Let’s get together and feel alright

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“Wherever you go, there you are.” Somebody said this to me recently while I was talking about an issue I’m having, and how I will address it once x, y, and z are in place. At first I dismissed it as one of those hollow, placeholder clichés, akin to “sounds like a plan” and “at the end of the day.” But then he elaborated and I realized, shit, he’s right.

He went on to say “the one thing all your problems have in common is you.” Right again. Then he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear.” No, he didn’t. That part’s not true. But the rest of it is … I often fantasize about living somewhere other than NYC, because NYC can be a tough place to live on many levels (she says, scrounging through her purse for five dollars so that she can get an iced coffee). It can also be an easy place (she adds, realizing that she can keep writing and order a cup of coffee in*), but there are much calmer, more beautiful, kinder parts of the world. However, for many reasons, it does not make sense for me to live elsewhere right now.

And so I am instead working on what I can do to be more comfortable anywhere, to make “wherever you go, there you are” a positive thing. One of the ways I’ve been working on this is by getting back to my meditation practice.

I was a skeptic for many years, had tried various forms of meditation here and there, and decided it wasn’t for me, that I wasn’t the right kind of person for the job. Then two years ago, thanks to a generous birthday gift from my mum (one that took me seven months to get up the nerve to use), I went through the Transcendental Meditation training program. It was easier than I’d expected, and I felt like I was getting benefit from it, though I wasn’t really sure what that benefit was. I was fairly consistent with meditation for a while, then I forgot a couple of times and then I fell completely off the wagon. Got back on toward the end of last summer, then November 8 happened and the last thing I felt like doing was being alone with my thoughts for 20 minutes, twice a day. Because, unlike other forms of meditation that I’ve tried, in TM you are allowed to acknowledge your thoughts. And my thoughts were dark in those days. They are slightly less so today, a day that many of us woke to very good news (it’s not about celebrating a victory, it’s about being relieved that people we know and people we don’t know will be protected if they get or are sick or pregnant or take medicine or are human). But I digress.

I had a bout of the blues in early June and decided to throw myself back into TM, as well as to work more with essential oils, which are wonderful for mood support—if you want to know more about this, message me. At the same time, a VIP in my life expressed interest in learning TM, and I highly supported this idea. So I started practicing regularly again and this time around I am absolutely aware of the positive impact it is having. It is making me calmer, lighter, better able to focus. It is helping me creatively, as I gear up to begin a new chapter (ha HA!) in my writing life. It is making me more patient, less irritable, less reactionary. I am very grateful that I decided to dive back in. Sometimes we need to take a break from things to recognize their worth. If I could, I would gift this practice to many people in my life who I think would benefit from it. But as I can’t, I will say this: do good things for yourself. Whatever issues you are facing, approach them from as many angles as might be helpful. Realize the strengths in yourself and in your circumstances and build on them. If you are reading this, I can almost guarantee that something you possess is the one thing that someone else on this planet thinks, “If only I had ____, my life would be so much better.” A job, a home, a loving partner, an enriching hobby, willpower, musical talent, perfect skin, physical strength, intuition, a sense of humor, intellect, empathy, wit—if you possess any one of these things, you have a foundation that others aspire to.

Speaking of aspirations, here’s something nutty—I’ve been taking voice lessons for a couple of years, basically because I like to sing and wanted to get better at it, and I’ve kept going because I love my teacher. However, the idea of singing in front of others makes me want to evaporate. I have tremendous stage fright, as well as paralyzing fear of public speaking. My lovely teacher informed me a few days ago that she is having a recital sometime in the fall and that she’d like me to prep for it. Holy smokes. This would involve singing in front of other people. In semi-public. But it’s good to have a tangible goal, and so I will focus my efforts with this in mind. Stay tuned. No pun intended.

*I didn’t order a cup of coffee in.

 

 

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Until we meet again

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I write this post with a heavy heart. My aunt Debby died on Thursday, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.

I’ve known Debby—I called her Tanta—for about twenty years. She and my uncle Charles married in their 60s. We grew close and used to have lunch together on a somewhat regular basis. Gramercy Tavern, the Yale Club, and Sushi Yasuda were our mainstays.

