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Back to the Days of Promenade

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Since my gym closed in response to COVID19, I’ve been walking a lot in my neighborhood.

I live in a semi-rural area, so the houses in my neighborhood aren’t all lined up in a neat row, the way the were in the suburb of Chicago where I was raised. A lot of the homes in our area are old, too, and aren’t exactly on uniform plots of land. Some are on an acre, others on so many acres you can’t even see the house from the road. While it’s charming, this kind of layout doesn’t really lend itself to the sort of backyard barbeque and stoop culture that some cities and suburbs enjoy. We’re not living a “Little House on the Prairie” life per se, but we do have to go out of our way a bit to visit with the people who live close by.

Before the pandemic, when I would go strolling down the streets of my ‘hood, I would usually spy one – maybe two- of my neighbbors walking about. And that’s assuming the weather was good.

Over the past ten days or so, since we’ve been told to try and stay home as much as possible, the country roads near our house have come alive. People are strolling hand in hand with their spouses, running, throwing a ball with their dogs, taking their kids for a bike ride, pushing baby carriages, catching up with one another – at an appropriate distance of course.

It’s occurred to me how very nineteenth century it all feels.

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Back then, diseases like cholera, rubella, measles, small pox, and typhus were simply a part of life. A frightening part, as the tiny local graveyard in the vacant lot at the end of my street can attest. We took a family stroll there two evenings ago, reading the old tombstones – some of them dating back to the Revolutionary War. One tragic young couple from the 1870s buried all five of their children before succumbing to an unknown illness themselves, and just a few weeks apart from one another. Four of their children died before the age of two, and one lived to adulthood, dying at the age of nineteen. I guess COVID19 is fairly tame by comparison.

A century ago, the vast majority of folks prayed and read their bible daily – for strength, for courage, and guidance. There are no atheists in a foxhole, the saying goes, and all of life was something of a foxhole before the widespread use of vaccines. Today, in my very loosey-goosey faith group on Facebook, I’ve seen a big uptick of people using prayer apps. I, myself, have been listening to Pray as You Go every morning.

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But despite the obvious dangers of those bygone days, it was also a time of neighborliness, contemplation, outdoor play and patience. Patience to read a difficult book, learn a new skill, cook a meal from scratch.

“I’m going to teach myself to sew,” my neighbor, Kate, told me as we chatted on my daily walk yesterday.

I spied her talking to another friend, Dianna, who was out walking her dog. Dianna lives on the other side of the railroad tracks that separate our homes, and our daughters have been hanging out since they were yay high. I swear, though, I don’t think I’ve seen her in months. Life gets busy that way. Anyway, Kate was crouched at the end of her driveway, planting pansies in a big wooden barrel. “I hear the deer don’t eat these, but if they do, no biggie. I’ll just plant something else.”

My youngest daughter, who hates art class, has been drawing up a storm. She and her older sister, who’ve been at each other’s throats this past year, spontaneously, without me having to force them, made homemade churros together. When finished, the fried pastries looked akin to turds rolled in cinnamon sugar, but they tasted great.

“Today’s my painting day,” my middle daughter, the one who actually looooves art class told me. She dug out her paints and brushes from underneath her bed and blew the dust bunnies off them. To my surprise, all three of my children have been practicing piano and guitar without my having to issue threats or bribes. Sometimes, they even seem to enjoy it.

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Don’t get me wrong – my kids are dying for this to end! They haven’t all of a sudden embraced the life of “Outlander” the way the time-traveling characters of that book and television series did. They miss their friends, their soccer games, all of the plans they were so looking forward to. My oldest will have to forego prom, graduation, and Senior Beach Week. To his credit, he’s philosophical about it.

They all are – except when they’re not.

“If Harry Styles is cancelled in June, I’m going to jump out the window,” my middle daughter informed me, while mixing her paints.

Only Barney, our Boston Terrier, seems to be having the time of his life now that the whole pack is home 24/7.

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I’ll be honest, I can’t wait for this to end either, but my frustrations are a bit less on the social side. I’m worried about the health of our older generation, and the long-term economic impact on us, our friends, the world. We’ve got my mom living with us, after all, and we’re looking at our oldest going off to college next year.

But if I can put those fears in a box, one I place high up on a shelf and keep well out of my sight, I find in my heart a genuine appreciation for the slowness of life under quarantine. Of having the time to dream again, and really mix it up with our friends and neighbors – even if it is at a bit of a distance. I’ve reached out to people I usually only connect with on birthdays, and have made sure to check in on those of my friends who live in Europe and Asia.

There is a tenderness to the way in which we are regarding one another. All of us are scared, and considering austerity measures. But we’re all in this together, too.

