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Nanotechnology: An Examination of Hopelessness, Ray Bradbury-Style

By Madeline Phoenix

There was a grand rainstorm today; it caused the power lines on our road to collapse, due to the colossal impact of a withered old oak tree. For almost four hours, we were bereft of technology’s ‘affectionate’ touch. Well, a house seems somber and gloomy without the cheerful, hospitable air of artificial orange-red lights, so we went out for a drive. The sky lit with the strange pulsations of an amber sunset, and a tapestry of His intricacy unspooled over the velvety horizon; the clouds of the sky sang with mysterious, mournful hues of turquoise, periwinkle and aquamarine, and a peculiar shade of rosy sepia made sensual love to the orange mesas of the storm-filled clouds. Clarisse was one of the only people, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, to see those sunsets, and to think about their beauty. Every other character was trapped within the thrall of their ‘family’, and the walls within which their technology constructed their reality. Clarisse meditated on the meaning and profundity of the natural world, and for this she was murdered. “I sometimes think that drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them…” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).

While I write this, I contemplate what I’m using to write it: a 27-inch iMac that has a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5 processor. This computer, like my iPhone, is constructed of tiny little microchips, and I am guided through everyday tasks by a helpful lady named Siri who has enough artificial intelligence to tell me what to eat for dinner and how to get there. My iMac and my iPhone record and track everything I do; when I think about it, I realize that they might call them friendly little things like “cookies,” but nothing I do on the Internet is private, and nothing I do on this computer is safe from surveillance. Maybe I sound paranoid, but sometimes I imagine a million beady invisible eyes watching me. They crawl up into my skin and pluck out my eyes; and then they are my eyes, and I see only what they allow me to, for beauty and truth indeed are in the eye of the beholder. They burrow deep beneath the drooping skin of my shadow-stained eyelids, and the sleep they have stolen from me conquers my worn visage. I can’t cry out or plead for some ridiculous, ill-begotten mercy because I’m too blind to realize that they’re eating me from the outside in. I am frozen in time now, and the artificial twinkling of Their bug eyes pervade the timeless fibers of my immortal soul. It is a cure, a gift, a prize, they proclaim; and I must trust the elastic skull-tight beached bleached blonde model on the grain-coarse screen, mustn’t I?

When I touch the fake, flimsy Flexiglass screen of my cell phone, a century’s worth of my intelligence filters away like dewdrops from a hot blade of viridescent green grass. The virtual ghosts of the future ensnare humanity—we just aren’t Ebenezer Scrooge. We don’t need to improve ourselves, or change from a miser to a lovely benefactor; we need to wake up and burn the bugs away before they claw their slimy infectious way into the cord-grey of our moldering brains.

El and Maddie

Nanotechnology has arrived in the U.S.A., but it’s not like democracy. It doesn’t allow people to learn, or flourish, or demonstrate any sign of individuality. It’s not freedom; it’s a sort of mind-slavery that will never truly go away unless we as a people battle it. It’s not just some nightmarish monster looming over the cavernous shadows of humanity’s future; it’s festering within the very marrow of our world today.

Whenever our phones blare a scarlet ‘1’ from System Preferences, we are given a new software update—an update that only welcomes more of the monsters into our hardware. Whenever we download the latest app updates from App Store, we are exchanging parcels of ourselves—but for what? For whom? We are not receiving anything in return, except for the manacles of false pleasure. Do we surrender to the vivid lights and secretive bugs embedded within the very threads of our subconscious because we’re bored?

It’s a quotidian action in these dying times to choose the colorful, simpler meme or post, rather than expend the effort and manna to open a tome of majestic knowledge; to live in these times is to exist as an amusement addict, addicted to useless information and biased propaganda; we are in the need of the next meme or vine or tweet to bring laughter to our dimming brains and synthetic perverse gems to our corrugated hearts. Nanotechnology has created the fabled handheld computer; cell phones can hold thousands of images, whereas the older, larger PC—which would consume an entire room, while cell phones take up the space of a palm and nothing more—could only retain one-fourteenth of the common electronic photograph.

People are forgetting compassion as a result of nanotechnology. They tap away at their keyboards, or the alphabets super-imposed upon their flickering touch screens, and they say cruel things to others—and, since they cannot see that their malice is hurting an actual person, they feel entitled to say whatever comes to their mind, whether it is ‘do cows snort up milk while laughing like humans do,’ or something else far worse. Recently, a sixteen-year-old sophomore girl who was part of the high school’s choir went missing. An adult Facebook Friend of mine shared a press release that stated: “Human remains were found;” but she did not speak of the situation with love or compassion. She said that the community needed to have a ‘loud, open’ discussion about gun safety and where gun owners should store their guns. The death is believed to have been a self-inflicted gun wound. Not once in her post did she offer prayers or sorrow or blessings to the family of the deceased girl; not once did she speak of the sadness or agony this family who has lost a child must be suspended within; no, she merely used the death of this girl to further her own political agenda. Unfortunately, this lack of empathy and terrible selfishness is not an isolated occurrence. Nanotechnology waters the worst within a person and drowns the goodness in a harmful pestilence, for which the cure is almost impossible to find.[1]

As Clarisse says, ”Sometimes I’m ancient. I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always use to be that way?…I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451). Children these days, like the people Clarisse fears in Fahrenheit 451, would rather laugh about Fortnite than try to better themselves and their dying world. Fortnite is the incorrect spelling of ‘fortnight’, or a two-week period of time, and another epidemic brought upon the world with the rise of the Nanobot Age is ‘text-talk’, or illiteracy; it’s easier to watch an artificial screen of pixels, isn’t it? In all honesty, I find it easier to peruse social media than write; instead of creating new worlds with my words, I am furnished with a web of lies—and lies are silkier than truth; lies aren’t as hard to create. Lies obscure pulchritudinous pathways bordered with real flowers. Reality, virtual reality…if I swallow the red pill, won’t I be BORED? After all, life seems monotonous and colorless, what with all the iridescence and vivid hues of the virtual web the nanobots have enfolded us within.

How does nanotechnology affect the natural world? In order to obtain the resources necessary to create our phones and computers, and to power the “Cloud” in which all of our Google and other documents are stored, massive amounts of energy are used. Take a data farm in Northern Dulles, Virginia. It’s a massive institution, storing hard drives that collect and record our data. How much oil and coal is drained from the land, just to fuel this single farm? Multiply that single farm by hundreds or even thousands, because at least that many are needed to contain our virtual “Cloud” of information. And what of the resources used to build our semiconductor chips and other tiny bits that are used to send, store and receive our data? Each so-called “bit” requires energy. The land we live on fuels the creation of all this energy. At some point, the calculus of this land-pillage will become too great of a problem for humans to solve. Then we’ll call in our CPU’s and robots, and they will be in charge of our blue Earth.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10504500

There is an alternative. Come to my garden with me, and look at the yellow flowers; spring has at last arrived, and the lovely sun-yellow flowers resemble a lady’s fine slippers. These are real, and these are good. Watch the lilac trees and crape myrtles flirt with the glimmering cerulean sky while they sway to and fro in the wind; feel the light, frivolous teasings of the soft, flimsy flower blossoms while they swoosh past, buoyed along on the zephyrs of time summoned by the Vernal Equinox. None of these are unreal; and all of these are good. All of these are true; one does not need a substitute.

I still feel the teensy bugs, devouring every ounce of the natural world. I mourn for the ethereal emerald-azure hue of Mother Earth’s precious oceans, for it has little time remaining before it grows rancid, infected by the acid rain and smog and waste the nanotechnology has left behind in its apocalyptic wake. Soon, the nanotechnology will conquer the oceans too. Nanotechnology is fueled by the consumption of fossil fuels, whose production destroys this good Earth. The cloudless cerulean sky of a flawless gay day—will it not also succumb to pillars of dark smog and spirals of dying birds? Will the birds soon cease to chirp and sing everlasting choruses of truth, love and hope? And, as these things crest and trough like the tides of the waning ocean, people will be too addicted to their handheld devices and matrixes of un-thought to even notice; they will not even be able to raise a protest.

I never liked the sensation of being watched. And yet here I am, wondering how long it will take for the bugs to burrow beneath humanity’s eyelids; have they not done so already? How much longer do we have left before this dangerous dance ends with our souls exposed to their wicked darkness? We have no ‘red pill’; no crimson magic to rescue us from our failings; for the vibrant flashings of the screens have made us color blind. We have only our lackluster human shells and the looming specter of nanotechnology. Burrowing, burrowing…and we cannot even feel the pain, for the nanotechnology has already devoured us. What will be left?

What could be left?

[1] As it may have been noted, this essay is in electronic format. This only demonstrates the ‘efficiency’ of nanotechnology—it is faster to type this into a computer than to interact with a pen and a sheet of paper.




Confusion Reigns: Driving and Talking about Everything

Confusion reigns. I glance into the bottom of my mug and swirl the chamomile tea around. I ignore the brown spots on the bottom. They’re from a basil plant that occupied the cheap white mug with the light blue dots and a “J” inscribed on the side. When I tried to scrub it last night, my husband said that next time I should use the mug with red dots that is marked with a “B.” I groaned and kept cleaning out the dirt stains.

“B” for “basil” he added, and then I laughed.

“That’s a good idea, but it’s yucky.” While he was talking, I finished scrubbing most the dirt off and put it in the dishwasher, which never gets all the debris off anything. That’s why I love and hate dishwashers.

Now I’m staring at the same patch of brown that grazes the bottom. It’s like staring into tea leaves except there’s no hidden meaning, other than dishwashers don’t replace hands holding brushes.

I finish the last sip. It’s morning. I’m writing.

He comes in carrying his iPad and five documents he needs to scan. He’s listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers. “They sound good, I was in the mood for them,” he explains, “Their lyrics are scrambled, but sometimes they kill it.” The song, “Scar Tissue” is playing, and these words float to me:

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view.

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view.

My back aches and I hear it raining outside. The water drips down the drain spout. I stand up and then lie down and wait while he scans documents and I think about the song. I’ve always loved it. So many people, ones I’ve never met, never will meet, love it too, and we probably don’t gain the same thing from it, except for the feeling of alienation it suggests.

