The Boys of Summer

I finished watching Netflix’ amazing series Seven Seconds last night, and it is some of the best, smartest television I’ve ever seen; it takes on so many issues, and handles them so incredibly brilliantly. The acting and writing is razor sharp; the show is moving and heartbreaking and so incredibly complicated. What is has to say about race and justice and family is just…I will be processing this show for several days. It reminded me very much of American Crime in how it realistically and powerfully presented every side of an issue, and how flawed everyone is, and how it makes you question your own assumptions and thought processes and basically, everything you think and believe. American Crime was an exceptional show; I honestly believe that it was low-rated because it was too complex and real for viewers to handle. Seven Seconds is at that same level of expertise and complexity; it also makes me question what I do within my own work; the layers I don’t peel away, and how my own work might be too simple.

Jean Redmann always says–and I shamelessly steal this at every opportunity–that we become crime writers because we have a desire to find justice in a world where justice isn’t always served, and this, as members of a marginalized community who rarely find justice, makes us want to write stories in which victims find justice–we want to create art in which justice is always served and is an absolute and is available for everyone, accessible, even as we know that it is, in fact, not. I know that I was enormously disappointed by the end of season 2 of American Crime; but it was much more realistic with its ending than it would have been had it been emotionally satisfying. We want to see the bad guys get punished, we want the circle that opened with the commission of the crime to close, be wrapped up and packaged with a neat little bow; we want order to be restored.

But we live in a world, and a society, in which order is an illusion; we pretend, just like we like to pretend we have control over our lives. There’s a wonderful quote which I can’t recall exactly, but it goes something like man  plans and the gods laugh. I know, after the Time of Troubles, I focused on working out and my body; because that was something I had control over. Even now, as I write and plan what I want to do with my career as a writer, I ignore the obvious: I can’t control whether an editor wants to publish my story or whether an agent believes they can sell my manuscript; I can’t control whether someone will buy my books and like them. But thinking about those things is part of what destroyed my will last year; I have to not worry about that, not worry about whether people will get what I am doing or whether I am going to get one-star reviews or whether enough copies of the books will sell so my publisher will continue to invest in my career. I can only do the best that I can and focus on the work itself and push all of that other stuff to the back of my mind. Just like I can’t control whether I am going to be killed in a car accident on the way to the grocery store or any myriad number of other things.

All I can do is make plans and try to control what variables I can. I can drive carefully and pay attention to what I am doing and remain alert to the other drivers and try to anticipate what they are going to do and be prepared for eventualities that I can foresee, while recognizing I cannot foresee everything.

As you can tell, Seven Seconds is a powerful viewing experience.

And Regina King is a goddess.

I think the reason the two stories I am currently failing at telling–“Once a Tiger” and “Don’t Look Down”–are failing because I don’t know the story I am trying to tell nor the characters I am writing about. In both cases, I worry that there’s no market for them; why write them if they have no future? But that’s again out of my control; that’s the kind of second-guessing that is fatal for an author. There are things that are within my control, after all, and my entire career has been guided by choices that I’ve made; I chose to write about gay characters, knowing that made break-out success next to impossible. I don’t regret those choices in any way; there’s no guarantee that writing something more mainstream would have brought greater success. And despite my tendency to overthink and self-deprecate, I am proud of all of my books. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Some are better than others; some have flaws that I wish I hadn’t missed in the process of writing them. It’s difficult to evaluate one’s own work, no matter how clear-eyed one can be; I tend to always be my own worst critic. And as I get older and my memory begins to fail me more, I don’t remember what I meant to do, what was my goal when I was writing some books–hell, many of them. It never occurred to me, as I was writing the Scotty books, that I was writing a series with what is now called a throuple at the heart of it; that Scotty’s personal story was how a non-monogamous, promiscuous gay man came to be in  a relationship with two men, and how that has changed his life. Now, as I write the eighth in the series, they have gotten older and wiser and even have a young “son”–and not in the sexual way; they all look on Taylor, Frank’s nephew, as their child; kind of like My Three Dads–and I don’t even think about how unusual that is to write about. The series has become about aging as a gay man; moving from being that hot guy everyone wants to have sex with to an older guy not quite as motivated to slut around anymore but to help and mentor a younger gay guy, to make his life and his journey easier. I have to push my worries about these changes in Scotty aside and remember it is the character that people relate to, not him being young and hot and beautiful and going out dancing or doing drugs or picking up strangers; but the fact that he is so unapologetically himself.

