Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Churn

I got caught up in a series called The Expanse - a sci fi mystery of sorts with a lot going on a few weeks ago. The churn refers to a character's dark notions about survival, but the image of a swirling, crushing mass of stuff that one could easily get sucked into resonates with me right now.

I'd like to think of it like this:

But it feels more like this:

I imagine that we all get caught up in the pressures of work and family and responsibilities and our dreams and finding our path. Lately, this feels overwhelming, like I'm caught up in machinery outside my control and I'm struggling to keep from getting too bruised to function.

The new year brought more change professionally than I am used to and honestly, it's left me questioning my life choices.

Facebook reminded me of a post I'd made over the Memorial Day weekend in 2010 commenting on the abundance of angry posts cluttering my feed and asking for reflection and positivity. I read it with dismay, thinking - Oh, sweet summer child, you have no idea.

I'm definitely angrier and my coworkers are as well. I channel my rage into short stories usually, but I wonder about the negative affect that this continual stress takes on my emotional and psychological health. There's a powerlessness that drives us to futility which might lead to recklessness. I have no idea what form that will take, though I can share that I bought lottery tickets and three pints of Ben & Jerry's last night.

And I'm writing.

And I'm thinking up new projects to write.

And I'm trying to stay aware and open to new possibility.

And I'm trying to remember to practice some self-care.

And I'm trying to rise above the pettiness and passive-aggressive jabs from others so as not to get caught up in their churn.

I spent last week in North Carolina where I got up early every morning and took my coffee down to the lakeshore so I could absorb this:

It's a start.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Momentum and Despair: The Slog of Writing Life

2017 was a decent year for me writing-wise.  My first published story came out in print - though the publisher still didn't manage to correct the spelling of my name on the Amazon listing, so you won't find it unless you drop an "h" or click here:

You will find "Handymen" in the middle somewhere - where my name actually is spelled right, but the story title isn't. It stings a bit that my "Hey! I got published!" moment is then qualified by, "but my name is spelled wrong" when someone asks me how to find it.

Shortly after this appeared on Amazon, I was invited to read at an event by Writers and Words, a Baltimore  reading series held in a trendy coffee shop called Charmington's. This would be the first time I was invited to read a story I'd written, rather than required to do so. The organizers were excited to have an author of mysteries and thrillers and I was given the "wildcard" slot for July. I couldn't have been more thrilled! I read a piece called "Swim Trials" which had been the result of the previous winter's NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge prompts and I provided my spooky story "Office Hours" for the chapbook. "Office Hours" had been my first contest-winner back in 2015 and may eventually be included in a collection of Plant Hall pieces. In the meantime, you can read it here on my friend Steven Thomas Howell's blog. Plus, the blog is awesome and worth checking out anyway.

I had a piece of microfiction published on ScrawlBrawl, a site described as a "100-word battle to the death."  Microfiction, it turns out, is a blast to write! You can read "Hell's Kitchen" here. While you are there, check out some other stories, particularly by the Despot (a talented, zany presence in the writing world) because they're awesome, and it takes but a moment to read a 100-word story. Seriously.

The fall brought a third place win for "Close Neighbors," and the opportunity to read my work (again!!!) by the "ghost story fire-pit" at Toast Among Ghosts. This was a nail-biter because it was dark, I had to hold pages and a microphone, and speak up over the nearby band. And I said the word "masturbation" in front of strangers. You can read that story and learn more about the event here. If that wasn't crazy enough, I was interviewed by two local papers! Of course, one spelled my name wrong, so...

The event staff spelled my name right at least, but they had another unfortunate spelling error on the posters. I'll let you find it on your own.

In December, Gimmick Press took an essay and a flash fiction piece for their Worthless Treasures project. You can read them both here. "Beedancing" is my first published (by someone else) nonfiction piece, so I was super-excited. "Stupidhead" had earned an honorable mention by Glimmer Train, but had not gotten picked up by any of the places I'd sent it before, though I'd had my best "good" rejection letters for it.

In August, I attended the Writers Digest Conference which you can read about here. I pitched my novel, which was celebrating its second birthday, to literary agents in a massive zoo called "pitch slam." I followed up with requested pages, synopses, and queries. And nothing. I am due to send out another batch of queries, but that nagging doubt that anything will ever happen always lingers, clouding the edges of my joy when a piece get accepted. The novel is sitting there, judging silently and gathering virtual dust.

