The storms of August

April isn’t the cruelest month, not by a long shot: It’s not even January or February, but in my mind, August, which has no redeeming holidays to celebrate, is impossibly humid (though not this year, I’ll admit) and it’s when the garden goes completely to hell after the mid-summer orgy of blooming.  The work and publishing world grinds to a halt (except for those of us who did not take summer vacations), and it’s also the month, along with September, that poses the greatest risk for truly catastrophic weather: In this part of the country, anyway. My heart goes out to Houston and Galveston today,  fine parts of Texas that do not deserve the pummeling and soaking they’re getting this week.

I am no stranger to major hurricane-induced flooding; I’ve been through two—Floyd and Irene—and I hope never to go through that again, even though if we stay in this town, it’s inevitable. Heck, it may even happen this week—seems there’s some kind of evil system making its way north from the Caribbean, according to the weather outlets. There are few things worse than waking up in the morning to find your house completely surrounded and knee-deep in water, Niagara-like sounds emanating from the basement—and the skies above still a threatening shade of gray.

There are  five stages of Flood: the first is terrified anticipation, as you constantly check the TV  radar maps and see that spiraling green-red blob moving up the coastline. There’s bargaining with God: Make it blow out to sea, please, I’ll be good, I promise. Then there’s the shock of impact, where you sit numbly in the police boat, as it floats back up what used to be your street, and you’re trying to figure out where to go next. Then comes anger, when you see the receding waters have taken out your favorite rose bush, as well as your washer and dryer, leaving behind several inches of oily mud in the cellar and grayish coating on everything else. And if that’s all that happens to you, you’re quite lucky. There’s usually no power, either, so you’re stuck washing down everything in bleach and Lysol in the sweltering heat. There’s also the gawkers, people from the higher parts of town or even out-of-town, who feel compelled to drive through to gaze upon your misery. A curse on those idiots. But it does get better eventually. For me there’s no resignation stage, just the forgetting. Like childbirth, once the flood is over, you seem to forget all about the pain and move on. You think: Okay, we were struck by lightning, it can’t happen again, can it? Well, of course it can, and will.

But if you end up staying in the flood zone, it’s usually because the neighborhood’s advantages far outweigh those few days of misery every decade or so. I think we’re ready to move on, and will do so soon. But for many of us in the East and Southern US, it looks like these August storms and floods are going to be a regular occurrence, as a result of increased weather instability and what we’ve done to the environment over the past century. People who’ve never experience a bad flood will get to see what it’s like–hopefully, some of those stupid gawkers.  All I can say is make sure your flood insurance is paid up, and stock up on the batteries, bleach and Lysol…and a really good pair of wading boots.

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Storytelling genetics

When I was home a few weeks ago, in my native Connecticut, I got chance to visit with my father’s sister, my Aunt Margaret, and she told some great stories. Like the time she ventured into a burnt-down house, after squeezing through a thicket of greenery, found some wonderful antique bottles but later came down with a case of poison ivy so severe, she ended up in the hospital. The way she told it, so colorfully, full of detail and facial expressions, laughing at her own folly, made me laugh, even though I had heard it before. She is a great raconteur, as is my dad, and many other people in our family, which made me wonder if being able to tell a great story is a genetic trait, something passed down from generation to generation, like blue eyes or an autoimmune disease.

It takes not only intelligence, or good memory, but that eye for detail, an ability to resurrect a moment in time in such a believable way (even if it involves a little embroidery), that your audience is riveted. And if humor is involved, so much the better.  I’m lucky in that I seem to have gotten it from both sides of my family, though I see now, my own style is a definite mixture of both—and two very different ways of telling a story.

