Monday, February 27, 2012


Lots of police action this morning at the Market. An older African-American man, hair the color of salt, zipped past me on his wheelchair.

"They looking for a man with a tattoo on his face," he said. "So be careful, lady. Be safe now, hear?"

He says this to me, a white middle-aged woman who commutes to his neighborhood from the green suburban comfort of mine. He commutes on a motorized wheelchair, subject to the whims of the weather, pedestrians, cars and buses, and errant bullets.

Safety is relative, I think, though in the past 2 months these five blocks I traverse morning and night have witnessed three shootings, one knifing, and multiple thefts. In 11 years I have never been threatened or harmed downtown, but the streets get uglier each day, and I worry about the man with the tattoo on his face.

The problem with the US health care is nothing Obama-Care or any other 'system' or technology can fix. Because it all comes down to the details, and the details are driven by humans, the good folks who deal out diagnoses and drugs, shunt bills and other assorted papers to the next mid-level manager, the receptionists fielding all the patients' calls for help.

If I charged my worth for every minute spent--arguing paid health bills; dickering over whether a procedure is fully covered; uncovering fraudulent providers trying to double-dip; showing up for appointments which never made it into the laboratory's electronic system; waiting my turn in physicians' offices; waiting for something remotely human to pick up the damn phone--I could retire already.

Enough of the kvetching. Some good news. Want to read an amazing novel? Check out David Benioff's CITY of THIEVES, a story about two unlikely comrades--an awkward Jewish teenage virgin and a charming Army deserter--in search of a dozen eggs during Germany's seige on Leningrad. My children expressed their concern for my emotional health as I alternated between laughter and sobbing over my toast and coffee.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

I Remember... Kitty D.

I remember lying in the dark on the narrow couch made into a bed and listening to the soft slap of cards, the clink of ice in glass, Gram’s laughter, throaty and smoke-infused. Grams let my sister Lisa and me call her Kitty, short for Katherine Kelly, which made Mom’s mouth turn into a hard line. When Kitty came to visit, the house turned topsy-turvy, a snow globe shook too hard. Out came the table leaves, the extra chairs from the basement. Lisa and I moved our pillows and pajamas to the sewing room.

When the car arrived, Kitty bounded out, lipstick-stained cigarette dangling, silver hair tightly teased. We could not escape her hug, smelling of peppermint and Aqua-Net and Jean Nate. Gramps always drove. After he stretched his legs, he slipped Lisa and I a buck or two, sometimes shiny silver dollars, which I kept in the cedar jewelry box along with my picture of Jesus and the sugary cork from a Drambuie bottle.

The afternoon dragged. Lisa and I paced the house on tip-toes, waiting for Grams and Gramps to finish resting their eyes. At four, Dad sliced limes and poured the first highballs. Grams and Mom sipped gin and tonic, Gramps drank bourbon and water, and Dad drank Scotch with soda. When everyone gathered at the kitchen table, Dad let me pull the thin plastic band that opened the new deck of cards. My eyes watered from smoke and laughter.

After we played a few rounds of rummy, the adults shooed us from the kitchen. I don’t remember dinner, only cheese, sweet, small pickles that set my teeth on edge, and bowls of salty Chex mix. We ate on trays set before the television. When Lisa nodded off, I snuck back to the kitchen and stood beside Grams. The cards flashed in her hands, her rings slipping around the knuckles of skinny pink-polished fingers. I remember wishing Mom was like her mother, wore nail polish, smiled instead of frowned. Around midnight, Gramps slung Lisa over his shoulder and carried her up the stairs. I followed close behind. But I never slept. Instead, I snuggled under covers with flashlight and book, listening to their merriment, trying to fathom the stories they told over the smack of cards, the shouts of Pinochle.


I remember lying on the living room floor, books and papers scattered. The slant of the December sun warmed me. Kitty hovered, an anemic ghost. I studied midterms—biology, organic, analytical, physics. She asked for vanilla pudding, the only food she could keep down. After Gramps died last winter, she stopped eating. Grief, Mom said, and nagged her at every meal to eat more. But Kitty never ate much, pecked at food like a sparrow. Without talking, I rose from my books to give her what she requested. Mom had made up three boxes of pudding before she left yesterday, but most of it remained in the Tupperware container. Kitty crept upstairs to the sewing room made up for her visit. I remember she moaned, soft, as if trying to muffle her noises. The toilet flushed. All went quiet. I remember thanking God for the quiet, hoping she would leave me alone with my books, not knowing next week the barium would leak through the pinholes in her intestines and kill her.


