Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Muddling into the New Year

It's cold outside but every day we walk the dogs. 

Not a routine, my daughter tells me. A ritual. Doesn't that sound nicer? We are all about rituals around here lately. Weekly zoom dinner meet-ups with friends. Funny TV shows at night squished up together on the couch (for the record, we are watching Derry Girls and it is very good). Christmas passed

and I only nearly cried once. It happened in the kitchen when I was making Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon and listening to Judy Garland's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and even though I've heard the song a million times, apparently I've never really heard it before, because when she said

Someday soon we all will be together

if the fates allow

until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow

I almost lost it, thinking about how it was the first Christmas in 27 years that my son wasn't home with us and we didn't have a full house of people and instead we had a zoom call with everyone, which was nice, but not exactly the same, and my in-laws in Nashville couldn't get online because they had no wi-fi because of the suicide bomber. Excuse me, the "Intentional Explosion set off by the lone-wolf-disgruntled-white-guy." But we didn't know that then. We just knew that none of our calls were going through. 

The meal smelled heavenly and Judy Garland's voice was breaking and two of my friends recently were diagnosed with Covid and a few weeks ago I mailed my son his stocking, the precious handmade one sewn by my mom, risking a trip to the P.O. to send it off and realizing only after I sent it, that I'd probably never see it again, 

and how are we all supposed to muddle through somehow? My daughter, home now since May, her adult life in a state of suspended animation but doing a decent job of modeling muddling, all things considered, gave me a book about Hygge, 

which I pronounce Hi-Ghee, but is actually supposed to sound more like Hue-Gah, because it's Danish. Hue-Gah, from what I gleaned from the book, is a life-style-ish custom in Denmark that's all about comfort and coziness and involves wearing warm socks, drinking hot cocoa, tossing blankets around and lighting candles. 

Also, the Danes bike everywhere and park their kids in strollers outside cafes and eat pastries and love their jobs and pay high taxes, but get in return, free health care and free college and everyone reads books under the blanket tents they've erected in their candlelit living spaces. 

Which now that I think about it, seems like a fire hazard. My friends who have Covid are doing okay and my in-laws have phone service again and my son sent me a picture of his baby-hood stocking hanging on the wall in his apartment two thousand miles away.  

The Beef Bourguignon was good and I'm not just saying that. My daughter's boyfriend, who is also suspended-ly animated with us since October, said so too, and I take this as a great compliment because he grew up in France, where beef (pronounced bif) bourguignon was served in the school cafeteria. 

On Christmas Eve it snowed and the four of us (me-husband-daughter-boyfriend) bundled up hue-gah-style and went out into the dark silent night with the dogs, the snow swirling on the quiet streets, the Christmas lights on the houses twinkling so brightly you could almost forget the pandemic and the friends who are dear to us miles away. Our hearts were light. 

all of our troubles, for the moment, 

out of sight. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Nine Good Books

This has been a strange year of reading, many of the books tied up with what was going on in the world--with the pandemic and marches for racial justice--a year of reading books to make sense of things, 

and books to try to escape it all. 

Audio books that I listened to while painting rooms in our new-old house and/or remaking the entire yard, which will forever now be associated with those projects, as well as the books I read when I was resting between projects and parked out on our newly refurbished front porch or at the cabin we went to after the lockdown lifted. 

A lot of these books are a blur now. 

For example, I read three 700+ page books about the End of the World and I'm sure these books were good, but I can't tell you a thing about them except they were about the End of the World. Side note: I do think it's weird that I would've wanted to read books about the end of the world when it felt, and still sorta feels like we're living in very precarious times, but all I can say is there's hope in reading about the end of the world, because in the books at least, there are always a few decent people left to tell the story. 

(For the record, the books were: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, The Passage by Justin Cronin, and Under the Dome by Stephen King) 

Some of the books that were not a blur and which I highly recommend:  

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister, which made me good and mad and also made me realize that I, who always thought of myself as a feminist, knew very little about the women's movement in America-- who led it, who gets credit for it (nearly always white women) and who doesn't (nearly always Black women) and why it was (and still is) so necessary, 

which led me to discover: 

Women, Race and Class by Angela V. Davis, an illuminating and upsetting collection of essays written in the 1970's about women, race, and class--illuminating, because these essays are brilliant and thought-provoking; and upsetting, because they could've been written today, as all of the issues touched upon are still with us and maddeningly so.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Fascinating and absorbing true story about the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, but also about the history of public libraries, about books and community and rebuilding. (This book kept me going when I was newly furloughed from my job at the library and spending the excruciatingly endless and depressing days scraping the paint off the garage.)  

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Some books plunge you into a world so fully and completely that the actual world disappears and you find yourself no longer swinging on a porch swing but barreling down a highway in Mississippi in the backseat of a car with a ghost on the way to a prison and it's sweltering hot and sad and scary but also, ultimately, hopeful and redemptive.  

The Great Influenza by John Barry. Everything you want to know about the global pandemic in 1918--how it started, how it spread, how the medical community at the time tried to combat it and how many of the politicians screwed everything up and made it worse. 

Fun/sad fact: there were infantile selfish anti-maskers back in 1918 too.  

Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of the World by Ben Ehrenreich. I loved this book and even though it is about the various ways that civilizations topple and the lone voices left behind who are often extinguished and forgotten, it will always make me feel comforted and less alone. 

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by TaNehisi Coates. I picked this one up because I thought, (erroneously), that because it was about the Obama presidency, it would be hopeful and give me a nice dose of nostalgia for better days... and it was about the Obama presidency, but it was much more complicated than that. I promise if you approach this book with an open mind, you will never look at America the same way again-- not in a bad way, necessarily, but much more honestly and clear-eyed, and yes, possibly, with hope. 

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. I listened to this as an audio and the voice, which is deadpan and soft and Southern, pulled me in and under its spell from the very first page. The premise: a woman is asked by an old friend to babysit two children. The twist: the two children occasionally burst into flames. 

Okay, I know this is weird. But trust me: check the audio book out of your library, now. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book is the very opposite of little, clocking in at over 700 pages, detailed and meticulous and expansive, covering a thirty year period in the lives of four friends. It's been on my reading list for several years, mostly out of curiosity (A voracious reader friend of mine called it the saddest book she has ever read. Another told me that reading it was like taking a long journey.) And oh man, what a journey it is.  

This is the story of a broken man, the victim of horrific child abuse, who doesn't believe he is worthy of love, but over that thirty year period, his circle of friends, his people, continually works to prove him wrong. 

