I Remember It Being Hot

 

I remember it being hot, I think. Even at 9 a.m. or whenever it was, in the morning. The sand was hot, the topmost layer, at least, and the water felt cold, at least at first. And still we’d storm into the waves and thrash and make ourselves breathless, and our throats hoarse and our mouths and lips salty with sea, some of which we’d swallowed in exuberance, accidentally.

 

After we’d spent however long forever in the sun, maybe Mom—or would it have been Dad?—would march down to the shore to tell us that breakfast was ready. And we’d wrap ourselves in sandy towels and trudge—joyfully—back up endless unsteady quartz powder and through sea-oat tunnels finally to the shade.

 

Australian pines (an invasive species, they’d want you to know now) make windy whistling whispers up high and drop marble-size cones that hurt like the dickens to step on, so we three kids danced toward the picnic tables or sometimes remembered to put on our flip-flops, and we sat with wet bums on wood benches, hungry.

 

The prep work would have begun hours earlier, before we’d even gotten out of bed, the baking and packing, cracking eggs into mason jars to be scrambled, stored and transported, and then cooked on an old pan over a gas camp stove alongside bacon, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls kept warm under tinfoil. Morning-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our back yard, Valencia and navel, and an Army-green thermos of fragrant black coffee for the grownups.

 

That the beach had, for a time, taken precedence over our tiny mouths’ pre-breakfast begging says something about the beach. About that beach in particular, and perhaps about our ages then, pre-adolescents and urgent, first and foremost, to splash.

 

When you’ve spent a small hour gasping and giggling in the Gulf and swallowing brine, scrambled eggs feel in your mouth an easy creaminess, and cinnamon rolls hearty and replenishing, and fresh juice is vibrant and tart in a way you can only crave most when you are tired and salty, morning sunburned, and in need of sweet, cold moisture.

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Do All The Things

Pardon me while I talk about zombies again.

I’ve had several variations on the same conversation recently–re: diversity and inclusion in fiction–and I feel like the next step in working through my thoughts is to put them to writing. (If you’re among the people with whom I’ve had this conversation–and to be fair, if you’re reading this, you probably are–well…here we go again.)

The catalyst for these recent conversations was this tweet by The New Yorker‘s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum:

“One thing that barely even comes up in KILLING EVE is that four major characters are Asian & aside from their nationality, this isn’t an explicit factor in the show. It’s the best kind of baked-in inclusivity.”

 

Now, I haven’t seen Killing Eve and I could be taking this concept in a slightly different direction than she intended (the woman has a Pulitzer, after all, and I’m over here all trying to earn my Junior Critic’s Art Awareness badge), but “baked-in inclusivity” seems to be a great way of expressing a thing I’ve been trying to articulate for a while: namely, as she put it, including underrepresented characters without making diversity an “explicit factor.”

This is a thing that I tried to express while chatting with Thing 1 and Thing 2 about Zombies, Run! on their podcast. (There are other examples of this, of course, but this one has become my go-to.) When I first got into that story of post-apocalyptic England (back in early 2013, mind), one of the things that struck me was not that a main character is gay, but that we jump right into a rather heart-wrenching story about her and her lover without ever even doffing a cap to the “revelation” of a non-heterosexual character. Here’s Maxine, an American doctor and vital member of the team. Ten episodes later, here’s a recording of Maxine’s girlfriend’s (possible) final moments. This is going to sting a bit. Zombies detected, moving on.

Obviously, there’s long been a push for more diversity in storytelling, and I’m all for that. But what I realized with the Maxine experience (and then going back and taking note of what a range of genders, ethnicities and other human experiences are represented in ZR–something I hadn’t been conscious of at first because, again, they don’t stop to point it out) was that I’m accustomed to a level of self-consciousness accompanying diverse storytelling. As I said on the podcast, a non-heterosexual (or non-male, or non-white, etc.) character usually comes with some kind of doff of the cap, or self-congratulatory pat on the back, or some other nudge-nudge, wink-wink acknowledgement of this “other” quality, all, “see what we did there?”