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I don’t know how much of this sentiment – if any of it – will linger on after this current crisis has abated. It’s likely that in our day to day lives, we’ll go back pretty much to the way things were.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll have read a complex story that changed our perspective, had a long conversation that brought us closer to someone we’ve been taking for granted, took up a new hobby, spoke to a friend or family member who we’d fired from our lives.

That, in and of itself, will have made this functional journey back in time worthwhile.

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Creative Relief for the Quarantined

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There’s a great deal out there – from microbial to financial – that’s causing a lot of anxiety right now, and most of our usual ways of letting off steam are currently unavailable (at least if we have any sense). We’re discouraged from going to the gym, the restaurant, the pub, dinner parties, coffees, concerts. Even libraries are off limits for heaven’s sake.

We’re being forced into a Jeffersonian life of walks in nature, reading, listening to podcasts, Audible books, music, and hanging out almost exclusively with our nuclear families. Who would have thought, say three weeks ago, that a trip to the grocery store would come to be both dangerous and strangely exhilarating? Makes me feel like that girl in the horror movie who is compelled to enter the room where the killer is lurking and ready to plant a saw in her face, but she MUST GO IN because there may be a crying baby to save, or a gun with a silver bullet in there!

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For those of us who are parents and work from home – which is a lot more of us now than there were last week – we’re faced not only with still having to get all of our work done, but with unprecedented interruptions from our little and not so little angels.

It’s true, that being a bit of a hermit does in some ways give me an innate advantage over some of my more social peers during this time of self-quarantine. Not only am I used to being isolated, but I’ve trained myself over a period of years to be disciplined when working from my home office. It’s also true, however, that the mortal enemy of the writer – someone who is nourished by solitude and watches movies like “A Quiet Place” with a certain dreamy-eyed sense of envy – is the interruption.

It’s hard for me to get too frustrated with our precious distractors, the way I tend to do in the waning days of summer vacation. They’ve been forced into seclusion, too, and many of them are disheartened over the cancellation of sports activities, clubs, and even, potentially, rights of passage such as prom and graduation. I’m actually pretty damned impressed with how they’re handling it so far. They’re taking it in stride, much like the British did during the Blitz. I watch them wandering around the house, filming TikTok dance numbers and funny memes, adjusting to the current state of things with remarkable aplomb.

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Of course, we Cold War kids had our own problems. In our case, we looked potential mutual nuclear annihilation right in the eye with a heavy dose of punk rock attitude. If there was going to be an apocalypse, we were going to go down screaming and swinging, dammit.

But what’s hard about the current offensive measures we’re being asked to take in our fight against the coronavirus, is that they’re…defensive. The British marched on through their days with a stiff-upper-lip-business-as usual-demeanor, even as German flyboys streaked across their skies and bombs rained down on them.

The immediate generations after World War II used defiance as their weapon of choice. When the hot war turned cold, they sock-hopped, discovered The Beatles, went to Woodstock, flew to the moon for the love of God, played air guitar to anthem rock, created a cinematic and literary revolution, then discovered the action film, partied like it was 1999, came up with rap and hip hop, and pioneered the technology that’s transforming our world.

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In our war against this new biological enemy, we’re being tasked with something else: We must turn inward, find meaning, come together, re-evaluate, invent and innovate, as well as behave our way out of this. And I believe we will. In some respects, this may well be a much needed pause in our busy, distracted, partisan, selfie-obsessed lives.

We all must do our part. The real heroes of this epidemic will be on the front lines – medical professionals risking their own health in order to ensure the health of their patients and the greater population. There will be those of us who find ourselves out of work, and will have to scramble, improvise, do anything we can until some degree of normal jump-starts our work lives again. Entire business sectors will be under water, at least in the short term. Already, we have a friend in the hospitality industry who has watched helplessly as his revenues evaporate. To the extent we can, we should extend offers of help and mean it.

In our down time, and let’s face it, there’s going to be a lot of it, we have the opportunity to reflect and find beauty and a sense of gratitude about our lives. On the bright side of all this, we will fare much, much better in the current crisis than any other generation in history. We will be able to react, get accurate information, and self-correct in real time both faster and better than we could even fifteen measly years ago.

I know that’s easy to say, but more difficult to absorb and feel. That’s why I want to extend to you what my husband and I like to do for each other when we’re experiencing times of high stress and low certainty. We send one another – usually through text or email, even though our home offices are right next to each other – bits of artistry, enchantment, humor, and grace that we call “morsels of positive affect.” Positive affect, according to psychologists and other peddlers of emotional well-being, refers to “one’s propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and life’s challenges in a positive way.”

Morsels of positive affect, at least in my experience, can be a big help in getting us over mental humps and slumps. Of jarring us out of descents into self-pity, and stopping us from “awful-izing.”

