So Hard

Monday has rolled around again, and for the most part, I’m okay with it, really. I had a lovely weekend away from the Internet, which was enormously relaxing, and was able to get two stories revised yesterday. Of course, later on last evening I realized there’s yet another deadline looming, but I think I can make it. It is Friday, and Friday is when the 4th of July holiday lands for me; yes, a three day weekend to look forward to, and a deadline for Friday. So, in the worst case scenario, the story I want to submit for Friday needs at most another read through and polish; should the week go to hell (as they’ve been known to do lately) I at least have Friday to do so.

I spent most of the afternoon and early evening trying to get my computer files organized so I could more easily find things I need to be working on, and that was certainly a time suck. But it was necessary and needed to be done, and I made significant progress, which is always a plus. I had intended to start reading Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths–I opened to the first page and read the first few paragraphs, which are simply marvelous–but then got deep into the file organizing, so it will have to wait until this evening and the reading hour–I’ve decided to spend at least an hour every day devoted to reading, as it’s the only way I’ll ever get caught up on my reading (which is a Sisyphean task, as more books I want to read come out all the goddamned time).

I did manage to get the revisions on the two stories done yesterday, as I explained earlier, and today I am going to try to find the time to line edit them as well as read the other story that’s due on Friday. I have so much to do–my email situation is truly tragic–but hopefully I’ll have some time to get everything I need to do together into a comprehensive to-do list today. Obviously, the first thing on the to-do list is to make a comprehensive to-do list.

And maybe, just maybe, when I get these stories out of my hair I’ll be able to get back to work on the Secret Project this coming weekend and get it finished once and for all and out of my hair. And maybe then I can get back to Bury Me in Shadows, which I am going to change from a y/a into a book not for teens, which may not be as easy as I would like to think it is. For one thing I need to rewrite the entire beginning–which is predicated on our main character being a high school student; I’ve decided to age him to college graduate preparing for graduate school in New Orleans, but still be from Chicago–and it won’t be as easy to make changes later on, yet I think it’s for the best, to be honest. It’s very Gothic in subject matter, after all, and plus–the y/a publishing world, at least on-line, is a snake pit.

I’m also thinking about what the next Scotty should be. I’m still wrapping my mind around a quarantine mystery; as I’ve said before, I have the title already, but I think I would like to write something in the period between the end of Royal Street Reveillon (Christmas) and the quarantine; which gives me an approximate three month period with which to work. I really do want to write about Mardi Gras again, with Scotty older and perhaps not quite as into it still as he was in Mardi Gras Mambo–I kind of want to capture that weird feeling and horrible energy the city had during this past Mardi Gras. I had an idea for a Mardi Gras short story, featuring Venus Casanova, “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman,” but I’m not so certain I have the right to–or should–write about a Black female lead. I’ve been writing about Venus for almost twenty years now, as a supporting character in both the Scotty and the Chanse series, and have always wanted to explore the character in greater depth–I have another story written with her as the main character, “Falling Bullets,” and an idea for a novel, Another Random Shooting–but I don’t think I should be writing such books and stories now, if ever; now is the time to amplify actual “own voices” rather than taking publishing slots away from actual Black writers, who already have enough issues in trying to be heard and paid for their work equitably.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

In My House

Well, here it is Monday again and we’ve made it through another weekend; the last of May. Perhaps June will be the month this annus horribilis will turn around, but somehow I rather doubt it.

I grew up in the 1960’s. I was born in 1961, so when the decade ended I was nine and my earliest memory is me, maybe two years old or so, and the air raid sirens were going off in Chicago–they went off as a test every week on a certain day at a certain time, to ensure they were working and if Chicago was suddenly attacked by air–missiles, I suppose, from the Soviet Union or Cuba or perhaps a Canadian Air Force attack–we could get proper warning. I remember that the basement of my elementary school was a nuclear fallout shelter–or perhaps there was one accessible through the basement; my memory on this is cloudy but I can remember seeing the symbols (the black circle with three yellow triangles) on the wall above the stairs when I’d go down there to use the bathroom. I remember the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam and the violence meted out against people who protested inequality or an unjust war. I remember riots, and cities on fire, and leaders being murdered, shot and killed in a time when it seemed like the very fabric of the nation was being torn apart.

As a society, we tend to look back at the wild and crazy Sixties as a bizarre decade that opened with malt shops and bobby sox and the sock hop, which gradually morphed into something darker, and vastly different. The darkness and disillusionment didn’t lead to change in society or more equity; if anything, the resistance to civil rights for people of color became even more entrenched as other marginalized groups began advocating for their own rights and freedoms and equalities: women and queers. But the problems and inequities protested in the Sixties never went away completely; more doors were opened, to be sure, but the progress was slow and incremental, but below the surface it continued to simmer, and here we are, in 2020, dealing with these same old problems still.

