A Bloody Julius Caesar Stirs Up a Hornet’s Nest

I took my Girls Write Now mentee Laura to go see Julius Caesar last Friday at Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park. We had been planning it for a while and postponed to later in the week so we had nicer weather. I’m glad I charged and packed my computer because we really wanted to tape our exit interview we had planned now that she’s graduating and going on to college in the fall. I had come up with ten questions for Laura, and she ad-libbed questions for me. I was surprised that it lasted longer than an hour, but we had some meaty questions, like “What do you think is going to happen politically in the next five years?” and “What’s going to happen to art in the current political climate?” We were both optimistic about the future and had no idea how portentous our questions and ideas were.

We took turns going to the restroom while the other saved our spot in line, and then right before they started handing out tickets, I went to the snack bar area and got us two hot dogs. The line started moving, and after the first glut of tickets was gone, Laura and I were at the head of the line with just one woman in front of us. A man came by and handed the woman his extra ticket after his friend was a no show, so then Laura and I were at the head of the line. The second round of tickets came by, and the Shakespeare in the Park employee sorted them into singles and pairs and gave us our tickets. We were so surprised to find ourselves in the front row almost center stage—the best tickets in the house. Laura was exuberant, hopping up and down. “I’ve never been in the front row anywhere!”

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The play was tremendous. Whenever I read Julius Caesar while editing our Grade 10 textbooks at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, I enjoyed it, but when I saw it performed at BAM (the first time I’d ever seen it live), I didn’t really like it. Might have been the nosebleed seats we had—the absolute last row in the theater. This Julius Caesar, though, was fabulous. When we sat down, I saw people miling about onstage, looking at scaffolding, like what we have in New York when buildings are undergoing construction. Some had programs in their hands, and they were putting Post-it notes on the scaffolding, similar to what happened in Union Square station after Trump was elected and everybody was so upset. There was a wall that became an entire passageway, where everybody started writing Post-it notes about how upset they were about the election and it became a thing.

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I thought the people were actual audience members, so I told Laura, “Go on up there, hon, and write something. Put your wish down.” Laura said, “No, I don’t think I should,” and usually she’s so bold. Thank God she didn’t. They were frigging actors, and later, they played the part of the disgruntled public.

It was a clever staging. It’s set in modern times, and Caesar is portrayed as a Trumpian character; Calpurnia as Melania, with an Eastern European accent; and Marc Antony was portrayed as a woman with a “Go USA!” attitude, leggings, and an Aw, shucks! Midwestern accent. I’m guessing she’s supposed to correlate to Mike Pence. It worked really well and was riveting for the first three acts, but the play kind of lost momentum in the last two acts. I still loved it. How they handled the crowd scenes was brilliant and unexpected, and Laura and I craned our heads, trying to catch the rabble-rousers who sprang up in the audience. It felt so interactive, like the demonstrations going on now during this presidency. Some people walked out—about four that I could see—and I remember thinking it was because of the controversial staging decisions or maybe because of the chairs. They are pretty uncomfortable. Then I saw the headlines the next day.

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We still don’t have an answer in this play about what is going to happen to us, much like in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but it gives us plenty to think about. We just have to be aware and flexible, roll with the punches, and never give up hope. I think of that old saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I do. I most definitely do. And I’m grateful for Shakespeare in the Park.

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Look What I Got in the Mail Today!

This crawled into my mailbox today from littlest K, another Horrorfeminista.

Cockroach Letter 1We sent her some swag for her birthday.

IMG_0739And unbeknownst to us, she had a surprise coming our way—our cockroaches ended up crossing in the mail. This is the other side of her paper roach with legs that stick up and eyeballs.

Cockroach Letter 2Its wings and body open up into a letter.

Cockroach Letter 3Now I need to figure out how to display it. It’s a 3-D piece of art, and I want to be able to see its legs, wings, and eyeballs, and open it up to read the letter once in a while. The fridge doesn’t seem like the right place to put it. Any ideas?

The Life and Times of a Phone Psychic

I bought my first deck of tarot cards when I was nineteen from a B. Dalton bookstore, I believe. I’m not even sure if those stores exist anymore; I think they’ve been taken over by Barnes & Noble. This deck came into my life during a precarious time—that brink between high school and college, kid and adult—and the idea of divining the future appealed to me. It still does, really.

The deck was a simple Rider-Waite, probably the most common, and I can remember feeling jealous of a friend’s deck that had what I thought were more superior illustrations. Now, I’m happy with my Rider-Waite deck; the images are iconic, and if I see the High Priestess, in a flash I get the card’s story, its positive and negative meanings, and how that might affect a querent. That’s what the person who’s asking questions is called in tarot-speak: the querent.

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In college, many of my friends read tarot, and sometimes we’d sit around in a circle and give each other readings. I learned a lot from that: setting the stage, analyzing the cards and matching them up to what I knew of my friends’ experiences, and getting the story rolling. It’s like therapy, doing everything you can to make your querent feel comfortable so they’ll start revealing their worries and secrets. You’d be surprised how accurate I could be in a reading. I’ve always liked to think of my cards as mirrors, and because I knew my querents, I could give them a worthy reflection of who they were and what they wanted to be. It’s not lying; it’s weaving a story between what the cards represent and what I knew was going on in my friends’ lives.