There's darkness here, and cruelty, hatred and evil. But there is so much love at the core. And a good reminder at the end of this very strange, and in many ways, lost year, what is most important in all of our little lives. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Writing at the edge of the world

I was going to write about how hard it is to start a book in the middle of a pandemic. The work involved, the thought, the focus, when I am feeling everything but focused. The tricks I have to play on myself to sit down and get to work each day. Turned over hourglasses and candles burning and numerous cups of tea. Noise blocking headphones and chocolate rewards. Nevermind the editor voice in my head

hissing about how dumb this idea is and every sentence a block of clunky words to shift around and labor over. Plus, there's the whole Why Are You Even Bothering voice, reminding me that I'm past my prime and the world's gone to shit and why are you so privileged to be a person who can write novels, maybe you should hang it all up and be a florist. Because who even reads books anymore

and how can anyone write while the world is transforming, collapsing? What will stories even look like after? How will we write about crowds or indoor dining or bare faces or in-person school or holiday gatherings ever again without acknowledging our collective trauma? 

We can't. Our stories will be different, just as we are different. But I don't want to write about any of this. What I want to write about is hope

because what else do you call the act of beginning something new in a time like this, in any time, really.

It means that you believe that you will make it through, that you still have something left to say, that the world you are creating is worth creating, 

even if it is only for you. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Interview with Shannon Hitchcock and Naheed Senzai, Authors of Flying over Water

My writer friend Shannon Hitchcock has a new book out and I'm so excited for her. I've been a fan of Shannon's work since I read her moving and absorbing novel The Ballad of Jesse Pearl several years ago. Since then Shannon's written two additional middle grade books, a picture book, and now has a contemporary and very timely novel out, co-written with author Naheed Senzai. 

Flying over Water pulled me in from the very first page, as we meet Noura, a Syrian refugee who's moving to Tampa with her family during the very week that the Muslim ban is set to go into effect in the US. Later, we hear from Jordyn, an American girl whose family is helping Noura and her family settle into the community. The book alternates between the two girls, both of whom have secret fears and both grappling with issues many middle schoolers face-- friendship, competition, and fitting in. 

Today, I am thrilled to sit down with both Shannon and Naheed for a behind-the-scenes look at how the book came to be.  

Jody: Where did you get the idea for the book? 

Shannon: I got the initial inspiration for Flying over Water when a friend’s daughter converted to Islam. I started researching the religion, though I wasn’t exactly sure where the journey would take me. Around that same time, I saw a photograph in my minister’s office of a Syrian woman and her young son. They held a sign that said We Are From Syria—Can You Help Us? I started writing a manuscript about a young girl whose church is helping a Syrian refugee family. I wrote an entire first draft from the Christian girl’s point of view, but then I started reading online conversations about #ownvoices-- 

Jody: --This is the movement that promotes marginalized characters being written by marginalized authors--

Shannon: Right. And thinking about that made me realize the manuscript would be more interesting if the Muslim character could speak for herself rather than her story being filtered through the lens of the Christian girl. I decided to seek a co-author, and after reading Escape from Aleppo by Naheed Senzai, asked my agent to reach out to hers.  

Naheed: And I was intrigued by the idea. I read the manuscript and immediately connected with the story of a Syrian girl, Noura, arriving to the United States as a refugee, befriended by an American girl, Jordyn. My previous book, Escape from Aleppo, was about a family fleeing the Syrian war and ending up in a Turkish refugee camp. Noura’s story provided an opportunity to explore what would happen to a such family if they were granted asylum in the United States. 

At that point Shannon and I had a long phone conversation. We got to know each other and discussed how to co-author an engaging and interesting story that incorporated both our ideas. Once the groundwork was laid, we got busy writing Flying over Water.

Jody: I'm wondering how co-authoring works exactly. Did you write your character's scenes separately and pass back and forth or was there more collaboration involved? 

Naheed: A bit of both. We decided to write in alternating chapters, beginning with Noura arriving in Tampa on the day of President Trump’s Muslim ban. We brainstormed and created a timeline of the story then plotted out the manuscript using Google docs. Once we agreed on plot, we wrote our respective chapters and passed them back and forth via email. One advantage to having a co-author is having a built-in critique partner. We also had weekly telephone calls. 

Jody: And this worked throughout the revision process too? 

Naheed: It did. Revision actually was pretty simple. We talked out the feedback we'd received to make sure we were on the same page, and then we each made the changes that applied to the chapters we had written. 

Jody: You mentioned Trump's Muslim ban... the book also delves into anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, using examples of real-life hate crimes from the news. What are your thoughts on writing a story set in a particular, very recent and fraught moment in history? 

Shannon: Both of us avidly follow politics so writing about the current political climate was a natural fit.

Naheed: And I’ve been lucky to travel and live around the world, particularly the Middle East. Also, my husband is a professor of Middle East politics so we have lively discussions on the region, its legacy of colonialism, wars, religions, people and of course its wonderful food. A core element of Flying over Water is to highlight how young people can become positive agents of change by engaging in civic and political action.  

Jody: This is something I really loved about the book--how these middle school aged kids are affected by world events and how they respond, especially considering how different Noura and Jordyn are on the surface. 

Naheed: On the surface, yes. They come from very different backgrounds, but they find out they have a lot in common. When faced with challenges such as xenophobia and intolerance, they band together with other students to fight for their rights as afforded by the constitution and its amendments. 

Jody: This is another aspect I liked about the book, how you've woven in elements of history and civics. I used to teach middle school students and I can see this story being discussed in classrooms. Have you gotten any responses yet from teachers?

Shannon: Since our book was just published on October 20th, we're still getting the word out. We had our first joint virtual school visit on November 19th, and Scholastic videotaped us for The Nerdy Book Club Roundtable that was part of the National Council of Teachers of English. 

Naheed: We have gotten quite a few nuanced and thoughtful reviews; I will quote an educator, who said: "Narrated in alternating chapters by the two seventh grade girls, FLYING OVER WATER is a powerful, uplifting, and eye-opening tale. In addition to Trump, a number of other real people and events from the Spring of 2017 are part of the story."

Jody: The book definitely seems to be striking a chord. I just read that Kirkus listed it as one of their favorite middle grade books of 2020. Congratulations! Before I let you both go, what are each of you working on now? 

Naheed: I am currently working on a picture book. 

Shannon: I am at work on an Appalachian trilogy of picture books. The first Saving Granddaddy’s Stories—Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia published on October 22nd and the next book, She Sang for the Mountains—Jean Ritchie, Singer, Songwriter, Activist will be published next year. 

Jody: I'm very excited to check these out! 

For more information about Naheed Senzai and Shannon Hitchcock:

Naheed Senzai at www.nhsenzai.com 

Shannon Hitchcock at www.shannonhitchcock.com

And to purchase some of their books: 

Flying over Water

Escape from Aleppo

Saving Granddaddy's Stories

Monday, November 30, 2020

Top ten things I'm thankful for

1. the drumstick-less/one-winged turkey, ordered from the farmer's market and arriving from the processor looking like a frankenstein-gaping-holes-in-the-sides horror show, but which turned out to be surprisingly tasty and gave my friends and family on social media a laugh on Thanksgiving morning. 

