Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Jackpot Question

2016 sucked dog balls. If you weren't fortunate enough to have spent the last twelve months in a medically induced coma, this should come as no real shock to you. From the nearly ceaseless reaping of just about every actor/artist/musician or writer I actually liked to the election of the KKK endorsed Tangerine Abomination of Desolation to the highest office, 2016 has been a shit-show.

But 2016 wasn't just a public shit-show for me. It was also the year my health suffered a major collapse, one which landed me in Loyola hospital for three days after a routine Gyno visit revealed something that looked very suspiciously like the sort of cancer you just don't walk away from. It wasn't, but that knowledge only helps so much. And if you happen to see me in real life, I'm still not actually up to talking about it all that much. I'm starting to come to terms with what psychologists irritatingly call "the new normal," but it's a long, hard road to go, and I hate actually talking to people as much as most writers do. Which is to say, like cats hate Christmas, motherfucker. Be advised.

The ambitious goals I'd set for myself, consequent to the health bullshit, remained mostly sidelined. The mental bandwidth just wasn't there. It wasn't a total rout. I started working as a proofreader. I did submit a few pieces of writing for publication. I wrote some posts. Most significantly, I finished the strongest NaNo novel I've written so far, and I actually started revising it. This is a long stretch from failure, and considering all the obstacles this bitch kitty of a year's thrown in my way, I'm going to choose to be happy with myself.

But I do want better for myself, and I've started actually believing I just might deserve it. Better doesn't happen without some sort of game plan, and as it's New Year's eve, that game plan may as well be in the form of resloutions because fuckit.

So, without further ado, here are my 2017 New Year's resolutions in no particular order and gift wrapped with a bow for your reading pleasure.

1) Run an Ultra Marathon: I have been wanting to do this pretty much since my bleeding feet slipped out of my running kicks ten minutes after crossing the finish line of the Chicago Marathon with my good buddy Cathy. Running is my happy place. It makes me feel alive, and I can use a lot more of that in my life.

2) Write one blog post a week:

This was my goal last year, and I didn't even come close. Oh well, it's still fun, and I still find myself thinking of topics and coming up with all manner of snark and silliness. Also, the blog is a good way of challenging myself to step a little way out of my ever-so-narrow comfort zone.

3) Get Politically Active:

I'm not taking the election of fat Voldemort lying down. Reading and sharing legit news stories and voting isn't cutting it any more. Like most people, I don't know a huge amount about boots-on-the-ground political activism, so as a first step I signed myself up for Citizen Muscle Boot Camp, a four week course on political activism I found out about on Best of the Left. How the rest of the year is going to unfold, I don't know yet. This is just a down payment. I'm fucked off and ready for a fight.

4) Finish the first draft of my 201 NaNoWriMo novel:

I've already put a healthy down payment on this one in December, but my goal is to average about 400 new words a day and two to four revised chapters a month. That should get me about to where I need to be by the end of next year without making me want to tear my own hair out. As an ancillary goal, when I'm asked what I'm up to, I'm going to tell people I'm writing a novel. Because it's not an exaggeration. I am. 

5) Get a better job: 

I'm a frugal person, and I have health insurance, so a hospital stay shouldn't have been such a huge setback. It was. There's only so much saving can do for you, and at this point I just need to look out for myself and my bottom line. I mean to be payed better for my hard work.

6) Pay off all of my medical debt:

This one explains itself. I don't want to be carrying around this ball and chain any longer than I have to. I want my next 4k expenditure to be a fucking European hiking trip or some shit. Not a three day stay at a "hotel" where they wake you every two fucking hours to stick you with anticoagulents and check your vitals. All respect to the people who took care of me, you saved my life literally, but if I never see any of y'all again it will be too soon.

