Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On Halloween

I woke up this morning to the news that the daughter of friends had died yesterday, much too young, much too cruelly. Crime fiction is a small and tight-knit community, and we mostly love each other a lot (with the necessary exceptions who just make the bonds among the rest of us feel even stronger). It's not true that pain shared is pain lessened, but we're grieving together today, and cherishing our friends even more.

It's a dark time of year, literally and spiritually. These three days — Halloween, All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day — originated in the pagan recognition that veils get thin around this time of year. Time starts slipping, and the mortal peril we all constantly live in becomes a little more visible and immediate. Winter is coming.  

Something exists at the edges, something we can't quite see, something our brains are too small to understand. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, merely converted from one state to another. We know this in our bones, we feel it in the crawling of our skin and the cold dread that gathers at the solar plexus when we feel ourselves sliding away.

We can lie down and let it take us, or we can fight it off with masks and jokes and human-built monsters. We can rise up behind our defenders — the saints, Michael the Archangel, the Marvel Comics Universe, whatever works. (It's hardly a coincidence that superheroes have come to dominate our popular culture as organized religion ebbs away.)

Every living creature fights for life. It's our first job, the most important job—and we pretty much have to pretend it will continue indefinitely, or how would we ever get anything done?

Once a year, from up on the tightrope, we let ourselves look down. We might have to dress up to do it, and it might require the fortification of candy. Through the veil, we wave at the things we don't understand, at the night that will eventually take us all.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Complicity

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Luke 18:13

My father had surgery, several years ago, for a congenital hand malformation — he can correct me on this, but I think the disorder is called Dupuytren's contracture. It causes the hand to bend in upon itself, and surgery is the only real remedy for advanced cases. My father recovered well enough to go back to sea afterward.

Dupuytren’s contracture is not terribly common, but it’s not that rare, either. My father’s doctor told him that it was called the Viking disease, because it appears almost entirely in people of Viking descent.

Dad and I have both had our DNA analyzed by 23 and Me, and we don’t have that much Scandinavian blood, according to the ancestry report (although we do share ancestry with Niall of the Nine Hostages, so maybe we actually were kings of Ireland once). But Ireland was a land of shipwrecks and invasions, and the Vikings were all over the island, so at some point, some Viking took an Irish girl as his willing or unwilling partner.

I think about that a lot, as I think about my earliest maternal ancestor, a member of the relatively rare H13 haplogroup. Most living members of that haplogroup still live in a small pocket of the Caucasus Mountains, or around the Caspian Sea. But thousands of years ago, a girl child wandered — or was taken, or sold — west, and her descendants kept going.

Somewhere along the way, someone in my ancestry was forced into something that she did not want to do. And someone else in my ancestry did the forcing.

My mother’s family was from Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents met and married there in the 1930s, when my grandfather was a public defender and my grandmother wrote for the News & Courier. They were both Catholics of Irish descent, but my grandmother’s father, Henry Molony, had been a wealthy man, wiped out by the Depression.

Henry Molony was born in the U.S. in 1858. His father, John Molony, had come to Charleston from County Clare in 1845, and had kept a shop in Charleston until the war. John Molony owned no slaves. When the war came, he moved his store to Sumter, SC, and raised seven children. From what I can tell, he was not a Confederate. But one of his daughters married a Confederate veteran, and at least one of his sons — my great-grandfather, Henry — prospered in part by allying himself with the Democratic Party, which was not the Democratic Party as we know it today.

Henry Molony was an official of St. John’s Cathedral, a donor to many worthy causes, a founder of hospitals and a man of honor — but he was also, without a doubt, a man who apologized for the causes of the Confederacy and conspired to keep its memory bright. He left ten children, who have gone on to have hundreds of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their own — my mother didn’t know all her cousins.

And every one of us — the hundreds, or even thousands — is a beneficiary of Henry Molony’s complicity.

Colonization was America’s original sin, but slavery was the foundational sin, and its repercussions still echo, 150 years after it was outlawed.