I also would read for myself, which usually happened when I was scared, stagnant, or not sure of what direction I was going. It’s comforting shuffling the cards that are almost too big for my hands, making me stretch my palms, the sound of slapping them down on my bedspread in the shape of the celtic cross, my favorite layout. (I’ve tried more exotic layouts at times, but I always go back to the celtic cross.) I know every crease of my cards, can almost pick out which one is which without looking at its face. That’s how much I’ve used them.

My deck got quite a workout when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and couldn’t get a job for months. My friend Susan was my roommate, and she told me about how she had worked once as a phone psychic. At the time her schedule was erratic and working as a phone psychic fit since she could log in whenever and take calls. The company sent her a check every month, and though it wasn’t big money, it was money.

She’d just had a baby and couldn’t work a regular schedule, and with my dim prospects, we decided we’d start up a psychic hotline and work it together, using a combination of astrology and tarot cards. We rented out a house with four or five different roommates, so we had a separate phone line installed in our basement, where we could have some privacy. Susan scrounged up a phone—probably something that a past resident had left behind; it was clear plastic showing different-colored wires and it lit up when it rang.

Suz and I set up our work area on an abandoned futon frame and put down carpet squares beneath that. Then we had our assorted astrology and tarot books spread out around us so we could easily consult them. Before we opened up our business, we drilled each other on the quintessential celebrity for each star sign. Kurt Cobain was our classic Pisces while Madonna worked for Leo.

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Our psychic network work space.

When we had time and were ready to work the psychic hotline, we logged into the system, letting the powers that be know we were available, and calls started being forwarded to our extension. Our ranking on the hotline was based on how many calls we took and how long we could keep a querent on the line. We were encouraged to keep people talking as long as possible because after the special rate, or first free three minutes, the charges really started to pile up.

Susan and I would log into the system and tag team as calls started coming in. The one on the phone would get the necessary information to construct a star chart and start laying out the tarot cards while the other consulted sources and drew up a rudimentary star chart that was used to supplement the reading.

We were just barely scraping by money-wise at the time and knew the value of a buck, so when people called and just wanted a quick reading, we aimed to please. Our reasoning was that they would be repeat callers, requesting us as their personal phone psychics, and we’d quickly climb the ranks. Susan and I had a steady stream at first.

I was very nervous when we started taking calls, and during my first few sessions, my voice would quake. I can remember a pushy woman from the East Coast who was concerned about if a check was in the mail. There were Pentacles in her reading, but not an immediate money card. Though I tried to tell her this, she kept saying, “So the check’s coming—it’s in the mail.” It wasn’t a question; this was what she wanted to hear.

Finally, I said with guilt, “Yes, looks like it.”

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We coached each other through the calls and were learning more about astrology and just plain human nature through the stories we heard. Really, a lot of what we did was counsel people through dark times—a bad relationship, conflicts at work—but with a kiss saying that the universe had ordained it.

I answered a call from a woman addicted to drugs who wanted to know if she should get off them. I knew the obvious answer, but I shuffled the cards, used my soothing voice, and dealt out ten cards.

“You have Death as the heart of the situation.”

“Death?! I’m not going to quit if I’m gonna die.”

“No, that’s not what Death means here. It means a complete change, transformation.”

I tried more and more to calm her down, to guide her to the realization that it was time for a good change, but between her interpretation of death and worrying about when her boyfriend would get home, it was hard to keep her on track.

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I think the scariest call Susan ever took was from an immigrant woman who was pregnant and suffered many miscarriages before; she called the psychic hotline when she started having some troubling symptoms. Suz ended up with the Hierophant in that reading and told the woman she saw a doctor in the cards, recommending that she seek out medical advice. The Hierophant represents authority usually interpreted as religious, but it can be a healer or assistance, too, and that was what her querent needed to hear.

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These were the calls where we weren’t really qualified to help, but at the same time, through an ad on TV, we were who these people chose. Who knows if they would seek out help in any other way.

During one frenzied session, Susan and I did so many readings that our two tarot decks got mixed up together. I went to put my deck away in the dove-gray silk shirt that I’ve kept my cards in forever and discovered that I had two Eight of Cups. We separated out the cards so we each had a complete deck, but for sure I have some of Susan’s cards and she has some of mine. Sometimes I think that’s why we’ve been bonded together so long. I’ve known her for more than twenty years, lived in five different states with her, and seen her raise her daughter from an infant to the sixteen-year-old she is now.

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Eventually our rating in the psychic network dwindled, and sometimes when we logged on, we wouldn’t get a call at all. Giving customers a good deal didn’t count for much with the company. We both found another job that would pay the bills, and I haven’t read cards for money since then. But it’s a skill I still cling to, thinking, If the editing work ever dries up, I’ll just become a full-time psychic. Right now, that’s my retirement plan.