So, that’s what I hope to give you today: a bit of positive affect.

I’ll start with inspiration from some of the artists I follow on Twitter, if I may…

“fire-hollowed house, the lawn laden

with nameless blossoms” –Joseph Massey, poet

Joseph offers some of his poems for free on his website.

Yo-Yo Ma has been playing #songsofcomfort such as Dvořák’s “Going Home”, and if you’re not on Twitter, you can watch and listen right here.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has asked PBS to stream his new series, “Baseball”, for free and beginning immediately right here.

My small contribution to quarantine begins with an exclusive short story I’ve written for my forthcoming “Breath” series.

Breath

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Two souls. Infinite lives. A quest across history.

Nif and Sherin are Ninti, beings both human and divine, who share a deep and powerful love that puts them both in mortal danger, while propelling them towards an extraordinary fate that ensures they will live infinite human lives…and suffer an equal number of deaths. Together they must solve a mystery that spans the ages, or risk losing one another forever.

The following “Breath” story takes place in rural Virginia, and involves a brief encounter with the villain of the series, who is also an immortal Nin’ti.

Easter’s House: A Breath Story

I plan to have more for you in the coming days and weeks. I’ll try to cull great content from my universe of weird, glorious, sublime outliers, as well as offer some of my own creative work for all of us to chew on as we wait this out.

Yes, we live in an age of reality TV, and often silliness seems to rule the day. But there’s a lot of wonderful, soul-nourishing content out there, ironically thanks to the very same internet and social media platforms that we curse.  With any luck, most of us can come out of this more resilient, wiser, kinder, more connected to those who matter most, and with our hearts and imaginations re-booted, perhaps even re-engineered.

More to follow…

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How I Ended Up at the KISS Concert

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetI was a little young when the heavy metal glam-rock band, KISS, became a phenomenon. I knew enough to be able to name its members and could sing the refrain to exactly three of their songs: “Lick It Up”, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”, and “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night (And Party Every Day)”. I was also vaguely aware that they made a movie of some sort. It was called “KISS Meets the Phantom” or something like that. I never saw it, but I remember watching the commercials for it on TV and thinking, “Hmm, that looks freaky.” Basically, KISS was to my young self what the Kardashians are to me now. I knew they were big; I knew a lot about them through cultural osmosis; but I wasn’t a fan, per se.

Yet, when my friend Susan reached out to me a few weeks ago with a text that read, “KISS is coming to Charlottesville – wanna go?”… despite the fact that I didn’t want to shell out over $100 for a band whose music I didn’t listen to, and who sang in a genre I wasn’t particularly fond of, I said, “Sign me up!”

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I should back up right here and tell you a little bit about my social history over the past twelve years. Namely that it’s pathetic, and I’m not using even a trace of hyperbole here. For most of my life, I’ve been an outgoing, sociable person who had a certain grace with conversation and was able to make friends pretty easily and with a wide variety of people. Growing up as a bit of a cultural outlier as the daughter of Czech immigrants in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood, I got pretty good at operating outside of my comfort zone and seeking common ground with peers. I got so good at it I even married an Irish Catholic and feel perfectly at home in his predictably large, boisterous family.

As an adult, I moved not only all over the United States, but also studied, worked, and lived in several countries in Europe. In fact, as I sit back and take an inventory of people with whom I’ve had friendships, or at the very least have successfully broken bread, or shared a drink with, it’s a roster that reaches well beyond the usual parameters of racial and ethnic diversity. It’s a list that includes, but is not limited to, nurses, doctors, teachers, plumbers, war photographers, men and women in uniform, journalists, diplomats, hippies, bartenders, hair stylists, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, a handful of tech zillionaires, three British hooligans, a mobster, a nudist, a car salesman, an erotic film producer, an ex-con turned musician, a sculptor, a Hari Krishna, a Baha’i pioneer, an antiques dealer who found a way to have herself declared legally dead so that she wouldn’t have to pay taxes, a pro athlete or two, a forest ranger, a professional gambler, a fashion designer, a vacuum salesman, a hobo, a Greek gigolo, and a Bollywood star who played the villain in a James Bond movie. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I used to be able to talk to anyone.

Even when my husband was offered a job in Mumbai, India, I didn’t blink about moving our young family there and didn’t feel the least bit intimidated about the prospect of making friends and finding a community. In fact, the only reason we didn’t end up going was because our third and youngest child was born so sick that we simply couldn’t leave our home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I guess that’s when my social problems started.

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At first, my self-sequestering was circumstantial. Our daughter’s illness put our family in crisis mode and pretty much anything that didn’t revolve around her survival and our family’s ability to cope, was put on the backburner. The only relationships we had the energy to maintain were with family and people who already were like family. Essentially, the near and dear we didn’t have to put any additional work into. They knew us; they loved us; they got us.