We’re not good at atonement, humans. We don’t like to admit we’ve done wrong. Adam and Eve, confronted with their first wrongdoing, lied about it. Lying is what distinguishes humans from other animals; it keeps us separate from God, separate from each other, separate from the real.

So here’s my point, at last: Charlottesville gives us all an opportunity to tell the truth. White Americans, and southerners in particular, are all complicit in some way. It doesn’t matter that we never held slaves ourselves. It doesn’t matter that our parents didn’t. It doesn’t even matter if our grandparents were public defenders (and I’ll say again, mine was). We had — and have — opportunities because somewhere along the way, somebody else suffered.

If we inherited the benefits, we inherited the obligations, too. It doesn’t matter if we’re not racists now. We can still do more. We can still make things better. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

On the return of "Twin Peaks"

We're four episodes in to the return of "Twin Peaks," and I'm locked in for the duration. I loved the first season of the original show, to the point of hosting a party for the second-season premiere, complete with cherry pie and dozens of doughnuts. I stuck with the second season through the silliness of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, and Audrey Horne's icky romance with John Justice Wheeler, and Josie's disappearance into the drawer handle. I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the theater and didn't understand it at all, though it is a movie that improves with repeated viewings, maybe because the brain insists on imposing some kind of order on it.

The inevitable backlash has already begun, from fans of the original series who expected something different from David Lynch — or to be more accurate, expected anything. Four episodes in, Lynch is already making it clear that all expectations are contrary to his agenda.

With no expectations, I am experiencing the return of "Twin Peaks" as a gift from a wise friend I haven't seen in a while. Four episodes in, this is what I'm taking from it:

We get old.

We get lost.

We forget who we meant to be, and if we are very lucky, someone reminds us in a way that gives us time to do something about that.

We are grateful, so grateful, for the companions we managed to keep along the journey, who are often not the people we’d have expected to stand with us.

The mysteries are more baffling because we (okay, I) have gotten to an age at which we think we’ve seen a lot, and we think we know things.

We understand that the universe is neither friendly nor hostile to us. It simply is, around us and within us. And it favors entropy.

Once we notice that entropy, we cannot stop noticing it — except we have to stop noticing it, or else we would never be able to get anything done. It’s the paradox of not being able to get halfway out of a chair, then halfway again, then halfway again. Eventually we must pretend some order is possible, and those moments when we remember otherwise are disorienting, even paralyzing.

It’s an absurd life we’re living, in an absurd world, in an absurd universe. The order we impose upon it is skin deep, and fragile.

These are the central truths of “Twin Peaks.” They strike me as the central truths of life on this planet.

They're working for me so far.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On being wrong, and the benefit of the doubt

Good morning, Americans. Good morning, world.

Today the United States follows one of the most important rituals of our government, the peaceful transfer of executive power from one individual to another. If you know me at all, you know that the recipient of this power is not the person I supported. I'm out of town today, and won't watch the ceremony.

But I'm still an American. And I'm still alive. And the distinguishing feature of Americans, if we have one, is optimism. We live in a country whose relatively short history is a narrative of improvements. In the United States, things get better. Oh, we might have temporary setbacks, we might have conflicts and disagreements and even tragedy — but things get better. More people move here. More businesses start. More people work. People live longer, live better, have more stuff. The poorest people in the United States still — mostly — have electricity, running water, refrigerators and televisions. We take all that for granted, and quite a lot of us never have occasion to learn just how rare and new it is, in human experience.

This expectation of endless improvement is what's brought us here, today, as a man with no political experience, whose financial obligations we do not know, will stand next to his third wife and promise to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He ran on a campaign that told Americans we were miserable, and that he could fix that. And he won, at least in part, because those of us who aren't miserable didn't believe the ones who said they were.

He says he'll make America great again. Nobody ever pressed him on the question of why and how America isn't great now. Over the last few months, I have asked people who've told me Barack Obama is the worst president in history: okay, I hear you, but tell me how? Show me. Are you homeless? Did you lose your job, your family, your dreams? Yes, entire industries have disappeared in the past 25 years, and more industries will go the same way in the next ten. Show me, tell me, how President Obama was responsible for that, and how he should have fixed it. What did he do wrong? How did he hurt you?

