Writing Update: August/September/October

WRITING

My top three projects for August/September/October (as measured in hours devoted) were:  

A VERY PEARTREE CHRISTMAS – horror rom-com spec feature (with Paul Seetachitt) 
Christmas-resistant journalist is sent to the town of PearTree to cover their annual Twelve Days of Christmas Festival only to discover that a series of  gruesome “accidents” occurring during the festivities are actually ritualistic murders, orchestrated to resurrect the demon, Krampus.
Paul Seetachitt and I pushed to get it ready for pre-holiday reading. Available now!

THE INFLUENCER (suspense-horror spec feature)
When the manager / best friend of a struggling social media influencer cuts a deal for her client to beta-test some new tech in order to get more followers, the results are more than she bargained for. 
Did some rewriting in September and submitted. Readers (i.e. my reps) have come back with an intriguing idea… should it be a TV series instead?! Hmmmm. Stay tuned to hear how this one turns out.

GIRL, WOLF, WOODSMAN (short fiction)
A contemporary re-imagining of “Little Red Riding Hood” that details what happens after the woodsman heroically dispenses with that pesky wolf. 
Found this one in the archives and decided to finish it at long last. Did a round of submissions to literary journals — we’ll see if it finds a home.  There’s also a short screenplay version waiting in the wings.  

WATCHING

MOVIES: The Green Knight, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Card Counter, Americanish, Natalie, The Tomorrow War, Malignant, No Time to Die, Last Night in Soho, Eternals

TV: Dave, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown, The Boys, We Are Lady Parts, The Other Two (pilot); The Chair, Foundation, Squid Game, We Are Here, Great British Bake Off

READING

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguru; Anxious People, Fredrik Backman; Women in White Coats; Olivia Campbell, Gone, Lisa Gardner; An Ordinary Wonder, Buki Papillon; Afterlives, Thomas Pierce; Elevation, Stephen King; The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn; Best of Tor.com 2020; Heroine with 1001 Faces, Maria Tatar  Heroine with 1001 Faces, Maria Tatar 

LISTENING

New category! I’ve discovered and am really getting into scripted podcast series. Like radio plays of old… or TV for your ears…

Wolverine, The Long Night (Marvel), Moonface, Blood Ties, True Love, Bridgewater, Aftershock

APPRECIATING

Boundaries crossed after seeming millennia:

A TV agent (Auri Maruri at Gersh), and my first official TV credit (Creepshow, Season 3, Episode 5: “Time Out.”)

Maintenance Sucks… and It’s a Privilege



Sometimes I get really disheartened because I have to do so much side-hustling while the “real job” of being a writer — the job that I’m am trained at, good at and want to do — feels like a shell game.  I keep doing the work, but the target is always moving and it never seems to pay off.

So then I get doubly irritated when, out of the blue, the equivalent of a third unpaid job falls on me. In September, a bathroom pipe in my condo sprang a leak in the middle of the night. In the morning I was on the phone with tenants, the homeowners’ association, plumbers, water mitigation experts, the insurance company and the (rightfully) very irate downstairs neighbor. And for almost two months, hours of each day was consumed by logistics, and communicating those logistics to all the relevant parties. Because of pandemic-related “supply chain issues,” every two minute visit to the Home Depot website for a part became hours of rabbit holing, scrounging and waiting, and then more hours separately explaining and apologizing for those delays to the tenant, the irate neighbor, etc. It was frustrating.

It was also what what my brother-in-law would call a “First Class Problem.”

Because someone could easily say: “Fuck you… YOU OWN A CONDO IN LOS ANGELES. I’ll take that problem off your hands.”

And that person would be right. I can feel frustrated because maintaining property, is tedious, time consuming, expensive— but I should never forget to feel grateful for the circumstance that makes the problem possible.

Which brings me to the stress and tedium of maintaining my other property — the body I live in. Specifically at this moment, the cancer. I’ve had blood draws and CT scans and doctor’s appointments where we discuss doing things to my body I don’t want to do. I have launched a routine that requires hours each week (if not each day) buying, cleaning, cutting and juicing vegetables, then cleaning the juicer and the entire kitchen which some how ends up covered in a carrot / beet blood splatter. It takes more time to meditate, and read medical journal articles on the internet. I wake up some mornings buzzing with anxiety. I may have mentioned on this blog how I get anxious packing for a trip. I worry about making decisions I’ll regret. What if I bring things I don’t need? What if I don’t bring things I need?  And that’s when I’m traveling for a week. So clearly it’s daunting to decide on treatment options that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

But, weird as it seems to say, it is also still a first class problem. I live in a healthy-feeling body — which is an entirely different experience from dealing with all this from a body in pain. I’m editing this as I wait on hold to make a doctor’s appointment because I have health insurance and because my work-from-home situation allows it. My cancer was detected early because I have health care.I’m housed. I have a juicer, access to fresh food and information. And I have friends and family who want to help. I am surrounded by generosity.