Why is this so fucking hard, people? It doesn’t have to be.

I remember when Dr. King was murdered. I remember when RFK was murdered. (And yes I know these were political murders, so they were technically assassinations, but I’m sorry–murder is murder and it doesn’t need a fancy name to dress it up nice and pretty for consumption. MURDERED. They were MURDERED.)

I also remember the busing riots in the 1970’s.

My elementary school was segregated–in Chicago. I don’t know if all public schools in northern cities were segregated back then, but I do know ours was. The story was our principal would regularly turn away Black families trying to enroll their children by telling them the school was full, but any white family who came in was permitted. We had a lot of Hispanic/Latinx students at my school though; so clearly the bigotry was targeted at Black families. It was very strange, and even stranger to think about now, looking back; my elementary school was (with the exception of no Black children) the proverbial melting pot of cultures and countries (as taught to us as children–no mention of non-whites in that melting pot, of course). Most of my neighborhood–and therefore my schoolmates–were immigrants, either first or second generation; the woman down the street who babysat my sister and me’s parents immigrated from Poland. We had Poles and Latvians and Lithuanians; Czechs and Slovaks and Serbs and Croatians; Greeks and Mexicans and Nicaraguans and Guatemalans and Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Ironically, I also had classmates who identified by their principality in what used to be the Holy Roman Empire before it became Germany: Bohemians and Bavarians and Hessians (they were made very uncomfortable when we studied the mythology of the American Revolution, since the Hessians were mercenaries hired by King George III).

My high school in the suburbs, despite its size, only had a handful of black students; Bolingbrook is much more integrated now than it was at its inception. And of course, my high school in Kansas was completely free of black children. I had one black teacher before graduating from high school; and that was the sixth grade. My first black teacher in college was in Women’s Studies–she was a great teacher, and during that semester was denied tenure. I often wonder what ever happened to her; I don’t even remember her name. But she was the first teacher I ever had that truly opened my eyes to what our society and culture was actually like, rather than viewed through the rose tinted lenses all white children were given back then; what it was like for women and minorities in this country. As I was also beginning to realize at the same time that I didn’t necessarily have to be closeted and miserable for the rest of my life, and maybe wasn’t, and didn’t have to be, a square peg, she had a profound influence on me and this was when I first began to challenge, and question, everything I had been led to believe was carved into stone as truth.

It disturbs me that I do not remember her name. It disturbs me now to realize had I not been gay and had I not taken her class…I might not have ever questioned and reevaluated everything I was raised and socialized to believe. Sometimes when I see this right-wing assholes bloviating and spewing their bullshit and lies and bigotry, I sometimes think that, but for an untenured Women’s Studies professor and my sexuality, could have been me.

And it sickens me.

I don’t have the answers to how to solve what’s wrong with our country. But I do know the answer of how not to–which is to continue not listening to the people, to not listen to people of color, to not listen to anyone who is a minority of any kind in this country; to not listen to anyone who is anything other than a cisgender white male.

The Pledge of Allegiance ends “with liberty and justice for all.” It doesn’t say “with liberty and justice for white people.”

I’m not perfect. Every once in a while a thought will pop up in my mind that no longer fits my current worldview, something from the lizard part of my brain and the way I used to think, was conditioned to think, before my gradual enlightenment and reexamination of everything was I trained to think and believe, and it horrifies me. But I don’t pretend it doesn’t happen; I examine it, try to dissect and dismember it, to ensure it never pops into my brain again.

It’s work, but it’s work that needs to be done.

Black lives matter. No one should have to live in fear for their life every time they leave their goddamned house, or go into a nice neighborhood, or just go about their fucking day-to-day business.

This country and what it stands for was a terrific ideal that we, as flawed people and humans, have never actualized into reality or lived up to. It isn’t too late for us to start now. But we have to examine everything we’ve been taught, white people. We need to look at our art, our culture, our society, and our politics, with a skeptical, questioning eye, and we need to do the work. Our country will never heal without it…and if you care about this country as much as you claim you do–or you are, indeed, a true Christian–you will do this work so that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and everyone has the same opportunities to succeed, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Because we who are minorities–whether racial, gender, class, sexuality, religion–are never going to shut up and we are never going to go away. You don’t have to like us; you can still think I’m a faggot if it makes you happy and you somehow think that’s what your invisible sky lord demands. But your business has to serve me, and you have to treat me the same way you treat everyone: with the respect and dignity every human being deserves.

I don’t really understand what is so controversial about that.