Nobody's given me a good answer. The one substantive response I've gotten is the increase in the national debt under the Obama administration. I'll concede that, for people who agree that government spending shouldn't be used to spur the economy. The problem is finding anyone serious who agrees with that statement. If you want to argue with me, go right ahead. I'll check back with you after Congress passes President Trump's infrastructure bill.

What worries me most about the incoming Administration — and a lot of things worry me — is that this is a group of people who measure success in terms of dollars, and don't understand any other measures of success. "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" becomes "I'm rich, so I must be smart." If you believe that the richest people you know are also the smartest, it's not in my power to convince you otherwise. But that is not my own measure of success.

Let's go back to this idea of improvement, of the United States being a country that improves over time. How does anything or anyone improve? By doing new things, trying new things. Does everyone get new things right the first time? Are all new things equally valuable or productive? Of course not. How do we choose the right improvements, how do we derive the greatest benefits? By making mistakes. By being wrong. By acknowledging the error, and going back to figure out how we make it right.

We have a new President who seems incapable of admitting error. If he cannot admit mistakes, he cannot correct them. He doesn't apologize because he's never done anything wrong. He can't acknowledge that his actions might harm others as they benefit him. If you can't do these things, you can't learn. You can't improve. The whole effort is self-defeating.

Some people are saying that we need to give this new President a chance, that he deserves our support for the sake of the office he holds, and that we owe him the benefit of the doubt. I'll agree with that — paradoxically — if he tells us that he knows he's going to mess up. If he expects to make mistakes, and welcomes the opportunity to learn from them. If he's willing to apologize to the people who get hurt along the way. This seems unlikely, since he's a 70-year-old man whose life has not yet taught him how to do that.

If he can't, and he won't, the American people will have to learn these lessons for themselves. We'll have to recognize our mistake, learn from it, and figure out how to do it right the next time.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Year that Was

Image result for brueghel's icarusI had so many plans for this week between Christmas and New Year's. I have manuscripts due back to clients, and a research project I'm really enjoying, and I would like to bill a few more hours before the year closes — but I am unfocused, adrift, and overwhelmed by a sense of dread that feels more rational than usual.

2016, everybody says. This terrible year. We'll be glad to see the end of it. And I nod and say, "God, yes," as if I too had a terrible year.

And then I stop myself, because I actually didn't.

The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but my own truth is that I had a pretty good year. No, that's not right: in many ways, I had a great year.

My year started in Niagara Falls with the brilliant and hilarious Lisa Lutz. In February, I got back to Maine to see my friends Beth and Cory get married, and catch up with my old trivia team and people I haven't seen since 2013. March was the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Sarah Weinman let me share her hotel room and my sisters came up to hang out with Sarah and Lisa and me. April ended with the Edgars dinner, which I attended with the lovely Northern Irish author Paul Charles and still don't believe I get to go to (actually, anybody can:, and Malice Domestic, in my own back yard.

May 12 was Max Scherzer's 20-strikeout game, which I wound up attending by myself (and in the process, discovered that I love going to baseball games alone). In June I went to Virginia Beach for one niece's baby shower, the first of two nieces who had babies this year; to Baltimore for a fantastic evening of books and steak with friends; and to New York for more books and more friends and more dinners. July was Juliet & Paul's wedding, one of the all-time greats, and more baseball, in both DC and Baltimore.

And August was the trip of a lifetime, through the generosity of my friend Megan Hills, who invited me to help celebrate a milestone birthday in Edinburgh. I'd never been to Scotland. Now I've been to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I can tell the difference between highland and lowland malts (I prefer the lowland). I've been to the Edinburgh Tattoo, which everybody ought to do if they can. I went to Dublin, where I'd also never been, for a weekend with Claire and Zach, and made a visit to Belfast in the company of John Connolly and the legendary Joe Long. I got to go to yet another wedding in Dublin, celebrating Bob & Leon's long relationship, and had more dinners with dear friends I hadn't seen in much too long.

