Diary

authority

Manufacturing Authority for Fun and Profit: Three Moments of Misplaced Belief

authorityMy daughter’s recent and traumatic first day of seventh grade has me again pondering how we accept authority. My perspectives on this topic have been shaped by three distinct epiphanies.

Moment of epiphany number one.

When I was in college, I took a course called Citizen Artist that taught me how memes, information and presentation impact society. We completed an exercise on manufactured authority that I still think back on frequently.

The assignment was to create a history museum display of a false event or character. We were to present invented stories as complete fact, using such mediums as design, language and false evidence to convince viewers. I made up a character I named Teirny Flaxwell that was killed during the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. I created a plaque of commemoration by Mother Jones. I built a slick display that even featured crushed pottery from her trampled camp (purchased on sale at Value Village). I found images online of a sullen girl, ran a Photoshop filter to age the portrait and printed it out big.

My display measured five feet tall and three feet wide. It looked worthy of any history museum. Thank God for Photoshop skills and museum board. When the class came around to critique my project, I felt damn smug. How shocked I was when one of my peers snarked, “Yeah, but it’s not fair that we use her display as a comparison. She found such a good historical figure to use.”

Murmurs of disgruntled agreement rolled through the group.

This shocked the daylights out of me. We all had the same assignment. They all knew I was inventing facts. Yet, even with this insider knowledge, my well-educated, authority-suspicious peers were easily swayed into belief by my professional application of graphic design, assumed authority and found images.

“Teirny Flaxwell is not real! I made her up!”

Cutting looks told me they were certain I’d cheated.

Moment of epiphany number two.

I walked off the stage at the San Francisco amphitheater trembling and relieved. Having just pitched my startup to a panel of silicon valley VC’s in front of an audience of about 600 and not forgotten my speech or bombed out, again I felt that lovely smug warmth. Awesome! I can’t believe I just did that. I would have done an end zone dance if not still in view of the crowd.

I stepped out in the hall to check my twitter app on my phone and see the audience’s reaction to my talk. One tweet stopped me cold. They tweeted a picture of me gesturing grandly at my market size slide, captioned with the words “PUBLIC EDUCATION FAIL”. I squinted at the slide. What?! What was wrong?

The math. The math was horribly wrong. In giant numbers, projected about ten feet tall on the stage screen, my slide displayed that 750 thousand self-published books times 2,500 spent in services equals 18 billion a year.

Actually do the problem in your head. The answer is not 18 billion. It’s 1.8 billion.

Shame and embarrassment washed over me like a bucket of ice water. Holy crap. I can’t believe I didn’t catch that. Neither did my partner. Neither did the ten or so mentors that reviewed our slides. Neither did the empirically critical event director that made me run through my presentation five times for him. Neither did any of the earlier round judges or the hundreds of internet public that first voted our pitch through to finals.

The equation was presented with authority on a slide and all of us simply accepted it as fact, rather than take a single moment to think it through on our own.

Moment of epiphany number three.

My petite daughter took extra precautions her first day of seventh grade in order to not be mistaken for a lowly sixth grader. She’d recently cut her hair into a stylish bob and colored it purple. She refused a backpack and instead took a messenger bag. She selected a calculated cool outfit of zombie t-shirt and worn jeans. I watched her walk into the school with confidence. She waved at friends, didn’t even bother to turn around and say goodbye to me. Piece of cake.

About an hour later I got a garbled message from her telling me to please come home right now, that she was terribly sorry, she’d take any punishment and it was all a big lie.

I raced home to find her sitting on the floor in the middle of the living room crying while our big dogs nervously circled and sniffed at her head.

I swooped down immediately and held her tight. “What’s wrong! What happened?”

“It’s all a lie!” she moaned. “I can’t face my friends. I am so ashamed?

“What?! What?”

She told me how she went to her first class, homeroom… for sixth graders. At first she thought it might be a mistake. But there was the correct classroom number on her schedule. There was her name carefully handwritten on a name tag on the teacher’s desk. There was the teacher, telling her she shouldn’t be scared and that she was going to love the sixth grade.

She suffered through the class without saying anything. As she exited at the bell, she saw her friends in the hall. The thought of them seeing her with the sixth graders brought on a full blown panic attack. She fled, right out the door of the school and the entire mile back to our house.

I assured her it was surely a mistake. She shook her head, despondent.

I called the school and they told me she had been assigned to the wrong homeroom. She was most definitely a seventh grader and hadn’t been secretly flunked back.

I brought her back in time to catch the last two classes of her schedule. Again, she smiled as she left me, but was still obviously shaken, as though any moment someone would tell her this was the mistake and she didn’t belong there.

If she had simply raised her hand in class and said she was a seventh grader, the whole episode could have been cut off at the start. If after class, she had walked to the office and had them double check, the mistake would have been caught.

