Fish Sauce - A Short Story

 I laughed when she said we should update our passports.

"Don't you think you're being a little paranoid?"

Jules had blushed and shaken her head, embarrassed. "Maybe. I don't know. Something just doesn't feel right."

"What? Like we're going to jet off to Paris on a moment's notice anyway?"

"No, I guess not. But Canada, maybe? I don't know. I just want to be able to move freely if it comes to that."

I had hugged her and playfully mocked her some more and we ended up going out for tacos with the kid.

My choice. Tacos were my favorite. She preferred Vietnamese noodle bowls. I hated those—something about that fish sauce they always came with was just too sour. Salty and sour at the same time.

But Jules never complained.

It wasn’t really an invasion, not really. There were only a couple dozen or so, hardly enough to make a dent.

Sure, there was a lot of commotion at first, a lot of activity and interest. But then it became sort of normal. With so few of them, there wasn't a big chance any of us were going to run into them. At first all of their contact was with the military, then the politicians. Occasionally we would see their silent, stoic forms on the news—a paleness that almost glowed, even next to our own pasty-faced leaders. We worried for a while about the kind of impact they would have on our day-to-day lives and then the years went by and it seemed like no impact at all. They were all still holed up in Washington in windowless conference rooms working on whatever treaties made sense to the muckety-mucks.

Nothing changed.

We all just collectively shrugged and went about our business. I still went to work, spent my eight hours a day clacking away on the computer. The kid had school and band practice then summer camp.

But Jules liked to remind me that change can happen slowly. It's not always a seismic shift—sometimes it's the slow simmer of a pot of water on the stove—it's just a still little pool of water, a placid surface... until it's not.

We heard rumblings about D.C. for a while. But the news stories were inconsistent. Sometimes newscasters talked about an uptick in gang activity. Sometimes they mentioned protesters. Some conspiracy theorists mentioned that our government was being taken over slowly but surely. But plenty of times we saw interviews with locals saying it was all just a bunch of hooey—fake news from fake newscasters trying to get ratings.

But Jules always looked at their eyes. "They're scared," she said.

"What are you talking about? They are nothing but smiles," I said, gesturing at the screen. And they were. All rows and rows of perfectly symmetrical, perfectly white teeth.

Jules shook her head. "They're smiling, but their eyes aren't crinkling. It's forced." Her lips were a tight, grim line.

I looked at their eyes too, but I didn’t see it.

Jules did update her passport. And the kid's.

On July third we had our own blowout. We were in the kitchen. Jules was making deviled eggs, mashing the yolks into a bright orange paste. I was day drinking with my feet propped on another kitchen chair and watching her do all the prep.

Far too many tanks and military vehicles in town she had said. Too many for the parade, it makes no sense. She wanted to go. She begged me to go. To her brother's place in Seattle. And then maybe on to Vancouver if I could pay for an expedited passport renewal.

"We just bought 5 pounds of brauts for tomorrow, Jules. Are you kidding me?"

I might have called her hysterical.

Thinking back on it now, thinking of the expression on her face, her spoon poised over the mayonnaise jar, I can almost see her making the decision. As if we were mountain climbers tethered together and we started going over the edge into an icy crevasse. That look she gave me—was I going to pick into this ice or not? Are we climbing back up or not?

I don't know what she saw in my face that afternoon, but she cut the rope.

She and the kid were on a plane that night.

The first curfew made sense after a smattering of riots on the fourth—what kind of dummies break storefronts on their own businesses? Those fires only hurt your own neighborhood you know.

Then the military set up a border around town 'for our protection' and I was grateful. Get these hooligans contained.

My internet and phone service went out on the third day. They never did explain that one.

On the fourth day, a polite young man in uniform came to the door. He had a clipboard and a checklist in one hand and his pen hovered at the ready in the other. I could see the empty field across the street behind him—golden and warm in the summer sun. The tiny silhouette of a bird swayed on top of a single long stem. The air smelled like dry grass.

They were just looking for help from concerned citizens. Did I know of any 'agitators' that might be causing trouble for everyone else? How well did I know my neighbors?