The water still drips down the drain spout. When it comes out it sounds like a machine gun rumbling and tapping against the asphalt. Maybe machine gun is too extreme. Maybe it’s more like the tapping of fingers on a keyboard. But water can be a weapon; after all, it’s more powerful than earth if it rains hard enough. I would take a walk in it but I’m cold and don’t want to get soaked.

I think, I’m confused, so is Maddie, she knows this feeling all too well, it’s the main theme in her new project, which she’s stubbornly titled, “Where the F*** Are You? The book is about two teenagers, growing up confused and angry in a messed-up world. They’re awake. They remember God. They love Him. And yet the main character, Cass (named Cassia by her mother, a herbalist struggling with bipolar disorder) feels like God isn’t helping. Why won’t God come down and fix this shit, Cassia or Cass asks herself. So she’s angry.

I love this book idea, because a lot of souls are angry too. I want to help Cass sort it out. But I have to wait for Maddie to write the main chapters because it’s her project. Not mine, not yet, but it will be in time, just like all her books become joint works. It’s just how it goes. We work. The world cries. We write about the world crying and try to give hope. Meanwhile, it keeps raining and it’s gonna rain all day.

Meanwhile, Maddie’s angry with God too. Why is the world so messed up? Why is our book not getting picked up? Why do churches preach hate not love? Why am I here? She asks these questions, and I just listen.

She makes me read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. We discuss it in the car on the way into school. “The writing is brilliant, I can’t do all the things she does,” I say.

“But your dialogue is better, and that’s where you put your great descriptions—”

“—I still can’t weave a depressing story about childhood into an equally depressing story about a woman who’s messed up from childhood, the way the book’s going, she’s going to cheat on her husband.” I think about some of Atwood’s descriptions. She uses words like “undulates” and I never can find that word when I’m writing. It’s not one of my words. I don’t explain this; instead, I turn the temperature gauge to the right to warm up the Jeep. It’s not that cold but I’m freezing.

“She does cheat, and it’s like it’s because she had such a bad childhood.” Maddie touches the switch that controls the seat heater.

I notice the Jeep is driving better since we got the tire fixed. The road feels more stable underneath the weight of our four Coopers. They’re American-built and we try to buy American. This is new for me. Buying American. I feel bad knowing my new computer was made in China. They use slave labor. I keep thinking when I learn these things, but I didn’t know, and then I chastise myself for not knowing because there’s things that do matter, like treating souls right when they’re here on earth. I think too much, people say, but not thinking is no defense. It just means you don’t know anything or you don’t know what you should. It’s like plausible deniability if you’re a president. Iran-Contra—and that was a President I liked. I speak of none of this and wrestle with my coffee mug. If I don’t grasp the handle right, the coffee spills and then I’m grabbing napkins from the side pocket and all that’s distracting, especially when you’re driving down a mountain.

“And you also write good action scenes, the best.”

“My action’s okay.” I speak in half-sentences too often. Right now, I’m stuck on the main character having an affair. “Ugh she cheats?” I flip the windshield wiper on. It’s raining, or as Atwood would say, spitting. That’s the term the Canadians use. “That’s awful, I can’t believe she does that.”

“Yeah, with her abusive ex-husband, and I bet Atwood cheats too, she writes the scenes so convincingly.”

We’re quiet for a moment. I wonder if she’s going to correct her use of an adverb. Ever since I told her about Hemingway’s distaste for them, Maddie has excised them from her work. I have too, more or less. We’re ridiculous sometimes, I also think, but I’m stuck on Atwood.

“Yeah, it’s a mistake, I wish she didn’t cheat,” I say. I ease off the brakes on as we head into a tight curve. It’s not foggy but I’m tired and my coffee doesn’t have enough cream in it because we ran out and forgot to get more last night. So I sip as I drive down the mountain and wish I had more cream in my coffee because if I did, I’d drink faster and that might make me feel more awake.

We are awake. That’s the scary thing. We both know how messed up the world is. I don’t say this, but I’m thinking about the President, and the blog I wanted to write about the President’s lawyer. It would be a balanced piece about the Code of Ethics that governs lawyers. A different code governs attorney conduct in each state, and the President’s lawyer is probably licensed in New York. But no state Code of Ethics would allow a lawyer to pay hush money to his client’s ex-lover out of the lawyer’s personal accounts. You’re not supposed to pay bribery funds or extortion demands, for one thing. And even if that were somehow ethical, a lawyer is not supposed to commingle funds or use his personal accounts to pay folks on his client’s behalf. It’s so far beyond the pale of what’s acceptable . . . and yet it was done. Stormy Daniels either bribed the President or was she extorted? I don’t know what happened exactly. But it makes me mad. It’s not right. Funny, the things I don’t know. Funny, the things my daughter already knows. Like when I talked to Maddie about it, I called the President’s ex-lover “Stormy Davis” and Maddie corrected me. “It’s Daniels,” she said, and I wondered how she knew so much about the dirty side of living.

I shake my head. Maddie also wrote a blog but it’s personal. It’s called, “He Loves Her,” and in it, Maddie analyzes song lyrics by Pearl Jam and Eminem. The Eminem song in particular shows a man who abuses a woman and why, and how this makes Maddie feel. It’s personal. And the blog itself is beautiful. Should I try to submit it to a magazine, I wonder? I don’t have time but I should. I never have enough time anymore, not for my writing, not for hers too.

We’re listening to one of Pink’s songs and we both love it. I wonder if the boys, who are sitting with their backpacks stacked side to side, red fabric rubbing against blue, in the second row, like it too, but I don’t ask, because Maddie’s talking some more. She wants to help a friend who’s struggling in school, and the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” might apply, but Maddie worries and wants to help. I have advised Maddie to be a friend first, and also to take care of her own work, but I’ve also smiled to myself while listening to Maddie repeat aloud the same sort of words I would use. I’m hard on her. I expect a lot. Do I expect too much?I ask myself. And then Maddie’s saying, “She’s really got to care about school, if she doesn’t do well now, she won’t do well junior year, she needs to get into a good college, she needs to get off her phone and study more, she needs to have confidence in herself, why won’t she ask her teacher for help? Teachers are there to help, that’s their job, I’m so worried, she really needs to get her grades up . . .” and so on and so on.

We’re already thinking about SAT prep, and Maddie’s visiting the University of Oregon in June. Because she knows already that after she graduates from UVA, she’ll get her doctorate in English from Oregon. Are we crazy? I don’t know.

Pink pleads, “Please don’t leave me.”

The birds have a lonely view. With them we share this, all of us. And yet we’re not alone, we just feel like we are. And that last sentence, the one with the comma, that’s for Atwood. She uses commas in ways I wouldn’t. But she’s great. And her main character is frail. I want to forgive her. Maybe that’s what Atwood’s asking for too. Or maybe she just wants to be understood.

Then she won’t feel so lonely.

 




Pitching to Agents Part 3: Turning Negative into Positive

After the tough go-round with the last two agents, we talked for at least an hour. I called my mom, Maddie’s biggest fan, and tried to get ahold of my husband, who got back to me after we left the hotel room. But mostly, I tried to bolster my young co-writer’s confidence.

Still, I was shocked when the time came for us to return to Governor 4. She marched right in there, and she sat at the same table we practiced at the night before, and she stared into the blue eyes of this petite, smiling lady and launched right into her pitch. I let her go for a couple minutes, and then I took over. I shortened five paragraphs into about two, and the whole time, the agent we were speaking to had an inquisitive, intelligent, gentle look about her. After a few minutes, she grabbed one of her business cards and started to scribble notes on it. “I want the manuscript, double-spaced, one-inch margins . . .”

“You want the full manuscript?”

The agent’s blue eyes glinted and she gave us both one of those smiles that starts at the eyes and keeps going. “Yes.”

We chatted a few minutes more, and then our time was up. This was the only agent Maddie and I would pitch to “back to back,” so before Maddie actually stood up, I said, “Well, it’s my turn, uh Maddie, you wanna hang out here or—”

“—I’ll stay.” Maddie smiled at me, and I laughed aloud.

It felt completely different to pitch Off Grid with my daughter at my side. I was relaxed. And so was the agent. She waited for Maddie and I to get ourselves sorted out—as usual, we were talking about the million and one little things that mothers and daughters talk about. I have no idea what we said to one another exactly, just that we were talking to one another almost privately, but in front of the same agent I had to pitch to—and the agent was, if anything, charmed by our interplay. After all, we are extremely close, Maddie and I are. We talk, we write, we walk—together. And all of that comes through when we’re around one another I think.

I didn’t have to work hard to pitch my book. But when I got to the final scene and said that the book ends on a cliffhanger, the agent frowned. First frown yet. “Cliffhanger? Would you be willing to change that?”

“Yeah Mom, it’s awful, I never liked the ending either, I don’t like any books that end on cliffhangers, it’s cheap, it’s not right . . .” Maddie entered the fray.

I laughed and reflected on what I was hearing, and detected in them and in then in myself an acknowledgment of the truth they were speaking. “Well, now that you mention it, yeah, it might not have been my best choice, I have no problem changing it.”

“It’s just that if you end the book on a cliffhanger, and it doesn’t sell as well as you expect it, and you don’t get to put book 2 out, all your readers are disappointed,” explained the agent. “Would you be open to changing the ending?” She gave me a sharp look that was both honest and decent—more intelligent than critical.

“Yeah, I’d be willing.”

“Good, then I’ll take your manuscript too,” she said.

“You’ll take my full manuscript?”

“Yes.” She smiled at us. “The two of you are kinda amazing, it’s been a pleasure, you have all the details written on the back of her business card.”

“I do,” I said, and I smiled, and we said our goodbyes.

But not for too long. At dinner, the agent found us. She and her family were eating dinner one table over, to our right, and she spent at least fifteen minutes talking to us. She introduced us to her twin girls and to her lovely husband, and I genuinely truly just plain liked her. I think she liked us too, and I’m hopeful that she will read the book we wrote together and send me an email that says something like, “The book has a lot of potential. Are you open to editing suggestions? If so, I can take it on.”