Go West

Good morning, Thursday; just today and tomorrow before we slide into another delightful three day weekend. Memorial Day! Huzzah! I am always about another day off from the day job–which I completely understand that it sounds like I don’t like my day job, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I just enjoy not having to go to work more than I enjoy going to work; I’m not sure how everyone else comes down on that category, but I’d be more than willing to bet that most people prefer their days off to their days on.

I could be wrong, but I rather doubt it.

Anyway, here I am at the crack of dawn swilling down coffee and trying to get more awake and alert. I am looking at a long day of screening at both buildings (Marine in the morning, Elysian Fields in the afternoon) and right now it seems like its about a million years staring into my face. But I will persevere, and deal with the heavy traffic on the way home just after five. Tomorrow is the Friday of a long weekend, which is absolutely lovely, and my ink cartridge was delivered yesterday so I can pick it up on my way into the office tomorrow and actually start printing shit I need to print again this weekend. Yesterday was a relatively good day, despite being tired–that tired lasted again, like the day before, pretty much all day–but I managed to get my errands accomplished after work and got some organizing and straightening done in the kitchen/office area; always a plus. Paul was a little late getting home last night, but we watched an episode of The Great and then I started streaming The Story of Soaps, an ABC show about the history of the soaps–just to see if it was any good–and it was quite enjoyable; I’ll look forward to watching the rest of it this evening. I watched soaps from the time I was a kid–our babysitter in the summer watched General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows, which is how I got started watching them, and over the years I remained pretty (fairly) loyal to General Hospital and One Life to Live. The summer we moved to Kansas, until we got cable we only got the CBS affiliate from Kansas City, so my mom and I ended up watching the CBS shows–from The Young and the Restless through Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and The Edge of Night. After cable, we watched General Hospital–it was the late 1970’s by then, and everyone was watching General Hospital by that point.

It’s interesting, in some ways, that our moves–my moves–gradually went west. The suburb we moved to when we left the south side of Chicago was west; from there to Kansas, and from there to California. I started heading more and more east from California, to Houston and then to Tampa, before going north to Minneapolis and coming back south to New Orleans. I never thought about it too much, really; but it’s interesting how I’ve moved around the country and the strange pattern to it. Of course, we’ve been in New Orleans since 1996 (barring that year in Washington), and since I’ve lived here longer than I have anywhere else, I tend to think of New Orleans as home more than I’ve ever thought of the places I’ve lived previously. Granted, had we never left Chicago, I probably would think of Chicago as home, but I’ve literally only been back to Chicago maybe twice, possibly three times, since departing the area in 1975. I’ve never been back to Kansas, and I’ve been to Houston many times since I moved to Tampa–but only twice to Tampa since leaving there (I’ve actually been to Orlando quite a bit; I’d say I’ve visited Orlando more than anywhere other than Houston over the last twenty-odd years).

I tend to not write about Florida, for the most part; while I’ve written about a fictional city in California based on Fresno in the Frat Boy books (the third was set in a different fictional California city, San Felice, based on Santa Barbara), and I’ve written about the panhandle of Florida, I’ve never really based anything on, or written about, the real Tampa or a city based on it (I do have ideas for some stories set in “Bay City”); I’ve not really written about Houston, either. My fiction has always primarily been set in New Orleans, with a few books scattered about other places (Alabama, Kansas, a mountain town in California called Woodbridge) but it’s almost inevitably New Orleans I write about; which makes sense. I live here, I love it here, and I will probably die in New Orleans.

And I’m fine with that, frankly.

“Go West” is also a song I associate with New Orleans, actually. I know it was originally a Village People recording–which I actually never heard before the Pet Shop Boys covered it–but I always associate it with 1994 and when I first started coming to New Orleans; it, along with Erasure’s “Always” were the big hits of the moment that were always being played in gay bars, and I heard them both for the first time on the dance floor at the Parade on my thirty-third birthday; which was also the first time I ever did Ecstasy. So, whenever I hear “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, I always think back to that birthday and that trip to New Orleans (“Always” has the same affect, but not as intensely; I’ve never been able to find the proper dance remix the Parade used to play–and in fact, a lyric of the song, “Hold On To The Night”, became a short story I’ve never published anywhere–and haven’t even tried to revise in almost thirty years. It wasn’t a crime story; I was writing gay short stories then, about gay life in New Orleans–and no, I never published the vast majority of them (with the sole exception of “Stigmata”, which was published in an anthology that came and went very quickly), although I did adapt some of them into erotica stories and some could easily be adapted into crime stories…I know a fragment of one, I think, morphed into “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which was published in Jerry Wheeler’s The Dirty Diner anthology, and was probably reprinted in Promises in Every Star.

I should probably pull those stories out again and see if there’s anything I can do with them,

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines.