Measuring My Life in Donna Tartt Novels

I remember when Donna Tartt’s first novel came out while I was in college, The Secret History. My professor for my Henry James and Virginia Woolf class, a fusty, old man who in some ways did resemble the classics professor of the story, said, “I’m getting The Secret History in my Easter basket.” I had a lot of respect for this professor, and if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

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A few days later, with a fresh paycheck deposited in my bank account, I found a signed copy at Prairie Lights Books and ate it up in a matter of days. Tartt’s novel was a world I understood, where a plain nobody wants to be a somebody and reinvents himself after a big move. That had been the story of my young life at that point, and one I saw often on my college campus, with virginal freshmen coming in off the farm and transforming themselves into wild party animals within a semester. And then the frozen winter landscape where the protagonist of The Secret History can never quite get warm—oh, that was Iowa, all right, where my glasses sometimes stuck to my face when I trucked home from the newspaper in subzero weather. Of course, I didn’t have a murder to contend with or Dionysian rituals taking place at a family manor in the countryside, but it was fun to imagine that I might.

About a decade later, I was launched in my career and Tartt’s second novel came out, The Little Friend. This is four moves after my time in Iowa City, and now I was in New York, where my Midwest roots were sometimes viewed as exotic. I went to see Tartt on her book tour at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, and the space was absolutely packed with people. She read from the first chapter and sang (a part of the story), then took a few questions from the audience. This is standard procedure at a reading, but Tartt’s one of my literary heroes so it all took on so much significance for me. The line was long to get my book signed, and I shifted uncomfortably, wondering what I was going to say. I had to say something. I stood for probably an hour, got my yellow Post-it where the bookstore clerk properly spelled my name and marked the title page for Tartt to sign. And then I was there at the head of the line and it was my turn.

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I’m one of those creepy fans who can barely get a word out I’m so starstruck, and I think it makes authors uncomfortable. I can hear everybody ahead of me telling what sounds like their life story, and then I get up there, all silent like a serial killer. I can remember Neil Gaiman offering me a cookie during a signing, trying to be nice and make conversation, and I could only shake my head. No words would come out of my mouth. Well, I got up there with Donna Tartt, watched her sign my book, and finally, finally, I got some words out—a first for me: “Until next time.” Then I was off with my signed book tucked under my arm. Immediately, I started scolding myself: Doofus, could you have said anything stupider?

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Now it’s eleven years later and Tartt’s third book has come out, The Goldfinch; I’ve been living in New York for almost a third of my life, and I feel pretty confident that I’ll never leave the city. It feeds me. I went to see Tartt read from The Goldfinch at one of her two New York stops (the one that didn’t require money up front). I hadn’t read a word of the new novel. I knew that it revolved around a stolen painting, The Goldfinch by Fabritius, but not much else, and when Tartt took the stage, she said that there were three settings to the book—the Netherlands, New York, and Las Vegas. She first saw the Goldfinch painting when she was in the Netherlands, and by a strange coincidence, it happens to be in New York right now at the Frick. I thought for sure this was a sign and waited until I had read the book all the way through before I went to view the painting.

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On the surface, The Goldfinch seems like a deceptively simple story, yet it captures truths about life that I struggle to understand today. A boy, Theo, grows up in New York, living with his difficult father (until he abandons the family) and artistic mother. One day he loses her in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the city’s beacons, and by chance, he exchanges words with a mortally wounded older man who admires the Goldfinch painting and encourages Theo to take it. He does and, after his mother’s death, arranges to stay with his friend’s Park Avenue family when none of his own kin is too eager to claim him. Eventually Theo’s father does come to get him and relocates the boy to Las Vegas at a McMansion so far outside the city limits that they can’t get garbage service.

Theo’s father supposedly has his drinking problem under control and has taken up with a bartender girlfriend. He contributes to the family with his gambling profits, consulting his Scorpio almanac when he needs help. Theo meets Boris, a worldly kid about his age, whose similarities to the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist are too big to be ignored. He becomes Theo’s lifelong friend whether he wants it or not, introducing him to boozing and drugs. Later, Theo returns to New York and becomes part of a family through the old man who originally convinced him to take the Goldfinch painting.

As Theo matures, he starts thinking about the purpose of art in life through his meditations on the Goldfinch painting, and this particular novel of Tartt’s comes at a time when I’m having such existential ramblings myself: “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I’d felt drowned and extinguished by vastness—not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.”

That Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch is now part of an exhibit showing at the Frick seemed no accident. The Frick is an art collection and museum housed in a really opulent mansion that belonged to one of New York’s richest families. It may not be Park Avenue, but it’s only two streets over, and the parallels between these rich rooms and the decadent setting that Theo finds himself in after his mother’s death pleased me. Getting to view the painting in an atmosphere similar to Theo’s living situation lifted the artwork and story to another dimension, like a grown-up version of a pop-up book or living within a real-life version of the novel.

