Wednesday, September 30, 2020

"The Hurricane: Mercury in Retrograde"

by Silver Webb
Originally published in Hurricanes & Swan Songs

Jenny Mandisi walks in a web of light. Spider-fine threads of sensation travel from her, over the parking lot of Loreto Plaza. Above the faux Spanish architecture of stores and restaurants, the palm trees turn to tarantulas in the dusk. Jenny maneuvers around people by estimation of threat, intention, potential pain. 

A bald man glances up from an outdoor book table, staring at Jenny’s licorice black hair and dress, her spectral face. 

“Is that your Halloween costume, honey?” 

Jenny is not twelve years old, and this is not her Halloween costume. She is forty. In her Demonia platform Mary-Janes, she crests six foot four, her frame so spindly that she looks like a Gothic pipe cleaner.

A gust of wind whips the pages on the table, startling the man. Jenny slips past him, hurrying to the nondescript glass front of Cherry’s Grill, opening the door, and pausing to let her eyes adjust. Framed photos of celebrities hang in uneasy angles on the gold wallpaper. Deep booths of quilted red leather, wagon-wheel chairs, glass lamps. To the left is the mirrored bar, to the back is a moose head on the wall. No moose ever looked so happy to be beheaded, stuffed, and nailed to a wall, overseeing the kitchen doors swinging open and shut beneath his muzzle. 

A cadaverous waitress, pinched stomach like a hermit crab, motions for her to follow. Jenny sinks down into Booth #2. From here she can see the whole room. 

Jenny casts her lay lines, visible only to her, latching onto the walls, people, the moose. She takes the room in this way. The awkward blind date, an old cowboy looking lonesome in the Gold Room, writers hunched together like ghostly saboteurs at the bar. She judges their distance from her, their capacities, searches for any tremor of instability, and decides the room is as safe as any place can be. She takes off her black messenger bag and puts her phone on the table. 

Sorry, late for dins. Rolando’s text appears. 

When are you not late? Jenny types. 

The waitress comes back with bread, and Jenny realizes she hasn’t eaten since breakfast. White bread smeared with butter, salsa fresca, and sour cream. Jenny takes a deep bite, smudging her black lipstick, the tomato juice dripping from the corner of her mouth. When she is short of money, sometimes the bread is dinner. 

There yet? Vanessa texts.

Yes, Jenny replies.

You know the rules. No alcohol.

I’m a grown woman.

If I find you with a cocktail, I will karate-chop you.

Jenny has no intention of obeying her cousin. When the waitress comes by, she orders a Hurricane, the booziest drink in a bar already famed for its slutty pours. 

Jenny has another bite of bread and stares at the last text Phil Fleischman sent her: 
Great manuscript. The rewrite really works. I’d like to talk to you about printing this.

Jenny feels like she might sail out of her seat, a black-widow balloon filled with the helium of praise. After 114 rejections, she finally has a yes. For her book. The book. The one she’s been working on for years, a manic devotion that serves as friend, lover, and reason for existing. After her nightly shift at the Granada Theater, she threads through midnight streets, the ideas come to her, spinning, spinning. An hour on foot to her rented room in San Roque, and then hours of shadow-dreams dance across her computer screen. She writes a world in which she makes sense, the only place that she does. Except perhaps Cherry’s Grill, where tall tales are as common as framed photos of Ronald Reagan. 

A feeling like warm honey runs down her spine, pooling in her sacrum. That means Alex is about to text her. She waits, and a second later, a message from him springs up on her screen. 

What about artichokes? She hears the text spoken in his voice, a deep resin that rolls over her, like amber trapping a mosquito.

Artichokes? Jenny’s thumbs fly over her phone. Death thistles. Prickly, medieval, a rueful food that hides its elusive heart. And for a second Jenny thinks this describes her as well. She presses send.

So that’s a no on artichokes? The question is rhetorical. Alex doesn’t eat vegetables. This is a polite exchange of formalities before they decide which end of the cow to eat. Order me the burnt ends. Thirty minutes out.

Jenny’s heart sinks a little. If Alex and Rolando are both late, that means more time alone with—someone trips her lay lines, a presence behind her, sharp as the snap of a match—her cousin. 

Vanessa Mandisi plops down across from Jenny, wearing a white suit and a Tiffany necklace, her ginger hair curled tight like fusilli pasta. 

“Rolls is late. Alex too,” Jenny says. 

“I heard. Drunk driver on 154. Alex had to rappel down the side of a cliff. Whole family of five is toast.”

Jenny blanches. Alex didn’t mention a cliff. But then, Alex rarely tells her anything. 

“Do we have to eat here every week?” Vanessa picks up a menu. “Is free bread that sexy?” 

“We can’t all be lawyers.” 

“District Attorney. And if I’m footing the bill, I want to pick the restaurant.”

“Fine. We can go to Vegan Green. See if Alex will eat Satan tacos.” 

“Seitan. Sayyy-tawn. Like I care what Alex thinks, Jennifer.” 

It’s not a good day if Vanessa is calling her Jennifer. On a good day, Jenny is Jewels, Vanessa is Vans, Rolando is Rolls, and Alex is still Alex because he won’t answer to anything else. 

Jenny sees a flicker on her phone, and her adrenaline starts to shimmer. It’s a text from Phil Fleischman:
Do you have time to talk about the book? I’d really like to move on it. 

Sure, she types.

Great. King’s Road?

King’s Road is a pub that gets a little rowdy at night. It’s already 7. Maybe he means tomorrow.

I like King’s Road. She’s not sure what else to say.

Great. Tonight, 11 o’clock.

Jenny blinks. There isn’t even a question mark after that 11 o’clock.