Or, as Nussbaum pinpointed much better than I could, an Asian (or gay, etc.) character’s inclusion is often made “explicit to the story.”

The result of that explicitness is that diverse storytelling tends to feel like a PSA, like an after-school special about diversity…

…which make diverse stories feel less like nuanced artwork and more like tedious homework through which the audience is educated about the experiences  of these “other” people…

…which is to assume the audience requires this kind of explanation in order to accept the presence of these characters…

…which is to assume the story is speaking to an explicitly straight/white/cis/male audience…

…which is to assume that that straight/white/cis/male is the baseline for human existence.

When an explanation is used to justify the presence of non-white, non-straight, nonbinary characters, even diverse stories are still, to use a jingo-y verb, “othering” them.

That kind of self-consciousness bleeds through to the audience experience, I think. You can feel it. The implicit assumption is that straight/white/cis/male is the standard baseline, the “correct” or “normal” experience that’s reflected between audience and art. If you happen to be a person who deviates from that baseline, it’s great to see a character you can identify with, but you can still sense the character’s other-ness, and you still feel excluded. (I’m thinking back to the token tomboys in kids’ sports movies whose self-conscious backstory only underscored that I was an oddity. Of course the boys play sports; we need to explain why the girl is here.)

Yours are qualities that need explaining, that need justification. The “normal” characters just get to exist.

Thankfully, I think this kind of self-conscious inclusion is on the decline, and probably has been for a long while, especially in the better corners of the storytelling world. (In fact, let’s just acknowledge right now that the stuff that feels profound to me is very basic and old-hat to all of the folks who are smarter than I am. Plenty of people have had this shit figured out for a while now.)

That being said, my own slow epiphany tells me how vital it is to have these diverse stories charging forward without slowing down to explain themselves, to have this baked-in inclusivity. To have an apocalyptic landscape where female soldiers lead the way while sensitive young men tell you about their feelings, with a stable of athletes of all genders and ages and backgrounds (as well as a one-legged, bisexual Canadian dude), with romantic storylines for gay doctors and straight runners and trans scientists and a family with two moms and one dad, to have nonbinary heroes and pansexual foils, where the whole point of everything is really just to stick together and avoid being eaten by zombies.

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Inevitable Vacation

Soon-to-be-tidied “workspace.”

I’ve done it. I’ve finished the last assignment that had been churning in my anxieties. (“This is really good!” the surprise response from the editor.) I finished the sidebar, too, that had been pushed to the back burner by the main story and had, in its own way, been a source of intense anxiety all on its own. I submitted the invoice.

I submitted my tax return, too–also a stressor since well before the new year, and also, ultimately, with no reason for prolonged, anguished procrastination. (Huzzah, a refund! And a refund to rival a 300-word writeup or any other lone afternoon’s work.)

Ninety-nine percent of the time, a to-do list regenerates even as existing items are crossed off–new growth at the bottom creeps up as the top bits are pruned. But as of this moment, all of the things have been crossed off my list. Worrisome stasis. So now we wait.

We wait for freelance fees–and quite a few of them–to show up in the mail. We wait for new assignments, too.

Not that I don’t have plans for being proactive, and ones I look forward to. Tomorrow’s task will be to sort and stow the tax detritus that’s loomed on my table for four-plus months. Tuesday I have gift cards, and I plan to use them. Wednesday, a well-rested run. Thursday…I don’t know. Reading. Long walks. Playoff hockey. A trip to Target. Hopefully more self-driven writing projects. Hopefully for fun.

I’ve got to look for more work, too; obviously I do. But a day or two without a looming deadline is an opportunity, I think. An opportunity not to think.

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The Squirrel

 

 

T’was springtime (though in truth, quite hot),

I’d picked my book, I’d found my spot,

A cocktail and a comfy chair,

A plan for happy hours there.

 

Instead I fear I’ll ne’er forget

What happened next (I haven’t yet).

