The writer on the eve of her 28th birthday

Congratulate me, folks. Barring any freak accidents in the next 12 hours, I’ve survived the 27 Club.

Years ago I wrote an angsty short story from the perspective of a singer on the night before her 28th birthday. She grapples with death, trying to decide what would be more beneficial to her celebrity: living another day or dying just in time to join the 27 Club, the group of talented musicians who all died at that age. That story’s not posted on this site, as it was written by a sheltered 20-year-old in the thick of mourning Amy Winehouse.

I was never at risk of joining the 27 Club — apart from the occasional boozie night out and ill-advised habit of jaywalking, I rarely do anything to put my life in jeopardy, and I’m one of the very fortunate ones who has never desired let alone contemplated ending their own life. I also have a no-food-in-bed policy, which rules out taking the Mamma Cass route.

(For those who don’t get the joke, the Mamas and the Papas singer was found dead with a half-eaten ham sandwich on the bedside table, or so legend has it. Also she was 32, not 27.)

But 27 meant something more to me. Last year I announced it was my “golden age,” as I was born on the 27th and my lucky number has unoriginally but consistently been 27. It was going to be the year of publishing and handstands, style evolutions and more cooking.

Now today I’m finding myself taking inventory. Omaha is still “in sub” with publishers via my agent, and I’m not as far along in Nobody’s Hero as I hoped to be by now. I still can’t do a handstand, though my crow pose is fly (heh). My hair grew out, I hated it, and I cut it back to the pixie I had throughout my early 20s. I bought Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook and made exactly two recipes from it.

But then I think of what did happen. I did have a job change that plunged me into a new world of strategic communications during a turbulent time in our company’s history. I fell even harder for the Man with Time On His Arm. I spent 10 days in London, two of which I spent touring on my own and discovering not only the city but also myself. I bought my first pair of Vans.

So maybe the biggest lesson of 27 was to have goals, but be OK setting them aside to let other opportunities take center-stage. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”

Which is why I’ve decided to let the big things happen as they will and focus on a couple little, attainable goals for 28:

  1. Watch more documentaries, especially the kind that make me cry. I long for the same hopeful weeping I experienced during just the trailer for Knock Down the House.
  2. Get into Bruce Springsteen’s music. Like, wrapped in an American flag bandana, into it. Right now my phone has only “Hungry Heart” and “Pink Cadillac,” and I’m a disgrace to my generation and the one before it.
  3. Start being OK with mixing metallics in my jewelry choices.
  4. Admit publicly that I like Imagine Dragons and always have, from when they dropped “Radioactive” and played in our college street for free, to now when they make anthems for sports commercials. There. I did it. Check.
  5. Accept the fact that I will never watch every episode of 30 Rock, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother because there’s too many of them and I’m particular about my sitcoms.

In a year I’ll have to see just how many of these I achieved. Now I have to go learn all the words to “Born to Run.”

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A letter home from Camp Dungeons & Dragons

Dear whoever,

I’m writing to you from a cozy but comfortable apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. There’s no seat back on the ottoman? piano bench? cushioned side table? that I’m sitting on, but I’ve been too busy leaning into this experience to care.

That’s a lie — my butt and back hurt — but hey, wasn’t that a great sentiment?

So far, Camp Dungeons and Dragons has been fun. Half of us is entirely new to the concept, while the other half is patiently tutoring us through character creation. Many of us have to get used to a game without limits: As a role-playing game, there’s no rules of what you can or can’t do, provided the dice roll in your favor.

At the head of the table sits our camp counselor, Kyle, the Dungeon Master himself, educating us on gameplay and character creation. Any race can be any class with any background, he explains, which means there’s near-infinite possibilities.

The nine others of us await our turn to peruse the guidebooks that will give us the details on what weapons a ranger versus rogue carries; what the differences are between green, black and red dragon-borns; how much strength versus dexterity a barbarian gets; and whether it’s more advantageous to be a sorcerer or wizard. There’s a difference, I’ve learned.

I’m Hepburn, the human barbarian who became an outlander after learning her parents, half-elves, had lied to her all her life about her identity. When they finally confessed after I couldn’t do the spells the other kids were doing, I ran away from home and wandered the land, not to be seen again until now, when I showed up with a glave, a dagger, four javelins, a staff, and what appears to be a viper fang dangling from one ear.