“What is it?” Vanessa asks. 

“The guy from Chapala Press.”

“The wiener?”

“Phil Fleischman. Why would you call him a wiener?”

“I see him at the courthouse a lot. Owes alimony all over town.”

“I didn’t know he was married.” 

Vanessa’s eyes narrow. “What does he want with you?” 

“He’s considering my book for publication.” 

“He’s considering your ass for penetration, and that’s all.”

“Your mind is a morass of ugliness.”

“So why do you look like someone just stuck a machete in your black heart?”
“He wants to meet at King’s Road.” Jenny’s face colors, although under her zombie-white foundation, it may be hard to tell. “At eleven. Tonight.”

“Eleven, King’s Road. Sure. Totally normal business stuff. Carry on.” 

“I’m not his type. I can’t be. He drives a Lexus. And wears Italian leather shoes.” 

“Maybe he collects oddities. Bored, rich guys are like that.”

Jenny sees her book in print, a world split open in the hands of others, her life somehow less lonely for it. How badly does she need that? Maybe Phil Fleischman is a nice guy. 

“He isn’t,” Vanessa says, picking Jenny’s thoughts from the air. 

“You don’t know that.” 

“I do know it. And I will shit my kidneys out my asshole if I eat any of this.” Vanessa slaps the menu down. 

“Have a drink then.” Jenny’s mouth curves. “That’s gluten-free. Probably.”

“Celiacs is not a joke. Don’t start with me. If you think this guy just wants to talk about literature, you are hell and gone from Cartagena, Angel.”

Jenny almost smiles. It’s a good line. From Romancing the Stone. One of Vanessa’s few redeeming qualities is her quotes.

“I’ll show up,” Vanessa says.

“Are you Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse? No, don’t come. I can handle myself.”

“My god.” A deep crease appears in Vanessa’s forehead. “Is this another PigSwine McDickFace? You don’t like this guy, do you?”

There is a downside to cousins. They know all the dirt. Vanessa has a good memory and therefore good reason to worry. Jenny falls in love silently, glows so violently that she ignites, burns herself to ashes with the pain of the unrequited, and then crawls away, her light dimmed for years after. But she knows who she loves, and it isn’t Phil Fleischman. 

“I look up to Phil, that’s all. He publishes good books, and he teaches great courses.”

“Where, city college?” 

“Quit talking at me.” 

Fine, Vanessa changes tactics and thinks at her. It’s taken years for you to get your life back together. Don’t blow it now on some poser who’s stringing you along.

Quit thinking at me. Jenny clicks her black nails on the glass tabletop.  

Fine. Vanessa gives up.

Jenny checks her phone. 

A text from Rolando says, Bus is late. Almost there. 

A text from Alex says, Vanessa cheesing you off yet?

Massive cheese, Jenny types. Camembert. Gorgonzola.

There in ten. Order milk.

Now Jenny feels bad she ordered the Hurricane. She usually listens to Alex. Even if he doesn’t understand the terms of light and dark that define her world, the way she lifts and tilts and can’t find her feet, the way she falls. Still, she listens to him. 

I ordered a Hurricane, she types.

DO. NOT. DRINK. IT, Alex replies.

“You ordered a Hurricane?” Vanessa frowns, eavesdropping on Jenny’s thoughts. “No. Absolutely not! I’m still paying Joe’s Place back for what you did.”

“That was your fault, not mine.” 

They stare at each other, eyes meeting mid-table in siege. Jenny’s fingers curl a little, and the napkin by Vanessa begins to lift upward.

“Really?” Vanessa raises an eyebrow, and the candle flares. “In public?”

Jenny relents and the napkin stills. Something about Cherry’s Grill makes her forget the rules of the mundane world, the imperative to feign normalcy.

Jenny’s lay lines jingle. Rolando walks up behind her. 

“Hay girlzs.” Rolando is wearing white jeans and carrying a Hello Kitty! clutch on his wrist. He sits with the delicacy of Lady Bird, like he is cradling a bon-bon between his butt cheeks and is afraid to crush it. 

“You look like death, Jewels. Something wrong?” Rolando’s lips glitter at her. “Wait, you always look like death!” 

“It’s that guy,” Vanessa says. “The wiener.”

“Wieners aren’t so bad, Vans. Maybe you should try one,” Rolando says.

“I’m vegan. And this is guy is a poser. He teaches adult ed, okay?”

Jenny fumes silently, and the edges of Vanessa’s hair lift and move like snakes.  

Vanessa cocks her head at Jenny. “Leave my hair alone or I will rearrange your doll collection.”

“Soooo,” Rolando says brightly. “What’s the problem?”

“He wants Jenny to meet him at King’s Road. At eleven o’clock.”

“Booty call, Jewels, yaz!”

Jenny’s face heats. She doesn’t believe in booty calls. She thinks holding hands is a big deal, like a K-O big deal. 

“You want this guy to help you, better give him some sugar,” Rolando says.

Jenny imagines trying to take her clothes off in front of Phil Fleischman, trying to act normal, like she isn’t scared. The edges of her inner landscape darken, time closes in on her, a muddying of what was and what is. 

“You’re supposed to be the empath.” Vanessa flicks Rolando on the shoulder. “Stop with the shit that upsets her.”

“You’re getting a parking ticket.” Rolando smiles. 

Vanessa flames her eyes at him. “I don’t feel that.”

“You parked in a handicapped zone, right? But you don’t got no handicap sticker. There’s a meter bitch out there clocking you.” 

Vanessa springs up and sprints out the door. Rolando unclicks his purse, takes out his tarot deck, and spreads the cards into a fan on the table.

Jenny shakes her head. “I don’t want to.”