And that’s what I’ve forgotten over the last few Scotty books; maybe it’s there, but that sense of who Scotty is as a person is something I feel like I’ve forgotten over time; maybe it’s in my subconscious, but I have to remember that: I need to remember the core of who Scotty is.

Anyway, I should probably get back to the spice mines. I am thinking a lot today, obviously.

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All I Need

Sunday, Sunday. Can’t trust that day, especially when an hour was stolen from me during my sleep. Sunday is my sleep-in day, and while it’s not entirely unusual, I absolutely detest that I woke up at just before what-is-now-ten-thirty. Since I can’t drink coffee after noon for fear of its impact on my sleep–but I like my coffee in the morning–I will be able to have only, at most, two cups. This is also infuriating.

It’s not sunny out there this late morning, but more grayish again, as though it might rain. It may just be a cloud cover, but the sun is always bright in New Orleans; the lack of brightness is bizarre and also feels off–in addition sleeping  in until not-really-ten-thirty. But looking on the positive side, I worked out yesterday and the rest seems to have helped my muscles recover; they don’t feel either sore or tired or both this morning. I should be grateful for small victories, I suppose, and stop complaining.

I watched two more episodes of Seven Seconds last night, and it is absolutely riveting. It reminds me a lot of the lamented American Crime, where you saw everyone as three-dimensional characters; I like seeing it from every perspective, and while it’s easy to feel some sympathy for the guy who committed the actual crime and why he covered it up; the pain of the family of the victim is almost unbearable to watch–but Regina King is such an amazing and brilliant actress you can’t help but watch. I’ve always been a fan of hers; she was exceptional in American Crime, but this? Give her all the awards right now, and please cast her in everything; she is so good that as I watched I thought if I ever write a television show or movie I want to write a great part for her to play. As good as the show is, as it progresses it is starting to drift away from the nonjudgmental view that it had in the first episodes, which is fine–I think part of the reason American Crime failed to find an audience was because you didn’t know who to root for, or if you should root for anyone, which makes viewers uncomfortable, as they, for the most part, want to have good guys and bad guys–but I kind of wish they hadn’t gone so far with making the guy who committed the crime a villain. I felt sorry for him before; I am losing sympathy, and that’s why they are doing it; but when he was sympathetic it made the show more layered, complex, and nuanced.

Heavy sigh.

I got all my errands done yesterday, but forgot to get something I need for dinner today–but it’s just a twenty ounce bottle of root beer and I can walk to Walgreens and get that when I’m ready to put everything into the crock pot. The St. Patrick’s/St. Joseph’s Day Irish Channel parade is today, so I’m not moving my car. I decided to wait to go to Costco until next weekend; I am going to take one of my co-workers car shopping that day, and as punishment he’ll have to go to Costco with me when we’re finished.

I started writing yet another Chanse short story yesterday; “Once a Tiger.” It’s an idea for a Chanse novel that I had a long time ago and always wanted to write, sort of like how the Chanse short story I wrote last week was a book idea I never wrote. I had intended to get some other things done, but after the errands and the gym I was tired, so I sat down to watch Seven Seconds (Paul was at the office) and got sucked into it. I also watched two episodes of Versailles–this season is about the Affair of the Poisons–and read short stories. I need to clean today–I’m hoping it won’t rain so I can finally do the damned windows–but I also want to write today. So I should probably wrap this up and get back to work, so I can get the root beer from Walgreens and be done with it all, you know?

Sigh. Heavy lies the head, and all that, you know.