Because we are. We both have been looking at scenes that need to be trimmed. Our word count (131K) is about 5-7K too high, but we both know how to make the book better. And we both feel that we would be at home with this particular agent . . . so now we wait to see if she feels the same way.

In the meantime, there is a neat postscript. Maddie had one more pitch. This one was with the Christian Fiction lady I liked so much. And she was absolutely wonderful to Maddie. She listened. She smiled. She asked lots of questions, and she gave many compliments. She also offered to read the first ten pages of the Third Eye of Cain—so Maddie left Governor 4 on a cloud.

The next morning, in fact, we ran into the Christian fiction lady in the lobby. We actually hugged one another, and she even offered to give us a lift to the airport. I declined, saying, “Aw gosh, that’s the nicest thing, but I think it would cause you too much stress,” and we smiled at one another and wished each other the best. She gave Maddie an extra smile and more kind words.

We did hear back from this treasure of a woman. She read both our samples, and wrote a long email in which she gave suggestions, thoughtful and helpful critique, and her best wishes. “Your books really aren’t meant for the Christian market,” she said, “But they should do well in the mainstream fiction market. I hope to run across your paths someday.”

I wrote her back actually, which I worried was pushing the limits of politeness but nonetheless I sent her a simple thank you because it felt right to send such a note.

And we bought one of her books. It’s got a hopeful message and both of us took the time to read it, and while reading it, I mostly just thought with gratitude about the people in the publishing industry who try to do their best and help others to reach their best.

That’s the message I reckon I choose to take from our first Writer’s Conference. Remember the good people, and keep on trying to get your own good words, your messages, your work out to others. And in the meantime, be kind to whoever you can be kind to, not because it might help you, but because it might help them.

After all, it’s a hard world we live in. But that doesn’t mean we gotta turn hard too. We just gotta keep heading where we’re supposed to go, and hopefully we won’t have to make our journey alone, or without the kindness of strangers and loved ones along the way.

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Pitching to Agents, The Throat Punching Aspects, Part 2

As I wrote last week, Maddie and I attended a writing conference where we pitched our books to ten agents. I thought long and hard about how much to share about our personal life, as well as the conference we attended and the people I met. I struck a balance on privacy: I am not revealing the names of any of the agents we pitched to, nor am I sharing the names of any of the writers we met–no matter how much I liked them. As far as our privacy, I decided that anyone who’s considering the whole pitching and querying process, or the one-on-one pitching writers do at conferences, may draw some benefit from seeing an inside and unvarnished look at how two writers, a mother and daughter team, worked through a hard day–together. The second part of the story picks up where Part One leaves off: the first pitch Maddie has to make.

Maddie’s first pitch was to a sweet lady who specializes in YA. I knew going into the pitch that we were sort of trying to fit a circle into a square hole. The Third Eye of Cain is not directed at the YA market alone. Although several of the POVs we write through in the novel are teenagers, a few other leading character-narrators are adults. Just to explain for non-writers, novels can be written through three different perspectives: first person; third person; and, omniscient. Maddie and I both write mostly through third person, and we like to go with third person shifting POV, which means that when a scene changes, a different character is followed, and the reader only sees the world through their eyes. Shifting third person POV is very effective because it allows you to paint different facets of your fictional world. This approach has plenty of fans and it is not revolutionary. However, the YA world apparently doesn’t like writers to shift POVs. Or so we found out during this pitch.

As another aside, I have the same issue with Off Grid: it shifts POV from teens to adults. Which means the audience for the book could be adults, but it could also be teens or young adults. To me, this an interesting but not overly big issue, but some agents do’t feel the same way.  And plenty of readers, not to mention agents, say they’re open to books that cross over between or bend genres, so to speak, but some agents, as well as readers, prefer to remain immersed in one genre at a time, and the YA genre is distinct from the adult genre. In addition, the YA genre has different protocols or accepted stylistic approaches, and one of these is that shifting POVs is or may be a negative against a book.

Once I introduced us, Maddie settled in and got through several paragraphs of her pitch uninterrupted. The agent was young, with long dark hair and a pretty way about her. She said several complimentary things. For one thing, she raised her eyebrow and asked Maddie, “Wow, did you memorize all that? That’s pretty impressive stuff, you did a great job,” and her words didn’t seem insincere. We talked some more, and then got to what I call the denouement. The pregnant moment, where an agent says, “Yes, no or maybe.” The agent raised her issue with the book: she said that in the YA market, books sell better if they follow one POV alone. All the same, she asked us to send her three chapters. We thanked her and headed outside, me to prepare for my third pitch, and Maddie, to make friends with a trim, well-dressed older lady who would end up talking to and eventually exchanging emails with Madeline by the end of the day.

My third pitch was with an editor (rather than an agent) who I can best characterize as sharp, fair but tough. She even had, as do I, a last name that was Polish or Russian. She was attractive, with blonde hair and a well-ironed pants suit. Overall, she looked well kempt and well educated–but tough. And she went right for the jugular as far as analyzing my book: she asked me what my climax was. I knew from talking to another writer that this question was coming, so I handled it just fine. Then the tough editor asked the standard questions about market and writing background. I felt like I was before a stern but reasonable judge or answering questions from a senior lawyer—which is not an uncomfortable place for me. After I worked through all her interrogative words, she came back with a yes of sorts. “Well,” she concluded, “Your novel comes down to voice, and I can only assess it if I read it, go ahead and send me three chapters.”

Once again, I went off in search of Maddie, and we spent the next hour or so chatting with other writers, particularly the older lady Maddie had befriended. We observed writers walking in and out of classrooms. We noticed what folks were wearing and overheard snippets of strange but ordinary writer talk. All writers are, Maddie always says, a little strange, and I defer to her conclusion with a chuckle. I at least fall into this category, I fully admit.

My fourth pitch and final one before lunch was with this lovely human being. I am not going to name any of the agents I met with because I don’t think it’s respectful, but I respected and loved this woman. She’s the same agent who complimented Maddie’s dress, and that alone would be enough to form a judgment as to her character. But she’s got a tremendous resume: she’s had her own radio show, she is a leader among the Christian fiction world, and she has published many well-reviewed books of her own. She’s of middling age, and she has an appearance that I can best describe as friendly and maternal. This kind lady listened to my pitch with actual interest. She leaned forward, her eyes lit up when I spoke, and later in the day I came to the conclusion that she treats everyone like that, because I observed her throughout the afternoon, talking to everyone she came across with the same light in her eyes and interest in the human sitting across the table from her. Anyway, agent #4 said basically the following to me: “Fascinating concept. I don’t take on many novels, but please send me a few pages, and who knows? Maybe I’ll fall in love with it or I can pass it along to someone who will and will want to work with it.”

It’s funny, how kindness is such a gift in a profession that can be so hard. I talked with Maddie a lot about this kind agent as we shared a turkey sandwich at lunch. “She really does do Christian fic,” I said, “So I’m not sure we’re a fit for her, but I am sure she’ll be awfully kind to you, and she’s your final agent to pitch to, so we have two to look forward to,” and I kept going over her pitch as we shared lunch. I was exhausted. I knew Maddie was too. But, I thought to myself as we walked back to the Intercontinental, I’d gotten through a hard morning.

I felt like my day was almost over, and hers was just starting. I felt like we were going to be okay, if not great, as far as that elusive thing we were searching for: a home for our books, or someone who would like our work enough to take it on professionally. I was cautiously optimistic, and that’s about as good as I do when facing the obstacles that come with trying to bring a book to market via the traditional gatekeeper method. I try to keep my chin up, and remind myself that though my books are different, they will be wanted and are of value.

I simply wasn’t prepared for just how hard Governor 4 could be, until we got back from lunch and were sitting in front of Maddie’s second pitch recipient: the benevolent Canadian man wearing the hat. Right off the bat, I could tell he was just waiting for our ten minutes to pass. He had his hand on his chin, almost covering his mouth, and his body language spoke of disinterest. He listened, more or less, to Maddie’s pitch, which was rough, and it’s because she was reading all the same things I was reading in our listener. When I tried to take over and handle my share of the pitch, market analysis, he interrupted and said, “That’s not necessary, I know the market, I’m an expert on it,” but I’m hard sometimes too. I kept going. I would and did discuss the market–at least for thirty seconds or so, and then we got to the point where he simply said, “You’re welcome to drop me a line, but this probably isn’t for me.”

Maddie looked drained, and I summoned all the energy I had left to buttress both of us. After all, we had the tough editor in twenty minutes. And we couldn’t sit there, like beaten dogs, but we both felt the pressure at this point. It was almost two, and neither one of us had a full manuscript request. I was thinking about everything, from the price of the hotel room, to the cost of the conference, to the potential audience for The Third Eye of Cain, to how much more my co-writer could take. “Don’t worry,” I said, “This next lady is tough but she’s fair, it will be fine.”

But from the moment we sat in front of the tough but fair blonde editor, I realized things were far from fine. This pitch occurred in the middle of the room, where the noise was at its highest decibel rating. This meant that the now tired editor (after all, she had thirty authors or so on her schedule) had to work harder to hear us. From a simple physical standpoint, the editor couldn’t hear Maddie very well, and Maddie’s voice was quieter than usual. Because the editor couldn’t hear Maddie, she kept interrupting and asking questions. On top of that, she had no interest in following Maddie’s memorized spiel. If anything, she was annoyed at the very thought of a memorized spiel, and she took her annoyance out on this newbie, seemingly soft-spoken first-time writer. She asked questions that interrupted her own questions, and throughout all this, Maddie’s voice grew even softer.

Indeed, at this moment I was realizing Maddie was at risk of losing her voice altogether. She’d been swallowing cough drops all morning. She’s not used to talking all day. Unlike me, Maddie has never taken a full jury trial or deposed witnesses for hours on end. She speaks well, and she’s improving constantly at public speaking (indeed, facing the right circumstances, she is a damn good orator, and will became a consistently good speaker as she grows), but she was facing a hard crowd of one. On top of that, and also in contrast to me, Maddie is a classic introvert. She really just wants to write—all day, if possible. Whereas I can talk all day. After the editor got to her climax of her annoyance, she started to lecture us, her eyes fixed on Maddie. “Look, you need to have an elevator pitch, a one sentence summary of your book, not some long canned spiel.”

