Musings

Oh, New York

Like everyone else during this pandemic, I’ve been thinking. Too much thinking. The shot above is not from today. Today is one of those crazy stormy days; crazy rain, howling winds, you don’t want to go out even if you could.

I’m thinking about how unprepared we all were for this. Not just the tangible, obvious unprepared of a federal government that decided the best way to respond to warnings was to stick their fingers in their ears and sing lalalalastockmarketlalala, the lack of sufficient medical equipment and PPE for health care workers, disruptions in supply chains. The lack of emotional preparedness of…me.

I mean, it’s a bad storm today, but not The Day After Tomorrow.

We wake up and shuffle through our days, room to room in our apartments or for brief errands outside, but we haven’t turned into actual zombies, a la Zone One.

The streets are quiet, Broadway’s gone “dark,” but despite the photos circulating of empty tourist spots like Times Square, the city isn’t silent, as The Stand would have led me to believe. As I joked the other day with a friend, I was mentally prepared for the need to engage in a bit of looting to access food in the grocery stores, not waiting on line for over an hour to be granted entry. I took the photo above last week while on line for the store, a full two blocks away.

So here we are, just about mid-April, almost a month since NY has officially been under stay-at-home orders, over a month since many been social distancing. I’m still thinking too much, and April is still National Poetry Month, which of course puts me in mind of being an angsty teen and writing angsty poetry while sitting on the rocks on an empty, windy Brooklyn beach, expecting many things ahead–some good, some not, but not this. I’m still a lousy poet, but sometimes it still feels right. I’m not writing anything else, so why not?

 

 

Birds Sing in the Quiet Spaces

In the used to be normal days

The space of almost mornings

Gray and brown wings against black to blue to lavender sky

A moment with coffee, while neighbors snored to the rhythm of

Recycle trucks belching along

Subways rumbled below, metallic clash and squeal of elevated tracks reaching

 

Birds sing in the quiet spaces 

Today, yesterday, tomorrow, the new shifting normal, quiet all day days

Thought they’d be different days

Birdsong throughout days

 

But city quiet isn’t silent 

It’s the momentary standstill walking past a writhing garbage bag on the curb at 

2 am

The count between a split of lightning and ripple of thunder

The pause after a squeal and thud before traffic moves on

The halt of skittering roaches against cracked linoleum when the lights come on

The right before applause as the lights dim

The stun on the playground between a fall from the monkey bars and a wail

The space between a siren’s keen and speed followed by the lament of quiet lights 

that roll away

slowly

Ambulance full and void

 

Birds sing in the quiet spaces.

One Egg Family: aka, Hold On

Holding hands: Congo Gorilla Forest, Bronx Zoo

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this and I’m too lazy to read back, but I’ve been without gas (which = no stove or oven) for a couple of months now. Gas leak was discovered in the building, so it’s nothing personal, the entire building’s gas was shut down, no end in sight. Others I know or have heard of where this has happened, it’s taken anywhere from 8-13 months to get it repaired. With coronavirus in the mix, who knows? I figure I’ll be lucky if I can bake and roast in time for Christmas of ’22.

A friend saw me tweet about this when I figured out how to cook something (can’t remember what) in the slow cooker and sent me an electric skillet. How lovely, right? For all we’re drowning in right now, there have been some wonderful moments of friendship, community, and support.

I was happy to make eggs for breakfast the next day, we’d missed them. After everyone ate, I told them I hoped they enjoyed, because for the foreseeable future, we’re now a one egg family.

I’m not an epidemiologist, not an economist, not a historian. But I’ve lived through some shit, and this is unlike any other. For all the politics and discussion, it seems to me many aren’t understanding the extent of the toll this Covid-19 pandemic is having on our world–and will have, for a long time to come. This isn’t producing a short glitch in the economy that can be rectified by a stimulus package. Hell, half of our elected representatives are still arguing about whether or not all workers deserve to get enough money to eat. Or, yanno, children. The magnanimous bill passed, with $1200 to be given to each adult? A one shot deal, we’re being told some shouldn’t expect to even see that money until September. Sure, I’m sure everyone can wait to buy food, medications, pay rent, electric, gas, water, until September. And they only need to pay those things once, absolutely. And oops, that $1200 “gift?” Maybe not a gift. Maybe an advance on 2020’s tax credit/refund. (Don’t @ me here, as far as I can tell, this is yet to be made clear or official one way or the other.) Besides the obvious ramifications on everyone’s health and societal interactions, we’re looking at hard times ahead. Unemployment, rising at a shocking rate, is expected to reach levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. 

I’m still seeing a lot of people complaining about not being able to go out to eat at their favorite restaurants. Again, I’m no financial analyst, but unless you’re in the highest of economic brackets, that may soon be the least of your problems. This video, from two weeks ago, shows lines outside of a food pantry. Reminiscent of the old photos of bread lines circa 1929, no?  There’s a rising number of people who can’t afford to go grocery shopping, and then there are disruptions in the food supply chain, expected to increase. Do I think we all need to panic? No, and it won’t help if we do.

