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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

 

 

Dear reader, did I hear you say,

“Why, ‘tis a lovely sunny day”?

Oh reader, let me now confide

What happened when I stepped outside.

 

I had my book, a comfy chair,

A plan for happy hours there.

 

But soon enough I came to sense

A presence on the nearby fence:

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 an idle 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 simply bask 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.

 

And for that moment, eye to eye,

I failed to factor: squirrels fly.

For all these 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 puck 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.

 

So I 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 foe retreated.

 

And that, dear friends, is why I need

Four walls around me when I read.

Victorious, but 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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Flow

 

I awoke fogged, soggy. Opened my eyes to a room full of dense air, morning haze milky-distilled through cheap bed-sheet curtains.

One-hundred and seventeen nights on this island. I still wasn’t used to living alone.

Well. The house was nice, at least. A gentle presence during my move-in interim, a warm welcome through the door jambs. It put up little fight, this house, to my frantic fitting of coat hooks, of spice racks, night lights into its heights, into its orifices. Polite. An old stone-and-wood structure, much accustomed to humans and our awful, post-traumatic nesting propensity.

Its patience only pricked my failure: a child lost, a marriage to follow. An inability to keep people safe inside me.

And so I tended to ignore the house’s affections, I’m afraid. Overlooked its kindnesses. I saw only neglected duties—the overgrown walkway, the pipes beset by roots, clogged by clots, enfeebled, unborn. In its closets, after mere weeks, all my suits had gone to mildew. The house had gotten lazy, I assumed; distracted by its own proximity to the shore.

We’d planned to call her Penelope, she and I. “Little Penny.” Our hands clasped, together ensorcelled by the squiggly scan.

Stillness is the most awful form of leaving. Still. She’d left before we really met her. And then I left her, too, not far behind. In the end, really, I was the only one who’d moved.

That one-hundred and seventeenth day still tried to track along my new routine: a mouthful of morning-breath brine, creaking back, cracking ankles. Fine. Sleepy hobble to the bathroom, my bare feet leaving warm, wet prints on the clay tile. From the floor, the house tugged fondly at each step, held the impression for a moment before it smoothed itself over, became indistinct again. The softening, exhausted structure still trying to be supportive, even as it sank.

What she might’ve looked like. Fierce and salty. The way I saw her sometimes, disintegrating in the fog from my own faulty banks. I looked for her tiny features in the bathroom mirror, the same way I’d once sought them in the conical blur of a doctor’s monitor, smiling.

In the bathroom, hips braced against Formica, I stretched my face into grotesque expressions, struggled to see us through the condensation.

I tottered down the hall, past box after box of my life’s detritus. Three decades of wrack, still packed. Skeletal sand-dollars, dulled sea-glass bracelets, some awful platitude wall-hanging etched in faux-weathered wood: The cure for anything is saltwater—a housewarming present from concerned friends, those prospective channel markers for my new, unwanted independence.

“I don’t plan to wallow,” I’d snapped upon unwrapping. The gifted trinket had now sat two months neglected, its bottom edge swollen by the damp.

I don’t see them much anymore, my friends. The day’s agenda eludes me.

It was supposed to be healing, this outpost. A quiet cottage on a narrow road, six blocks from shore to shore. Soothing, they’d said. But I had come to suspect that the sea had more sinister intentions.

Outside, at all hours, the eaves dripped a slow, uneven drumbeat of off-weighted metronomes, not rain so much as fog transformed, ticking limped rhythms, all those little droplets headed downward. Out here on the island, melting seemed the natural order of matter. The setting seeped in all directions. Wood, glass, asphalt, air—every substance turned itself inside out with weeping.

 

In the tiny corner of the kitchen, I dusted sand from atop the pot, made thick, drip coffee. Poured the muddy brew into the mug, clasped my hands and cozied over the cup. The burst of steam stirred the living room’s mist upward and around. I shuffled to the couch, sat with a squish into damp cushions, like diapers to be dealt with.

This asshole house, I thought.

A grainy layer of sand sat, too, atop the coffee table, dusting the magazines, accumulated in tiny dunes against the remote.

“You,” I wrote in the grit with an index finger, “deserve this.”

On the wall, framed photographs, once vivid grass and sky blue, now hung weathered and faded: the Eiffel Tower a sepia blur; sun-bleached granddad.

 

At slackwater, mid-afternoon, the mailman trundled up in his little truck, pulled open the aluminum door, set coupon sheets and credit card invitations into the cubbyhole and closed the box. Rippled tiny wake as he drove away, casting back a glare for his waterlogged route wasted on generic correspondence, as if to say: I came all this way.

Drowsy, the house nodded admonishment.

I couldn’t be bothered, but to fret at the folly of my forwarding address.

 

That night, a storm rolled over the island, stuck its bristles into the dark. From the couch, sipping a second scotch, I watched as colored light from a car lot TV commercial flickered in the window against the periodic pierce of lightning outside. Over and over, white foam appeared, slipped down the glass like lace, sunk slow, in a line, and then waited low for another wave. Nothing but pitch black beyond the froth.

I crept to bed and fell asleep amid the torrent, rocking.

 

I awoke matted. Day one-one-eight: seaweed and salty hair stuck to the pillow, the mattress and most of my bottom half buried in the night, still and warm under insulating sand. I pulled my legs from the heaps of bed-drift dune, put my feet down into the chill of wave wash, ankle-deep.

