Homecomings

We set out at early enough on Saturday, but one return home for forgotten items and a flat tire later, we arrived at our old friends’ new home late. They moved halfway across the country two years ago, and we’ve only seen them in bits and snatches since. At the end of this past July, a job change brought them in arm’s reach again.

Their son had been asking where Sam and Caroline were since noon when we finally got there. Our kids had been whining, “How much longer?” for most of the two hours since we’d popped on the spare tire, gotten the green light from a gas-station mechanic, and established a driving pace of a slightly wobbly 50 miles per hour.

Their baby, mere weeks old when we met her at an airport hotel, now knows how to run, and has sprouted an uncontrollable spiral of ringlets. Unable to contain my enthusiasm, I shrieked her name.

She fled.

“I don’t know what I expected.”

Scott said, “Let’s get our suitcase.”

“Okay—”

The baby dashed back in, flapping a book overhead. “Youreameathis,” she commanded.

“Scott, you get the suitcase. I’m reading this.”

The boys circled each other warily, suddenly unsure. Sam escaped out back to build a hut from fallen branches, while Caroline and their son played on the X-Box.

“BoomDaBoom,” said the baby, establishing the weekend’s one-song soundtrack.

The adults, who never lost touch to the same degree as the children, picked up old conversations as if we’d never stopped them. But we saw the boys struggling.

Though they played outside some, no game lasted more than a few minutes.

Later in the evening, Caroline and their son returned to video games.

We let them stay up late, and they had a fight about the closet light.

Sam got up at five o’clock Eastern the next morning.

Scott dropped off the car for a new tire, and the electronics revved to life once more.

An outdoor game of real-life Minecraft collapsed when they threatened to throw branches at each other, and Sam actually did it.

It seemed like every moment that we adults fell back into our old patterns, the kids floundered harder to find new ones. “They’ve grown apart,” I said. “I don’t know what I expected.”

But then, their son rushed into the kitchen. “Have you guys seen my volcano? Mom! We need the baking soda, vinegar, and red food coloring.”

He and Sam launched full-scale tectonic destruction out back then took up Sam’s hut-building together. By the time we got our car back, they had found their rhythm at last.

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“I don’t want to leave,” Sam said.

Neither did I. The boys hadn’t had enough time together yet, and we all knew that parting terms mattered.

“Tell you what. At this point, we’re either eating here or on the road. Let’s invite ourselves to dinner again. We’ll get burgers and hot dogs…”

The kids vanished into the backyard before I finished.

Evening fell, and their son narrated a comic strip while the baby “Boom Da Boomed”.

I prepared to announce our departure, but the baby clambered onto the couch beside Sam and flopped a book on his lap. “Youreameathis,” she commanded.

And Sam did. 20160918_193259

It was full dark by the time we finally hit the road, and a nasty patch of storms delayed our arrival home until nearly midnight Central Time.

We didn’t care.

We miss them already.

But we have plans together next month. Our friends have come home, and, for the first time in two years, we’ll see them again soon.

 

Trenches

Really oneMy stagnant fingers grow mud-heavy with grading. Relegated to the same letter-trenches, they add, “Watch for fragments”, “Be careful of run-ons”, and “Cite your sources,” to nearly all my thoughts. Writing is like swimming in a bog.

I’ve never been a free-drafter, capable of simply slamming down on paper the idea, in its worst form. I’m a brain writer, half-composing a symphony of sentences before I turn on the monitor.  By the time I type it out, my story is in its second draft.

When I’m writing, my God I’m prolific. I can slap down six thousand good words in a day. But they stand alone, a tale half-told, for weeks on end, until I’ve figured out the next twenty-five hundred. And then the two pieces don’t match. Tones and moods clash, and my brain is so caught in the suction of “Add your analysis”, “State the logical conclusion”, and “Proofread carefully,” that I botch my own work, over-edit, fail to trust the reader, and undo my own efforts in a wordy torrent that still isn’t strong enough to rip me free.

I’ll get past this. I always do. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my archives and imagine the ghosts I’m conjuring, ephemeral creatures who may never be captured on this unsteady film.

