The Summer of Done

I have a problem with finishing things. The epic fantasy novel I began when I was ten has moved through seven states and two continents over three decades… and it’s still not complete.

In 2014, I took a huge leap. I finished a couple of short stories and submitted them for publication. Of course, the result was a whole mess of rejections, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I’d finally finished a writing project. Each outgoing submission was an endpoint. Publication is a bonus, not the goal.

In the spring, high on this newfound feeling of doneness, I fell into a pattern of dashing out short stories and sending them off. And while each one was a victory over procrastination, some of them weren’t really, truly done. They deserved the rejections they received.

This summer, I’ve vowed to finish a chunk of work that has languished, undone. I won’t be submitting anything, anywhere for the entire summer–no matter how intriguing the project. I won’t be starting any new writing–no matter how compelling the idea. No flash fiction, no writing prompts, no “what ifs.” Two preselected novels and four short stories are the only items I can touch.

And so begins the Summer of Done. See you in September.

#SummerOfDone

Not *My* Woman

The picture is of a couple, from behind, walking away from us. We think we recognize her hair, his bald spot, the ubiquitous jean/blazer combo. It doesn’t matter who they are. The wind has scooped up the hem of the woman’s dress and revealed her bare buttocks.
An acquaintance shared this photo with a lewd comment about the woman not wearing undergarments. I challenged him.
Would you — I asked — share a similar photo of your own wife?
Of course he wouldn’t… not *his* woman. But over the course of the next five messages, the litany of excuses began:
1) She’s famous. Somehow, women in the public eye are undeserving of respect to their bodies. I recognize that my ideal of a famous or non-famous woman being able to lay topless on a beach without fear of someone snapping and sharing an image is unrealistic; however, I think we can all agree that this woman did not intend for her dress to go up and her derriere to be made public. Therefore, we should respect her intent.
2) She should have known better. Should she have known that the wind would blow? Or that a crass photographer would exploit her bare bottom without her permission? Or that a newspaper would encourage the photographer by paying for the photo? This is so close to an examination of a rape survivor’s clothing and route choices that it gives me goosebumps. Somehow, it is her responsibility to control a photographer’s trigger finger. Or the newspaper’s buying policy. It’s her fault.
3) I didn’t take the photo. The implication here is that since he didn’t take the photo, he bears no responsibility for sharing it. That perpetuating a little violation against a woman is not as bad as originally committing it.
I continued to push and the conversation devolved into what it always does online, a bunch of people shouting me down with increasingly bizarre and misguided arguments. One man cried out that “butts” were not his pleasure, and that ears were his fetish… complete with a recurring description of how exactly ears turn him on. One woman said she blamed the amorphous “media” for publishing the photo, but our friend sharing it was no problem at all. Another woman jumped in to belittle my focus on institutional misogny — claiming that I was fiddling while Rome falls. Someone else started talking about eugenics… I left before someone invoked the ghost of Hitler. But I spoke up. I tried.