 

Settled under dappled sun,

I’d opened book and just begun

To read about some English rabbits

Who’d left their home and changed their habits

In search of far-off warrens that

Would keep them safe from owl, stoat, cat.

 

These creatures in their human text

Perhaps aroused what happened next:

 

For soon enough I came to sense

A presence on the nearby fence:

Grey and with a fuzzy tail

Was all I saw (I guessed him male):

A specimen Sciuridae.

He seemed a friendly little guy,

Who turned and bowed as if in greeting

And tempted me away from reading.

 

I felt o’erwhelming need to capture

This interspecies backyard rapture.

So poised my phone to take a pic,

And in that breath ere camera click,

My thoughts a thousand tales were spinning

Of this, our friendship, just beginning.

 

What exploits might befall a gal

And her new charming squirrel pal?

 

I dreamed perhaps we two might spend

Our afternoons as friend and friend.

He’d forage acorns as I read,

And when he felt himself full fed,

He’d laze away in nearby rays—

And that is how we’d spend our days:

And though there’d pass no words between us,

You’d know us friends had you but seen us.

 

Judge me harsh, I’m sure you do.

Hindsight hurts (and more things too).

That’s right, I thought I’d made a friend.

 

I’d learn my lesson, in the end.

 

For in that moment, eye to eye,

I failed to factor: squirrels fly.

And all my dreams aside were swept

When in that breath, the squirrel…he leapt.

 

Dear reader, hast thou aught experience

With airborne rodent interference?

Turns out my skills with sport and ball

Work not on squirrel. Not at all.

 

A twisty, turny grey torpedo

Launched at me as if I were tree, though

Nary leaves nor roots have I;

Instead of bark, my noble cry,

“SWEET HOLY JESUS WHAT IS HAPPENING!?”

Accompanied by flap and swing,

Did nothing to dissuade his flight.

Sailed past my limbs and did alight

Upon my shirt and clung securely.

 

I then responded, quite maturely,

With calm command, “Now down, Squirrel. Sit.”—

 

Just kidding, y’all: I lost my shit.

 

I tugged and flapped and spun and reeled,

I grunted, cursed, I cried and squealed.

(Neighbors who this whirlwind viewed

Might rightly guess I’d come unglued.)

 

The words I used can’t be repeated.

But in the end, my “friend” retreated.

 

And that, dear friends, is why I need

Four walls around me when I read.

He haunts me still, my psyche scarred,

I dare not set foot in the yard.

I tell this tale now safe inside.

If Squirrel comes back, please say I died.

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I Hope You Pants

pants

 

I hope your trousers suit you well as public speaker,

You’re never bullied into heals when you’ve got sneakers.

May you never take an ankle sock for granted.

God forbid you ever leave your hair unbanded.

I hope you still feel hot when rocking jeans and t-shirt.

Whenever someone mocks flip-flops, you’ll never be hurt.

Promise me that you’ll give hats a fighting chance.

And when you get the choice to skirt it up or pants…

I hope you pants.

[Maudlin strings, dance break, sweaty cool down, resume.]

I hope you never fear those workouts in the distance,

Always balance your aerobic with resistance.

All your heft will carry weight, but it’s worth bearing;

Playing sports will lead to bruises, they’re worth sharing.

I hope you still stand tall when surrounded by the shorter,

Whenever someone orders wine, you’ll have a porter.

Give your laurels more than just a passing glance,

And when you’re hearing lots of “no”s or “don’t”s or “can’t”s,

I hope you pants.

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On the Hook

A not-uncommon circumstance highlighting one of the less-graceful aspects of my freelance game:

 

I had an interview scheduled for 2, and that always derails me. Telephone anxiety in general, plus the professional obligation to ask good questions, to mine from this real person all of the info I’ll need to write what needs to be written.

 

Too specific a prompt and you may only get a “yes” or “no.” Too general and you won’t get any info at all—or worse, still, you’ll be met with confused silence before your subject responds, “Wait…what was the question?”