September was Bouchercon in New Orleans, with the mighty Judy Bobalik; Virginia Beach for my father's 75th birthday; and Fall for the Book at George Mason. October was a week at Rehoboth with Claire and Zach and friends and board games, and yet another trip to New York. November was a Thanksgiving with Chris and Claire and Zach and the Beas, all together under one roof for the first time in a couple of years, and December included a trip to Raleigh for yet another wedding celebration, with Jen and Lek.

My personal tally for 2016 is four weddings, two new babies in the family, and no funerals. The friends who went through cancer treatments this year are all still here, for which I fervently thank them. I saw a lot of good baseball, some great theater and music, and some so-so basketball, most of it in the company of friends, and much of it through their generosity. I read some excellent books and had some very good meals. I had clients who paid me to do fascinating work. I am profoundly grateful for all of these things, and the world's sorrows shouldn't overshadow that.

2016 was a hard year for a lot of the world, and for many of my friends. 2017 may be harder, and I will not be surprised if it's a lot harder for me. But for now I am trying not to feel guilty about being the ploughman in Brueghel's Icarus. It's enough that I'm aware of it, and that I look for ways to pay it forward.

My resolutions for the new year are to pay more attention to the good things, to hold my friends and family close, and not to let externalities distract me from the things I value most. Oh, and to get my reading totals back up above 100 books. I spent way too much time in front of screens in 2016. We might all be better off getting back to analog next year.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What We Do Now

What do we do now?  

Three different friends texted me this question late last night, after I had turned the TV off; after I had said goodnight to my housemate, who insisted things might all look better in the morning; after I had tried to go to bed, listening to the Pray As You Go podcast and clutching my smartphone.

Last night I had nothing to tell them. This morning I'm thinking about at least two other times in my life when I looked in the bathroom mirror and thought: I have no idea how I'm supposed to get on with the rest of my life. How do I do this? 

This is what I did then, so this is what I'm doing now:

I brushed my teeth.
I washed my face.
I made a list of small, essential tasks that feel manageable: 1. Renew my ACLU membership. 2. Put away my laundry. 3. Clean my bathroom. 4. Figure out next week's trip to New York.

I'll add more things to that list as I go, and take what satisfaction I can in ticking things off. I will pretend to feel normal — I will pretend to be "normal" — until it's no longer pretending.

The terror we all live with, past the basic needs of food, water and shelter, is that someone will tell us, "You're not welcome here." Half the country told the other half that last night. I'm seeing a lot of posts on social media this morning to the effect of "this happens every four years, get over it," but that's not right. This is something new in my lifetime. The winning candidate didn't give us an inclusive, optimistic vision for the future; the best he could do was offer to rid us of whatever was scaring us.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm a college-educated white woman who supports herself. In the world of our President-Elect, I'm negligible — fat, unattractive, annoying and probably another "nasty woman" — but I'm not The Enemy. I'm not The Other.

But too many of my friends, in this new world, are The Other and even The Enemy. They're gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. They're immigrants. They're people of color. They have families formed by adoption and love rather than by blood. They do good work through government agencies that may not exist six months from now. They live with pre-existing medical conditions they may lose their insurance for. They live and work in the inner cities, in places our new President-Elect describes as lawless jungles.

Last night, half the country told my friends that they can't be sure of their welcome here. That this is not their home. But this is their home, and this is my home and this is your home and for God's sake — literally, for God's sake — isn't that what America is supposed to be about?

This is still our home. The important, essential thing for all of us to do in the weeks and months ahead is to remember that and to behave that way. Say hello to your neighbors. Offer help to people who look like they need it. Volunteer. Join up. Speak out. Today, right now, look up the names and addresses of your Representative, your Senators, your local lawmakers and send them a note to say, "Here's who I am, here's what I care about." Seriously, introduce yourself. That's what I plan to do this morning.

We still have a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It has not perished.

