Branson beats the house blend

"This energizing tea is perfect for an early morning foxhunt or preparing for the dramas of the day."
“This energizing tea is perfect for an early morning foxhunt or preparing for the dramas of the day.”

Here is the thing about Republic of Tea’s Downton Abbey Grantham Breakfast Blend: it’s really quite nice for about ten minutes. The label promises a sort of “sticky ginger pudding” experience with a splash of milk. And it’s true, the tea tastes pretty good at first, while it’s still piping hot. Better drink it quickly, though — or maybe let it steep longer than the suggested four to six minutes. It gets as dull and pointless as the Earl himself once it starts to cool.

You don’t need to be the acid-tongued Dowager Countess to see a one-liner there, so I’ll just leave things at this: I have switched back to my other Republic of Tea favorite, their Lucky Irish Breakfast black, which does, in fact, have the kick that makes you want to riot for suffrage and elope to Dublin. (Maybe not die in childbirth, though.)

I’ve been up to more than just having conversations with myself about tea. Last weekend I had the chance to see actual live theater that isn’t improv, which was a lovely outing. The show is running in Chicago now, and if its title, Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, doesn’t intrigue you, the fact that it’s about creating a triad lesbian relationship while also confronting terminal cancer in a way that actually works might. Plus the dioramas are freaking hysterical — absolutely worth the price of admission. And of course, there are mammoths.

You may have noticed that I have missed a week, and that this is a bit late. There’s a good reason for that, and a nice one too. I’m doing some behind-the-scenes work as a copy editor at PolicyMic, which is a super hopping news site by and for Millennials. I’m still not over seeing stories on the front page and having a proud little moment of “Hey, I edited that!” But yeah, journalism work! I’m really pleased to be part of the PM team, who have been great to a person. Three cheers for work in your chosen field! (This is, incidentally, a classic example of burying the lede.)

It’s a good week to feel inspired by other working journalists, and I’ve got some amazing stories to share this time around, so hopefully the wait was worth it.  Continue reading “Branson beats the house blend”

This item will give you talent!

One day, all this could be yours.

Most of the tabs I have open right now are for drafting tables. I am not allowed to have one, but I can’t stop myself. Looking at drafting tables gives me wild, extravagant dreams of using drafting tables, and these days I have one ambition above all: I want to draw comics.

Not just any comic. I want the comic that is the movie I will never get to make. I want the comic about Telemachos, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who I feel has always gotten short shrift from others who love the Odyssey. I can see it all now: it’ll be so good! Gunnerkrigg Court good! Dare I say it? Sandman good! I have devoted years of my life to this story already, and maybe, just maybe, having all the stuff one uses to make a comic will enable me to churn it out myself.

There’s a snag, of course. I have no experience either writing or drawing comics, and supplies do not an artist make. Not all is lost, though. I do have one thing on my side: I love this story more than I can possibly say, and I think loving the story will compel me to learn how to tell it in a new medium.

When I think about it, this has already been the case in my life. I was introduced to the Odyssey when I was 7 years old. We were on a family car trip, and my mom got the audiobook from the library. I was enthralled from the get-go. The Odyssey is an oral poem, meant to be heard more than read, and I was introduced in the best possible way. When we got to the end of the tapes, I promptly asked to hear the first cassette again. I wound up renewing the audiobook so much that the Athens Public Library banned me from borrowing it, and my parents had to buy it for me.

Some fruits of a lifelong habit

Two things happened. I began seeking out other books related to Homeric epics and Greek myth, and I began writing my own related stories. Hardly a day passed when I didn’t have my nose in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths or Black Ships Before Troy or The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on the Iliad. This last I must have read two or three times a year from the time I was 8 until I was a teen. Meanwhile, I was working on my first chapter book. I had been writing little stories since I could type, and making them up since I was much younger. Theatride’s Odyssey was my own sequel, in which the goddess Athena gives a long-lost daughter of Odysseus a magic ring. The ring enables Theatride to turn into any animal she wants, and will aid her in her quest to defeat a far-off tyrant.

I was devoted to that story. I kept a notebook where I jotted out plot ideas and scenes and characters. I wrote it out longhand and then typed it on a typewriter, to make it more official. I even provided a few illustrations. The whole thing lived in a crisp new folder specifically for the story. It wasn’t short, either — by the time I finished it, I think I had twenty-five double-sided sheets. I’ve been writing epics ever since. (Somewhere on an old Macintosh Performa may also be my attempt at epic poetry, a Redwall-style story called Lilywood. The prose stuck more than the poetry, but it was also a direct attempt to mimic Homeric texts.)