The world is touching me, and I am blessed.

B’s 2020 Look Back (Silver Linings Edition)

View from Baldwin Hills Overlook, December 25, 2020.

Wait… Did I send a 2019 update? I did not. I started (in my head at least), but so much was happening at the end of 2019 that I put it off, figuring I’d finish it once everything got “back to normal” in 2020.

To which 2020 said:

😂😂😂😂 HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA 😂😂😂😂

While I didn’t finish an update letter in 2019 because life was frenetic, the true-true is that even before the frenzy hit the fan, I was having trouble figuring out what to write. Though I’m a fan of “honest” holiday letters, no one needs a depressing whine-fest, and coming to the end of 2019, I was more than disheartened. Events and circumstances during the year had led to a loss of faith in people, in the universe and in myself. 

What were these events that led to my year-end funk? I don’t remember. Looking back, it’s all a blur. So, I guess a silver lining of 2020 is that it has pretty much obliterated my recall of  2019.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this update: Silver Linings. Winning out over topics like Year-End Podcast Lists, Great Books and TV, and Even More About Writing, I offer a small sampler platter of bright spots and blessings.*

JANUARY: Paul and I got the opportunity to go to Gainesville, Florida and teach film classes for the spring semester at University of Florida! Two days before leaving Los Angeles, our Florida housing plans fell through (thanks again, 2019!). When we arrived, Paul’s friend, Iman, and her family opened their home to us and hosted us for a month, sharing rides and meals and stories and downtime in front of the TV. I think my favorite form of getting to know people better is simply co-existing in their environment, which made this detour in our plans a gift.

MARCH / APRIL: In early March, the pandemic lockdowns began. While the best timing for a pandemic would have been never, the second best timing, for me, was when it happened. After a precarious 2019, a semester-long gig felt stable, and teaching 3 three-hour classes a week offered structure. I had the distractions of deadlines aplenty, learning  new technologies, and students who were depending on me.  All of this meant my existential angst was supplanted by a more fun “race to the finish line of this project” anxiety.  At the same time, friends Matt and Dmitry started a War and Peace Covid-19 challenge, with a goal of reading 50 pages every day. With the gyms closed, I listened to War and Peace on audiobook as I went on walks in the mornings and evenings. I didn’t always meet the page quota, but it was a simple pleasure and  a perfect distraction– and now I’ve read War and Peace

B and Paul outside the Publix in April, wearing 1st-gen, DIY masks made from paper towels and rubber bands.

MAY/ JUNE: We’d been back in Los Angeles a few weeks when the killing of George Floyd and other injustices prompted the Black Lives Matter protests. During this time, a friend, Beto, proposed an “anti-racist bookclub.” He and his friends did the work of planning,  organizing and facilitating a group with clear intentions and dynamics. Over the last six months, I’ve benefited from their insightful company while reading the works of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Ibram Kendi and others. In parallel, old friends Kendall and Annie nudged me to join their book club just in time to embark on Howard Zinn’s 800-page A People’s History of the United States.  Throughout my life, especially during pivotal times, certain books have helped me, prepared me, gifted me with new perspectives and a clearer vision of the world — and this year’s reading experience falls in that category.  

SEPTEMBER  The fires in California turned the skies to smoky haze, and then orange. For days we avoided going outdoors and felt unsafe breathing the air even inside.  We felt fortunate that our neighborhood was never in jeopardy, just as people everywhere feel lucky when disasters seem to be happening elsewhere. The other silver lining is that the fires added urgency to my growing feeling that, in the face of our social and environmental issues, it is not enough for me to simply be unobjectionable. Writing postcards, and phone banking for democratic candidates were steps too long delayed, but ones that have started me down a path of greater engagement. I owe thanks to folks (Megan, Caitlyn, Tracy) who made themselves vocal and visible on social media, offering instructions and opportunities that made it easier for people like me to become more a part of our political process. 