I should have interrupted then and there, because of course we have an elevator pitch. Here it is, for sake of posterity:

Three thousand years in the future, a technologically advanced dictator controls the world, and the only hope for humanity is nine Chosen humans, who are the personified elements of nature.

It’s one of the first things we wrote while we worked on the synopsis and on rewrites about three drafts ago, this summer. But I couldn’t get a word in, nor did I feel like begging or explaining or apologizing. If anything, I wanted to argue, but this wouldn’t do us any good. And I realized that the editor needed for some reason to vent. So I did what I could: I tried to explain the book and why it had a market, but the time was flying past, and I knew that nothing I said was gonna sway her. She did finish the sentence with a halfhearted, “Congratulations on finishing your first novel,” and we got up and left the room, both of us blushing.

“Oh my god,” Maddie mouthed to me.

“Yeah, um, let’s go upstairs and talk,” I murmured. We took the elevator almost in silence.

Once we got in the room, Maddie exploded in anger. “Did she need to be such a bitch?”

“No,” I said. And then I talked at length. I said I was sorry it went like that, and a lot of other things. Then I asked my co-writer, “Do you want to do your last two pitches, or should I take over?”

Maddie shook her head. “I’m doing them.”

Please stay tuned for the next installment, which talks about how we finished strong.




Pitching Agents: Throat Punches and Better Endings, Part 1

Madeline and I attended a Writer’s Workshop in Minneapolis this weekend and it was probably the most momentous, exhausting, oddly wonderful two days we will spend in quite some time. We’re back home now, settled back into the routine of our lives. Maddie is meeting with a guidance counselor to decide on whether to take honors Algebra II (naturally I’m in the strong “yay” column, but Maddie’s heard that the teacher will kill her, I think we can call that hyperbole). I’m sitting in my office, more or less alone except for the cat, who’s ignoring me because I’m nowhere near the can opener.

Embraer 175. Photo Credit: Bene Riobó via Wikipedia.

The first thing we noticed when we got off our Embraer 175 Jet and walked the gangplank into the airport was the insanity of our outerwear. We had packed our thick wool coats in checked baggage and left our rarely used hats and gloves back in Virginia. We shivered, giggled, and said aloud, “Wow, it never gets this cold back home.” It was about 13 degrees when we landed, and the wind bit through the thin aluminum frame that bridges the gap from plane to gate.

Neither one of us had much interest in exploring Minneapolis; although it was ten a.m. and the Friday before our conference, we opted to take an Uber to the Intercontinental Riverfront in St. Paul and lounge around the hotel most the day. I did make it out once, on a brave foray to the Walgreens four blocks away to buy cough drops and beanie hats, but that was the extent of any explorations either one of us did—at least outside the hotel.

Before I went on my tiny Walgreen’s adventure, we lunched at the Prime Restaurant inside the Intercontinental. Now, Maddie has this way of making friends with women that’s just built into her DNA. Even when she was a toddler, I’d have friends over and somehow she would hang out on the stairs until someone spotted her and waved her into our company. She’s got a cuteness and a way about her, or something that makes grown women pull her into their ambit and want to include her. So naturally, we made friends with the waitress (who wanted to discuss literature) and with the greeter (who wanted to talk about Maddie and then about her own grandchildren).

View from Room 1308 at the Intercontinental of Saint Paul’s

After lunch, we bought cupcakes from the bakery next to the Prime. “For dinner,” we agreed. And then we napped for a bit, I went off on my find a hat adventure, and then we decided to try and figure out where all the conference rooms were. “You know you’ll get lost tomorrow if we don’t figure it out tonight,” Maddie said with one of her smiles.

It took us several tries, but we found Governor 4, where the agent pitches would occur, on the lower lobby. I frowned when I saw the room. It was not cavernous, but it was large, and it was filled with rows of tables. At each table sat one chair on opposing sides. That’s when my training as a courtroom attorney kicked in. I over-prepare for every speech I give, in part because I’ve been caught unprepared in a deposition, but more because we were trained in law school to know everything about our surroundings, our clients, and the other side’s case. Naturally, we had been practicing our pitches all week. Madeline memorized hers, because that’s the only way she felt she could deliver it. I had made outline upon outline, and while I never looked at my outline during a pitch, I knew I’d have it there if I needed it, or if an agent interrupted and asked me a question that was outside my mental box. We had even videotaped our pitches, which had led me to completely revamp mine to cut out the excess.

“Maddie, let’s practice in here, it’s a big room, there will be lots of people pitching, it will be intimidating and distracting with all that, let’s practice here now.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah.”

We each went through our pitch once, and we chose one of the back tables because it felt safer in the back, out of the fray. We chose what turned out to be a fortuitous table, because our best pitch would occur at that very same table 24 hours later. After we practiced, I looked around for an extra chair, and placed one I found in a strategic place, just by the entryway, so that I would be able to grab it quickly when it was time to join Maddie on one of her five pitches the next day. I swear, I lost sleep over that chair. I worried that someone would move it, but no one touched it.

We went to bed early, like around nine or ten, but I kept waking up. I have anxiety, and I was anxious about being anxious. It’s not odd for me to wake up at three a.m. with a full-blown panic attack. So when I woke at three a.m. worrying about worrying about it (my husband says this is one of the ironies that comes with having anxiety), I took an extra Clonzepam and told myself for the umpteenth time that I was not going to let Maddie down. That, in fact, was my biggest fear the entire conference: how would Maddie do, and would I be able to protect her from what I often think of as the dogs of war?

Agents aren’t of course anything other than human beings. They’re gatekeepers, yes, and so far, we had done pretty well with Madeline’s The Third Eye of Cain. Out of about thirty queries, the first dozen or so of which were junk, we’d received a request for one full manuscript—and from a big New York agency. Be they gatekeepers or holders of the magic key or whatever (unless you self-publish), agents shouldn’t be viewed with fear. Some are wonderful. Some, not so much. And some just don’t care for the cup of tea you’re serving, or the material you’re offering. This is a truism I would repeat throughout the day in various forms to Maddie and also to myself.

The way the pitching schedule worked out put me front and center in the morning. My first pitch was at 9:10, followed by three more before noon, and one final pitch in the late afternoon. Maddie’s schedule was reversed, and I had worked hard with the excellent Workshop Coordinator to ensure we didn’t have any conflicts. After all, I’m not only the co-writer of The Third Eye of Cain. I’m the mother of a 14-year old, and you just don’t send teenagers in alone. As it turned out, Maddie had one pitch in the morning, and four in the afternoon. Which meant I could mostly focus on my pitches without worrying about mixing up our two fictional worlds too much—and then I could focus on Maddie.

The Intercontinental overlooking the great Mississippi River, near where it meets with the Minnesota River

My first two pitches didn’t go too well. The first agent (the only male we pitched to) was wearing a hat and had a friendly way about him. First he said he was kinda on the fence, and then said my book probably wasn’t quite his cup of tea. He gave me some advice, and handed me a business card. “Feel free to shoot me a line if you’d like,” he said, and shook my fingers rather than my hand. I still liked him afterwards.

I had almost no time to breathe before my next pitch. Each pitch lasts ten minutes, and the next group of folks files into the room and finds their agent. I found my daughter, and we felt what the timekeeper (a nice woman who is also a writer) later would describe as the Anxiety Hallway’s vibe and tried to shake it off. My second pitch was in ten minutes. The agent apologized for not shaking my hand. “I have a cold,” she explained, and I expressed sympathy and then launched into my pitch. She stopped me two minutes in. “This isn’t my cup of tea,” she said, after I explained that God appeared in person to help save the world in Off Grid (the novel I was pitching). I tried to pitch Shards to her, which is a political epic, and she cut me off after fifteen seconds. “Also not my cup of tea,” she said. “Okay,” I said.

“So you have more time, do you want to ask me questions?”

No, I thought, but I nodded and asked something bland. She launched into a lecture on why my book won’t get picked up by any agents. “Look,” she said, “If you’re going to choose to write about something quirky, like God, you’re better off self-publishing, agents can’t sell that, you should self-publish, didn’t you do that before, and maybe you should hire a publicist.”

I thanked her for “her time” and went out to find Maddie. “God’s quirky,” I quipped. “No one’s buying Him anymore.” We smiled. At that very moment, a man we had spoken to earlier came out with a big smile on his face. He was Hispanic I believe, maybe second generation American, and he had just pitched a work of speculative Christian fiction to the fourth agent we would be pitching to—and I guessed from his reaction that he’d received a full manuscript offer. I grinned at him and tried to say something intelligent, but what I think I managed was, “Thanks for writing about that, good luck, keep doing what you do,” but I also packed his success away in my mind and figured it augured well for later.

The only pic I could find of the special dress, taken in December, 2017

Before Maddie’s first pitch, she whispered, “Mom, one of the agents complimented me on my dress, I think we’re pitching to her later,” and sure enough, we were: me, just before lunch, and Maddie, just before the day ended. Maddie’s dress is special, by the way. It’s red and black checked, and it’s also what I wore to my sweet sixteen birthday parties. In other words, it’s thirty years old, and kinda almost a family heirloom. It also looks great on Maddie, because it brings out the copper highlights in her glorious auburn curls.

And with those nice words held tightly to her heart, Maddie walked into Governor 4 behind me, and together we looked for her first agent.

End of part one. Please stay tuned in for the second half of the story later this week.

 

 




Van Crashes Into Our Yard

So it’s Friday night and we’re driving home from Northern Virginia. It’s an ordinary night in most ways. Like any other Friday night after we’ve dropped the kids off for a visit with their father. We didn’t go straight home; instead, we stuck around in Northern Virginia for a few hours afterwards. Picked up a few riders for Uber. Paid for our gas I suppose. And stopped at a casual but brilliant restaurant in Vienna that served up light shrimp tacos with a panache and brilliance that delighted me. The tacos only cost $4 apiece, and that made me happy too.