We don’t all have to choose deprivation and starvation diets. If nothing else that would cause lowered resistance if we get sick. but it is time to choose with an eye towards frugality and stretching. Two eggs per person, for breakfast, is a lot of eggs gone–and in the scheme of breakfast foods, expensive. Two eggs plus flour and small amounts of other stuff (I recommend buttermilk if you can get it, lasts longer than regular milk, tastes great in pancakes, adds some richness) and you’ve got a big batch of pancakes.

We don’t know all of the ramifications of Covid-19 yet, not how many will die, how many will have died because of the vanity and lack of compassion of a reality tv president, not how high the unemployment rates will rise, not how many will become homeless, not how many will become newly food insecure, not how our society will permanently change, not how long we’ll be under stay-at-home-regulations, not how much longer we’ll have to be under those regulations because of certain pseudo-news organizations’ disinformation and certain governors pretending the US doesn’t stand for the United States, and therefore are refusing to put real stay at home regulations in place (because viruses are partisan, checking to see if you’re a registered Dem or Republican before cozying up in your lungs. Mmmm hmmm). We won’t for a long time. But we know much is uncertain.

There’s an expression from when I was in kid in the old country of pre-hip South Brooklyn: Mr J is so cheap he’ll squeeze a nickel until the buffalo shits. (yes, young ones, there used to be buffalos on nickels). I hope I’m being an alarmist here, and we’ll get all of this under control well before it gets as bad as I’m imagining. Either way it’s time to hold on. And just in case, have a one egg sandwich while you squeeze that nickel.

Top of the Heap

There’s a bit from the manuscript I’m querying that keeps going round in my head. Is it in poor taste to quote from my own work? Do rules about poor taste apply when we’re in the midst of a pandemic and facing the apocalypse? *shrug* I’ll quote it anyway.

He should have missed me. Pined for me when we weren’t speaking, begun to waste without my dumplings. But in fact he looked fine when I snuck upstairs and watched him hauling cases of clean glasses to the bar. Healthy. Maybe he’d gained a pound or two. How could that be? I was good for him, damn it. I would be there, even later, when he got sicker and most people got afraid. Maybe. If he wanted. If I wanted. I turned my mind sideways, so’s not to think how people could be good and bad for each other at the same time. Simulcast, like a presidential speech, or a Grateful Dead concert, when the sound was supposed to line up from the TV and the radio exactly right, but there was always that lag, so you didn’t know where to put your ears.

That last bit, not knowing where to put your ears. That’s how I feel these days, but I don’t know where to put my mind, can’t quite think about anything straight on without needing to let my thoughts slide to the next, and yet now matter how much slip sliding between the neurons, those thoughts always slide to another aspect of Covid-19. The danger to my family, personally, health-wise? Slip. The economic ramifications? Slide. The thought that if one of my loved ones ends up hospitalized I don’t think I’d be allowed to actually, physically be with them? Slither. The entire country changing forever? Well, that one is something we’ve been looking at for close to four years now, isn’t it? Sigh. And what I’m talking about today. New York. The city. My New York.

The rate of confirmed cases in New York City is, so far, following the terrifying curve that’s been expected, with confirmed cases rising exponentially. For the most part the parameters for testing are still strict because of limited tests available, so when I say there were close to 4000 confirmed cases by late yesterday afternoon, it isn’t my imagination run wild to say there are likely tens of thousands of actual cases through the city already, confirmed or not, severe or not, symptomatic or not. The only thing moving faster than the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in NY right now is the number of jobs lost, which dwarfs the number sick &/or testing positive. People in the music industry, hospitality, restaurants, retail, on and on.

Much of the city looks like a movie set right now. The flats and backdrops are there, subway cars empty and waiting, lighting is right, but still far from filming, only a few people moving about here and there. I know that is good news, our best and–except for testing (out of individual control) and hand washing–only defense. Still creepy as fuck.

Being a born and bred New Yorker is its own cultural identity. You can be anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and if you say you’re a New Yorker, people have images that come to mind. Images of the tourist traps you avoid, the cultural institutions you grew up frequenting, the shops and restaurants they’ve maybe dreamed of visiting but for you are–were?–daily life. If, like me, you’re of a certain age and/or from certain boroughs, you don’t actually have to identify yourself as a New Yorker, not for nothing but your accent does it for you, recognized no matter where you are.

Broadway is dark. I love live theater, and yes, I love Broadway shows. I haven’t been able to go regularly in years, out of budget, but man oh man, nothing like it. Those shows are mind-bogglingly expensive to produce and run. With weeks, maybe months, of no sales, how is it going to get up and running again? And those are the big boys, what about the off-off Broadway shows?

The Metropolitan Opera laid off its union employees yesterday. Union employees. Think about that.