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER Amidst health concerns for the world, these two months were touched by family health concerns. November began with my mother’s knee replacement, ended with news my uncle had suffered a stroke, and in between, Paul experienced a painful bout of pancreatitis that was traced to some gallstones. Though travel to Indiana and then Texas during a pandemic had not been part of our plans, I appreciated more than ever the opportunity to be with loved ones, under any circumstances, and am happy and relieved to report that everyone is on the road to recovery.

And these most recent events have reminded me how, even with the world’s myriad problems, these are — as Paul Simon sings — days of miracle and wonder. Knees are replaced, helicopters airlift you from tiny towns in Texas, machines scan inside you and tell you what’s wrong, information and our own images zip and Zoom around the world in an instant— and scientists create vaccines that can help our cells fight (electron) microscopic viruses.

I don’t want to place too great a pressure on 2021 — January 1st will not be the day we arrive at the light at the end of the tunnel. But I do think we can see it from here, and that we have the opportunity to make the tunnel itself a little brighter and easier to travel with the light we carry with us. So, with lots of love and good wishes, here’s to a —

Happy 2021!

* A few disclaimers: 1) The overarching fact that we are healthy, we are housed, we are together… those alone mean it has been a great year. 2) This list leaves out so many moments and people, of course. My thank you list would be longer than at any Oscars speech. 3) Several of my silver linings exist against dark clouds like pandemic, systemic racism, fires that have caused countless people to suffer. I don’t know what to do with that fact, except to acknowledge it, and pray and work for an end to those clouds.

Thinking about Chadwick Boseman, Cancer and Hollywood

Would you rather be famous / remembered / rich / accomplished / loved / fill-in-the-blank-with a dream — and die young? Or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream and live longer? Would you rather feel healthy for a shorter period of time, or feel sickly but live longer?

“Would you rather” games are the worst, because for the most part we don’t get to choose anyway, we just have to learn to take what comes. Love, kids, success, health… you don’t always get what you want. But then sometimes we do get to choose, and the choosing is at best bittersweet because the opportunity to get things we want tends to involve sacrifice. The dream job is going to take hours or years away from people you love, children may cost or delay a career goal,

I’ve been thinking of Chadwick Boseman since his death was announced a little over a week ago. We didn’t have much in common in terms of race or gender, specific profession or level of success… but we shared an industry built around storytelling, and aspirations to succeed in that industry, and were part of a much smaller subset: He was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when he was still fairly young, just as I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when I was young.

I’ve never specifically asked other cancer experiencers, but I think many of us feel a special kinship with people whose diagnoses most closely match ours, type and stage and special characteristics. There is a sense of having someone who is about to undertake the same challenging journey we are. The kinship is based on prognosis as well… having similar goals and obstacles and hopes. It’s like when two friends bond over wanting kids or money or success… and, like in those circumstances, sometimes one gets one thing and one gets another, and a chasm opens up. But because at one time you were in the same place, you watch that person, even if from a distance, because in another universe, maybe their fate is yours, or vice versa.

I’ve always been grateful that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of the Outback. In a way that, looking back, feels almost magical, everyone in the community was supportive of me devoting the better part of a year to flailing, figuring things out and exploring healing methods — physical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual. I remember I’d just finished some kind of grant application before I left for the hospital, planning to turn it in after my surgery — but when what I’d assumed would be a small, Stage 1 tumor, ended up being Stage 3, with lymph nodes involved, that project vanished from my mind. I don’t think I ever turned in the application, and today I can’t even say what the project was. It was something that seemed important, and then it didn’t. It clearly must not have felt like something pivotal to my life or career?

But what if it had felt that way? Would I have walked away from a BIG opportunity in the same way, or would I have grabbed for the brass ring? And would that choice have made a difference in my outcome? Did — and this feels like a tremendously unfair question to even ask — did Chadwick’s Boseman’s decision to keep working through his illness affect its outcome? The answer is there’s no knowing. He might have stepped away from work and had it change nothing in terms of his health. He still would have died, but died without having been the King of Wakanda. Or, maybe the long hours and stress shifted something — or prevented something from shifting — such that if he had sacrifice the role that would make him famous he might have lived… but he might have always regretted the lost opportunity, and would never have known if that choice made a difference.