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It’s Alright

Monday morning, and we have thus far made it through another weekend, and have another week to stare down. I’ve not heard or seen any reports about how the gradual reopening of New Orleans went this weekend–I stayed my ass at home; I didn’t go outside at all other than to take out the trash–and today’s a work-at-home day. The gym has reopened, and I am debating whether I should go workout after work tonight. I’ve been itching to get back to the gym since everything closed–if you will recall, I’d started working out again before the shutdown, even managing to make it through Carnival, and had developed a really good routine before the world closed down on me.

I got some writing done on the Secret Project yesterday, almost two thousand words, which was pretty thrilling for me. I’d hoped to get more done–as I always do–but I really had to force those words out, and I was pretty glad to have been that productive when the words weren’t coming, so I called it a day when the well went dry and retired to my easy chair. I watched a great documentary on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) on Prime called Never Surrender–if you’re a fan of the movie, I highly recommend the documentary. Last evening Paul and I continued watching The Great, which is becoming more and more fun as I no longer think of them as actual historical figures, since the show bears so little resemblance to the actual history.

I also tried reading  a classic novel by a master of our genre, but couldn’t get very far into it. I admire what the author was doing with his style, voice and use of language–I’ve heard him speak and he’s all about the rhythm of the words, which is very important, and something I tell beginning writers all the time to watch for, and why it’s always important to read your work out loud to make sure the rhythm you’re using is consistent–but he also was guilty of one of my pet peeves: the use of colons and semi-colons in fiction prose. Anyway, between that and the toxic masculinity and racism–I don’t care if it was accurate for the period, it’s hard for me to see toxic racist men as heroic–and when I got to the extensive use of the n*word–again, probably accurate and correct for the period–I was done. I put it in the donation pile and was done with it. I’ve read his work before and I don’t remember it being quite as bad as this particular book; but I intend to reread that book again at some point (it was also homophobic, which jumped off the page at me, and that’s why I want to reread it–to see if it still rings that way) and then I can gladly call it quits on that author.

I’m also still rereading Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Red Carnelian, which is more of a straight-up mystery than any of her other novels for adults. As I mentioned before, it was originally titled Red is for Murder; most of her novels for adults had a color in the title somehow–The Turquoise Mask, Silverhill, Hunter’s Green, Black Amber, Sea Jade–but when her work became more romantic suspense, it was reissued and retitled as The Red Carnelian, to fit her other titles more. Set in a sprawling department store on State Street in Chicago (like Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott, back in the day–I wonder which store she used as a research; Mrs. Whitney was a librarian, and always exhaustively researched her novels) named Cunningham’s, the book also offers an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at how department stores are run, and the various jobs (window dresser, poster and sign copy, marketing and sales, backdrop painting, mannequin arranging) that are necessary for the day-to-day operation of a large department store. Thinking about which store she used to research her novel sent me into an Internet wormhole, where I looked up Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Goldblatt’s, and Zayre’s, among the many department stores I remember visiting as a child in Chicago. (The bargain basement at Zayre’s was where I first discovered the children’s mystery series featuring Rick Brant, Ken Holt, and Biff Brewster.)

I kind of miss department stores.

I am hoping to get a lot accomplished this week–and I am really looking forward to our three day weekend that’s coming up. Huzzah!

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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Coal Miner’s Daughter

Wednesday, and here we are, in the middle of the week suddenly. It’s also a new month; didn’t March seem to last forever, to the point where it actually felt like it wasn’t just March but Bataan Death March? Does anyone besides me even know what the Bataan Death March was? Americans’ grasp and knowledge of our own history is astonishingly slender and leaves a lot to be desired–which is why the same policies that have failed, repeatedly, throughout our history–“trickle down economics”, anyone–always end up coming back around and fucking us all over again, repeatedly, as new generations continue to be fooled by the desire of the rich and the corporations to fuck us repeatedly, counting on the knowledge that no one knows it has all happened before.

It is astonishing how no one studies the past so we can learn from mistakes made and not repeat them, isn’t it?