“Pick a card for this guy.” Rolando slides the deck closer to her.

“I’ll pick the devil. Or death. I always pick death,” she says.

“Tarot don’t lie.” Rolando shrugs.

Jenny sees the card she’s supposed to pick. Of course she does. It has the resonance of blue dust hovering above it. Phil Fleischman. She flips it.

Rolando’s upper lip curls. “You got the worst luck, girl.”

It’s the death card, a skeleton cackling and pointing at her. 

“Damn it, Rolls.”

“It’s not, like, literal. No one is gonna die…probably.” Rolando pulls Jenny’s phone toward him. “What did this chalupa say anyways?” 

She is distracted by the waitress coming to the table. But then she sees that Rolando is typing something on her phone.

“Rolls, no,” Jenny hisses. 

“Here’s your drink.” The waitress sets down a massive curved Hurricane glass, glowing pink, topped with a speared cherry.

“What are you typing?” Jenny kicks at him under the table.

“You’re not no 7-11, so we’re gonna tell him that.” Rolando clears his throat and reads what he’s typed: “Do I look like a banjee ratchet ho?”

“No, no, oh my god, no, Rolls, don’t you fucking send that!” 

Rolando’s grin dissolves as he catches sight of the Hurricane. “Alex told you not to have no alcohol, right?”

Jenny lunges for her phone and then hears it. The whoosh sound that a text has been sent.

Do I look like a banjee ratchet ho? Sent. To Phil Fleischman, head of Chapala Press.

Jenny’s lungs tighten. A second, ten seconds, a minute, two. There is no reply. Nothing. He is not going to text back. Jenny shoves the straw in her mouth and inhales five shots of rum, vodka, and triple sec. She drinks it so fast her eyes burn. 

“He didn’t text you back?” 

Jenny shakes her head and inhales more booze, her throat napalmed, her brain going thin from the fumes. 
Her phone finally pings, and her eyes swan dive onto the screen.

I thought you were more mature than this. Too bad, Phil Fleischman’s text says.

Jenny finishes the Hurricane in a numb fog. She wants to spear Rolando in the eye with her fruit toothpick. She wants to run away before Vanessa comes back. And she wishes like hell that Alex was here. 

Rolando starts in. “Mercury is in retrograde, that’s what it is. Don’t say nothing important to nobody—” The fork next to Jenny flies across the table, puncturing the red leather near Rolando’s head. 

Rolando side-eyes the fork. “Maybe just don’t drink no more.”

But Jenny is not listening to him. She has even stopped drinking. Because she feels something behind her. An energy signature she knows. It’s not Alex. And it’s not Vanessa. Blue dust and the death card.

Phil Fleischman walks by her booth, wearing camel-colored slacks with a Gucci belt, his hair domed in a pompadour that almost hides his thinning front section. He is putting his phone back in his pocket. He does not notice Jenny. 

“Sorry about that,” he says. “A writer giving me trouble. You’d be surprised how unprofessional they can be.”

“But not me, right?” The woman next to him laughs. She is petite, with soft auburn waves of hair, D-cup cleavage, smiling, well-adjusted. Rita Hayworth in a plum-blue silk dress. Her face is airy and guileless, like gravity has never given her reason to look down.

Jenny watches them sit at a table under the moose head. He pulls out her chair. She places a manuscript on the table. Phil Fleischman was planning dinner with Rita Hayworth at 7, and then drinks with Jenny at 11. She wonders if he is telling Rita the same thing he’s been telling her. 
Jenny scrambles to salvage any hope of being published.

Sorry that was a joke meant for someone else, she texts him. 

She watches Phil glance at his phone, the lift of his eyebrows, the cold planes of his face. He taps at his screen. A moment later, her phone pings with his text. 


Is there ever any hope with an OK?

I can’t meet you this evening. But I could have coffee tomorrow, she texts. 

Something has come up. Maybe next week.

But the expression on his face tells her there will not be a next week. 

Rejection 115 has an air of finality to it that breaks her in a way the other 114 before this have not. Jenny can’t breathe. The floor is rotating. She grabs the edge of the table as the pictures begin to rattle against the wall.  

“Jesus take the wheel.” Rolando slides under the table.

Jenny cannot stop what happens. She tilts off balance, everything blurs, her future churning in lonely spirals that only run parallel to others, never crossing, never meeting. She will spend her life writing in her room, alone. The photos fly off the wall into a cyclone, diners drop their forks, their drinks, photos of priests and car salesmen hurtle around the room, bottles of liquor from the bar, Rolando’s tarot cards, all converging above the table in the back. 

There is an inch of air between Jenny’s rear end and the seat now. Under the table, Rolando clamps onto her ankles, trying to stop her. Jenny shoves her messenger bag back on, thinking to weigh herself down. But she is unmoored, her lay lines tangled. She is cast into her own storm, her skirt billowing out, strands of black silk, her hair spreading out around her by centrifugal force, arms reaching for ballast and finding none. 

Rita Hayworth screams, looking up as if Jenny is a winged monkey in the Wizard of Oz

“Jenny Mandisi?” Phil Fleischman’s voice slices through her delirium. “Is this some kind of stunt? Are you that desperate to be published?” 

The drop is like the quiet of high altitude. Freefalling, ground reaching up to sock her in the jaw. The photos drop, the bottles too, exploding in a glitter of glass. Jenny lands a few tables away in a heap.

She forces herself up, aware she is bleeding where her legs hit the glass. People are running, limping, and using their walkers to get to the exit. She stumbles to the bathroom, into the stall, sliding to the floor. She stabs at her phone to text Alex.

Please come get me. Bathroom. I’m in trouble.