 

On Bike Repair

DSC_0288There is something to be said for fiddling, for taking apart and reassembling without a manual, for hunching in the garage floor with your bicycle’s wheels, and chain, and brakes laid out like a patient’s guts in a poorly lit surgery theatre. There is something to be said for repairing.

My grandfather was a physician, a fixer of the highest order. He operated on stomachs and hearts, limbs and intestines, because in his day, specialists were rare, and general practitioners were operating-room fixtures. He built things at home, too. His basement workshop was heaped with tools on an ugly, practical worktable. I loved that room. I loved that table. But Poppa could work anywhere. He was as happy to concoct solutions in the kitchen as in a friend’s stable. He and his neighbor, an electrician by trade, rewired lamps and broken toys in equal measure, out back, in the driveway.

Until she lost her eyesight, my grandmother sewed. With her sleek, black Singer, Mummum hemmed the corduroy pants I refused to wear and outlined new bodies for the disintegrating wooden doll I wouldn’t surrender. The machine was strictly off limits, since my semi-uncle sewed right through his finger while playing with it in childhood; but I wasn’t drawn to its forbidden nature any more than I was attracted to Poppa’s closed basement door.

I wanted to be with the tools and machines when my grandparents were using them. I wanted to watch and help. I wanted to work as they did, with little regard for printed instructions and manufacturers’ commands.

My mother and I once drywalled two rooms with fifteen minutes’ instruction and half a sheet of roughly jotted notes that we lost an hour into the first bucket of plaster-mud. The result was far from perfect. But it wasn’t shoddy. It remains affixed to her brick walls, as solid as when we hung it, over twenty years ago now.

I still tinker with everything, computers, relationships, manuscripts, and houses, tweaking and perfecting, editing until I learn exactly what it is I’m doing. Sometimes, I work alone. But I’d rather capture an equally curious partner, someone willing to disassemble and bounce ideas around, someone who will make a hash of the whole thing with me entirely to put it back together again, on the off chance that the end product will be better than the initial design.

So the best projects of all are the ones I do with Scott, when we share grease under the nails and half-blistered calluses on the fingertips, when we work so long the children and the sun alike give up on us, when the messy floor is nothing to our euphoria. I love to go to bed, an exhausted pair of Frankensteins, and wake with the certain knowledge that we have created something, that even if that thing falls apart as dawn breaches the horizon, it will never cease to exist, because we made it together, shaped it in tandem, stood side by side, saying to each other, “It’s alive! The balance is perfect; it steers like a dream; it can stop on a dime.”

Handsome bikes. All done

Feeding the Troops

This is a continuation of the e-mail I sent my mother-in-law in preparation for our whirlwind tour of Ohio last week. By the way. Note the absence of a photo in yesterday’s post. I forgot the camera.

Spring Break Shuffle II (Feeding the Troops)

Foods-my-kids-may-eat-depending-upon-the-alignment-of-the-stars. (This is a list to give you ideas – not a comprehensive collection of things I think you should buy for a very short visit!)

Caroline has been eating salads if we let her dump on tons of dressing, cheese, and bacon bits. (She likes it even better if it’s a steak salad.) But by “eating” I mean, “stabbing with a fork while looking skeptical, then chewing several dainty bites to be polite”. (This is a sometimes food.)

Sam will eat very-green-lettuce-but-not-spinach with barbecue sauce. (I know. Yuck. Don’t ask.) (This is a sometimes food)

Sam still eats corn. (So far, unwaveringly.)

Caroline is an avocado fiend (No danger of this one going out of fashion.)

They both really enjoy mangoes right now. (Sam sometimes hates them, though.)

Pears are a huge hit, but they won’t ripen for love, money, nor dark brown paper bags down here. We have one set that Scott got on February 4th. FEBRUARY 4th!! And we’ve had them in a brown paper bag in a toasty corner ever since. We check them daily. One of them rotted. The rest are STARTING to get yellow.

Pasta (But not Caroline. Only Sam eats this right now.)