Though still technically allowed to run delivery/pick up service, many of the restaurants have closed. Restaurants in New York, even the top ones with the Big Name Chefs, run on a very, very narrow margin. The restaurants everyone has seen on tv shows/movies, read about in Page 6, and or the local corner joints that have been serving locals for decades. Katz’s Deli (1903), Lombardi’s Pizza (1905), Peter Luger (1887), Tavern on the Green (1934), The Rainbow Room (1934), Totonno’s (1924), The Russian Tea Room (1927), Delmonico’s (1837), Sylvia’s (1962), Nathan’s (1916), Jing Fong (1978), Russ & Daughters (1914), Barney Greengrass (1908) and I’m guessing literally, easily, a hundred others people world wide would recognize the name or interior shots of.  Weeks/months of no income?

And the shops. Not just the big names that are more of a tourist attraction than shopping expedition for most (Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman), but the ones that are known through the city and often across the world. Shops that represent New York, make this city this city. Mood Fabric, Matt Umanov Guitar’s, Rudy’s Music, Canal Street Market, Moscot’s Eyewear, Kiehl’s, and on and on and on. I can’t think anymore.

I’m no stranger to long running businesses closing their doors, no New Yorker is. With the rise of commercial rents having gone from ludicrous to impossible over the past couple of decades, the sight of a beloved local shop gated with a big long sign saying goodbye, thank you, and after X generations we’ve had to close because we lost our lease (only to sit empty for months, years, before being replaced by yet another half empty high rise, a CVS, a Starbucks, a bank whose name is going to change by the time you blink because it’s been absorbed by another bank) is a familiar one. Always a moment for sadness and reflection on how very clean and cold and corporate so many old favorite areas have become. But not everywhere, and not all the businesses.

So I’m thinking, when we get to the other side of this–and we will, whether it’s weeks, months, or over a year–what will be left of New York? My New York, our New York. Who and what businesses will be able to ride it out in this city of those that represent the city and the people in it, not the chain outposts that are already all too common a sight. Yes, we are a constantly evolving city, it’s what allowed it to become an icon and identity unto itself, self-absorbed though it may be. But those often small, multi-generational, not necessarily big name or big dollar places? They’re the heart that keeps beating.

 

The 3 Rs: Reading, Writing, and Rejections

Asses up: is burying my head in the reservoir the same as burying my head in the sand?

Recently I’ve seen a bunch of tweets/comments in the writing world about writing that strike me as…odd. That it isn’t the writing that matters, it’s the story. Umm, what? Yeah, yeah, I know, there are books/stories that are plot driven and those that are character driven, and there are different readers who read for different reasons. But. If I begin a novel and it doesn’t have a strong voice and or strong writing, I don’t care about the story and will stop reading. The opposite is also true, if the voice/writing is strong and the story sucks, I’ll continue to read and still love the book. Obviously, a great book will have it all, most writers strive to create it all, but many don’t. Including, yes, many published and sometimes lauded and/or bestselling stories.

But I’m also seeing the flip side– don’t-worry-about-publication, just write for the love of it, doesn’t matter if you’re ever/never published. Strangely enough, this statement is usually made by people who are published and don’t seem to be renouncing future contracts. Hmm. Yes, I understand where the statement is coming from: rep/publication will bring new pressures, doesn’t solve everything. Nothing does.

I do love to write, oh, the feeling you’ve nailed the phrase, the scene, the word. The other side is the lousy, practically adolescent (at 50,000 years old) angst of rejections. You have to have thick skin, they say. Heh. I’ve robbed Peter to pay Paul, fed my family more than once with a mostly empty fridge and cash scrounged from behind the cushions, seen both my husband and my daughter stop breathing, dealt with more ologists, advocating for my loved ones as a lay person most would love to ignore, actually seen Husband’s heart taken from behind all those nice protective layers of skin, muscle, and bone. The literal start to my day involves measuring the necrotic tissue on Husband’s foot, adding to the photo record of it to track the spread. Yup, my skin is plenty thick, thanks. None of this means I don’t care about my words. As I’ve said many times, for me, half of writing is being read. And nothing, nothing is equivalent to when someone reads my words and comes back to tell me they felt them.

I’m a reader who also plays with words and worlds of my own. I tend to enjoy reading books that are more in line with what I write (not exclusively, a good thriller or sff can be great fun to read, but my imagination doesn’t lean that way for wording). I’m a ferocious reader, a voracious reader, a fucking excellent reader who takes more pleasure in a great book than anything outside of those lovely but boring to others mama-moments. Seriously, half the time I trip over the kids’ names when more than one of them is standing in front of me, but a great opening line –hell, a great line in the middle of a novel– will stay with me forever.

