer issues. Wow, what a great feeling when it hit newstands and stores in July of 1975. I’ll never forget driving in my award-winning muscle car to the lakes throughout California with matching speed boat in tow to water-ski. I made quite a spectacle cruising on the streets and highways.

Early on in my career, I knew that management was the right path to take. After all this is where the big bucks were along with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and character building challenges. Having good communication skills, always thinking strategically, possessing excellent leadership skills and being passionate about developing a highly efficient organization was my true calling. At the age of twenty-three, I was promoted to my first management position. From that point on, I climbed the corporate ladder at nearly a record-setting pace and went on to become Vice President of IT in my early thirties.

By the time I reached my 38th birthday in 1992, I was financially set—a multi-millionaire. One million dollars worth of equity in property and another cool million in cash constituted success for me, at the time. I invested wisely—mostly in property, worked hard, and never put all my eggs in one basket. I made it a point to make sure there was always a steady stream of income coming in several small consulting firms—just in case that big reduction in force happened.

In 1982, my corporate job of 10 years ended abruptly—everyone was given a pink slip, including yours truly. Being unemployed for the first time in my professional life was downright scary, but having a healthy savings account and multiple sources of income to pay the mortgage and living expenses for approximately two years eased the burden considerably. In a matter of a few months, I was recruited by a large Japanese electronics company in Silicon Valley.

Once I got back into the corporate world, my goal was for the name Harris Kern to become synonymous with IT and self-discipline.  At the time, based on my research, there were many one book wonders. But that wasn’t going to cut the mustard with me. I wanted an impressive bio that would clearly stand apart from the pack, which could also be used as my resume, one that would open up any door.

My first IT related book was published in 1994 by Prentice Hall and it quickly became a best-seller.  Shortly thereafter, the president of Prentice Hall called to congratulate me and he asked me, “When are you going to write another book?” Little did he know that my mind was already actively strategizing to write a series of IT management How-to books.

I was invited to attend a conference in 1997, which was facilitated by Prentice Hall in San Diego, California.. All of the top-level publishing executives  were in attendance, including my executive editor and his boss.  My objective was to get my own imprint of books named Harris Kern’s Enterprise Computing Institute. I presented my plan to them with conviction and they agreed. Over the next few weeks we worked out the contractual issues. The imprint published its first book in the series in 1997. It worked flawlessly with dozens of new books being published under my imprint on a regular basis. Overall, I published more than 40 books with Prentice Hall and a few other publishers as well. On the Richter scale of personal success, I considered myself to be a rock star as a management consultant, author, publisher, motivational speaker, and business/individual mentor.

What makes my recipe for life so wonderful is the way I live life as a process—with a philosophy for living.  I’ve had my share of hard times, disappointments and temporary setbacks. The way they’re handled really influence our ability to recover, move on and stay on track.  For me, Discipline is key.

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Cornered, by Linda DeFruscio

Cornered_medTitle: Cornered: Dr. Richard J. Sharpe As I Knew Him

Genre: Memoir

Author: Linda DeFruscio

Website: http://www.thecorneredbook.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon

SUMMARY: In the year 2000, Linda DeFruscio was forced to make an unthinkable decision. Someone whose genius she admired immensely, a business associate and dear friend, committed a terrible crime. In response, she could cut off their friendship and avoid the risk of losing friends, clients and her own peace of mind—or, she could trust her gut and try to save some aspect of her friend’s humanity.

Cornered is Linda DeFruscio’s story of her long and often complex association with Dr. Richard J. Sharpe, the millionaire dermatologist from Gloucester, MA who was convicted of killing his wife. Beautifully written and surprisingly tender, Cornered allows the reader an upfront view of the fragility of genius and the decline into madness, all while casting a second light on how one woman’s refusal to turn her back resulted in momentous changes in her own life.