A little later, we’re driving on Route 66, heading westward. We’re at about exit 43, right between Manassas and Centreville for those of you who are familiar with what exit corresponds with what neighborhood in the I-66 corridor. I’m a little sleepy. It’s about 10:30 and it’s been a long day. With an almost absent-minded glance, I checked Facebook messages. I spotted a text from my neighbor Jen, who lives three houses down from me. It’s somewhat unusual to hear from Jen this late at night. I thought to myself, Hope she’s okay.

Then I click over and read her message.

“El, you need to come outside right now!”

“Um, I can’t, I’m 45 minutes away from home.”

“Okay, there’s a van crashed in your yard.

“Come again?” Now I was reading aloud from my spot in the passenger seat. “There’s a van crashed in my yard?”

“Yes, it flipped a few times and it’s stuck in the side yard.”

“Have you called the cops, the ambulance?”

I almost didn’t need to ask this question. Jen is an Air Force mechanic. Our other neighbor Scott is some sort of officer, I believe in the Air Force. And in general, these are mountain people, and they’re accustomed to emergency situations. Still I asked. And she replied:

“Yes, been called.”

“Okay, is the driver okay? Is the house okay? What about our cars?”

“He’s okay, he’s bloodied, concussed but walked from scene. Obviously had been drinking, didn’t want us to call cops.”

I smiled to myself. Thinking, Jen called the cops anyway, as she damn well should have. Whether the fellow was drunk or not, he needed medical assistance. Then I go back to reading her messages, which are brief and calm.

“The van is in the side yard. The only thing damaged possibly is your septic tank. Car’s okay. House is okay.”

“Okay, I’ll be home in 37 minutes, eta is 11:15.”

We made it home at 11:10 by taking the back road, which is called Massanutten. It’s a poorly-maintained private road that leads into our development. It isn’t paved and it experiences frequent rock slides, but when it’s passable it saves five minutes off our commute. And our Jeep can handle pretty much anything it throws at us. Fortunately that night the Massanutten’s tricks did not include any broken walls or rocks piles.

At 11:09, We pulled up to a light show. There was a fire truck, an ambulance and a red tow truck parked on the side of the gravel road that overlooks our side yard. After I ran inside to grab warmer gear, I made a quick assessment: there was in fact a van situated in the middle of our side yard. This was a fact in evidence, undeniable, incontrovertible. An avoidable fact—and a problem, I thought to myself. There was no more avoiding it than there’s avoiding a death that involves someone you care about—and again, I gave thanks that I already had some sort of warning. The note from Jen reduced the shock of seeing it.

It’s hard to explain the emotion you feel when a van’s sitting in your yard: fear, confusion, astonishment, or simply that feeling you get when you’re given a puzzle in elementary school and asked to identify an object that’s out of place. A van in the yard is not quite as inopposite as, say, a dolphin swimming in your living room—but it nonetheless makes a jarring appearance. An interesting one as well. You’re driven to figure out how and why it got there.

After I pulled on a hat and warm gloves, I climbed up the driveway and looked for Jen. She was dressed in extreme weather gear and was standing beside her husband Rob as well as three of our other neighbors: Missy and Scott, who live next door to us, and A.J., who owns the house three or four yards down from where the van driver lives as a renter. Everyone started talking at once, just about the same time the tow truck driver asked if I was the homeowner, and the fire truck gunned its engine and drove to the end of the street looking for a place to turn around, and the ambulance wheeled into a driveway and executed a sharp U-Turn.

Jen explained the accident scene to me. “Here’s where he started to slide, then he over-corrected, and he rolled down to the right, hit the septic tank, then rolled in the other direction.” She pointed to a spot on the road, which is gravel with dirt shoulders, and then used her hands to demonstrate the route the van took.

“And he’s been picked up by the ambulance, you say he’s okay?”

“He’ll be okay,” A.J. volunteered.

Someone there added, “Said he’d only had a few drinks.”

“Don’t know how he walked exactly, he didn’t want me to call an ambulance, but he was bleeding, obviously concussed,” Jen said.

“Yeah, Scott had to pull him out, he was bleeding, couldn’t get out without help,” Rob said. He was holding a cigar, and as we watched the scene, which was never the same from moment to moment, we talked about his recent motorcycle accident, and how he was recovering from it. A few months back, he crashed his bike up right good and he’s gotten back on the horse, so to speak, and has ridden again, but he’s still struggling with possibly permanent damage to his neck.

Meanwhile, my husband stood beside me, and we watched and chatted and waited for the tow truck to make its first go at pulling the van out. Since it was dark out, it was hard to get a good visual of the van. As far as I could tell, it was a busted up ancient nondescript gray or light blue van, but A.J. later explained that the driver had just bought it a little while back to help with his moving business. Later I would identify it as a four or five year old Honda Odyssey, which is a top-of-the-line minivan, but from the top of our ravine, it just looked battered and old.

A.J. kept talking about the renter. I picked up bits and pieces that I needed. Like: “He was saying the other day that he took out an extended warranty on it, I know he loved that thing.”

Good, I thought, then he’s insured.

At this point, a scraggly-haired young man approached me. He was with Henderson Towing. Had a bright yellow jacket atop a burly frame. In fact, I’ve never met a tow truck driver who didn’t look somewhat like this guy: tough, brawny, fast-talking, competent. “You’re the homeowner?”

“I am.”

“I’m thinking of pulling it out from the bottom, otherwise we’ll have to pull it up over all those rocks.” The tow guy gestured to our yard, which is covered with scores of massive boulders and too many trees to count. One day, my husband and I tried to count the trees, but we got bored and quit at 100. So there’s a lot of trees, and there’s even more rocks, peppered throughout our acre of land. There’s so many rocks, in fact, that the prior owners built three rows of almost English or Irish-style rock walls in the main yard, and the bottom of these serves as a sort of retaining wall. To protect the house from, you know, vans that crash into the yard.

“So you’d have to come down the driveway?” My husband had his hands in his pockets, as did I. Unlike me, he was not shivering from the cold mountain air. At this point, it was about 20 degrees.

“Yeah,” I added, “If you do, that’s fine, do we need to move any of our trucks?” I was referring to our two SUVs, a Ford Expedition and a Jeep Commander.

“Yeah, I want to go down your driveway, nope, don’t have to move anything,” said the tow truck driver.

“Okay,” I said.

Our neighbors were still talking, except for Jen, who went inside because the driver was safely departed and she had to get some rest.

My husband and I walked down the hill and stood at the bottom of our driveway between the Jeep and the Ford.

What we ended up watching was something like a circus, or roller derby absent the bang-ups. Despite his confidence and ability, when the tow guy pulled his 550 into the yard and tried to go uphill, he hit icy patches on the grass. He begin to scissor sideways and down, and all of this was noisy, because he kept gunning his diesel and the tires were screaming and the engine was growling and he was hollering I think through it all . . . and that’s when he came to a resting position about five feet from the ravine that waits at the bottom of our back yard. I don’t know what it waits for, other than sleds that run too fast or SUVs that slide out of control down the icy driveway; all I know is that the ravine’s almost the sum of all my physical crashing fears.

The tow truck driver then got even busier. He winched his 550 to a tree, and called down one of his assistants to help back the truck out of the yard, using the winch to guide it, until they could turn it around and drive it back to the top of our hill. That took about fifteen minutes. We watched and tried not to smile. Not mean smiles. We were rooting for the tow guy. But the whole thing was damn near as exciting as watching a roller derby. Meanwhile, the young man, the tow guy, he talked with me a little. Said he was 30, lived pretty close, up one on of the other mountains, and he had a wife and three kids, all of them under six. Then he said he was calling his boss. “We need Big Bird,” he said, and explained, “Big Bird has a 650.”

“I like its name,” I said. “Big Bird.”

“Uh huh.”

“But you might need a helicopter,” I said, and I giggled.

He shook his head grimly and climbed up the driveway.

It wasn’t over yet. I had to talk to the police officer. He was slim, had a pencil-thin mustache, and he had a kind way about him. He got my name and number and gave me the case report. Told me everything would work out okay, and I told him I was grateful he was out here in the cold, taking care of our mess.

“It’s my job,” he said.

“Nonetheless I’m grateful you’re here to do it,” I said.

Some time passed. We were still waiting for Big Bird, which pulled up after another half-hour. I was running out of words, so was my husband. The other neighbors were still talking, especially A.J. and Rob. Missy was her usual sweet self. She was the one who helped me when I got locked out my first night here, but that’s another story. And Scott was quietly sweet. Amid all this, the temperature was dropping.

My husband and I went inside to warm up for a few minutes, and that’s when we heard a lot more noise.

“Hmmm, wanna go see?” I stood up sleepily from the sofa. It was almost one a.m.

My husband shook his head and chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

So we pulled on coats and hats and gloves and climbed back up the hill. At this point, there were two cables attached to the front of the minivan, anchored to two of the tow trucks. And slowly, almost glacially, the minivan was getting dragged up the hill backwards. It was noisy, and the lead tow truck driver got into the minivan to try to steer it so that it didn’t come up over the largest rock in its path. He even took his jacket off, and was sweating. A lot of things fell off the minivan on its final journey up our side yard. The front bumper tore completely off, and at one point the side door looked like it might fall off, but two of the Henderson guys managed to manually slide it shut.

The minivan pivoted towards our house once it reached the apex of the hill. That’s when I got a good look at it. Saw that all eight of its airbags had deployed, and all four sides of it had taken a beating.

“Rolled at least once,” the officer said.

“Won’t be driving ever again, that’s for sure,” Rob or A.J. said.

“Yep, totaled,” I said.

The Henderson guys got the van up on one of their lifts. And that’s when we said goodnight to everyone. We didn’t stand at the top of our hill and watch the trucks drive away. Instead, we waved goodnight, hiked down our driveway one last time, and stumbled into bed. It was 1:30, and all I could think was how long a night it was for the responders, the police officer, the EMTs, the tow truck guys, my neighbors who helped the driver, and how grateful I was that there were good, reliable people who took care of oddities like vans that end up crashed in your side yard.