2. lights on my neighbors' houses

3. marigold seeds

4. this dumb game that my daughter loves and I don't really like it but I play it with her anyway and now I sort of like playing it after all.

5. digital puzzles on my library's website  because they are addictive and meditative and there are no pieces to turn over or drop off the table.

6. everybody has matching Christmas sloth pajamas

7. s'mores around the fire pit

8. My best friend has a best seller! 

9. My doggie

10. my job at the library where I get to have fun conversations about books with people through a window, six feet apart and through masks, except for this one day when an elderly lady wandered up, maskless, looking confused and asked me if she could ask me a question. 

Of course, I said, staring uncomfortably at her bare face.

Because sometimes I don't always know what's going on, she said, And I want to. I want to pay more attention, I want to know what things are and be more in the present moment, you know what I mean?

(Well, we're in the middle of a global pandemic and you're supposed to be wearing a mask), I didn't say, nodding. What's your question?

What kind of tree is this behind me?

I told her I didn't know and I gave her one of the Identification of Trees in the Park handouts we have and she wandered off, curiously and at the same time cluelessly, and it hit me that this is me, this is all of us, and I just hope she makes it through unscathed, 

that I do,

and that you do, too.  

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Yesterday I drove past the hospital

the sky was gray going to black and I was listening to the end of the audiobook, We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

As always, when I drive by the hospital (it's my usual route home from the library where I work) I think of the night my husband had a kidney stone, but we didn't know yet that was why he was in so much pain, and because we are in the middle of a pandemic, I had to drive him to the emergency entrance and basically dump him out of the car and watch him stagger inside alone. 

Most nights, when I drive by the hospital and look over at the emergency room entrance, there are only a few cars pulling up to let people out, but last night the cars were lined up, two deep. We Were Eight Years in Power was reaching its conclusion, Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking louder and more forcefully. 

The book is a collection of essays he wrote during the Obama presidency. It's also about the racial injustice and inequality that's been pretty much baked into our country since before its founding. The cars were lined up outside the hospital emergency room, I suspect, because the virus is running rampant in our state. A couple of weeks ago we were at 3000 new cases per day. Now we're at 8000 and rising. A doctor from the Cleveland Clinic was on the news begging people to stay home. Last spring his hospital sent doctors to New York during their nightmarish spike. But now, he said, no one will come to save us. 

The traffic light turned red, the cars still streaming toward the emergency room, Ta-Nehisi Coates's voice still rising. 

And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the pussy into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.” 

Green light, and I left the hospital behind. I turned down my street. The Starbucks on the corner, the Starbucks that always has a line spilling out onto the road, was dark. Closed. 

Too many workers home sick now to keep it open. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The last time it was Friday the 13th

was March

and I went to work at the library. It was the day before the lockdown in our state. Only for two weeks, the governor said, just to calm things down. Which was weird because we only had four confirmed cases of Covid, but we at the library were going with the flow. Helping the mass of people streaming in to check out books and movies. Something to pass the time during quarantine. 

That was the last time I was in a crowd.

Flash forward eight months, and our library branch doesn't allow people inside the building. Now we help patrons at our walk-up window. Talk through our masks. Slide books and movies through the slot along a six foot long board, positioned there to keep us at a distance. 

November 13 Ohio had its highest number of new cases in one day: 8,071. And 40 people died. There's a fear we'll have to lock down again. But kids are playing in the park. People are walking their dogs. That's a thing I've learned about this slow-moving tragedy. How easily most of us have adapted.  

March 13 my husband and I didn't have any hand sanitizer in our house. Except for a couple of n95 masks bought for a painting project, we didn't own face masks. We had one nine-pack of toilet paper tucked under the bathroom sink. I didn't know what Zoom was. 

November 13 and we have hand sanitizer and masks scattered all over the place. I can't stop buying packs of toilet paper. We're planning a Zoom Thanksgiving. Our daughter is helping us set up the link. 

March 13 she was living on her own in London, going to grad school, planning for a summer of travel across Europe. Now she's living at home, back since May. She finished up her dissertation in her bedroom. Spent her summer helping me in the garden.

Now the weather's turned cold. Outside at night you can smell the smoke from neighborhood firepits. We set ours up in the center of our driveway, spaced the chairs a safe distance apart. This is a lost year, I've heard people say. We're all itching to go back to normal. But sometimes, sitting around the fire with friends, 

it feels like we have already made it through. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

This is not about the election

But it's about a different election, 20 million years ago when I was a young mom, home with my two little kids and we didn't have cable TV and of course there was no social media to be addicted to, but still, I somewhat followed the news, and the news was that on election night, there would be a winner declared. 

I told my son this news very confidently and he believed me because my word was gospel to him and the only time he even came close to doubting me was that time he ran across the backyard barefoot and got stung by a bee and screamed at the top of his lungs, in pain, but more, I think, because he was enraged at me because I'd told him not to be afraid of bees, that bees would only hurt you if you hurt them.

While I tried to treat the bee sting, he screamed that I'd lied to him and he DID NOT HURT THAT BEE! And I told him that Okay, true, he hadn't hurt the bee on purpose, but he had, in fact, stepped on the bee and even if that was by accident, the bee didn't know it and was now dead. 

Which probably really hurt.

All was forgiven at that point and I was back in my son's good graces and a fount of trust and wisdom for him again, until--

Election Night. 

That night my son's first grade teacher had given the class a US Map so they could color the states red or blue and an assignment to create an election booklet, which would include pictures of each candidate and a little write up about each one, with the last page showing a picture of the winner.  

My son stayed up watching TV long after his bedtime and most of the states were colored in, but Florida was looking iffy, with some TV stations calling it for one candidate but then backtracking, which was all very confusing and my son was getting upset about what to do with his blue and red crayons.


I promised him he would know in the morning. 

Dear reader, do I need to tell you that the tears of outrage and betrayal the next day greatly surpassed those of the Bee Sting Incident? 

That problem was fairly easy for me to solve for my son: Put both of the candidate's pictures on the last page.  

But it was not easy for everyone else and twenty million years later, with many of the same people in THIS election involved in THAT election (SEE KAVANAUGH. SEE AMY CONEY BARRETT, both lawyers advising Bush's team when his BROTHER the governor of Florida and the Supreme Court stopped the recount with Bush 537 votes ahead--giving him the state and therefore the election) which at the time I wasn't as outraged about as I should've been,

probably because I was a young mom with little kids at home and it was simpler and infinitely more comforting for me to believe that the people in charge had our country's best interests at heart and would never knowingly deceive us by putting power and party over country,

but yeah, 

So I was wrong.


