A few weeks ago, I attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association event to sign advanced copies of my 22nd book (or is it 23rd?), The Lonely Dead. Twenty years ago, I did my very first signing at PNBA in Eugene for my first book, Circles of Confusion (and signed it for JB of Seattle Mystery Books, which is sadly gone now).
Eugene is just 90 minutes from Portland, but at that time both my car and my husband's car were so old and crappy that we actually had an argument over whose car was worse. He said his was in better shape, and I should take it. It was a Subaru wagon that was old enough to vote and had what had once been a super cool "digital dash." Only most of it had stopped working. My husband's mechanic had installed an analog gauge for engine temperature by the handbrake. Right before I left, my husband insisted I take his cell phone (also a fairly new thing) because it came with a free service called "Mr Rescue." He also told me I should keep an eye on the analog gauge, as he thought the car might be overheating.
I promptly forgot that part. When I was 38 miles from Eugene (I only knew because I kept thinking how long it would be before I could hit the restroom) the car began to slow down even though I had my foot on the accelerator.
You guessed it (especially if you ever owned an older Subaru). I had blown the head gasket. I called Mr. Rescue, which turned out to be some lady in a room in Florida with maybe some phone books and maps. She did not understand "38 miles from Eugene." She wanted the name of a town. Finally she dispatched a tow truck driver on speed who had been up for three days straight. I remembering trying to bond with him in the hopes he wouldn't kill me. He did not, and dropped me off at a truck stop.
I called my husband, who buckled our toddler in my old car, drove down, rescued me, and took me to the signing - and I was not even all that late! And he never, ever said one bad word about me not watching his precious car (he loved it so much he would paint tiny scratches on the bumper with model paint) or the thousands of dollars it cost to get it fixed.
Five years ago was the fall I walked through hell.
We were driving to dinner. September 1, 2013. I had my hand on my husband's knee and we were smiling and talking about nothing.
Suddenly past his shoulder: a black lab. Appearing so out of nowhere it's like magic. Running flat out toward us. Pink tongue streaming behind. Black leash streaming behind.
It looks totally happy. Happy and clueless.
No time to scream. No time to brake. No time to react.
A second later, the dog and car meet just past the driver's side front bumper.
And then we are screaming.
We pull over in the gravel, still screaming. It has to be dead. It has to be. Oh my god. It seems like we are a long ways away, blocks and blocks, but later I see it's not even half a block.
I get out. It's worse than I thought.
Not one dog, but two. Two dogs lying on their backs in the street, paws in the air.
I've never seen dogs lying like that. Cars are already stacking up. A young man kneels by one, a young woman by the other. Screaming, crying, begging. What will these people think of us? We killed their dogs.
As I get closer, I can see they are street kids. The girl with red-gold dreads and pants made of patches. The guy with red-gold hair and a black T-shirt. They carry their dogs to the side of the road. The guy is begging. "Aldo! Aldo!" The black lab is moving a little. And then it dies.
The little dog is still alive and whining.
I try to look up Dove Lewis, the emergency animal hospital, on my phone. I keep typing the wrong letters, and the harder I try the worse I get. The lady who answers says to bring the dogs in. I tell my husband to get our Subaru.
These two kids are wailing. Stumbling from one dog to the other, shaking, weeping so hard that snot runs down their faces.
The guy lifts the lab into the back - even though we all know it must be dead - and then climbs in beside it. The girl sits in the back with the little dog in her lap. I pick up their two huge packs (they were setting down their packs when they lost control of the dogs) and bag of groceries and somehow manage to shove them all in the car.
And then we drive. I keep telling my husband to be careful, that the guy is just loose back there.
Otherwise, the car is mostly quiet. The guy is curled over the dog, weeping soundlessly. The girl is trying to reassure the little black and white dog, named Karate Kid. Neither of these two are that much older than our daughter. But somehow they've gone from being someone's precious babies to two kids living on the street with their dogs.
At the vet hospital, a tech in blue scrubs comes out to the parking lot, puts her hand to the lab's neck and shakes her head. She's a tall girl, broad-shouldered, and she manages to carry his body in by herself. Three hours later, we are looking at X-rays of the smaller dog. (It turned out that another car actually hit him.) The ball on one hip joint has been turned into paste. Everything has been pushed to one side.
And after they say goodbye to both dogs, both kids stagger back out into the waiting room. Eyes nearly swollen shut with weeping. We were strangers thrown together, sharing a nightmare.
Becoming an orphan
Eleven days later, I drove down to my home town on a few hours sleep. I had gotten back from a business trip the night before. My mom had declared that September 12 was when she was going on hospice. She had congestive heart failure and interstitial lung disease and had been put on oxygen a few months before.