On the rare occasions when I did leave our house – say, for school field trips, or for other child-related social obligations – I truly felt like an alien. I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of a Honda Pilot, on the way to a science museum for my son’s field trip, and listening to two good friends of mine having a casual conversation in the front seat. I recall having neither the desire, nor the ability, to join. And I remember wanting to cry.

The peak of our crisis mode lasted about a year, but our daughter needed a great deal of attention for five solid years. After that, things normalized for us, as she began living like a healthy child. We were able to go on dates, and hit the beach for a week in the summer. I was able to focus on work more, and start making up for lost time. It’s a huge blessing that I love what I do. Writing isn’t a chore for me, it’s a profound pleasure that has the added benefit of helping me sort through my emotional conflicts.

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But it’s also something that I do almost exclusively from my home. With the advent of social media, which corresponded roughly with the start of my daughter’s illness, I was suddenly able to have relationships with readers and colleagues that were entirely online and didn’t require me to meet anyone anywhere ever.

And while I fully expected to get my social mojo back once our lives had attained some level of balance and security again, the fact is…I didn’t. For several New Years in a row, my resolution was to get out, make new friends, and accept more invitations.

Only I didn’t.

Our home became a gilded prison cell. One that was filled with all of the people and things I loved most. Our food was great, our cocktails greater, our music was excellent – why would I ever want to leave?

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Then, about five years ago, a friend of mine – the mother of one of my son’s buddies – recommended my novel, “The Bone Church”, to her book club. I have a personal policy of not strong-arming my friends into reading my fiction, and think writers who don’t have that policy end up having a lot of resentful friends. So, I was really touched that she did that, and hadn’t expected it at all. This warm and fuzzy feeling, however, was quickly replaced by burning shame when she said to me, essentially, I like what you’ve been writing, so I thought I’d give our friendship one more try, even though you pretty much dumped me. She didn’t say it exactly like that – she was much nicer about it – but the meaning was clear, and I was absolutely dumfounded. I wanted to scream, “No! No, I didn’t dump you! I swear!”

But I didn’t do that either. The truth is, I didn’t even know how to explain my hermit status to her, so I just said, “Um…I never go out.”

That friend ended up moving to Texas, but in the years since that incident, I really have tried to get out more, meet new people even. Usually with mixed success. My social isolation has put me out of synch with the ebb and flow of a conversation that isn’t on the written page. On paper or computer screen, I can pause, reflect, and construct a joke. All of the things I used to be able to do spontaneously, and in person. In recent years, when I’ve forced myself to go out, it’s been clear to me and others that I’m more than a little rusty. This has set up a vicious circle of promises to myself: I will talk to people more; I will make an effort to make friends! The promises are quickly followed by discouragement and failure. I talked too much, said the wrong thing, came on too strong. I had become… weird.

Once again, I would find myself falling back into the cozy embrace of my house, my family, my core group of entrenched simpaticos. I would stop accepting invitations, and by and large, they would stop coming. What began as a fear that I would never recover my social life and skills, grew into a feeling of grudging acceptance that this was the new normal: the outgoing woman I was in my teens, twenties and even into my thirties was a gone girl.

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Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas this year, my son was invited to a party hosted by the parents of a school friend. It was a raucous mix of teens and adults, and most of the grown-ups hit the open bar pretty hard. The next morning, when our son began regaling us with stories of our tipsy neighbors, he mentioned that three different sets of parents – flush with alcohol – made comments about the fact that we never go out and aren’t a part of the community.

This hit me hard. Worse than sitting in the back seat of a Honda Pilot fighting tears. Even worse than having a friend think I ghosted her. This was coming from my kid, who had discovered what I thought I had largely kept secret from him. I was surprised at how contrite and embarrassed I felt.

But like all hard truths, it opened up an opportunity for me to take a cold, critical look at myself – “a moment of clarity, as the counselors say. I saw the chances I’d lost – to perform a kindness, to try something new – and became painfully aware of the way my walls had gone from providing me protection to closing in on me.

This year, just days after my son attended that party, I made my New Year’s resolution once again. Only this time, it was a vow. Instead of swearing up and down that I was going to go out more in that eye-rolling way unserious people swear they’re going to quit smoking, give up sugar, quit their dead-end jobs, I made a covenant with myself to become a social animal again. Whatever the invitation, unless I had a genuine conflict, I was going to say yes! No excuses, no exceptions.

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Since January 1, 2020, I’ve been at a birthday party, two dinner dates, a UVA basketball game and a wine and cheese get-together that I actually hosted at my house!

And last Friday night, I found myself making devil horns at the KISS concert, accompanied by a friend who never gave up on me.