Upright but creaky, still bogged in sleep, I stretched my arms upward, flexed wrists, yawned a pop to equalize ear pressure and then set my teeth with a crunch: shells. In the bathroom I brushed them anyway, spat shards—coquina, cowrie, scallop, Aquafresh. The sink’s sandy bottom suspended foam saliva for a moment, then absorbed. Within the froth, tiny clams wriggling to cover themselves.

Why is this happening? I pestered the leaking ceiling seams, the soggy mat, the flooded sconces. Where are we supposed to go? I attempted to mop, to sop up the spot where the coffee table had been. I stirred puddles.

The house resigned, sighed and settled, curled further into its corners.

This time, the mailman emerged from the haze already rolling his eyes at the deluge, stuffed the box anyway with envelopes and magazines that were, even in his hands, soaked through, disintegrating. Half-submerged. His truck shuddered and stopped, spat back to life and limped away into the fog, landward. He left with yet another sour look: See what you’ve done.

The house, now unconscious, no longer sensed its surroundings.

I thought to wade out to the box, to fish out its contents or at least scoop the scraps, but I stopped at the stoop. I couldn’t see the street for whitecaps.

I thought, I’ve lost her face. I thought, I thought, I thought. She’s not due for another 22 weeks, I thought.

Still, she should be here, I thought. I thought, more coffee?

 

The house went quietly that night. It drifted off to the thrum of laundry tumbling.

I’d been knelt by the dryer, swearing into the barrel of hot, sodden clothes. The seawater snuck in at my knees, crept up my thighs like teenage advances. Then a crest came, crashed icy-cold over the small of my back—made me wince in an arch—and it swept me off my moorings. I clung first to the appliance, then shelves, doorjamb, threshold. But my fingers, and the things they gripped, were already wrinkling away. I succumbed to the undertoe.

Helpless, sure, but we’ll be fine, I thought, supine. From the rush of water I watched as the house’s walls dissolved. The lone laundry room lightbulb above me spread itself thin, disintegrated into sheen and darkness, a sheet of starlight.

Lips pursed the surface, eyes lapped by saltwater, I saw my own jetsam float past—multicolored rubber bracelets, a lone left sandal. I flashed on driftwood platitudes, on shifting outlooks. No need for that anymore, I thought, my limbs expanding, absorbing, dissolving into the brack. No need for those either.

I looked up at the wavering firmament, picked a wet, wriggling star to wish upon, and splashed a smile from underneath, admiring its sparkle. It’s warmer than I thought.

I saw the ripples as I became them, shifted and twisted myself translucent, shrugged off solid lines in exchange for infinite fluidity.

I exhaled a final breath of warm brine. I could get used to you, I sighed, an eddy into the depths. This isn’t so bad, after all.

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Posture

 

She stood a solitary stalk, ball at her feet, bright-lit green field against a black fall sky. The breath between whistled-dead and play-resumed.

 

Half a field away, a pack of other players stared back at her even as they jockeyed in the box, twisted fistfuls of jersey. Waited for the kick to come.

 

She set her stance, a few paces back, and stood. They could wait.

 

Her hours previous spent self-conscious in the school day, a bulky bulb in cold soil. Around others, she arched, slumped shoulders curved over and caved in, shrank. Arms crossed around books to cover her breasts, new and awkward and obvious at eye-level to her classmates. Bell to bell, blood cells coursing through vessel halls, pooled classrooms, hour after hour. Geometry: right-angles, hypotenuses. History: Pyrrhus, attrition. Anatomy: the bones of the foot.

 

Baggy jeans and ponytail, sneakers and plain tee. Between first and second she spoke to a boy as he smoked by the gymnasium doors. Volleyed observations. He was short and comfortable, and she tugged at her own belt loops, her pockets, her shirt seams, kept tucking hair behind her ears, touching her face. May have stayed too long; awkward retreat.

 

And at lunch, seated alongside teammates who discussed lipstick and bangs, in her mind she replayed the exchange with the boy, pulled at it until it lost its shape, a tangle of threads that no longer resembled stitched fabric. Realized that her fly had been down the whole time.

 

Calcaneus: heel. She leaned over cafeteria Bolognese, collarbones hovered above the edge of the tray.

 

Alone on the field, though.

 

Upright, transformed, hands inert, arms hung an afterthought. Eyes forward, chin-to-chest, she scowled scrutiny toward the horizon, ignored the mass of players, a blur of blue and white in the foreground of three sharp lines, their steel squared corners. Measured her distances: goal to ball, ball to body. Rocked up on her toes, posturing. Proximal, middle, distal phalanges.

 

From this vantage, she could see clear mere seconds into the future: rhythmic steps to a rooted plant-foot, leg arced, pendulum, cranked down, across, over, into and through. She could hear the coming solid thwock of seams against leather cleat (cuneiform, metatarsal). The ball’s trajectory, she knew, was predetermined: just a few feet farther than the spot where the 20 other players had set their stances, would crane their necks, eyes wide, to watch as it arched, skimmed heights of humid air. On the silent field, from 50 yards away, she could hear the upcoming wisp of the keeper’s gloved fingers miss, the arc dipped under crossbar, upper 90, line crossed, the rattled skim down the back of the net. And only then the ball would finally find the ground again.

 

All this she saw before it happened. The tower of a girl, standing alone in the middle of the field, stock-straight as limestone statuary casting starburst shadows, the crisscross worship of stadium lights. The strength in immensity. She strode toward the ball.

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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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