Passive Privilege

This man. This very special man has come into this coffee shop expecting to work. And to work, he needs an outlet for his laptop. There simply isn’t one and he is intent upon letting all of us know that he cannot get to his critical work. Not in the loud, shouty way that would be the hallmark of an asshole. His are the subtle entitled signs of privilege.
He looks around, using his entire body in a sweeping motion to case the room. He expels a sigh audible over Tori Amos’ latest song and fifteen other conversations. He picks up a stack of Very Important Files, shuffles them around with a flourish, then slams them back down. He can’t do ANYTHING without an outlet, and yet he has not planned for that possibility.
He’s spotted me, off at a corner table. Me and my outlet. I know where they all are, and I choose a seat near one. I get here early. I charge my devices fully before leaving home in the event they are all taken. I bring a notebook, should my charges run out. I flex with the world, instead of trying to bend the entire planet to my needs.
This man is used to the world moving for him. He wants the outlet that I am using and he is staring in my direction. One minute. Two minutes. I stare back, emotionless. No invitation to sit at my table, no acknowledgement of his performance. He flicks his laptop shut and the message is clear. “I can’t work because of you.”
Me, who got here early, scoped the right table, and worked on battery until the woman behind me finished with the power. He stares at a couple chatting over coffee. A man in his twenties and a greying woman. Not mother/son — because she sits a few seats away from him, not right across. Teacher/student? He stares until they notice and become uncomfortable, which didn’t take much, because they were already halfway there on their own.
“Do you have an outlet there?” he asks, across the room, so that everyone must share in the conversation. Their discussion is interrupted by a moment of searching the wall, the floor, under the table. They shrug, but leave anyway, their moment gone.
He moves to their table, bringing stacks of files in sets of five, then his bulging briefcase, then his laptop. He, too, searches under the table, up the wall, on the floor. There is no outlet here. He makes a phone call, and I learn his name is Michael and that he’ll try Jim back in an hour. We all learn it.
Another trio finish their drinks and leave, and Michael’s next performance is to search their empty table for a power supply. On the way back, he stops at a runner’s table and says, “Not a lot of outlets here!” His problems are all of our problems. The runner pulls out an earbud. “What?” And Michael repeats his outraged statement. The runner nods and goes back to his paper. A real paper one.
Michael sits back down and frets. This is his fretting: hands clasped tight in a peak over the laptop, then down on the keyboard, he looks up, scans the tables, looks back down, hand over his mouth, now pinching his cheek, now rubbing them together, head bobbing left and right as if debating something. Every moment or so, he looks up to see who is watching him in distress. The world has not bent to him and he is lost. It feels disorienting not to get what he needs at the instant he needs it. To watch others have what he wants and be unable to procure it.
Michael is becoming frantic. He piles the folders on his keyboard, clears his throat, then re-piles them back on the table. He opens the top folder, taps the pages on the table to straighten them, then puts them back in. He makes another call for all of us to hear. He stands up, walks by each of the tables, looking again for the outlets. Then back again, looking backwards this time. I have to pee, but I truly believe that if I leave, I’ll come back to Michael using my outlet. After all, he wants it, so doesn’t that make it his?
I have to go. Like go go. I take the lid off my coffee and put it on the table in front of me. Then spread out my three napkins to take up as much table real estate as possible. I’m trying to make myself look bigger, more imposing, so that he does not approach. Etiquette here, in a suburban coffee shop, is to leave your laptop on the table while you pop into the restroom. Not the small things, like phones and wallets, but laptops can stay open while you relieve yourself.
He suddenly stands, grabbing his laptop and stuffing it into the stretching leather of the case. He sprints past me, sighing again as the show comes to an end. He drops the case onto a vacated table, looking underneath triumphantly. Michael has found his outlet. All is right with the world.

And now I can pee.

Writing: Crash Test

This is a flash fiction piece written for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge:

Crash Test

“No matter the number in your bank account, everyone deserves a shot at forever.”

The salesman leans in conspiratorially. “Honestly, Model B’s offer the best bang for your buck anyway.”

I sincerely doubt that this guy, with his pointy-toed shoes that cost as much as my apartment, would be caught dead in a Model B. One step up from a sentient trash can, the Model B’s are rigid plastic in a dusty tan tone. Of course, you can upgrade skin coloring and texture, but if you could afford upgrades, you wouldn’t be considering a Model B in the first place.

“Just the basic Model B,” I say, regretting not having saved more for retirement. The fancy throw pillows on the couch of my thirties would have paid for soft silicone skin in my choice of tone. The weekly tanning sessions from my forties would have bought a chipset and audio package to simulate my voice. And the tropical cruises of my fifties cost enough to buy a Model C… or better.

But we didn’t know, back then, that living forever was just over the horizon. And I didn’t know, back then, that an octopus of out-of-control cells was budding in my right breast.

“All righty,” sings the salesman. “Would you like the Sun and Sound package for $500 more? The exterior surface darkens by six shades when exposed to UV rays, plus an internal sound system to listen to your favorite tunes in the cloud.”

My cloud. My cloud contains six music files from long-dead musicians, a few hundred emails, three unfinished crosswords with strangers, two seasons of a television show that went off the air two decades ago, and a handful of text files with the passwords to every defunct website in the history of the net.

“No thanks.”

“Sure thing. We also have the Surf and Turf package, which includes water and sand protection. We spray the…”

I pull out my debit card and he notices the baby blue color–the color for consumers who have just enough money to pay for the essentials. The people who know what it’s like to use a shopping bag for toilet paper.

“So just the Model B then,” he finishes. Typing the last few keystrokes with a smile and flourish that conceals about 98% of his disdain for me.

“When would you like to schedule the transfer?” he asks, swiping my card and pretending not to notice that I hold my breath until the transaction pings back approved.

“Are there any openings today?” I ask, feeling the gasping shortness of breath creep over me.

He looks me over with genuine surprise. Aside from a little paleness and a certain rheumy reddening around the eyes, I appear fine.

“Is there an issue which necessitates a rush?” he asks. Such delicate phrasing. If only I had tip money, I would give him the full twenty percent.

“The cancer… it’s…” I don’t want to say it. All of the words sound over-dramatic and ridiculous. It’s eating me alive. It’s killing me. It’s stealing my breath. Here I am, about to load my consciousness into a life-sized mechanical doll, and I can’t even say out loud that the cancer has infiltrated all of my systems and is bringing me down like the Hindenburg.