You might think my predilection for telling elaborate fibs comes from my Irish blood, but this is not necessarily so. For one thing, as  genetic tests reveal, we seem to be more English than Irish, more Anglo-Saxon than Celtic. Which could have been troublesome if we lived in 1916 Dublin, but otherwise, it’s a good mixture: Their stories are mordant, a bit cynical, but quick-witted, self-deprecating, and even employ some simple literary techniques, like wordplay or framing devices, sometimes with an unintended moral at the end.  It blends well with my Danish grandfather’s storytelling, which is a bit terser, but involves a fondness for dropping startling detail (“…and it was so cold up there, my father said your spit would freeze before it hit the ground.”) His family came from the bogs of Southern Jutland, where ancient corpses are still unearthed, bearing signs of human sacrifice; and the author of the great saga Beowulf may well have been a direct ancestor of ours. But thankfully, we don’t have too many bloodthirsty or gory tales to tell these days.

But this is not to discount my mother’s side of the family. They were storytellers, too, but in a more rambling,  incoherent way. Both her parents called themselves, simply, Polish; but my genetic test reads like a history of Eastern Europe, with some Polish, but also Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian, a smidgeon of  Balkan, Tatar and Ashkenazi. For years, I have suffered from a mild anxiety disorder, and can’t help but wonder if it was bred into my genes, prompted by all those years of invasion, war, rape, pillage and starvation. So the stories my mother’s mother and my great-aunts told were cruder in a literary sense, usually missing some crucial detail, with little wit and some punishing moral (how many times did Aunt Ruth tell us the story of the bad little girl whose head got chopped off by the elevator doors? Every time we went shopping with her in the Hartford department stores and ventured too close to those evil doors (And in case you were wondering what happened to said head, an old lady picked it up and put it in her shopping cart.) My Polish family’s stories usually involved some kind of religious or mystical phenomenon, like the dove that flew into my great-grandfather’s room when he died, and took his soul up to Heaven—or so we believe. My Aunt Ruth, who was the concocter of the more bizarre stories—and lived two doors down from us so we got them full-force– often said that the way a person died was a reflection of how they lived their lives, and what God thought of them: “You always get the death you deserve,” she said; and since she was killed at the age of 88 by a florist’s van running a red light as she walked home from the grocery store (with $2,000 cash in her purse), we don’t really know what to make of that.

I like to think my style reflects both my English-Irish family’s snarky, sparkly wit and my mother’s family’s preoccupation with the mystical, though looking back at my various novels, it seems often that one side predominates over the other. I’ll let my readers guess which ones. And it seems a good time to confess that I am indeed working on a new novel, even as I complete my biographical project. This one definitely bears the influence of my father’s side of the family…which means, it should make you laugh.

the meaning of home

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of “home” lately, particularly since we don’t yet know what our future home will be or where. Part of this was prompted by a recent trip to my birth-state of Connecticut, which I always thought would be home—till I got married to a New Jerseyan. And then, I had the chance to discuss it with one of my students from Japan—who is himself far, far from home and struggling to make a temporary one here—when one of our textbooks had a short passage on “the meaning of home.” It, however, gave us only three options: Home can be a sanctuary or haven; a gathering place for friends and family;  or a ‘pit stop’—a place to eat and sleep only. We both agreed that the ideal home was probably a combination of the first two, and most definitely should not simply be the last. I would add a fourth function: Home can be a creative, a creating space, where you can let your imagination take hold and just make (or write) things.

When you go to sell your house, the realtor often tells you to “stage” it, remove family photographs, collections, clutter, slap neutral paint over those colors you love, and get rid of any weird, idiosyncratic stuff you have lying around that would say something—either good or bad—about your personalities. This is allegedly to help the future buyer imagine themselves in your space; but when I look at these spaces online, they seem sterile and bland, and I cannot imagine myself in any of them. So unhappily, as sellers, we will probably give in and do the staging bit; but as a buyer, I’m not falling for it. Perhaps it’s better to not to focus on specific details of a house, but on what you might actually do there, and if the house can accommodate that. In other words, don’t make yourself fit into the house, make the house fit you. Then it’s really a home.