It was freakin’ awesome!

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P.S. I don’t make my in-person neighborhood friends buy my books, but my reader friends are a whole different story, so here’s are some links ;).

Savage Island – new release! (ebook on sale through Valentine’s Day for .99 cents)

The Bone Church

The Hungarian

Cold

Welcome to the Hotel Yalta

Oh, and here’s 19 seconds of KISS for your enjoyment!

Truth and Dare: The Dangerous Allure of the Horror Story

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The disco zombie from Studio 54

My middle daughter, who’s fifteen, is pretty crackerjack at horror make-up. Ever since going to theater camp when she was eleven and taking a special FX class, her Halloween costumes have been killer.

But it’s my twelve year-old daughter who really loves horror. She binge-watches anything from Twilight to the Halloween franchise, devours Stephen King, and writes her own stories all the time – often from the point of view of some deranged, but charming psycho. Nothing goes too far or is off limits for her. Not demonic possession or vomit-inducing gore or heinous monsters or wicked cults. And she sleeps like a baby at night. Go figure.

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This girl is fearless.

I watch her with a mix of envy and awe. I’ve always been fascinated by horror. The sneaky way in which it toys with our psyches, revealing even the most oh, so rational of us as frauds. The ones who put ourselves above the supernatural and claim to be too smart for religious magic, sorcery, or any paranormal mystery. Things like ghosts, telekinetic powers, space aliens, witches, and the undead. Some of us brush off the whole phenomenon of scary stories, claiming to be indifferent to the dark charms of a chiller, thriller toni-i-i-ight.

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The infamous Michael Jackson’s Thriller hand from theater camp.

And yet who of us hasn’t at one time or another fallen for the jump scare, or feared the unwholesome, insidious threat of the evil spirit, the hungry creature under our bed? Even the most poker-faced literalist, if pressed, will admit to being afraid to sleep alone for a night or two after being exposed to a particularly eerie yarn.

So, I want to challenge you a little if the reason you don’t like horror is because you find the genre a bit cornball. Horror, second only to Romance, is the most maligned genre in fiction, after all. Rarely taken seriously, and treated more like a carnival sideshow.

But I charge that horror is as integral a theme for our psyches as the love story, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s presented in the form of schlocky genre fiction or serious literary endeavor. In the end, all horror stories serve the same master: An instinct to solve mysteries, seek out danger for the sake of mastering our fears and our environment, tame the monster within or without. To investigate, adventure, crusade, and when necessary…run like hell. Horror, even at its campiest, shows us the ways in which we can be complicit in our own demise, can fail in the face of a situation that calls for courage, or can rise to the occasion as a hero, yet still end up with an axe in our skulls.

Heady stuff. And not for the faint of heart.

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Don’t worry, folks, she’s a pro

My youngest daughter’s obsession with horror is a daily reminder to me of how much I’d love to write a truly great horror story, yet lack her courage to do so. To write the sort of tale that shifts the ground beneath my feet would put everything I have in peril – emotionally, philosophically.

Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I wouldn’t be the first to feel this way. Think of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and my personal writing heroine, Mary Shelley.

It’s Mary Shelley’s writer’s journey that resonates so strongly with me. Not her private journey, which was a hell of a mess involving an extramarital affair with her future husband, poet Percy Blythe Shelley, and the eventual suicide of his wife. They suffered social ostracization, financial troubles, and the tragic death of their love child. Later, two more of their children died shortly after birth, leaving only one who survived. Percy’s young death by drowning, a final blow, came once their personal storm seemed to have passed.

What I’m seduced by is her audacity as a writer, evidenced in the now famous dare between Shelley and her heavy-weight writer husband and their friends, a group which included Lord Byron, author of Don Juan, John William Polidori, who wrote the first modern vampire story, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister.

The story goes that on one rainy afternoon in Geneva, in 1816, Mary and her literary cohorts passed the time by telling ghost stories – scaring one another and nearly frightening poor Claire to death. A sufferer of “the horrors,” Claire frequently fell into fear-induced states of hysteria and was said to have nightly, ghoulish nightmares. Feeling emboldened, they decided on a contest between them to see who could write the most psychicly savage horror tale. One that cuts to the bone and would leave them up at night having cold sweats. Would make them question who and what they are.

Although Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” gave an impressive show, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured as a classic.

Knowing a bit about Mary’s life as a gifted outlier, I imagine it took guts for her to delve into psychological horror. Here was a young woman born to an anarchist father and a radical feminist mother during a time of strict adherence to propriety. She was fed a steady diet of rebellion and contradiction laced with conflict growing up, and had a great deal to unpack. It’s not hard to see the funhouse mirror reflection of Mary’s life in her Gothic tale: the brilliant scientist who orchestrates the complete destruction of his life by giving life to a being made of corpses. That could be her marriage to Percy Shelley. The price she paid for love and infamy.

