This Is Where I Live

Please indulge me while I make it about me for a second:

This is my home. I live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, along with thousands upon thousands of other people. I don’t keep a home here and go back to my constituency every summer and winter. I don’t intern here and go back to where I came from. And I sure as hell don’t go to places where other people live and try to overthrow the government.

I live close to the National Guard Armory, and during our nightly walks, my roommate and I stroll by it. We have never seen people there before this month. Dozens of buses filled with camouflage-wearing men and women have been pulling up. The streets are full of soldiers, and armored vehicles drive past my block constantly.

The Capitol is close to my apartment. It’s far enough that a walk home from there while having to go to the bathroom is agony, but it’s close enough that it dominates the skyline if I walk a couple of blocks. It’s close enough that, if some entitled psychopaths decided to start torching residences, it wouldn’t take them long to reach me.

There is a park six blocks from my apartment where I go every weekend to have a latte and write. It’s full of young couples with their babies and children punching while their mothers tell them to “CUT THAT OUT!” Older people (who are, to my horror, not much older than I) go to the café on the outskirts there for meetups. There is a dog park there I’m not sure is actually a dog park, but put enough affluent people in a place with dogs, and it becomes one. Right-wing groups have been posting that they are using it as a gathering ground before they start their upcoming insurrections.

Restaurants in my neighborhood are not allowed to have outdoor seating until the end of the month. My doctor’s office closed because no one can get to the building through the barricades. There is an eight-foot fence surrounding the Capitol, previously one of the most accessible government buildings.

They don’t care. The people who are coming to town over the coming week to disrupt the legitimate swearing in of a new president couldn’t give a shit about the lives they’re disturbing, about the fact that they’re putting a city under martial law. It doesn’t matter to them because they are RIGHT. They are on a CRUSADE. The president they voted for, who isn’t all that popular in the first place, is the TRUE LEADER, and they don’t care whose lives they have to disrupt to make this TRUE.

This is my home. I’m so tired.

Hedging my Bets

When I was first writing the books that would make up my Urban Fantasy series, On the Hedge, my ex-wife asked me what I planned to do with all of them (I was about three in at this point). I told her nothing. I was writing the books for the sake of writing the books, and I didn’t want to put myself through the soul-crushing hell of trying to find an agent over some fluff I cranked out at weird hours of the morning.

Today, the first book in that series (The Web of Nightmares) is out on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, and the reception has been … disappointing. I posted a link to the book onto an Urban Fantasy group page I follow, and the response was tepid. What did I do wrong? Was my blurb uninteresting? Did I pick a bad title? It the series name lousy? Is the book itself rancid garbage? I know it’s not the cover because the cover is amazing.

What do I have to do to get those people’s attention? Some of them like heavy action, some prefer more psychological drama. Some want romance, some won’t read a book with a hint of romance in it. Some want heroes, some want heroines. Some want vampires, some loathe vampires. A lot of them won’t even look at a book that’s self-published. It’s almost like they’re individual people with individual tastes or something. I could make myself crazy trying to figure out what they want.

So I’m not gonna. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’m not going to do anything different. (I might pay for advertising, though.) What was the whole point of this exercise I’m undertaking this year? Was it to become a bestseller, to quit my job, to save up for a vacation, to make money? No. It was to give my books the covers they deserve, to have a website and an author’s page on Amazon and a long list of credits on Goodreads. To have a physical novel in my hands that I can autograph for anyone who’s interested (coming in July). It’s to give me a goal to write toward. It was to make my books available, how I want them available, for anyone to see if they’re interested. To maybe pick up a few readers here and here. Money would be nice. A little notoriety would be nice, but you need a lot of luck, a much thicker skin, and a willingness to do a lot of things that aren’t writing to have that, and I have none of those things.

Do I write for the fame? To reach the widest variety of people to give them what they want? No. I write for me. I write to see words and situations and a style that I can’t get anywhere else. I write to process grief and trauma and philosophy. I write so that I can relive events in my life from a different perspective. I write to live out a fantasy of me, whether that makes me a monster-fighting witch, a sleazy philanderer, an out-of-control tomboy, or an IT person still in love with an old flame. None of these reasons are for the money, and I steadfastly refuse to change. This won’t make me a success, but I don’t want to be a success. I want to be a writer.

So stay tuned. This is going to be a big year for me. And, for the love of God, buy some of my books. I’d like to sell at least a few copies.