Saturday, October 31, 2020

Existential Crisis with a Serving of Oreo Cookie Brownies

Typically, I am not a person who buys Oreos. 

When the kids were little, I wouldn't let them eat them. Something about the partially hydrogenated fat and/or the high fructose corn syrup. I don't even remember now but it was important to me at the time, so in our home we only served the supposedly more nutritious Paul Newman brand called Newmanos. My kids, I figured, would never know the difference. 

(Side note: when my son was in fourth or fifth grade, he came home all excited from a birthday party and asked me if I'd ever heard of this much better tasting Newmano cookie called an Oreo.)

Anyway, the other day I bought a package of Oreos so my daughter and I could make a recipe with some friends. We've been doing this thing where we alternate choosing a recipe and do a facetime-bake together. This week our kitchen smelled like a candy store and I ate my fill of Oreos--partially hydrogenated fat and/or high fructose corn syrup be damned. 

I mean, really. Who cares. 

We are moving through uncharted, inevitably rising, waters. 

My son, who still probably gorges on Oreos because of the deprivation of his childhood, shared a link to an article with me back in March, the gist of which is about how we've lost the narrative thread and without a narrative thread, we can't make sense of what the hell is happening. Remember the morning of 9/11 when the planes crashed into the towers and the newscasters could only express horror in real time? 

That's like now, except the Global-Pandemic/Shit-show-Presidency/Long-Overdue-Collapse-of-White-Supremacy/Looming-Climate-Change-Disaster is still unfolding. Basically, the towers have been falling in slow motion for eight months and there is no end in sight.  

In the meantime I signed up our family for a Cooking-with-a-Chef fundraiser program run by a local urban farm. I didn't even know this place existed, but it's an actual working farm smack in the middle of an economically depressed area near downtown Columbus in what's known as a Food Desert. (My daughter corrects me to say that we should actually refer to these areas where there are no supermarkets/places to buy affordable, nutritious food as: Food Apartheids, because that implies a purposeful, systematic problem and not something that just kinda happened, like a desert.) 

Franklinton Farms has been operating for thirteen years. They distribute food to families in the community and help people start their own gardens and a do host of other cool things, and last night they had a virtual program to raise money that featured Chef Del Sroufe (best-selling author of Forks over Knives: The Cookbook). 

We were not using Oreos (or Newmanos) as an ingredient. My daughter and I went downtown to pick up the bags of farm-grown produce and then we had a blast putting together the meal with the chef and all of the other people who signed up for the fundraiser. 

For the record we were making Black Bean Sweet Potato Enchiladas with Sweet Potato Cashew Cream and a side salad of Wilted Kale. Before the program started my daughter and I prepped all of the ingredients and were feeling very proud of ourselves as the chef began his cooking lesson by slowly peeling a sweet potato. Not that this was a competition, but we were so much further ahead of the people who were just unpacking their produce bags. 

But then suddenly we were rushing around smoking our spices and blender-ing our cashew mixture sauce and lemon zesting our kale and cracking up at the comments, that one poor soul saying, Wait, I'm still peeling my potato, what's this about spices? and someone else, Help! I don't have a third pan!

The dinner was good. 

Maybe not oreo cookie brownie good, but filling and warm and it was nice to sit down and eat it together. 

We can’t see the way ahead. We have no narrative except for what we do now, this moment, the Oreos we line up in rows on our brownies and the lemon zest we toss on our wilting kale. The people we love around our table 

or far away and smiling at us through our glowing screens. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Never-ending newsiness of the news

I shut it off for a while today. Put my phone down. Went out into the dying garden. Pulled weeds and yanked up old puckery beets and cut some not-yet-dried-up flowers. But now I don't know what to do with the rest of the dying stuff. The blackening Black-eyed-Susans and the crusty coneflowers and sedum and the purply thing that I finally figured out is called aster. 

There's a big push in my online neighborhood gardening group to leave plants where they are in the fall instead of cutting everything back. Wait until spring, is the new best practice, at least in my hippie dippie neighborhood. Something about the birds needing seeds to feed on in winter and decomposing leaves being good for the soil. Also, don't even think about raking the leaves in your yard.   

Although, there is some dispute about that. 

I'll rake if I want to! someone in the group comments.  

Someone else jumps in to admonish them: Fine, go ahead and destroy the monarch butterfly's natural habitat! 

Over in another online group people are arguing about Halloween (give out candy? during a Pandemic? Are you nuts?) about masks, football, hybrid school models, travel, holiday get-togethers-- But that's nothing compared to the heat of the political arguments. 

I read a book a few years ago about a boy who could hear what everyone in his town was thinking, including his dog. All day, every day, he couldn't turn it off, the endless overlapping stream of interior monologues--hopes fears dreams hatreds--

It's brilliant how the author shows this on the page 

The book is called The Knife of Letting Go and the author Patrick Ness said in an interview that he was inspired by the internet. 

It feels like that in my head sometimes. Clatter. Shouting. On particularly bad days, it's my own voice arguing with people I don't know, my mind zinging with outrage about whatever the latest thing is that is outraging. Which is to say, Everything.

I want to turn it off and just Not Know what's going on for a month, a week, a day, an hour. But this feels like a sisyphean task. I mean, isn't it in our DNA to seek out information? Look at those people in the black and white photos, gathered around their radios so they could hear about the war, the impending hurricane, the Hindenburg bursting into flames. 

Of course those people's radios didn't ping them with continual news alerts.   

(Look how happy these people are! 
It's because their giant radio is too big to stick in their back pockets!)

I don't remember what happens in the book. I think the boy meets a girl whose thoughts he can't hear. Just being around her in this new kind of silence, not knowing what she's thinking, is blissful.  

I crave that kind of quiet. 

I finish up in the garden without looking at my phone once. I leave the dying plants where they are. I actually kind of love it. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Five Questions for Natalie D. Richards (author of Five Total Strangers) Plus: a chance to win a signed copy!

Did you ever have a nightmare where you're trapped somewhere and everyone around you is a stranger? Maybe you're in a car. And you can't find your phone or your wallet. You need to get home because someone you love is in danger. But there's a blizzard and the cars ahead of you are spinning out on the interstate. 

Oh, and someone in the car might be a psychopath. 

This is the world we live in now. That, or it's a Natalie D. Richards' book. Not bragging (okay, I am totally bragging) but Natalie is my critique partner, so I got to see her latest book (out now! Buy it here! Or check it out from your local library! Or stay tuned for a chance to win a free copy!) as it progressed from kernel of an idea to hot-off-the-press lovely glossy book. 

It's not easy to write a book, even when you're a master of suspense, like Natalie is, with six previous published books under your belt. I sat down (virtually) with her the other day to ask her to walk me through the sometimes bumpy ride of writing Five Total Strangers.