CORNERED

Chapter One – Hair, Pseudonyms And Transgender Lives

My mother was an electrologist too. Before she got into the field, she worked in a factory, welding small parts for airplanes. She was good at working with small things; she was good with her hands. She liked electrolysis even more than airplane parts because along with the intricate hand work and exacting eye focus came people, different people with different personalities. When I got out of high school in 1972, she took me into her office (which was in our home) and did my eyebrows. She explained the process to me as she worked. I went into a dental studies program that same year, offered by Northeastern and Tufts, and after a year and a half I received a Dental Assistant certification. Thereafter I was accepted into a dental hygiene program, but at a school in Connecticut. (The ones in Massachusetts could only put me on a waiting list.) Instead of leaving my family to live out of state, I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and go to school for electrology, and cosmetology too. While I was a student, I worked as a dental assistant (as well as a McDonald’s counter person and a housecleaner) to pay my bills. I graduated from Eleanor Roberts School of Electrology in Boston in 1975.

In school, people came in off the street to get inexpensive treatments from the students. One day Bart Fish came in, our neighbor from near our home, and I worked on him. He told me that sometimes my mother worked on him too. Small world. I didn’t know. Bart was married and had three kids, one still at home. He confided that he was a cross-dresser, which was why he didn’t want facial hair (and probably why I hadn’t known my mother was working on him). By the time he came to me, I was a licensed master barber as well as an electrologist. I worked on Bart’s beard and also cut his hair and shaved him. I even practiced a few perms on him. On one occasion, his daughter freaked out. She said I’d sent him home looking like a poodle. She didn’t mind the cross-dressing, because he did that elsewhere, in a different state; it was a separate segment of his life. But she couldn’t endure seeing him every night at the dinner table looking like a priss. She made such a fuss that I went over one evening and cut off his curls.

My mother, I would come to realize, knew lots of cross-dressers, because they made up a good percentage of her clientele. But she had never talked to me about them. It was Bart who helped me to understand that some people just weren’t totally comfortable with the gender they’d been born with; or they weren’t comfortable all the time. He was lucky, he said. His wife accepted him as he was. He was her best friend and she didn’t want to lose him just because he felt the need to alter his gender presentation now and then. Bart’s job as a bra and underwear salesman provided him with the opportunity to travel to different cities, destinations where he could cross-dress without worrying about who found out. He had a friend in Manhattan, and she was okay with his cross-dressing too. He said to me once, “Cross-dressers will be some of your best clients. Don’t be afraid of them. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re all just people.”

Once the cat was out of the bag, my mother and I began to spend social time with Bart and his wife, chatting over lemonade on their porch or in our house. One day Bart offered to take me to an IFGE—International Foundation for Gender Education—meeting so I could learn a little more. His friend Merissa Lynn had founded the organization, in Waltham, Massachusetts. She wanted to help me to find clients. I told her I liked to write and she suggested I write an article about electrolysis for the IFGE magazine. She and Bart introduced me to other people.

Over time, Bart became my mentor and confidante. When Mom retired, he encouraged me to start my own business. Even though I was still very young, Bart and his wife were certain I would achieve success. I would inherit mom’s clients, and there would be some IFGE people too. To me, the transgender people were just regular people (perhaps a little more empathetic and more educated than other people I knew) who were conflicted about their gender identification. They lived, they died, and in between they worried about high blood pressure and paying their taxes like anyone else. My acceptance of them was automatic; after my conversations with Bart, I never gave it a second thought. As for Bart, he was a second father to me, my own father being away much of the time.

So I did it. I started my own business. At first I worked in the house, in the room that had been my mother’s office. Then, with Bart’s encouragement, I opened my office in Newton, and before I knew it I had a thriving practice. I liked being an electrologist. I liked the process. Each hair I removed gave me a surprise. One might have a big juicy black bulb at the end, and one might not. Analyzing each hair provided a clue as to what was going on under the skin. Also, I liked the people. They weren’t all transgender people either; a lot of my clients were straight men with ingrown hairs or just too much hair, or straight women who needed work on their upper lips, chins, legs, or underarms. Some wanted eyebrow shaping. Sometimes pregnancy produces unwanted hairs in unexpected places. Electrolysis is a safe way to deal with it. Menopause can create hair havoc too. All kinds of people seek to control their hair growth.