She searches her bag for the emergency pills. The ones that Dr. Lex prescribes. The ones Rolando calls horse sedatives and says she should slide up her rear end for faster effect. But she refuses to try that. Her hands shake as she twists the top, then grinds it the other way, unable to open it. With a pop it leaps off the px vial and a spray of blue pills arc up in the air, clatter off the rim of the toilet, plopping in the water. Her peace of mind sinks to the bottom of the bowl.

Jenny can’t breathe, her lungs clamp, her stomach is being hit with a baseball bat. She knows this is a panic attack, but she can’t stop it. Her phone beeps and she fumbles for it. She sees a text that doesn’t make sense. 

We are done, freak.

Alex wouldn’t say that. Jenny peers at the screen. Of course she didn’t send a text to Alex. Of course not. She sent it to the last person she’d been texting: Phil Fleischman. Please come get me. Bathroom. I’m in trouble. After she told him she wasn’t a banjee ratchet ho and then floated to the ceiling and made his date piss her silk dress and then landed in the glass like Carrie at prom.

There is nothing Jenny can say to fix this. She forces herself to concentrate, to press the call button to Alex.

“Hey.” Alex picks up right away. “Where are you?”


A minute later, black shoes appear on the tile floor, and the stall door swings open. He assesses her fleetly, his thoughts undistracted by emotion. “Scale of one to ten.”

“Six,” she says. As bad as this feels, she knows there is worse. 

“Where’s the diazepam?”

Jenny flaps her finger toward the toilet.

Alex bends down and picks up the empty bottle, reads the label carefully. 

She is embarrassed to be seen like this. She tries to think of something to distract him. “Did you really rappel down a cliff today?” 

“Yes.” He doesn’t look away from the bottle.

“Why didn’t you say?”

“You have panic attacks.” He checks something on his phone and then opens his EMT bag. 

Jenny sees the silver watch on his wrist, hands unshaken. She can almost breathe. 

“I’m not crazy,” she says.

“That is correct.” He swabs Jenny’s inner arm. “You’re psychokinetic, you can’t handle alcohol…” He trails off for a moment as he draws clear liquid from a small vial into a syringe. “And you have the worst case of PTSD I’ve ever seen.” 

He slips the needle under her skin, finding a vein.
Jenny’s teeth stop knocking together. Her chest unclenches. Her lungs sigh. She can breathe again. The baseball bat that has been bludgeoning her stomach stops. Her muscles go soft. 

Jenny is like pudding now, unable to censor herself. The honey travels down her spine, filaments of light extend from her, wrapping around him, spinning a space where only they are. She knows that Alex cannot see it or feel it, that he is bound by inscrutable rules that govern him just as surely as Jenny’s nightmares govern her. Perhaps this is as close as she comes to another. Maybe anything more is impossible. Still, for a moment she feels safe, feels the solitary core of iron that runs through him, something she can’t pierce or understand. She only knows that she comes to ground when he is with her.

Her words leave her easily now. “Rolls took my phone and texted the book guy, the one I told you about. Total disaster. Must be Mercury in…something, I forget.”

“Retrograde? Rolando is full of shit.” Alex picks up Jenny’s phone and scrolls through the screen. “You told this guy you were in trouble and needed help?” The tile under Alex’s foot cracks with no warning.

“I thought I was texting you.” 

Alex scrolls further up the screen. “He wanted to meet you at King’s Road. At eleven.” The crack in the tile runs up the wall and hits the ceiling. 

“I didn’t say yes.” Her blurred brain can’t formulate why Alex is angry. Instead she says, “I’ll never be published now. One hundred…fifteen rejections.”

“Just keep writing,” Alex says firmly, like he is done with the topic. He lifts Jenny up by the arm, and they move slowly out to the restaurant. She sees a swirl of red leather, broken glass. And Vanessa, blazing with fury.

“You pussy-mouthed mother-fucker!” Vanessa points a finger at Phil Fleischman. 

He is still seated at the table. Rita Hayworth has disappeared. Everyone else has run out. Jenny can’t understand why he is still sitting there, except maybe Vanessa is blocking his way. Jenny wonders how her cousin noticed him at all, but then realizes her own thoughts made a map to him that Vanessa could not have missed.

“Have I done something to offend you, lady?” He smirks. And it is a really bad idea to smirk at Vanessa.  

“How about not paying alimony? How about screwing my cousin over!” 

“Your cousin? To whom do you refer?”

“That’s it!” 

The moose on the wall bursts into flames, its eyes melting, beloved moose smile ejecting sparks. Fur that is over fifty years old burns with an acrid, oily stink. Cocktail napkins erupt into fireworks, the remaining bottles of alcohol go Molotov. A few seconds later, the security cameras light up like Olympic torches.

Phil Fleischman shrieks as the chair behind him starts to burn, and his smirk vanishes. 

Suspended above him in the air, slowly spinning, is one of Rolando’s tarot cards. The death card. Phil Fleischman catches sight of Jenny, and his face mottles. “You! Fucking freak!” 

Alex’s foot comes down hard on the floor, and it fractures with a deep groan. A seismic shaking cleaves the carpet, the cement, the dirt and stone below. The fracture line shoots straight toward Phil Fleischman’s table.

Alex loops his arm around Jenny’s chest, like the safety bar on a roller coaster ride, pressing against the underside of her breasts, his palm and fingers under her arm, resting against her ribs. With no warning, Jenny is a million miles away from caring about her book or Phil Fleischman or the brimstone raining down on Cherry’s Grill. Joy bubbles in her chest. A floaty feeling tingles in her toes, a sensation of lift.