He smiled broadly and waited for my response. I looked at his eyes. No crinkles. "I just keep to myself," I said while I shook my head 'no.'

The water is boiling, Jules. You were right. You knew that the heat was slowly turning up. Nobody knows where this is headed, but I am surrounded by water and it is all boiling. The sky is boiling. The ground is boiling. Everything is boiling and I can see that it has been boiling for so long and I just didn't notice.

I hope she made it to Vancouver. There's no way of knowing.

Maybe someday when everything goes back to normal, she'll come back. Maybe she’ll forgive me. She and the kid will watch funny cat videos on their iPads and laugh together. Jules’ laugh will burst out of her mouth uncontrolled—her head will throw back as if on a hinge and then she’ll cover her mouth embarrassed at the rawness of it.

And then maybe we'll go out for tacos. My choice, not hers. That fish sauce is just too sour.

A little peek behind the curtains for Zombie Tetherball

I assume you're here because you enjoyed Zombie Tetherball.

Or you're related to me.

Either way, I will try to ignore the uncomfortable vanity part of this and give you some behind-the-scenes info on Zombie Tetherball. Just gonna assume this might be interesting to you... mom.

  • Zombie Tetherball was started as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month: nanowrimo.org) 2014. I got about half of the book done then, then I kept writing and revising for months afterwards. All-in-all it took about ten months start to finish.
  • Several of the characters had different names when I first started writing. Then, early in the process, I decided I would "cast" the characters as if this were a movie to help me get a solid visual. Like, what actors and actresses embody these characters I see in my head?  So, Liz (who was originally called Sarah) was cast as Elisabeth Shue -- she was the right forty-something actress that was both vulnerable and had a hint of a bad-ass side. I kept calling the character Liz so much in my head, that eventually she just became Liz. Keiko is Keiko Agena from Gilmore Girls. Justin is Justin Long. Matt is based on I guy I knew in high school--not his real name though and I won't out him mostly 'cause he doesn't know about this! Alan is my secret.
  • Many of the locations are from my real town, I just twisted their geography or details to suit me: Real old elementary school with stupid gym carpet, real abandoned tree farm, real giant radio tower (though I think mine is actually a weather tower), real books strewn across a cornfield.
  • My internet search was FBI-worthy while I was writing: How to make molotov cocktails, how to destroy a steel tower, what do dead bodies look like, what happens in skin-grafting, and a bunch of stuff I didn't use but pulled me into some loco searches.
  • My writing buddy, Robb, who agreed to jump in and do his own crazy project for NaNoWriMo and be my support system, also worked on his book that month and he came up with Leech, a very meditative, emotion-filled look at vampires.
  • The title. For most of the time I was writing it, the title of my word document was just "Bad Zombie Book." I did this to acknowledge all the advice I'd read about just getting out the bad draft. "Write the bad book!" they'd say. So, while I was filled with writer anxiety about 'how dare I think I have the skills to write a book,' I'd just say 'well, I'm just going to write the bad zombie book, then we'll see.' Then eventually after I'd written the scene where two characters actually play tetherball and are talking about how in tetherball you never really have a winner, you're fighting against the wrong things, it seemed to fit some of my ideas about fighting with people instead of zombies or fighting zombies instead of who's making zombies. Plus, it seemed to fit the school theme. Part of me kept thinking I would change the title into something better eventually, but then it stuck. Kinda like the names.
  • I wrote Alan in some ways to vent frustration with people in my life or the world that are so infuriating - selfish, misogynistic jerks. But then I tried to really think about what would make someone like that, what are the viewpoints that might make his feelings reasonable? It was an exercise in empathy for me. Plus, I grew to love Alan. He was the most fun to write -- it was like, let's just say all of the horrible things that would piss me off in real life and let's go with it.
  • So, don't know if any of this was interesting to you, but there you go. If you have questions about anything in particular, let me know in the comments. I'll answer! And hey, if anyone knows Elisabeth Shue and thinks she might be looking for a zombie movie... she can have right of first refusal on the movie rights!