2020 Hindsight

The year 2020 was a terrible bust. A lot of people died for no good reason, politics somehow became even more toxic than it had been before, our government has proven itself to be incompetent and yet got (mostly) reelected in the fall, we haven’t been able to go on vacations, our economy’s collapsing without a reasonable federal response to keep it from getting worse, and we’re under quarantine for a disease that could be contained if people would stop being so stubborn and selfish.

I’m not here to pile on. Enough people are making anti-2020 memes and blog posts that my voice would add absolutely nothing. Even though the world is suffering right now, a lot of good things happened in my life, and not that 2021 is here, I want to look back on them in my effort to be a more positive person.

I found a job in the nick of time so I wasn’t a temp during the quarantine. I have health insurance, a(nother) 401K, holiday pay, and sick leave. My job is the least stressful job I’ve ever had, and it’s relaxing enough that I can stay focused on my current project when I’m not working.

I’ve saved up enough money to invest a large chunk of it for retirement. When I was married, my retirement was going to be funded by my rich father-in-law, but once that went away, I suddenly faced my encroaching sixties with fear and uncertainty. But I’m on the right track now, and I won’t have to worry about getting old.

Also, thanks to the job, I can purchase professional-looking covers for all of the novels I want to publish this year. My plan is that, under Jeremiah Murphy and James Newcastle, I am going to publish sixteen books in 2021, maybe more. Who knows what the plan will be in six months? This entire focus came to me in 2020. I know I won’t be a bestseller, or really much of a seller at all, but I will be out there, and anybody who’s curious can find me now.

I’ve written six novels in 2020, and I have an awesome website.

Because of Nicole’s class schedule and my reduced schedule, I have been cooking more, and I stopped being intimidated by it. I used to cook all the time, but then I quit for some reason and haven’t been able to get back into it. Thanks to this year, I have. After our “family dinners,” Nicole and I have been taking 2.5-mile walks around the area, which are an excellent bonding opportunity. Things were a little strained between us at the beginning of the pandemic, but in the summer, we found a groove and have slipped into it, and now things are perfect.

I get to spend a lot of time with my cat, who received a spotless bill of health in the fall. He’s actively sabotaging me as I try to work by being an aggressive cuddler, and I let him because he’s my buddy. He’s still pretty annoying, though.

I was furloughed and then let go from my job at The Container Store. As enriching and, at times, fun, as it was to work at the Reston store, the Washington D.C. store was a bit of a mismanaged mess, and I never really found my place there. It’s gone, and I don’t really miss it, and I can afford not to have this job now.

I built a lot of LEGO models and discovered a passion for it. I have space constraints and can only have one out at a time, but that gives me an excuse to break down models and rebuild them at a later date.

These are all minor things that are important to me and probably only me. They won’t comfort anyone who lost a job or lost a family member or friend to COVID—or even worse, came down with it themselves. But to me, they’re all huge. I was insanely lucky last year, and the last thing you can accuse me of is not being grateful enough for it.

The New Year is a construct. We are going into 2021 without any of our 2020 problems solved, and they won’t be solved for the foreseeable future. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a calendar rollover will make everything better. I’m getting through this with my cat, my roommate, and my dreams. I hope you can find something to hold onto that makes you grateful.

Facing the Times

I was just thinking about Kuchisake-onna. Do you know who she is? She’s a Japanese urban legend. She’s either the ghost of a model who had some bad plastic surgery or abused wife, or she is a dark spirit that roams the country, or a demon. The official name for her kind is yokai, which could mean ghost, spirit, or demon, or all three. The folklore isn’t clear. Like most yokai, she follows a script, and only by knowing it can you expect to get out alive.

Imagine you’re walking down the dark streets of Tokyo in 2019 or earlier, and a woman approaches you wearing a surgical mask. She will ask you, “Am I beautiful?” Being polite, you answer that yes, she is. She removes her mask to reveal that her mouth has been split open from ear to ear. She will ask again, “Do you still think I’m beautiful?” If your answer is to be brutally honest and say no, or if you’re too busy screaming in terror, she will slit your mouth open to match hers, and in recent tellings, she will do it with a pair of comically large scissors. If you continue to be polite and say that she is beautiful, she will leave you alone without a word. And then, while you sleep that night, she will murder you in your bed. If you think you can get out of it by saying she isn’t beautiful up front, she will decapitate you right away, probably with those scissors.