I’m actually not, as today’s title might suggest, a coal miner’s daughter but actually a coal miner’s grandson; my grandfather was a coal miner, and received disability until the day he died for the black lung disease he acquired as a result. Alabama isn’t known for coal mining, and I do know that he used to go away to work in the coal mines, so I’m not exactly sure where it was he went to do the work; as a child I didn’t really listen to the stories as closely as perhaps I should have, or it’s the old memory-sieve thing, but I do remember seeing Coal Miner’s Daughter in the theater when it was released, and thinking, when they showed the shack Loretta Lynn grew up in, how similar it was to my maternal grandmother’s house. The house my father grew up in–where my grandfather lived up till pretty close to when he died, I think–wasn’t as ramshackle as my maternal grandmother’s. It never dawned on me to think about how much poverty my parents grew up as children; my maternal grandfather died when my mother was around eleven, and so the only money they ever got was his military pension from serving in the Pacific during the war–and it wasn’t much. My grandmother used to make most of her children’s clothes as well as her own; when I was a kid I remember my mother had mad sewing skills, but they fell into disuse as we moved up the economic ladder as I got older. My parents were, in fact, a perfect example of the upward mobility, the American dream, as it used to exist in those decades that followed the second world war. They married young and moved to Chicago when they were barely twenty and had two small children; they both worked in factories while my dad went to school at night to finish his engineering degree. By the time they were thirty they owned a house in the suburbs and my father was on his way up the corporate ladder; my mom stopped working when he finally made it to management and we were transferred to Kansas. It was always ironic to me that when I was a small child my parents both worked while everyone else I knew’s mom was a housewife; when the economy shifted in my teens my mother became a housewife while most other families became two income.

I didn’t grow up in Alabama, but I grew up thinking of Alabama as home and was raised to have a fierce, deep pride in not only being Southern but in Alabama. I grew up understanding the importance of both Alabama and Auburn football to the pride of the state, and pride in that the fierce rivalry between the two programs was one of the biggest and best in college football. My love for Alabama has grown more conflicted over the years, as I began to reexamine things I was raised to believe in as moral and right and developed my own code of ethics, morality, and right and wrong. Writing Bury Me in Shadows is, in some ways, an attempt to regurgitate and make sense of that through writing. The vast majority of my writing has always firmly centered New Orleans, and writing about New Orleans is probably what I’m best known for, if I am known at all. I have written bits and pieces here and there about other places I’ve lived; I turned Fresno into Polk for the frat boy books, and Tampa into Bay City for other stories, and of course, with the exception of Dark Tide, which was set in the panhandle of Alabama, I primarily fictionalize where I’m from in Alabama as Corinth County–which is where the main character of Dark Tide was from.

Bury Me in Shadows is my first book-length writing about Corinth County; and I decided to show it from the perspective of a native who didn’t grow up there, whose mother moved away before he was born, and has spent very little time there–and hasn’t, in fact, been there since he was eight years old. I am having some fun with it–you can’t go wrong with a meth lab, a burned out plantation house, and the rural woods in northwest Alabama–but it needs some work, and I think I’ve been away from it long enough now so that when I do have the time to go back and start revising and reworking and getting it ready to turn in, my eyes and perspective will be fresh.

I am starting to get more tired though, and it’s harder to get up in the morning than it was earlier in the week. I am only working the morning shift today; this afternoon I have some errands to run and I am going to do some work at home. I think that will help me with the tiredness–the screening process can be draining–and if I get my work done early, I can maybe spend some time reading or writing. I was too tired to read much more of “The Archduchess,” the du Maurier tale I am trying to get through this week, but it’s very interesting. The darkness that always imbues her work is there as the story goes on, which is about a very small European nation whose spring water has some kind of mystical rejuvenating power, but I haven’t gotten to the meat of the story as of yet. But it’s interesting, and I am curious to see where she is going with the story.

I also have a gazillion emails to try to get answered at some point today.

Just thinking about it makes me tired.

And on that note, it’s off to the spice mines. Have a lovely, lovely day, Constant Reader.

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All I Want for Christmas

Joan Didion once wrote “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” in her title essay in the collection The White Album. 

I have grown to love and appreciate Didion’s work over the last couple of years, but I’ve always puzzled over that particular quote. The full quote is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Often that first sentence is taken from its original context and used as a stand-alone quote; my first thought on seeing it somewhere (without having read Didion) was, yes, this is true. This is why our memories of the same event are all different; we interpret and remember that event through the prism of our personal experience and therefore it is colored by who we are as a people; we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.

This is one of many reasons I am hesitant to even attempt to write personal essays or a memoir; my memory lies to me all the time. It was only recently that I realized, for example, that my recollection of when we moved from Chicago to the suburbs was in 1969; I’ve always believed that, but recently remembered wait, I was ten when we moved; I turned ten in 1971 and sure enough, looking at the dates on some old pictures, yup, it was December 1971 when we left the city for the burbs…so writing personal essays, or a memoir, would require me to research and fact check my own life.

Which would be bizarre, to say the least.

So, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Christmas is sort of like that, isn’t it? All of these Christmas stories, all these myths…all these stories and traditions that have absolutely nothing to do with what the actual holiday means and was originally intended to be; it’s also kind of amusing to me that something that theoretically began as a Christian religious holiday has been so thoroughly secularized; and at the very least, the majority of Christmas “traditions” are heavily Catholic; so much so that in the early days of the Reformation Protestants didn’t celebrate Christmas (or Easter); some still don’t to this very day. Santa Claus is derived from St. Nicholas; so evangelical children who are taught about Santa Claus are actually celebrating Catholicism–which is why I am always amused by the bumper stickers and billboards stating “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”

Um, there’s no Rudolph or Frosty or Santa Claus or reindeer in the New Testament, so telling your children those stories, or letting them watch the specials or movies, or making that a part of their Christmas isn’t keeping the Christ in Christmas; if anything, it’s helping take the Christ out of Christmas. (And Christmas is a contraction of Christ Mass, so again, Catholic in the first place.) What do lights and a Christmas tree or any of that have to do with the birth of Jesus?

NOTHING

Most Christmas stories–novels or film or television–inevitably are predicated on a belief in Christianity; the stories always boil down to having faith in the unseen and having that faith reaffirmed, or developing that faith. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol probably did the most in popularizing and secularizing Christmas; it’s a morality tale which everyone knows by heart–how many fucking adaptations of that classic story have their been? (I think the first one I saw was with Mr. Magoo.) But it’s a ghost story–ghost stories have always been a part of Christmas, for some reason; the Holy Ghost, perhaps?–and it’s a classic story, even if repetition has made it cliche and tired. It’s also a compelling psychological breakdown of a desperately unhappy man, who takes out his misery on everyone else around him and doesn’t celebrate, or enjoy, Christmas; the ghosts of his past Christmases show him how he became the man he is today–and his future. It has been adapted so many times–even It’s A Wonderful Life is a variation on the story–that is, as I said, the hoariest of all the Christmas cliches; I think the vast majority of sitcoms when I was a child would always, inevitably, do a take on the story for a Christmas episode, to the point that I would cringe when it opened. I read the actual story about twenty years ago, and I was quite surprised to see the changes that were made to it in order to film it…changes that were incorporated into every version filmed ever since. (Bob Cratchit wasn’t Scrooge’s family in the original story; just an employee. Scrooge’s nephew is never in the story, except at the end when Scrooge joins his nephew’s family, not the Cratchits, for the holiday feast.)

But none of these traditional stories, as I’ve mentioned, center queer people–or even include them. A queer version of A Christmas Carol has probably been done by someone–I don’t keep up with queer publishing outside of mysteries the way I used to–but it would be incredibly difficult to do it well; making Scrooge a gay man wouldn’t be enough of a change to make it fresh and new…although the nineteenth century trope of the “broken hearted man who vowed to never love again and thus died a confirmed bachelor” has always read as code for “big old homo” to me (hello, James Buchanan?) because it is incredibly difficult for me to believe that a man of any time would go his entire life without having any sexual experience; although I suppose they wouldn’t have recorded “So instead of a loving marriage, Buchanan spent the rest of his life using prostitutes for his needs.”

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.

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Jacob’s Ladder

Tuesday morning and all is fine…at least so far.

I managed to finish the reread/outline of Bury Me in Shadows last night, which is very cool, and as I said the other day, it doesn’t need nearly as much work as I thought it did–which, given how it was written in fits and starts over the period of a few months, I figured there would be tons of repetition. As it is, I did repeat something–the first time my main character, Jake, was ever called a gay slur–about three or four times. Obviously, I only need to have that in there once.

What’s funny about it, though, is that each instance is based on a different time it happened to me when I was a kid–and I managed to remember four different times. Who knows how many others I can remember? Ah, the joys of being a queer kid in America back in the day.

But the book is, as I said, in much better shape than I remembered or thought, and so it’s not going to be as much work to finish it as I thought. Don’t get me wrong–it’s still going to be a lengthy slog, it’s just not going to take me as a long to finish this final edit than I thought it might. It’s still entirely possible that I could have it finished and ready to go sometime next week, which would be really lovely. One can certainly hope, at least.

I’ve managed to sleep well both nights so far this week–I didn’t even feel tired yesterday until after I got home from the office. I somehow managed to make it through an entire twelve-hour day without feeling exhausted or worn out. On the other hand, we were also pretty slow yesterday; perhaps not having client after client after client made the difference.

We finished watching Big Mouth last night, which is easily one of the funniest things on television right now, and will now slide back into watching our other shows each evening, trying to get caught up on them all. A plethora of riches for us to choose from, and we still have only watched the first episode of the first season of Succession, so there’s also that.