For a group of creatives, character creation is the easy part. It’s the math to figure out skill levels that requires us to snort lines of eraser shavings as we struggle with simple addition and multiplication.

After hours of preparation fueled by Totino’s pizza rolls, peppermint patties, carrot sticks, cheddar popcorn, beer, and a dozen Do-Rite donuts, the Dungeon Master announces it’s time to embark on our journey.

The setting: Neverwinter, a metropolis with a thriving gig economy where Gundren Rockseeker has recruited this ragtag team of wizards, humans, bird-people (“aarakocra,” campmate Alyssa calls it), halflings and demon-like tieflings to guard a caravan of food to a neighboring village. A bard styled after Orson Welles in his later years provides endless entertainment and infuriation.

Gameplay only lasts about two hours, with all of us struggling to track what kind of character each person is playing — apart from Orson, that is, as Cody is loathe to let us forget his identity — and half of us needing guidance on how to add attack bonuses, do perception checks, and determine damage points.

Our entourage takes on a group of overly amorous and jealousy-prone goblins that kidnapped Mr. Rocksucker (though I’m still not convinced this isn’t a setup on his part to get us to work for free — the gig economy is a capitalistic scam, after all). We tend to leave carnage in our wake, dropping goblins from cloud-shrouded treehouses, blasting them with poisonous gas, and even forcing their Wookiee-esque ringleader to laugh and vomit himself into submission.

By the end, my butt and back aren’t nearly as sore from my seat as my abs and chest are from laughing so hard at Katie the gruff-voiced Zorus the Tiefling, announce he is wearing “just pants,” Cody the reincarnated Orson Welles throwing a cream pie to cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on our Wookiee nemesis, and one of our more mild-mannered camp mates, Mike, getting swept up into the game and yelling at Alyssa:

“What do you mean? I’m half-elf, bitch! Oh my god, I am so sorry.

Leaving camp behind is hard, but we’ll be back in September when Kyle leads us to Byssia, a chain of islands and atolls amid conflict between the “free people” and the “civilized” capital. I promise to write frequently from our waterbound adventure.

Love from camp,

Kate, aka Hepburn

Excerpt from Nobody’s Hero: Niku the Nuke

I saw a tweet today asking writers “If your novel were made into a movie, which scene would you hope readers should demand to see on the big screen?” I’m a third done with Nobody’s Hero, and so far this is my answer:

Niku the Nuke blasted through the rooftop door off its hinges, armed with his usual set of knives and grenades. But Nightfire had deterrents that didn’t need to be thrown to work. One tap of her wrists together, and a blinding shock of light made him stagger backward and almost tumble down the stairs he had just ascended.

Nightfire grabbed him by the front of his white button-down shirt — Niku was known for donning a bullet- and fireproof suit lined with his weapons — and dragged him through the gap in the copper chloride line she had drawn. At the center of the roof was an air conditioning unit that she leaned his groaning body against. Aiming her knuckles at his throat, she squeezed her fist, and a collar sprung from her gauntlet and snapped around his neck, fusing to the metal unit.

“Are you going to kill me?” he coughed, yanking at the collar. 

“Nah,” she said. “Not my style.” She started to walk away, stepping over the thick stripe of copper chloride grains. 

“Not from what I heard,” he yelled after her. 

Pru shrugged — these high-stakes villains were always trying to get in a good last line. If it wasn’t Quartz telling her she’d regret this, it was Flashbang telling her they needed to talk. He hadn’t contacted her again, but she kept using that as the thread along which to string Foster’s curiosity. 

Anyway, she didn’t need to speak to have the last word tonight. One scrape of her heel along the roof’s rough concrete, and sparks landed among the copper chloride. She watched gleefully as blue flames sprung up, coiling themselves around one of the most wanted criminals in Centropolis now strapped helplessly to an A/C unit. 