Those things didn’t happen. A figure of authority told my daughter she was something less than what she thought and she accepted it point blank.

How terrifying.

What the hell does this all mean?

When you learn how easy it is to manufacture authority, you may easily do so for personal gain and entertainment. Fake it and other people will believe it. Most people. Whether you choose to use this power for good or evil is up to you. Do with it what you will.

Yet even knowing this, are you aware of the authorities and judgments you’ve accepted in your own life that have been manufactured by someone else? Just as you may invent authority, you also have power over which authorities you accept.

Sometimes, the authorities that impact our lives do not have our best interests in heart. They may even actively seek to belittle or diminish us. Think of the judgments you accept, those from your family, your peers, the people who look at your work. It’s not too hard to see personal bias in these moments. Now scale your view up. What judgments do you accept from your society, your government, your God.

These things that we think as fact may, in fact, be someone else’s very good story.

love_we_forget

What Happens to the Love We Forget?

love_we_forgetWhat happens to the experiences we forget? If we forget a day, or place, or a love, is it as though it never happened?

Years ago, I stopped taking photographs. As an avid photographer, one who even built a darkroom in her father’s basement, this change of behavior felt akin to a divorce, or a death. One day I took photos, the next day I didn’t. As sudden as a car crash. The constant pull to frame and record experience and vision in a lasting medium exhausted my soul. Everywhere I looked, I saw edges, thirds and lighting. I could no longer see my surroundings without mentally filtering for shots worth snapping.

I created a beautiful portfolio of images, evidence of a life well-lived, of incredible places, of self-portraits capturing moments that proved I was beautiful and young. I would flip through these images as though examining the life of a stranger. The cumulative impact of the pictures, despite literal renderings of my life, displayed an untruth. I could not remember who I was with that day I captured the shot of the willow in the Japanese garden. I have no idea if that somber mood shown in the shot of me glancing over my shoulder was authentic or posed. A panic built in me, one that hissed that by focusing on capturing my life in images, I was in fact forgetting, even re-writing it.

I stopped taking pictures.

My husband pointed out recently that there are no photographs of him in my office, no pictures of our family or even our dogs. There is only a picture of the dog I had in my childhood, and a few images of myself in various countries, all taken before I hit twenty-five. That’s it.

“You’re so vain!” he said to me.

I hadn’t noticed until that moment that I had surrounded myself with pictures of myself. But I also saw what he couldn’t see. Those aren’t pictures of me, those are memory anchors. Not only do I have photographs, I display objects as well. A postcard from Japan with no writing, no explanation, but that reminds me of a long ago weekend with a lost love. There is a dinosaur toy given to me by an employee when once-upon-a-time I was a corporate fancy pants. There is a badly framed picture of a fish, a rendering of someone else’s art studio, a wooden box in the shape of the moon, a tiny cast-iron typewriter, tickets to a baseball game that occurred a few years back, a print of a poem.

Those pictures I keep aren’t so I can look at myself. That shot of me on my balcony in the French Quarter is meant to remind me that once I lived in a hot state, that I didn’t have children, that there are people who live entire lives dancing about on cobblestone streets, working at bars and writing gothic poetry. The picture of me on the rooftop in Tanzier is to remind me that once I saw a world where women are regulated to spaces set aside and apart from the street level stream of daily life, that once I halted an entire crowd of menacing men by standing my ground and shouting the one word I knew how to clearly pronounce in the their language, shame.

These things remind me that once I carried bibles. Once I slept with gangsters. Once I lived in the woods. Once I was strong. Once I was weak. Once I went up a mountain and the heavens opened and I learned the name of my future daughter. Once I was a drunk. Once I was a leader.

I still worry about it. If I loved you, and it was true, and I forget our time together, does it mean I never really loved you?

If even love can be forgotten, what possible purpose can pull me through my weeks.

I have read and reread the book Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. The concept of the river compels and soothes me. If time is a river, one we are constantly moving down, our position in the stream has no impact on the existence of the flow before or behind me. Because I can’t see it, or touch it, or hear it, does not mean that it is no longer. All things exist at all time. Just because I left you behind in different waters, does not mean you are gone from me forever. We’re still drenched by the same passage of time.

“This is you,” I said to my husband, pointing out the poem tacked to the wall. “This is you,” I said, picking up the baseball tickets, the little typewriter he gave me. “You’re all over my office.”

I stood and wrapped my arms around him, kissed him. “This is you, standing with me right now, just how I prefer to have you.”

 

blues2

These Blues Will Get Me Through

blues2The struggle is one eternal and relentless, the one of woman and man versus house and finance, versus each other, versus children and laundry and summer vacation, versus unfinished manuscript.