I remember lying on my side on the gurney, air blowing through the vent, the room blazing cold and white. I remember the cool of betadine smearing my lower back, the gentle way the nurse adjusted the flimsy gown to cover my backside. I shivered. She must have sensed I was scared; I had never had surgery, never birthed a child.
“Your last name sounds familiar,” she said. “My best friend’s daughter married a boy with your last name, forty years ago. I remember the wedding. My friend wore a pink satin dress, I hemmed it for her. Oh how Kitty loved her daughter. And her grandchildren.”

And she patted my side with small, firm circles, and I remember how the air warmed, how I stopped shaking. The anesthesiologist arrived and slid a needle in my arm. She held me, we counted back from five, and a numbness settled over me, a white peace, and Kitty was there, comforting us both, forgiving.


Every week in my writing class we have in-class and homework assignments based on prompts. The idea with the prompts is to feed our creative edge without worrying overmuch about editing. The "I Remember" prompt started in-class. Our instructor held up or passed arounf five objects, each appealing to one of the senses, and gave us two minutes to generate as many sentences beginning with "I remember." For homework, we were to choose 1 or more of the statements we had generated and flesh out the idea. The first sentence starting this homage to Kitty D, my maternal grandmother, was elicited by looking at a playing card, the King of Hearts.

Try this next time you get stuck. Peace...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Home is

I woke this morning in a melancholy-tinged mood. There was a dream, I didn't remember details, only a girl's face, hair pale as a wan winter sun, and the feeling of displacement. No light peeked through the curtains, but the clock read 5:44, late for me. I half-dozed, trying to make sense of the girl's face, the feeling, and my head meandered to the meaning of home.

We have lived in this house almost eleven years, the longest place I have ever lived. Yet, I still feel an outcast in Maryland, not of this place. Although, if I am honest with myself, I never felt at home growing up in North Carolina and, when I returned to Massachusetts, felt I belonged in The South. Maryland seemed a good settling place, mid-way between North and South, a place to assauge my wishy-washy ways. A place equi-distant between our birth families.

This unsettled feeling likely stemmed from several sources. The turmoil of my husband's job, coupled with my own surging career restlessness. My upcoming 50th birthday and wondering whether there were enough nearby friends to warrant a party. The yearning for community and not finding it.

But then I see my children at their schools, interacting with their friends, building forts in the woods and joining in bar mitzvah and birthday celebrations. I see the trees in our yard bud forth, the narcissi poke green through the cracking earth, the robins scurry for grubs in the greening lawn. I have community, though in small pockets, here and there, real and virtual.

Then, I went to class, talked with my advisor, spoke with a few writers I am beginning to know better, slowly. We already 'get' each other; nobody but another writer understands the restlessness. The feeling of aloneness faded. Outside, the bright blue sky beckoned with promise, the same sky that would greet me here, there, anywhere.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York, New York! or How to Curb Prescription Drug Abuse

It's not fiction and it's not poetry, just my (studied) opinion, but it did make the New York Times' ROOM FOR DEBATE.

I cut my doctoral teeth on prescription drug abuse and prescription monitoring programs, and to winnow down my opinion to ~300 words in 2 hours was a bit of a challenge.

Subjects near and dear to my heart.

Several times while figuring out what to say, and how, I kept thinking: Thank God I can write micro-fiction. I can write short and fast. For all you freelancers, I don't know how you do it on deadline, day after day.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Hopeless Romantic

Just in time to celebrate the day of L-O-V-E ==> THE HOPELESS ROMANTIC.

An anthology of poems and stories published by THE RIVER POETS JOURNAL. Lots of good romantic stuff here, including pieces by Bill Lantry, Susan Tepper, Andrew Stancek, James Lloyd Davis, and a steamy little poem by yours truly (page 9).

A tremendous thank you from Editor and Poet Judith Lawrence.

Hope this helps you get in the mood for... love! Peace...