Debby brought to our world a profound sense of the importance of family. Family came first for her in a way that, devoted as I am to my own, I hadn’t really experienced before. She broadened our definition of the word. To Debby, family included everyone in her close circle, blood relative or not, regardless of whether one’s official title had “step-” or “half,” “in-law” or “twice removed” in it.

When you’d talk to her she’d go through the list—asking how you were, and how your partner was, then your dog, and our mutual friends. Anyone you introduced to Debby became a mutual friend. That’s how she operated.

She asked about everyone not to make small talk, but because she genuinely cared.

She was warm and thoughtful, funny and kind, and one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. So devoted was she to my uncle Charles that she, a lifelong Yankees fan, switched to the Mets; in earlier days they’d go to Port Saint Lucie to watch spring training. She was an interior decorator for many years, worked on some of the high-end lounges that were part of NYC nightlife in the ’80s. She loved good food and nice things, her manicure was flawless until the end. She loved lions. She loved having people to her house for the Jewish holidays. And most of all, she loved the people in her life and always had the capacity to welcome more.

As you may know, I believe in some form of an after life. I understand how one might not, but I’ve had experiences too otherwise inexplicable for me not to believe. And that brings me comfort. That helps me through times like these, and I’ve had a fair amount of them.

I will miss you, Tanta. Until we meet again.

Suddenly the night has grown colder

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That is the opening lyric of “Alexandra Leaving”, a hauntingly beautiful and very sad song by Leonard Cohen. Sigh. By the late Leonard Cohen, because this week has not broken my heart enough.

I have made some very negative comments about Donald Trump and I have alienated some people; I don’t have many Trump-supporters in my community. To them, I say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that politics got in the way this time, but it did. Because this time feels so very different.

No, walking the streets of New York does not feel like the aftermath of 9/11. In the days that followed we were a different kind of scared, and in New York at least, I felt as though we were all on the same side. I know mine were very different experiences than those of my Muslim friends and of my Sikh friends.

I am scared, now, when I walk the streets of this city. There is an aggressiveness to the mostly men I pass wearing the red caps of the President Elect, and I feel less-than-safe. And that’s not overreaction.

Over the past 72 hours I have heard about aggressive racist bullying of two black people within my extended community. While neither of these turned physical, they were certainly violent. The words spewed by the aggressors in both incidents were along the lines of, “Bet you’re scared now, n—-.” I heard about a young gay man in Santa Monica who was attacked and had a bottle broken over his head moments after the results were in. According to this man, his aggressors said,  “We have a new president now, faggot.” A young woman had her hijab ripped off. Someone vandalized a high school in Florida and hung signs over the water fountains saying, “Colored” and “Whites Only.”

These are just the incidents I’ve heard about. And I am so afraid that this is just the beginning.

Can you blame these bullies for acting out? When the presumed future leader of the free world spends over a year bullying and mocking and insulting everyone in his path, when he aligns himself with a vice president who stripped his own state’s LGBTQ community of their rights, when he does not condemn the violence at his rallies, when the KKK announces that they will hold a parade to celebrate Donald Trump, the bullies, the racists, the homophobes are empowered.

Now here’s the thing. I’m reading a lot of “He did what he had to do to get elected” “he doesn’t really think those things” “he has gay friends.” Of course he has gay friends – he’s a New Yorker. And of course he did what he had to do to get elected. But do you think the bullies know the difference? Do you think they care?

During my very brief stint at Page Six I talked to Donald Trump several times for stories. Granted, I was giving him press, but he was always polite, he placed his own calls, he remembered my name.

This is not about his “real” personality or politics, because I’ve still no bloody idea what the latter are. This is about the fact that he has allowed an environment of hate and oppression of others to flourish. And while I know that not all of his supporters are racist and homophobic and everything else, there sure is a vocal and physical faction that absolutely is and that is justifying hate crimes and bullying by hiding behind our President Elect. Yes, I said “our”, because I live here too.