Kurt Warren had been flying helicopters for the Centropolis Broadcast Network’s news team for almost twenty years, starting when he got back on his feet after a decade in the Air Force. He didn’t know how else to use his best skill, and according to his doctor, he needed to find an outlet. Truthfully, his pension and his wife’s family’s money were enough for them to live on comfortably, but he needed something to do with his time. Volunteering at the American Legion was no longer an option after he had belted that protestor who came in trying to get people to come help him fight “a real battle” against the murderous Planned Parenthood facility across the street. So he signed on to fly the pretty redheaded traffic reporter from Channel 5 above the major highways.  

He saw plenty of car crashes, jack-knifed semis and tire fires in the morning, but nothing like what he saw flying over mountainous deserts in the middle of Operation Desert Storm. Which made the job a perfect fit — skill-oriented, but relatively peaceful. 

Until tonight, that was.  

The night-shift chopper pilot, Sameer, was in an operating room with his wife at that moment while their fourth child was being born. So Kurt was behind the controls, bobbing above Centropolis City College’s campus while a reporter he had never met angled her own smartphone camera out the window. He tried to remind her that they had a real camera loaded onto the chopper and that it was probably getting better footage for the broadcast station’s internet and TV feeds. 

“Yeah, but this is for my ’gram,” she said. “Four thousand people are watching my personal feed right now. That’s more than all of my last month’s work combined.” 

Kurt shook his head, flying around to give her a better angle. All these young reporters were the same, trying to prove that they personally were there when something like this happened. Though to be fair, this was truly an eight-in-six-billion chance to see what was below with your own eyes instead of on some screen.  

The whole world would have to rely on Kurt’s helicopter or one of the other three circling the top of the Chemistry Building to see the beautiful blue flames burning like neon in a 500-square-foot outline of Nightfire’s symbol. 


Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.

 

Nightmare No. 8952: Hurricane

Last night I dreamt that I was in some kind of complex — it reminded me of the split-level Des Moines house my cousin, her husband, and my two second cousins lived in when I was about nine or ten. We visited a handful of times, and what I remember most about it was how even though there were few windows in the basement, it still felt bright because of how many blank white walls there were.

Maybe that’s not how it really was, but that’s how I remember it. White blank walls, white berber carpet that stuck to calices that formed on our heels from playing outside in our bare feet.

I wasn’t in their house, but I was in a house like it. It was bigger, one level. Lots of different rooms and empty desks. There were a number of faceless people — not horror-movie faceless, just unknown — rushing around, leaning mattresses up agains the few windows set within the blank, white walls as the wind and rain picked up outside.

We were all about to die, and we all knew it. 

As the rest of the dream cast yelled orders at each other and quaked at the creaks and moans the house was making in the hurricane winds, I had one objective: Get my phone to work so I could call my parents. But I couldn’t get my phone to work. I’d plug it in to get it to power up, and it wouldn’t have a signal. I’d unplug it and move around the house, among the hustling mattess-movers, and it would lose juice and go black. At one point, I thought my phone was working and yelled: “Mom, Dad, we’re not going to live through this. I love you” only to find that it had dropped the call moments after connecting.

All the while, walls started collapsing in as people around me ducked under the empty desks and mattresses to take cover from the storm. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to two of the most important people in my life.

I’ve never felt dread like that, both during and after. I’ve had my share of terrifying nightmares and stress dreams, but not in recent memory have I had one that made me wake up feeling not scared, but doomed. I was sleeping on my couch last night because of house guests, and I woke up shaking, my fingers clawing through the crocheted loops of my blanket. Despite the clock reading 4 a.m., I wanted to text my mom, just in case.

Never will I assume that having that nightmare last night counts as understanding the fear, sadness and hopelessness that fills people actually facing these certain-death situations without any chance to say goodbye — mass shootings being (despicably) the first example that comes to mind. If this is how my body and mind reacts to something in my subconscious as I sleep, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be wide awake and facing the very real threat of leaving life and loved ones behind.

Writespiration: “The Unthinkable Has Happened” 

Tonight I was working on the Nobody’s Hero synopsis when I took a break — OK, several breaks — to check my Twitter feed for the writing community’s response to my question of “How do I write a synopsis without tearing all my hair out?”