Monday, February 13, 2012

10 Things I Love to Read

1. Any story with an opening carrying so much tension it sizzles: BY THE END OF OUR FIRST DAY at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. (BROWNIES by ZZ Packer)

2. Manuel Munoz' WHAT YOU SEE IN THE DARK. Imagine: PSYCHO comes to Bakersfield, but what's more interesting--Hitchcock and Janet Leigh, or the real-life murder of Teresa by her cowboy lover Dan? Sharp, eerie stuff.

3. Unreliable narrators. The crazier, the better.

4. Love stories that do not end well.

5. Almost anything posted at FICTIONAUT.

6. This delicious story by LaTanya McQueen How to Date a White Boy in the Winter 2011 issue of JMWW.

7. Characters I give a damn about.

8. Characters I hate.

9. Most anything that does not fit into a genre.

10. Endings that make me weep, laugh, scratch my head, say 'wow' over and over: She put out her hand against the screen. She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were back safe somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.

"My sweet little blue-eyed girl," he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all side of him--so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know she was going to it.
(Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates)

And you? What do you love to read?


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Love Is In the Air: Susan Tepper and From the Umberplatzen

When I think of love, I think of stories of love, stories that capture the heartbeat of relationship. No writer does love better than Susan Tepper: writer, editor, actress, and community-builder. With her latest book, Susan proves the best things in life do come in small packages.

In FROM THE UMBERPLATZEN, a collection of linked micro-fictions, Tepper tells of love tender and ruthless, fulfilled and denied, between Kitty, an American who has left her unhappy marriage, and M, a German physicist obsessed with silk kites. They meet in the park where the Umberplatzen trees grow, where M's kites tangle. Told in flashback after Kitty returns to the States, each story features a letter or gift M mails her daily, a gift emblematic of a shared instant.

In this book and in many of her other stories, Susan Tepper understands the romance of love--and the way love can hurt. She writes of the small moments of a relationship, the quirky ones, and the quiet ones. The moments that matter. This little tome will make you chortle, will make you get misty, will make you nod your head, knowing, but most of all it will surprise you.

I had a chance to chat with Susan about the creating of FROM THE UMBERPLATZEN. In her own words...

Susan, how did the concept of From the Umberplatzen first come to you?

Linda, I wish I could say I was struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and visualized the book unfolding, or even parts of it. But that's not the case. Because I never know what is going to come out of me and onto the page. I sat down, as I am doing now, and started typing. These words appeared: "From Germany he sends me leaves from the Umberplatzen tree." It became the first sentence of what grew into a piece of flash fiction.

I had no idea what an Umberplatzen tree was, or if one existed and I'd somehow stored it in my unconscious memory. But I did know Germany, somewhat, having spent a lot of time touring that country as a tour guide for an airline. That was two decades ago. I saw a lot of the world during that period, doing mostly stringer-type jobs I picked up at four different airlines, while I struggled with an acting career that wasn't winning me the Academy Award.

After the first story, which I titled "Leaves," I wrote another and called it "Crash Landing in the Umberplatzen." So I had those two little pieces of flash that tied together. Two characters I'd named M and Kitty Kat. Lovers. And I instantly got hooked by them and their dilemma.

You have dedicated your book to Marcus Speh, a wonderful and generous writer, and of course, your male protagonist goes by 'M'. What role or influence did Marcus have on this book's conception? Did he play the role of muse or editor? And what does he think of your story? (of course, I may go ask him myself!)

Marcus is a dear and generous friend. He took both stories for his kaffe in katmandu. I sent them to him because of the setting being Germany, and because I love his whole concept of the kaffe and what it represents to writers. Just seeing those rucksack bags full of spices always makes me heady. I wasn't conscious of Marcus when I made the decision to call my male character M. Of course it could have been an unconscious choice.

In the course of interviewing Robert Olen Butler for The Nervous Breakdown, he offered to read the manuscript of "From the Umberplatzen" and he ultimately blurbed the book. Robert told me that I'm an "intuitive writer." But I kind of knew that. I am a tad psychic--remember I am Madame Tishka! As for Marcus, no, he didn't edit the book. Was he a muse? Perhaps. I sent him stories along the way as I wrote the book and he offered his encouragement. And I "lifted" certain things from him, such as objects at the kaffe in katmandu, placing them in some of the stories (chapters). Marcus has a particular reverence for the Irish poets and that theme does come up in this book. But, I do draw from everywhere. Be careful, Linda, or you may appear in my next book!