Being an electrologist is not so different from being a psychiatrist…or a bartender. If a client comes in for hundreds of hours, and you are working together in a small quiet room, eventually they will open up and tell you about their life. I’ve had many a patient cry and admit they need to work on a particular issue. I always respond, “I’m not a therapist. I’m not allowed to tell you what to do. But I can give you my opinion.” That always turns out to be what they wanted anyway, more or less.

I’ve done my share of venting too. Once, on the way into work, a crazy driver came within an inch of taking me out on the highway. I was really shaken up. I remember how happy I was when I got to the office and realized that my first patient was someone who would want to know every detail of the almost accident. The transgender clients were always the most interesting to tell your troubles to, because they are really part female and part male. If you tell them a relationship problem, for instance, they will be able to help you to look at it from both perspectives. Talking to transgender clients is as comfortable—and as comforting—as talking to my mom or best girlfriends. In fact, I count a few transgender women among my best girlfriends.

Besides my work, I continued to write skin care articles for Merissa. One day I was even contacted by the famous—well, famous to those of us who work in skin care—Dr. Peter Chives, who asked me to write an article for the Annals of Dermatology, for which he served as editor-in-chief. Dr. Chives was the author of more than a dozen books, one of which was in its sixth edition and had been translated into several foreign languages. He was also the author of over three-hundred scientific publications. I was thrilled when he contacted me and said he considered me to be outstanding in my field and wanted me to review a textbook that had been written by one of his colleagues. I accepted of course. But while I had written lots of magazine articles, I’d never written a book review on a technical book, and I had no idea how to go about it. As it happened, one of my patients, a professional writer, volunteered to give me some tips. I submitted the final piece on time and the issue appeared at the end of 1991.

* * *

When Chris Trembly first called me I was between patients and had the time to talk, which was good, because Mr. Trembly had some nice things to say. He’d read the article that I’d written for Annals of Dermatology. He liked it a lot; he thought I was a good writer. This was about the best compliment anyone could pay me. Chris Trembly said he liked to write too, but he didn’t say what he wrote and I didn’t ask. He’d called because he had ingrown hairs on his neck and he thought I would be the right person to remove them. We set up an appointment.

He came in a week later. He was a sweet, shy, soft-spoken, unassuming man. Dark eyes, longish dark hair. A combination of a young Mick Jagger and Keanu Reeves. Maybe 5’9, about 165 pounds. Mid to late thirties, which is to say about my age. He wore black pants and a white shirt and dark cranberry penny loafers with shiny pennies in the vamp inserts. I led him into the treatment room. I have a chart on the wall there featuring several graphics that define the electrolysis process. The first thing I do with a new patient is tell him or her how electrolysis works—a very fine probe inserted into a hair follicle on the surface of the skin, etc. I always enjoy this explanation. I use the chart as a prop.

Before I could get started, Chris Trembly told me, politely, that he didn’t have time for the first-visit consultation that day. If I could just work on a few of his ingrowns…. He promised the next visit he would relish the opportunity to talk about the process. In spite of the fact that he was in a hurry, he was pleasant. When our eyes met, he looked right into mine. I had him get up on the table and I examined his ingrowns under the light and removed a few. We set up another appointment.