“Nope,” Alex says under his breath and squeezes her tightly, forcing her feet back on the ground. But the bubbles radiate through her, murmuring in a pleasant profusion of warmth. She looks at the scene from a distance. Her asshole cousin wielding fire in her corporate power-suit. Alex cracking the earth in two, pulling a hurricane of a Goth girl behind him. Rolando, the lousiest empath ever, leaking water under the table. 

For just a sliver of a moment, Jenny smiles at Phil Fleischman, and she imagines that her black lipstick is smeared on her teeth, down her lips, that she must look like a specter of hell. Maybe she is. And she has friends you really shouldn’t fuck with.

“Mandisi.” Alex’s voice clips the air. “Out. Now.”

“Fine!” Vanessa throws her hands up like he’s ruining her fun.

Alex pulls Jenny behind him, her legs languid. She watches as the table Phil Fleischman is sitting at slides into the fissure, the fire growing brighter. He claws at the air trying not to sink down with it. His hair-sprayed coxcomb bobs above the floor, and then she cannot see him at all.

The carpet recedes from Jenny’s feet, then there’s a bump, then she feels the smack of night air. The sky is dark now, inky black palm trees reaching for her. She hears Vanessa swearing and Rolando crying. There are police sirens approaching. Fire trucks too. Smoke the color of quicksilver snakes above Cherry’s Grill. 
Alex deposits Jenny in the ambulance passenger seat and walks around to the driver’s side. 

“I told you that guy is a wiener!” Vanessa yells, disappearing into her BMW. 

“I told you Mercury is in retrograde!” Rolando cries, limping toward State Street. 

Alex starts the engine and shakes his head, eyes crinkling at the corners. 

“I told you to order milk.” 


Hurricanes & Swan Songs is available on Amazon.

Friday, February 9, 2018

My Big Opinion on "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear" by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m not a writer who needs to be encouraged to write. I don’t require someone to tell me to keep going at it. I don’t fear writing. I don’t question my right to write. I have to create; it’s not optional. I've been writing for over twenty years. Because sometime in my mid-twenties, I quietly decided I wanted to write novels, and write them exceedingly well. There has rarely been a week since then that I've not written, and usually it is a nightly occurrence. So, in reading through Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity (let’s just say it: she wrote the book about writers, not the making of quilts or decoupage), the sections about getting over the fear of writing were yada-yada-yada to me. But the book is thoughtful, funny, and surprisingly down-to-Earth. Elizabeth snagged me with two lines of logic:  

Suffering does not add to your artistry. Martyrdom kills your creativity. 
Keep your day job. Your creativity doesn’t need the burden of being your bread.

It doesn’t need to be perfect. Just put it out there. 
The result is not that important; the process and what you gain from it are what is important.

I can see the points about avoiding drama, looking after your financial well-being, and not being a martyr. I learned all those points the hard way. I’m still learning them the hard way. But her ideas about perfectionism left a foul odor in my nostrils. Her thinking seems to be that we should lighten up, work hard at it, and then call it a day. If it succeeds, if it fails…who cares? As long as you’re devoted to the exquisite craft of writing and loving every minute of it, why hang your hat on an external outcome? Isn’t it more important to produce work than to produce perfection?

Well, why didn’t I like that? I will not knowingly put my name on something that is a slouchy, half-assed piece of fecal matter. I'm also an editor, in case you haven't guessed. And editors are genetically coded to perfect text. We are incapable of saying that mediocre will do. I am passionate about making writing the most amazing it can be, and that is what drives me. As Elizabeth points out, that kind of thinking can just as easily drive you insane. She is not a big fan of passion, though, and as a writer with longevity,  her words are allowed some weight here. She is a fan of curiosity, of following little wisps of interest that might unfurl into a fire. I understand her point to a degree…every day I collect little bits of conversations, mannerisms, watching what the people around me are doing. And those collected tid-bits usually end up in the writing, somewhere, somehow. But I will never, ever give up on making the story perfect.  

Another thing I pondered, in my boudoir of snarky thoughts, is this: It is all well and good for Elizabeth Gilbert to say that external validation shouldn’t drive you as a writer, that it doesn’t matter if you are ever published or not. She can say that because her efforts paid off in the end. She has six or so books published, one of which was a massive best-seller. But if she’d never gotten a book published? If she was in her fifties, still bar-tending, wondering if all those years of writing were worth it….would she really have such unshakable conviction that the creative life is its own reward? I wonder. Hey, maybe I’ll write a book about Elizabeth Gilbert’s alternate ending…what would’ve happened if she hadn’t eaten, loved, and prayed. No? Too harsh? 

All that said, Elizabeth’s writing about writing is really lovely and imaginative. She has such bright and whimsical ideas at times that I found myself shimmering in them. What if ideas are living entities that wait for you to notice them, take them in, and write them? If you don’t write the idea, will it travel to another writer and ask them? Can your writing love you back as much as you love it? Can you seduce inspiration by putting on a nice dress and making yourself magnetic? I really enjoyed these moments, as they are implicit permission to be wildly imaginative about the process of writing, not just the particulars of plot or character. The title itself, Big Magic, is something that I entirely agree with. Writing *is* magic, endlessly fascinating, and something that is the more precious and rich part of my life. A sacred part, if you will, a mystery…that’s what Elizabeth is getting at, the tending of the creative, magical soul within each of us. 

So, I recommend Big Magic to writers. It will make you think. It may give you courage. And if you take her advice to keep writing, consistently and with devotion, the book will be worth its weight in gold. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Year of the Fire Rooster: Thoughts on the Thomas Fire

From a  metaphysical perspective (because you know, California Girl here), I can't help but point out that this has been the year of the Fire Rooster in Chinese astrology. Our political landscape has been savage, a seemingly careless burn of civil rights and decency. Many things I held as sacred in our nation have gone to ashes. It is hard to look destruction in the face and find some wisdom to it. Hard to watch things burn and convince yourself something new will grow. But I'm told that this is the principle nature works on, that fires are necessary periodically to the health of a forest. Dead wood and plants go to ashes, the nutrients able to go back into the soil and help new vegetation grow.