One agent asked me for my "series" pitch - how will I continue these characters through more adventures. I quickly wrote one, summarizing the next tale and the opportunities my premise provided for a successful, sustainable continuation of mayhem. I have dreams of my own Hallmark Movies and Mysteries series with a spunky female writer spinning wit and solving murders. It would fit right in with the bakers, librarians, and antique dealers solving crimes.

I guess that means I have another novel to write. In the meantime, I'll keep sending queries, praying that I'm not exhausting all possible chances for representation. And I'll keep writing my short stuff. NYC Midnight is kicking off the Short Story Challenge soon. Wanna join? You can read about it here.

2018 will be a year of perseverance I suppose. I wish I had access to a writer's therapist who could coach me through novel-despair and encourage me to keep going while I wait for lightning to strike. In the meantime, I'll just keep typing.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thanksgiving Pressure Cooking

In direct defiance of everything Food Network declares to be the Thanksgiving Turkey Commandments, I refuse to brine. I refuse. I don’t baste, I don’t roast my bird in an open pan on a bed of carrots and turnips. I’ve never even touched a turnip.  I have no idea what one tastes like and I’m not risking it with my Thanksgiving dinner. I've used the same enameled  roasting pan for decades. People get super-judgy about Thanksgiving meal preparation. Even the nice relatives who you genuinely like will cut you over the “berries or jellied” cranberry sauce debate.  Don’t cross them. 

            I learned to cook a Thanksgiving meal pretty early and even though my process is pretty simple, I’ve had consistently delicious results. I’m not monkeying around with success by roasting it upside down, or sealing it in an oven bag, or shoving herbs and butter under the skin. Just thinking about cramming twigs under the skin makes me uncomfortable. 

            This year, I will be hosting my boyfriend and his two teenage daughters for Thanksgiving.  It’s terrifying. Even more so than last year when it was my boyfriend, his mother, and his brother and sister-in-law. His mother called my adorable wicker turkey napkin holder tacky. That was still better than this because the girls are picky eaters, not big chatters, and it’s not like we can all share a bottle of wine. Dave asked me to include macaroni and cheese and dinner rolls so there would be something his oldest could consume. 

            I should mention that I love Thanksgiving. I love planning out my menu, shopping carefully over the preceding weeks for all of my ingredients, mapping out my cooking plan (I am a trained project manager, and Thanksgiving dinner prep with one oven is still the best way to teach the critical path), and making it all come together for an amazing spread that inspires awe in spite of my refusal to brine. Here’s what I do believe:

·      Thanksgiving should be relaxed and casual. Yes to the stretchy pants, no to the pocket square.
·      It’s a participation sport – give your guests something to do. It doesn’t have to be whisking gravy over a hot stove, have them open and serve wine or fold pretty napkins or just keep you company as you whisk hot gravy.
·      Release your death grip on the menu. Make some compromises so that your guests get a piece of their traditional Thanksgiving. My family has (mostly good-natured) fights over Waldorf salad which had bananas in it during my childhood. Unconventional for you? Yes, but it’s one of the high points of the day for me. Like macaroni and cheese might be.
·      Don’t skip the Macy’s parade on TV. That might be the only chance to see those Broadway numbers before nuclear winter.
·      No need to choose marshmallows or pecan streusel on the sweet potato soufflé – have both. You get this once a year.
·      Don’t get peer pressured into how you should do your thing. Want to deep-fry your turkey? Check your homeowner’s insurance and then knock yourself out.  Brine if you must, roast covered or uncovered, baste or tent or whatever works for you. The house will smell divine all day long.
·      Get the extra bottle of wine. When the questions start about possible matrimonial futures or the stories about your boyfriend’s ex-wife or the passive-aggressive commentary on your rattan table accessories, you’ll be grateful for the chance to sip and smile with unrelenting eye contact until the offender looks away in shame. Maybe you should buy two extra bottles.

This holiday, my guests and I will enjoy unbrined turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, whatever vegetable my boyfriend chooses, waldorf salad with bananas and raisins, macaroni and cheese, and rolls. While I’d be happy to skip the cranberry sauce altogether, we shall have the berried kind because there are strong feelings about the need for it and too many sharp objects in the house to take the risk.   