Her tall, powerful creature of rare intelligence is rejected by his creator, who regrets his mistake of playing God, and goes about wandering the earth in search of someone, something that could love him, becoming more cruel and destructive with each disappointment. Mary’s own life was riddled with as much rejection as it was acclaim. Rejection by her father, her step-mother, polite society. She paid a dear price for travelling Europe with a married lover, feeding her imagination, her desires, and her intellectual vanity.

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My horror writer, already a monster at age six

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” –the Monster

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” –Frankenstein

I can see Mary as both of them, and feel a rare sense of awe for the depths of her courage. For looking herself in the eye and allowing those words to flow. She tempts me to face the cracks in my own carefully, painfully constructed world.

So, what is my fear you might ask? The cold darkness within that won’t let me go there, to write what is to me a horror above all horrors?

It’s a simple fear, really. Like Mary’s monster, I fear estrangement. That beyond us there is nothing. No other worlds, no soul within, no light, no force of good compelling us to follow the moral law. The black of night without tantalizing mysteries, the golden light of day without a hint of tomorrow. Hopelessness. That’s what I fear most.

But maybe this fear in and of itself is a great, cosmic dare not unlike the one between Mary and her friends. The dare my daughter has taken. One that growls at us, taunts us for our weakness. “Don’t just look it in the eye, girl,” it says. “Stare it down.”

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The Greatest Twenty-Year Hangover

It’s not Valentine’s Day.

In fact, it’s perilously close to Christmas and the New Year. You know, the time when we reflect on what the past 365 days has brought us and what our hopes are for what’s coming ahead.

I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about love an awful lot. Because in 2019, not only did I launch the first novel in an epic new Fantasy Romance series I’m writing, but my husband and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary!

On July 31, 1999, our closest friends and family descended upon Chicago, Illinois and gathered at a quirky little venue that was built to be an exact replica of the famous Maxim’s de Paris restaurant. We had a party to end all parties, and the rest is history! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. Like any self-involved respecting ​Bridezilla, I’ve got something to say about my big day!

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Putting the finishing touches on my dress.

I should start by saying that Jack (my husband) and I chose the Chicago version of the famous (and infamous) Paris restaurant because it seemed to channel our love story. For one, it was an intimate space and forced a small guest list consisting of only the people closest to our hearts. Beautifully decorated in an authentic Art Nouveau style, it evoked not only Paris, which we both loved, but another great city that was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement – Prague – which also happened to be the city where we met.

Our ambition for our big day was to throw the greatest dinner party any of our guests had ever attended! Great music that would make people want to get up and shake their booties to everything from Sinatra (My Kind of Town, of course) to Prince (Let’s Go Crazy), food that was NOT the usual wedding fare – in other words good and very French, and terrific company. The kind with whom you can cry in your beer, have soul-scraping conversations, let your guard down.

I don’t know how well we succeeded for sure. Nobody’s going to tell you they had a crap time at your wedding, after all. But I can say that we drank the bar dry, my sisters-in-law had a handstand contest in the bathroom, one of our guests went home with the bartender, another guest popped the question to his girlfriend (they’re still together!), and we were up all night long singing, dancing, telling dirty jokes, reminiscing and urging new friendships between people we’d always been dying to introduce to one another.

Some of our friends still talk about that night.

This is the real Maxim’s and this scene looks a helluva lot like our wedding.

​It was crucial to us that our wedding offered the unexpected to the people we most loved. We wanted it to be as much about them and their memories of our nuptials as it was about us and the life we were launching together. We figured, after all, that we were in this together.

Even the photographer we chose was a woman who specialized in candid shots. We didn’t want a bunch of posed photos to look back on. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those, it’s just that when we flipped through our wedding album…oh, say, twenty years later…we wanted to see pictures of people in mid-conversation or mid-cringey-dance-move. Gesturing wildly, or looking intently at the whoever was holding the floor. In short, we wanted our wedding photos to be prompts that would jog our memories, enabling us to remember that night in detail. Because we expected it to be a night of pure, unadulterated joy. And it was.

I can honestly say I have never had more fun than on the night of my wedding. It was so worth the killer hangover.

wedding 1999But I won’t bore you with any more of my goofy nostagia. There’s a really good chance that like most brides, I’m the only one who truly finds my wedding all that interesting. What I will do is share with you an essay that I wrote a few years ago. It’s about how important story is to a long-lasting love affair like a marriage. It’s one of my most popular posts ever, by the way. The one so many people have responded to with their own love stories. That’s why it means so much to me. The way it was received by men and women alike is quite literally the reason I decided to write a series that put the relationship between two lovers at the heart center of the story.