However…there is something to be said for the “pit stop.” An option we are considering is taking a ‘gap year’ off from being homeowners—like the way some high school seniors take a year off before starting college. The idea is to rent a small, inexpensive apartment somewhere we’re thinking of moving to but want to explore more; maybe get in some serious travel before we have another house to worry about, perhaps even some volunteering gig somewhere. It’s probably the most impractical option out there, and yet—from a spiritual and emotional view, maybe the best. We’re at that age where unhappy surprises—mostly health-related—are just lurking around the corner.  Why wait to travel if our joints are still relatively loose and pain-free now? Tomorrow could be a whole different story. Carpe diem, as we used to say in Latin class. But it’s a whole year without a real home—can we handle that? Maybe not. Then again, it gives us a full year to really look for that special place. We’ll keep you posted…

My half-baked promotion

The subtitle being: A not-so-cautionary tale for other self-publishers. This past weekend I ran a promotion for my last novel, and it was kind of a secret—which is probably the worst and dopiest kind of book promotion to run. It wasn’t intentional: I actually forgot that I  had arranged it for this particular weekend. And I’d had mixed feelings about running it anyway: I had vowed to never give any more books away for free. I believe I said so in this very space. But there was poor old Wives of the Saints hovering down around 800,000 in the paid rankings, and I decided what the hell; why not try and give it one more kick in the ass before abandoning it entirely.

Now conventional wisdom about these things is to promote the promotion, which sounds stupid, but that’s what we indie writers are told we have to do. This is if you want actual sales afterwards. Now I’ve run other freebie promotions, but have never seen any appreciable sales after the fact. Then again, I rarely give away more than a few hundred at a time. But it does result in a spike of interest…in my blog, in my other books, and I usually come away with a fair amount of “page-reads,” resulting from the Prime borrowing program, although that rarely amounts to very much more than $10 or so. But I always gain a few extra readers, no matter what, and one  loyal reader is worth her or his weight in gold, so… But I wasn’t in the mood to go deeper into debt for the slim chance of hitting the self-pub lottery. So I only booked one lonely little promo, at an outfit called Freebooksy,  which has been getting getting heat from the author’s community for underperforming.  But it was cheap and only set me back about $50 bucks. I thought if $50 could buy me a handful of good readers, I’d be happy.

So I booked the promotion weeks ago, then promptly forgot about it, amid my whirlwind of language students and biography-writing, not to mention the whole downsizing thing. Saturday morning, I rose, packed up the car, and began driving to my sister’s house in Connecticut. Somewhere in New York State, I stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, and idly checked the Wives page on Amazon, profoundly startled to see that my #800,000+ ranking had morphed into a mere four figures—my new “Kindle free” ranking. Of course, I  jumped up immediately, and bought a chocolate donut.  And then followed the strangest and most exciting driving trip I ever made from Northern New Jersey to Central Connecticut: Every time I checked the ranking (usually in a traffic jam), it got smaller. I was elated to see myself at #730, then it fell into the 300s, and by the time I pulled up in front of my sister’s, I was at  #146; by midnight, I was the 70th most popular book in the entire Kindle Free store—and that single day, I had given away more than 2400 books!! In the Family Life genre of Literature & Fiction, and I was actually #2. Never quite made it to #1…Am I complaining?! Hell, no!

How did this happen? I don’t know! What does it mean?  I still don’t know, only that a lot more people are reading my book. I’ve already gotten a new 5-star review on the Amazon page. It may not result in any substantial sales (I don’t believe in the vaunted “tail,” or wave of new sales following the end of a  promotion), but it is a nice way to send Wives out into the great beyond, eight months after its release. I don’t plan to promote it anymore; in fact, I’m hoping not to be a self-published author for very much longer. So I’m revealing the secret promotion now, because it’s still going on, until midnight tomorrow (Aug. 8). But I’m sort of hoping it doesn’t go up too much further: Don’t think my waistline could handle any more victory donuts…