 

It doesn’t really break down that cleanly, but there’s an art to an interview, and it doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s like a duet where your part is responsible for conjuring the other part on the spot. And you don’t know what instrument they’re playing until they answer the phone.

 

(Don’t think about that simile too much, please.)

 

I have trouble concentrating sometimes. In this case, the interviewee is 3,000 miles away, his industry conceptually just as distant from mine. If he wants to talk, that’s brilliant, but if he needs me to drag it out of him, well…that’s harder. I can stockpile six good questions, maybe, and if each of them only elicits a five-word answer, then I’m sunk.

 

For a 750-word assignment a few weeks ago, encompassing a spectrum of circumstances, I managed only a 20-minute interview. She was pressed for time, and I hung up the phone feeling I hadn’t properly honed my approach. It was an ultimate success, though the writing process was filled with self-doubt, assuming I’d failed to get adequate info.

 

On the other hand, I interviewed a sports broadcaster the other day for a quick little 300-word profile, and I kept having to make myself move on, lest we bog further in the career of Vin Scully or the charged atmosphere of a stadium or the nuances of narrating a bowling tournament. After quite a few years of fighting for questions to fly even a little bit, it’s a happy glide on thermals when they come easily.

 

That doesn’t happen often, though. Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at winging it, sometimes, as needed, and that helps with confidence. But every new interview is a potential soul-scarring lurch of an awkward, unproductive conversation. When it goes really bad, every instinct tries to steer you out of it ASAP, but being in it is the whole point. And once you bail, it’s that much harder to get it back.

 

Anyway. I called, left a voicemail, and was greeted with a text reply. “Can’t talk now. I’ll call you back later.” Could be 10 minutes, I figured. I kept my voice recorder rolling.

 

It’s been four hours. I can’t concentrate on the topic of the call, but I’m afraid to let myself get too focused on anything else. I’m still sitting here toying with potential questions trying to maintain at least some low-grade focus on the topic in case the phone rings and I have to do my little intro dance and then ask the right questions that get him to say stuff.

 

(My little intro dance often involves run-on sentences.)

 

There’s a certain relief when you realize it won’t happen today, but I well know that just means it’s going to have to happen some other time in the future. If I could do it without the chat, I would. But being in it is the whole point.

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Mostly Nomads and Sheep

From The West Wing, “The Leadership Breakfast”

 

I was reading an article the other day that listed some of Roman Polanski’s most prominent films: “Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown.” And my first thought on that last one was, “Wait, the one with Kurt Russell?” No, see, that’s Big Trouble in Little China.

Several times a day, I catch myself in imaginary conversations with people I’ve never met, and in those convos I suddenly confuse two similar-sounding titles or terms or people, which means that whatever little daydream intellectual chat I was imagining is derailed by my fantasy person thinking I’m an idiot. (Yes, this is often how my daydreams go.)

Years ago, I got into an actual argument with someone stemming from confusion over actors John Heard, John Hurt and William Hurt. (John Heard and William Hurt have similar looks; John Hurt, rest in peace, looked like neither of them.)

I live in fear of the moment my daydreams come true and, in trying to speak eloquently and intelligently, I am instead revealed to be a complete idiot by talking about, I don’t know, Orson Wells as a pioneer of 19th century science fiction literature, or how H.G. Wells depicted the perils of communism through barnyard allegory, or I’ll make a joke about George Orwell’s beloved sled, Rosemary.*

*(All of these things are wrong.)

Here are some other idiotic moments waiting to happen:

I cite fraught family dynamic of The Little Foxes by playwright “Katherine Helmond.” (Nerp: That playwright is Lillian Hellman; Helmond was in Who’s the Boss?.)

I wax poetic on the influence of 19th century celebrity and feminist “Sandra Bernhard.” (Wrong-o: I’m thinking of Sarah Bernhardt; Bernhard is a current-day stand-up comedian.)

I wax poetic on the influence of 20th century celebrity and feminist “Simone Bolivar.” (Yeah, no, I’d be aiming for Simone de Beauvior there; Bolivar put an end to 19th-century Spanish rule in, like, all of South America.)

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