But that did not make me feel better when Ventura, parts of Los Angeles, San Diego, Montecito, Ojai, Santa Barbara, and Carpinteria all experienced sudden fires. A firefighter with a growing family lost his life in the Thomas Fire; people's homes and art and photographs and precious evidence of their lives all burned. Trees, animals, even our palm trees lining the beach side of the 101, all scorched. When it is over, the Thomas Fire will be one of the largest fires in California history. It is not done burning yet. We in Santa Barbara are waiting to see what the Santa Ana winds do tomorrow, when they're projected to pick up again. I cannot imagine fighting a fire, much less doing so in 60 MPH winds.

So, I spent two weeks watching a lot of ashes fall, wearing an N95 mask, nervously glancing up at a sun made red in a grey sky. I looked around my room, thinking, what can I not live without? What needs to be packed, just in case? The childhood Christmas ornaments came off the tree, packed into a box by the door. Things you might expect, like the box of photographs, the paintings, the passport, the taxes. And some things that make sense only to me. The scarf I bought in Paris for $5 when I was 28, the water bottle with a king-tut cat on it...because I *need* that! My crochet hooks and four balls of yarn. My money plant. My NFL Patriots nutcracker (yes, it's a thing, and yes I do believe that my putting it up during football season helps the Patriots win). I am not sure if I am pleased or abashed that the most important things in my life can fit into an economy rent-a-car from Dollar Budget. But they can and they did, as my neighborhood went into voluntary evacuation this weekend.

It is often said as a frosting statement that it is our human and animal friends and family that matter, that as long as we all come through alive, the things don't matter that much. But it's not frosting, it's truth. As I was looking around my room, packing, what I was most concerned about were all of my family and friends and animal buddies in evacuation. I thought of people I haven't talked to in a long time, people with horses stabled in the hills, people who might not have cars or the means to leave Santa Barbara, I thought about the homeless people on State Street with their dogs, the people on the bus who either couldn't afford masks or weren't aware they should be wearing them. It is in moments of disaster that we suddenly evaluate our community in less selfish terms, that we realize how vulnerable we are, how much we need one another.

Evacuating, driving down the 101, my two cats riding shotgun, flooring it past a tidal wave of smoke coming from the mountains, my heart sore at the sight of so much destroyed landscape, what I felt in equal measure was adrenaline and gratitude. Adrenaline for obvious reasons. Fire is scary. Gratitude for those friends and family who made it so clear to me that I had a ride if I needed one, and a sofa to sleep on if I needed one, and the sense that no matter what happens with the Thomas Fire, we will find a way to put ourselves back together. Especially grateful that family in L.A. made room for me and my cats and welcomed me, oh, 8 days early for Christmas. Grateful for fresh air. Grateful for green trees and flowers. Grateful for safe haven. Because not everyone finds that when they need it.
Sitting now from a safe distance in Los Angeles, aware that for those who lose their houses, this fire is a literal meditation on destruction, I ask myself, what in my personal life has gone to ashes, what in this country has gone to ashes? What might spring from those ashes, phoenix-like, with directed enough vision? I take heart from the fact that the year of the Fire Rooster will be done in February, that the coming year is the year of the Earth Dog. Earth dog. I like the sound of that.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

NaNo WriMo: Done and Doner!

The holidays always bring a certain kind of stress. You're cooking things you don't normally cook, hanging out with relatives you don't normally hang out with. Possibly you are hiding from relatives that you refuse to hang out with at all. There is the expectation of what the day should be, the reality of what it is, and then the mixed feelings when it's gone. Somehow, one little dinner manages to take up a week of preparation and then a week to recover. It's not necessarily convenient to say, "Um, excuse me. Y'all keep fighting over the drumsticks. I'm going to my room to write; I have to reach my word count today."

I personally got very little written the week of Thanksgiving. But we did have a Friendsgiving on the Sunday after T-day. We brought our leftovers and laptops and did writing sprints, then sat down to a nice dinner together. I managed to write 50,000 words in the first two weeks of NaNo, and then only 12,000 in the two weeks after that. So I ended November with 62,000 words, or 2/3 of a rough draft. This confirms my hope that with a detailed outline, I can write at a fair clip. But it also tells me that life sometimes gets in the way of writing goals, and that's okay. The trick is to keep going. Because novel writing is an endurance sport not a sprint. NaNo gives you the title of "winner" if you write 50k words in November.  I think anyone who opens their laptop and puts some words of a story down is a winner. So whether you sailed through NaNo with a monsoon of words raining down, or you got one chapter done, congratulations to all who participated.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

NaNoWriMo: Halfway there!

November is one of my favorite months. Not just because it's book-ended with Halloween and Thanksgiving, but because it is National Novel Writing Month (or NanoWriMo...or to the very lazy, like me, just NaNo.) The idea is simple. One month of writing, with a goal of 50,000 words written. It doesn't matter if they're crappy words or if you write the same word 50,000 times. The idea is to keep writing and hopefully get a good portion of your novel done. To go with this there are Municipal Liaisons (ML's) in your area who are planning write-in events, where people show up, have a few snacks and then spend several hours ignoring each other as they furiously type on their laptops. It's like the Olympics for writers.