The first story I read was a reread; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”:

THE SEXTON stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

I read this story either in high school or in college originally; whenever it was that I originally read it, my young mind was bored with it and thought it rather silly. I hated The Scarlet Letter, still do so much that even thinking of rereading it gives me dyspepsia; but I greatly enjoyed The House of the Seven Gables, although I remember nothing much about it except that the old woman’s name was Hepzibah, which I always thought was a great Gothic name for a creepy old lady. Rereading this story, it made a little bit more sense to me; it’s really a parable. Parson Hooper, for a reason unbeknownst to his parishioners and to the reader, has chosen to hide his face for the rest of his life behind a black veil; I remember reading this and being deeply annoyed about never finding out the reason. But rereading it now, I got a stronger sense of it; the parson has done this and the reasons why really aren’t important; what’s important is how uncomfortable it has made everyone else, and why; it’s about human nature and psychology, and is a lot more clever than I thought as a teenager. It still, however, reads in that stilted, archaic early nineteenth century formal style that is grating and annoying to the modern reader, however.

I then moved on to “The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon” by Peter Blauner, from the anthology Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli. I originally bought this anthology because it had a story by Alison Gaylin inspired by a song recorded by the band X, whom I used to love in the 1980’s–the story is quite brilliant, I might add–but had never gone back and read any of the others. So, I picked it up and this is the lead-off story for the collection.

He walked into the bar wearing the jacket that Sam bought for the Ebony photo shoot last year. A mostly wool blazer with two rows of brass buttons, that must have cost–what?–like forty to fifty dollars at Blumstein’s. He felt bad because Sam was living on about two hundred a week as a food inspector in the Bronx, while trying to manage the comeback for him, But what could you do? All the star clothes he used to have in his grandmother’s closet were either child-sized and long ago outgrown or had holes in them because he’d nodded off with a cigarette in his mouth.

So now the jacket felt heavy as a burden on his shoulders as he eyed his surroundings and tried to get comfortable. The bar was around the corner from his grandmother’s and he half recognized some of the people from the neighborhood, where he hadn’t lived since back in the day. There were mailmen and bus drivers wearing turtlenecks or open-collared shirts with jeans. Doormen and janitors in T-shirts and growing out their hair into bushy naturals as they rapped effortlessly to short-skirted former double Dutch girls from the block with sleepy eyes and soft mouths, who kept going “uh-huh, uh-huh, right on” as that Gladys Knight “Grapevine” song played on the jukebox.

Frankie Lymon was a real person; the lead singer for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, known for their hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. Lymon’s story is one of those cautionary tales about the music industry, fame, and hitting it big when you’re young; he was only twenty-four when he died of an overdose–a has-been at 24. This story, which is basically a fictionalized imagining of his last day, is heartbreaking. He has fallen on hard times but has cleaned up and gotten to a point of recovery from his addiction; he’s trying to make a comeback but makes the sad, fateful decision to go into the local neighborhood bar near where he is staying with his grandmother–and runs into someone from his past, with her own broken dreams and broken life. It’s powerfully written and the characters realized strongly; you can’t stop reading even though you know it’s all a train wreck unfolding in front of you. Kudos to Blauner for such a powerful story.

I then went back to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection, where the next offering was the story “The Parker Shotgun.”

The Christmas holidays had come and gone, and the new year was under way. January, in California, is as good as it gets–cool, clear, and green, with a sky the color of wisteria and a surf that thunders like a volley of gunfire in a distant field. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried, and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. WIth effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.

“Somebody killed my husband.”

Grafton never disappoints, and as I have mentioned before when talking about these Chanse short stories (it pleases me to no end that I can now talk about them in the plural), reading Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone short stories, along with the Lew Archer short stories by Ross Macdonald and the Tess Monaghan ones by Laura Lippman, have been an education in writing the private eye short story; something I never felt confident about doing before. This story is excellent in that is has a great opening–how can you not keep reading after that–and Kinsey’s detecting skills are put to a great test here. I also learned a lot about shotguns in reading this story. I guess the thing that’s so terrific about reading these private eye short stories is seeing, while reading them, how they could have easily been expanded into novels while also seeing how the author pared down what could have been a novel into a pleasing, satisfying short story.

I also picked up the MWA anthology Vengeance and started reading some more of the stories in there; I believe I may have blogged about one of them already. But when reading Alafair Burke’s “The Mother”, the story began to sound familiar; and sure enough, I was right: I’d read it before. I started paging through the stories and yes, I’d read them all; I read them flying back from a trip to New York on a plane. The book includes Karin Slaughter’s chilling, and Edgar winning, short story “The Unremarkable Heart,” which is one of my favorite short stories of all time. But I had to put Vengeance back up on the shelf because I’d already read those stories, alas; I will only allow myself to reread, and write about, short stories I originally read before I started blogging back in 2004 (!), so as to avoid repetition.