I’m not as energetic this morning as I was yesterday; but that’s probably par for the course. I may not have been as worn out as I usually am on Monday evening last night, but it was still a twelve hour day, and today is probably a vestigial hangover from that. That doesn’t bode well for the day, but I”m hoping it’s just a slow waking up morning type of thing. I’ve still got so much to do it’s not even funny. Motivation is the primary problem I am having this morning, and my coffee doesn’t seem to be working the way I generally expect/need it to. Oh, wait–there it is. Hello, caffeine!

There was a cold front that came through last night so today is supposedly going to be cooler than it has been–sad that temperatures in the mid-80’s is “cooler than it has been,” but that’s life down here in the swamp. This summer has certainly lasted longer than any have seemed to before, but that could also just be my own faulty memory. My memories are questionable, it seems. That’s why people who can write their own memoirs or autobiographies amaze me so much–how do you remember all of that? There are so many gaps in my memories, and memories that are simply flat out wrong; for example, I would have sworn on a Bible and testified to it in court that we moved from Chicago out to the suburbs in the winter of 1969, which is incorrect. We moved in the winter of 1971, two years later; I was ten years old and in the sixth grade. I knew I was ten when we moved, and yet somehow I always managed to convince myself we moved in 1969. Why or how or when that year became fixated in my brain as the year we moved is beyond me; I’ve always been able to remember the year we moved to Kansas because it was the summer before my junior year. I graduated in 1978, so we had to have moved to Kansas in 1976. It was also the Olympic year–Montreal–and the same Olympics where Nadia Comenici started throwing perfect 10’s in the gymnastics competition.

Why have I been thinking about the past so much lately? I’m not sure. Maybe because Bury Me in Shadows is set in a fictional county that is based on the county where my family is from, so I’ve been drawing on childhood memories to construct a fictional place based in reality from my past. It’s strange to look at Google Earth renderings of where we’re from, and see that my memories are, in fact, incorrect; but in fairness I never drove anywhere in Alabama. I was always a passenger, and I think driving cements directions and so forth in your mind–when you’re just riding in the car you don’t pay as much attention as you would if you were driving. I’m also writing “Never Kiss a Stranger,” which is set in New Orleans in 1994, so I’m having to delve into my memories of visiting here and remembering what the city was like then. It does seem different now than it was then–certainly the city has changed since that first visit all those years ago, when I first explored the gay bars and the Quarter and fell in love with New Orleans; part of the reason I am writing the story and setting it in that time is to write about, and preserve in fiction, my memories of the city back then and what it was like. I’m also glad I decided to turn it into a novella–I may do a book of four novellas, like Stephen King’s Different Seasons and Full Dark No Stars–which would be kind of a departure for me. I already have “Never Kiss a Stranger” in progress, and there’s also “Fireflies,” and perhaps I have two other stories on hand that could easily be adapted into longer novellas….often the problem I have with writing short stories is the word counts; some stories struggle to come in under 6000 words.

Which, now that I think about it, could easily make “Once a Tiger” and “Please Die Soon” and perhaps even “Death and the Handmaidens” work; simply make them longer and that will probably solve the issues with all three stories.

An interesting and intriguing thought.

And on that note, tis time for me to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

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Funny Face

Monday, Monday. Can’t trust that day, you know?

Saturday night I watched a documentary about college football on ESPN, Football is US: The College Game. It was interesting–I didn’t know who Walter Camp was, but I’d heard the name before. I also knew who Amos Alonzo Stagg was–there’s a high school in Chicago named for him, and I also knew that the University of Chicago was an early power in college football, until they disbanded their team and stopped playing. It lightly touched on how college football parity helped desegregate the Southern universities–their football teams were mediocre, once other schools started recruiting, and playing, black players–but there was one line, when talking about the civil rights struggles in the 1960’s, and how Southern people, especially those in Alabama, focused on football as a source of pride for their state, that was particularly true and honest, and I wished they would have followed up on it some more: they didn’t like the way their state was being portrayed on the news, and felt like these representations of Southern states as hotbeds of racism was unfair.

Yes, indeed. It was incredibly unfair how the national news depicted Southern racism as how it actually existed in the real world. This resentment of how they are viewed by outsiders is keenly felt down here, and that sense of resentment is very key to understanding their behavior.

I reread the final few chapters of Bury Me in Shadows yesterday, and then planned out the final three, so I have a good shot at making my deadline of finishing the first draft by September 1. I also revised both “Moist Money” and “This Thing of Darkness” yesterday, so it was a fairly productive day for me on the writing front. Both stories need to be gone over again before sending them out into the world–both are rather dark stories; I sometimes shock myself with how dark I can go if I set my mind to it. (Fully cognizant of the notion that other people’s opinion of what dark is can vary wildly.)