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The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius

Making Mischief in New Orleans, Part II

Before heading to New Orleans, I had a short list of things I wanted to do, some through recommendations from my friend Anne, a New Orleans native. She told me about the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, and I just had to go, especially after I looked it up online and found out that on Wednesdays you could talk to an entomologist. I had it in my head that this would involve a lecture on cockroaches, complete with an auditorium and wooden seats, just like in college. I wasn’t prepared for how the museum was geared toward kids, and all the…well, kids.

There was a very dark room where sculptures of giant bugs loomed in a cave-like atmosphere, and I was disappointed by how many girls went in and started hysterically screaming, having to be physically carted out (three!). But then I ran into two boys who served as a kind of welcoming committee once I’d hit an important part of the cave. The taller one said, “I just want to tell you that when you walk past there”—he pointed at a strangely blank section of wall—“something’s going to jump out.”

“What? Some kind of bug?”

“I just want to tell you.”

I walked past and a giant spider popped out of a trapdoor, and we all screamed together—in good fun, though, not like the little girls’ hissy fits.

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I ended up being a little disappointed in the cockroach house, complete with cockroach cam. I really thought it would be a lot bigger and more informative, but the pictures I took turned out nice, so I’ll console myself with that. As we walked through the different rooms of the insectarium, we would run into somebody on the staff every once in a while who asked us if we wanted to touch a millipede or pet a beetle—why, yes I do!—but I didn’t realize until we were in the last room that these were our entomologist chats.

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It was ungodly hot in New Orleans. Every day the temperature was more than ninety degrees, but with the humidity factored in, it felt more like one hundred. The locals told me, “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait till August.” In a constant state of sweat, I only got a break when we were in the air-conditioned rooms of the Dauphine House or in museums or restaurants. At the same time, it was very purifying, sweating all the toxins out during the day so I felt ready to sin at night. We found the streetcars an effective way to stay cool, whether they were air-conditioned or the breeze was generated by the motion of the car.

Seeing the Garden District and other parts of New Orleans this way was beautiful and cheap. (A couple we met on the benches said you saw the same for $1.25 that they had spent $70 on for a tour.) My favorite part of the rides, though, were the sassy streetcar drivers who always had something to say, including one who blamed a bumpy stop on his drinking. “It’s New Orleans. You gotta drink.”

In the St. Charles streetcar, all the windows were open, including the driver’s front window, so he could talk directly to the police when we were stalled in traffic. We passed by a movie set, and somebody asked a security guard what was filming. The lady was obviously on her break but politely said, “Hot Tub Machine 2. This time they’re going to the future.” The passengers on board looked for stars, and we saw one actor in a blue spandex and duct tape costume, who somebody identified as Bradley Cooper. We checked the movie’s IMDb listing when we got back to the Dauphine House and he didn’t appear in the cast list, so now we’re going to be mystified until we see the movie.

Megan and Sarah on New Orleans streetcar

The same friend who told me about the insectarium also recommended the Honey Island Swamp Tour, saying that was the best one. I was really looking forward to this—the swamp tour being the highlight of my New Orleans trip the last time around. There’s something about being on the water that calms me like nothing else, and this tour was two hours long. Sarah’s daughter Megan made the reservation for us and had some trouble understanding the guy on the other end of the line and making herself understood. I got it the next day when an elderly man pulled up to the Dauphine House twenty minutes late for our scheduled departure. He said, “You gave me the wrong phone number. Your phone don’t work.” This was after we called to see what was going on.

Despite the lateness, the van ride was completely entertaining, thanks to this guy. He’s like your crazy uncle or grandpa, lounging in his lawn chair and telling you all his life stories. During our ride to the swamp, he kept up a continuous monologue, pointing out stores and houses (or their absence) along the sides of the road and telling us how Hurricane Katrina had affected them. He must have said, “That’s gone,” about sixty-four times and told us how he spent thirty-three days at a Motel 6 after the hurricane, paying $160 a night. (That ends up being some mighty expensive rent.) Every once in a while, we would pass a highway sign, and he’d give extensive driving directions about how to get somewhere. I could have listened to this guy all day with some of the absolute gems that fell out of his mouth:

“Been married fifty-four years and I always tell my wife the same thing. Yeeees.

“We wanted to have children but never could…so I built a boat shed.”

“I lost my boat. Took me five years to make another boat…I’m not in a hurry.”

Our pontoon boat was full, and the tour guide (different from the van driver) joked, “It seats twenty-four people or twenty Lousianans.” I got one of the backseats to myself and was glad because I’d completely hosed myself in Off! and had a chemical funk going on. The guide said that because of all the dragonflies, there weren’t many mosquitoes in the swamp during the day, but come nightfall, when the dragonflies were dormant, there would be swarms of them. We started off slow, going through muddy water that looked so much like the chocolate river from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and passing a few swamp cottages. I was disturbed by more than a few Confederate flags that were flying out in front some of these residences or on boats. I guess for some people, this flag represents Southern pride, but I always think of it as a symbol of slavery.

