A Request for an Interview, Fiction for the Childfree

Imagine my surprise: Author Laura Carroll sent me an email requesting that I answer a few questions writing childfree fiction. To be sure, I was surprised and honored. Of course!

Her book Families of Two set Laura on the path to being one of the leading experts and voices on the childfree choice. A prolific author, she also wrote The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.

I wrote my book Human Slices when I was much younger and exploring my choice to be childfree — Was it really a choice, a pre-determined state of being, or something that just happened to me? I still don’t know the definitive answer to that. I do know, however, that it was the right choice for me.

When I first wrote my book, the idea of being “childfree by choice” wasn’t talked about much, if at all. It was almost taboo. It’s exciting to hear the discussions and ideas on that topic sparkle around the world through technology. Good for us and good for all.

Click here to access the interview on Laura’s site. Thanks, Laura!

The Kennedy Dark Days: How Did They Know What To Do?

It’s true: If you’re of a certain age, you know where you were on November 22 in 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.


Television (Photo credit: Medhi)

I was at school, a 9-year-old kid on a Friday afternoon, looking forward to a weekend of hanging out with my friends in the rec room, playing my sister’s records, enacting little dramas that starred my Barbie and Ken dolls.

But that was the weekend that wasn’t.

Teachers started moving from classroom to classroom. They whispered to each other. They held crumpled tissues in their hands.

We were led into the school’s “Materials Center,” and under the watchful eyes of the red-headed librarian, we sat quietly, focused on the flickering black-and-white tv.

The president has been shot. He may be dead. He may not be dead.

It was then official: “The president of the United States is dead.”

When I got home, the television was on. My mom had been ironing and watching As the World Turns when she heard the news.

I can still remember those images on the television set, Walter Cronkite’s face, the sound of his voice, Jackie climbing out of the back seat of the limo to reach out to the Secret Service agent.

How did she have the courage to do that? I imagined that if I were in that situation, I would have covered my head and scrunched down on the floor.

I remember being so moved by her heroic reaction. Would I ever be able to do something like that?

The strange, stinging drama played out on the screen, almost in slow motion although everything happened so fast.

One hour after Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, while Jackie looked on, dazed, still wearing her blood-stained suit.

I remember thinking that it seemed harsh and callous to swear in a new president while we were all waiting for the old president to come back to life.

My dad said that the new president was sworn in right away because there had to be a leader in place. This made me afraid, as if something darker, more evil could be on its way, and someone needed to be in charge to shout out orders.

A few hours later, at 5 pm, we watched the televised landing of a coffin arriving in Washington D.C. How did everyone get packed up and fly across the country so quickly?

Before midnight, we learned that the police had arrested a gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. How had that scenario happened?

We went to bed, stunned, trying to sort out this new reality. We got up in the morning and turned on the television, hoping for answers.

The new reality was still baffling: There was a flag-draped casket in the White House. President Kennedy’s famous rocking chair was unceremoniously rolled out through a side door.

We stayed glued to the tv set and watched other people watching tvs in front of department store displays, people gathering in town squares and in churches, people marching with torches and carrying signs. The entire world was grieving, some weeping, some with blank expressions.  We were all on the same channel: There was not one person alive who did not know—could not not know–what was happening during this place in time and history.

I learned new words: Catafalque. Cortege. Caisson.

On Sunday, November 24, there was more pomp and circumstance as the casket went from the White House to the Capitol in a dramatic, slow-moving procession with funereal drums and the clip clop of horses. Then there were eulogies and proclamations, dignitaries and condolences,  kneeling and whispers—all quiet and controlled.

In contrast to that solemnity, we got to see a live murder on tv as Jack Ruby pulled out a gun and shot Oswald right in the gut.

I didn’t know it then, but we were ushering in a new era of watching people get shot on television. It was going to be different from the usual fare, which included shows like Dick Van Dyke, The Flintstones, Mister Ed, and Andy Griffith.

The world had gone mad, yet there was an order, a surreal serenity. I still wanted to know: How did so many people know what to do?

On Monday, November 25, we watched the funeral, a solemn parade led by a jumpy, riderless horse named Black Jack. In his stirrups there were black boots, facing backwards, a symbol of a fallen leader.

I wondered how all of this was put together, so impeccable and calibrated, so dramatically arranged. Was there a plan laid out in a secret folder that had been labeled: “Here’s What We’ll Do If the President Is Assassinated”?

How did Jackie decide what to wear? When did she have time to shop for mourning clothes? I remember the voices on tv talking about her choice of veil.

The performances of both man and beast were nothing short of mesmerizing—even the one from little John-John who raised his hand into a salute as his father’s casket passed by. He was only three!!! And here he was making a perfectly innocent, sweet, and painful gesture that moved us all to tears. How in the world did this precious boy in the double-breasted coat know that he should do that?  Most three-year olds I knew would have been all wriggling and squealing.