Characters, oh I want characters who are fresh and raw and real. Who feel things deeply, who make me feel things deeply. It isn’t a fast pace, not even an imminent world war that’s going to make me feel, not a beautiful protagonist that will catch my reading eye, it’s the beautifully drawn world, even if, maybe especially if, it’s rich and dark and ugly; it’s the interesting narrative, sharp dialogue, it’s the words. Not is it realistic but does it feel/do these characters feel real?  Making me ache is cool, but making me laugh is better, both is best. Does it make me want to move to Alaska in the middle of winter like when I reread The Snow Child? Yes, I want those sentences so lyrical, so clear and ringing I do stop reading and say goddamn, how did the author do that? Is this really the same language I use every day? A great book will somehow take me out of my everyday with characters who are everyman/woman. Characters I see myself and my people in: those who are struggling and striving and failing and pissed off. Characters whose stories shouldn’t be remotely interesting yet are.

In a surprise to no one I, Mrs Fringe, write fringe characters, the people in the background brought to the fore. They don’t save the world, most of the time they don’t even save themselves. If I was smart, as someone who loves playing with words, has no MFA, and wants to be published, I would work on stories and characters that are more commercial. More exciting, more elegant, more sexy, more triumphant. I guess I’m more stubborn than smart. And every time I get feedback from a reader who says yes, I felt her, I know him, every time I get one of those dreaded close but no cigar rejections–you know the ones, they’re personalized, offer specific and positive details but say nope, can’t place it, or not this time, try me/us again, every time I read a novel that rings so fucking true, it frustrates me to no end but also gooses me not to stop.

I’m not everyone, but I’m not the only one, either.

Practice, Practice, Practice

That old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?…”

It’s showtime, folks.

Here I am, back home again. Not that I can’t blog from the hospital, I just didn’t want to. Husband has yet another brand new part, Art Child has a brand new diagnosis of walking pneumonia, and me? Well, I’ve got the same old pile of dirty laundry staring at me. Much like the file that holds the current manuscript I’m sort of kind of querying, I’m ignoring it. Every morning I get up, make my coffee, exchange emails with my writing buddy, squint at the newspaper while I try to pretend I’m not living through the death of American democracy, do my stretches, open the file intending to make notes for a synopsis (some agents require these when you’re querying), read a couple of paragraphs, weep, and close the file again.

Life has been pretty damned weird these days, and I feel like I’m…on the cusp of a new stage, or grieving, maybe both. I think those two things go together. Grief, not just for dinner dying anymore.

No, no, don’t get nervous, I’m not going to go on about health, hospitals, or death. We grieve a lot of things at different stages: loss of friendship, loss of marriage, job loss, major financial difficulties, leaving school, starting school, menopause (so I’ve heard–personally, I celebrated), children growing up, viagra prescriptions, a healthy planet, elected officials who understood the term public service, and dreams. Oh, those traitorous, treacherous fucking dreams. Mine, as anyone who’s been with Mrs Fringe for any length of time knows, is tied to my writing. A contract. Someone in the industry who believes in my words, my fiction, enough to think they and I could earn a dollar from them.

That clip above? From All That Jazz, my favorite movie, I honestly don’t think I can tell you how many times I’ve seen it. Gah! I was an adolescent during one of the golden ages of movie musicals. All That Jazz, Saturday Night Fever (I know, technically not a musical, but it was the soundtrack of my youth), Hair, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, Fame, Yentl, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Rose, Shock Treatment, Fame (yes, I wrote it twice), The Blues Brothers–there were a lot of them. They were all great fun and great tears with a message. If you had talent, determination, someone who believed in you, willingness to put the work in and put up with various setbacks and humiliations, booze and/or mind altering substances but didn’t OD by the time you were 30, well. You would make it. That or you’d be beaten by life and give up those stupid dreams for a house in the suburbs. Or financial security. Or you’d just be too busy with financial insecurity to care anymore. See above, “I acceeeeeept!” Whichever way the chips fell, there was definitely no soundtrack telling me I’d take a twenty year break from trying, wake up one day to hear the alarm ringing from Pink Floyd’s Time in my head and start writing again, and write and revise and write and revise and connect with other writers and learn about the publishing industry and get derailed again and then write and revise and submit, and write and revise and submit, over and over again until I was 50,000 years old, still care, and what’s playing in my head is no longer the alarm clock, but Clare Torry’s brilliant, wordless vocals. Yeah, I’d like to see that movie. It’s possible this manuscript is a version of it.

I want to accept. I say I accept. I think I’ve accepted. And then I don’t. Because even as I grieve the loss of my writing dream, the writing is how I get through, how I live, how I grieve.

The closing scene of All That Jazz is below. Kind of long but you should watch it, about the death of a dream realized, and also Ben Vereen is a god.

Beach Bits

Yesterday for the first–and likely only–time this summer, Husband, Art Child and I made it to the beach together. This means we didn’t take the train to my beloved Brooklyn beach, but went to New Jersey. The water is colder, the waves rougher, you have to actually pay and get a little bracelet/badge thing to step onto the sand, but Husband prefers it. Sure, the sand in Brooklyn is finer and softer, but the Jersey shore doesn’t have chunks of glass sprinkled throughout. No, I don’t mean collectible beach glass, I mean bits from leftover broken bottles. Husband’s got those diabetic feet, extra care must be taken. Me? I’ve got feet like a goat, toughened from childhood and teenaged days walking on those Brooklyn beaches, and nights spent on the boardwalk–which, at the time, was not smooth and sanded like someone’s backyard deck. I’d get home each evening and spend twenty minutes with a pair of tweezers, removing splinters I hadn’t even felt going in. Do goats get splinters?