What message this sends to these historically marginalized groups of people is that they are expendable. Collateral damage to win an election.

This is not about politics. This is unprecedented in my lifetime. This is about human rights, empathy, and all that I and the vast majority of the people in my life hold dear.

I was going to go on about my personal plans for getting through this time as calmly and productively as I can, but I’m exhausted. We all are, on both sides of things. I didn’t say anything groundbreaking here, I didn’t say anything others haven’t said more eloquently and with a better understanding of the world, but I spoke my truth. I didn’t say anything hateful, I used anecdotal evidence to explain my fear. I do not want to argue, I do not want hate, I know some of you who stumble upon this voted for Trump, and I ask you not to send me negative messages. The debate is on hold for me for the time being.

I’m sad, I’m scared, and I’m with you if you feel the same way.

 

 

It’s been a long time without you, my friend

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Somebody asked me what I usually do on 9-11, and while I don’t really have any rituals, writing here has become a tradition of sorts. It helps me. It’s therapeutic and it’s important.

I believe that 9-11 enters my mind in some way most days—certainly more often than not. And while the visceral memories fade during the year, on the anniversary they return.

I remember so vividly that I could re-enact my experiences on that day in stunning detail. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I remember what I was doing, who I spoke with, what I saw, what I ate. I can picture myself in my little apartment on Charles Street, blowdrying my hair and watching the news. I’d turned it on just after the first plane hit. I remember the anchorman’s tone when the second one came, when we could no longer pretend it was an accident.

I remember the phone calls, first to my mom and then to my ex. Nothing registered – at least not the loss of life at that moment, nor the implications for the rest of mine. I think on some cellular level we all knew that nothing would ever be the same, that life would be divided into pre- and post- , but I’m not sure most of us could have understood  just how intractable the change would be.

It was a perfect day. It was sunny and crisp and blueskyed, where the night before had seen torrential downpours. The night before we’d attended a benefit party for Women in Need and then darted from awning to awning to have burgers at the Cedar Tavern.

I remember standing on 6th Avenue in a stunned crowd of people watching the towers burn. Wondering, briefly, if I should go back for my camera and deciding not to. Ron, the homeless man I knew in my neighborhood, called out to me as I crossed 10th Street. “Laura! They hit us!” I spoke with him briefly and told him to stay safe, not yet understanding that that was impossible.

I got on the subway and most people knew. Got off in mid-town and learned that the towers had fallen. Loss of life was beginning to register, but certainly not to the extent that it would.

My coworkers, gathered around a live news feed, one in tears because her husband had gone to the buildings for a meeting that morning. He would walk in hours later, stunned and alive.

The rumors about the planes heading to Los Angeles and Chicago, learning about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. Phone calls coming in from friends and family all over the country. Emails from people abroad.

Erika and I walked to my parents’ place, where my mom made us lunch (tuna salad on toast and potato chips) and from their windows we could see the smoke and chaos consuming lower Manhattan.

Walking, more walking, visiting with my dad, heading west and meeting Michel, then going down to my apartment. We went to Gus’s for dinner that night, ate Greek food because that was our plan and what else could we do? The couple behind us, an older couple, sounded as though they were on a very early date.

We went to a bar after to meet up with friends, including one who had yet to hear from her mother. She would learn, at some point, that her mother had stayed home from her job in one of the towers.

The Missing posters all over my neighborhood, the trickling in of information about so-and-so’s friend or family member who had died. The smell, that acrid smell of death and chemicals that clung to the air for months afterward.

I’m not sure which day I found out about Jonathan, but I think it might have been two days later. I hadn’t seen him in a bit, hadn’t known he’d changed jobs, hadn’t even heard of Cantor Fitzgerald until it was demolished.

That Friday a group of us volunteered at the site, feeding the rescue workers. We wore hard hats and goggles. The piles of steel were still burning. The heat was palpable.

