Saturday, December 28, 2019

Where My Reading Took Me in 2019

Writers need to read, so it's good to look back at the year's consumption. I'm a notoriously slow reader, but ho! I did pretty well in 2019.

Finished Cover-to-Cover

These were a mix of old, new, famous and not-so-famous. Dan DeWeese and Leni Zumas are from the Portland, Ore., scene. The surprise was Elizabeth Hand. Need to read more of her. Venus was a major disappointment.

How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Fire. Plus... by Elizabeth Hand
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Gielgud by Dan DeWeese
I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan
On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Ten Poems about Love selected and introduced by Lorraine Mariner
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Still Want to Finish

Whitney Otto also comes out of the Portland writing community. Keya is my dear friend in western North Carolina who is incredibly smart and translated the work from Sanskrit. Yeah, it's okay to feel small now.

Dear Life by Alice Munro
How to Make An American Quilt by Whitney Otto
Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita by Keya Maitra
Game of Thrones, Book One, by George R.R. Martin

Started But Lost Interest In

Gosh, I wanted to like all of these, but my attention span can't absorb multiple characters, too many plot lines (oops, I wrote a book like that!), or over-indulgent, self-centered figures (Henry and Hunter).

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Cat's Fancy by Julie Kenner
Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis
Hunter, The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S Thompson by E. Jean Carroll

Went Back to Again and Again

The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama, Desmund Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke by Anchor Books

Still to Read

It's good to have goals!

Moby Dick by Melville
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr


Sunday, December 22, 2019

How to Be Connected but Disconnected

My tracking device, that is my smartphone, got a good talking to today. I told it, Hey, listen, I'm putting some limits on this knowing-what-I'm-up-to-every-sec-of-the-day routine. I suppose the steps I took to undo my location finder (at least) will help a fraction from my info being bought and sold in an unseen exchange within a dark transaction void used by the multi-national corporations.

This romantic notion that I can somehow spare myself and my children from become marketable data or monitored targets may be a little futile. I frequently wonder what it would be like to go "off-the-grid" entirely. The grid just sounds like a torture machine. There's a certain allure to living so independently from everyone and everything "connected." People write books about disconnecting. I have several friends who have tried it or are nearly disconnected. But in truth their lives seem more connected or tuned to other things, mainly nature and art. They're doing the modern version of Walden Pond.

It's an American ideal to do everything yourself, on your own, those proverbial bootstraps. I'm not talking necessarily about living without running water or electricity. My friend who tried that on the Kansas prairie ended up retrofitting his house when he got remarried. Let's face it, we want to be comfortable.

But do these crazy smartphones of ours, that have more computing power in them than was available on the Apollo 13 mission, give us the comfort we really desire? I'd argue no. Yet I spend far too much time on my phone, and if I can't look at the notifications or check the temperature or use my calendar, I get a little agitated. The computer engineers designed them that way! Miss me when I'm gone. It's a strange feeling now to walk around without one. Maybe I need to spend a few days away from it. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe forever? Maybe I'd write more. I'm pretty sure I'd still be living and breathing and enjoying the world without it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Birthdays Last Forever

This post is six in one. I'm one of those rare people who, as she ages, appreciates her birthdays more and more. They are a happy, motivating force. So, I've been writing short essays for my Birthday Week on Facebook the last few years. Here's the 2019 set. Enjoy!

Not Sucking

The day she removed the note from her refrigerator door reminding her not to suck—a note that met her each morning as she pulled the creamer carton from the clear plastic shelf knowing she would feed the cats first—she decided that “not sucking” was far too low a bar to set. The opportunities for an employed American woman with a low mortgage interest rate and a high credit score afforded her options much sweeter and exotic than surviving the day without feeling like she owed someone something or had screwed up that one important Thing-I-Will-Do.

No. She was not sucking. Not anymore. She was ! so ! not sucking that the conceit of the idea suggested a need for pity. Sure, she’d had her challenges: a dead husband, a steep learning curve into single parenthood, a stuttering career that had placed her in late middle age skating along the edge of under-employment. And her lovelife. Yes, the men. Sigh. How could she truly discern which of them didn’t suck, the few who had brought a minor twinkle to her eye. Hell, all she wanted was to be held and told “It’s not all going to suck.”