The second time I was diagnosed, with uterine cancer, was nine years after the first time. I was living in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school. And it did feel like a pivotal moment in my career. I’d won a screenwriting prize and been hired to do my first rewrite. But — I was still working full time, so was swimming in the long hours and stress of trying to do both well. I was doing things I knew, given my history, could be detrimental to my health, but I didn’t think about it, I thought if I can just get through this I would come out on the other side and everything would be worth it.

Los Angeles was a very different place to be diagnosed — and, looking back, I see how much I was again swayed by my environment. Inclusive of a fairly major surgery and recovery time, I missed only two weeks at my day job. Though people said I should take the time I needed, I couldn’t let go of my reluctance to inconvenience people, and I feared falling behind. Despite everyone’s admonitions to take care of myself, I believed that whenever I did return, everything I missed would have piled up, and I felt responsible for that. And, on the screenwriting front, I made sure to turn in my rewrite draft before telling the producer I was working with about my upcoming surgery. It was awkward timing, as they were about to fire me anyway– and did. Looking back, I’ve concluded that was “lucky” I got fired (or not re-hired) when I did, since if I hadn’t, I might have spent my recovery time continuing to try to fix something that no writer would have the power to fix (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project and the fact the company did not make an original feature film until a decade later). So with hindsight I can feel secure it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”

But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? What if I’d gotten the screenplay I loved made? If it had become something that other people loved as well? What would have been a fair price to trade?

I’m going to stop writing, because I have more thoughts and feelings than I can address in a blog post of reasonable length, and there’s too much dangerous speculation I could wander into. I will close with the observation that we, as a society, engage a lot of conflicting views about illness, and that I as an individual, do as well.

(As an addendum — Something I didn’t know about Chadwick Boseman is that he was a writer too. He is someone cared deeply about his art. I’m so sorry he didn’t have time to do more work, and so sorry that he and his family didn’t have more time for love and life and all that entails.)

FILE – In this Saturday, March 30, 2019 file photo, Chadwick Boseman poses in the press room with the award for outstanding actor in a motion picture for “Black Panther” at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther in the Marvel cinematic universe, has died of cancer. His representative says Boseman died Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 in Los Angeles after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Life in the Time of Pandemic (March 13-20, 2020)

By Friday, March 13, all students had been advised to leave campus until March 31st — if possible. The end date feels arbitrary, will they all fly home and return two weeks later? I guess the truth is that nobody knows. The faculty receives a query from our department chair asking us to report if our classes were on track to move online by Monday. The university seems to mobilize faster than I would have guessed. They’re negotiating with the software companies to expand licenses directly to students. The dozen emails I send to university tech support got quick responses.

From California, friends are sharing pictures of bare shelves at the stores where toilet paper and household cleansers would be stocked. One sends a picture of a truck with toilet paper being guarded by police, but at our Family Dollar, there are still paper goods — though fewer cleansers — no more Clorox wipes. Though we’ve been encouraged not to have large gatherings, no one has yet said anything about small gatherings. We’re reading the first articles about social distancing, and navigating what this means. Our yoga studio is still open, sending us messages to say they’ve decreased the number of students per class, and are ramping up their cleaning and sanitizing. If we don’t use equipment, we figure, we’ll only be touching our own mats. Our county still has no documented cases of community spread, so on Saturday we go to class.

We also have plans, in place for over a month, to have dinner with another couple and their son. The fact that we don’t know them well makes it seem ruder to cancel. I check to see if they still want us, and our hostess seems not to have even considered otherwise. Their house is beautiful and large; it’s not hard to keep some distance for most of the pleasant evening. When it ends, our hostess hugs me, which feels strange after a week of bumping elbows. “Oh, we’re still hugging!” I blurt in surprise.

“Yes, of course,” she answered.

The need to make things smooth overtakes our group. Paul hugs our hostess two, and I hug her husband. No one is scared. Everything’s all right.

The following day (Sunday, March 15), I’ve made a “study date” with another teacher, to figure out how to make online quizzes for our students. “Should we go?” Paul and I deliberate, and decided we will. I bring my Clorox wipes, which are already something of a joke between us.

I’d assumed their family would be doing some form of distancing, but when we arrive, their youngest is having a play date with two other little girls.  They run around the house as normal.. The older son, newly driving, came and went, picking up food for us. “Wash your hands!” his mom reminds him as he begins to unpack the food.

Coming home Paul and I feel we have felt for the boundaries of our comfort level, and found those boundaries. We agree we’ve made the last of our home visits, and that for us, social distancing, like online classes, will begin in earnest the next day, Monday the 16th.