The Odyssey was also my gateway into academia. It’s the reason I got into my major at school (we called them concentrations), and I wrote my junior paper, the equivalent of a senior thesis, on Telemachos and why he is both a worthy successor to Odysseus and his own person within the poem. My junior paper remains the hardest I’ve ever worked on a piece of nonfiction. I had never bothered as much as I should have with things like revisions and multiple drafts, so on a technical level, my advisor demanded much more than me just coasting by. Trying to please her made my writing much better, but it was in conversation with her that I truly learned how to analyze and argue. I remain incredibly proud of my junior paper. As I reread it recently, I found myself missing that kind of rigorous engagement. If Homer becomes the reason I go to graduate school, I will laugh.

Telemachos gets me where I live. His story has always been the one that’s moved me most. Odysseus and Penelope may speak to me more when I’m older, but Telemachos is the child of two famous parents who has yet to define himself. He must take control of his actions and his place in society, and he must leave home to do it. Over the course of the poem, we watch him grow up tremendously, and when the poem ends, he is faced with enormous ethical and political questions, not to mention adjusting to a life with his absent father at home. There is nothing dull about him to me, and I am champing at the bit to share that with other people.

Two weeks ago, I wasn’t nearly this passionate. But, as the Homeric poet might say, the god intervened. As I was walking up Broadway with a friend, I spotted the spine of a familiar book on a sidewalk sale cart. It was The Firebrand, which I hadn’t read since I was 12 or 13. I had exact cash in my wallet. I was doomed from the start.

Communing with my childhood

Rereading The Firebrand has been an experience, and a story for another time. I still see why I loved it, and I also catch things that went over my head as a kid. This was the first time I’d encountered a transformative account of the Trojan War, one that didn’t take all the heroics and myth at face value. Achilles is a petulant, amoral brat; Odysseus is a low-class pirate; centaurs are just wild men on horses, and women rule their city-states as Queens with upstart consorts. Our narrator is Kassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, whose prophesies of disaster always come true and are never heeded.

At one point, Odysseus relates how he was conscripted into war against Troy. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae himself, came to Ithaka to fetch him. Rather than leave his wife and young son for a war he wanted no part of, Odysseus feigned madness. He dressed in rags, harnessed an ox and began plowing a field in crooked, erratic lines. Agamemnon was brought to see proof of Odysseus’s unfitness for himself. But he was no fool either: he scooped up toddler Telemachos and set him in the path of his father’s ox. Odysseus had no choice but to swerve, proving him sound of mind. He left for Troy that very day.

Wow, I thought as I read this, what an opening shot. It was totally involuntary. That was the moment it seized me, this need to make this story into a comic, which wouldn’t require all that a filmed version would. The next weekend I found myself in a Border’s liquidation sale, shelling out for huge sketchbooks and a truly lucky find, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, a fabulous textbook for a comics-making course. It’s reading through this that’s made me want a drafting table. I’m dreaming now of t-squares and Ames Lettering Guides. But I’m holding myself back, and not just because I need that money to eat and do laundry.

There’s no sense in buying all the supplies before I know I’m going to use them. I hope this isn’t just a flash in the pan, but I have to earn these things with a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes before I invest in them. Even the storytelling, something I have a lot of practice doing, will need some adjusting as I figure out this new form. If I can make drawing and lettering and panels and ink a regular part of my life, if it becomes something I will do consistently, then maybe we can talk materials. First step: closing these tabs and breaking out some pencils.

I’ve got this, though, cheesy as it might sound. I love this story. Hopefully, when I’m finished, so might you.

Fiction: Negative Space

A hole opened up in Holly’s torso on Monday. She showed it to her mother after she’d studied it in the mirror a while. The hole was a little right of her bellybutton, like a lopsided cube. She could hold both edges and her knuckles wouldn’t touch.

Her mother sat down on the closed lid of the toilet. “Oh sweetie.” She smiled and petted her hair. “Barney had a good life. It’s okay to be sad that he’s gone.”

Holly couldn’t look at it. “Will it be there forever?”

“Oh.” Her mother leaned forward and curled over the space in her ribs. “No,” she said. “It gets smaller and then you hardly notice it at all.” Holly stole a glance at the smooth absence in her mother’s chest, like someone had forgotten to draw it in. Her mother patted her cheek. “Come on, Holly Golly. We’ve got a busy day to get to.”