I will not use the giblets. I haven't eaten a giblet since it was my responsibility to cook the turkey. There's just no reason for that. I do slow simmer the neck for broth that I will use in the stuffing (dressing, actually as it does NOT go inside the bird, because - ew), and sometimes the gravy if needed. Growing up, my family added chopped hardboiled egg to the gravy too - another culinary preference that I've learned is not commonplace outside of my mother's family. 

There will be pie. For many years, I was the grateful guest of friends each Thanksgiving (along with my dog - the real attraction) who ordered much of the meal pre-prepared. Delicious, yes, but missing that "roasted all day" aroma that permeates the house and tortures your soul. Through a complex backstory that I won't recreate here, they end up with a pumpkin pecan pie each year that is one of the best things I have ever tasted IN MY LIFE. It took me about four years to get a hold of the recipe, modify it slightly, and start to make my own. It turns out that one "batch" makes three pies. Perhaps if I was better at math, I could work out how to get just the right amount of filling for one or two, but right now, I double the original recipe and that makes three perfectly.  I take one to my uncle's house over the holiday weekend usually. My work colleague Keith starts his lobby for the third pie to be shared at the office pretty early in the season. I can't blame him.

But pie is another cornerstone of the culinary experience. If you don't dig the custardy deliciousness or can't eat pecans, another pie is required. Should that be apple, cherry (I hope not), blueberry (perhaps, if there is ice cream), or a cold pie like lemon meringue or chocolate silk? I am willing to relinquish control over pie number two to Dave's youngest foodie-in-the-making daughter. Go to town, sister - I'm sure it will be delicious.

We will eat too much, and then have pie. And if I’m convincing, perhaps we will have a board or card game before we all succumb to tryptophan turkey comas. Probably not, but I’m a Thanksgiving optimist.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Poetry on Demand

I went to Asheville over the holiday weekend with my boyfriend. We debated a list of possible destinations for his birthday that were driveable, fun, and a new adventure. My last visit to Asheville had to be twenty years ago and  he had never been there, so it seemed a good choice. We visited the Biltmore Estate as one must, and it was gorgeous, but the highlight of our trip was a moment that we could have easily missed.

On a whim, we drove downtown on Saturday night and immediately realized that pretty much everyone else in North Carolina had the same idea.  After a few laps around the bustling city center with no sign of an open parking spot, we spotted a van full of fellow tourists pulling out of a space and seized the moment. In truth, we only caught this lucky break because we'd been stopped at the same intersection for three lights, so remember that next time you are held up somewhere.

A few streets were closed for construction around the Vance Memorial, so traffic was even more congested. College-aged protesters stood around the monument waving signs calling for an end to violence and racism and whoo-whooing as cars passed and their occupants yelled support. The noise  along with street musicians and visitors just added to the positive revelry. My boyfriend crossed the street to get a closer peek at the protest and I took the opportunity to chat with this guy:

His name is Phil and he writes poetry on the spot for donations. He taps them out on his charming blue typewriter. When I approached him, he had been chatting with the two police officers you see above. The officer on the right was reading a poem and the conversation seemed friendly. My impression was that they were really there to keep an eye on the demonstration across the street, but that required little more than observation. Phil told me that it was problematic to appear to "sell" his work, but that he would happily write something up and we could video record it and even take a picture of the finished product. That way, it was a performance, not a sale. He would keep the poem itself.

 Phil and I chatted about writing. He's working on a novel. I told him about pitching agents a couple of weeks earlier and we commiserated about the waiting. We've both had some shorter pieces published and we both try to keep writing as a regular activity.

About this time, Dave returned. Intrigued, he asked Phil to write a poem for him. As Phil suggested, I recorded the conversation. The file is too large to share here, but Phil asks us about our visit, what we've been doing in town. He asks me what I like about Dave and then asks Dave the same about me. And then he gets to work, clacking out the lines on his blue typewriter sitting on the sidewalk, Asheville's corner poet on demand.

He reads us our poem.

Here is the finished product.

We wished Phil well, sorry that the cash we combined for his "donation" didn't seem enough for the joy of the moment. And then we continued our exploration down Biltmore Avenue. We had a lovely evening.

But our thoughts returned to Phil and our poem. This young man was chasing his dream. He interacted with people everyday, seeing them in a way they did not see themselves. He made art and through that effort, he made the world a little better for each of his benefactors.

I hope he finishes his novel and it finds its way to publication. I'd read it.