 

Reviews

I got my first book blogger review. Yay! Thanks to Dr. Wesley Britton over on bookpleasures.com.

http://goo.gl/BmupxH.

He was kind - not a zombie fan, but he said nice things. But I'm not sure that even matters, because he's a reviewer and I'm not in control over whether people do or don't like my book--they get their opinions. Having honest thoughts and words out there in the world is the cool part. I will chant this to myself when I get my first terrible, god-awful review which I'm sure is awaiting me down the line.

The whole review thing is a factor of writing that I didn't really get when I started this journey. I had no idea that reviews were so important in whatever behind-the-scenes formulas are in play to make your book visible to on-line book hunters. But I've seen first hand that when I do get reviews, my book can jump tens of thousands of spaces up the best-seller lists (yeah - I'm so far down the list that there is room to jump 50,000 spaces, no problemo).

I also didn't get that it would be so goll darn hard to get reviews. It feels like constant begging--to friends, family members, book bloggers, customers, strangers on the street: "Please sir, may I have a review?" while they swat the porridge bowl out of my hand.

All this on top of already just feeling so grateful that anyone would spend their time, precious, precious time, reading over something I wrote. To have that gratitude in my heart and then also be wishing that they could give me just a little bit more... it feels selfish.

So, if you are looking for a way to send your favorite authors some love, write them a review. Just a handful of honest words-- 'I liked this, I didn't feel this.' Boom, done. And if one of those authors you review just happens to be me....

Sincerely, Me

When I made the agonizing decision to fire up a website and start blogging (Blerg - I'm shy; blerg - it'll be good for me; blerg -  no one cares;  So many blergs...) I made a deal with myself.

"Self," I said, "the only way this is going to work is if you are just straight-up 100% you. You can't try to be cooler than you are, smarter than you are, funnier, thoughtful... whatever adjectives are queuing up. But, if you are 'straight-up 100% you' in all your lame, interesting, goofball, cynical, hopeful ways, then maybe the right lame, interesting, goofball, cynical, hopeful people will find you."

I'm saying this because I occasionally read blogs that make me think - 'that's funny, ooh, I should be funnier' or 'ooh that's inspiring, I should be more inspiring,'  This is my pact with you: Maybe I'll be insightful sometimes, maybe I'll be funny. I don't know - it's a crap-shoot. All I can promise is that whatever I say, it will be sincere.

Like they say, when you start to wave your freak flag, wave it high so the other freaks know how to find you.

Books I Heart, Books I Frowny-Face

I came across this little gem in my notebook today. I share it with only mild trepidation about the ensuing judgement for how I think about books. It was some exercise to help direct me towards writing books that are the most interesting to me personally. There is something a little empowering about thinking through 'these are the things I like, these are the things I don't like, and I get to make these choices.' I'm a freakin' adult now, I get to decide what to do!

Maybe no one else has ever had this problem, but I spent so long reading books because I was required to for school, because I wanted to be as cool as my older sister, because a boy I liked was reading it, because I wanted to be smart and the smart people read books like 'X.' I had some weird block that I wasn't even 100% sure what books made me happiest. I was nearly 30 before I even realized that if you weren't enjoying a book, you could just stop. Just stop reading and never finish that book. Gasp!

So, now I've made peace with it: I like a little sci-fi - especially when it's human, not tech-centered, fantasy not-so-much. I'm a sucker for a little love story mixed in - enough to make my heart tingle, but not a smothering all-encompassing one where that's the whole goal. World War II human stories are so powerful that I've had to put the kibosh on reading any more for awhile. How many times can my heart break over Nazi atrocities? I've also black-balled reading any contemporary fiction that starts off with the main female lead being abused in any way. I have read that, I'm full, I need something else to be in my brain. Of course, this doesn't mean that the right super-long, historically accurate, dude-centric action novel might not be out there waiting to blow my mind. When I find it, I'll revise the list.