I would be honored to show up in one of your books, even a cameo role! So as a writer I am, of course, curious about the process surrounding the writing of this book. How long did it take you to get the first draft? How did you approach revisions? Did the stories change much from initially conceived to final product?

Stories # 1 and # 2 came out pretty fast. Remember, each is a one page flash. They are snapshots of memory, Kitty Kat's memories, of their time spent together in Germany. It all gets filtered through her. When the book opens, M is left behind in Germany and she has returned home to the states. Once I got hooked, I pretty much wrote a story a day. Forty-eight stories that mesh into one complete tale of love and passion and conflict and disruption. All the things that make up a love relationship. I didn't do much editing, they came out mostly as they are now. I may have fixed some typos but it was a stream of consciousness type of writing. Kind of a blur, or what they used to call "flow." Yes, it was a flow state and all a little blurry when I look back on the actual writing process.

Ah... flow. The brass ring. So close at times, but so elusive. So many of your stories, these included, have a delicious tension to them. For instance, in most of the forty-eight gems in From the Umberplatzen, there is a line about what M mails to the narrator, a token that symbolizes the event or interaction they shared. In the 1 or 2 stories without the mention of a mailed item, I was left almost aching--I felt the foreboding, the tension, due to the lack of that connection between the characters via the mail. As well, the placement of the mailed item in the body of each story is telling. Did you manipulate this convention purposefully, or did it just bubble out of your subconscious?

No, I didn't manipulate the stories in any way. Some had gifts or items he sends her through the mail while other days she gets nothing from him. Perhaps it's M doing the manipulating on his end. He wants her back in Germany desperately. I suppose I made the gift choices out of items that appeal to me, since I was writing the voice of Kitty Kat and she was getting the presents. So in a sense I also got pleasure when these wonderful gifts arrived--like the purple feather boa and the box of lace trimmed panties and a satin garter the color of melting ice. I do like very much what she received, for the most part.

Occasionally M would get the upper hand and send something less appealing--like nails. He sends her nails in one story. But that was integral to a particular memory she had. I can't really distinguish between the gift and the memory--because it did all bubble out in a burst for me, as you said. It was an emotional writing time. This was written during a hot summer of violent unpredictible weather. That, too, may account for some of my choices for these characters. I'm very affected by weather. But aren't we all?


Yes I am affected by weather. I also am affected by these stories. Published by Wilderness House Press and available now, just in time for The Day of Love looming around the bend.

Susan Tepper lives and writes from New Jersey but considere New York home. She has published well over 100 stories, poems, essays and interviews in journals worldwide. She writes a bi-monthly interview column called MONDAY CHAT on the Fictionaut blog, as well as the advice column "Madame Tishka Advises on Love & Other Storms" at Thunderclap Press. Tepper curates the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in New York City, and has received six nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Deer, the title story of her collection, was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts.

You deserve some love, don't you? Treat yourself--and a loved one--to a collection of stories as sweet and complex as a high-end box of chocolates. Peace...

Monday, February 06, 2012

Things I noticed today

--So many middle-aged African-American men walk with canes; I counted seven in the twenty minute subway ride.

--A woman on the metro rested her head against the seat, eyes closed, a smile playing on her face.

--Sun falling on an graffiti-covered brick wall can fill a dirty alley with grace.

--Students in the back of the classroom surf the net while I lecture; those closer in tend to listen, nodding to signify they are awake.

--Pulling my daughter onto the couch and snuggling under a blanket with her vanquishes her crankiness.

--The post-office flag wasn't flying by 9:03 this morning.

--Red stained the side-walk at a corner of Lexington Market, too thin for ketchup.

What did you notice today?


Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Accidental Arsonist

You can read THE ACCIDENTAL ARSONIST, this week's fridayflash, at A BAKER'S DOZEN, a new literary magazine with an eclectic aesthetic. The Accidental Arsonist, 10th of 13 'extraordinary' things in this inaugural issue, is a small taste of The Minister's Wife, my novel-under-construction.

A HUGE congratulations and thanks to Co-editors Michelle Elvy and John Wentworth Chapin on their brilliant debut.

I am humbled and honored to be featured with the likes of Marcus Speh, Rupert Fike, Rose Hunter, Andrew Topel, JP Reese, Stephen Hastings-King, and a host of others.