This year, we had our kick-off on Halloween at midnight. Usually this is a big party, with everyone in costume, with much fun and frosty beverages leading up to the witching hour. At the stroke of 12, we snap open our laptops and start writing to much cheering. But never did the course of true fiction run smooth. This year, the 31st fell on a Tuesday, and the hotel where the event was held neglected to tell us that the entire lobby would be sectioned off for construction and that not only would it be nearly impossible to reach the place where we were writing, but the AC wouldn't be working and it would be nearly Arctic at the hotel bar. So, instead of a gala event with a ton of writers, it was...well, it was six of us, two of whom were obligated by their title of ML to be there, one of whom by title of "husband" was obligated to be there. One of us was medicated to fend off a migraine, another of us was soon to be struck low by g.i. difficulties. By the time midnight rolled around, only four were left, and one of us was desperately drinking hot tea to avoid hypothermia, another was shortly to fall asleep...and I was trying really hard not to smear my black lipstick on all of the cookies I'd been eating to stave off the open breeze coming in through the lobby.

Halloween treats this year were shortbread cookies and rice crispy treats. 

The "bat lips" were the result of a YouTube makeup tutorial gone wrong, but still rather appropriate for a "ghastly" look. 

But I was ready and excited, and as soon as it turned midnight, I typed "Chapter 1" on my word document. What a thrill that is to me. After working for the last 5 years on building an entire world of characters, and writing and rewriting my first novel, doing all of the nitty gritty un-fun "finish this dang thing" work that comes at the end of the novel, nearly abandoning hope as the first two agents I talked to rejected it, rewriting it some more, and now, at last, close to being able to call Novel 1 finished, it was a complete and utter joy to write "Chapter 1" on the screen and contemplate a new story. This Word Witch lasted about 500 words, and then we all slapped our laptops shut and scuttled off to cars with heaters, ready to go home.

NaNoWriMo Oct 31 Survivors!

I am excited about NaNo in part because this is an experiment. For September and October I did not write a single drop of fiction. I only wrote an outline for Novel 2. A really extensive 15-page outline. I forced myself to think through the plot points that I would normally put off until later because who wants to think about the antagonist's motives or how the hero is going to defeat him? But this time I made myself figure out the entire plot ahead of time. The experiment is this: knowing the characters and the world already, with a detailed outline, and the decks cleared to allow for writing time in November, can I write a book in a month? Instead of taking 5 years.

This is what NaNo looks like. A ton of shot of my laptop and coffee and chocolate!

Well, it's Day 8 of NaNo and I'm at 25,300 words. A normal novel is about 90,000 words. I am averaging 4,000 words a day....except for those two days that I made the mistake of going back to edit my work and research 19th century underwear. But if I just write, and don't allow myself to double back and "fix" what I've written, if I just give myself the pure joy of creating, I can happily finish a rough draft of this novel by December 1. Of course, it will then take me a while to polish that rough draft into shape, get feedback from my critique group, and rewrite it into final draft shape. But what if, given that I started the outline in September 2017, I can have this thing fully polished and ready to publish by September 2018?

Why do I care about the timeline so much? The answer is that I did some math. I'm in my mid-40s now. Let's say I am writing for another 30 years. Let's say it takes me 5 years a novel. That's 6 novels in a lifetime. At present, I've already mapped out 5 novels in this fictional world I've created. And there are other worlds I'd like to create, other characters that I want to bring to life. I simply can't afford to spend 5 years on a single book. I have to get my writing process down to a year for a novel...a really good novel, because it goes without saying that I would never knowingly publish something that is crap. So, good writing, a book a year. That's what I'm going for, and NaNo is the fuel to get the rough draft finished. Plus, it's fun. Plus, there are donuts! What's not to love?

If you're interested in NaNoWriMo, you can visit their website here. They're non-profit and funded by donations, and people participate from all over the world. If you're thinking about starting your first novel or you on Novel #21, I encourage you to join the fun.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Food & Home: Summer Issue is Out!

Nothing thrills me as much as writing about food and seeing it in print. This issue of Food & Home, I wrote another edition of "Downtown Dish," my column about eating and living in Santa Barbara.

You might wonder how I ended up with the title "An Ode to Reubens and Rattlesnake Bratwursts"! The answer is that I had a delicious day taste testing the sandwiches at Three Pickles and then a wild dinner at the Brat Haus, a beer and brat restaurant with some inventive dishes.

If you'd like to read the article, it's available free online here.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Messy Magnificent Mesa Burger: Cat Cora Slays the Veggie Burger

This is a veggie burger!

If you've seen the show Iron Chef, you know Cat Cora as the nerves-of-steel chef who brings a Greek twist to her comfort food. I would expect her to open a restaurant in L.A. or Las Vegas, not a burger joint on the Mesa here in Santa Barbara. But am I glad she did!

I am not your normal burger customer, being largely vegetarian. How to put this delicately... I have eaten desiccated, oaty, blasphemously awful veggie burgers up and down this coast and all around this globe. They invariably come with wheat buns, sprouts, and low-fat mayo. Not juicy, not even vaguely edible. What I hate most as a foodie is seeing a perfunctory veggie thing on the menu, ordering it, and finding that someone smeared some hummus on a grilled pepper and called it done. There's no reason for the veggie entree to suck, but it often does, and my heart breaks a little every time I see a gorgeous menu of super foodie dishes and then the one vegetarian thing I said, hummus and roasted red peppers.

Vegetarian...not kidding!

So I had reason to worry when I bellied up to the bar at Mesa Burger, where the entire point of the place is burgers. My eyes fell on the Shoreline: veggie patty/red pepper hummus/pickled red onions/sprouts/salsa verde. Yes, indeed, my old nemesis Le Hummus with his sidekick Mr. Sprouts. I want my vegan folks to have a good nosh, but for the love of heaven, do hummus and sprouts belong on a burger of any kind? I sucked in my outrage and ordered a veggie patty subbed into their signature Mesa burger with house-made pickles, thousand island, and a brioche bun with a side of fries.