In an attempt to strike a cease-fire, my husband takes me to a blues club. We watch a middle-aged man with bright blonde hair and BBQ joint t-shirt stretched over rounded belly belt out songs from south Florida. I squint, narrow my focus so I can’t see the jeans and fleece on the patrons around me, try to pretend that it’s not a Thursday night in Seattle where suddenly it’s rainy and cool even though we just hit the ides of August.

My husband orders me a bourbon on the rocks, coos platitudes. Lean on me. I’ll be the glue that keeps you together. You can count on me.

“Leaning is the last thing I want to do right now.” I sit with stiff back, stiff shoulders, unmoved by his warm hand on my back. “I just have to get stuff done. I don’t need you to hold me. I need you to stand up.”

A couple at least fifteen years older than us, maybe more, slink and side-step across the dance floor. They press close together, pause on cue, move again, dip, separate, join. Both keep their eyes closed. We’re all watching them. Even the band is watching them. The lead singer gives a signal and the bass kicks in low, thumping, dominant. The couple dip a little lower, no longer separate and join, just join.

I look back at my husband, his face warmed by candlelight. He’s giving me that smoldering look. Damn, I think, and take out my phone to snap a picture.

He can hold a mood even when faced with a lens. I cannot. I become aware of people not in the room. People I can’t talk to, people that will make a judgment on me from a single, immutable frame. Not my husband. His smolder deepens, a tiny smile playing on the edge of his lips.

I snap a few photos and sit against him so he can see me scroll through the results.

“You always take such good pictures of me,” he says.

“Hm,” I say, sigh, and drop my phone back into my bag, turn my attention back to the stage.

The drummer is the only woman on the band. She’s also the only black person. I wonder how in the world she hooked up with this group of aging Parrotheads. Cock-sure, the blonde front man struts the length of the stage, howls, asks the audience to howl with him.

“I’m ready to go, “ I say. “I have a 9am meeting. Sorry.”

“Of course, love. Whatever you need.”

We’re halfway to the door when the drummer starts to sing. The blonde band leader has pocketed his harmonica and brought out a saxophone. Music that pounded, beat on the door, hammered the planks, gives way to melody that slides, that runs fingers across bare necks, that moans. And over it all, the woman sings, these blues will get me through.

Without speaking, we slide into empty seats. The woman’s voice lifts high in twirl, then flattens out wide and deep. Her fists pummel the drums, sticks flying, yet her face remains still and drenched in thoughtful calm. My husband slides his hand over mine, squeezes. I squeeze back, do not release.

No one is watching the dancers. No one is drinking. It’s eternal, this struggle, this one of woman and man versus moment, versus the last the bar of the song, versus the sun that will no doubt rise again.

collateral-damage

Collateral Damage: Causalities of the Girl I Used to Be

collateral-damageThe crimes of my youth surfaced with the arrival of my old friend in my city. I first met Josh the summer I worked at the Old Faithful resort in Yellowstone Park. I was 19, dauntless, with deer-like legs on which I bounded through my shifts at the restaurant and right out onto the trails when clocked out. Josh was my best friend that summer, my safe friend, the one with whom I could share a back-country tent without a single concern as I considered him as one might a brother.

Josh is a country boy. He’s still lives in the house he grew up in on his parents dairy farm in Wisconsin. He works maintenance at a local hospital on the night shift, then spends his days helping on his parents farm. I don’t think he sleeps. He’s married now, with three kids.

15 years passed without us meeting again, but occasionally I’d get a pack of cheese curds for Christmas, a comment on a Facebook post about my daughter or my recent doings. His trip to my city to visit nearby relatives was only the second time he’d ever been on a plane, and the first time he’d ever been in a “big city”.  Not long ago, I got a message from him out of the blue, could I pick him up at the airport. Could I take him to the Space Needle?

Of course, I replied. I’ll also take you out to dinner and to my house to meet my family.

Every day leading up to the trip he’d send me another message. Did he need to dress up for dinner? Was I taking him to my favorite place? Would my husband come with us? Did I have that same butterfly feeling in my stomach?

Cute, I thought. He’s really excited about this.

He arrived a bundle of nervous energy. Since I told him he didn’t need to dress up, he walked off the plane in shorts, a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves cut out to make it a tank top, and a huge goofy smile.

“You look exactly the same!” He said. “Except your hair isn’t as messy as it was in Yellowstone.”

I laughed and gave him a great big hug.

He couldn’t possibly remember the places I took him that day. I don’t think he was aware of our surroundings at all. He told me back-to-back stories about that summer long ago and wanted to know all about my life since then. In the midst of all this, I took him to the waterfront to eat local clam chowder. I showed him the Space Needle. I took him to meet my kids and my husband.

Late in the evening, we started the long drive north to where I would deposit him at his aunt’s. The stories he recounted in the car filled me with joyful remembrances. I could actually feel again what it was like to be 19 and out in the world for the first time. I sat straighter in my seat, excitement building as he helped me remember adventures I hadn’t thought of in over a decade.