She was going to have to give the not-sucking pep talk to herself. No one else would do it less-sucky. It needed to come before her coffee. Before the cats. Before the shower for work. Before she dealt with the kids. Before she kissed the next man. Before she wrote yet another essay in third person. Before she opened the chapter to another year of not sucking. “No, my dear, you’re not sucking. Everything that could possibly suck, has. Now, get on with it. You’re fabulous.”

Dear Hands

Dear Hands:
Where have you been all my life? In front of me, that’s where, like a guiding, driving force. Can you remember holding anything for the first time? My mother’s finger in your tiny baby palm? And what about a Cheerio or your first ice cream cone? Mouth loved those so much.

Did you think holding Dad’s hand was special when you needed to get up and walk for the first time? Feet were always one step behind you. They would never hold a Crayon or shuffle a deck of cards.

And, then, one day, you wrote! It was you and Brain from then on—attached at the hip (haha). You were Brain’s tool. He told you what to write and when and how, and in your wish to comply, you wrote all those long handwritten letters to your great-great long lost aunt whom you never met and to your Gramma Mimi and to your cousin, whose letters you stuffed into small white envelopes and sent with God knows what inside.

You learned to write a lot of big words and to erase a few, too. No one was really looking at you or the rest of us either. It didn’t matter much whether we got any attention, and it didn’t make any sense to complain. It was easier to go to the cupboard for a cookie.

But, then, the typewriter!

Who was our first typing teacher? Maybe Mrs. Lane, a large Nordic-looking woman who gave us spiral-bound practice books to complete mindless exercises. Ff, Jj, Kk, Ss, and did you know there were so many other sentences that used the entire alphabet other than “The quick brown fox …”? Me neither.

You really were a showoff, Hands. You knew how to fly across those typewriter keys and kick the hell outta QWERTY. The IBM Selectric was a goddess of a machine. Maybe after her we just didn’t care for pencils anymore.

And then you got really snotty in college as the typesetter for the student newspaper. But Brain wouldn’t have it. He wanted YOU to write, not just decode everyone else’s writing for the weekly rag. Did typesetting feel like second-class citizenry? Never mind, because you turned into a journalist. Yet, come to find out, you weren’t quite fast enough at note-taking. The tape recorder took over your scribbling job. You spent years afterward as a glorified transcriptionist. Don't worry, we appreciated the effort.

Your dexterity came in handy later. When the smartphone showed up. Lord, what would we do without Thumb?! The master of all texting. A savior. A god.

Let me say, all that transcribing and gophering for Brain hasn’t quite been the pinnacle of your life. In fact, those things you wrote were third-string compared to the important stuff.

You held my babies and never failed.
Cuddled their precious new skin.
Nestled hunger against my breast.
Stroked tufts of hair freshly washed with Johnson & Johnson.
Delivered electric love with a fingertip on a teary cheek.

And wasn’t THAT something?
Something worth writing about.

(Thank you, Nina Hart, for inspiring Dear Hands!)

This Lil Monster Love

(Last year, after posting some of my Birthday Week essays, several friends commented that the pieces seemed kinda sad. That wasn’t my intention when I wrote any of them, and I assure you I’m not sad writing any this year. So, please don’t worry. I’m okay. I am. If anything, I’m 100% human. Always agitating for more. 😎)

The word—get—is not my favorite. It’s guttural and sounds like it’s picking a fight: Get XYZ. I need to get XYZ. If I don’t get XYZ, I’m coming to get you.

But, we don’t always get what we want, thanks Rolling Stones. Beyond food, clothing, shelter, the necessities, getting what we want all the time, all the way, just doesn’t happen. Let’s call those our Lil Monster Needs.
Lil Monster Needs will keep you up at night.
These Lil Monster Needs could fill a garbage bag a week. If you believe in religion, you might advise us, the keepers of the Lil Monsters, to go in peace. Peace be with you .. and your bagful of Lil Monsters. Drop them off along the street corners, maybe, in black Hefty garbage bags where they can slump next to the other bags o’ Lil Monsters in the neighborhood, forming rows of holes to be filled. Then, the garbageman might come along on his Monday route and find that he can’t fit all the Lil Monsters in the back of his dumpster. Where will they all go, still calling out to their owners, who can hear them quite crystally clear from their dining room tables next to the picture windows with the blinds closed?