Holly pushed down her shirt and watched her mother leave. She shut the door behind her, picked up her toothbrush and turned on the faucet. The other side of the door stayed quiet and still. Holly squeezed her toothpaste onto the bristles and slipped the brush into her mouth. The hole in her torso itched.

They went to the grocery store and ran into Mrs. Thompson. Holly’s mother hugged her to her side. “We had a rough weekend, didn’t we.”

Mrs. Thompson was a friend from Holly’s mother’s office. She wore her hair piled on top of her head, and had peacock-colored glasses. Holly had never seen her without lipstick. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, looking down at Holly.

“I got a hole,” said Holly, pressing her shoulder to her mother’s waist.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Thompson, very understanding. “Your first one?”

Holly nodded.

Mrs. Thompson patted her side. “I keep succulents in mine. A nice little garden I always carry with me. I’m thinking about putting in some ferns as well.” Holly frowned. Mrs. Thompson smiled. “You’ll be fine, dearie.”

They went to the library. Holly’s mother didn’t say anything about Mrs. Thompson. She left Holly to wander while she headed for the audiobooks. Holly meandered through the stacks, reading clusters of titles every few feet. When she turned a corner, Frank the reference librarian was scanning a shelf high above her head. He looked down at her over the tops of his glasses. “Hello, Holly.”

She slowed to a stop. “Hi.”

He turned back to the shelf. “Looking for something in particular today?”

Holly looked around her. They were in the Gardening and Horticulture section. “My dog died this weekend.”

“Oh dear. Barney?” Frank took off his glasses and let them hang from his neck. “I’m sorry.” She nodded and hugged her elbows. “Have you gotten a hole from it?”

“My first one.” She got squirmy for a moment. “Someone else said she kept plants in hers.”

Frank gave her a little smile. He patted his chest, right below his collarbone. “I keep candy there.”

“How does it get smaller, though?” Holly stared at his shoulder. “Don’t you want it to go away?”

“Well.” Frank put his glasses back on. “Sometimes it doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it.”

Holly turned back to the shelf. “What kind of candy do you keep in there?”

He chuckled. “Not chocolate, I can tell you that.”

Holly didn’t say anything to her mother when they got back in the car. They drove to the pool with the radio on. The lady from NPR described all the horrible things happening in the world in a calm, distracted voice. Holly looked out the window as they drove past the chain stores and pulled in at the city pool.

She told her mother she wanted to change by herself today, and shut herself into the wet stall with her one-piece draped over her wrist. She stepped out of her shoes, into a puddle on the concrete floor. The whole changing room smelled like chlorine and wet towels. Outside, kids shrieked and lifeguards blew their whistles. Holly pulled off her shirt and looked down at the hole again. When she got her suit on, it clung to the edges of the hole. She tried to puff her stomach out, and picked at the fabric of the suit, but the hole wouldn’t be hidden. It stayed weird and flat. She came out of the changing room clutching her clothes to her stomach.

Holly’s mother was wearing her one-piece too. She smiled and held up the sunscreen. “Ready?” They traded off, making sure to get the places neither of them could reach on their own. Holly’s mother slipped Holly’s flamingo sunglasses onto her face. “Okay. Come on, let’s go have some fun.”

Maddy and Trudy were there with their babysitter. They waved Holly over, and she and her mother laid down their towels nearby. Trudy took one look at Holly’s stomach and pointed. “What happened to you?”

The babysitter sat up. “Trudy! Be polite.”

“My dog died,” Holly said, jutting her chin out a little.

Maddy chewed on her thumbnail, her eyes still on the hole. “My brother got one of those when he didn’t get into Emory.”

Holly crossed her arms. “What did he do with it?”

She shrugged. “He got a little shelf put in. He keeps books there now.”

“My cousin has a bird in hers,” Trudy announced. “I like it. It’s always singing. I don’t think she’ll get another one.”

“Sounds noisy,” Holly said. She twisted and looked at her mother, who was stretched out on her stomach with a paperback. Her torso looked whole from this angle. Holly turned back. “You want to go?”

Swimming was a good distraction. The cold water rushed into the new empty space, but Holly shook it off and kept going. Every time she moved, the water swirled between her skin and the swimsuit. She did her best not to feel it.

They went home. Holly helped carry the groceries in. No one tripped them up as they unloaded their bags. “Mom,” Holly said, when they were putting the last cans away, “did you do anything with yours?”