The next day I went up to the country, travelled up with Phil; he had a house not far from my parents’. My dad picked us up and I spent the weekend with them. I remember taking a walk down their road and fearing snipers hiding in the woods. I remember seeing the biggest f-ing caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

How many times did I watch the planes hit and the buildings fall? It was unavoidable and yet I didn’t resent the coverage. I needed to see it, it was part of the process. My process.

The dreams continued for months. Dreams of buildings exploding and airplanes falling from the sky.

I remember the Portraits of Grief. I saved Jonathan’s and one day, months or maybe years later, I reread it, turned it over and saw the Portrait of someone else I’d once known.

In a very weird way, and please hear me out on this, I miss the aftermath of 9-11. I miss the closeness and kindness and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness. I miss the burying of hatchets and the overlooking of petty differences. I miss the tacit empathy and comfort we provided one another. The feelings of pride in my city, of gratitude for what we were able to do together. The checking up on one another. The collective therapy.

I don’t miss the flyers that stayed up for far too long, and I don’t miss the smell, and I don’t miss the frantic barking of dogs.

I don’t know what I will do tomorrow, I’ve started my 9-11 ritual early this year. I will think about Jonathan and I will think about others and I will probably watch some of the reading of the names. I will try to be a very good person tomorrow.

I will wish that we would all be kinder to one another, that we could all have compassion and celebrate our differences, that we would always remember to tell people we love that we love them, and that we would never take another day for granted.

I think I post this every year, too, because I think it’s beautiful, a snippet of a poem by my supremely talented friend:

In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
My love
In the blinking of an eye.

Neil Thomas, September 2001

I may write again tomorrow. Then again, I may not.

 

Don’t believe the hype

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I’m back, and fully recovered from last weekend’s conference. Thank you to everyone who’s asked me about it and expressed interest in hearing more; I will not bore the rest of you with the details.

I left there feeling as though I had to completely reinvent my book, from the year it takes place (1999) to the structure to the plot, in an effort to make it more commercial (e.g. sellable). The fabulous Ginger talked me down off that ledge, as I knew she would.

She reminded me that this was my first time really going out into the world as a Writer, my first conference, and the one that happens to be the biggest, most overwhelming, and most commercial. She told me not to get bogged down in parsing all 0f the conflicting advice that I received, or to weigh the feedback of each of the agents I pitched with equal importance.

“The way to not survive the writing process is to listen to everyone else,” she said.

How liberating. (That, and I needed a tie-in for the photo above.)

So, the aspect of this conference I was most anxious about—actually, the only aspect I was remotely anxious about—was the “Agent Pitch Slam”. This was speed dating with literary agents, only unlike real speed-dating (what the hell did I just type?!), we had decent information about the people we were meeting well in advance. A few of the agents I met expressed interest in my project and asked me to send them pages when the thing is ready.

One of them asked me why my book takes place in 1999, and for that I have an answer—unlike “What are the stakes in this novel?” for which I have about 12.

I’ve set it in 1999 because I want it to pre-date 9/11, but for 9/11 to be looming. I wrote the book’s first sentence (or a variation of it, anyway) in 2006, and at the time, it felt inauthentic to set any book—let alone a ghost story—in downtown New York without 9/11 somehow informing the plot. When I picked it back up years later, that day was not as fresh in our collective conscience. But it still felt like the right year for it to take place.

The other reason: I did not want technology to be as ubiquitous as it is today. I got my first cellphone in December of ’99—I was late to the game, but not the latest. In 1999 we still wondered about things. We didn’t have an electronic dossier on everyone in the world at our fingertips. My protagonist, Josie, couldn’t just Google the guy she was dating and find out the truth about him. She could have Ask(ed) Jeeves, but he wouldn’t have known much, either.

Another agent asked me why, if Josie is so frustrated with her restaurant job, she doesn’t “just quit”.

Anyone who’s ever had a job they didn’t love want to field that one?

I read fiction today for the first time in a while. I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction but it’s been hard to read novels while attempting to write one. We went to the beach today—my first time all summer—and I brought and read Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. It’s a tight and fairly short novel, recommended by the aforementioned wonderful Ginger—and wow, I want to take a master class with Joan Didion. Before this I’d only read her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was drawn to out of title-envy. Now I want to read everything she’s written.