Sunday night the democratic debate features Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hooking elbows instead of shaking hands, and standing at podiums placed six feet apart. The news that night announces that both Los Angeles and New York are tamping down on bars and restaurants, limiting them to food delivery only. In California Gavin Newsom asks everyone over the age of 65 to sequester themselves. One journalist notes that the democratic debate, between two candidates in their late 70s, would be in defiance of that request if the debate were to take place in California.

On Monday, the stock market drops by 8% and trading is temporarily halted for the second or third time–I’ve lost track. l realize that while we have food, paper products, and cleansers, in our temporary rental we have none of the over-the-counter medications that accrue over years, so I walk again to the Family Dollar and purchase a motley collection of cold medications and acetaminophen.

On Tuesday the 17th, UF announces that, instead of possibly resuming March 31st, classes will remain online for the remainder of the semester, and into the summer. There will be no commencement ceremonies in the spring. 

“I guess if everything is online, nothing’s really keeping us here,” says Paul.
“Should we just go early?” I respond.

We discuss the pros and cons. It could save us a month of paying rent in two places, which is appealing. At the same time, the situation in California looks crazier than Gainesville. There are also complicated logistics – how and when to make a forty-hour drive across internet-less terrain when we’re teaching a combined fifteen hours a week online, plus grading and correspondence? With the car packed to the gills, where should we sleep? Our presence might endanger the friends along our route, and hotels, if open, seem undesirable.

We table the discussion as I’m still organizing my first Zoom class for that afternoon, as well as an online pitch and an online midterm using an online proctoring service for Wednesday. On Wednesday, as I scramble up various technological learning curves, the news cycles around me: the stock market tanks again, the president proposes a billion dollar economic stimulus package of which $250 million directly to taxpayers, the rest to corporations, and West Virginia reports it first case of Covid 19, meaning the virus is now in all 50 states. There are now 5800 recorded cases and 107 deaths nationwide. New York is considering instituting a “shelter in place” edict. When our temporary landlord emails to let us know that our place was now available through April, we tell him we’ll stay through April 24, the day after our classes end.

On Thursday, Italy is front and center in the news. Their death toll has passed 3000. In California, Governor Newsom orders people not to go out. A friend of Paul’s to combat his own anxiety, invites people to read War and Peace with him — aiming for 50 pages a day. I order it for my Kindle.

On Friday we embark on what feels, in this new world, like an exciting outing: A trip to the GNC to buy zinc lozenges, to a sporting goods store to buy small hand weights (since our gym and yoga studio are both now closed) and to the grocery store. In the strip mall that houses the GNC there’s a line outside the Trader Joe’s – it’s our first sighting of a store admitting only a limited number of shoppers at one time.

The GNC is sold out of zinc, so we make a call and visit the location that still has two boxes – the one in the indoor mall. At the GNC we stand at a distance from the cashier, then exit through the mall, walking past dozens of closed and empty stores. We don’t stop to window shop at the few that are open, and are careful not to touch anything. At one of the small tables in the center of the mall, two women, leaned their arms on the table’s surface as they talked to each other– their faces a mere foot or two apart. They appear relaxed, feeling none of our trepidation.

A few more calls locates a sporting goods stores that is still open. We find a bottle of Purell at the entrance with a sign asking us to sanitize our hands on the way in. Inside, the middle of the store is empty. The clerk tells us most of the weights and home gym equipment have been sold.

At our final stop, Publix, a friendly worker wipes down and sanitizes the carts as they’re returned. Inside, someone is mopping the floor. There’s music playing. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man — Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now… For a moment I suddenly felt buoyant. It feels good to be out, to be pushing a cart and skipping with the music in the wide, clean aisle between freezer cases full of options.

And then the feeling and our trip is over. We’re home, with no other excursions to look forward to. One of my students has written to say that where she is, with her family in Miami, there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who are immunocompromised, much of the shopping falls to her, and if would help if she were able to predict her classwork. This hits me deeply, knowing that there have been some unannounced assignments in her class. I spend the rest of Friday and most Saturday – which is today – editing and publishing assignments for the rest of the semester. It doesn’t feel heroic, but I guess that my part in this, as a teacher, is to offer what stability and support I can… to do my job. And I want to. As someone familiar with being underemployed, I keenly feel my good fortune at having a job I can still do during this time.