Holly’s mother stopped. She sat down the edge of a chair and looked at Holly. “It’s private, sweetie,” she said. “And you don’t have to do anything with yours. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it will get smaller if you let it. It won’t be there forever.” Holly didn’t say anything. She looked down at the empty floor. Holly’s mother stroked her cheek. “Holly Golly,” she said softly.

Holly could feel her throat start to get thick. “Is yours getting smaller?”

Her mother rested her palms on her knees. “Bit by bit,” she said, and met Holly’s eye.

Inspired by Eulalia, and the first official bit of creative work completed for this blog. A little melancholy and a lot weird. To be honest, I almost wanted to write up a straight-up Redwall-inspired story, but in improv, they always tell you to go for the lateral inspiration, rather than the literal.

I lost Nora, the basset hound I had desperately wanted and gotten at 7, when I was 21, the night before I came home for Thanksgiving. I had never lost anyone that close to me before, and it hit me really hard. I dreamed about her for months after she was gone, to the point of seeing her at the foot of my bed some nights. Recently I saw a guest strip in The Abominable Charles Christopher that opened up some of those feelings again. I can’t imagine feeling them as a 6- or 7-year-old, which is how I see Holly.

I am a hard griever; I don’t know what I would do if we lived in a world where loss opened up actual holes in us.


cover, MattimeoLet me tell you about how a book changed my life.

In third grade, I thought I was a pretty great reader. I was totally into chapter books, and read virtually anything I could get my hands on, with many thanks to our library and the Scholastic Book Club catalogs. I also loved animals: the year before, we’d finally gotten a dog, and I had spent a good deal of time utterly obsessed with Jack London books and The Rats of NIMH.

My friend Tristan had this new hardback. I’d seen him carrying it around, but hadn’t investigated. It was more than an inch thick, and the clothbound cover – I seem to remember it was maroon – had only a single, shiny title on it. When I asked him about it, he told me it was a chapter book with only tiny pictures at the start of each chapter. And that good guys sometimes die. I was rocked by this. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that that could happen, and the fact that someone my age was reading this book meant that I could too, and should.

The book was Mattimeo. The rest is history.

I devoured the Redwall books from the age of 8 until I was nearly out of college. I loved the epic quests, the unlikely friendships, the different clans of animals, the loyalty, the scoundrels, the betrayals, the adventure, the strangeness, the feasts. I truly think I read some of those books more than a hundred times each. Mattimeo, The Bellmaker, Salamandastron, Mossflower – these are formative texts for me. Because of Redwall, I went to the library and asked for similar books or bigger books. The librarian gave me The Cold Moons by Aeron Clement, my first adult fiction book, and of course, the great Watership Down. Once I had a taste of the Adult Fiction section, and wasn’t so scared of it, the whole library was open to me, and I read everywhere.

Being dissatisfied that there were no wolves in the series, I began writing my own stories, which rapidly became a sprawling series of my own, which I illustrated and read aloud to my mother on car trips. (They’re fantastic stories, by the way, combining all the best features of the mid- to late-90s alternative pop music scene with The Lion King and dashes of unintentionally postmodern humor. I’m not actually being snide: I have a tremendous soft spot for that period of work.) Writing those stories made me push myself as a storyteller, and it also made me someone who writes, regularly and constantly, for fun. I am not a writer or a reader because of Brian Jacques, but he had an outsized hand in it.

Usually I skipped the long lists of dishes, and, unless it was plot-related, the poetry, but the world of Mossflower, oh, I wanted it dearly. How I wanted to be an otter or a hare, and to terrorize the kitchen and go on quests and have friends who would die for me or the other way around. How I saw Mossflower in Appalachia growing up, the lush forests and rivers and mountains. How I wanted to see the ocean the way Jacques did. And yes, there did come a time when I realized that each book was the same book as the last one, but it was the same wonderful story, and it never stopped me from loving it.

Brian Jacques passed away suddenly this weekend, on Saturday, February 5th. I have lost my chance to thank him directly for all that he has given me, and that does grieve me: I truly thought he would be around forever, and that Mossflower would soldier on and on and on. Still, just because a person is gone does not mean they are lost: his books taught me that too, over and over again.