He asked me question after question. Did I remember swimming in the Yellowstone river, did I remember the time we hiked three days to summit a mountain, did I remember the steakhouse and the name of the ice cream shop on the West entrance to the park?

Yes, yes! Now I remember!

He asked me what the happiest time of my life has been since then. I told him three short stories about different moments in my life. He became quiet. I must have driven a few miles before breaking the silence.

“And you? What was your happiest time?”

“For me it was that summer,” he said. “It was always that summer.”

“Yes.” I sighed. “It was rather perfect.”

“Do you remember the time I jumped in front of the buffalo and saved your life,” he said.

“No.” I laughed, smacking his arm. “That didn’t happen! Now you’re making stories up.”

“Yes it did,” he said. “Do you remember when you moved to Japan and I kept trying to call you, but couldn’t ever get the call through? Jeepers. I spend a hundred dollars on calling cards, but never got through.”

I stopped laughing, concentrated on the road ahead.

“No.”

“You were the only friend from that summer that ever kept in touch with me,” he said. “Do you remember a couple years later when you had broken up with your boyfriend, we were on the phone and you said I should move out to the west coast?”

I looked at him. “I did?”

“Yes, but I had never moved anywhere. I was scared. My whole life was on the farm. I needed more to move. I didn’t know if you were asking me as a friend.” He looked out the window. “Or something else.”

“Oh.”

Suddenly I remembered so much more about that summer, about myself at that time. Straight as an arrow, I didn’t drink, I didn’t mess around. In the park, I attended every Christian bonfire to sing the songs and say the prayers. Also, the product of not one but four parental divorces, I hungered for attention. I wore tiny shorts, bared skin and laughed with abandon. I wouldn’t go out with any boy working there, but made sure they saw me around enough to want me. Josh was by my side that entire summer and absorbed the full force of my desperate need for love.

Josh said, “You were always moving around then. I thought I’d move out west for you and poof, you’d just disappear. I never knew how you were asking me.”

I took a deep breath. I couldn’t let a single minute pass by with him still holding that thought. “I think I was careless with my words then.” I glanced over to see if he understood, but he wasn’t looking my way. “Moving was a hobby for me, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was for you. If I asked, it was definitively as a friend.”

“That’s what I thought all this time.” Josh said the words so quickly after mine it was like I hadn’t spoken at all.

I looked at him, tried to catch his eyes before I needed to look ahead at the traffic again, but he never turned to look at me.

After I dropped him off with awkward hug and a promise to not go another 15 years without seeing him, my mind churned the entire the long ride home. My stomach turned. I felt the years close around me and drove fast, anxious to put miles between me and the girl I used to be.

how-do-you-become-a-writer

How Do You Become a Writer?

how-do-you-become-a-writer

When do you know that you’re a real writer?

Is it the first moment you pick up the pen and scratch out a sentence, or is it back when you are thinking about wanting to write. Is it when you get an agent, or when your first book is published? If you publish traditionally, are you more of a real writer than if you publish independently? Is it when you sell a hundred copies, or become a bestseller? Perhaps after your win a big writing contest you’ll be a real writer. Maybe it’s when your mom introduces you, “This is my daughter. She’s a writer.”

So often we wait for external validation to confirm the identifies we long for. We may wait a really long time.

I first admitted out loud that I wanted to be a writer when I was 21 years old. I was living in the French Quarter of New Orleans, furiously scribbling away in black journals while sipping sugary coffee at back alley cafes. My favorite writing spot was right next to the William Faulkner house. My lines dripped with imitated southern gothic sentiment. Certainly I was an artiste, even if I kept a day job at Shell Oil and hadn’t actually published anything ever.

When my daughter was born a few years later, it became clear that if I expected her to follow her dream, I better damn well follow mine. To move this whole writer fantasy out of the dark alleys and into the light of day, I signed up to finish my four-year degree at The Evergreen State College, my concentration listed as writing. Here I learned that writing is a craft, something that may be learned and improved upon. Excellent mentors such as Bill Ransom, Steven Hendricks, Bruce Benderson, and Leonard Schwartz taught me how to evolve my prose to something both meaningful and readable.

After a couple brief years of admittedly dramatic improvement, I deemed myself brilliant and ready for the world. I self-published a book of short works and queried at least 50 agents and editors. Thumbing through one of the 500 copies of my book I had printed in advance of certain fame, I realized that perhaps I could have benefited from the assistance of an editor. I found quite a few grammatical errors. Oh well, surely a few spelling errors would not diminish the overwhelming genius of my work, right?

Not so much.

I received about 20 rejection letters, the rest simply ignored my queries. With no distribution, platform or marketing channels, the error-ridden books I paid for with my limited fund simply rotted away in my mother’s barn.

Too soon. I went out too soon.