The summer before the assassination, our family took a road trip to Washington, a sort of homage to the Kennedys, I suppose. They were rock stars! We got to walk around the White House, the place where they lived! Caroline’s pony Macaroni was eating grass in the yard!

As part of our trip, we visited Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and graves of WWII vets my father had known from his time in the war. It was such a sad and moving day. As we stood on a hill overlooking the fields of white headstones, my mom said, “Somebody important is going to be buried here.”

My whole family felt a bit unsettled, especially my mom, when we saw that they were burying the president in the exact same place where we had stood on that hill.

I was confused and scared during those days, and I also felt inadequate. All I could do was sit there and watch television…and wonder how so much calm could be happening while the chaos of loss swallowed us whole.

But something was coming to light: If everyone knew what they were supposed to do during times like these, maybe it was because such devastating things happened before. Maybe Tragedy was always in the wings, waiting to make another entrance when you least expect it. Maybe I was learning lessons about life a little faster than I wanted to.

Five days later, on November 29, The Beatles released their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” How in the world did John, Paul, George, and Ringo know that was exactly the song that I wanted–and needed–to hear?

A Story with Meaning: The First Mustang Ever Sold

English: Ford Mustang - Year 1964 Deutsch: For...

English: Ford Mustang – Year 1964 Deutsch: Ford Mustang Bj. 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1964, Gail Wise, a young woman in Chicago, bought the first Mustang ever sold. It was a baby blue convertible hidden away under a tarp in the back of a showroom.

As reported in a story by A.J. Baime in the Nov. 13 Wall Street Journal, Ms. Wise bought the car “two days before the Mustang was introduced at the New York World’s Fair.”

Many years ago, a friend once let me drive his blue Mustang.  I remember the thrill of that like it was yesterday.

At first I thought I was drawn to Ms. Wise’s story because it was about a blue Mustang. But then I realized it was more than that. The Tale of her Mustang is full of lessons to live by:

1. Believe in yourself.
So here she was: a new college grad, with a new job, and she was going to get a new car–ready to drive forward on the next phase of her life’s journey.

2. Know what you want.
And Ms. Wise absolutely knew that she wanted a convertible.

3. Ask for help when you need it.
The car that she was dreaming of wasn’t on the showroom floor, but she didn’t turn around and leave the dealer. She asked for help.

4. Make positive human connection.
The salesman invited her to the back of the showroom to check out a car that was under a tarp. I can imagine him enjoying this young woman’s determination and enthusiasm. He was willing to help her achieve her dream.

5. Take risks.
She–and most of the world–had never heard of a Mustang before, but she was willing to give it a go.

6. Have fun.
When she drove out of the dealership, Wise said that she felt “like a movie star!”

7. Hold on to what you love.
Almost 50 years later, she still takes that car on the road.

Day of the Dead Sets the Scene — An Excerpt from Human Slices, a Love Story

Español: tradicional ofrenda del dia de los mu...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

On a rainy first of November many years ago, my friend Anne took me to Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art for its Dia de los Muertos celebration. I was immediately smitten by the altars, those skeletons, the offerings, the colors. That first Day of the Dead experience still dances in my bones. (Thank you, Annie!)

When I was working on the closing scenes of my novel Human Slices, I imagined my female protagonist heartbroken and numb at Halloween. Then she went off and created a Day of the Dead altar.

Whenever this day comes around, I think of this scene with Salm — which is her odd little nickname for her longer nickname, Little Salmon. Here’s an excerpt from the last chapter of Human Slices.

Happy Dia de los Muertos!

As the wet autumn leaves squeaked underfoot, Salm lugged four small pumpkins up the stairs to her apartment. She spread several Sunday papers onto the kitchen floor and sat down, putting the pumpkins between her legs. She cut deep wounds around their stems, and after pulling off the tops, she settled in for the best part of the job—digging her hands into the cold slime and separating the stringy innards from the seeds.

She spent the early evening washing the pumpkin seeds, salting them, and baking them in her oven. She was going to take the seeds to Sylvia and Reed’s tomorrow. They had just moved in together, and they were having a Day of the Dead celebration in conjunction with their housewarming party. Reed had told her he had a mild addiction to pumpkin seeds. While the seeds cooked, Salm sliced unhappy geometric expressions into the pumpkins’ faces.

Sylvia had introduced Salm to the Day of the Dead rituals—Dia de los Muertos—years ago. It was the day the dead came back to visit the earth. Creating an altar with candles was essential. The altar honored their memory, and the candles guided their way. 