We are still watching the third season of Thirteen Reasons Why, and I have to say, the show is both ridiculous and over the top–last night I said to Paul, “you know, this high school is completely fucked up–I can’t imagine anyone I went to high school with being murdered, let alone that almost everyone I was friends with would have a motive for killing another classmate”–but the show’s true appeal lies in the cast, how good they are in their roles, and the chemistry they have with each other. And let’s be honest–it hasn’t come remotely  close to Riverdale when it comes to plots going over the top. While watching last night, it occurred to me that the show is really kind of an Edge of Night type serial, only set in high school; every season’s plot has had something to do with death and crime. There has been at least one suicide, one suicide attempt, an almost-school shooting, several rapes–one particularly brutal one involving a young man and a broom handle–and so I can see why teenagers who’ve been through a trauma of some sort would find the show hard to watch.

I also watched Roll Red Roll, a horrifying documentary of the Steubenville rape case–which also is an exploration of rape culture in small towns–and that case was what initially inspired my own in-progress manuscript about the same thing; rape culture in a small town. Watching the documentary, and remembering how awful the story was as it unfolded–several other cases broke around the same time; there was another in Marysville, Missouri, and another in southern California, which were the subjects of another documentary–also made me see, again, what are the many problems and holes in the plot of the book I wrote on the subject, and what needs to be fixed about it.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

Happy Monday, everyone.

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Wham Bam

So, I burned my upper lip over the weekend (my lower lip also, but not as bad as the upper) and this is something I’ve never done before, so am not really sure how to deal with it. My lips hurt, of course, and it’s not like you can bandage your lip. I just kept putting Blistex on them the last few days whenever it felt like they were cracking (yes, that’s a thing) but I ate pizza for dinner last night and must have burned the upper lip even more because this morning I woke up with it covered in dried blood and kind of scabby. I carefully washed it, clearing off the dried blood, and then of course it started bleeding again. It has since stopped, thanks to regular blotting with tissue, but nonetheless, it was a rather traumatic way to start the day, but there we are.

I set my alarm to get up at seven, allowing myself an extra hour’s sleep than Monday and Tuesday, but naturally hit snooze and wound up getting up at eight thirty. Not disgraceful, mind you, but not pleasing in my eyes.

I wound up not working on the book yesterday, after all; a review of Chapter Eleven showed me that writing it disjointedly the way I had meant that there are things in the first part of the chapter that I repeat in the second half, which means I need to revise it before moving on. This was actually fine with me; I used the day to start rewriting “The Snow Globe” based on the lovely notes I’d received from the editor who’d rejected it (thank you again and a big shout out to Sandra Kasturi!) and the story is better and more cohesive now; it actually makes sense, and again, returning to a story months after the last time I’d looked at it–yeah, clunky sentences and paragraphs that don’t flow into each other, etc., to the point that I was actually embarrassed I’d let Sandra read it in the first place as she is an editor I admire. Oh, well, I’m sure it was neither the first nor the last time an editor read something of mine and thought, how in the hell did he get published, and how the hell did he win those awards?

Sigh.

I decided to take Friday off so I have a four-day weekend to look forward to, which is, naturally, quite lovely. I hope to get a lot done–don’t I always–but if I don’t, I am fine with just getting rested and doing some writing and some cleaning. I will, of course, come up with an enormously lengthy list of the things I want to get done, but we’ll see how it goes. I made a to-do list for the week yesterday, which is a lovely and nice change–I really need to get back into the habit of doing that–and I also made an eye appointment so I can get new glasses/contact lenses. Look at me, getting things done!

We also watched the most recent episode of Fosse/Verdon last night. The show is amazing on every level, and not just for the stunning performances of Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in the leads. Williams deserves an Emmy, but the Actress in a Limited Series or Movie category is going to be a tough one, I suspect, this coming year. But as I watched the original production of Chicago coming together, and Gwen baring her teeth–especially when she had to have surgery on her vocal chords and walk away from the show for six weeks, being replaced by Liza Minelli, who then turned the show into a huge hit–I couldn’t help thinking of Valley of the Dolls and Helen Lawson, which then led me down a primrose path in my head of imagine if this story was being told by Jacqueline Susann, a thought that’s still, obviously, lingering in my head this morning.

The other interesting thing I am taking away from watching the show is astonishment at realizing just how HUGE a star on Broadway Gwen Verdon actually was; I’d heard of her before, of course–who doesn’t know Damn Yankees, and we actually did it in high school–and Sweet Charity, but I’d literally no idea precisely how big a star she actually was. She was considered the best singer/dancer on Broadway in the 50’s/60’s–and you have to remember who the other women appearing on Broadway during that time were to realize how important she must have been: Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, and Chita Rivera, to name a few–and she won four Tonys. FOUR.

Damn it, now I am going to have to read the book the series is based on, Fosse.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Happy Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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