We’d only been there a little while and were standing at the shore debating the waves when a young couple walked by–twenties? thirties? and the man stopped to compliment Husband. If you’re someone who pays attention to that stuff, it makes sense, Husband appears very fit. To tell the truth, I didn’t notice the couple until I was seeing their backs, and his back looked like a guy who spends some time working on his body. But yanno what they say, looks can be deceiving. I was a young teenager when I met Husband, he had 6-pack abs and was all buff, has stayed that way through  the decades. All these years, never saw him do a sit-up, he never went to a gym, etc. He’s got whatever it is that makes some men go bald early and develop a new muscle from a vigorous sneeze. Good genes. On the outside. His insides? Not so much. Which has had a toll on the outside. It isn’t like the man thought my husband was twenty years younger than he is. No wrinkles, but his beard and chest hair are white, he’s got scars running down his chest and across his abdomen from open heart surgeries and various drainage tubes, a continuous glucose monitor planted in his side, and pretty much permanent bruises from the multiple insulin injections he gives himself daily–because needles and blood thinners aren’t a match made in heaven–and he’s much narrower than he used to be, muscles shrank some after that first open heart surgery. Do those twenty pounds count as lost if I picked them up and kept them for myself? But he still looks damned fine, and it’s reasonable for anyone seeing him on the beach to assume he spends regular time at the gym.

Husband was amused by the compliment, probably forgot about it a minute later, because it wasn’t a big deal, no long interaction. I kept thinking about it–prompted no doubt by the young women sunbathing behind us having a loud and running conversation about planned plastic surgeries and the horrors of aging and pregnancies on women’s bodies. I was tempted to shake my saggy bits in front of them. For whatever progress has been made in our society, the marriage of ageism and misogyny is alive and well. No one is likely to walk up to a woman of a certain age who looks her age and tell her what great shape she’s in. Women can and will be complimented on the shape they’re in only if they also look younger than they are. Women aren’t supposed to look their age, and if they do, if god forbid it’s remarked upon, it’s an insult. Why is that? Unless we’re in positions of power, women on the wrong side of the aging hill are largely invisible. If you are a woman in a position of power, you’d best look younger than you are, get those Botox injections or you’ll be pilloried and lose that position. The weird thing about all this? For a non-public, non-powerful regular gal, it can be a relief. Because as women, a compliment from a stranger can’t be taken without an assessment of whether that compliment is actually a dis or worse, a threat. I like to think of aging as nature’s invisibility cloak, woven of gray hair and gravity.

it was a Dark and Stormy Night

Hmmm

Ok, maybe it was more of a sunny but stormy morning. I like contradictions, the unexpected, the bits that make you say, wait, what? And I love the feeling when a new character’s voice gets strong and clear enough for me to begin putting fingers to keyboard.

And so, here I am. 22 pages into a New Thing. This many pages and it isn’t a short (for me, I know many write long shorts, I’m not one of them) but while the main character’s voice is clear in my head, and I’ve got a shadowy silhouette for the narrative structure, I don’t yet have enough of a story to know this can be a full length manuscript. I’m excited.

I know some who play with words are always excited by their new characters and stories, but I’m not one of those people. I always like them well enough–or, more accurately, not always like but am intrigued by them. But I’m not always excited. As a general rule, the more marketable (hah! as if I understand what’s marketable) the characters/story seem to be, well, the less tied to my words! my sweat! my opened a vein through the keyboard! I am. This is not a given, everyone’s process and experience is different. I’m sure I’ve blogged about this in the past, when I talked more about writing. I’m just not someone who feels each manuscript is a baby I’ve given birth to. I don’t feel any manuscript is a baby I’ve given birth to. Everyone has their own parenting style, but if I don’t feel a limb of any given kiddo is as perfect as I could have made it, I don’t chop it off.

That said, there are a few pieces I’ve been quite attached to, with 210% faith that weird or not, they were damned fine work, with a to-be-found audience that would pay money to read and not feel ripped off at the end, despite my fondness for killing characters. A couple of years back I swore I wasn’t going to write any more of those. Too consuming, too crushing when there was interest but no offers.

So what the hell am I doing with New Thing? It isn’t speculative fiction or magical realism–it’s been years since I’ve written anything over 3000 words that didn’t fall into those categories. Don’t misunderstand, it isn’t like I’m excited by a character or story that’s practical (read, marketable). No romance, no coming of age, no heartwarming friendship story, no thriller or cozy mystery. I’ve got a caustic, no-holds-barred 73 year old woman with early-onset age-related word finding issues, thoughts that skip around like a heart that needs a pacemaker, a love of bourbon, a greater love of cursing, memories of a family she abandoned close to 35 years ago, with no apologies for who she is and certainty that she’s going to die within the next two weeks. She’s offensive.