Love Stories by Yours Truly

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The bride striking a 1940s vintage glam pose

Some years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.

I sat listening with my ears pricked up, as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for two solid hours.

Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.

But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a life-long love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together.

The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.

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This is actually my grandma – I miss her. My mom does live with us now, though.

In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.

I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.

She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call happy families. We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.

But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.

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“You may kiss the bride…”

Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love. In all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things, like having babies and making sure we could feed them.

But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial train-wreck that hit a lot of folks around 2008. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.

So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.

It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
A Christening,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.

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In color!

Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty-year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.

It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.

We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”

Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.

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Five of my seven sisters-in-law

In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness for how things transpired, there’s hope.”

That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.

Charleston Christmas Card 2019

Dougherty Christmas card, 2019. It’s been a great story so far.

 

 

A Cold Eye for Giving Thanks

FB Cold grey adMy quirky, at times misty-eyed scroll of various people, places, and things I’m grateful for in my life has become something of an annual event here on Cold. It started when I wrote a simple letter of thanks to my writing colleagues a few years back and escalated from there.

I usually write this post over a period of days because I want to make sure that I don’t miss any of the stuff that I’m glad for. Taking my time about it also extends the glow of feeling gratitude over a longer stretch. There is a genuine high in taking an inventory of your life and celebrating its virtues. It’s why I love Thanksgiving, despite its dubious origins. It makes us better people and is worth keeping for that reason alone.

So, my fellow thanks-givers, here goes:

My dog’s breath – I love it. Namely because it’s very sweet (for a dog). This good boy keeps secrets and tells no lies. He’s too good for us, really, and the love he’s brought to our family has been nothing short of a marvel.

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Barney

And I love those cold, rainy Sundays when we decide to skip Sunday School and let the kids sleep in. That’s a wonderful indulgence, even if we feel the tiniest bit guilty about it. Especially given our spotty record at showing up to church.

On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so grateful for rainy Sundays…

But I’m definitely grateful for snow storms that make our whole family gather around our ancient wood-burning stove to keep warm. The electricity goes out for a few hours, and forces us to huddle together in our living room the way people used to before technology made each man an island.

I’m enchanted by the hot, damp faces of feverish children, and relish great horror movies, too. And isn’t it an otherworldly thrill when the wind howls? I always feel like it’s trying to tell me a long forgotten tale of love and loss. I bet Boris Pasternak was listening to the wind when he got the idea for Dr. Zhivago. The way it made his windows shudder and he could hear the creepy pitter of nuts and twigs as they blew across his roof. Perfect background percussion to Lara’s Theme.

Even though part of me can’t wait to fix up the exterior of our old, weather-worn home, I do have a certain fondness for the peeling paint that makes it look like the Addams Family are our close cousins. Truth is, as much as it would be nice to see the fabulous old crone we live in dressed up like she’s going to the theater, I’m grateful for her every scar and imperfection. It’s evidence of some two-hundred years of providing shelter to rag tag bands of Virginians – soldiers, musicians, spinsters, hobos, railroad engineers and us.

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Josephine Addams Dougherty

I’m ever so grateful when my daughters fight and make up. After the insults have been hurled along with the slaps and scratches, it’s good to see them, still red-faced from an angry cry, sit down to design a house together on Minecraft. Merci beaucoup for that, mon chers.

Planning a Thanksgiving meal is ever so satisfying, too. Much better than actually cooking the meal (although eating it is the best!). Speaking of holidays, I feel a lot of gratitude for the charms of this season. I giggle at my husband’s cranky, bah-humbug attitude towards Christmas, as well as my middle daughter’s iron determination to gussy up our house and fill it with holiday cheer regardless when her dad thinks about it. My mom’s Czech Christmas cookies are little works of art, and our Christmas Eve ritual of going out for a decadent lunch of chili dogs and root beer floats is nothing short of divine. Ho! Ho! Ho!

C, A, J

Waiting for our junk food extravaganza

Lady GaGa and Rihanna turn my morning commute to and from my kids’ schools into a lollapalooza of car karaoke, every South Park episode is a miracle, and the bumblebee bat (smallest bat in the world and cutest thing on the planet) is proof of a loving God.

Sunflowers, lilacs, busts of America’s founding fathers, the gorgeous and nightmarish paintings of Goya, and the mod fashions of pre-revolutionary Tehran that looked like they were straight out of swingin’ London in the 1960s. All of these things make me wistful, inspired, and beholden to the powers that be for making me human at this particular date and time.

I love and am so thankful for elegance, the belief in things we can’t prove or explain, abandoned spaces, the moss that grows on the red brick walkway leading up to our front door, talking art instead of politics, rising to the occasion – especially when it’s hard, and the Victrola our son gave us last Christmas – it sounds so great in a big room full of books and emboldens us to add a few more nics to our pine wood floors.