Honey Island Swamp Tour I

About ten minutes into our tour, the alligators started coming up to the boat. They’re well trained and know the boats are bringing them treats. The tour guide had a Styrofoam cooler full of hot dogs and marshmallows. When the gators got near the boat, he’d put a hot dog on a stick and dangle it above the alligators’ heads, making them dance for their suppers. He knew them all on sight and had names for most of them; there was Broke-Jaw Betty, Big Boy, and Elvis, a little four footer named such because he was a particularly good “dancer.” The tour guide said he had grown up in the area and swam in the swamp all the time. The alligators never bothered him, and the way he fed them and talked to them, the Honey Island gators seemed more like water dogs than a menace. When I asked about the Honey Island Swamp Monster, he scoffed, saying it was supposedly what happened a while ago when a chimpanzee mated with one of the alligators. I’m guessing that one was dreamed up for PR.

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The Honey Island Swamp is really beautiful. About an hour in, we came to the most gorgeous part of the swamp, where the trees’ roots come out of the water, looking like red and brown stalagmites. The air was humid and everything felt thick and wet and slowed down. The water’s ripples even turned slow and wavy, and sounds seemed magnified. It would be easy to maybe see a monster in these conditions. This area was where the wild boars sometimes appeared, but when the guy called, they didn’t come. Probably too full of hot dogs and marshmallows from the last tour group.

Honey Island Swamp Tour IV

Where Are the Seventeen-Year Cicadas?

About a month ago, the news started hyping the seventeen-year cicadas, code name Magicicada, which would be emerging from a long slumber. Supposedly, the East Coast was going to be deluged with them, and New York magazine ran an article about dealing with the brood once it hatched, warning against things like running a lawn mower because it would sound like a mating call to these love bugs.

My sister Kristi adores cicadas—almost unnaturally so—and she started getting really excited. She’s been making art of empty cicada shells since we lived in Iowa City, where their low thrumming is a part of the Midwest’s summer sounds, and still does.

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She knew exactly what temperature the ground had to be for these seventeen-year cicadas to hatch, and before Memorial Day weekend, she was sure they were going to emerge and took off after work with the Maglite to go investigate. Hours later, she came back puzzled, wondering why the cicadas hadn’t hatched. They’ve popped up in Staten Island, New Jersey, and other parts of New York, but so far Brooklyn’s been a no-show.

I feel so bad for Kristi that when I walk through Prospect Park I search the tree trunks looking for empty shells and strain my ears listening for that click-whir sound that is special to cicadas. At the very end of my walk today, I thought I heard a whisper of them, but cicadas never whisper. I had no good news to report.

With the arrival of summer, Kristi’s changed our door art. Instead of cockroach and bedbug snowflakes, we’ve now got a flock of paper cicadas that Kristi drew and colored (I got to cut out a few). This may be the closest we’ll get to the seventeen-year cicadas, and it prompted the next-door neighbor to ask, “What’s with the bugs?”

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It’s a difficult thing to explain. For me, it’s half repulsion and half fascination. A wasp or mosquito might chase me from the room, but I can spend twenty minutes watching a spider do its spider things. And I would feel cheated if I didn’t get to see and hear the seventeen-year cicadas. I’m still hoping they’re just being shy and will make their appearance in Brooklyn soon.

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The Long Hard Road to The Collectors

I wrote my first novel when I was in junior high and directly inspired by the Olympics. My father had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, but I didn’t look at the magazine too much because it was mostly guys on the cover. The only time I noticed a woman on the cover was for the swimsuit issue, which our mostly female family looked at with disdain or amusement, depending on how we felt. I don’t remember seeing a woman athlete on the cover until the 1984 Olympics when Mary Lou Retton swept the gymnastics competition for women. At the time, there was a lot of criticism about her body, with sportscasters calling her Thunder Thighs because of her muscular physique. But it was that physique that gave her performances such power, wowing the judges.

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Inspired, I wrote a novel about a young woman who discovers a talent for gymnastics and eventually propels herself to the Olympics. The story was written entirely in pencil, with my own illustrations, and probably didn’t crack ten thousand words, but it marked the first time I attempted to write a longer work because that particular book didn’t exist in my library.

The next novels I wrote were during college when I was taking classes in the undergraduate Writers’ Workshop. I wanted to write something that was completely different from who I was, and so I came up with the crudest, rudest male that I could, a protagonist who wrestled alligators and crocodiles for a living. I finished this novel, which I called I Never Went to Vietnam, and loved it. I really thought it was something special.

I sent it off to many agents, including one that my friend was interning for, and sat back, waiting for the acceptances that I was sure would flood in. There were some encouraging words that came in, agents that said, “Good writing, but not for me.” And then I heard from the agent my friend knew at Sanford J. Greenburger who said he’d like to read something about what I know, being a young woman in the Midwest. I thought about it for a minute—considered it—but that sounded like the most boring story ever. I started a couple of other novels after I Never Went to Vietnam, but they petered out. They were stories I couldn’t commit to.

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I didn’t really work seriously on my fiction until after I moved to New York. Instead, I focused on moving up the ladder in the publishing industry, starting as a copyeditor and then switching over to editing so I could do more shaping and writing. I also started writing reviews and articles for a few magazines. I had been kicking around the idea of writing a novel that addressed the topic of hoarding, but when I gave my female protagonist strange behaviors that didn’t exist in the real world, my story stalled out. Reading more horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, I came to the realization that the story didn’t have to make logical, realistic sense; it just had to make story sense. And that’s how The Collectors was born.