One need in my bag calls out particularly strong from its pre-final-resting-place at the bottom of my driveway when I place it there each week. Its voice could travel a hundred-thousand miles or from a dirty ditch three counties over and be flattened by bulldozers five times a day and covered by a layer of dirt, but still I’d hear.

‘Feed me love,’ it says. And not just any kind of love, but an expansive, immortal love for which there may be no source. It is a hungry, greedy need—this Lil Monster Love—whose teeth have some mighty sharp ends. It knows how to get me. And maybe you, too.

Bury it where you’d like. It’ll find you anywhere you go.

Ghost Riders

Two years ago this week, I decided to reaquaint myself with bicycling. I’d been off my bike for about 15 years. Bicycling had become something I’d do at the beach or on a special outing. When I lived in Portland, the biking capital of the U.S.A., even then, I hadn’t been a serious rider. But I wanted to make a lifestyle change and contribute to Asheville’s shift toward becoming more bicycle-friendly.

It took a leap of faith to overcome my fears of biking in a hilly town where there aren’t a lot of bike lanes. Asheville’s population is about 91K and is surrounded by the Smoky Mountains, so it still has a lazy feel to it compared to Portland or Austin, Texas, cities that are often considered its contemporaries. Biking has been slowly taking hold here, and I’ve started riding at a time when a small but growing band of others are, too. In many respects, I see this as my effort to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

What I didn’t anticipate when this adventure started was how biking is both a solo venture and a ride-along. Not that I’m commuting with a bunch of folks or organizing group rides to promote the culture here. My companion riders aren’t really real. They’re all people—living and dead—and memories, just a few ghosts that tag-along in my head.

I’ll admit, the number of streets I’ve been on continues to expand and so do my ghost riders. Here’s one: my 12-year-old self, who used to ride from Franklin Street in Clinton all the way to Artesian Park for swim team practice. My old high school friend (now a ghost rider), Maria, and I made those trips together, and once I ran into the back of her bike and flattened her back tire. Her dad called me Crash Fulford after that. Thank goodness I haven’t lived up to that name. But pre-teen me is frequently on my rides.

One of my first ghost riders, obviously, was Daryl. He’s most vividly with me when I’m on a trail. There’s a short urban trail about a mile from my house, and almost every time I’m on it, I think of his last ride. He was mountain biking near Portland when he passed away. He became short of breath and stopped to rest. He sat down at a wooded spot and lost consciousness from heart failure. A friend, Ethan, was with him. He rides with me, too. For Daryl’s funeral, friends marked the spot on the trail by nailing a bracelet that Daryl had made to the tree he was near. It’s simply engraved “LIVE.”

A man I never knew, Ray, rides with me because I inherited his bike. He was a friend of a friend and a rider in Asheville, way before me, and he died not too long ago. I’d been searching for a commuter bike when I was told his family wanted to re-home his. I met his grown daughters shortly after his death. They had that look about them that I had when Daryl passed, stunned resignation. I was thankful for the affordable option their dad’s Diamondback gave me, and it’s been a solid bike on the street and gravel. Thank you, Ray. I appreciate the loaner.

Another tag-along, my daredevil side, also rides along. Darn it if I can’t shake the desire to speed. I always do my best to stay safe, but the thrill-seeker in me can get a little itchy. I ALWAYS wear a helmet and almost always a safety vest and carry lights in case the sun goes down. So, there’s that.

My teenage kids ride with me, too, in spirit, as do many friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who often want to know about my riding adventures. Riding a bike is an adventure for people who don’t. I always see something I wouldn’t if I were in my car. Just a few days ago, I saw a public mural I’d never noticed on a building in the middle of town. How could I miss it? Because driving just does.