I’m using 1st person (I instead of she/he) for the bulk of it, which I’ve rarely done and am not particularly fond of, but it feels right for her. I’m using a framing device for the narrative (story within a story) which I’ve never done, and the frame is written in 2nd person, which no one is particularly fond of. It’s, I’m pretty sure, going to be, satire, which no one wants unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, or Kurt Vonnegut, or John Kennedy Toole. All three are male, two are dead, and I’m neither. Sometimes you see Jane Austen on those satire lists, and I’m pretty sure the only thing my words/stories share with hers is that we both draw/drew from the English alphabet. But I’m kinda sorta falling in love with this bitch of a character. Bitchy, not snarky. I read the opening chapter to Husband (I always read my opening chapters to him–he’s a good sport, supportive of my words, but it’s more an exercise in me needing to read it aloud *to* someone than belief that he’s going to want to hear/read more), and he likes it. Genuinely laughed in all the spots I would hope someone would laugh. This is fucking terrifying.

Instead of a song/youtube vid, I’m closing this with the last few pages of the first chapter. Good, bad, or indifferent, Fringelings, feel free to share your thoughts:

Ha! You make me choke, think I learned to cook in the restaurant. Rest-o-rant-ay. I learned the restaurant to cook. No, I didn’t. I brought my secret in with me and took it when they closed. I’ll learn you to cook, if you want. Otherwise it’s just gonna go with me to the grave. No. Not learn. What’s that word? But I can’t start with cooking. Or the restaurant. If you want to hear my story, you gotta know there’s more than one. It’s a whole lotta stories, like everybody. Even you. You got one story in you? No, you gotta buncha em that brought you here, and a dozen more will chase you into your grave. But you don’t want those. You want what they tell you to want, one long happy ending. Because we’re women. 

Men are supposed to have lots of stories. But women? Women are supposed to learn one thing, and learn that one thing to their children, and then sit quietly in their rockers and knit booties until it’s time to go. I say fuck. that. I seen too many knitting needles used for other things. Them spindles on those rockers hurt my back, I’ve lived too many stories to take that. 

Take this. 

Oh, now, don’t get all offended. It’s just a finger. You sit the rocker if you want, I’ll keep the recliner. See, it fits my body just right, cloth rubbed smooth from my fingers, crooks and all. 

Where did I learn to cook? In the mountains, from my grams, same as most. Told ya, nothing dramatic. Bet ya didn’t know the Appalachian mountains go all into Pennsylvania. I know, most people think of Kentucky when they think Appalachia, but it’s a whole lot more than that. And don’t leave here cracking wise about banjos and moonshine. Sure, a little splash of bourbon is ok now and then. In fact, go ahead and top me up from that bottle in the cabinet next to the stove. No, no danger in mixing it, I told ya, I ain’t takin that damned medicine. A smoke, a tea and a splash, that’s all the medicine I need. Anything else is snake oil. 

What the hell did they learn you up there in the Bronx? No cooking, no stories, too much medicine. Thank the lord I didn’t move up there. My husband wanted to, in the eye-talian section. Where they got those salamis hanging in the windows like shlongs looking for their shriveled owners and pastries laid out like communion wafers. No, Frankie ain’t Italian. He just wanted to be, thought those sharkskin suits and slick-haireds were the way to be men. He’s German-Irish, but not like me. He got all watered in with New York-ese. He mooned over Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin more than I did. I was more of a Bob Dylan gal, myself.

Teach! That’s the word. I’ll teach you to make my dumplings. But now I’m tired. Is something wrong? Nothing’s wrong, I’m old. Heh, who told you 73 wasn’t old? Musta been one of them rich women you visit, someone with a fancy dog and a book club. Women like me with stories and crooked fingers, we’re old. And we’re tired. 

If you come back be useful. Bring potatoes and buttermilk, I’ll learn—I’ll teach you the secret. My gram’s dumplings and the restaurant’s guknockys. Both kinds but the same secret. Also bourbon. 

Between the Lines

Left side of Venus Kissed by Cupid, Michele Di Jacopo Tosini, 1555 Florence, after design by Michelangelo

To get through the hellscape that is life in America now, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and I know I’m not alone in this. Nonfiction can let us feel like everything isn’t completely out of control, there are extraordinary people out there to learn about, there’s historic/political precedent (even if not in this country), and fiction has always been and will always be the great escape. Let’s focus on fiction.

What constitutes escape is different for different people, and I’ve been fascinated reading comments on the web on what people are or are not able to swallow in these strange days. Some want the total escape of romance, and/or don’t want anything remotely dark, heavy, or political in front of them. That isn’t me, but it never was, so *shrug*.