The salesman puts his hand over mine and squeezes.

“Say no more. There aren’t any openings, but I can play with the lunch breaks…” he types and swipes, then looks up with a smile that is actually an apology for my impending death.

“…and we’ve got it. You’re in for 12:15,” he looks at a watch that could buy a dozen Model B’s. “That’s twenty minutes from now. Does that work for you or do you need more time?”

I do need more time, which is why I’m here.

“No, that’s perfect. Thank you.”

###

The transfer center is one of the most sophisticated laboratories in the country, yet it looks like a dentist’s chair wandered into a Buddhist temple. They lay me down and speak in comforting tones about marginal kill rates and transfer data aberrations.

I don’t care. I’m not some college kid trading my beer belly for a hard-bodied Model R. If the transfer doesn’t work and I disappear, I’m no worse off than I was a day ago. A nurse in scrubs leans down to my ear and hers are the last words I hear in my rotten meat body.

“Don in sales is such a sweetie. He comped you Sun and Sound…”

###

After the transfer, I walk to the testing center where my husband works. It’s nine miles, but my new feet don’t care. They just keep moving.

The line for jobs at the center is long, but as an employee’s wife I’m ushered to the front. A thirty-second wireless diagnostic determines that my Model B is brand new and ready for work. No resume, no references. That’s all they need to know. Three years of struggling through the disabilities of a dying body and here, in this metal doll, I’m employable within the hour.

I change into an orange jumpsuit and yellow-black crash stickers right in the employment office. I no longer have genitals that will make anyone blush.

“You can go on up to the third floor testing room,” says the intake manager. “You’re lucky. We have an opening with Bill.”

I watch my husband’s last two crashes from the test floor. The car he’s sitting in slams into a cinderblock wall and his plastic head shatters the passenger window. A man–a meat man–with a clipboard swears and shakes his head.

“Still not right.”

Bill exits the sedan and sees me. We Model B’s look nearly identical in our orange jumpsuits, but somehow, he knows. Sun and Sound kicks in and Angel of the Morning begins playing in my head. He puts his lips on mine and plastic meets plastic. They don’t fit together anymore, but the love is still there.

Everyday Sexism: Grabbed

Yesterday, women around the world talked about their experiences being #grabbed. The thread is a dismaying read, to say the least. It confirms to outsiders what many women have known their entire lives. When you get into an elevator alone with a man, he might made a sexual comment on your body. When you sit on a bus or a train, the man next to you may stroke your thigh or brush your breasts while you pray for the ride to end. When you walk across a crowded club, men may grab your buttocks or try to penetrate you with their fingers. But we knew this already.
I knew it from the time I was ten, being one of those “lucky” girls whose breasts developed early. On a crowded city bus with my parents, the man next to me grabbed my breast and squeezed hard enough to leave a bruise. He never even turned his head to look at me. He simply stared out of the window nonchalantly. At ten, you doubt yourself. Did that just happen? How do I tell my dad, with whom I’ve never even said the word “breast,” that a stranger has intimately touched me? So I stood there, turning red, trying not to cry, and let the bus ride finish.
I knew it in high school, when I walked into a coat room to hang something and a male friend walked in after me. Inexplicably, the lights in the closet went out and in the sudden darkness, he grabbed me, held me against the wall, groped my breasts and forcibly kissed me. After a few minutes of fumbling protest, the lights came back on and he left.
It sickened me to realize, years later, that the lights had likely been turned off by the male teacher in the outer classroom. He saw the boy follow me into the closet and set me up to be grabbed.
I knew it the next year, when studying to become an emergency medical technician. At a lesson on evaluating injuries, I was asked to be a practice patient for several students. All of them did fine, except for one man, who, during the evaluation, grabbed both of my breasts and squeezed them. Let me tell you now, that is not part of any type of injury evaluation. The female adult in charge was clearly mortified, as was I. However, instead of the male student being disciplined, I was yanked from the volunteer group and given snack table duty.
Let me repeat that. A man inappropriately touched me and *I* was asked to leave. He continued on with his practice. My day of learning was over because of his inability to self-regulate. How does a woman leave that situation without feeling as if she is the transgressor?
I knew it as a freshman in college, when a known sexual predator sat down to eat lunch with me in the dining hall. Two hundred other students sat and watched him pretend to be a friendly man, interested in my company, as his questions became increasingly more personal. Two hundred other humans watched a nineteen-year-old girl with a man who was known to stalk women and did nothing. You know how I knew they were watching? Because when one brave stranger came up and invited me to join her for lunch, pretending we had class notes to compare, the entire dining hall burst out in applause. They were relieved that someone had saved the naive frosh — because they sure as hell weren’t going to.
And I knew it two years ago, at a dinner party with friends. One of the guests (a man in his 40s), grabbed first the buttocks, then the breast of another guest (a woman in her 50s). We were all friends. Her husband watched from five feet away, and no one knew what to do. No one wanted to chastise a friend. She offered a polite, “Stop it,” and I told him to go away. He chided both of us for not being able to take a joke, then proceeded to approach each woman in the room, asking the color of their bra. It was shrugged off as, “Oh, Mike is just a dirty old man.”
I saw people on the #grabbed thread advocating a “kick to the balls” to stop a grabber. As if, after being assaulted, we women would like to subsequently start a physical fight with our assailant. Because that’s an improvement in the situation — a 200-pound man with no impulse control is now injured, angry, and directing his force at us.
At the tail end of the day, several of those exact men showed up on the #grabbed thread. They were angry and hateful toward the women sharing their stories. They sneered that no wonder the women had been grabbed, they were hot. They posted photos of erect penises and invited women to grab them. They posted a graphic picture of a severed hand and claimed they had grabbed a “feminazi.” These are the grabbers; men whose response to being called out as inappropriate is to become off-the-charts hateful and violent. And you want us to kick them in the balls…
Mary Gardiner offers an excellent rebuttal to the worst anti-harassment advice ever.
Twenty years after graduation, the boy from the coat room sent me a Facebook friend request. My breath caught when I saw his accompanying message: “Remember that day in the closet. Yum.”