And now, I am going to get my second and final cup of coffee before walking to Walgreens. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!

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We Belong

Wednesday morning, and I have go have blood work done. No worries–it’s just for the semi-annual check-up, but I hate this whole process of fasting/not having anything to drink after midnight, plus the abject misery of having blood drawn–my veins roll, so they always have to DIG for them, generally leaving me with an enormous bruise–blah blah blah. Yay.

Plus, I can’t have coffee until I get back home.

AIEEEEEE!

Heavy heaving sigh.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as feared. She managed to get the blood vials filled on the first try, without having to dig! For once, I don’t mind getting one of those damnable “how was your visit?” emails, as now I get to recognize my technician for a job very well done. I don’t even have a bruise!

It’s been an interesting week. I’m watching the Netflix series Seven Seconds, which I am enjoying the hell out of, and Paul and I are watching also a BBC series called Retribution, which is one of the best concepts for a crime series I’ve seen in quite a while: a young married couple, who grew up as neighbors in rural Scotland, are murdered a few weeks after the wedding by a junkie robbing their apartment; the wife is about seven months pregnant. As the families get the news and grieve, the very next night after the bodies are found the killer for some reason is coming to see them and buys guys at a station twenty miles from where they live. There is a terrible storm that night and he wrecks his car, and the families find him and bring him inside. After they do, they see a news report which identifies him as the killer…and he is at their mercy. They drag him out to the barn, and sometime during the night someone cuts his throat…and now they have to cover up the crime. Juicy, right?

I also started writing two new short stories this week; don’t ask me why, I don’t know why I am on such a short story roll lately. One of them is my Italian short story, the one I’ve been wanting to write since we visited Panzano; I wanted to set a story there ever since I first saw that gorgeous village in Tuscany. The other is one I started a long time ago, but only wrote the opening paragraph; for some reason the rest of the story revealed itself to me this week so I started working on that as well. Who knew?

I also read some short stories this week.

First was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates; which was originally published in 1966 and is now available for free pdf download on-line;

Her name was Connie. She was fifteen, and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to look into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie was raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once, too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

I’m not sure how I came across this story, but wow, is it ever disturbing. I’ve really enjoyed my discovery of Oates’ talents through reading the occasional short story, and each one makes me want to read more. Connie, so confident in her looks and the power they give her, unfortunately attracts the attention of the wrong guy who turns up at her house one day with a friend when she is there by herself. As Connie tries to handle the situation…the sense of dread Oates evokes in her prose is palpable. I couldn’t stop reading, while at the same time was afraid to keep reading.

The next story I read was “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell.

When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away–it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too–adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scary and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.

“Martha!” now came her husband’s impatient voice. “Don’t keep folks waiting out here in the cold.”

She again opened the storm-door, and this time joined the three men and the one woman waiting for her in the big two-seated buggy.

When I was in high school, I was in a contest play; one of the many disciplines for what was called Speech Competition in the state of Illinois was one-act plays. I auditioned for the contest one-act at my high school and was cast in Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, which was based on this short story. As a teenager, I thought the play was kind of silly and dumb, to be honest. We did well, but didn’t make it out of regional competition; we placed third, with every judge placing us third; if any judge had given us a first we would have moved on. But hey, it was my high school’s first time doing a contest play, we had practically no budget or set, and the two schools that beat us did the first act of Antigone, complete with sets and costumes, and the other did the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest, again, with an apparently bottomless budget for sets and costumes; both schools were also known for their drama departments.

Reading the original short story, all these years later, as both a fan and writer of crime fiction, made me appreciate the tale all the more. It’s about psychology; what drove the woman to kill her husband, after years and years of a miserable existence, why now? And the two other wives, the ones who find the motive, and understand it and sympathize with her, have to decide whether to share that with the condescending men/husbands, who basically spend the whole story mocking them and women in general, when they are the ones who actually solve the case…it’s actually genius and actually quite brilliant.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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