Disheartened, but a tiny bit wiser, I took a job teaching English over seas. Life in Japan inspired me to start work on my first novel. I wrote with abandon. Most importantly, I also read and lived with abandon. I collected experiences and authors as though storing up a great war chest – my writer’s war chest.

Ten more years I worked on my craft, starting my own writing group and getting regular feedback, reading across genres and periods, learning about the business of publishing. When I compare myself now with the writer I was when I was twenty-five, I can see how far I’ve come. I know also have a sense of how very far I have to go. How do you become a writer? You write, read and live. Repeat.Street art by Eddie Colla.

“If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission.” – Eddie Colla

No one will point at you and say, “You are a real writer.” It’s not their job. It’s your job. You declare, “I am a writer.” And then you write and you learn and you read and you write.

I had stopped waiting for permission when finally an agent knocked at my door. Youthful impatience be damned, it was all those years working on my craft and learning about the publishing world that made me suddenly a beacon for those I once considered gatekeepers. When I had my author platform built, when I had well-written (and professionally edited) stories self-published and available on Amazon, when I was out in the world joyfully working on publishing projects, that’s when I got the call from the agent.

Here’s the secret…

 There is no gatekeeper.

There is only what you do and what you don’t do. It doesn’t matter if you want to be a writer, or an entrepreneur or an airplane mechanic, the path is the same. Name your dream. Practice. Learn. Live. Repeat.

agony_want

How Not to Get What You Want: The Agony of Expectation

agony_wantThe grass is always greener on the other side.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

How many times have you heard these sentiments, telling you that what you think you want may not bring the happiness you imagine?

I have wanted a great many things.

I wanted a great big, joyful family. Once married into one, I learned about great big, hurtful family politics and the impossibility of pleasing everybody all the time.

I wanted all of our kids at our house full-time for the summer, only later realizing my quiet days working at home are key for maintaining my focus (sanity).

Once I wanted to leave all corporate jobs behind and only work for myself. That was before learning how having clients can be like having a herd of bosses, all with different quirks, styles and reliability in payment.

Then there is the case of the rising rent.

Our landlords decided to raise our rent by $100 a month. This may not sound like a much, but the rent already knocked soundly against roof of our budget. My husband and I decided to see this an opportunity to finally make a move into a home that would allow me to lessen my client load and spend more time writing. Perhaps we could even find a bigger yard, or a shorter commute for him. This could be great!

We spent an exhausting week deciphering the secret code that property managers use to favorably describe the remarkably flawed properties they are trying to pass off as desirable. We sacrificed an entire Saturday to visiting homes deemed unsuitable by me or my husband.

We learned that if the ad describes a large yard, natural setting and classic stylings, we’d encounter house marooned in a sea of unkept wilds, with popcorn ceilings and brown shag carpet.

We learned that if the ad talks up granite counters, fancy appliances and walk-in closets, that this likely means that the house is a brand new townhome construction, smashed awkwardly against no less than eight or so other townhomes with slightly different paint schemes, a shared driveway, no yard at all and window that look directly into your neighbors rooms. If I pressed my nose to the glass at the same time as the neighbor, we’d be just six inches from kissing, glass not withstanding.

After ten houses, two-drive through meals and an almost complete collapse of marital harmony, we decided to call it quits and head home.

Home.

Oh, our yard is small, but look how cute and easy to care for. Look at our lovely living room with the furniture we just bought with our wedding gifts. See how welcoming my office looks now that I’ve finally gotten around to hanging the pictures. Oh, and look at how much crap we have every where that I certainly don’t want to put into boxes.

Collapsed on the couch, clinging to each other, tired of bitter compromises and disagreements carefully disguised as rationales, I said to my love, “$100 really isn’t that much. Once new project a month would more than cover it.”

I looked up at my husband, watched his left eyebrow arch as he regarded me.

“Now,” I said. “I like how things are right now.”

He squeezed me and kissed my forehead. “And aren’t we lucky to know it?”

An Ode to Roller Derby

You remember roller derby, right? Legions of shockingly brave and powerful women race around a track on roller skates in hopes of scoring points and avoiding grievous injury. My kiddo happens to be one of those bad ass derby girls. She’s featured in this video just released by Brown Paper Tickets.

Inspired by the track? The music was composed by my good friend Jeff Leisawitz. You can buy the track on itunes here.

That Girl That Does Things (A List of Priorities)

In order to avoid real work this weekend, I decided that my entire writing office need a deep clean and reorganization. This inevitably entailed me sitting on the floor and leafing slowly through old journals. In one unlikely book (Since when did I buy spiral-bound notebooks? Gross!), I found a “to do” list artfully hand-titled “That Girl That Does Things.” Reading through my prioritized tasks, I could not help but laugh out loud.