I’m going to my second writing conference in October in Richmond, Virginia. If you know anyone down there, please let me know. I’ll have a couple nights to myself and will be researching great restaurants to take myself to; I’d love recommendations.

Thanks for reading, friends. Until soon.

 

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

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…it was my first writers’ conference. I’m being dramatic, of course; such is the danger of absorbing 72 hours-worth of advice and tools for writing fiction.

If you are not interested in the writing process, this will be a very dull post. I’m a bit burnt out.

I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York this weekend; if you are a writer I highly recommend a) subscribing to Writer’s Digest and utilizing its excellent website b) attending this conference next year, or in October of this year in L.A., and c) looking into other conferences. I’ve just registered for my next one. If you are lucky enough to write in a commercial genre, which I’m not, there are conferences and associations created JUST FOR YOU!

There is not, however, a conference or association dedicated to the literary-ghost story-that’s-not-entirely-a-ghost-story-but-is-sort-of-speculative-and-sort-of-magical-realism genre, but that’s where conferences like this are helpful.

I learned a ton, about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and it was everything — inspiring, encouraging, exhausting, discouraging, enlightening … I learned that freedom from genre constraints, while wonderful for those who love the written word, makes for a tough sell. But all is not lost; there are plenty of agents who appreciate literary fiction.

Before I seek them out, though, I have a tremendous amount of revision to do, and this weekend was invaluable in helping me to strategize.

Following are the events I attended and my main takeaways from each:

  1. Pitch Perfect: This was open to everyone who planned to attend the following day’s Pitch Slam (see #something, below). Here I learned that once an agent expresses interest, the offer, in theory, “never expires”. This is because the emphasis is on the quality of the work and not the speed with which you submit it. Which is not to say one should pitch prematurely, but if revisions are necessary, take the time to make them.
  2. How to Be Your Own Best Publicist: Well, this was interesting, because suggestion #2 was to hire a publicist. Other than that, the speaker emphasized the importance of a platform (this was repeated in many different ways by many different people throughout the weekend) and of social media fluency.
  3. The Changing Face of Publishing: Another recurring theme of the weekend. While this is not news to me, it was very helpful to hear it outlined so clearly by the literary agent who ran this session: there are strong advantages to publishing in untraditional ways. Of course being published by a Random House or Simon and Schuster, any of the big guns—or the small guns, for that matter—brings prestige and a slew of advantages. But … there is potentially more money to be made through self publishing, partner publishing, co-op publishing, or a hybrid approach. Beyond the money, there is the advantage of having absolute control of one’s book, from title to cover art to things-I-learned-the-next-day.
  4. Story Trumps (← ugh) Structure: I took a lot of notes on this one. The fundamental message was to ignore the rules; if you have a good story, it doesn’t need the classic three act-structure. A good story depends on tension, and tension is caused by unmet desire. It is the pursuit of the protag’s goal that propels a story forward. I knew this, but the speaker made some excellent points that I applied to my book, jotting down specific notes as he spoke. Among them: repetition undermines escalation. The best way to move action along is to get to know your character(s) well enough that you know how they would likely react to escalating tension. If you focus on what would naturally happen next, versus what would further your plot to its predestined climax, your story will flow. Write logically, not chronologically. In every scene, consider what your reader will think, worry about, want, be surprised by … and deliver. Give the readers was they want, or something better.

**Brief break: I apologize if this is clunky and hard to read; the outlining function on WordPress is not as sophisticated as I’d hoped. Or perhaps it is, and I’m not a sophisticated enough user to figure it out. Either way, chicken or egg, I will be very happy to answer any questions you have about any of this or to clarify any confusing points.**

5. How to Write a Query Letter: Write like you’re handing a letter to your best friend. State what the book is about. Begin with the protagonist and her problem. Do not mention themes of the book. Do not provide back story. Share only the essentials of Act One. A query is not a synopsis. Do not ask rhetorical questions; who would want to read them? Do not put live links in your email query. Use a query tracking system.