These are organizations that can use your money in the months ahead:

American Civil Liberties Union
Matthew Shepard Foundation
National Council of La Raza
Planned Parenthood
Southern Poverty Law Center

Hug your friends and family. I leave you with the wisdom of Lou Reed:

What's good?
Life's good
But not fair at all.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


I've only recently come up with a good answer to the question, "What do you do?" That answer is, "I help people say what they mean." That's a big net that includes editing, writing, public relations and more — but it starts with listening, reading, and paying attention.

The "paying attention" is often the hardest part. As we gasp to the end of campaign season, I'm so distracted I feel hunted. Thank God I have stacks of books to retreat to. I'd have been very happy as a medieval monk, spending a month illuminating a single page.

It's November 6, and I've read four books of my 30-book challenge. The fourth book counts as both a reread and a book for work, which I'll explain below.

Book: TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis (1968) 
Format: Trade paperback
Owned Since: October 2016

How had I not read this book before? It was on the "supplemental reading" bookshelf of my fifth-grade classroom at Baylake Pines Elementary, I'm sure, along with Julie of the Wolves and Across Five Aprils and Where the Lilies Bloom and Island of the Blue Dolphins. Why didn't I read it? Did I assume that because it was a Western, it wasn't a book for girls? I am disappointed and indignant with my 10-year-old self, and can only imagine how different my life might have been if I'd read this book at a time when Mattie Ross could have been my role model. The 14-year-old narrator of this book pays attention to everything, has an opinion about most of it, and tells it all with every confidence in the reader's interest. Hell, it's not too late for her to be my role model now. Many thanks to Tommy Pluck for sending me this book.

Book: I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS by Pearl Cleage (2001)
Format: Trade paperback
Owned Since: October 2016

Last month I was part of a Facebook round-robin book giveaway that caused some anxiety and consternation among friends who groused about it being yet another stupid pyramid scheme. Well, yes, it was. But I got more than two dozen books out of it, and have since sent a couple of boxes of books off to friends who weren't as lucky, and have already read two books I would not otherwise have picked up. This was one of those books. Pearl Cleage is a playwright whose first novel, WHAT LOOKS LIKE CRAZY ON AN ORDINARY DAY, was an Oprah Book Club pick. I haven't read it, but this novel, her second, is set in the same world. It too is told in the first person, by Joyce, who runs a community center for at-risk teenaged girls and mothers in Idlewild, Michigan, which was a premier resort for the African-American community in the era of Jim Crow. Joyce is a widow striving to live a free life; I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS is a lovely book about how she manages to find new love and help her girls become independent women. I do wish I'd read the first book first, but it wasn't essential for this story.

Book: A TIME OF TORMENT by John Connolly (2016)
Format: PDF
Owned Since: October 2016 as is

It has been my privilege to work with John Connolly for several years now, offering general assistance and obnoxious advice on his extraordinary range of projects. A TIME OF TORMENT is the 14th novel to feature his tormented detective, Charlie Parker (or 15th, if you count the novella "The Reflecting Eye"). This read was both a re-read and for work, as I proofread the galleys for the UK paperback edition, to be published in February 2017. This is a series that continues to evolve in marvelous ways, and as familiar as I was with the story, it still gave me chills. (And a running joke about bathroom keys actually gets funnier every time I read it.)

Proofreading is not like other kinds of reading. It's more like sifting rice through a sieve, looking for stones. In fact, if you let yourself be drawn into a story while you're proofreading, you miss things. If you're paying attention to the story, your brain skims over mistakes and sees what you expect to see. Proofreading requires tricks, especially when it's a text you've seen several times, as this one was for me. I went through it forward, then I went through it backward. I moved from chapter heading to chapter heading to make sure the numbers were sequential and none were skipped. I searched for one particular character name that I knew had been misspelled in the galleys of the hardcover (where we did catch it).

It is almost impossible to publish a 125,000-word novel that is entirely free of errors. Some readers get indignant about this, and I share that indignation in the rare cases where it's obvious no one edited the book at all (a Southern literary novel I read last year, for example, where the main character mysteriously became ten whole years younger between one chapter and another). The goal is perfection, of course; but two or three typos in a 125,000-word book is an error rate most airline pilots would be okay with.