I like dark, I like heavy, I like characters who feel realer than real and a message that makes me think–whether that message is about the human condition, climate change, or socioeconomics. It doesn’t have to be straight literary fiction; magical realism is my favorite to read as well as write. Yes, I honestly love Salman Rushdie’s work. It doesn’t always have to be heavy, I’ve long talked about my addiction to Stephen King, think Neil Gaiman is fabulous, last year I enjoyed The Magicians series (a bit too young adult for my taste, though it was marketed as adult fantasy) and yes, way back when I thought the Da Vinci Code was a fun read. I didn’t notice a difference in what I’ve been choosing and enjoying over the past year and a half, still a fairly broad mix in my Nook–other than not being able to plow through the nonfiction political books cover to cover. Small doses.

The other day I saw a tweet from someone saying they couldn’t handle dystopian fiction right now, too close to home. I don’t get it. For me, good dystopians (or near-future, or post-apocalyptic) are exactly what I want to read. Not the Hunger Games type where that special chosen sixteen-year-old saves everyone, but more along the lines of Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, or American War, by Omar El Akkad. People living through the muck.

I just finished The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. It was my book club’s pick for the month, not my first choice but I wasn’t opposed, should be a reasonably fun read and I’m usually willing to read anything. I’m not a James Patterson fan, but I read a few of his (back when he wrote his own novels) and the novelty of him teaming up with Bill Clinton was a curiosity worth satisfying. Or not. If it weren’t for the book club obligation, I would have stopped reading. Not because it was poorly written or too slow–though come on, why oh why didn’t an editor knock off the first 50 pages–after that it picked up and kept moving. Not because the President had more than a bit of Gary Stu to him–handsome, brilliant, combat-tested veteran/POW; chose a female VP, Chief of Staff, and FBI director, devoted father, grieving widow, opposed to treason and true humanitarian. But because it was so fucking upsetting to read a contemporary political thriller where the main character is a POTUS who cared about this country and the people in it.  A POTUS who knew Russia isn’t this country’s friend or ally.

Last month the book club choice was Salvage the Bones, by Jessmyn Ward. I loved it, highly recommend, and know I would have loved it five years ago, too. I’m both insanely jealous of her magic with words and grateful for the beauty she’s able to produce from the ugliest of scenarios. But I’m realizing the novels that catch my eye and hold my interest are a little different than what they might have included a few years ago. Those light, fast-paced political thrillers? Right now, for me, more stomach churning than page turning. Anyone else finding their fiction choices are different these days?

 

 

What We Bring, What We Take

I’m back! Didn’t realize I was gone? I boiled the water, poured it over the tea bag and…no milk. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t even read a post without a fresh cup of tea, let alone write one. One trip to the grocery store, one half-hearted clean-out of the fridge, one load and start the dishwasher and two hours later, sitting in front of the laptop again. With tea. I caught the most recent headlines detailing How-American-Democracy-Dies out of the corner of my squint, considered changing what I would blog about, and nope. Not today.

While I was on hiatus from the blog, I kinda sorta started a book club. I didn’t necessarily realize it was going to become *my* book club when I floated the idea to one of the more active tenants in the building. She got it started by posting a notice to see who might be interested, chose a date for an exploratory meeting, and then somehow, I’m the one spearheading it. Me and my big mouth, eh? In all honesty, so far it’s been great. There’s a good mix of interests/ages/backgrounds/and perspectives being brought to the discussions, enough people showing up to keep things lively, not so many that it’s difficult for anyone who wants to to be heard. This weekend I was chatting with a building friend, and she said she was enjoying the book club in unexpected ways because of those different perspectives. I’ve never done one of these clubs before (I know, you’re all shocked to discover I’m not a joiner of clubs), but I have to say I likely wouldn’t be interested in one that didn’t involve a mix like this one does.

Spent the weekend drafting pitches for a twitter contest coming up that I will almost certainly not participate in. As mentioned the other day, I’ve been generally obsessing over whether or not I’m going to try querying (through usual means, no tweeting required) this manuscript I’ve got. Even if the stars align and someone offers me a contract, it will involve lots of rejections first, and then during, and then after. I have to decide if I’m ready for it. What does this have to do with the book club? Perspective. Anyone who’s ever queried anything creative is familiar with some variation of the phrase, “this business is subjective, not right for me, etc.” It truly is subjective, and that subjectivity doesn’t stop with an agent and/or editor. Ultimately, once you produce words and put them out there, subjectivity lies with the readers. Not just the obvious of whether or not they enjoy the story/are glad they spent time with it, but the how and what of that enjoyment, or satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, what stuck with them and what their eyes skimmed over. Their interpretation of the story.

One of my beta readers referenced hope as something she took away from my story. My instinct was to deny it, nope–not about hope. I don’t do hope. Really. Except it is, if that’s what she saw. Because maybe her definition of hope is different than mine. Maybe what gives her hope is different than what might give me hope. What many others think of as dark I think of as honest. Interesting. The bits that ground us, what we hold in common through the human experience. (Yuck, that sounds grandiose, doesn’t it?) What connects us isn’t always love. Sometimes it’s hunger. Fear. The rage of feeling, being powerless in a given situation. The desire to laugh. Or maybe just to be transported for a little while; for a chapter or an hour or 90,000 words, out of our own world and into someone else’s. But when we do, we’re bringing our story to theirs, as sure as the reverse.