The thing is, once Kuchisake-onna spots you, you’re in it for the long haul, so you need to be prepared. At any point, before or after she shows her face, you throw a handful of hard candies at her, she will be distracted by those, and you can get away safely. The best way to get away without having to stock up on Jolly Ranchers or Werther’s Originals is to answer her, either time when she asks if she’s beautiful, with, “You’re average.” This is such a departure from the script that she’ll just wander away, the encounter forgotten.

Kuchisake-onna is a bit of a celebrity in Japan. They’ve made her the subject of a number of horror movies. As far as I know, she never made it into an episode of Supernatural, but she did appear in the short-lived CW show Constantine as a minor villain. Honestly, she’s got a lot of potential as visual horror, but you probably couldn’t make an entire movie about her.

I was thinking about her today, as I was in the supermarket, and I saw a woman walk by with stunning eyes. That’s all of her I could see because it’s 2020, and it led me to wonder what she could be hiding under that mask. And then I remembered that Japan has been asking that question for centuries. I wonder if Kuchisake-onna has been getting around a little more in Japan, if she’s feeling less conspicuous and a little more relaxed. It’s hard to be suspicious of the woman in the mask when everybody’s got one.

All Alone in the Moonlight

It was Saturday morning, early, and I was enjoying a latte from a cafe called Wine and Butter in Lincoln Park (not to be confused with Linkin Park). I like to write in public places because the crowds energize me, and, at 7:30 a.m., there are runners and dog-walkers, and the day was already quite beautiful.

The thing I don’t like about the pandemic is that I can’t see the expressions on people’s faces as they do their thing. That’s part of where the energy comes from. But I can watch their body language, and I look up from my notebook periodically to see who’s around.

A woman walked toward me, not wearing a mask. This part of D.C. is practically religious about wearing them, so she was out of place. But when she steered in my direction, I became a little nervous. I wasn’t wearing a mask because I was sipping my latte, and by the time she stood just a couple of feet from me, I hadn’t had time to put mine back on.

I thought she was going to ask me for money, despite being well-dressed. She said, “Hi!” I said, “Hi!” And then she just stood there, watching me, this smirk on her face. And finally she went, “Really?” and she stomped off, adding, “Damn!”

I think I was supposed to know this woman. I think that she was saying hi to someone she knew, and he had no clue who she was. I am mortified by this. Was it someone from The Container Store? Was it someone from my day job? Did I just blow off someone who I liked, and who liked me?

That’s what I’ve been doing most of the day: trying to figure out who this woman is. I’m pretty sure I made a huge mistake, guys.

The Way You Shake and Shiver

On this night, twenty years ago, I broke a haunted house. To be fair, it wasn’t one of those insanely professional haunted houses like they have in Maryland, or one of those torture house, or even a Hell House (though I wouldn’t mind breaking one of those). This was an amateur production in a brownstone in Brooklyn, where whoever was throwing the party had access to all three floors, and it was mostly ghastly decorations, spooky music, and people jumping out at you from behind curtains.

When I was skinny, my celebrity twin was Norville Rogers, with the big chin, the patchy chin beard, and hair that seemed long and poofy, even after it just got cut. And yet, for some reason, this was the first year I decided I was going to dress as Norville, aka Shaggy, for Halloween. The costume couldn’t be any easier: just shave off my mustache and wear a green T-shirt and brown bellbottoms (failing that, any overly large pair of brown pants would do). To complete the ensemble, I went to the Times Square Disney Store with my best friend, Katie, and found a small hand puppet of Scooby Doo.

This led me to the party my brand new girlfriend wanted to go to in Brooklyn, the one with the haunted house. I wasn’t planning on going through it, as I have a pretty acute startle reflex, and I don’t like to be scared, especially among people I don’t know, but the haunted house was between the front door and the booze, so I put my head down and stepped inside. Not looking forward to embarrassing myself in front of the woman I was trying to impressed, I took it slowly and alertly. The music ratcheted up the tension, the curtains billowed, I braced myself, and, “BOO!”; the man in the ghost costume burst out. Everyone gasped in surprise.

But not me. I held it together somehow. Instead of reacting like I ordinarily would (screaming and crying), I jumped back, cowered, cradled little Scooby in my arms, and cried out in my best Shaggy voice, “Zoinks!”