An ingrown hair can occur when a hair is shaved and it retreats below the skin surface, causing inflammation and irritation. There are ways to reduce the number of ingrown hairs, such as running one’s razor under hot water for about thirty seconds. Shaving in one direction (the direction of the hair), and never using a blade more than three times, is also good. If  you cheat, your skin will know. I was telling all this to Chris Trembly during our third session, because during the second session, as was the case with the first, he had to be somewhere and didn’t have time for more than the removal of a few more ingrowns. I was happy to finally have the chance to impart my knowledge to him, to point to the illustrations on my trusty wall chart. He followed the movement of my finger diligently. Alternately, he looked into my eyes. His apparent interest in what I was saying stirred me to say more, to add more detail than usual. When I stopped to take a breath, he smiled a hesitant smile and said, “My name isn’t really Chris Trembly.”

I was taken aback not at all. There are those among my clients who prefer that I don’t know their real names. Like Fred, for instance. In ten years I’ve never asked him for his real name and I never plan to. Fred adores his wife and his five kids. He has a nice home. He likes his life. When he first came to me, he said, “I don’t want to change my life but I do want to be more of the real me. I want my hair thinned on my beard, knuckles and brows.”

Over time Fred told me his story. He cross-dressed once a month, always in the daytime when he could fit his excursions into his work day. Generally he went to out-of-town malls or to hotels to have lunch alone or with transgender friends. Unlike my dear friend Bart, his wife knew nothing about it, and he had no intention of letting her find out—because he suspected she wouldn’t approve. He knew he was right when she told him over dinner one night about the disgusting transsexuals she’d seen on some TV talk show. The last thing Fred wanted was for her to think of him that way and leave him. The second to last thing he wanted was to have to give up the one afternoon a month that he dressed as a woman. He came to me to find a compromise.

Money was no object for him, so we agreed that we would do very short sessions, removing only a few hairs at a time, several times a month. I said, “At this rate you’ll be with me for a long time.” “That’s fine,” he responded.

During each session I removed two or three hairs from under his nose, a few from his chin, his brows, his knuckles—so little that if anyone noticed at all, they would think he had scratched himself. While I worked, he liked to talk about politics. He had a government job, he said. During one appointment he told me a story about how he’d lost his purse while he was out. I said, “Oh my God, was your government ID in it?” No, he’d created a different ID for his excursions, for his alternate self; he even had a PO box just for his transgender mail. His interest in politics and his guile led me to suspect that he worked for an intelligence agency. But I never asked.

After eight or so years of ongoing appointments, we got to where he wanted to be; he was no longer “hairy.” But he didn’t look as though he’d had any hair removed either. We knew we had created a masterpiece when his wife said to him one day, “You know, now that you’re getting older, your hair is thinning on your face. It looks great! You’re more handsome than ever.”

I saw him once with his wife, at my favorite luncheonette. He’d asked me years before never to say hello to him if I saw him outside of my office, and I’d never forgotten. So I turned away while I waited for my to-go order. I was about to pass their table on my way out the door when he said, “Nice day, huh?” I glanced at him. He was smiling. I glanced at her. She looked at me suspiciously. I said, “Yeah, it’s beautiful,” and hurried outside.

* * *

I smiled at Chris Trembly when he said he wasn’t Chris Trembly, and I went on talking about ingrown hairs. I was explaining that you could use a tablespoon of salt and warm water, mixed together on a piece of gauze, or even in your hand, as an exfoliant to heal any irritation…just like how ocean water works to heal the skin. But a few minutes later he interrupted my lecture again to say, “Did you know that an ophthalmologist from St. Louis, Missouri was the first person to use electrolysis on someone who had ingrown eyelashes in the year 1875?”

That stopped me cold. I stared at him. He smiled his sheepish smile. Then he pulled his wallet from his pocket and extracted two loose photos and handed them to me. The first was a picture of him wearing a lab coat over a dress shirt and tie, a stethoscope draped around his neck. The second appeared to be a photo of a woman, but I recognized instantly that it was him, in drag. I handed them back. “Are you a doctor?” I asked.

He nodded. I looked him over. As always, he was wearing a fresh white shirt and penny loafers, his signature ensemble. He said, “I’m a dermatologist. My name is Richard Sharpe.”

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