Me: Take us back to the beginning. What was the initial idea? 

Natalie: Two ideas, actually. I'd been thinking about times I've been on bad roads, driving in snow or ice, that feeling of suffocation being trapped in a car and watching cars wrecking around you and worrying it's going to happen to you too. And somehow that idea got tangled up with another fear I have, that maybe the people I know aren't who I think they are. 

Me: It's so interesting to me how two unrelated ideas can come together like that. You and I talk about this a lot, brainstorming stories and trying to figure out which ones have the most potential. I know you discard more ideas than you keep, so what makes a keeper? What turns a potentially cool idea into a book you want to write?

Natalie: One thing I always do before I start a project is write out what I think would appear on the back of the book. How can I draw readers in? What would make me buy this book? I write two or three paragraphs and it quickly becomes clear which ideas have merit and which ones just aren't strong enough. I don't waste my time with those, that's for sure. 

Me: Right. Because you have so little time! You're writing under deadline. You're juggling your full-time job and three kids at home. I still don't understand how you manage to squeeze in any writing. What's your time-management secret? 

Natalie: Late nights and lots of coffee! But seriously, I spend a lot of my writing time not actually writing but working through the story in my mind. With Five Total Strangers I had the idea that there'd be a snowstorm and I was thinking about my main character, Mira, and why she would be trapped in that snowstorm. Where was she going? How'd she end up in this car with people she didn't know? Parts of the story click into place-- things like character motivation and ways that I can dial up the tension--before I even write the first sentence. 

Me: I remember reading the first draft of the first chapter and immediately being pulled into the story. It's Mira on a plane and there's this awful, extreme turbulence. It's all so unsettling--the warnings from the captain and the cries from other passengers--and we haven't even landed and begun the actual horrifying journey yet. But there are clues in that scene too-- to the other characters that will eventually be in the car with Mira, to Mira's real fears and reason for needing to get home so badly. How much work goes into setting up a book like this? Are there a lot of false starts and rewrites?

Natalie: It's weird that you mention this because that first draft chapter is very very close to the final published version. This is not typical for me. I usually have to rewrite and rewrite the opening scene. But this one was comparatively easy. On the other hand, all of the rest of process was not so easy. 

I reworked whole chunks of the book, playing with timelines and points-of-view, and I really grappled with those four other characters in the car--what were each of their motivations for being there? What secrets did they keep? Each character felt like a separate book in my head.  

And the setting itself was a challenge. These same five people are in a car for most of the book. There's only so much space to work with, only so much physicality. There can't be running or chasing so I had to find other ways to add suspense. But this is ultimately what makes it scary. 

They're trapped and the nightmare is all around them and coming closer and there's nothing they can do. They're totally powerless. It's basically Corona in a car.

Me: Oh my God, that's true. And you wrote this before the global pandemic! I think you were finishing up the copyedits right before the lockdown in our state. When I read that final draft, I was sucked right back in, rooting for Mira, worrying about her all over again--even though I knew how it would all turn out. This is a scary book, but it's ultimately the good kind of scary because eventually the crazy nightmare ride comes to an end. (Sorry for the spoiler!) 

Which brings me to my final question: Can you write our world now, Natalie? 

Natalie: I would need too much coffee for that.

Me: Ah well, I thought I'd ask. In the meantime, at least we have fun scary books to escape into whenever reality gets a little too real. Okay, I said I'd only ask you five questions, but here's a bonus: Because of the pandemic, you're not able to do your planned book tour, school and bookstore visits and festival book signings. Where can we find you virtually?

Natalie: The usual places: 

Website: NatalieDRichards.com

Instagram: @natdrichards

Twitter: @NatDRichards

Me: Thanks, Natalie! And thank you for offering to sign a copy of Five Total Strangers to give away to one of my lovely On The Verge readers. 

If you, dear reader, would like a chance to win, please leave a comment below. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

We vote

There are hundreds of people already here, shuffling socially distant, the line stretching around three sides of the building when we take our place at the tail end. This looks like a Walking Dead episode, I joke to my husband and our daughter. Something about the backdrop of an old shopping center, the people staggering past in their masks. 

We're moving fast, everything orderly. An hour wait, someone tells us and we're okay with that. This is the only early voting place in our county--potentially for 800,000 people. I am prepared to stand here all day if I have to. In other parts of the country people have waited twelve hours. 

The man behind us is quiet, looking at his phone. The women ahead of us joke and laugh. As we move forward, more people join the line. Old people. Young people. Black and white people. Couples. Families. A mom holding a child's hand. She reminds me of myself years ago, toting my toddlers along to vote. 

Of course, back then we didn't discuss our voting plan, didn't worry about security or the integrity of the ballot. I went to the precinct up the street. There was no line. I didn't give much thought to voting except that it felt like something I should do and so I showed up. My life, other people's lives didn't seem to depend on it. 

This year, we could've gone to my neighborhood precinct on election day, I suppose. But we didn't want to chance it. Clearly other people around here have the same idea. There's a stream of cars pulling into the parking lot. Some are parking. Some are headed toward the one designated absentee ballot drop off box in the county. 

A sign on the wall tells us it's a 45-minute wait from this point. We shuffle on, rounding the corner. Volunteers hand out sample ballots. We take the Democratic ballot. Nearly everyone in line that I can see takes one too.  

We round the next corner. A volunteer thanks us for being here. A woman wearing a MAGA hat stands by silently. No one takes a ballot from her. Another MAGA woman says, Let's Keep America Great!

I catch the eye of the man behind us and we both laugh. 

I confess that there is a part of me that wants to scream at the woman, that wants to scream at everyone. Some days I seethe with so much rage that I feel like I am shaking apart. I look at strangers with suspicion. Do they support the monster in the white house? Even worse is how I've come to feel about old friends, family members, people I once respected and admired. How will I ever forget this awful thing I know about them?

How will I ever forgive it?   

The women in the laughing joking group call to a man who's sitting on a fold up chair under a tree. Join us, they say. I can feel the line shifting around us. Are they asking this man to cut in front of us? The women seem to know what we're all thinking.

He's our friend, they announce. He had open heart surgery. We've been saving a place for him. 

We all make way and let him in. 

Only an hour and we've reached the entrance to the building. The voting itself is easy. After I turn in my ballot, I see another line forming ahead. What's this line for? Who knows, but I dutifully take my place in it. I smile when I realize it's for a sticker. We're waiting in line for an I Voted sticker. 

I paste one on my sweatshirt and find my husband and daughter outside. The sky is so blue and the cars are still streaming into the lot, the line still swelling. The masks hide the people's faces but I would like to think their expressions mirror mine, filled with determination. Exhilaration. 



Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I promise I don't want to steal your chickens

The other day I was telling my husband the plot of a book I'm reading and he was nodding and making seemingly interested Hmm sounds, when it suddenly occurred to me that most of our marriage has involved me telling him the plots of the books I'm reading and him nodding.  

When I told him my realization, he said:  Does that bother you? 

The real question, I said, is: Does that bother YOU?

He laughed. But now that I think about it, he never answered the question. 

We were having this conversation out on the deck of a cabin in Hocking Hills, the same place we'd retreated to several weeks ago and loved so much we decided to go back. We could see the restful-looking pond in the distance and we were snacking on olives and fancy cheeses and sipping wine from coffee mugs. 

In addition to talking about the book I was reading, we also talked about the signs we saw on a chicken coop down the road. The signs basically said, WE WILL KILL YOU IF YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT STEALING OUR CHICKENS.**

We'd seen these signs the last time we stayed here. Next door to the cabin property is a farm. The chicken coop is close to the road. The signs, which include pictures of guns, are aimed toward the road where we took our daily walks. 

I was fascinated by the warnings on the signs. Would the chicken owners really kill people who tried to steal their chickens? Was chicken theft a big problem in this part of Ohio? I kept meaning to take a picture of the signs but I chickened out. What if the paranoid chicken owner caught me and thought I was casing her coop, so to speak? 

I once heard a comedian say that there are two kinds of people in the world. People who laugh at fart jokes and people who don't laugh at fart jokes. I believe this is true. For the record, I admit that I do laugh at fart jokes. But hear me out. Do you think we can extend our understanding of humanity by grouping people into

a. People who thinks it's perfectly okay to kill someone if they try to steal your chickens


b. People who think that's... weird

(FYI I am in Category B.)

Take two at the cabin, and I was determined to snap a picture of the shoot to kill warnings on the chicken coops. My husband came with me for moral and possibly physical protection. No one was around so we took a very long look at the chickens and decided that they actually might be roosters. 

And then we walked back to the cabins and I told him more about the book I was reading.  


  ("I'd rather have a gun in my hand than a cop on the phone. 2nd Amendment")

("Prayer is the best way to meet the Lord. A gun is faster.")

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Fall Gifts

My son sent me a picture of the sky outside his apartment. Smoky white and a small orange sun. Another picture of his girlfriend sitting out on their balcony. She’s wearing a purple flowered mask, the sky behind her orange. I am thinking about the end of the world, 

or what feels like the end of the world. 

How we keep going, even during plague and fire. Only a few months ago we browsed in stores and sat together in darkened movie theaters and ate in crowded restaurants. Now we order what we need online and stream movies and pick up takeout. 

I’ve been sending books to friends. Stories I liked that I think they might too. Sort of a Pay-It-Forward Amazon book club. The other day someone sent me a book and it made me absurdly happy. The book is about the restorative power of nature. I believe in this. 

Six months ago we had an overgrown patch of ragged ornamental grass in our backyard. I spent most of the early part of lockdown yanking it out. Another week literally jumping up and down on a shovel digging up the matted root clumps. The dirt left behind was rocky and probably not right for a vegetable garden, but I planted one anyway. Lettuce. Spinach. Beets. A few weeks later, tomato plants and zucchini. My daughter, who’d fled London and quarantined in our house for two weeks, ventured outside and planted marigold seeds. 

Now the marigolds are thigh high, the garden still producing so many tomatoes and zucchini that we are giving them away. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, and I didn’t cry. Distraught friends reached out and my daughter cried on and off all day. But I had used up my tears four years ago after Trump won the election and then surprised myself by crying again two years later during the Kavanaugh hearings, both times a stark reminder that there are some men who see women as lesser, who give no thought at all about hurting us. 

An old self has resurfaced, the eight-year-old who figured out fast that the people in charge either don’t know what they are doing or don’t care or are actively trying to harm me. If I want to survive, that is on me.  

I did. 

And then I went with my daughter to a candlelight vigil in front of the Ohio Supreme Court for Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Mostly women there, of course, moms with their daughters, a little masked three-year-old dancing around the fountain. A woman offered my daughter candles, and we lit them and walked over to where people were signing their names and writing about Justice Ginsberg and what her work and her life had meant to them. We are Ruth-less, one of the signs said. Today we mourn, tomorrow we fight for your legacy. 

My son told me the smoke is better out where he lives. The heat broke so he and his girlfriend can open the windows. This week we passed 200,000 Americans dead from Covid 19 and the Republicans are gleefully rushing to confirm a justice to fill Ginsberg’s seat, a person who will likely work to overturn everything she fought for. 

Do the people at the end of the world know they are living at the end of the world? Or do they just keep going 

one gift of a candle 

one tomato

one book at a time? 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Do You Remember Places?

like this place? 

Remember how this was a place?

Ah, so place-y

The good news is these places still exist. 




*For greater enjoyment, click here


Saturday, September 5, 2020

On Broken Books and Possibly Dead or Maybe Not Dead Cats

Last year I finished writing a book I called Broken and it almost broke me. I had worked on the book for two years. But it was actually just another revision of an earlier book I’d worked on for two years fifteen years earlier. What I'm saying is I spent a good four years of my life working on this book. 

The idea started with a girl from a broken family. I kept thinking about the word broken and what it meant to be broken. In the later versions the story morphed into a fantasy of sorts about a girl who could break things with her mind. It happened whenever she was angry or upset. She couldn't control her power and it scared her. 

Because this was a book for children, I worked hard on the little girl's voice. I wanted to show her grappling with her power. She made rules. Came up with tips and tricks. That became the title of the book. How Not to Break. 

Anyway, I finished writing the book, and it still didn't really work, in the sense that it will never be a published book read by others. Realizing that was upsetting to me, to put it mildly. There were a few weeks where I seriously considered quitting writing.

A tip and trick I've learned over the years for dealing with the grief over a book that doesn't quite work is to start another book. When you're writing a book, you're not thinking about old books. You're too absorbed with the one in front of you. The big questions like voice and structure and character development and motivation. All the way down to the sentences on the page, the individual words. 

The book I started was pretty much the opposite of Broken. It's for adults. It's a Rom/Com, a genre I hadn't tried writing before; although, I did write a few rom/com-like stories for teenagers that were published many years ago. Interestingly enough, some aspects of the broken book wormed their way into the new story. In Romance you are always working with broken people. They have a hole in their lives and love fills it. 

It's a very hopeful, life-affirming genre. When I started working on the story last year I had no idea how much the world would change by the time I got to the end of it. I also had no idea how much writing the book would help me grapple with this new world. If nothing else, it was the perfect escape. 

This week I finished it, in the sense that I wrote a first draft and then I revised it completely and sent it off to my agent. Now I'm at the Schrödinger's Cat part of the writing process where the book is somehow both 

a Thing that will eventually go out into the world and be read by others 


a File on my computer that represents Time and Work and Thought. 