Mac-n-cheese

If you can convince Sam that a particular meat (any particular meat) was mailed to him by Aunt H. (no idea how she would have done this, but Sam doesn’t understand postal regulations or food preservation laws yet) he will at least try it with barbecue sauce.

Sam eats some lunch meats (usually turkey) with barbecue sauce.

They both eat lasagna (thanks again to Aunt H., who is magic) and the Easy Cheese and Noodle casserole that you gave Scott the recipe for before he went crazy and married me. (That’s thanks to Scott. He cooks this one to perfection.)

Caroline eats hot dogs.

Sam eats yogurt alternate Fridays, if the moon is full, the flavor is “right”, and the texture is “perfect”. Also, if he feels contrary, he doesn’t.

Caroline is a Triscuit fan.

We’ll have Goldfish snacks along with us.

Sam eats cream cheese.

Caroline eats all cheese.

Caroline eats Perogies. Potato and other.

I figured out that her issue with the mashed potatoes at Xmas was that she didn’t want to make you feel bad by dumping what she considers the requisite amount of ranch dressing on them. I told her Grandma didn’t care if she flavored her food. (Ranch dressing is Caroline’s barbecue sauce right now).

That’s all I can think of.

Good gravy. My children don’t need a nanny. They need an executive assistant.

Love,

Jessie

Spring Break Shuffle

Scott and the kids never have overlapping spring breaks. Thus, the only way we can travel is if we yank the kids out of school for a couple of days of Scott’s break and make a mad dash somewhere. Mostly, we go home to Ohio. This year was no different. Though the kids aren’t off until the end of March, we picked them up at the end of the day Wednesday, then headed North for a long weekend.

The best way to start updating you on the state of our union is to give you the e-mail I sent my mother-in-law before the trip to answer her perfectly reasonable questions about our schedule and what my kids eat. Even that will take two parts. (I’ve stripped out all names except my immediate family’s.)

Part I Scheduling

Hi B.,

Sorry it’s taken me an age to get back to you. Thursday, we should be at your house by lunch. (Food ideas below (i.e. part II of this series).

My mother keeps forgetting we’re coming, and is incapable of committing to anything. I’ve been waiting with the vague hope that she’ll do so. I’ve given up and planned around her, ergo, the following runs like one of those logic problems they assign on the L-SAT. with apologies if something turns out not to work.

After lunch, the tenth is actually my Dad’s birthday. Scott and at least Sam will be staying with you for dinner. I may (or may not) take Caroline out to spend the night with Mom. Either way, I’m going to surprise Dad (who has no idea we’re coming) and take him out to dinner.

Friday, we’ll be with you for breakfast and lunch. At some point after lunch we all (you included, assuming you want to come) will trek to Mom’s and admire her renovated house in all its glory. (Possibly, we’ll swap Caroline and Sam. Possibly, we won’t have dropped Caroline on Thursday. We’ll definitely be dropping Sam on Friday, either way.) We’ll have dinner with Mom.

I’m going to attempt to take some kind of a family portrait inside the new house, but not a dressy one. I want to get you in it, but I’m NOT TELLING MOM that I’m going to do this, because she hates pictures, and I have zero family portraits with her in them. Every time I try, she finds an excuse and wriggles out. Half her problem is that she hates getting dressed up, so I’m going for a casual look that shows all of us can smile on cue.

Saturday, you’ve got your thing in the morning. I’ll trek out and retrieve Sam. We’re having lunch with Scott’s Dad & Ch. After that, weather permitting, we’re going to snag you and we’ll all go fossil-izing with Auntie Em. In theory, we’ll part ways at the fossil place after a couple of hours. Mom may meet us for this. Mom may be in outer space. Mom may have forgotten we ever came. However, if Caroline didn’t spend Thursday night with Mom, I’m going to take her to Mom’s on Saturday (because I can no longer let just one kid have a night-at-Nanny’s.) At any rate, Scott, Sam and I (and possibly Caroline) will be with you for dinner, if you haven’t thrown us off the roof by then.(Though, come to think of it, if Mom comes, we may all eat out.)