The hipsters running the haunted house were not prepared for this. The ghost and his support staff all exploded in laughter, as did the group I had come in with. I’m sure that they reset themselves and were able to scare the next batch of partygoers, but because of my quick thinking and my pretty good impression of Casey Kasem, the group I was with made it to the party without any further scares. I had a few drinks, indulged in some Scooby Snacks (marijuana cigarettes, and you know that’s EXACTLY what Scooby Snacks were—why do you think they were so hungry all the time?), danced with my girl, and engaged in a heated argument with some douchebag about what was the second-best Soul Coughing album.

Sadly, no pictures of that costume survive.

Grim Grinning Ghosts Socializing

Halloween used to mean a lot to me. I used to dress up, even in college, taking the opportunity to be someone other than myself. Living in New York, I became an observer, heading down to the Village every year to catch the parade or the wake of the parade, watching everyone having pure, innocent fun. I have a very fond NSFW memory of the parade I think I’ll keep to myself as well. The last time I dressed up for Halloween was in New York, and I wore the same costume two separate years (more on that tomorrow).

Later, I married someone whose religion venerated October 31 as much as Christmas and Easter combined, and the day took more of a sacred tone. And that meant feasting. And, for a while, drinking. But that gradually dropped off, and Halloween became just another day of the year. I don’t have kids, I’ve never had trick or treaters coming to my door, I never had anywhere to go. October 31 just sort of comes and goes.

I don’t know how kids are going to trick or treat tomorrow, but I know they will. Signs in my neighborhood are promising contactless candy, and I have to say, I’m curious. Nicole and I are going to a house, where she tutors two children, to give them some candy in exchange for seeing their costumes. It’s a small thing, but it’s going to bring me joy again on this day, a joy which has been lost to me for a long time.

Which Way the Wind Blows

I was watching a teen movie last night, and the class pariah and the literal prom queen got thrown into a situation together, and by end of the movie, they were besties, spending their summer together. I asked the closing credits, “Yeah, but what happens when the school year begins?” I asked because I had gone through this.

Halfway through my tour of high school, I was an undiagnosed bipolar going through a hypomanic phase. Things were good. My friends were good, my life goals were good, my job was good (well, not the work part, but the cash for movies, comics, and coffee was good), my prospects were good. Things were good. I went into that summer prepared to hang out with my merry band of misfits and just being good.

But there was suddenly a new kid in the group, and no one had consulted me about him. I knew who he was, and he was kind of a douchebag. He was reasonably popular—not the prom king, but he had his own clique and minions. His clothes were too neat, his hair had too much product in it, and his confidence was just a little too high for my tastes. But a prominent member of our gang vouched for him, and we let him in.

He quickly ingratiated himself into the group. He laughed at all of our jokes. He made his own jokes. He seemed to get us when we were sure that we were the only people who got us. I started to look up to him, as he seemed, despite being my age, older. He had a lot more experiences under his belt, some of which was girls. He helped me refine my music palate, he introduced me to horror movies, and he occasionally found us some beer. He had gone, in a handful of weeks, from being someone I would never associate with to a really close friend.

And then school started again, and he was gone. He didn’t return our calls, he didn’t acknowledge us in the hallways, he completely disappeared from our lives, like he was never there to begin with. The friend who’d vouched for him in the beginning of the summer would get really angry if his name were even uttered, so our entire summer became this taboo thing that had never happened. I had a brief conversation with our missing friend a few weeks after this had happened, and he acted like there was nothing to be done about it. Like he wasn’t in control of the loss of our relationship.

I think about it as an adult who has since learned that popular kids are people too, and I wonder how much control he did have over his relationships. Social castes are real. Even I, who didn’t have a lot of regard for what people thought of him, had immense regard for what people thought of him. Later, as a senior, I had branched out and made friends and acquaintances with representatives of different social strata, but I was successful in doing that because I knew my place.

A long time ago I forgave my temporary friend for abandoning me because he didn’t belong with us. I had three short months to get to be his friend, and I value that time. Each life that has touched mine is precious, even if it was only for a little bit.

My mind is on that movie again. Will the prom queen abandon her friends when school begins? Or will she throw her hard-earned class status out the window for new relationships? She’s got a lot of thinking to do, which is, I guarantee, more thinking than the writers put into this screenplay.

Blinded with Science

I’m a skeptic. I don’t really believe anything unless it’s been peer-reviewed and analyzed to death. I don’t have a lot of faith. A lot of people look down on me for this. They say I’m closeminded, that I’m disconnected from the wonders of the universe. To the latter, I say, the universe, as science sees it, is incredible. I don’t need ghosts, which can be explained through hundreds of possibilities that don’t involve dead people, when I have fire—the fundamental deconstruction and rearranging of matter, and it’s pretty; or water, which has a molecular composition so unusual that our entire planet is built around it.