Our Asheville weekend continued to amaze. If you have the opportunity to visit, definitely do. My food wishes were all granted thanks to the following:

Tupelo Honey - best shrimp and grits I've ever had
Biscuit Head - biscuits (duh!) and blackberry jam
Jonny Mac's Low Country Grill and BBQ - Run, don't walk to get some pulled pork here! And the beans are not what you would expect, but oh so delicious. If we'd had room, I'd have tried the apple cranberry walnut pie, but we were stuffed. The ribs, chicken, and mac and cheese were also delicious.
And Publix for the subs you will want for your Great Smoky Mountains National Park creek side picnic.

Get out there and see the world and don't forget to stop and chat with the poets and artists out there. It will be a gift for you both.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Pitch Slam and Other Writer Lessons From the WD Conference In New York

Last week, I attended my first Writer’s Digest Conference in Midtown New York City. I’ve been to other conferences/conventions before, including Bouchercon (the world mystery convention scheduled in different cities each year) and Malice Domestic (annual cozy mystery convention in the DC area), but this was the first time that the ENTIRE attending body was comprised of writers looking for publication avenues.

First, the event itself was pretty well-organized and that’s coming from an ex-Disney person who is always looking for the best attendee experience. The host hotel was quite nice and is well-placed in the city for exploring. This was important as my mother accompanied me and spent her days seeing the sights while I was in sessions on pitching agents, perfecting the first page, or crafting a good mystery.

I seized the opportunity to participate in a “Pitch Slam” as well, but more about that later.

Choosing the sessions to attend gave me a little anxiety as we are provided five tracks: Getting Published, Platform and Promotion, The Business of Being an Author, Craft, and Genre Studies. Here are some of the sessions I attended, jumping from track to track:

Pitch Perfect (Paula Munier)
This session was extended only to Pitch Slam attendees and covered what to do to prepare for that event. Talking about one’s book is difficult, but even more so when you are nervous and on a three minute timer – like an egg.  Paula Munier is an agent with Talcot Notch Literary and gave us good advice on crafting a 50-100 word elevator pitch that we can practice and be ready to give anytime, anywhere. She shared a story about a pitch done in the ER before an emergency appendectomy that led to a book deal, so that pitch should be a natural part of the vocabulary.

She stressed knowing the genre and subgenre, which for some means doing a little research on comps (comparable titles) and where those fall. At the end of the day, publishing is a business, so understanding how your book will fit into the market is important. As it happens, I was asked several times about my genre and subgenre during my agent conversations. Is my mystery considered cozy? Thriller? Crime fiction? Niche like culinary mystery? I have an amateur sleuth, so it leans toward cozy, but I also have a some swearing and a bloody stabbing, so hard to say. Fortunately, due to the many Bouchercons I’ve attended, I was able to talk about other books with primary characters with jobs that expose them to other people’s lives naturally.  It’s also a plus that my book could easily be a series.

The bad news is that I was told several times that the sweet spot for publishing debut fiction is 90,000 to 100,000 words and I have 60,000.  There needs to be enough book there to justify the selling point. That’s a worry for another day.

So, to recap – Know your title (don’t say “working title”), word count, type (mystery in my case), comparable titles, Main Action/Plot/Big idea, Theme, USP (Unique Selling Proposition – concept, unique setting, unique voice, author’s credentials). 

Don’t bring stuff – they don’t want to carry things from every person they speak to. If they want pages or a synopsis, they will provide information on how to send it electronically.

Don’t chit chat. Introduce yourself politely, give your pitch, and then stop talking. Give them an opportunity to ask questions.

Don’t go past time limit. We had a few agents break this one, which was very stressful for the rest of us waiting, but I was easily able to say what I needed to say, answer questions and still be friendly inside of my three minutes.

I’m definitely glad I attended this session as it helped me prepare and feel more at ease in advance of my Pitch Slam.

Perfecting Page One (Hank Phillippi Ryan)
I’m familiar with Hank Phillippi Ryan from previous Bouchercons, so I felt a little like an insider though we’ve never met. Her session on getting page one right was helpful. She passed around a mailing list and if you signed up, she offered a free one-page critique. She also gave us a handout (which I love) so there was less pressure to try and capture everything in my notes. She provided many examples and talked through what worked and didn’t.