Giving Up On Sophie

I’m friends with Sophie on Facebook. She was an acquaintance during high school; we might have spoken in passing a handful of times, but we weren’t really friends. We connected on Facebook in that early newcomer frenzy of requesting anyone who had graduated in your class.
It’s now twenty years after high school and through her posts, I see that Sophie and I have a common passion for sewing. She posts weekly updates about her projects, which are beautiful, and I’ve been commenting on them since we became “friends.” I’ve mentioned how lovely her work is, I’ve thanked her for sharing, I’ve even asked a related question. No response. Ever. She will reply to comments around mine, and always leave me unacknowledged.
I’ve tried to put myself in her shoes. Perhaps she can’t remember who I am and why we’re friends. Or she doesn’t like my other (often political) posts. Maybe she just doesn’t like me, period. Even so, nothing precludes her from simply answering, “Thanks.”
Today, I’m unfollowing Sophie. And here’s the thing. I have a new house with two dozen huge, bare windows. Sophie is an interior designer whose work I enjoy. I was hoping, after striking up a conversation, to hire her (for pay) to consult on window treatments for my home. Now, when I see her name, I feel rejected and I think unkind thoughts. She has lost my business.
My takeaway lesson is to be more responsive. I don’t need to be best buddies with everyone, but I will do my best to offer an acknowledgement when someone has connected with me — especially in a positive way or over a shared interest. Just think, Sophie could be cashing a check from me right now.

Starting With The End

About a third of the way into my current novel, I was lost in a forest of good ideas. You know how it is when you first encounter an intriguing book idea — there’s excitement, drama, and a never-ending flow of possibilities.
I had put all of those possibilities into the first three chapters of the book. Every last neat-o tech gadget. All of the fun science-y conceits. I found myself in a really cool world going nowhere fast.
I puttered around on the book for a few days weeks. I started to lose interest. Maybe it wasn’t such a good story, after all. Then, inspiration struck.
I wrote my query letter. Query letters — the note introducing my novel in a couple of riveting paragraphs to literary agents — would typically come at the end of the writing and editing process. Doing it now would force me to show what was at stake for my hero.
I started my query:
My main character sees a hole in the… Who cares?
The protagonist has to help fix the… Why does he *have* to?
This guy wants to figure out… *click* <– The sound of an agent deleting my email
There’s nothing quite like condensing the (lack of) action down to two paragraphs to make it very clear that you have a really neat idea, but not a whit of conflict or momentum. I scrapped the first third of the book and put some stakes in there.
When you hear the phrase, “kill your darlings,” it doesn’t just mean characters. It can indicate, as it did for me, that you have to surgically remove all traces of the very cool science fiction idea that prompted you to write the story in the first place. Ouch, that was hard. But it didn’t make sense to the narrative. There were better ideas that created more conflict. I set the original idea aside for a sequel and wrote from there.
Today, I’m happy to report that the remaining two-thirds of the book were written in two frenzied words-tumbling-over-words weeks. Once there were proper reasons for the action, the story practically unfolded on its own.
Sometimes, when you’re stuck at the beginning, you have to start with the end.