I’ve been on hills and trails and sidewalks and bike lanes and neighborhoods and parks. When I’m in my car for other commutes, almost always I’ll drive down roads that I’ve now cycled on. My cycling has criss-crossed the city and its bumps.

One street in north Asheville passes by the location where Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, spent time in a home for mental health patients. It’s a scenic and hilly spot and not a place that anyone would necessarily say, “Let’s ride there.” It’s off the beaten path. And I always think: Wow, she lived here. She slept and ate and maybe wrote here. Though her husband earned the notoriety, she was also a tremendous writer and, from what I’ve seen of her work, had an incredible knack for words and story. Unfortunately, she also died in the institution during an accidental fire in 1948. I can’t help but wonder if maybe her ghost is sweeping across the grounds when I ride by. Out of deference, I nod my head occasionally. One free-thinking woman writer to another.

A Master

It's late and dark out, and I owe myself an essay. Not you, me. I want to write Birthday Week Essay #5 because it compounds the doing. Here’s where a self-reminder helps. The product of this week is not in the numbers—the word count or the days in a row that I can dash off something worth reading. I tend to become wrapped up in the product, the outcome. What do I have at the end? Something I can sell? Something I can point to of publishable quality in the competitive world of literary works? Something that drives my friends, family (you!) to buy one of my books? I’m not writing any of these essays for those reasons. I’m writing because of the love of the doing. I celebrate my life by doing this thing I love.

I’ve taken enough writing classes and practiced to a degree that I understand doing is good in and of itself. This is not the same as mastery. At one class years ago, with a best-selling memoirist (I may have the details wrong), the message she drove home was: the only way to become a master writer was to write for 10,000 hours. Where she got that figure, I don’t know. That comes out to be about 20 years of 40-hour work weeks. At that rate, I’ll never be a master writer. I’ll always be a doer.

In retrospect, what do we ever master when the bar is so high? For me? Naturally, there are a few things. Some good, some unfortunate:
Worrying, that evil energy-suck.
Breathing, thank God.
Eating, the great necessary indulgence.
Sleeping, though losing the skill to age.
Failing, this essay, perhaps.
Wanting, always always.
Caring, about my family, friends, the planet.
Hoping, never caving to the dark.
Learning, by the doing.

I’ll keep doing this, if you promise to keep doing the thing you love. What do you love? Go do it.


Remember that craze in the 1990s that had millions wearing rubbery bracelets marked with WWJD? The What Would Jesus Do? message essentially was: do good works and act morally as a demonstration of Jesus. I never quite caught the fever. But in the last few years, as I’ve navigated solo-mom duties and faced a lot of consequential decisions alone, I’ve come up with my own coping mantra: What Would Jack Fulford Do? Or, for short, WWJFD.

Jack Fulford, my father, happens to be salt-of-the-Earth stock whose moral and intellectual compass closely matches mine. I guess that shouldn’t be any surprise. All bias aside, I’ve come to understand that practicality and common courtesies are a little scarce these days. The world isn’t such a nice place on the other side of my front door. Now, you’re probably thinking: ‘She’s paying tribute to her father because that’s what a grateful daughter would do in some fashion once they meet a certain age.’ True, to some degree, and as I celebrate another birthday, my age does instill a smidgen of perspective.

Yes, I love my father. He’s a decent man with decent morals and a sense of wonder and a little bit of compassion that hasn’t been killed off by cynicism. But, he is human. He’s got his faults, too. He’s sometimes slow to motivate, more of a plodder than a sprinter on decisions and actions. He deliberates occasionally with the speed of Chicago rush-hour traffic. You just gotta wait it out. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his share of bright ideas that, when executed, tend to look a little impetuous to an outsider.
For instance, on a recent flight of mine into KC International Airport, he showed up in an old Honda Acura, having just bought it for the visit. It was an impulse buy, by most standards, out of convenience. Rather than haul me and his grandchild around Missouri in the cramped cab of his Chevy pickup with our baggage thrown in the truckbed, he’d opted for second-hand luxury. Family required a trunk and a backseat, so we piled in (albeit, after we stood for a good five minutes in the parking garage trying to figure out how to turn off the car alarm).

