Pitching a No-Hitter

I’m taking a class on how to attract a literary agent. I know I told myself that I wouldn’t put myself through this again, that I would be content self-publishing, but this opportunity came about, and I said, “You know what? I’ve got nineteen finished novels. I can take one off the schedule and shop it around.” So here I am. And it all went well until the back half of my first class, when the agent-teacher asked us to read our draft query letters to the whole class.

STUDENT: My book is a collection of literary short stories.

STUDENT: My book is a semi-autobiographical novel about fleeing Romania at the close of the Cold War.

STUDENT: My book is a biography of my grandmother, who came to this country and ended up in a Coca-Cola ad, and everything that happened after.

STUDENT: My book is a series of essays from the perspective of a comedian who has seen the talk-show circuit up close.

STUDENT: My book is a memoir of being a music video director of indie bands in the late eighties/early nineties.

STUDENT: My book is literary horror. [Literary horror is currently the hottest genre in publishing.]

STUDENT: My book is a scathing indictment of Reagan’s War on Drugs and how it permeates through our modern culture.

ME: My book is a superhero romance. [Record scratches. Someone drops a wine glass to the floor. The piano player stops playing. Crickets can be heard clearly in the distance.] I’ll see myself out.

The teacher, to her credit, treated my query with the same seriousness and focus that she treated the others, even the literary horror novel that she was drooling over, and I got a lot of great advice.

But I felt so, so silly, like I went to a big Halloween party, and I was the only one wearing a costume. I have, literally, no idea what I’m doing.

That Not-so-Fresh Feeling

I think one of the all-time highs of my time waiting tables was at the Village Inn, by the now-defunct mall in Hastings, Nebraska. This restaurant was open an hour past the last call of all the bars in the region, so Friday and Saturday nights after one a.m. were, I will say, quite colorful. One particular group of regulars owned a bar in nearby Blue Hill, and they appeared to be its biggest patrons. They were a rowdy bunch, but they tipped me in cases of beer, so, as a not-twenty-one-year-old, I was awfully permissive.

On the night in question, one of the women in the group, while waiting for her greasy breakfast food to arrive, emptied out her purse onto the table. She then grabbed every feminine hygiene product she had with plastic applicators, shoved them into her ears, her nostrils, and her mouth, like a pair of fangs, and flailed around, screaming, “I’m Tampon Lady! I’m Tampon Lady!” At that point, permissiveness wasn’t appropriate anymore, so my manager and I had to intervene. When she left, I quietly told them that it wasn’t my idea to come scold them, and I thought Tampon Lady was hilarious. Just like that, we were friends again, as evidenced by the case of beer under my car.

Even now, twenty-five years later, I wonder about Tampon Lady. Did she truly believe that with great power comes great responsibility? Is she still stalking the dark, unforgiving streets of Blue Hill, Nebraska on her hunt for justice? Did she pick up a sidekick, Pad Lad? Does she have a nemesis, The Red Tide? I will never know. I can only hope, as I gaze out into the full moon, that she is out there, the Absorbent Protector, the Stringed Crusader, looking up at that same moon, knowing that law and order is prevailing.

Tampon Lady, I salute you.

Lyfting of Spirits

As we pulled away from my apartment yesterday, George, my Lyft driver, asked me if I wanted to be in his movie. He was really insistent. I told him that I’d never acted before, and he told me that I just needed to say the line, “Where’s the bank?” He then let me know that he was just kidding, and that I looked like a bank robber in my mask, sunglasses, dark shirt, and leather blazer. My mask was covered in TARDISes, so I was the nerdiest bank robber around, but otherwise, I could see what he was talking about.

Normally I don’t like it when my drivers talk to me, but there was something special about ol’ George.

He told me that he’d done over thirty thousand trips, and he was getting really good at reading people. He said he liked to keep his mind sharp by talking to his passengers, and he was never wrong. He said he could guess how long I’d been in DC: Seven years. (I moved to the DMV area in 2008 and to DC proper in early 2019.) Then he said he could guess where I originated from, just by looking at me, even with the mask on: Portland. When I told him no, he said it was definitely Philly. (I’ve come from many places, but never a city that started with a P.)

He wasn’t even remotely fazed, which leads me to believe that he’s not never wrong when he talks to other passengers. We talked about a lot of things, like how, no matter how great a place, your typical teenager wants to get the hell out, how there’s nothing to see in Kansas, how the passenger he dropped off before picking me up was hitting on him, and how everyone calls him sir, and he, for one, is sick of it.

When he dropped me off at my destination, and I found a place to sit, I took out my phone and gave him all the stars, as well as a hefty tip. And when the app told me that my ride home was going to be George, I held my breath waiting, only to find out it was someone else named George, who gave me a respectful silence the whole way.

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.