For about six months, I’d hike up to the Mid-Manhattan Library after work and write on my novel among students and the homeless in the work area on the second floor. I finished the novel, revised it a few times, and read Miss Snark’s blog religiously, where she gave snappy advice about how to land an agent. She would dress down morons and the clueless by calling them nitwits, and every once in a while, she would solicit writers’ hooks in order to give them advice. She called these epic submission periods the Crapometer, and I eagerly entered one. She got a slew of entries, and I checked her blog daily, waiting for her to get to The Collectors, my novel about body horror and hoarding.

She was not kind. She gave a two-sentence reply to my entry—“Is this a joke? I’m going to wash my hands again, and again, and again.” I read that with a plummeting heart, but then I saw all the people who posted about my entry, saying they thought my hook was one of the more creative ones submitted. And people started posting their own experiences about hoarders—many would begin, “I used to know a person like this…” So Miss Snark wasn’t interested in The Collectors, but I believed there was a market for my novel.

I submitted queries to agents and publishing houses that specialized in horror, and right away I started getting hits. First off, I sent my Collectors query to Dorchester Publishing, whose imprint Leisure Books specialized in horror, and they requested the full manuscript. I had been schooled that when a full manuscript was requested, it was a very big thing, meaning you were that much closer to selling a novel and getting a book deal. Ha!

I approached a heavy-duty agent at Writers House who represents some very big names in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, and her assistant requested a full. Did the same with Tor, and they requested a full. I really thought it was just a matter of time, and I would get an offer from someone somewhere. Maybe I’d even get a couple of offers. When I followed up with the agent’s assistant at the Writers House, she said there was no room on the agent’s roster, but she had a lot of love for The Collectors.

I wrote back to Dorchester, and while I waited, I wrote another supernatural novel and sent them pages for it. The executive editor sent back a complimentary letter, talking about how small his list was and how he could only publish so many titles a year. He said he was still considering The Collectors, but that my book about a haunting, The Charm Quilt, would probably have better luck at another publisher. And then Dorchester Publishing went under and that was no longer an option.

I wrote Tor to check in on the status of The Collectors and never heard back.

Here and there, I would submit to agents that seemed to be interested in horror. More often than not, I would get a request for a full and then would come the eventual e-mail: “Good writing, but this is not right for me.”

I know exactly what I want to write and read—a brand of lady horror, where women can be beasts or deal with horrific situations without having fits of vapors. And I’ve come to the point where I’m sick of waiting for that agent and deal, which will still make me poor. I’ve got more than fifteen years in publishing, working for some very big houses. I’ve learned good lessons, and after reading some complete crap books, horror novels where women’s only function is to take off their clothes, I’m ready to go indie with The Collectors.

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My sister Kristi designed the cover art for The Collectors and she’s also come up with a logo for Horrorfeminista. Our sister team is starting with The Collectors and will be following that up with Zombie Apocalypse in Ditmas Park and The Charm Quilt, which I hope will lead to The Foot Book, Heavy Metal Nightmare, and more undiscovered lady horror that I know is out there.

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The Care and Maintenance of a Shrine, Part II

I’ve used my shrine to help me focus in later years during twists and turns of my life: moving, new job situations, death, and writing. I’ve accumulated many objects that litter the top, and I’m constantly shifting things on and off of it. Permanent things include coins, especially those leftover from traveling overseas; railroad spikes that my sister found; a rusty nail; a metronome that my mother picked up at a garage sale; the ashes of my first cat Venus, who lived to be twenty years old; and one-half of a set of ceramic hands that I like to prop against Venus’s tin so she receives pets into perpetuity. Most of the objects on my shrine have been given to me, and I think that makes them more powerful and loaded with magic.

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For the last couple of years a green wooden birdcage that my mother gave me has been taking up prime real estate on my shrine, and I was slowly trying to fill it with a thousand origami cranes. I did this before in Austin when I was getting ready to move to New York. I found an old rusty birdcage at a thrift shop in Texas, and in the months leading up to my move, I folded origami until my fingers got sore. After that move, the cranes were set free by Valerie, when she was about three and didn’t want to take a nap; she sailed them out our attic window one at a time. I was trying to re-create this powerful surge that came from the move, its momentum, by folding another thousand cranes, but the shrine does not want repeats. It wants something bigger and better than the last performance, and it let me know.

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With spring coming this April, I was noticing an uptick in my energy levels, and I put the changes off on the different seasons, April being my special birthday month, etc., etc. I was having bouts of insomnia and had one night where the ticking of the clock was driving me crazy. For years, I’ve been using an IKEA alarm clock that I bought for $1.99—one of the best investments I have ever made—but its ticking never bothered me before. Sometimes I actually have to hold the clock up to my ear in order to make sure that it’s working. Eventually I was able to get to sleep, but the next night the same thing happened. I felt like the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who’s slowly being driven mad by what he thinks is a dead man’s beating heart.