I write this knowing this is such a 'duh' moment for a lot of people, but for me it's freeing - I get to like and read whatever dumb book I want to! AND I can write and publish whatever dumb thing I want too. Then hopefully, somebody, somebody out there in the world will pick up my dumb book and think "Ahhhh - exactly the kind of book I heart."

But don't listen to me, I also found this little number in my notebook. One-shoed Abraham Lincoln dancing next to a giant apple?... Really, don't listen to me.

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Aiming Lower

Our yardstick for measuring success is messed up.

There seems to be this perception that unless you make it BIG, you haven't made it.

I was listening to a podcast -- an interview of some comedian/actor -- and he was talking about having that 'what do you do?' conversation with strangers, like on an airplane.

"I'm an actor," he would say.

"Oh -- what have you been in?"

And he would list some things he had been in some commercials, some minor TV characters, etc. And the person he's talking to would inevitably end the conversation with something like, "Keep at it, maybe you'll make it someday!"

This comedian voiced what I have felt for a long time. How is doing what you love and being able to make a sustainable living not already 'making it?' I suspect every person that has ever told their family they want to be an actor has gotten the warnings about what a tough field it is, and how it's rare to become as prolific and wealthy as Brad Pitt. Well, duh! But Brad Pitt's not the yardstick. The yardstick should be Brad Schmitt who does community theater and loves it.

Can you think of any creative field where people don't say -- oh, that's a tough field, not many people 'make it' ? Acting, art, writing, animation, video game design, music?

I say, 'so what?' Dear creative people: Keep doing what you're doing. Make your yardstick whatever you want - is it just to finish a project? Is it to make $10? a million? Is it just to spend a happy Saturday afternoon? To be better at something than you were last week?

That. Whatever that is, aim for that.

Being Afraid. Being Very Afraid

Fear has changed from when I was a kid. I remember many chest-tightening moments. Things that made me want to turn on lights, seek out my parents, or hide under the the protective layers of blankets.

Our cold, dark basement. Oompa Loompas. Body Snatchers. All filled me with terror at one point or another.

Eventually, I realized those fears were just based on not knowing. The basement was scary when viewed from the stairwell above, but once you went down there and clicked on some lights. It was just a basement. Just piles of toys, boxes filled with Christmas decorations, or laundry humming and spinning in a faint Downy haze.

Once you turned on the light or turned off the channel, it seemed like there was no place left to place the fear. Taking back the power made it all okay.

My adult fears seem different. Every time my daughter is out of my sight I imagine all the worst possible things that can happen. I get afraid to try new things, to put myself out in the world subject to judgement or ridicule. I get philosophical fears about not living up to my potential and I get unavoidable fears about deaths in the family. Fears that were so simple in childhood have morphed into adult anxieties and worries.

There are still some ways to 'turns on lights' and chase away the unknowns, but some fears are just going to always be there. They're no longer imaginary. I guess the deal with being a grown-up is that you get to be afraid of things that are real and pulse-poundingly scary, but you just have to keep going anyway.

If childhood fears are about not knowing, maybe adult fears are about knowing. Knowing that some things are worth worrying about.

Cheers to the fears, and going into the basement anyway.

The Power of "Yet"

In our house we have a trick. It's a one word addition. It started as a way to help our daughter think more positively. Whenever she would say things like "I'm no good at singing," "I can't do division," "I don't know how to ride my bike," things like that, we would just add one word to her sentence:

Yet.

"I don't know how to ride my bike... yet." is a different sentence. It's hopeful. It's confident. It acknowledges where you are today but also implies that things will happen that haven't happened yet. Who I am today may change by tomorrow. Can change. We can grow, we can learn, we can become things that we weren't before.

When she started adding it to sentences herself, I was all sorts of filled with pride. This means that someday, the whatever she can't do today, she believes she can do. And she will.

Go ahead and take "Yet" for a spin. You might like it. You might feel different. Plus, it doesn't work in a lot of sentences, but those are good for a laugh.

It's an apropos thought for my first blog. Because as of this minute, I'm not a writer, no one who doesn't already know me has read any of my words, I haven't even published a single word... yet.