Sunday, we’ll get out of bed and go, stopping by Eastgate to rescue Caroline around 10 if she stayed overnight with Nanny.

And all of this is in theory, for which I apologize. You had no idea you got the daughter-in-law with contingency clauses instead of a prenuptial agreement. Though by now, you’re probably well aware.

 

Mysterious Eight

So I posted a bunch of links a couple of weeks ago with promises to give more in depth information about each one. I’ve covered the writers conferences, and I’ve covered my new book. I’ll get around to my kids, sooner or later, if for no other reason than because I left Sam hanging from a precipice last time you read about him. (FIGURATIVELY!)

But today, I want to draw your attention to the anthology I’m honored to be a part of. The brilliant Michael Guillebeau, author of Josh Whoever masterminded this plot to introduce readers to new authors. He found seven other writers with  drastically different styles and got us each to provide a chapter sample and a short story.In addition to himself, he got works from me, Lisa Wysocky, Jaden Terrell, Chris Knopf, Kathleen Cosgrove, Lisa Alber, and Larissa Reinhart.  We’re the #MysteriousEight.  He gave the resulting book the inspired title Eight Mystery Writers You Should Be Reading Now and put it up for sale. In fact, it’s a free download for the rest of today (Feb. 21), and it will be free again on Feb. 29. (And it’s only $2.99 otherwise.) A paperback version will soon be available for $12.99.

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Let me pause to go all fangirl for a second here. HOLY SHIT. Go read their biographies. I’ll wait.

GOOD GOD. These people aren’t just writers. They’re WRITERS. They’ve gained serious acclaim. They’ve won awards. They’re really fucking good. And Michael invited me to contribute my stuff alongside theirs. #AuthorDreamComeTrue.

And then something bigger happened. The project became something more than the sum of its parts about two weeks after Michael had identified the final author. He sent around a cheerfully casual e-mail message that Hank Phillippi Ryan would write our foreword. I presume she needs no introduction, but in case you aren’t familiar, I’ll wait while you go read her biography, too.

Okay, so now you understand why I fell off my chair when he said that. Seriously. If I hadn’t already gone into fangirlbliss, that pretty well cemented my location on cloud nine.

And she did more than write a foreword. She also allowed us to contribute to two well respected mystery-author blogs, Jungle Reds and Femmes Fatales. Those are hyperlinks, y’all. Go read them. And go download the book. Other people have used well spoken descriptions like, “a fantastic way to find a new author to love”. But I’ll say it my way. I’m awed to be a part of this group, because these people are fucking awesome.

The Case of the Red-handed Rhesus

Hey internet! To heck with Valentine’s Day. Never mind those dead presidents. This is the week we celebrate my book! The Case of the Red-handed Rhesus is now available in electronic and hardback editions. What are you still doing here reading? Rush over and buy it!

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To Be a Writer

Subtitle: Fun With Foot in Mouth*


This weekend, I was a panelist at Murder in the Magic City and Murder on the Menu. I had a ball, and I made tons of friends, so I must not have been too weird. But there were some cringe-worthy moments, as well.

L-R Me, Debra H. Goldstein, Jim Lavene, and Christopher Lavene All photos courtesy Steve Herring, Murder in the Magic City, and Murder on the Menu

L-R Me, Debra H. Goldstein, Jim Lavene, and Christopher Lavene
All photos courtesy Steve Herring, Murder in the Magic City, and Murder on the Menu

Here’s some of the crazy shit I said…

Gaffe One

On the Murder in the Magic City panel, when asked what social justice issues I liked to see in fiction as a reader, I said autism. I had the questions in advance. I had planned my answer. But I proceeded to give huge compliments to The Mysterious Case of the Dog in the Night and insult the fuck out of House Rules. The ideas fuelling the statements were true. The wording was unintentional.

Later,  another panelist with an autistic character in her series said, “Now I’m kind of worried.” I had to find her and reassure her that her character sounded three dimensional and well-rendered, all the while wondering who the fuck died and made me queen. Oops.