Either way, I know what I will be doing in the coming months. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Pandemic Diaries, Summer Covid-ition

Friday, July 3, 2020

I keep thinking of 9/11, all of those firefighters climbing around the fallen twisted pile that was once the World Trade Center, the toxic dust in the air and the authorities assuring everyone that it was fine, safe. Don't worry at all about what you're breathing in, they said. Flash forward and those people are dying, have died from cancer and long-term respiratory problems. 

When we get past this, assuming we do, it will be the same thing. People will wonder how we allowed fireworks and parties and parades and campaign rallies and packed bars. They’ll think we were nuts for sending kids back to school and college and football practice. It’s like a slow moving train wreck every day. 

Four months into the pandemic and there's so much we don't know. How much spread is caused by asymptomatic people and how kids are affected. How to properly quarantine. And all the people catching this--the ones who seem to have gotten better... Have they, really? 

Cases in the US: 2,754,000

Deaths: 126,000

Cases in Ohio: 51,581

Deaths: 2,653

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Watching too much news and eating too much food. Listening to an audio book about how to talk about race and how Not to talk about race. The voice reading the audio book is soft and angry and I don't blame her. Taking long walks, and somehow, even after a year living in this neighborhood, I'm discovering new parts of it. A path that leads to the river. A long trail that spills out into meadow. Some days I feel more dread than others. 

About the virus and about humans in general. Writing seems so pointless then. I have to remind myself that it’s always been like this. The people in charge, floundering. Worse, the people actively disseminating false information or spreading confusion. The willingness to put other people’s lives in danger. Someone on Twitter talked about how a lot of public schools are closing, but rich people want their private schools to stay open. As if their kids won't catch the virus. 

Cases in the US: 3,581,000      

Deaths: 135,000    

Thursday, July 31, 2020

I got an email yesterday from the human resources person at the library letting me know I’ll be going back to work the week of August 10. At that point it will have been five months since my last day working. March 13. Back then, the original plan was a two-week shutdown and opening back up April 1. But it quickly became clear that we wouldn’t be going back any time soon. 

Still, I don’t know if I would’ve imagined then that it would be five months. 

The library isn’t open to the public. We’ll just be shelving and pulling requests. Maybe Curbside checkout. I’m ready to go back, I guess. It’s hard to imagine. I had a fear this week that I had caught the virus. It’s because I have allergies. And the fact that I’d been around all of those ding dongs at jury duty. The three maskless women. The elevator rides. The bunched up line in the hallway. The multiple times in the public restroom. And all of us being in the same room for so many hours. I read somewhere that because of our high community spread, the odds are, if you go into a random group of 100 people, there is a 99 percent chance that one of them will have Covid.                      

Cases in Ohio: 86,333   

Deaths: 3,222

Friday, August 14, 2020

Back to work and it's familiar and strange at the same time. Hard to wear a mask for 4-5 hours. The quiet of the library. Weird, too, being around other people. There are only three or four of us working at once, so it seems safe.

I checked in books for an hour and found a couple that looked interesting. That’s a nice part of the job. Also, being forced to write earlier and not waste too much time reading news. I went down to the youth department and shelved all of the middle grade books. We’re running out of shelf space. They have overflow tables set up in the unused-for-now-and-in-the-foreseeable-future meeting room. 

Cases in the US: 5,220,000      

Deaths: 163,000

Sunday, August 30, 202

There's a homeless woman living on a bench outside the Starbucks at the end of my street. She's set herself up surrounded by her things. Two rolling suitcases. An umbrella. Yesterday I drove by her multiple times and at all different hours. It was a scary day. My husband had a kidney stone but we didn't know that. All we knew was that he was in pain. 

I drove him to the hospital at 10:30 at night and basically left him at the curb outside the emergency room. I drove home and worried with our daughter, watching dumb TV to keep our minds off what might be happening at the hospital. It all turned out fine. Pain meds. Instructions about kidney stones. 

I picked him up at 1:30 in the morning and there was the homeless woman, still under her umbrella. Now, this morning, groggy from my late night, I'm sitting on the porch and watching the moms walking with strollers, heading toward Starbucks to get their coffees. The couples holding hands. A little boy on a bike. The church bells up the street ringing their usual hymn.  

The absurd flowers I planted back in May are chest high and swaying in the breeze. The homeless woman's still on her bench under her umbrella and I can't make sense of anything.

Cases in the US: 5,894,000  

Deaths in the US: 179,000

Cases in Ohio: 115,806                                                                                                                            

Deaths in Ohio: 3,844

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Cheese and Crackers at the End of Time

My husband and I didn’t take a vacation this year. It seems like a million years ago that I was planning to go to London in April to see our daughter. Later there was a plan to visit our son and his girlfriend in San Francisco. Maybe we’d drive along the coast and visit wineries. I wanted to see the redwood forest. 

But all of that got scrapped and we've been stuck at home, my husband basically living/working in our dining room for five months, sometimes twelve-hour days, where I tiptoe around him and into the kitchen because he’s always on work calls. 

We needed to get out of town for a few days. Even if only for a change of scenery. 

Only an hour away from Columbus is a hiking area called Hocking Hills and we found a cabin nearby, overlooking a pond. The best part: no internet access. No cell phone service. Just four days of quiet. My husband wanted to fish. I wanted to read books. One day we took a five-mile hike that almost killed us. The next day he fished and I read a book.  

Also, I’d packed cheese and crackers. The book I was reading was about the end of time and it felt like the end of time. Feels like the end of time. The man who wrote the book lives in the desert and watches the same news I do and is quietly freaked out about it. Climate change. Political corruption. Violence. (and he didn’t even get to part about the Virus yet.) This cannot end well, is the general feeling he has, that I have. So anyway, the two of us on are on the same page. 

But what are we supposed to do about it, is the question. 

What’s interesting about the essays in the book is how many times throughout history humans have been faced with the same catastrophe. Pretty much all of the time, apparently. Civilization collapse is the norm, not the exception. Going all the way back to the beginning. Whole entire cultures wiped out. And barely any record left of them. Worse, the “winners” rewrite the conquered people out of the picture, so if there is any record left of them, it’s a skewed version. 

Something else interesting: people try to leave their mark anyway. Pictographs on canyon walls in the desert. Manuscripts smuggled out of war-torn cities. 

This is a book about myths and languages and history and "western civilization" and religion. Also, it's about writing. Why writers bother when we may not have anyone to read what we write. If nothing else, it seems, we like to tell ourselves stories. 

My husband caught one fish and when I tried to take a picture of it, it slipped off his hook. It was five inches long. He says it was more like eight. Maybe we are both right. We ate our fancy crackers and cheese on the porch overlooking the pond and the woods. He went back down to try to catch more fish. I finished my book about the end of time. 