The veggie burger came and was actually thicker and more burgerish than the beef burger that my buddy ordered. I took a big ol' bite of deliciousness...and, convinced that I'd accidentally been given a meat burger, I proceeded to spit it out, making little sputtering noises. Until my buddy took a taste for me, and along with the manager, assured me this was not meat. Its texture was a dead ringer, juicy and fatty, and frickin' delicious!

I definitely recommend a visit to Mesa Burger. Be sure to save room for dessert though. Cat Cora features McConnell's in ice-cream sandwiches and delicious root-beer floats!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tiki Redemption: Enter the Blue Hawaiian

Enter the Blue Hawaiian. The Cadillac of Tiki drinks, beckoning with its blue glow. My favorite beverage: a mix of rum, blue curacao, and pineapple juice blended with coconut cream. However, blending drinks during a party sounds like a recipe for the guests to end up wearing Blue Hawaiians rather than drinking them. So, I went with a non-blended version that sneaks around coconut cream by using Malibu coconut rum (elixir of the budget-friendly gods).

Here's what went down at ye ol' Tiki party:
1 part each of Malibu coconut rum, vodka, blue curacao, and sweet/sour mix
3 parts pineapple juice

While you can buy a bottle of MEDIOCRITY in the form of a sweet/sour mix, it's amazing when you make it fresh. Melt 1 cup granulated sugar into 1 cup water (30 seconds or so in the microwave). Then add 1 cup fresh lime juice and 1 cup fresh lemon juice. It's the difference between something that tastes like chemical byproducts and an amazing cocktail. Be warned though, this drink doesn't taste overly alcoholic, but that ninja vodka amps up the boozy woozy factor.

As they say, woman does not live on Blue Hawaiian's alone. Not even if she is stranded on a tropical island! No, she must have pineapple upside-down cake! Not just one variety, but two. Because no party around here is complete without going overboard on a theme. First, we made pineapple cream cupcakes. The First Lady of Frosting had the good idea to put a cherry and pineapple chunks at the bottom of each cupcake, and I have to say, it *made* the cupcake...that and the decorations. Little Tiki umbrellas perched like hats above the cupcakes.

Second was Trisha Yearwood's upside-down pineapple cake. Her recipe calls for nine pineapple rings arranged in an 8x8 brownie pan...we were only able to fit four whole rings and then some halves. We speculate that you might have to cut out a chunk of each ring and squish it in to make it fit. Although I did briefly think, "Trisha Yearwood, you lying so-and-so," I continued on with the recipe. The result was decent. A nice vanilla flavor (because I put in triple the vanilla) in a fluffy cake, with caramelized pineapple on top. I have to say, there is farther to go in the matter of pineapple desserts. Although the cake and cupcakes filled their social obligations nicely, I was not transported to pineapple heaven. I am seriously considering using fresh pineapple rather than the canned stuff next time. Maybe lacing it with some Malibu rum...

A word on maraschino cherries. Examine the bottles carefully. We had three different varieties. One bottle was natural (no dyes, so rather muted in color) and did well enough in the baked goods. The second bottle was comprised of plump gleaming ruby red cherries so chemically altered as to be unrecognizable in their origins. The third bottle...the third bottle had squished cherries that looked like the fruit equivalent of shrunken heads. They were too ugly to put on a toothpick, that is certain. All I am saying is that the cherry on the sundae is no benefit if it looks like the withered eye of a drunken pirate.

So, Blue Hawaiians and pineapple upside-down cake were had, along with potato salad, deviled eggs, Menehume punch, artichokes grilled with garlic oil and dipped in lemon-pepper mayo, and rainbow fruit skewers! The fruit skewers (idea from Pinterest) were a big hit, and it is fortunate that the FLOF assembled them, as I would've ended up with fruity "acupuncture" trying to handle the wood skewers! I actually think this idea would be neat to play with on other occasions (raspberries, blueberries, and baby marshmallows for fourth of July?)

You might be wondering, what to wear to a Tiki party. A Hawaiian shirt? Perhaps a grass skirt? A coconut bra, if you're feisty? Sure, all of the above. The essence of Tiki is flip-flops and beachwear. Unless, of course, you are me. Then Tiki requires a hot-glue-gun extravaganza. Because I have things in my craft drawer and I have hands and I literally cannot stop myself. Four blue coasters, a pair of mermaid leggings and a blue fishing net, a bunch of blue beads, and two balls of discount yarn, and....well...things happened. Mermaidy things. Mermaid-ish, I should say, as I in no way resembled something that ever came from the sea. From the catfish nebula, maybe. The FLOF did her best with the mermaid gear but overheated early on. The result I am going to call pineapple chic. Catfish crochet and pineapple chic. So goes the glory of Tiki. Well, once you've had a blue Hawaiian or two, nobody cares what you're wearing anyway! Isn't the whole point to have fun?

Wither Silver Webb after this consummate Tiki victory? A good question. I'll be veering toward the Chinese side of Tiki. Although some Tiki restaurants make a try at Polynesian food or Hawaiian food, one of the best ol'-fashioned 1950s standbys is Chinese food and Tiki drinks. You know, egg rolls and Mai-Tais, Kungpao chicken and hurricanes. The stuff of eating legend. I'd like to learn how to make a good kungpao sauce, a good Sichuan sauce, and maybe even figure out how to make those fried won-ton wrappers with red sauce and mustard. Possibly served with a Zombie or a Fog Cutter?