After the pumpkins were carved, Salm lined them on top of her kitchen table. She went into her pantry and dug out the voodoo candles she bought at Maxwell Street last year—thick, round candles encased in sparkling glass. Her cats followed Salm from room to room as she roamed her apartment, picking up assorted mementos—photographs, bits of memorabilia, postcards, souvenirs, a book of poetry, letters, holy cards.

On her bureau, she found Luke’s dog magnets. She arranged and rearranged everything until the memories were in their right places. Then she sprinkled the entire creation with glitter. Satisfied with the altar’s look, she rummaged through the cabinet under her sink to find an old bottle of mescal and poured herself a double shot. She lit the candles and turned off the overhead light. 

She sat at the kitchen table and watched the candles flicker. “To the dead,” she began, lifting the shot glass to her eyes and squinting through it. She threw the fiery liquid down her throat. 

Salm toasted to the pumpkins. “To Dad.”  She sighed. 

“Aunt Elaine, Grandma and Grandpa Collins, Big Fred, Grandma Penszak.”  She sat in silence. 

“To Sandy, my guardian angel, Bobby Kennedy, Uncle Walt, Theresa, Peter.  Jennifer, Cal, Les, Stuart, Rick, Terrence.”

As always, Luke was on her mind. “To Luke’s parents, his Uncle Jerry, Greg, Anne Marie and all the rest.”  She felt a certain numbness from the mescal overtaking her fingers and toes. 

“To all of the lovers and friends who are dead…really dead…and the ones who are dead to me from absence.”  She felt tears burn in her eyes. 

“And, of course, to Luke.” She spoke quietly and solemnly. 

The candle flames quivered and swayed, catching and reflecting the light of the raindrops on the window.

Salm sat still for a long, long time. 

She thought she heard a knock at the back door, but it must have been a branch, or a tipped garbage can being blown down the alley.   

“It’s open,” she thought to herself. She remembered saying that to Luke so many times.

There was another knock. She looked up to the back door and thought she saw Luke’s image through the screen.  She wondered if the mescal could cause such a hallucination. 

“Salm?” Luke said quietly. 

Human Slices is available for Kindle and in print on Amazon.

The Story of Film — Worth a Watch

story of film-USLast year, I spent a series of Saturday mornings running to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago to catch the 15-episode documentary, THE STORY OF FILM. 

Turner Classic Movies starts airing the series tonight (Monday, September 2), and if you’re a film fan, I highly recommend it. You’ll end up with some insights, film trivia for cocktail parties (like the first movie close-up featured a kitty!!!), and a long, long list of movies to watch. I especially enjoyed the first episodes and will always be thankful for Mark Cousins, the film historian who created the series, for introducing me to Asta Nielsen’s insane erotic dance from the 1910 silent movie, The Abyss.

If you are so inclined, I did a series of blog posts about THE STORY OF FILM documentary. Check them out at http://wp.me/pfwMd-1sL

And take a look at Asta’s fabulous dance.

The Grand Poobahs Speak — Who’s Right?

English: Stephen of England Česky: Štěpán z Blois

English: Stephen of England Česky: Štěpán z Blois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was chatting with a writer friend the other day, and we got on the subject of adverbs. Exciting, right?

During our conversation, I tried to remember something clever I read about adverbs — about not using adverbs, that is — in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing.

I found the book on my shelf and flipped through it until I found the bit where King opined, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I can imagine King writing a story one day about a demon road in a battle with evil…in the form of words ending in -ly.

While I was searching through the book looking for King’s adverbial wisdom (with which I mostly agree), I ran across this statement: “Informal essays are, by and large, silly and insubstantial things; unless you get a job as a columnist at your local newspaper, writing such fluffery is a skill you’ll never use in the actual mall-and-filling station world.”

“Informal essays are, by and large, silly and insubstantial things.” — Stephen King, 2000

Tell that to the gazillion bloggers in the world.

King’s On Writing came out in 2000. According to Wikipedia, the word blog was coined in by “Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog Peterme.com in April or May 1999.”

King missed the boat on that one. What’s “fluffery” to some can be brilliance to many.

Thinking of King’s non-prophetic statement, I recalled when I read The Icarus Deception by bestselling author and super-blogger Seth Godin. Godin wrote in his 2012 book that analysis is what we need to write for the ether world. “Do it every day,” Godin opined. “Every single day. Not a diary, not fiction, but analysis.”

I remember when I read that, and how sad it made me. I was late to the blog party, but I was envisioning my blog as a place for me to experiment with short fiction. Godin’s statement took the wind out of my sails.

Nonetheless, contrary to Godin’s rule, I have posted some micro fiction here on this blog in the form of my 259-word stories, and these little bits of story usually get some traction.

The Lesson Learned: You can’t believe everyone all the time, even the Grand Poobahs. And absolutely, that’s the truth.