The Prodigal Blogger Returns

Hello all, it’s been a minute. How do I work this? How did I get here? Wait. Wrong song, wrong questions. Sort of.

I’ve been writing. And writing and revising and writing and revising. When I first began Mrs Fringe back in 2012, it was for all the lovely esoteric? ridiculous? reasons: a spot to be me, blah blah blah. It was also to see if I could get back to the discipline of writing. Which I did. In addition to the blog, I wrote a novel. I was pleased to have written it, queried it briefly, but I kind of hated it. I liked the very kernel in the center, but it wasn’t me. Not as a person, and not as a person who plays with words. Then I wrote another novel, which I loved. I queried that one, got an unexpected and deliciously exciting number of requests based on the query and opening chapters, but no offers, no hey-your words suck, please stop, no fix this-not that. I was fucking crushed, never going to write another novel, etc. Then I thought about going back to that other one, ideas for how I could rewrite it in a way that was me, but maybe include the potential to be commercially viable.

I started writing down notes on those ideas. Then in November 2016 the unspeakable but unignorable happened in the US, and I was crushed in a different way. At that point I took a break from the blog, feeling like America had voted for me to shut the fuck up, no-one was ever going to want to hear my words; not through Mrs Fringe and not through my fiction. Came back, blogged sporadically when I couldn’t stop the awful from spilling onto the keyboard, started seriously rewriting that manuscript. Too much awful, stopped the fiction, still blogged sporadically, then decided I needed to finish that novel. Talk about ludicrous. I had adult child telling me Mrs Fringe wasn’t fun anymore so obviously my answer was to write 90,000 words of political satire. Proof that no whips or chains are required to fulfill masochistic tendencies. This was also a different process for me. By nature, I’m a linear writer. First chapter, edit, second chapter, edit, and so on, until I reach the end, go back and edit the whole thing. I thought hey, this will be easier, I’ve got the bones from that original manuscript to use as a blueprint. Can’t speak for anyone else’s process, but for me, it was much harder, and I didn’t have enough words left at the end of each session to also blog. I will never do this again. Would I go back and revise an old manuscript, if there was a specific reason (ie: interest from someone in the industry)? Sure. But this? Nope. Seriously, I’d rather face the blank page.

Still tweaking, but it’s been written and revised and edited and edited and sent to beta readers and edited and edited. I even have a query letter. Because I’m Mrs Fringe, and the last manuscript (magical realism) was maybe a little too weird, naturally this one is eight times stranger. What can I say, I’ve got my own way of looking at the world, and my fiction explores that perspective. As always, the response from beta readers was split between positives “yes, send this out! I love your words! but maybe fix this first, and oh god what is it with you and commas?” and “wtf, Mrs F?” I’m having a hard time deciding the genre, I definitely veered left from magical realism, thought new weird might be right, but I’m not sure that’s a thing anymore (unless you’re China Miéville), so I’m getting used to using the term speculative fiction. It’s absurdist, kind of a fantastical satire set in near-future New York. Just the thing everyone is clamoring for, eh? Now I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. There are a couple of bits I want to add/clarify, and I’m not quite happy with the query, but I’m finding myself dragging my feet on fixing these, because I don’t know if I actually will query. If it’s as finished as I can/know I need to make it, I’ll have to decide. While it isn’t autobiographical, and maybe not the bookofmyheart that the last one was, it’s…Fringey. Much the way Mrs Fringe–eclectic as it is–has focused on what it is to live on the fringe of this city, this story explores the cracks of NY: who lives there, what they’re dreaming of, and how they survive.

I’m back here today because I’ve been thinking about blogging a lot. I broke the rules with Mrs Fringe. I don’t have one specific focus, I’m an expert on nothing yet have been forthcoming with my .02 on everything. I’m anonymous. I’m not consistent with content nor post production. I *gasp* don’t keep it positive. In almost six years of doing this, I haven’t built a huge following, but I do have a following. I think. Are you still there, readers? It’s me, Fringey. (I really did let it lie quiet for months this time.) If I was going to hit it “big” with thousands of followers, I figure it would have happened by now. But on a semi-regular basis–even during periods where I’m on a break and not posted anything–I get notes/messages from readers, maybe asking where I am, or telling me my weird words made sense to them, some have been generous enough to thank me. Every one of those notes has been amazing to receive, felt like both validation (yes! someone likes my words!) and bonus (it’s a blog, I have no expectation for anything to come of it). Can I find the same with my fiction? For all the years I’ve been playing with words, the question hasn’t changed: are my words good enough? Am I enough?

(Currently the working title of the manuscript, I’ve had this song on repeat for months. At this point I think it’s the soundtrack to my nightmares.)