I got up from my bed and discovered that the ticking was coming from a different direction than where I had placed my IKEA alarm clock. It came from my shrine. I turned on my light and located the source of the ticking—a Virgin of Guadalupe clock that had been on my shrine for almost five years. When Sarah and I visited our friend Flannery in San Francisco back in 2008, we found the Virgin of Guadalupe clocks in some store and each bought one. I put a battery in the clock when I returned home and propped it up on the shrine, but eventually the battery died and I never replaced it, having much more reliable clocks. Somehow it had recharged itself after four years.

I’m a big believer in signs, and shortly after this, I came up with a mantra involving transformation, and kept saying it to myself over and over again, waiting and thinking. My birthday came the last day of April and my sister gave me all shrine-themed presents: peacock feathers to help with the all-seeing eye, a Virgin horseshoe for luck, and a grim reaper in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe because I had Death as the final outcome in a tarot reading—not a card of literal death, but one symbolizing change and transformation. A friend gave me a few gifts wrapped in butterfly-printed paper, and I carefully saved the wrap, something I almost never do.

About a week ago, I finally realized what I needed to do and took that saved paper and cut out all the caterpillars and butterflies, with a lot of help from Kristi. (She can do some mean scissors work and was actually able to cut out two butterflies’ antennae, which I had given up on.) She also has shelves full of art supplies and gave me a bottle of shellac, with directions that promised a nice, shiny coat after two applications and three hours’ drying time between each.

I cleared everything off the shrine and cleaned the top of it really well. Sarah had sent me some very potent dried sage that she picked by hand off a reservation in South Dakota, which has special associations for me, since my family was stationed there for two years and my sister Karla and brother Randall were born there. I put a little pile in a seashell and burned it to spiritually cleanse the shrine, and then I spent an afternoon turning a boxful of butterflies and caterpillars into this decoupage surface.

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I added gold antennae to the butterflies missing them, and then I wrote my mantra around the corners of the tabletop, signing it Aunt Kathi and drawing an ant. I think the shrine is happy now and has decided that it wants to go to my niece Phaedra next.

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The Care and Maintenance of a Shrine, Part I

During my family’s last dark days in Germany when my father was getting ready to leave the military and we didn’t know where we would be living, my mother became involved in a hard-core Catholic group called Cursillo. She says they are known as Charismatic Catholics.

The first time she attended a weekend retreat at Saint Wenceslaus, we went to pick her up on a Sunday, excited to see her after having no mom for a couple of days. I could tell the difference that the retreat had made in her right away—she was more relaxed and happy than before she went, like she had gone to a spa treatment (though we didn’t know about spa treatments then, and definitely couldn’t afford it on my father’s tech sergeant salary). We went for a walk around the grounds later, and that’s when I encountered my first shrine to the Virgin. There was a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin inside, lots of lit candles, fresh flowers, and a large crystal.

I knew this was a special place. I had spent a lot of time playing in cemeteries before, finding a sense of peace there, but this was even better. The magpie in me wanted that crystal, and rather than leaving it at the shrine—not knowing the purpose of one yet—I toted it home. It ended up sitting on a desk or a table in a room—probably my first attempt at a shrine.

During those days I used to get terrible headaches, which were diagnosed as cluster headaches, migraine headaches, chronic sinusitis, or a psychosomatic condition, depending on which doctor I saw. My mother had a bottle of holy water from Lourdes that she had either received from her church or ordered away for, and when I was home from school with one of those headaches, she anointed me with the water, hoping to cure me. She said that the sun came in through the windows, shone through the crystal on the table, and projected an image of the Virgin on the wall above my head. Since then, me and the Virgin have been tight.

I think everybody has a little shrine to themselves, though they may not think about it this way. Their shrine is the place on a dresser where they put their wallet, pool change, accumulate movie ticket stubs and sticks of gum, showing what they’re doing in life. I remember being fascinated by my parents’ dresser top and the life I could see reflected there, and soon enough I was accumulating my own self-detritus—there was change, a house key, and other trinkets and treasures that seemed especially precious to me, a pretty rock or a small ceramic figurine of a cat. Later, grooming products were added to this, but the arrangement of items was still not a formal shrine.

The summer before I went off to college, my mother had a very close call with a gangrenous appendix. She was in ICU for a week and in the hospital for more than a month total. When she got out, we did a series of college-shopping trips before I moved on campus, always finding joy when we could score a wheelchair at the Kmart, Target, or Walmart because my mom still tired easily after her ordeal. One of the things my mother insisted on me having was a trunk for college, and since she was buying, I didn’t put up a fuss. I’ve had that trunk for more than twenty years now, and it forms the base of my current shrine. When I was in Texas, I ended up adding another trunk to elevate its tabletop.

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My last year in Iowa, after graduating from the university and in my second year at a full-time job, I found religious candles at a dollar or grocery store, and I started accumulating them, along with various pictures and objects that spoke to me. That’s when I first started formally keeping a shrine. My favorite candles featured the Virgin of Guadalupe and were rose scented, and there was something about her image and what she represented that made me dedicate my shrine to her.