6. Say Yes to the Writer’s Life: This was the first keynote speaker, Kwame Alexander, who spoke at the end of Day One (yep, this was all the first day). He was excellent — funny, charming, inspiring. Basically, he took matters into his own hands for 20 years, never letting rejection stop him, until a book he planned to self-publish (after he made the rounds and got rejected) was picked up by Houghton Mifflin and won the Newberry Prize. Earlier in his career, when he couldn’t find a publisher he started his own imprint. When he wasn’t invited to a festival he wanted to attend, he built his own festival. When he was turned down for a fellowship, he created his own fellowship, and one year later had raised enough money to invite the recipients of his DIY fellowship to spend three weeks on a writing retreat in Tuscany. He was not financially solvent when he did all this; he was impulsive and optimistic. The last question of the day was, “How did you stay so positive and keep going after all that rejection? What meds to you take?”

Change of plans … I’m going to stop here and write another post about days two and three. Because this is a lot to process and write, as I imagine it is to read.

I have a lot of revision ahead of me, and I’m half-excited and half-nauseous about it all. Eventually I will need beta readers, who have not read any of this before. I will be reaching out to some of you.

It was wonderful spending the weekend surrounded by writers and words, and it was absolutely worth it.

Overheard in the hallway, “I’ve just chopped 110,000 words from my manuscript!”

Sigh.

 

For only love can conquer hate

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I just looked at my most recent post and, damn, if you made it through all those photos, you’re far more patient than I. I shot them and curated them and it was too many for me to get through. But it was too many because the day, the event, was so rich and full that it was impossible to encapsulate without showing the whole picture.

The whole picture was a thing of beauty and love. The whole picture was people of every size, shape, race, religion, gender, non-gender, and whatever other categories we put ourselves in … this was about love in all its many splendored glory.

And every person walking in that parade, and most every person on the sidelines and rooftops, believes passionately in the spirit of the day.

I am a proud supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t, even if I didn’t have the lexicon to express it. I’ve thought about this a lot. Perhaps it’s because I “grew up” (and some would argue that I’ve yet to do that) in the entertainment industry and I’ve known people who by-the-way are gay my entire life. Maybe it’s because I’m intrinsically accepting of the human condition, by which I mean the condition of being human; I am not referring to sexuality or gender as a “condition”. Whatever the case may be, the fact that compassion and acceptance for others are still debatable is the most inconvenient truth I can imagine.

If that was overly wordy, please know that I awoke at my normal time of 3AM and this time I didn’t get right back to sleep. I will sleep for one more hour once I post this thang. Then Dog and I have morning appointments and I have work to do.

I don’t attend Pride every year, though for the past six, my dear friends M&M have come up from Florida and stayed with me in order to attend (and to see me, and to love New York, which they do better than most people I know). I decided to go because this year is one of the more significant. This year we are getting ready to elect a new president, and I can’t even delve into that. The thought of what may come chills me to the bone. I don’t agree with everything Hillary has ever said but I agree with most of her policies now and I like her and I respect her and I support her. That the other option “may not be as bad as he tells the world he is” – which I’ve heard from many people and news outlets – I can’t. He is as bad. And so, so much worse. I promise.

This is why I can’t delve into politics on social media. If you were my friend in 2008, you know what I’m talking about. I was … passionate … about politics that year.

However, I was comforted by the “Republicans for Hillary” movement I saw well-represented at the parade on Sunday.

Beyond the election, there’s Orlando, obviously. There’s the fact that we can now add this to the list of “If gun laws didn’t change after ____ then what will it take?!”

There’s the fact that a man in my neighborhood, Chelsea, which has one of the more established gay communities in the country, was beaten up recently in what cops call a hate crime.

I just don’t fucking get it. That I don’t get beating someone up in the first place is a foregone conclusion. I just don’t get why gay/straight black/white female/male and any other either/or that assumes one half is “less than” is even a thing, as they say.

But it is.

And then, in uplifting news, there’s the fact that the National Park Service just declared Stonewall Inn and the park in front of it national landmarks.

I’m a proud supporter of humanity.