Of course, I must share this with you all. Here it is!

photo

My life may have a been a mess at that moment, but at least I had a plan! Almost ten years from the creation of this list, I have no idea why I pluralized “divorce” or why the heck I was designing t-shirts. I accomplished the feat of my divorce and certainly reestablished my internet connection. Thank God I got over those crappy boyfriends. However, there are a few items on this list that I mat easily transpose onto my to-do list of the present. They are:

  • Rewrite novel
  • Clean house
  • Take daughter up mountain
  • Hang up clothes on floor
  • Call mom

This inspires me to occasionally stash one of my current to-do lists in a folder for my later enjoyment and amusement. I wonder which tasks will remain in another ten years.

dracula

The Indulgent Pleasure of Re-Reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula

draculaTurn on all your lights, find a dog to sit at your feet and don’t expect to get any sleep the night you decide to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

You would think that when you read Dracula, that all the mystery and suspense would be sucked dry from the plot line by all those vampire movies you watched. Not so. Even though you know the punchline, why yes, the Count really is a blood-sucking demon out to cause no good, every page, almost every passage, sinks its fangs into your heart and pulls you along at a fearsome clip.

The book opens with young Jonathan Harker’s diary. Jonathan, a new solicitor, travels to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania to prepare the Count for his move and new life in London. In only a matter of days, the danger of the place and his company become readily apparent to Jonathan. He must escape home, where in short time, mysterious happenings occur throughout the town. Frivolous yet charming young maidens go sleepwalking, children disappear, giant bats bash against windows. The three suitors of the tormented maiden band together with doctor and occultist Van Helsing, unbelieving, yet driven by terror and grief to fight the evil that has stolen their love.

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in epistolary format, meaning the narrative comes together in the form of diary entries, newspaper clippings, letters, ship logs and other official documents. It would be fair for you to assume this hodgepodge collection of narrative snippets would slow the plot and remove you from the story, but the actual effect is quite the opposite. While reading, you discover each plot twist through pieces of evidence, as though Bram Stoker was not telling you a story, but building a case. He retains realism in detail, voice and format, yet never allows the pieces to stray from the quickly building plot line.

Vampires are sexy. We all know this, and if we didn’t, the modern retellings assert this truth again and again, from sparkly Edward (Twilight) to angst-y Lestat (Interview with the Vampire) to bad boy David (The Lost Boys). The origin for this association with sex and the undead becomes remarkably clear while reading Dracula’s steamy pages. The entire book reads as a sophisticated seduction. Even simple passages about place, or Jonathan’s terror as the wolves descend upon his carriage, are written with such care and delicate texture that they feel like love letters. Never explicit, Bram Stoker teases you with glimpses of moonlit skin, voluptuous lips and cunning hands. In the ruins of a church courtyard, well past midnight, he finally takes us. Listen as Jonathan’s fiancée Mina tracks down her childhood friend Lucy on a fateful night.jpeg

…there, on our favourite seat, the silver light of moon struck a half-reclining figure, snowy white. The coming of the cloud was too quick for me to see much, for the shadow shut down on light almost immediately, but it seemed to me that something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell; I could not wait to catch another glance. … There was undoubtably something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. …

Whew. I’m ready for my drink now.

Want to know what cocktail I recommend sucking down while reading Dracula? Well, you’ll have to wait for Book Lush! Make sure you get on my email list so you get notice the moment it’s out.

Surprise-and-Disbelief

Surprise and Disbelief: A Short Story from Smart Girl, Dumb Love

Surprise and Disbelief

A short story from Smart Girl, Dumb Love of The Breakup Girl Series

Surprise-and-DisbeliefCarl was my first love. It took One Week for me to fall in love with him. One Week. That’s it. Giddy teenage love, propelled by hormones and insecurity. Intense. We lost our virginity together, in a tent, fumbling adolescent sex. Did it go in? I think so. We tried to stifle our moans, to keep our secret, but we failed. Between breaths I could hear my best friend sobbing through the thin nylon walls of her nearby tent.

I went through two years of high school romance with Carl before I decided I needed to experience something fresh. I loved him, the same love as that first Week, only a little less urgent and intense. Now our love was full, soft, familiar. Problem. I was seventeen. I craved the new, the unique. Carl was kind, unfailingly tender, but no longer expressed the same surprise and disbelief when I told him I loved him, or when I let him pull my pants down in the back of his car. I wanted someone to worship me. I told Carl I needed a break. Just a little one. Surprise and Disbelief.

Mark was ten years older than me. He welded bikes at Klein during the week, then raced them down cliff faces on weekends. He sent giant bouquets of roses to my father’s house. We went on weekend trips to the mountains. I acted wild and certain. I pretended to know what I was doing. We had sex in hotel rooms. I would get on top and fuck with a ferocity that would have shocked Carl. Mark would tell me that the guys at work made comments about the bruises on his body. But I knew he lifted his shirt for them, to show where I dug my nails into his skin.