Sorry Kerri! I downloaded Remote Consequences last night. The character is well-done, as is the novel. It is is more than worth reading. I will never insult it from a stage. **

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Gaffe Two

On the Murder on the Menu panel, we were asked what books we were reading now. These were murder mystery conferences y’all. Murder mystery. I had been reading obsessively for the entire weekend to calm my nerves. (If you saw me scrolling through my phone Saturday? I was reading Jim and Joyce Lavene’s Be My Banshee. Urban witch fantasy mystery. Totally enjoyed it.)

I had started and completed four books since Friday. One of those was by a keynote speaker. (Greg Hurwitz’s Orphan X).  And Goddamn, I could not remember a single mystery author or title, not even Hurwitz.

“I yearn for good space horror. Alien set the bar high, and that was the seventies. John Scalzi’s The God Engine is amazing.”

That was the only book I could even think of. Again, utterly truthful. Horribly timed.

Sorry … well, everyone.

Murder in the Magic City. The guy on my left is Greg Hurwitz.

Murder in the Magic City.
The guy on my right is Greg Hurwitz.

Gaffe Three

One last example. This one not, thank God, from the stage with a microphone in hand. Murder on the Menu was in nearby Wetumpka, and there were a couple of friends and fellow authors in attendance. I introduced one of them to a new panelist pal as, “Here’s a guy who doesn’t have his head up his ass.” Yes, I did. (I’m so sorry, Kirk!)

What the fuck?

What the fucking fuck?

Where did that even come from?

Yet another completely true statement worded in the least desirable way possible, and carrying all kinds of unintended implications.

Me with stuffed animals

Me with stuffed animals

I’ll stop there, with the funnies. But I assure you there were more, most of them inane and, mercifully, small. I’ve learned I’m usually the only one who notices my inappropriate word choices in a crowd.

I don’t want to make myself sound like a total misanthrope, because obviously I’m not. Or to come off like I’m incapable of carrying myself in a presentation, because overall, I think I did well. Lots of people wanted to talk to me. I remain unshunned. I’m Facebook friends with my fellow panelists, now. And I had a glorious time at both events.

But seriously.

Picture an office.

Think about someone who introduces well-liked peers as people who “don’t have their heads up their asses”.

Imagine that person in a meeting.

With the company president.

Who happens to be a dick.

And you’ll understand why I have massive workplace anxiety and am employed at an online university. I love to show off my writing, and I get a huge kick out of author events of all sizes. I’m fine whether composing or speaking.

But when I’m not in writer mode, that awkward voice, the one that that blurts out inexplicable things, juxtaposes ideas, and trumpets insults, becomes my only voice. I never know what I’m going to say. It’s like I turn on the “Fire Me” target before the group is called to order.

And that, my friends, goes to the heart of this profession.

I can’t edit my speech. I can only hope it doesn’t offend then apologize after-the-fact when it does.

But I can edit, prune, and clarify my typing. I can perfect my message until, instead of saying something vaguely rude, I craft a message brimming with double-edged snark. And then I can delete the fucking thing before I make an ass of myself.

Because that’s what it means to do what I do, to be a writer.

________________

*Spoiler: In case you were either worried about fistfights or looking forward to violence, you can go ahead and be relieved or bored. The foot in my mouth was my own.

**Amazon’s “thou-shalt-not-compose-reviews-for-authors-thou-dost-know” rule means I’m not able to say so over there. Grrrr.

From Birmingham to Wetumpka: Find me this weekend!

Hey look world, it’s ME! I’ve got lots of exciting news, and I’ll keep it short and sweet for now. In the next couple of weeks, each of these items (except maybe number 5) will get its own post.

  1. Last month, I was one of eight authors included in the anthology Eight Mystery Writers You Should Be Reading Now. Hank Phillipi  Ryan wrote the foreword. I’m kind of blown away to have my name in a book alongside honest-to-God award-winners. EightCover
  2. In other book news, on February 17, you can buy The Case of the Red-handed Rhesus, my sequel to The Marriage at the Rue MorgueCaseOfRedHandedRhesusFront
  3. I’ll be on a panel at Murder in the Magic City on February 6th, (aka this Saturday) in Homewood, AL (it’s near Birmingham).
  4. The following day, February 7th, I’ll be on a panel at Murder on the Menu at the Wetumpka Public Library.
  5. And, best of all, only one of my children has slightly maimed me this month. And it wasn’t Sam. And it’s only a flesh wound, I swear.

