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: 


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.