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Photo by Krista Paolella

Ah, the sublime first few weeks of a bad habit – those are halcyon days! How about live music on a Friday night? That, and belly dancers. The way their hands move like calligraphy and their hips burr like a drum solo. Oh, and let’s not forget 1970s Playboy magazines. My older brothers inherited our “uncle” Nick’s dirty magazine collection when we were kids and from that day on, Playboy dominated our imaginations! Not only was it a celebration of real breasts and faded jean shorts, but of smart thinking and great writing. Roald Dahl, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood (yes, The Handmaiden’s Tale author), Ursula Le Guin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all wrote for Playboy. It’s not an exaggeration on my part to say that Playboy was not only responsible for a certain part of my sexual awakening, but for a literary arousal within me as well. How many things can you say that about?

Candelabras are holy, as is visiting family and friends in good ole St. Louis, Missouri. I’m also grateful (or should I say “much obliged”?) at the mere existence of Texans. I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Maybe it’s the fact that – in my humble experience – they’re the type who take the time to offer kind words. A lot of people think nice things and don’t voice them. Some don’t even think them. So, having the grace and manners to tell a middle-aged woman she’s looking fine, or a young woman she’s whip smart and has a helluva sense of humor, is worthy of gratitude.

So, in that spirit, I want to thank all of you – friends and readers. Honorary Texans. For your kind words and generous thoughts. For being a part of my life in ways big and small. You’re the best.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Thanksgiving at our place

 

 

Love, Danger, and “Thought Experiments”: A Conversation with The Dissenter

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A few weeks ago, Portuguese YouTuber Ricardo Lopes asked me to be on his wonderful show, The Dissenter. I was kind of surprised, since a fiction writer like me seemed a bit off the beaten path for him. I’d already watched several of his “Dissenter” episodes and knew he had a particular interest in the sciences; one that included anthropology, neurology, and psychology to name a few disciplines. His roster of interview subjects was impressive, too, at times reading like a who’s who of world-renowned brainiacs – ranging from Gad Saad to Noam Chomsky.

“So, you want to go slumming with a mere fiction writer?” I asked him.

“I love fiction,” he said.

Ricardo and I first met on Twitter of all places, where we got into a conversation about Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and what people actually want from a story. I was so impressed by his unrelenting curiosity, his broad knowledge and infectious open-mindedness. Quite simply, he’s fun to talk to.

On his unconventional, conversational-style program, he conducts long-form, penetrating conversations that aren’t only for other eggheads. They’re for people like us, who simply love to learn and aren’t afraid not to know the answer. Or more to the point, aren’t afraid to get an answer that may not fit comfortably into our worldview.

That’s what’s great about Ricardo. He’s fascinated by the counter-intuitive, will offer an unpopular opinion, or even go off the rails if need be. He wants to know. He wants to understand. He knows two opposing things can be true at once.

Aristotle says

Long story short, when we actually sat down to “do this thing,” I knew it would be a rare treat for me, and, I hoped, for anyone listening. 

We talked about the role fiction plays in helping us create alternative realities that encourage us to understand ourselves and others better, and help us weather difficulties. These “thought experiments” as Ricardo calls them, allow us to safely explore disturbing, even horrific circumstances like war, the mind of a killer, a dangerous attraction, the worst thing that could possibly happen in our lives.

By dallying in these dark places, we may even recognize the folly of our most reckless fantasies, or be empowered to take calculated risks. Far from being a threat to our emotional well-being, “thought experiments” most often encourage personal growth and the development of empathy. We agreed that no writer worth her salt can afford not “to go there,” as they say. It’s why people buy our books for heaven’s sake. And why we write in the first place. 

Ricardo and I also talked about lovers and love stories, how much we both hated the final season of Game of Thrones (although he says anything after season 5 was at best a disappointment and at worst an abomination), why the classic novel, Lolita, which many revile as glorifying pedophilia may actually be a terrific cautionary tale against it, and how agonizing experiences like illnesses or acts of violence, despite their obvious shortcomings, can be powerful instruments. Ones crucial to our evolution as human beings. They can create a master from a hobbyist, a general from a grunt, a saint from a sinner. If they don’t destroy us in the process.

So, please, join us for this conversation. You’re going to love it. And if you don’t, you’re going to love hating it. Either way, you’re not going to be able to get it out of your mind so easily…and that’s the point of a great conversation, isn’t it?

“Dare to know.” –Emmanuel Kant

The Dissenter: What people want from fiction and the art of worldbuilding

And if this gave you something to think about, please consider become of patron of Ricardo’s on Patreon.

The Dissenter on Patreon

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