So, thank you, sir. Thank you for Gonff and Columbine. Thank you for Mariel and Dandin. Thank you for Tsarmina and Slagar the Cruel and Ferahgo the Assassin and General Ironbeak. Thank you for the Foremole and Log-a-Log and the Skipper of Otters. Thank you for Dibbuns and St. Ninians and the Long Patrol and the River Moss and the tapestry. Thank you for meadowcream and hotroot and October ale and deeper’n’ever pie. Thank you for Badger Lords and Badgermums and countless abbots and abbesses, for friars and recorders and cellarkeepers and novices. Thank you for maps and riddles and ships and dreams. Thank you for swans and pikes and snakes and bats and wolverines. Thank you for the dialects. Thank you for Basil Stag Hare and Queen Warbeak and Finbarr Galedeep. Thank you for the Bloodwrath and the Gullwhacker, the Mace, the Axe, and of course, the Sword. Thank you for showing that the world is complicated, and that the good guys can and will die.

Thank you for all those hours when I could have been doing something else. Instead, you took me somewhere, and I began to wander.

Sleep well, Mr. Jacques. Endlessly, thank you.

Verbs are action words

I think The New York Times has finally published the saddest headline I’ve ever seen: Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum.” Reading the article is hardly better. Has the United States grown so dystopian that we have to lobby schools for recess and teach our kids how to build couch forts? I tried to justify it away by reminding myself that this is The New York Times, and this article is very much focused on a certain socio-economic subgroup of Americans. Still, all too many times I’ve seen parents schedule their kids to the point of impossibility. Who has time for kids to play anymore? A lot of things depress me about the state of the world, but this one is pretty high on the list.

The tab containing the article has been open for several days now. I keep looking at the headline and shocking myself that it exists all over again. My parents were always fervent about keeping me engaged and creative: if I wasn’t reading, I was making art, or playing piano, or riding my bike, or keeping a nature journal, or trying to draw, or writing a story, or playing with a friend. I never had “playdates”: when the impulse struck or when a plan had been made at school, I asked my parents if so-and-so could come over, or if I could go over, and we’d play. Otherwise, I’d do my own thing, and be perfectly content to do so. All that unscheduled playtime, all that room to govern my own imagination, was a constant, integrated feature of my life, and it’s one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me.

The stories that horrified me the most, as a kid, were those of the adults who had forgotten what it was like to be a child. It was almost always a plot point or a character flaw, and it usually made them either villainous or tragic. And kids, of course, can always spot a grown-up who speaks their language: they make the best allies and supporting characters. From a very young age, I was determined to stay in touch with that part of myself. I would always know what it meant to be a kid, and I never bought any of the excuses the harried, lost grown-ups had for their implacable adulthood.

I found myself thinking of this more and more as I began putting together this blog, after months and months of mulling it over. I agonized over what my angle would be, how I would package my unique voice and/or product, how I would set up my website and on what schedule I would update it. I was so relieved when I settled on the simplest version, that I would do one personal essay and one creative response each week. Great! I thought. My system will work! I’ll be reliable! I’ll start this week!

Nothing happened. I was paralyzed by the idea that I would have nothing to say. Maybe people wouldn’t be interested in weird magical realist vignettes. Maybe my burgeoning urban fantasy wouldn’t be worth reading. Maybe I should start with literary fiction about ironically angsty middle-aged hipsters yearning for fulfillment in unironically non-mainstream ways — then the Internet would pay attention. Maybe I should find the perfect gimmick and write entirely on Twitter or Tumblr or FourSquare or something.

I’m getting bored just writing about those anxieties.

This space is about play. Present Self, take a hint from Younger Self and just do what you want. I hope this turns into a space of wild, reckless experimentation. The deadlines are there to force me to accomplish something: with a deadline, I am prouder than inertia. There is so much to try, and I am excited to try it: magical realism, hard sci-fi, alternate histories, fake mythologies, horror, humor, satire, comics, children’s stories, scripts, videos, sculpture, collage. (The one thing I can pretty well guarantee won’t be in here is poetry, though I hope one day to break that promise.)

There’s a motivational graphic out there somewhere that I’m trying to take more to heart: Stop clicking refresh and go & live your fucking life. I’m also a fan of Get Excited and Make Stuff, one of my favorite reworkings of the famous Blitz poster. At some point in my life — and if I’m honest, it roughly coincided with my discovery of the Internet — I became a person to whom at least one of these needed to be said. There was so much Terribly Important Stuff going on: college and jobs and independence and other people’s lives. When you’re little, you never understand how people can lose sight of something as fundamental as play. It turns out that when you need to start performing, play has to make room for work, and work can be a greedy beast.

Still, if work gets too greedy, I know play with always have my back. Hopefully it will for those kids in the article too. It should. Play is stubborn. Given space, I think it’ll do just fine.