Mark was in love with me. We rode in horse-drawn carriages around Pioneer Square. He wrote me sentimental poetry and wanted me to meet his parents. Roses kept coming. I stopped hanging them upside down from my bedroom ceiling to dry. My father’s compost bin never smelled so sweet. Mark was over-anxious. Sex was too fast, jerky. I felt like I was the one riding down the rocky mountainside on a bike without shocks. One Month. That’s it. Mark drove two hours to see me. I took him to my coffee shop, the one with the smoky upstairs and the rain-drenched windows. I put his finger in the flame of the candle and held it there. He didn’t flinch. He held my gaze and smiled. I told him it was over. Surprise and Disbelief.

I sat in Carl’s car and sobbed. He was the one I loved. Of course he would take me back. He loved me. What? I’d slept with him! He got out and paced around the car, in the rain. At first I thought it was rage that made him clench his hand and smash his fist against the back window, but then he collapsed on the wet pavement. I’d done a Terrible Thing.

When I graduated from high school, I joined the volunteer youth corps. I was going to redeem myself. I was going to build houses, save wild prairie chickens, and be a Good Person.

I was away. Carl was in Seattle, flunking out of community college. I stood at the pay phone in front of the Piggly Wiggly and talked to him for hours. I was a Good Person. I missed my ever-faithful boyfriend just like I thought I should.

Nathaniel was a poet. We met at the Denver coffee shop, the one all the writers go to. He drank Earl Grey tea and quoted Whitman and Hemingway. We had dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street. I drank wine that he ordered. I told him I had a boyfriend and was In Love. I was a Good Person. I was Faithful. He held his hand at his heart; all he wanted was my friendship. Tight curls of black hair covered his eyes. I felt like kissing his lips, but Resisted. We met again and again at the coffee shop, scribbling in tandem in black leather journals. One night I followed him out onto the streets. We wandered for hours, commenting on moonlight and laughing at the stars. Compadre, he called me. Sister Soul. I slept in his bed that night, too weary to make the drive across town to my own bed. He lay beside me, just for closeness, he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just for warmth, he said. I got nervous. This didn’t feel like being a Good Person. It was time to leave. I said please, but he didn’t let me go. I said no, but he quoted Poe and held me tighter.

There is no greater indignity than to be raped by a poet.

The gentleman drove me home in the morning. I sat like stone in the seat next to him. He opened my door for me. Sister Soul, he whispered in my ear. The worst thing ever would be to lose your friendship. The Worst Thing. I had another Worst Thing.

This time Carl and I sat in my car and we both sobbed. You got in his bed, he said. I said no, I said. I had messed up. I had failed at being a Good Person. Carl’s heart was broken, again, by me. His eyes hardened. Marry me, he said. I recoiled. I am poison. Yes, I said, but not now. We moved to New Orleans instead.

I found us an apartment one block off of Bourbon Street. We got corporate jobs and Grew Up. We established credit. We took weekend trips to Florida. I didn’t Act Out. I Led A Good Life. I never got drunk on Bourbon Street. I earned my beads with my demure smile. I lost all sexual impulse. I drank mochas in the back alley cafe and made friends with the transvestites and practicing vampires. They all drank absinthe. Carl and I went to drag queen shows and flirted with boys far prettier than me. I thought I was becoming a lesbian. I wanted to kiss the girls in the cafes. I didn’t feel like kissing Carl. One Year. One Terrible Year.

Carl started to suspect that I wasn’t attracted to him. We took starlit walks along the Mississippi River, drank red wine at quaint cafes, and danced in sudden rainstorms. But I lay still and quiet in our bed at night. I let him move above me, enter me, but I simply lay back and watched the air thicken with southern heat. Marry Me, he said, and I saw The Pain, and I knew I had done It again. Yes, I said, but not now.

Instead I took to writing in the cafes for hours, Carl home alone, waiting for me to return. When he was at work, I found the online chat rooms. I clicked on Pain. One quick typer spelled out my fantasies. I bookmarked his name. Carl went away, back home. Just for One Week. I gave the quick-typer my phone number. He spoke to me in whispers. He was a producer. He was married. He was twice my age. We talked every night, every morning. I felt flush and renewed. I walked through the French Quarter wearing loose summer dresses and no underwear, let the hot air slide between my thighs and up my belly.

The producer was captivated. Could he fly down and see me? No. Would I come to him? To New York? To Cannes, just for One Week? I delayed. I stammered. What if the fantasy died in person? Technically, I hadn’t yet consummated. Failed. Cheated. Done It. Technicality.

Carl came back. Two plane tickets arrived in the mail. One to New York, one to France. Carl saw. What are those?

I threw them on the table. We need to separate, I said. He looked at the tickets then at me. Yes, he said. Marry me firstthen go.

I pulled at the hem of my dress. Yes, but not now.