7) Submit my shorter writing for publication:

Why the idea of joining a live-action version of The Long Walk doesn't phase me while thinking about sending my writing to a real live human for maybe even money makes my heart race and my vision black out is a real mystery to me. But this obstacle is old, and I'm bored with it. So next year I want to send out one piece of writing a month for publication. That is it. I have enough of a short story backlog that I could do this without even writing anything new. So why not take a risk? Literally nothing bad could happen to me besides a rejection..Oh the fuck well.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


                I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: 5:30am is an unholy hour. The season doesn’t really help matters. Autumn in Northern Illinois means running in the dark. Running in the dark is an added layer of bullshit. Ipso facto, a 5:30am run during Autumn is premium grade nope wrapped in tender strips of fuck this noise.
There are advantages to early morning autumn runs that nearly compensate. When you run tethered to a meaty little pit bull, running before the ass crack of dawn means few small and fuzzies are out to chase and kill. Not none, mind you. But few. And if you’ve ever had your arm nearly dislocated because a squirrel tried to commit suicide-by-dog, you’ll take what you can get, and you’ll be thankful.
Then there’s the air. When everything’s right, it’s so cool and dry this time of year, you can just run as fast as you want until hell freezes over or the sun comes up, and you’ll never, never overheat. It’s bracing but not so cold that you have to start worrying about frost bite or layering or any of that happy horseshit.
The stars are out still too. This time of year, you can see Orion, bright as fireworks in the West. The moon is nowhere close to setting. The sky is vast. You are miniscule.
Fifteen minutes of that, watching your breath fog out before you, feeling the blood course through your veins and lungs like liquid fire, it’s just about possible to forget that just about all the house lights around you are still out, and it’s because well-adjusted people are still sleeping. Also, the weather in Northern Illinois is usually overcast and/or drizzling steadily, so if you could see through your glasses, it would sort of just look like the back of your eyes anyway. And then there’s your body, which feels like it should be asleep still and not dealing with your particular brand of tomfuckery.
Do I like running before dawn? Umm, like may not be the right word. There’s a satisfaction to be had in mortifying that soft, comfortable side of my personality. When I do it I feel a little more present, a little less like those small, shivering things my dog likes to kill and a little more like, well, the creature preying on them. The world comes into sharp focus. That’s probably not something you wanted to hear, but it’s the truth.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Coffin Nail For Your Nice Girl

They tell you to be nice, the adults, and at first you think you understand what that means. It means you should be gentle. You should measure the impact of your words and your actions. It’s fair, and you see that because you know what it’s been like when people weren’t gentle with you. It doesn’t feel good.
But somehow, somewhere the meaning of niceness shifts. It means don’t contradict people, even when you know they’re wrong. It means always smile. Confusingly, it means there are certain things you just shouldn’t wear, and certain ideas you shouldn’t espouse. It means keep doing things for people even when you don’t want to. It means keep the peace at all cost. It means making yourself so small, so gray, so you can fit into your tiny little life.
At some point niceness becomes foot binding for the soul.
When I was a little girl, I used to jump out of the second story window of my brother’s bedroom. It didn’t occur to me that this was a bad idea, that I could land wrong and break an ankle. It was just another way to get out of the house. I favored it because it was slightly less boring than the stairs.
There was a pine tree in our back yard. After school, I would climb to the top with a paperback novel tucked in my pants. I would up there, looking down at the top of my house and reading Asimov and Ellison and Herbert, while the tree swayed back and forth in the breeze. Fear never entered my consciousness.
I couldn’t say exactly when all of that changed or how. But a little over a month ago, I woke up from surgery--a very nice woman with a very polite little job who had done precisely nothing she set out to do. What I had to show for all the compromises was ashes and dust in my mouth. I was sick of being so very nice, so very responsible, and I was done. Done giving my time to jackasses. Done being contented with whatever was left over. Done with all the compromises that are entailed in being a nice person.
A week ago I began the long, painful process of surgical rehab. There’s nothing quite so bracing to the ego as crapping out after 15 minutes of yoga and two mile runs when you’re used to being able to do a 15 mile run pretty much whenever. But each shitty yoga session and each sad little run is driving a coffin nail into the nice girl I was for all those years. The person who’s arising is fierce. She goes places and has adventures. She has no room in her life for fatuousness and safety. She is many things, but never, never make the mistake of thinking she’s a nice girl.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Those Cultists Have Awfully Red Necks