When Red Tape Blocks Neighbors from Helping the Homeless

The community I live in, Front Royal, Virginia, has a large problem with homelessness. And with the record cold temperatures we’ve been facing over the past few weeks, the non-profits who work the problem of homelessness as well as several local churches met on Thursday to discuss a simple solution to a horrific problem: how do we get the 75-100 homeless citizens of Front Royal out of the freezing temperatures during the night. As reported by the Royal Examiner,

The first Thermal Shelter meeting was held Thursday evening, Jan. 11 at New Hope Bible Church, to discuss the serious need for a temporary thermal shelter in Warren County.

The Royal Examiner’s take was that the Thermal Shelter meeting had a strong turnout, and the Mayor of Front Royal, Hollis Tharpe, “was in attendance and was able to help answer a variety of questions.” In addition, the Royal Examiner emphasized several positive results. For one thing, the community united to address a serious problem. In addition, the meeting successfully accomplished something: several churches in attendance volunteered to hold week-long thermal shelters from 7 PM to 7 AM, starting immediately.

The Gazebo, where in good weather homeless try to find shelter
Photo Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

The article (which did a great job quickly summarizing the specifics of what occurred that evening) did not mention an additional positive aspect of the meeting. Pastor Marc Roberson of Riverton United Methodist Church spoke about the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS). As one of the founders of WATTS, Pastor Marc knows how to run a Thermal Shelter. Pastor Marc went over the practicalities, the resources and volunteers needed for conducting Thermal Shelters. He also discussed how to train volunteers and how to set up a strong structure that would ensure that the Thermal Shelters ran smoothly. Pastor Marc also explained that churches should figure out how to integrate housing the homeless with safely running activities that involve children and teenagers—which again is a concern that churches must and can resolve. For example, churches can ensure that the homeless guests arrive an hour after all activities end and leave an hour before morning activities commence in the mornings. WATTS, for the record, is now well funded, with paid workers, but it started off as a volunteer organization organized in a time of great need.

Kathy Leonard (l), Vicki Davies, Michelle Smeltzer, Pam Williams and Roni Evans.
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Nonetheless, none of this can legally happen right now, which leads me to express my take on this first meeting. First, I’m grateful to the news organizations that covered the meeting, particularly Jen Avery from the Royal Examiner. Naturally, I’m grateful to the folks from the churches and non-profits that came and volunteered their time and support to help solve a public emergency.

Moreover, I’m grateful to the organizers of the event: Pastor Bobby Stepp of New Hope Bible Church; Kathy Leonard, Homeless Liaison for Front Royal and facilitator of the evening; Vicki Davies of St. Luke Clinic, Michelle Smeltzer, with House of Hope and the Department of Social Services; Pam Williams, from The Potter’s House; and Roni Evans. Every single organizer there realized that as a community we must do something, and now, to get our brothers and sisters, off the streets.

After all, people die in the cold, and as Pastor Bobby Stepp said in his opening prayer when he quoted from the Bible:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:35-40.

All or almost all of the attendees present, no matter their religious affiliation, agree that a community should help shelter the homeless. The eight or more churches who volunteered their time and resources follow the axiomatic principle that being a good citizen means you do not allow your neighbors to freeze in the cold. We have neighbors who are freezing tonight. There’s just no way around this truth.

Hollis Tharpe, Town Mayor
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Unfortunately, as the meeting progressed, truth and emergent need ran into a massive roadblock: bureaucratic red tape. Mayor Tharpe explained that before a church could legally host a Thermal Shelter, it would have to go through a sixty to ninety day process that would include no less than four town hall meetings as well as a visit from a Fire Safety Inspector. The tone in the room changed dramatically after Mayor Tharpe spoke. He in fact, did not speak of red tape; in fact, he said that “he would move the process along as fast as he could.” And when asked for comment afterward, Mayor Tharpe said that he didn’t understand why a permit was needed in the first place and he would check on the situation and the legal stance of the town on Tuesday. “I’m on the little guy’s side.” In truth, Mayor Tharpe hardly comes across as an obstructionist to the cause of homelessness. Nonetheless, the issue of bureaucratic red tape changed the tone of the meeting.

Indeed, an air of civil disobedience arose. It was palpable and it was alive. I was part of this wave of people who muttered, “This will not do,” which was quickly followed by several suggestions. “We can hold a slumber party,” exclaimed one church leader. “Or a lock-in,” cried another church leader or church goer. “Or we can build an underground resistance movement and ask forgiveness not permission,” murmured a member of one of the non-profits in attendance.

Stevi Robinson, the Chair for Fundraising from Warren County’s Habitat for Humanity, who was in attendance at the meeting along with Vice President Kim Taylor Jones stated afterwards:

A 2007 Habitat for Humanity construction site in the United States
Photo Credit: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia

There are many hurdles to overcome in addressing the rising homelessness crisis in Front Royal/Warren County. While it was wonderful to see such a great outpouring of community support last Thursday, the need is still outweighing the current response. There is much work to do still, and I encourage everyone that attended last weeks meeting to bring a friend or neighbor to the next meeting.

My grandmother Hazel used to always say, “never look someone in the face and not see your own.”  Anyone of us given the right circumstances could end up homeless. We as a community have the ability to help everyone have a healthy experience at life. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the tragic living conditions that currently exist for some of our community members.

If the Town and County can’t be motivated by the human factor, Studies show that communities that take a housing first approach enjoy roughly $1.78 return for every $1 spent on such programs. (University of New Mexico ISR). The time to act is now.

The non-profit I serve on as secretary, ROTH of FR (Roof Over Their Heads) has a simple mission statement:

ROTH of Front Royal aims to end homelessness in Warren County, VA by providing housing and supportive services to members in our community through non-judgmental and non-discriminatory assistance.

Five of us from ROTH sat in the front row, and we observed the frustration on the faces of facilitators like Vicki Davis of St. Luke Community Clinic. She has nurses lined up to volunteer their care to homeless men and women who need medical treatment—and could receive it while finding a safe and warm place to sleep at a Thermal Shelter. And now Vicki is being told that her nurses may as well stay home. I haven’t spoken to Vicki, but I can speak on behalf of ROTH. We must help get the homeless off the street when the temperatures drop into the teens. Over the past year, our 501(c)(3) has helped at least one hundred homeless or almost homeless citizens of Front Royal and the surrounding areas in Warren County, but one homeless citizen suffering in sub-freezing temperatures is one too many.

And while I will not quote any of the church leaders in attendance, I am certain that a church should not be told it cannot follow its guiding principles, but should bow to the insanity of a bureaucratic process that will ensure one and only one thing: the homeless will freeze tonight and tomorrow night, until all the formalities and senseless legalities are followed by a legion of would be angels.

There must and should be a better way. And something tells me, based on a question asked of Mayor Tharpe, that if we proceed with this Thermal Shelter idea without going through a 90-day approval process, we will not be thrown in prison for fulfilling our civic and/or religious duty. There is a time to help. And that time is now.

 




An Ice Storm that Can’t Kill 10,000 Hours

Ice glistened on the slabs that rose out of the front yard. The driveway was wet but not slippery because we put salt down in the afternoon, but we couldn’t salt the rocks, so they bore the marks of the cold, cold water that fell on them. When I pulled into the high school, I glanced into the rear view mirror and the grass was grey, laden with the remnants of the storm that brewed yesterday. I wondered how green can turn grey in a certain light, and I thought about the seasons which change like we do. Going back and then forth and back again, the way a road curves around and around a steep incline until it hits the summit, the apex of a place in time. For even summits and mountains alter over time, just at a different pace than the shifting of the solstices.

When we drove down the mountain this morning, a silver Crown Vic in front of us crept down the road. We were in first gear, and I explained to the kids that you gotta let the engine brake for you. None of them was happy with how slow we were going, and I tried to teach them; I asked, “Who drives well in the ice?” Two of the kids piped up, “Stoney does,” and I laughed and said, “The correct answer is no one does, not even him, he’s just done it more, he knows it better and he knows what he can and can’t do, there’s no secret formula, there’s just going slow, don’t be mad at the Crown Vic, they’re doing what they’re ‘sposed to do.”

The kids didn’t have a response for this, so I said, “Find us something happy to listen to,” and Madeline pulled up one of her favorite singers. His stage name is Macklemore, and his real name is Benjamin Hammond Haggerty. Just as an aside, I like people named Benjamin pretty much on instinct.

“What category is he in Mom?”

“I dunno. He could be rap like Twenty Pilots is rap, or he could be R&B.”

“Or alternative,” Madeline said.

“Yeah,” I said.

So we drove about fifteen miles an hour, slower around Kitty Corner and the other steep turns, and we listened to music and no one said much more.

Macklemore. By Drew of The Come Up Show (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of Macklemore’s songs came on after we listened to “Same Love.” The song after “Same Love” is called “Ten Thousand Hours,” and it’s about how hard an artist works before he or she makes it to the big time. There’s this:

A life lived for art is never a life wasted

Ten thousand

And then there’s the hook, where he repeats the following:

Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands

Ten thousand hands, they carry me.

It’s here she asked me what the song was about, and I explained that you gotta put an immense amount of time into any skill or talent until you mature enough to be considered great. After all, Macklemore writes,

You see I studied art

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint

The greats were great cause they paint a lot . . .

I repeated those lyrics back to her and she said, “Have I written ten thousand hours yet?”

I considered it as I watched the line of cars ahead of us. They looked like metal parts of a snake doing the mamba, but at a distance from one another. “See,” I said, “They’re giving each other a lot of distance, why are they doing that?”

“In case one loses control it won’t hit the ones in front,” she said.

“Right, they’re being smart,” and I thought about how close her birth father rides her, and how this pushes her out of control, like a race car taps the back of the bumper of the car in front and spins it, that’s how close he takes the curves that constitute her world with her. It’s like he pushes and pushes until she’s in full panic mode, just like she was last night after they held one of those parallel conversations where she says one thing and he answers as if they’re talking about a completely different topic, one she’ll never understand because it’s beyond her. After talking to someone like this, who’s in what psychologists call gas-lighting mode, you decide maybe you’re crazy and your heart starts racing and you wanna vomit because the lack of clarity takes an acridity on in your mouth, and you hand your phone to your mother and ask her to make sense of it all.

But I said nothing of this to her; instead, I said, “That’s right, that’s good. You’ve written maybe five thousand hours, you’re really good—“

“—But I’m in school, it slows me down.”