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I was going through a particularly rough year when I started keeping my shrine. I realized that I was stuck in a dead-end job, and if I didn’t do something immediately, I would still be there fifteen years later with a crappy journal of about forty pages, whining about how I wasn’t doing what I wanted and married to a guy at my workplace who was very persistent. So I lit candles, propped up images of artwork that I found inspiring, and waited. Soon Susan came a-visiting from Portland, pregnant with Valerie, and asked me to come out to the West Coast. She only had to ask once—it was the opportunity, the chance, that I had been praying for, and my shrine had been instrumental in helping me focus and figure out where I needed my life to go.

An Alligator Easter

We have an Easter tradition of eating exotic meats, but I’m not really sure where it started. I can remember Easters where we had duck a l’orange, bison, ostrich. Last year, we had lamb, which was a bit pedestrian for us. Maybe that’s why Kristi decided this year that we must have alligator. She called me up special at work to let me know, and with a gulp, I said okay. That was the whole point of our exotic meat Easters: to challenge our palates.

The day before Easter, I accompanied Kristi and her boyfriend Ed to Chinatown to shop for our exotic meats. In Chinatown, you’ll find food in its rawest form. One time I left a studio after drawing dancers in rehearsal and saw a truck open with five pigs being unloaded, their heads, legs, and tails perfectly intact, along with their pink color. The cooks acted like it was no big deal, but I think I’m permanently scarred. Walking down the streets, you might see duck carcasses strung up by their necks in shopwindows, like some kind of bizarre meat garland, and it was no different when we walked into the Chinatown meat shop.

While Kristi and Ed browsed the alligator claws, picking out the best ones, I looked inside strange aquariums and buckets to find frogs and live swimming eels. Food feels very primal in Chinatown, like when you eat something, it means a little bit more than just filling up the breadbasket.

Once Kristi and Ed purchased the alligator claws, they stored them in a handy cloth cooler bag that they brought along for just that purpose, and I was able to forget about them for the evening. Sunday came and Kristi and Ed came over at around 4 p.m. to start preparing the grand alligator meal. I bought wine, a little puzzled about what would pair nicely with alligator (I chose a white that didn’t taste too much like cat pee), and a lot of beer, which we all decided would be just fine. Kristi said it would take a few hours to make the meal and that worked well for me since I was knee-deep in edits for a Regency romance.

While Kristi and Ed chopped and sautéed, I read about breeches, redingotes, and heaving bosoms, looking up such things as the time period when condoms were invented and if the word touchy-feely existed circa late eighteenth century (it didn’t). At a certain point, Kristi called me to look at the alligator claws in our kitchen sink, and I was super-creeped out as I took pictures, filled with a combination of both repulsion and awe, thinking, I’m going to eat this; I’m really going to eat this.

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Kristi told me she would be blackening the alligator so it would be done rather fast. I returned to the Regency romance, but I couldn’t get back into the world of whether this married couple would stay together or not. I had a real problem on my hands. I had to eat alligator.

I started googling things like What does alligator taste like? The answer came back that the best meat of an alligator is its tail (unavailable in Chinatown) with a taste like spongy chicken. Okay, I thought I might be able to handle that. Then I remembered how some ancient warriors would defeat their enemies in battle and eat their hearts in order to take on their fierce traits. We were on the precipice of April, my special month of transformation and spring, renewal, and hopes for the next year. By eating alligator, I decided I would take on the qualities of an alligator. Fearlessness, silence while lying in wait for prey or enemies, amazing strength, and cunning would be mine.

I could hear coughs coming from the living room, and then Kristi came knocking on my door to say that dinner was ready. Steeling myself, I opened the door and found the house filled with smoke from the alligator blackening. Ed set up a fan in the living room to direct the smoke out the windows, and after pouring some cold ones for us three, I sat down to a plate full of stew, collard greens, olive bread, and something that looked like chicken nuggets. I was so relieved that the alligator was somewhat disguised and looked nothing like the claws I saw in the sink.

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We gave each other significant looks and took up our nuggets. The first one tasted brackish to me, like drinking tank water, but I was determined to take on my alligator qualities. I experimented by eating the alligator nuggets plain, dipping them in stew, and wrapping them in collard greens. The last worked the best, and I was able to wolf most of my nuggets that way. At a certain point, though, I had to stop. Ed had called it quits way before me, declaring, “I don’t like alligator.” Of the three of us, it was only Kristi who really had a taste for it.

After our dinner, so stuffed we could barely bend, we put in our carefully selected Easter movie, The Great Santini, featuring a couple of the best smart-asses to ever grace the screen: Bull Meechum and my personal favorite, his redheaded daughter Mary Anne Meechum. Of course, I forgot about the soup scene at the beginning of the movie, but despite that, it ended up being a perfect choice. The Meechums embody the qualities of alligator and alligator came up twice in the movie, causing everybody to drink.

 

Now it gets me thinking about next year. I think I might need a lion’s heart.