I think she had hoped that the magic of going on hospice would cause her to die right away. But then the hospice nurse said she might live for months. My mom and I exchanged horrified glances while the nurse prattled on, oblivious. It took her a long time to figure out that Mom wanted to die, and soon.
For years, my mom has been dying on the installment plan. She was ready to die. There was nothing unsettled, nothing unsaid. She thought it was funny when, after she had decided she would go on hospice, her fortune said, "You are soon going to change your present line of work." She firmly believed in God and and afterlife, although she had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like.
The nurse only took her off a couple of her meds. On her own, Mom decided to go off the others. She stopped her oxygen. Then she stopped eating. Then she - sort of - stopped drinking.
It was a very strange three weeks. Good conversations. Watching a lot of old movies and documentaries. Being bored. Wondering when/ hoping/being afraid she would die. Weeping in the laundry room and biting my hand so she wouldn't hear me. Being scared. Laughing. Telling her to stop apologizing for my being there. Trying to write a little. Eating my way through so much junk food.
I was getting an award October 5, and was going to cancel. Mom told me not to, that God told her it would be okay, and then died quietly October 1, a few hours after the hospice nurse said she would live for at least a week, maybe longer. Of course, I was flat out useless at the awards. I basically stood at the podium and wept. It got so bad that one of presenters gave me her already used Kleenex.
Doctors have a saying. "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras." In other words, it's probably a cold, not a rare fatal virus.
Or in my case, just before Christmas 2013 when my leg turned red and started swelling up, they thought it was probably cellulitis. And when it didn't respond to three different antibiotics, they decided it was MRSA cellulitis, and I ended up in the hospital for three days. In case I was contagious and might pose a danger to people who were already physically sick, they put me on the psych unit. Let's just say, that was interesting. Then I had a rare reaction to IV Vancomycin called hand-foot syndrome. First my hands and feet felt like they were on fire. Then eventually all the skin peeled off. Oh, and somewhere in there, the doctor thought I had a blood clot in my heart that was throwing off bits. It was another month or so of suck.
I did a LOT of lying on my back, staring at white acoustical ceilings, and crying. And wondering whether I would lose my leg or die. I actually came out okay (except a scar from a biopsy). It turns out that an errant kung fu shin clash probably led to something called traumatic panniculitis (dermatologist's theory) or a crush injury (orthopedic doc's theory).
Five years on, it's my mom's death that still resonates. I wish I could talk to her, hear her laugh, get her advice.
In June, I was in the middle of a four-mile run when I saw something ahead of me on the edge of the road. A small black garbage bag? A black rubber glove?
It was a crow.
And it was alive.
Every now and then it would try to move, but failed. Eventually its legs ended up behind it.
My gut feeling was that it wasn't going to live. And that seemed cruel, to let it suffer and die. But I didn't know what to do. I thought about picking it up and twisting its neck, which is how I've heard you kill chickens. But I didn't feel capable of doing it.
A older man was walking toward me. Together, we regarded the crow. "Birds live precarious lives," he said with a German accent.
A woman driving her car stopped. She rolled down her window. "Is it still there? Is it still alive?" She had spotted it a few hours earlier.
When we said yes, she said she couldn't stand to think of it suffering. Her plan was to run over it several times. I asked her to wait until I had run down the hill. When I looked back over my shoulder, the older man had walked on and the woman was trying to line up her tire. I ran faster.
A minute later she passed me and slowed down again. "I couldn't do it," she admitted.
When I got home, I called the Audubon society. They thought it was possibly a fledgling crow. And they said that fledgling crows often end up on the ground but are fine. They have blue eyes, but otherwise are hard to tell apart from full-grown crows. In fact, they are not much smaller.
So was my crow a fledgling? I don't think so. And even the Audubon said it was a very bad sign that it could not get its feet under it.
I still wonder if one of us should have killed the crow. And if we had, would it have been a mercy or a murder.
This survey pretty much accurately reflects my personal 2017.
- I spent about 15% of my time this year worried about our country, something I spent maybe 1% on before.
- I also got to see a lot of the country: California, Nebraska, Idaho, Texas, Arkansas, New York, Missouri, and Oklahoma. And we went to Iceland!
- I discovered that my great-great-great grandfather was murdered - and that my great-great grandfather took revenge.
- Book-wise, I worked on two great books: Run, Hide, Fight Back (2018) and The Lonely Dead (2019).
- In my personal life, there have been challenges, but those have also led me to a great support group and more of a spiritual practice than I have had in years.
- In the middle of the year and hours from home, my car broke down, which cost thousands of dollars and stranded me at my brother's house for a week. But that meant I got to spend more time with him and his family than I have in decades.