“Macklemore was in school too, but he worked on his music when he wasn’t all the time like you work on your books, by the end of high school you’ll be at ten thousand hours, by the end of college you’ll be a better writer than me.”

“Better?”

“Better.”

I didn’t say more because Macklemore sang the rest of what I had to say, or almost all of it. I want her to write freely of and for herself, but she writes only in third person. Sometimes we struggle over this, and then I come to my senses and I back the car up and follow her from a distance that feels safer to her fragile artistic self. She doesn’t write like I do. She doesn’t tell her story, at least not directly. Instead, she’s created a Tolkien-esque world that’s dominated by kick-ass women who lead a fight to restore freedom in a land ruled by the hand of Cain. It’s a biblical reference, one the character himself chose, because her characters are so real, they do things like choose their own names, their own destinies, their own friends—but even they are stuck with their own birth fathers.

Her world is lush and real, complex and populated by good and evil. Cain resembles someone of course, but that’s the author’s reality intruding in a way that’s subtle. What isn’t subtle in The Third Eye of Cain is the way the patriarchy is crushed. But the women don’t rule as a matriarchy. The author, mind you, says everyone has a place at her table in her world. And then I realize that she doesn’t think she has a place at the table of her own world; she feels like she doesn’t have a voice she can use.

“When we write Redone Strand, are we going with shifting third person POV?” I asked.

“Yeah, I can’t do first person,” she said.

“Can’t?” I glanced over and noticed the windshield was starting to freeze up, so I turned the knob to defrost.

“It’s never comfortable.”

I nodded. This isn’t an argument we can have now. I can’t make her take on first person in her fictional world when she can’t find the words to express her wishes in the here and now. Turning into the parking lot, I was mad for a moment, but not at her. You don’t get mad at daughters who have panic attacks after they try to talk to their birth dads. You just try to figure things out. Being you, you’re always trying to figure things out, both for you and for her, artistically and otherwise. Like you had this idea for her a couple months back. You pitched it to her of course:

Hey you could write about your life in high school, you could write a deep and funny book, a real world type thing, and you could talk about him, about your conversations, about how you play your clarinet and he tells you to go into the basement so he can hear his new wife play the piano, or how he notices all the notes you don’t hit and all the ones your brother does hit, or you could talk about the popular kids who make out in the hallways, or the teachers who don’t like Columbus Day, or the football players who yell at you when your soccer ball dribbles into their court, or the cheerleaders who show off their Brazilian shave jobs, it would be the greatest of books, I know we could get it picked up.

And she gives me this shy smile and I know it’s my dream for her in that moment and I close my eyes and tell myself, “Let her have her own dreams, in art and in life, she’s made this world, no one else builds entire worlds and writes about them, this is what she’s doing, let her follow her path and she’ll fulfill her dharma.”

All of which is right. I’m her mother and I’m her co-writer and I’m her manager and I’m in her soul family too, and I want her to use her voice to write about her troubles in these times, these hard teenage times, the ones that will pass so fast and yet so slow, from equinox to solstice and on, until she’s no longer under my care. She should create as she will and she should use her art however it feels right. But there’s the issue of her voice, the one that would speak of the thousand shreds that burn like molten rock inside when the pain of him gets caught in her throat and she can’t get any air into her thorax. I want to fix it. I want her to speak of it. Talking helps clear the “can’t breathe” air bubble constriction.

But she can’t and won’t yet. All of these things coalesce and then congeal and then when it gets too hard the ice bridge that’s building in her heart shatters and a sliver stabs her in that special place that she would find a better name for in some ancient language, maybe “whakaraerae,” which means “vulnerable” in Maori. She searches for better words in diverse places, checks with me to make sure she isn’t misappropriating other cultures (to which I smile and tell her no, she’s respecting and honoring them) and then she moves them (the words, the customs, the beliefs) to her world, populating it, always, with things from the past that connect our present to the future. She weaves a tapestry of time and place, and her way of rebelling, of speaking up for herself, is indirect and subtle and beautiful.

But now there’s an ice storm raging inside and she’s building her ten thousand hours and he doesn’t even know that her world is an escape from his reality, or her reality with him.

I don’t have all the answers but I keep hearing something hopeful.

I make my living off of words

And do what I love for work.

Macklemore’s got it figured out. In a way, so does my daughter, because no matter what, she keeps writing. And I keep trying to get an agent to take a look at her world. It’s a good one, where kick-ass women fight for equality and freedom for all. And men fight at their sides. Call it utopian. Or just call it her reality.

Sometimes reality blooms out of a story, just like a flower blooms out of a seed.

Ten thousand hours.




The TSA’s Attack on a Disabled Young Woman

I received a text last night. It was from my best friend. I knew she was dropping her 19-year old daughter off at the airport in Bozeman, Montana so that Desi could visit family on the east coast. I was expecting to hear something along the lines of, “Dropping her off was hard, but she’s okay.” After all, her 19-year old daughter is disabled. She has an IQ of 52. She receives social security disability assistance and struggles with short-term memory loss as well as a lost list of mental and physical disabilities that make it harder for her to get through the day-to-day aspects of growing up in 21st Century America. Sometimes I envy her a little though, because things that bother me don’t give her any pause. She knows some things are wrong in the world but she doesn’t realize just how wrong these things are. She’s also one of the most wonderful souls I know. She calls me her “Other Mom” because we’re very close, and she’s just as close to my eldest daughter.

Flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains

I was flying myself when I got the text. We were in a Cessna 172, which is a tiny propeller plane that seats four. It was a gusty afternoon here in the Shenandoah area. Gusty makes for bumpy air, but my man, his son and I had enjoyed flying over the snow-tipped Blue Mountains. We even flew over our house in Front Royal, and did a touch and go at the local airfield, which has a tiny strip surrounded by hills on almost all sides.

Nonetheless, it was freezing in the backseat and the heat in the Cessna wasn’t working. When we landed, I heard my phone buzz to announce a text message from Stevie. I took off my glove and with cold fingers scrolled down to read what Stevie wrote. I read the following words:

She was strip-searched.

I started to shake at this point and not from the cold. Stevie had also called while we were in the air. I hit the call button beneath the log of the last call received but she didn’t answer. I had to wait three hours before I got the rest of the story. It’s a story that no mother will feel good hearing or retelling, but some truths need to be shared and this is one of them.

John Adams wrote that we are supposed to be “a nation of laws, not of men.” The idea behind this quote is that all humans are fallible, and thus we must put in place protections to ensure that those who make and enforce the laws do not trample the rights of the people. The entire purpose of course in forming the United States was to form a “more perfect union” and thus “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . .” See, Preamble to the Constitution.

Photo from https://bozemanairport.com/tsa-and-security

Our government is aimed at one thing: taking care of the people who live here in the United States. Government should defend its people from harm. Government—our government, for we are the people whom it was built for—should protect us from threats both foreign and domestic. Government should also protect us against violations of our natural liberties. As Thomas Jefferson explained it in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It should go without saying that strip-searching a disabled young adult at an airport violates everything this country stands for. Indeed, the regulations listed on the TSA website say nothing of strip-searching or cavity searching. The TSA does, however, apparently have the right to “pat us down.” The website itself explains the following:

A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once for the TSA officer to confirm no threat items are detected.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender. TSA officers will explain the procedures to you as they conduct the pat-down. Please inform an officer if you have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the position required; an external medical device; or areas of the body that are painful when touched. You may request a chair to sit if needed.

At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening.

See https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening

Please note that nowhere on TSA’s own website does it speak of strip searches or full body cavity searches. Their own procedures and regulations (at least the ones they make available to the public, who then relies upon these written promises) only speak of “pat-downs,” which are a far, far cry from a strip search or a full cavity search.

Can we rely upon the TSA’s own language as travelers? The simple answer is no. Apparently, the government lies. Or the people who work for the government as TSA personnel violate the policies in some of the worst ways imaginable.

Security checkpoint at Seattle Tacoma (SeaTac) International Airport by Minnaert

Back to the story at hand. Stevie called around ten PM EST. So that’s when I experienced or observed or heard about (however to categorize this when it involves someone who’s like family to you?) my best friend’s daughter being cavity-searched by the TSA. Again, as I mentioned, the girl is nineteen and she’s disabled. She has an IQ of 52. When she checked in at security, she submitted both her military ID (for her mother served in the Navy) and her disability card. Both mother and daughter told the TSA agent that the girl was disabled and was under the legal protection of the mother. No matter.

The girl unpacks her backpack and enters the machine that does full-body scans. Apparently she makes it through the screener. Now, the mom looks away for a split second. A few seconds later, after Mom has grabbed something out of her purse, her daughter’s gone.

Mom is searching now for her disabled daughter.

“She’s been taken into a private room, ma’am,” explains the TSA personnel.

“But she’s disabled, she can’t consent to being taken away!” Mom yells.

No matter.

Disabled daughter is escorted into a closed room. The young lady has no idea what’s happening. She knows nothing of rights to her person. She knows nothing of why they are taking her away into a room.

Meanwhile, Stevie is yelling but her daughter is locked away in a room with no recourse. Several things now happen that go against reason: a man is assigned to strip-search the daughter, but the daughter, now shaking, does manage to object to this. So the man leaves the room and a woman takes over. At no point does anyone explain that the scanner spotted something questionable between the daughter’s legs. Apparently, TSA security is not advanced enough to recognize a maxi-pad or a tampon; indeed, the Internet tells stories of hundreds or thousands of women who have been forced to display their soaked maxi pads or remove their sodden tampons to prove that they are not drug mules or hiding explosives inside their vaginas. That’s what it means to be a women traveling in 21st Century America.

But I digress. Because this is not an ordinary woman who knows how to object, how to refuse to be strip-searched, how to request a family member or friend be present, how to demand the presence of a police officer, or how to simply walk out of the airport and opt out of flying on a plane under conditions that are intolerable. She is legally, mentally, and physically incapable of either objecting or consenting to what’s being done to her.

The mom does everything she can. She’s yelling again and again, “You can’t do this, she is disabled, you cannot take her back there, you cannot violate her rights, she can’t consent!”