Stay tuned for updates, pictures, and odd commentary from the trenches.

The Power in the Song

DSC_0288In one of my earliest memories, mom lifts me out of an amp case. “Honey, you’re getting way too big for that.” I am probably a year and a half old.

I’m driven by music; I grew up vibrating in four-four time. I never believed in love, probably because I always imagined I’d fuck my life up by getting together with a musician. Instead I lucked into this academic who isn’t a big fan of concerts and guitars, who anchors me instead with the kind of harmony that doesn’t need sound.

He understands how I thrive on the other, though.

Last year on our anniversary, Scott stayed home with the kids so I could drive to Birmingham and see The Head and the Heart. In his opinion, he missed getting a sore back. I would have lost out on so much more. Because seeing a good band perform, dancing invisible in the crowd, singing along with every song, these things mend a gaping breach, a soul-chasm that rends and must be re-sewn often.

This past summer, I tried to see Amanda Fucking Palmer, but I went to the wrong stage at the right venue and accidentally fell in love with Songs of Water. Not that I wasn’t pissed about missing AFP. Just that I had so much fun that it was worth it.

I’ve worried about the kids for years now. I always had access to live music as a child, and it’s something we’ve never given them. They’ve absorbed what little we’ve offered. They adore the really bad cover-show Six Flags puts on for Fright Fest. They rocked out when we went to see the Wiggles a few years back for fuck’s sake.

They want to dance in the crush and pulse with the drums. But Caroline’s sensory processing issues and Sam’s behavior problems have made concerts impractical choices, at best. She melts unexpectedly, and he’s still apt to vanish without warning. Nonetheless, when I found out Houndsmouth was coming to Athens, Georgia, about three hours away from us, I hit an impasse.

I mumbled my way out of The Head and the Heart thing with the kids. They had school the next day and I didn’t sit down once in four hours. They aren’t as into AFP as I am, so I dodged that bullet, too. (Just as well, since I went to the wrong concert.)

But they share my taste in music. Houndsmouth is probably Caroline’s favorite band right now. Sam’s still only eight, arguably too young (though by whose standards I’ve begun to wonder). But Caroline just turned twelve. I couldn’t justify leaving her behind again. So I packed earplugs, made sure she wore practical shoes with good insoles, and got her a ticket for her birthday.

Best. Decision. Ever.

2015-09-29 21.34.54She stomped in time and withstood the press of the crowd. She understood without being told when to clap her hands above her head and scream for more. She seemed to sing every line, even to songs she’d never before heard.

And I knew without question that I’ve waited far too long for this. I’ve let asshole suburban values stand between my kids and something fundamental. And make no mistake, this is my responsibility.

Scott is not at fault here. We’re a parenting team, yes. I’d never commit to anything so momentous without his support, and any real decisions are made by the two of us, not by me in rambling blog essays. But I want to be clear that I’m pissed at myself here, not him. He’s not standing around hovering hen-like, trying to hold them back.

I should have known from my own experiences how important this is. I should have been taking Caroline to shows for years now, and I need to get her to another one soon. More than that, next time, I need to take her brother, even if I have to fasten him to my side with superglue.

Rock-and-roll isn’t an adult-only experience. Kids need it, too, mine more than most. They need to hear music when they can feel it. They need to go to the place where the band telepathically supplies the lyrics and the audience amplifies the song. They need to be assimilated into a whole far larger than the sum of its parts. They need to metamorphosize into the thing they are singing and emerge rejuvenated from the collective. They need to become the fabric that stitches itself whole, even as new edges fray and shred.

Music does its own teaching without lecture aids or slide projectors. Those things have their places, even for the artists themselves. But the love begins in the experience. Concerts are the first places Caroline and Sam will completely see their own potential to create.

Why in the hell have I withheld that?

I can’t remember any longer.