A year ago in July, Dad and I went on a two-day, two-night excursion on an Amtrak train across the West. We’d cooked up the idea after my first train trip earlier in the year. We both reserved sleeping berths that included meal service in the dining car. And from Denver to San Francisco, we basically spent the entire time talking. It was an unbelievably precious 48 hours. In those two days, we commiserated about the past, about politics, about books, about people, and the funny and tragic circumstances that glued our family together. We watched incredible scenery roll by and passed through historic locations (site of the Donner Party) and natural wonders (the Salt Flats). Pauses in our conversation, when we had any, were always a segue to a new subject. We smiled and laughed a lot and wondered with grave concern what the future would bring, for us, for our families, for our country. We met some interesting characters on the train, people we would have never encountered elsewhere (a young man who sang in the San Fran Opera and his artist girlfriend), and left each other with new stories to tell. Storytelling is a good skill to hand down. It centers you to your people.

Obviously, my gratitude for that trip is immense. For those of you who’ve lost your father, I am so incredibly sorry. This includes my own children, who will not have the opportunity to spend time with their dad in adulthood. For those of you who do not have a relationship with your father or parents, my well of sympathy runs deep. I am fortunate. Looking ahead, there are still plenty of blindspots. There’ll be more days of decisions that are tough and that I’ll feel ill-equipped to handle. But, I’ve got my backup. WWJFD.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Brutal Assessment of A Writer's Reality

Yes, I've written a book.
Yes, I wrote another.
Yes, there's a third.
Of course, two-ish untested manuscripts attract dust in a bin.

So what?
That doesn't make me an authority.
That doesn't make me popular.
That doesn't make me write any more.
That doesn't make me happy.
That doesn't make me think I could do any of it again.

They were just something I wrote.
I will probably write again.
I may write quite a bit.
I may just think about writing quite a bit.
I may just think about nothing.

Then there's Octavia.
She did what we all do.
Even though she was famous.
Even though she had it going on.
She still needed to remind herself.
Write down why and how she should write.
Reframe the self-doubt, the weakness of spirit.
Push herself to keep writing.

Because, fuck, this is lonely business, and sometimes it gets you nowhere except inside your own head.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Consuming Art, Making Do

When my energy is low for writing, my secret is to consume art. Any kind will do. A gallery or a museum. A movie, old or new. A performance. Live music. Those make me want to write because experiencing other works by other artists, struggling or otherwise, gives me hope and inspiration.

Television, the cable version, doesn't. I don't even have cable (to my family's chagrin).

This is my first post of 2019 because I took the month of January to finish the draft of my last Musketeer book. Then, it took about two months to prepare it for publication. It had been hanging over me for more than a year. I'd drafted most of it in 2017 during National Novel Writing Month, then didn't pick it up again until late last year. I kept telling myself: "It will only take a few weeks to get 'er done." The ending foiled me. Nothing seemed to click, and I finally decided it just had to be over. Someone had to die, and it couldn't be the main character (because, well, Dumas kept writing about Athos after the time period in which I placed him). I found this book to be the most difficult to write because the ending just never naturally showed up like the previous two books. The options were many and my decisiveness, missing.

I'm not necessarily unhappy with the story. The last book wraps up the loose ends to my satisfaction. However, there's no sex in it, probably a big downer to readers of the first two novels. Brace yourself. It's just about a big, redemptive sword fight (no puns).

Another issue bothers me: the  first book in the series isn't widely available. On Amazon, the prices of Book One (Blood, Love and Steel) are astronomical. That's because the book is not available unless purchased as a used copy, and the secondary vendors have jacked the price. However, my shelves are flush if you want a copy. Not much I can do for the random shopper.

All this is to say, I'm making do. I'm relieved the last book is finished. The story stands on it own. It's a nice tribute to the original Dumas novel. There were a lot of days when I went looking for art to get me off my duff to finish the series and keep my head full of hope. All the other artists who piece it together gave me reasons to go on. Making art is a joy and sometimes a burden. It will fulfill you and make you frustrated. Do it anyway.