The TSA official argues. Mom goes through security despite the possible ramifications and continues to insist, “My daughter is disabled, she cannot give consent to this.” TSA guards block Mom from reaching room. Daughter is not allowed to answer cell phone when Mom calls (which again runs counter to our right to film ourselves while we are being searched and to have a person in the room with us).

So there she is. The disabled young woman is alone in a closed room. She is ordered to remove all her clothing, including her bra, her shirt, her pants, and her underwear. She is then ordered to spread her legs. All of this while she is on her period. Then the girl is CAVITY SEARCHED. “We were looking for drugs,” they explained to the mother later. Or explosives—they didn’t seem to know or care exactly what they might have seen instead of a maxi pad—and maxi pads for the record contain no metallic material whatsoever.

Eventually, after wiping the daughter’s hands to check for signs of explosives, the TSA official opens the door. In full view of everyone who may have been near the gates, the daughter stands there half-dressed, with her shirt still not covering her stomach. She’s shaking and crying when she finishes getting dressed and walks out of confinement.

Is this what we’ve come to in America? We are strip-searching disabled women while they’re on their periods—all without the permission of the young woman’s legal guardian? Are we not more worried about preventing crime than we are worried about protecting the innocent? From their own government? This whole war on terrorism has become a terror, or an attack on innocent citizens.

In the case of this disabled young woman, our government terrorized a U.S. Citizen who was powerless to defend herself. This cavity search was a brutal attack on a disabled person’s very humanity. As a former lawyer, I think in terms of legality, and this was illegal in about nine different ways, but this isn’t just about the law. It’s about the entire purpose of government. It’s about American principles.

We lose our rights piecemeal day by day and our government has become the enemy of all that is human. There’s always a morning after something like this. Like today, I wake up shaking and angry. I see a train and it’s coming toward us all. And I can’t do otherwise–I can’t wave at it and not care, so I try to figure out how to derail it. I’m hurt and angry and there’s some brokenness in me too, but there’s others out there who are more hurt and more broken than I am.

So I must act. Last year, I dedicated my art to peaceful political revolution. My latest book is about preserving the humans who are at the backbone of the political system. Not the system. The individuals who should (who MUST) be protected by it. My work is idealistic. I write and I work on the behalf of those who can’t derail the speeding train of inhumane abuse. I write for people like my beloved Desi, the disabled woman who is subjected to cavity searches by fiat of gray-faced terrorists who act in the name of the United States government.

Maybe this is all that’s left of my idealism. Telling stories to show how the train’s coming and how we can derail it, and in the meantime trying not to suffer too much when I hear about assaults on innocent victims or watch the death reels of white and black men being shot and killed or reading the latest paeans to human cruelty. Government should not be cruel to the innocent, but it is.

These are bad times we live in—it actually hurts me to write that, because I love my country and I love the humans who live under its aegis, but it’s the cold, blunt truth. And we help no one when we hide from it.

 




The Parabola of an Itch

As Wikipedia explains, “In mathematics, a parabola is a plane curve, which is mirror-symmetrical, and is approximately U-shaped when oriented as shown in the diagram below (it remains a parabola if is differently oriented).” No, don’t run away, it’s gets interesting in a minute. Just picture a parabola.

At the top axis on the left is when the itch begins. At the midpoint or bottom, when the number hits zero, is when you reach maximal despair. And at the top right axis, when we’re back at 1, it means you’ve reached nirvana, or the end of the itchiness.

By IkamusumeFan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37254596

When the itch started, it was nothing much. I was sitting on the sofa reading something about the President. I was already experiencing mild consternation. Then I felt something on my foot. I reached down and scratched. Then I scratched some more. Finally, I took my sock off and surveyed the surface of my foot. Three bumps, and some redness. I shook my head and took my sock off.

Eight hours later. It’s three a.m., the time of most of my small and large emergencies. I’m wide awake and scratching; indeed, I was dead asleep and scratching and I know this because the three bumps have multiplied, thickened, and expanded. And my fingers are cramped up, like they’ve been working hard. Busy little fingers. I stumble into the bathroom, apply hydrocortisone, and check the clock. It’s too early, or too late. I go back to sleep.

Five hours later. I’m now about at the 0.75 line, which brings with it a startling recognition: the itch is worse. The rash is spreading. I conduct a mad search for the steroidal cream I’ve been hoarded since the Last Great Itch. This involved poison ivy (cue the song).

I find the steroid cream: the great and wonderful Alclometasone Dipropionate USP, 0.05 %. There’s half a container left. I apply it and smile.

The first day of itching passes. I am still happy more or less. It’s just an itch. A small tiny rash on the top of my left foot. And no, there’s no way it can relate to the Lamictal I’m taking. Never mind that a Lamictal rash can be deadly if untreated. I’m fine.

Day 2.

I wake up and run into the kitchen in search of the steroid cream. “Morning Mom!”

“Ugh I am dying.”

“Want some coffee?”

“In a sec.” I gasp and apply lotion. It will take ten to fifteen minutes to allay the burn. I turn to my son and for the second time that minute, I lecture myself internally: do not scratch it, do not even think about scratching it, do not even think about not scratching it, it’s just a wee little rash. It’s Day 2. I’m still happy, but it’s definitely an itch on the level of a poison ivy. That said, every bout of poison ivy I’ve had has ended more or less on Day 3 once I apply steroid cream. All will be better tomorrow.

 

Day 3, Evening.

I’m on the sofa. It’s cozy. I’m curled up next to my man. Suddenly I sit bolt upright. “Oh my God, Ben, get me the stuff fast!”

“The what stuff?”

“Ben,” Maddie explains, “Her foot is itching, get the white and red itch lotion.”

I cringe waiting. It takes him at least an hour to return with it, and he’s our best runner. After my rabbit returns and hands me “the stuff,” I rub it on and say to my man, “Look at it, is it getting better?”

“Same as yesterday,” he says.

The Red and White “Stuff”

“So it’s not better?”

“No.”

“Is it worse?”

He shakes his head and gives me a sympathetic smile.

“Did you know some people die from Lamictal reactions?”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” I nod sagely. “But this is no Lamictal rash.”

“I suppose you’ve been looking at things on the internet.”

“Not yet.” I swallow, and gaze mournfully at my foot.

Day 4.

Our charity has a big event. I have a speech to give. But my main concern is how to prepare for a night of itching. There will be no removal of socks while speaking. Boots must be worn. Appearances must be maintained. There will be no itching at the Open Mic. It’s two hours before go-time. I sit on the sofa watching football. Iowa’s losing. We are both mournful. We wonder outside at halftime. I am sock and shoeless and it’s freezing cold, but there is hope. It’s been four days. The itch must end soon.

“Sweetie,” my man says.

“Huh?”

“Your toes are turning blue, you should put your socks on.”

I bend my toes and shake my head. “Nope. Blue is a pretty color.”

“It itches that bad?”

“Yes. I think I should cut it off.”

“That’s a little draconian,” he says.

“Not to mention dramatic,” I say.

That night. We get home after midnight. I hop out of my boots as fast as a firefighters hops into his. I leave a trail of socks in my wake and I sprint to the kitchen counter. I grab “the stuff.”

Day 5.

It’s Sunday. I look up the Lamictal pictures. I sigh and quiver a little, but I’m still courageous and staunch. My foot looks nothing like the man in the picture, whose back is covered in burning scabbed-over rash fires. “It’s not a Lamictal rash,” I say aloud. “But they really are fatal, and there’s a black box warning on the label. Says you should call your doctor at the first sign of a rash.” I’m leaning against the kitchen counter, one eye warily watching Ben as he throws a book a few inches from my steroid cream.

“A rash can’t be fatal, can it?”

“Yes, Lamictal rashes can be fatal, says so in the literature.”

He gives me a skeptical look. Then a light of recognition comes into his blue eyes. “I’ve seen men lose arms and feet after a spider bite.”

“That’s nice,” I say. “You could cut my foot off right now.”

“Cut it off?”

“Yes. I don’t want it anymore.”

“But you won’t die from it.” He smiles at me.

“No I won’t, not if they cut it off.”

Day 6.

Monday. Two days before we head to Montana for Thanksgiving.

I take a shower. It burns. And now the bumps have spread to the sides of the ankle. EL, it’s probably a Lamictal rash. It’s been five days and the rash is not responding to anything, I think to myself. Plus, you’re going away in two days.

So I call the doctor’s office. They have no appointments until Friday. I can call back in an hour and talk to a nurse. “Okay, thank you,” I say. Then I write a technical note to the doctor in less than 1,000 characters. Afterwards, I speak to a nurse.

Then I wait. There’s no response. I swallow two Benadryls. I’m sleepy and it still itches. I whine all afternoon, and by the time dinner passes and there’s no phone call, I realize I’ve reached the bottom of the parabola, where all hope is lost.

“Did we ever get a fire extinguisher?” I look at my man and give him a macabre smile.

“We really need to get one,” he says.

“Yeah, we did almost burn the house down when we grilled bacon.” I shiver and then add, “I want to extinguish the burn, we should go out and get a fire extinguisher.”

“Doc hasn’t called back yet?”

“No, what if it spreads to my face? Just get me an extinguisher. Or cut it off.”

“A fire extinguisher would give you chemical burns, it’s not a good idea, but we should have one yes.”

“My face has been itching all day. Did you know Lamictal Rashes can be deadly?”

“You should call her again,” he says.

“I’m in despair, and I’m almost out of steroid lotion,” I say.

“But it hasn’t been helping, you still have a rash.”

“Without it, I would have died,” I say.

“Is this your anxiety talking by any chance?”

I grin. “No, this is righteous and unmitigated despair. People can die from this.”

“From Lamictal rashes?”

“Yes.”

 

Day 7.

I dream of parabolas and wake up wondering two things: one, why didn’t I pay better attention in pre-calculus? If I had, I could’ve gone to medical school instead of law school and now I could be writing my own prescriptions. And two, where did I leave the red and white nearly empty bottle of steroid lotion? And with a groan, I stumble out of bed and search for despair mitigation in a tiny bottle.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parabola#/media/File:Parabola_circle.svg




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