Later we spread a blanket out on the dock so we could watch the stars. At first we couldn't see any. The sky was pink. And then it was gray. And then suddenly, like it a switch, it went black. The stars came out one by one and somehow all together, until the whole sky, it seemed was filled with them. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Back to work

What's the same:  

The quiet in the library, the books, the beep of the check-in sensor, but not the check-out, not yet. That is part of what is different. We have no patrons now. And likely won't have them for a while-- not until the virus numbers in our community come down.

Also, different: the masks, the daily temperature checks, the sanitizing wipes station. 

Five months ago I walked out of this place thinking I'd be back in a few weeks. First day, and it takes me a minute to orient myself again, remember my log-in, but then I quickly fall into my old groove, shelving, checking in, the feel of the books in my hands, the shush of pages. Fun fact: these books have been quarantined for 96 hours, stacked in our (un-used-for-the-foreseeable-future) public meeting rooms. 

Down in the youth department, alphabetizing the videos, if I can forget for a moment I'm masked and the toys have been put in storage and there won't be any kids spilling out of the story-time room, 

life almost feels 


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Carbon monoxide headaches in the jury box

It's like being in a telephone booth. (I know saying this ages me.) But here I am, on a jury trial, in the middle of a global pandemic, double-masked, sitting in my seat in the jury box, 

surrounded by plexi-glass.

I can't imagine how the defendant must feel. He's masked too, and sitting on the other side of a partition from his attorney. What's it like to look out at the jury, all of us strangers, and only able to see our eyes? We're a nice cross section. Men. Women. White. Black. Old. Young. The guidance counselor. The hospital security guard. The violin player in the Columbus Symphony. 

The trial feels like a play I've seen before. The attorney for the state arguing that we have to find the defendant guilty. The judge giving us instructions. The defense attorney sidling up to us and trying to be friendly, get us on his (client's) side. He's kind to me, It says here you work at a library. How do you like that?

Well, I've been furloughed... 

Sad chuckle. 

He moves onto the guy in the jury box who can't seem to stay awake. Are we boring you? he asks. The guy says no. (He doesn't make the cut onto the jury.)

The case is simple. A man accused of violating a protective order. Two witnesses. The ex-girlfriend accusing him of violating the order. And the friend who says she made the whole story up. Who's telling the truth? 

Who knows? 

We break for lunch. I walk with a fellow juror down to a Subway. Downtown is shuttered and quiet, slashes of graffiti and boarded up windows. I haven't been down here since the protests. I haven't really been anywhere. It's been strange to suddenly be around hundreds of people. To ride in an elevator. To sit by masked strangers. Only one customer in the Subway eating, and I am not making this up,

he's coughing. 

I grab my food and go, the fellow juror telling me she's stopping at the bar next door for a beer. Do I want to join her? 

(oh my god) No.  

Back at the courthouse and the other jurors are milling around in our juror room. One complains about having to wear a mask all day. It's giving her a carbon monoxide headache, she says, and I try not to roll my eyes. 

She takes her mask off and I escape into the hallway. I'm remembering how much I don't like people lately. Back to the courtroom for the closing arguments. I know that I can't in good conscience find the man guilty. Honestly, I have no idea why there was a trial. 

Only two witnesses that basically cancel each other out and no other evidence at all, but I have no idea what my fellow jurors think and I'm worried. Did they hear this case the same way I did? Will we have to argue with each other? 

We're dismissed to deliberate and I gird myself for a fight. But the Allegedly-Drink-a-Beer-at-Noon Juror says, I don't know about you people, but there's no way we can find this guy guilty. Everyone agrees and boom, we're finished in fifteen minutes. 

The court is filled with police officers when we return to our individual plexi-glass phone booth seats in the jury box. Apparently, while we were deliberating, the families in the gallery got into an altercation and were escorted out of the building. I watch the defendant's face when the judge reads the verdict. 

This was a felony and if we'd voted guilty, he'd have gone to prison. We all look so placid in our masks but a mask can't hide tears. He brushes his away and I remember he is a person. All of us are. The Monoxide Headache lady and Miss Alleged Beer at Noon. Fighting families and police officers. Random guys coughing in the Subway. 

The judge thanks us for our service and we all head our separate ways home.  

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Jury Duty-ing in the Pandemic Times

The last time I was called for jury duty was twenty three years ago. This is how it worked:

I showed up for my week of service. This was in Memphis, Tennessee and the courts were downtown and all of us in the jury pool were gathered closely together in one room, waiting to hear if we would be called onto a jury. No internet access back then. I don't remember anyone having laptops and no one had a smart phone. People had newspapers, magazines and books. The chairs were the plastic, uncomfortable kind. 

The people in charge yelled at us. Don't even think about trying to get out of this, they yelled. Unless you're dead, don't live in this county anymore, or are presently in jail. Any questions?

A few people tried to get out of it anyway. They owned their own business, they said. They had young children at home. Are you dead, not living here or in jail, they were asked again. No? Well, then, tough luck. 

Did I mention I was eight months pregnant? I had to pee approximately every forty five minutes. Also, I was diabetic and needed to eat snacks at regular intervals. I made it through one very excruciatingly uncomfortable and boring day and then begged the people in charge, privately, to let me go. 

Surprisingly, they did. But let me tell you, the walk past the others through that large room, as they jeered and shouted at me was one of the most surreal and scary/funny moments of my life. 

Cut to:

Jury duty twenty three years later.

This time I am in Columbus, Ohio and we are emailed instructions to wear masks, bring our own food and beverages and snacks, but don't worry, hand sanitizer will be provided. I admit that I am majorly stressed out about this service. For the most part, except for weekly visits to the nearly empty grocery store at 8 am, I have been in a bubble. Now, I will be in a crowd of strangers, indoors, with possibly not-circulating virus-infused air. 

I pack my bag as if I am going on an overseas trip. And it does feel like that because when I arrive at the courthouse, I have to go through security, all of the potential jurors lined up, socially distant (there are stickers on the floor reminding us where to stand), masked. 

Before we file into the room, our temperature is taken, and then we are led, individually, to a chair, each chair in rows, six feet apart. We are all quiet, looking at laptops or phones. 

I am wearing an n95 mask and a homemade one over that. I have no idea how I will keep these on for eight hours without wanting to tear them off, but I am resigned to it. No one yells at us. Instead, we watch an introductory video about the importance of jury service and then a judge comes in and thanks us for showing up during these strange times. I feel a surge of patriotism and love for our country as he says this because here we are, strangers, all of us dutifully masked and performing our civic duty, and this time, no one's even yelling at me about it. 

There have only been two jury trials since they've resumed the courts in June, the kind judge tells us, so the likelihood that we'll be on a jury is very small. 

An hour later, my name is called. 

Tune in next week for The Trial.