Writing a Mystery Novel: A Crash Course (Hallie Ephron)
I got to chat with Hallie Ephron for a few minutes while we both waited for the elevator on the 32nd floor. She is very friendly and approachable. She mentioned later in the day that she used to be a teacher and that combined with her bestselling book on writing mysteries made her a “must see” on my conference to do list. She did not disappoint.

She also had a great handout which I won’t reproduce here, but I can share what she covered.

Mystery genre conventions
The difference between mystery, suspense, and thriller
Mystery subgenres
Series vs. Standalones
Plot: telling both stories – the crime and the sleuth’s journey
Dramatic structure
Opening hooks
The challenge of finding page one
A flawed protagonist
Make it personal
Plot twists that raise the stakes
A worthy villain
Supporting cast
Handling backstory

After this session, I made what had been a short prologue, a short chapter one instead.  Also, I recommend reading The Killing Floor by Lee Child. In addition to just being a really good read, this book was the example of how to do many things right, particularly at the beginning of the story. It was also the example used for good pitches. And just go out and get her book.

Mastering Plot Twists (Jane Cleland)
Jane Cleland has a chart that she uses to write a roadmap for herself before writing out the full book. This chart is built on the concept of “TRDs” (twist/reversal/danger) at predetermined intervals and the interplay of the “highway” (main storyline) and two “service roads” (subplots). With this structure, she completes a novel a year. She asserts that this method works for nearly every type of writing including memoir, children’s lit, narrative nonfiction, literary fiction, and genre fiction. I can see the logic here, and perhaps this is a useful tool to make sure that the pacing is consistent, but it felt manufactured in a way that I’m not yet ready to think about concerning my writing. I may feel differently when I’m deeper into my outlining for the next book.

The Effective Query Letter Workshop (Janet Reid)
Janet Reid is a riot. This was a fun session and one I found to be very helpful. She does not sugarcoat it. She also had a handout, but the crowd snapped them up, so she kindly emailed me one after the session. She gave Yes and No examples for all parts of the query process, including “Demonstrate that you are not looney tunes” and “A query is not a synopsis.”

Include: word count, title, any publishing credits

(Instant rejection) the phrases “fiction novel” or “surefire best seller,” ideas for cover art, your ideas about the film potential, generic salutations like “dear agent”

(Other annoying things to NOT DO) begging, flattery, self-deprecation, quoting rejection letters, quoting critique groups, rhetorical questions, writing in your killer’s persona

She provided a sample form/structure for a query, including a helpful tip I did not know before (and I teach how to write queries) and that is not to have any live links in your email query – include your email address, website, etc, but not as live links as these often catch in the spam filters so your query never reaches its destination.

Here’s her recommended structure:

Subj: QUERY – Title by author

Dear (name of agent)

First: 100 word paragraph answering “what is this book about.” Have a line break every three lines.
Second: genre/word count.

Third: Pub credits and bio

Four: any kind words, how you found me, why you picked me to query

Closing: Thank you for your time and consideration.

Your name
Your telephone
Your website
Your blog
Your twitter name
Your facebook page
Your physical address

Janet’s advice for pitching an agent in person: Hi, my name is…My novel is….(less than 100 words) and then STOP TALKING. If you ramble, they will let you and then there is no time for them to ask questions, including the one you want to hear – can you send me the first 50 pages and a synopsis?

This hour flew by.

Write From the Heart: Crafting and Publishing Powerful Personal Essays: A Hands on Workshop (Estelle Erasmus)
I teach a nonfiction class for undergrads in which they write a personal essay as part of the completion requirements. This session had some real nuts and bolts advice for getting essays structured in a way that makes them relevant/timely and would get them noticed by editors. We spent a lot of time on powerful intros, even having the audience scribble out possible first sentences and then workshopping them on the spot.

She also had a handout and plenty to cover. This still felt a little rushed as there were excerpts shared that took up some time, but all the content, including links to the full articles, were included in the handout. She also provided a list of possible outlets for personal essays, so that made this very helpful and encouraging.

The highlights: Having a powerful intro, create your arc, endings that resonate, titles that transform, mine your life for ideas, editor etiquette, and get an editor’s attention.

From Manuscript to Book: What Every Writer Should Know (Barbara Poelle)
Barbara kicked it off by providing her query email and encouraged the entire room to send a query to her.