               As a little girl, I was a regular patron of our local second-hand book store. This was despite the fact that the owners had Rush Limbaugh and the 700 club blasting from the radio whenever I went there and that 80% of the stacks were dedicated to moldering Harlequin Romances. I went there because paperbacks went for ¢.10, and hardbacks went for ¢.50, and that was the kind of money I could easily pull together from weeding or raking. And finally I went there because in the very back room, there were shelves and shelves dedicated to science and science fiction. This smelly, dusty, moldy little hole in the wall is where I stumbled upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

                Twelve is pretty much the perfect age to stumble onto Lovecraft. At twelve, you’re young enough not to realize that pseudo-King James language is not a stylistic plus. You’re young enough to get grabbed right by the brain stem and into an endless sea of cosmic, impersonal horror. Lovecraft has informed my sense of what is pants-shittingly terrifying, so whenever I see a book that plays in this cold and uncaring sandbox, my interest is piqued. The fact that Lovecraft Country is by Matt Ruff, the author of Bad Monkey, a book about a bona-fide female anti-hero, only sweetened the pot.

                And then I turned over the book and read the summary. Atticus Turner, a WWII vet from Chicago, finds out his father has gone missing the summer of 1954. He and his Uncle George, publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, have to find him because, you know, Cultists. (For those who haven’t read Lovecraft, Cultists feature heavily in the dude’s fiction.) The premise sold me, 100%.

                Structurally, this novel is a lot of fun. It’s more of a series of short stories tightly interwoven with a subtle dramatic arc than a standard novel with a central protagonist, which was kind of what the book summary led me to expect. I feel like it was a more challenging narrative to craft, but Matt Ruff really managed to keep all those balls in the air. He gave just enough information to forestall confusion while keeping the level of suspense painfully high. I am a pretty disciplined person, but I have to admit blowing past my scheduled bed time more than once during the reading of Lovecraft Country. Back in the day, I would have joyfully pulled an all-nighter to finish this book. 

                The stories each have a distinct theme, some more overtly Lovecraftian than others, but the overall feel of the novel was more of a nod to 50’s pulp horror. If you’ve done any listening to radio drama from the period, narratives like Horace and the Devil Doll will feel particularly nostalgic. Holy shit snacks, he even drops in a reference to Das Kriegsspiel, the granddaddy of Dungeons and Dragons. But like a writer worth his salt, Ruff makes these classic tropes work for the narrative in some really interesting ways, examining issues of race and class in both the segregated south and the supposedly more liberal north.

                For all of the strangeness of Lovecraft Country, with its cultists and its doors into hostile, alien realms, the shadow that looms deepest over the lives of Atticus Turner and his family is racism. The 1950’s tend to get held up as a “more wholesome time” in white American culture, but there’s a lot of overtly horrifying stuff that gets swept into the shadows. Lovecraft Country is at its most unsettling not when the opponents aren’t natural philosophers trying to unlock untold power, but when the Turners are making their way in white American spaces. The threat of violence is always in the air. Always. At one point, Atticus is pulled over by a cop in Indiana and learns that he’s in a Sundowner Town with just minutes to spare before sunset. 

                Sundown in Indiana was of many points where Ruff could have taken a side road. Lovecraft Country could have gotten a whole lot grimmer. A whole lot more claustrophobic. It’s not so much a criticism I’m leveling here. Writers have to make choices that will limit what a novel can do. Ruff’s choices were legitimate, they served to make Lovecraft Country my choice of this summer’s good read. But there’s a novel out there that hasn’t been written yet, one in an entirely different Lovecraft country, where all the real monsters wear human faces, one that I think deserves to be written.