- And a recap of the best and worst of 2017 wouldn't be complete without mentioning Brazilian jiujitsu. It doesn't make any sense that I love it, but I do.
As for the first day of 2018, I always like to start off the New Year the way I want I want it to go. So today I will run, write and pay attention. I've decided "Pay attention" is my phrase for 2018.
Would you like to make $48,000 a month?
It's easy! All you need to do is run a cheesy literary award competition and charge $19.95 an entry for each of 12 categories - and then make it seem like it's a select group because there are "only" 200 entries per category.
Be sure to make your award appear more "real" by adding quotes, with the insinuation that they are about your "award." Take one from the New York Times, which is really from a 1992 article about the importance of the Caldecott and the Pulitzer. Throw in another quote from a guy who was once an editor at Dutton - only he died at the age of 86 in 1983. And there's a quote from agent "Julie Pickering" - only her name is Juliet and her agency is in London. And this quote:
“Wow! I’m so honored; thank you!! I’m deeply grateful… Thank you so much for the recognition! This means a LOT.” – Kathryn Le Veque, NY Times Bestselling Author.
Only she's not a NYT bestselling author, but a USA Today bestselling author (which are different nuts to crack).
While alll of the quotes appear to be real, almost all of them seem to be about COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AWARDS. Other clues: Grammatical mistakes. Calling something a "fiction novel." Art work that seems to have been hijacked from the 1980s.
Remember that money should flow to the author. Don't tell yourself that it's "only" $19.95 - they are counting on 2.400 people to tell themselves that, month after month.
I am on the road all the time! This school year I'm doing visits in Texas (several times), Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Idaho, Kansas, New York (twice), Missouri (twice), Maryland, Alabama, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Iowa (twice). That's just what I know about so far.
Do you travel a lot? What would you add?
We just got back from a week in Iceland. I read a lot of blogs before we went, and packed accordingly. Here's the feedback I wish I could give my past self.
Great ideas of things to bring
This week, three books I had had on hold for weeks or even months all showed up at the library. What to do? Each must be returned within three weeks, and they are all so popular that I can't renew them.
I decided to start with Gin Phillips' Fierce Kingdom, which is about a mother and her four-year-old son who are trapped at the zoo when a shooting breaks out. Oh. My. GOD.
What a great book! It has been forever since I fell headlong into a book. Reading it was like a fever dream. I didn't edit in my head, didn't question word choices. I just loved it. It was like being a kid again, when books were pure magic and I didn't even know there were tricks tucked in sleeves.
And I did something I haven't done in years: I decided to stay up as late as it took to finish it.
It was totally worth the lack of sleep.
Here are some examples of her writing (some are screen shots, some I typed in):
Check out how repeition makes things more powerful.
"This girl's bones feel like china, like blown glass, like handles on teacups. The girl feels like all kinds of precious things."
"People say she's a nice girl. She makes mostly A's and B's. Hardly ever C's. She saves her money in the bank. But now she wishes that she were the kind of girl who set things on fire instead of the kind of girl who proofreads her work. She wishes she knew how to scare people. She wishes she had worked yesterday instead of today, and she wishes she carried pepper spray like her mother has told her she should, and she wishes she had an Almond Joy, cold, and she wishes she were home in bed and her pillows were fluffed, and she wishes she had grabbed that little boy Lincoln and run with him and saved him, and she wishes she were a woman in a video game with pistols on her hips and cleavage . She wishes her father could still pick her up and carry her, but she is too heavy."
And I love the rhythm of her sentences - long galloping ones followed by short declarative ones.
This was a five-star book for me!
The Girl I Used to Be has won The Oregon Spirit Book Award from the Oregon College of Teachers of English. That book is very special to me, because the character of Nora is 100% my mom. Writing her in the book was a way of keeping her alive.
I got my first OCTE award October 4, 2013. I had temporarily moved home to take care of my mom on hospice - and was also writing The Girl I Used To Be. I told my mom I was going to cancel going. It was the end of September and the hospice nurse insisted she weeks maybe months, to go. Mom told me not to cancel. She felt God was telling her that she would die before then - and she did, on October 1. I came for the award and just cried when I got it.
Then I was back in 2014 for another award. The writer Brian Doyle asked about her right before he got up to speak. He and my mom used to write each other - she was a fan of his writing. He got the wrong idea that she had just died, and before I could correct he he got called up to talk. The first thing he did was ask for a moment of silence, announcing that my mom had just died. I’m sure everyone who had been there the year before was very confused.
Brian himself died just a few months ago from a brain tumor. We had shared another weird moment. A year ago, we spoke at a joint library event. They used the photos below to advertise it. Even _I_ thought the woman next to Brian was me - but it was another writer named Constance, whom I have never met.
Circles within circles.