She spent a lot of time talking through what happens after the query letter. How do advances work? What is the timing for all the stages up to publication? She covers how authors can best position themselves for success. For example, while you are waiting for your agent to get your book accepted by a house, be working on the next one.

Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Your First Novel (Hallie Ephron)
Again, Hallie is just the best. We took apart a page of bad storytelling as a group and then she gave us some basics: One inch margins all around, number the pages, header with title/name/email, good sized readable font (12 pt Times New Roman), DOUBLE SPACE, indent paragraphs, use page breaks, spell check, grammar check.

Openings to avoid: Waking up, “if only I’d known”, My name is…, It was a dark and stormy night.

Also, too many characters too fast, disembodied dialogue, nothing happens, over the top before you’ve earned it

Avoid generalities, avoid writing that draws attention to itself, ADVERBS, avoid dialogue tags other than said or asked.

Avoid too much backstory too soon.

There was more, but seriously, just get the book. You need it.

And then: Pitch Slam!
Pitch Slam was like speed dating for literary agents. I attended the second of four sessions. We were provided a list of attending agents so that we could research them in advance to see what kind of work they were interested in. After identifying appropriate agencies, I also removed any agency I’d queried before. This whittled the list of 66 agents in attendance to about 16. Imagine a giant room with tables ringing the perimeter. Two agents at each table with signs taped to the wall behind their heads. They let in the huge group of hopeful authors who had been lined up down the hall for at least a half hour and they flowed in at the hour mark like a flood, desperately searching for the agent that matched their rudimentary map. Any hope of speaking to a new agent every three minutes was quickly dashed by the lines the queued up in front of all the tables. So, I managed to speak to 7 of my 16.

Agent 1 was a “I don’t handle cozies, but my colleague does. Send her a query.” So I scribbled that info down, thanked the agent and moved on. She did tell me that my pitch was good, so she must have felt bad about saying no thank you to my enthusiastic plot summary.

Agent 2 was a no, thank you. I thanked her and went to the next line. Here is where the waiting started for real. Every agent that I needed had a minimum of three people in front of me – one pitching and two waiting. I started to get anxious again, scanning the room for shorter lines and squinting to see the names taped to the wall.

Agent 3 asked me to send 50 pages and a synopsis! And so did Agents 4, 5, 6, and 7. 

Though I was sorry that I could not speak to all the agents on my list, I will send them a query letter noting that I’d hoped to speak to them in person, and share my short pitch. I have nothing to lose. I will also query Barbara (who asked us to) and Janet (who did not ask us to, but just sounds awesome). I will send them out this weekend when I have the time to make sure they are clean and free of silly errors. And then I will hope for the best along with all the others who went to NY hoping to land a book deal.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Cease Fire

A few weeks ago, I reported downtown for jury duty, thinking and hoping that, like all the other times, if I was still there when the numbers called neared mine that I would be "thanked and respectfully dismissed." I was not.

Instead I was selected as an alternate juror for a murder trial. Alternate Juror #2.

Now, on paper, this is great, right? A mystery writer selected for a murder trial? But, like many of us, my first reaction was - Oh, man! This is a terrible time to be stuck in a courtroom for four days! My mom was visiting and I was days away from a big project launch at work and this meant my team would have to pick up the slack for me. But fate laughs at our silly plans, so jury duty was happening. And, once the finality of the situation settled, I really did find it interesting and certainly hoped to make the best of it. I learned a lot that countless episodes of Law and Order had not prepared me for. For example, when the counsel "approaches the bench," the defendants go too.

That's right - defendants, plural. The case was to try two women charged with 21 charges each ranging from 1st degree murder and attempted murder to assorted weapons charges as prior felons. There were two surviving victims - one pregnant -  and one deceased man who had been shot five times, three of them in the back.

I saw autopsy photos and heard testimony from the medical examiner. I heard from a ballistics expert, and learned about casings and bullets. I saw the bullets removed from the victims, looking more like spiky washers than lumps of metal. I saw video from a body camera worn by a responding patrolman and from the crime cameras posted throughout this city marked by blue flashing lights. I heard two days of testimony from the homicide detective who brought and referred to his murder book - a large binder with reports and information about the incident. (I don't know if Baltimore's police detectives call it the murder book, but they do on Bosch, so...)