We made plans to part. He would go North; I would go West. I wouldn’t go to New York. I wouldn’t go to Cannes. I would be a Good Person and miss my boyfriend like I was supposed to. He would sleep with women and catch up with me. That was The Deal. I was horribly, voraciously attracted to him. We had One Week before we moved out, moved on. We got drunk on Bourbon. The transvestites gave us drugs, and we devoured them. We had sex for an entire day. I put Miles Davis on repeat. The CD cycled around and around until the wail of the trumpet became as familiar as Carl’s breaths, my moans. Then we left.

I ran into the mountains, volunteering as an interpretive educator. I missed my boyfriend like a Good Person. I imagined him sleeping with other women. I walked out of my cabin at night into a field of buffalo, imagining Carl kissing other women. Wolves howled at night, and I imagined the moans of other women. A young ranger who worked in the park led me up a mountain to see the peregrine nests. I smoked his weed and made him laugh. I said I was crazy in love with the man I sent away. He said I was crazy. We had sex under the stars, in the prairie grass. The young ranger liked the taste of women. He stuck his whole hand inside me, licked the moisture off his fingertips. I imagined Carl tasting new tastes. I didn’t love the young ranger. He didn’t love me. We got along great. We had sex everywhere. I didn’t feel like a Good Person, but I didn’t feel like a Bad Person either. I didn’t feel. I sensed. I sensed the dirt under my back and the cool air on my thighs. I sensed Pain and I sensed Waiting. Then I sensed Life, and the young ranger drove me three hours to the closest gynecologist. Surprise and Disbelief.

I had Life. The doctor placed conception in New Orleans. In that One Week. The young ranger waited for me in the Laundromat, the only place he could sit and wait and not have to pay for something or be looked at by women waiting to have their privates examined. He told me to call Carl. He said He’d Want To Know. He drove me back to the mountains, singing me love songs. I called Carl from a payphone at the Lodge. Carl said, Marry me.

Yes, I said, but not now.

Instead we met in Salt Lake City, Utah. I picked him up at the airport, and we drove to a Holiday Inn. He stripped me down and laid me on the bed. He looked at my flat belly. There had been no other women. I had known it before he told me. Ever-Faithful. He touched the pink slit between my legs. Other men, he said and stepped away from me. I cried. I had done It again. But Carl did not cry.

We moved back home. Close to parents. I paced around the house and waited for my belly to get big.

Marry Me! Carl demanded.

Yes, I said, but not now.

He left at odd hours. He didn’t tell me where he was going. I went shopping and ran into Mark. He quivered when he saw me. He begged me to come to his apartment, to see the art he made. Fine, I said. But I have Life.

He shook it off. I had to come see.

He’d welded bicycle parts into a jagged womb, a melted lump of metal caged inside. It’s called Don’t Touch My Heart, he said. He read a poem he had written me years before. He tried to kiss me. I felt Nothing. I told him not to speak to me in public and took the bus home.

Carl was suddenly attentive. For One Week he followed me as if I were the sun and the bearer of all light. Tender. Miles Davis hummed in my ear. Walks in the woods and ice cream in bed. Then I found his cell phone. Unaware. I saw the other woman’s phone number. I knew. Surprise and Disbelief.

Carl was gone for the day, working on a house with his friend up north. One hundred miles separated us. I called the friend, and he gave the phone to Carl. I know, I said. He moaned and wrenched. It would be so easy, I said. Rocks in my pockets. The pretty green lake.

No, he said. Come, he said.

So I came. One hundred miles imagining the other woman. Every mile a new moan, a new glint of skin, a new position in bed.

I stepped out of the car. The friend moved quickly into the house. Carl ran to me. He pulled me to the grass, and we collapsed. I wrapped my arms around him, my legs. He held me tight and sobbed into my shoulder.

I did It, he said. I’m a Bad Person, he said.

Bright bright sunlight all around. Summer scents. Marry me, I said.

Yes, he said, now.

SGDL1_600 >> Get the entire collection on Amazon.

Smart like Lydia Davis, bold like Chelsea Handler and relentlessly funny like Mindy Kaling, these short stories these three fast-paced stories about smart girls making dumb love will smack you off your feet and have you pleading for more.
        • Read a checklist of the top five things your lovers will hate about you.
        • Take a journey with the girl who just can’t commit, even though her high-school sweetheart is practically perfect.
        • Live the life of a girl exposed, literally, to prying eyes.
Bonus story: 
Includes an excerpt from Kelsye Nelson’s upcoming novel, The Secret Life of Sensei Shi. 

 

About The Breakup Girl Series:
Simply, A Breakup Girl is a woman that repeatedly, reliably breaks up with entities of all sorts, with boyfriends, with cities, with careers, with families. A Breakup Girl may even break up with herself, move on to claim a new identity. A Breakup Girl is a woman in the midst of change.

Buy now or view Kelsye’s other books