As far as being closeminded, I can assure you that just about every skeptic I’ve met or read would like nothing more than to find Bigfoot. A primitive hominid wandering around the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of years, just out of sight of civilization? How cool would that be? But it’s 2020, and everyone has a camera in their pockets, and the best we can come up with is blurry images and inconclusive footprints? No scat? No carcasses? When we meet Bigfoot, we want to meet him, not just anecdotes and conjecture, and we are lining up around the block for it.

Skeptics and science-based thinkers love ideas that challenge their own—provided those ideas are credible. The Theory of Evolution is one of those scientific principles that faith-based thinkers believe that we’re so married to that we won’t accept alternatives. What they don’t understand is that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is almost unrecognizable from the Theory of Evolution as it exists today. The theories have been challenged, and they have been amended. That’s why the story of how COVID-19 and coronavirus works has changed so much in the past ten months. We keep getting new information, and the doctors incorporate it into what they know. They’re learning. If you govern from unyielding faith, you get our current government, and is that really what you want to aspire to?

I’m afraid to bring this up because most everyone I know is a believer in something I don’t believe in. Mostly God, but ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, as well. The fact that I say I don’t believe as they do is considered an attack, like maybe I think I’m better than them or something. Trust me, I’ve Facebook unfriended all the people I think I’m better than. And I get it, most public atheists are arrogant assholes, and they don’t make it easy to be me. Or my friends will try to talk me out of my skepticism, which has been honed for years and won’t go easily, or explain to me that I can be faithful and scientific. It was easier to tell the world that I’m not into sex, even though that’s weird and unnatural, than it was to tell people that I’m a non-believer.

Why am I taking a chance with alienating you? Because of TV. I have been watching this Netflix show (I won’t say the title because spoilers), and it has blown my mind. It’s about three investigators, a skeptic, a believer, and someone on the fence. What we’ve learned from pop culture so far is that, in these cases, the skeptic is due for a very hard lesson in the power of the supernatural. The non-believers are always taught that they need to believe. Not in this show, though. Four episodes in, and the miracles and demon possessions have all been roundly debunked. Science wins! (It’s obvious that this show has a supernatural undercurrent that is going to show its face in the metanarrative, but on an episode-by-episode, the skeptic is right!) Science never wins over the supernatural, unless it’s the Ghostbusters. I think the show is a one-season wonder, so it didn’t make it, but for a little while, at least, I can cheer as the scientific method conquers evil.

And honestly, in day of QAnon and cries of fake news, a little skepticism is probably a good thing.

This Didn’t Have To Happen

Someone I know just died from COVID. We weren’t close friends—she was someone I knew from when I was wrangling editors at Author Solutions twelve-to-fifteen years ago. But she was one of my top editors. She was efficient, accurate, as well as friendly, funny, kind, and a little flirty. We’ve been Facebook friends since I left, and when I tried, unsuccessfully, to reignite my freelance editing career a year and a half ago, she was there to walk me through it to the best of her ability, even though we really hadn’t talked in an incredibly long time.

I don’t know the details, like, at all, but I know she came to the United States to visit someone, a friend or family, and she got sick and died. She was at risk, so it didn’t take long.

I’ve been taking this outbreak pretty seriously for the past six months (the first month, no so much), and I’ve been horrified watching the infection rate and the death toll rise while our populace walks around like nothing is happening. I haven’t been personally affected by it while some of my Facebook friends have been infected and recovered—as much as it’s possible to recover from this disease. But I’ve not seen anyone I know die, especially not someone I really liked.

I’m not trying to make this about me. It’s about her family—both genetic and adopted, who will most certainly miss her because she was one of the most sparkling editors I’d ever met (and editors aren’t people you’d really describe as “sparkling”).

But I feel this bubbling inside, and I apologize because I try my hardest to avoid using language like this in my feed, but fuck you, coronavirus for everything you’ve done to us this year. Fuck you Donald Trump, along with everyone else who doesn’t take this seriously/thinks it’s a conspiracy. If you’re one of those people, please unfriend me. Don’t say goodbye, don’t drop in and tell me why I’m wrong about COVID-19, just go. My country is a plague state that killed this incredible woman, and it’s all your fault.

And good bye, Karen. I know we weren’t close, and we weren’t really a part of each other’s lives, but now that you’re gone, I really miss you.