And then there were the witnesses. Not in suits or dresses, but in shackles and orange jumpsuits. To say that they were uncooperative would be an understatement.  Each expressed that they had no intention of testifying, no memory of anything related to this case, didn't know anyone else in the courtroom, and so on. One also threw in that she was "taking the fifth" several times just in case.

That was one of the surviving victims. The dead man was her husband.

The other witness who swore he wasn't there was not only on the video footage speaking at length with the patrol officer, he also made a lengthy statement at the police department on video (wearing the same blood covered shirt) where he walked them through the entire evening peppered with "feel me?" every few seconds to make sure they understood. He called 911 from the scene which we heard  in the courtroom. He had been in the car with the victims and was the only one of the four that was not shot.

Does this sound pointless? It was confusing for me at first, why the state would bring in uncooperative witnesses? Why would the victims refuse to testify? Why would they now be incarcerated when they are not charged related to this case? But by Day 3 I started to understand better.

Each day the jurors would arrive in the morning, go through security with our juror badges on, go sit in the locked room where we had to buzz someone if a bathroom break was needed. We were not allowed to wander the halls. Our bathroom was unlocked for us each time we needed to use it and then relocked. We were escorted to and from the courtroom down the hall. I found myself avoiding eye contact with anyone other than the judge, the public defenders and state's attorney and the other jurors. When coming to and from, I watched the floor. By day 2, I was not comfortable eating lunch in the open, wearing my badge, so I brought my sandwich back to the bland juror room and ate it there. We were sent at lunchtime to the main courthouse to collect our juror pay which was exactly the amount it cost me to park my car nearby. We felt conspicuous, exposed, vulnerable. Spectators from the gallery milled about the halls outside the courtroom, talking on cell phones or whispering to each other. Several times, the judge had ordered the bailiffs to remove spectators from the courtroom. My seat did not allow me much of a view of the room, only the area where evidence or witnesses were presented. By lunch on day 3, the jurors sent a note to the judge and before we left the courtroom, the halls were cleared by sheriff's deputies and were were escorted down a set of back stairs and walked outside, all the way to our cars if desired. It was unsettling.

On day 4, the case was turned over to the jury, and as one of the two remaining alternates (one was pulled in for a juror dismissed on day 2) I was released. I did not hear or take part in deliberations. I did not get to examine the evidence, much of which was only barely passed before us or not shown at all as it was formally admitted. I went home. I went back to work. I visited with my mother. I went out to a show with my boyfriend and  some friends. But I didn't feel right.

For days, I checked the Maryland Judiciary website for results of the case, though it took a full week for that to get updated. The defendants had been convicted of 2nd degree murder and attempted murder and other charges. I wish I could say that I was reassured, but I was not really. I felt less comfortable driving through the city. I felt less comfortable at home or leaving home or going to someone else's home.

And then I watched, for the first time, season 1 of The Wire.

In the very first episode, a court case is going on (a murder trial of course) in the very room where I had been selected as a juror. The establishing shot of the fictional crime in question bore an uncanny resemblance to the evidence I'd been shown as a juror. It seems unfair to people who have suffered real trauma to say that I felt a little PTSD, so lets just say that I have a new uneasiness now. I probably had it when I moved to Baltimore more than a decade ago and I'm sure that it resurfaced after my home was burglarized awhile back, but I've been coasting along I think in a state of avoidance.

Last weekend, a group of activists tried to get the residents to agree to a weekend without murders. It did not go well.  A headline from CNN:

Second deadly shooting in Baltimore's 'Nobody kill anybody' weekend

The news lately is filled with terrible, terrible things - the latest being the demonstrations by white supremacists and then the killing of a peaceful protester to those demonstrations. Our President, while being just a constant embarrassment in general, is tossing around inflammatory rhetoric wherever possible, and tweeting about nuclear war. We seem to be slipping backward into a horrible newsreel of nightmares that didn't seem possible the first time around. There seems to be nowhere to hide from this scenario. No one to escort us down the back stairs and away from the threats all around us.

I don't know what to do about it. Except write. And stand up for people when I can. And love those around me. And try not to react to bullies in kind. And try to appreciate all that I have. And to be generous when I can. And kind.

I have to believe that kindness can make a difference. I have to.

I'll get around to season 2 of The Wire soon, but not right now. For now I need to walk outside a little in the sun and the woods, I need to play mini golf with my family, I need to learn how good barbecue ribs are done. I need to spend time with my dog. I wish you all the same.