Instead, I found this piece on Vulture.com:

https://www.vulture.com/2019/04/jayson-greene-memoir-once-more-we-saw-stars-book-excerpt.html

It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Jayson Greene called Once More We Saws Stars, and it’s heartbreaking. The story on its own — how the author and his wife lost their young daughter to a falling brick from an apartment building window sill — is tragic, but the way Greene writes it…well, I haven’t been so moved by writing in God knows how long.

“‘She’s going to be okay, ‘ he tells me, and I hear a touch of a plea behind the reassurance in his voice. I don’t know very much yet. But I had seen the haunted looks on the EMTs’ faces when I entered, and I had already behld the terrible sight of Greta’s body, lifeless and birdlike, lying limp on a massive table.

“‘No, John,’ I say grimly. ‘No, I think she won’t.'” 

Emotional context aside, that sentence structure is jarring. It’s clearly the author’s voice, and it’s so purely caught in the moment — distracted and absorbed all at once by the events going on around him. 

It feels wrong to say that Greene’s excerpt “inspired” me, as it’s a real and terrible moment in his life. But the vulnerability he shows is something every writer should display in cases like these, as it pulls the audience in and makes them feel just as susceptible to the tragedy of the story.

Note: I wrote this in April, but my internet connection was faulty and the post was never published. Tonight I found it in my drafts folder.

Dispatch from London 1: What Plots Await at the Tower of London

Today I toured the Tower of London via Walks, a company that I used when I was in Rome last summer to see the Vatican in all its claustrophic glory. Our guide, Richard, was fantastic at giving us the highlights and lacing humor and factoid into the big picture of how this complex — a village, rather than a tower — served its purpose over centuries as a fortress, palace, prison and epicenter of drama for the royal families of England. 

Maybe writers should try their hands at being walking tour guides. I know a number who could learn a thing or two from Richard.

Anyway, there were so many little details that could lead to amazing stories. I found myself wishing I could go back and major in history along with journalism so I’d feel qualified to write some of these potential topics:

  • “Cromwell’s Mistake:” There’s a conspiracy that when the original Crown Jewels were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell after he overthrew the throne, they weren’t totally burned. So there could be some remnants of the original Crown Jewels floating around out there, but A) you’ll never be able to prove it and B) If you could, you wouldn’t be able to do anything public with them without incuring the wrath of the current royal family. So what happens if someone discovers that the family heirloom is actually centuries old and escaped Cromwell’s purge?
  • “The Whipping Boy:” The term “whipping boy” comes from Henry VIII’s rule. When his only son, the sickly and weak Edward, misbehaved, they wouldn’t punish him like they did other kids — with the whip. Instead, they’d whip one of his friends, the “whipping boy,” and he’d have to watch. Imagine a two-sided story of Edward and his friend, the “whipping boy,” as their friendship is tested by this situation. Of course, Edward died at age 14 after serving only two years as king. I’d like to think this story ends with his coronation.
  • “Two Princes:” When one of the many Richards took the thrown, he was actually usurping it from his nephew, the rightful king, and his nephew’s brother, the rightful second heir. He promised the young boys he’d just lead until they were old enough, and in the meantime they could stay at the Tower of London and learn to fight and joust. The day he was coronated, the boys disappeared, never to be seen again. Their presumable bodies were found buried in an archway under the tower years and years later. I guess if they did DNA testing, they’d be able to confirm that the bodies are indeed theirs, but Queen Elizabeth II won’t let that happen. After all, if they’re confirmed to be the two sons, that puts the legitimacy of the current royal family in jeopardy. I’d love to do a “what if” piece on the rogue anthropologist who submits the DNA for testing anyway.
  • “Jane:” When Henry VIII’s heir was close to dying, one of the court’s highest advisors sought a way to insert his own family into the royal lineup by having his son marry Jane Grey, the most likely (in his mind) to succeed Edward. But what he didn’t count on was Mary, Henry VIII’s firstborn, to show up with an army supporting her claim to the throne. But there she was, and so Lord Guildford Dudley and his wife, Lady Jane Grey, were executed as usurpers. Guildford was executed in the town where everyone could watch, but not until after he had to watch Jane die in the middle of the Tower of London’s courtyard (the same spot where two of Henry VIII’s wives met their end — there’s a lovely monument there now). Guildford apparently scratched “Jane” into the window sill of his quarters, and it’s still their today. Just retelling the story from his perspective would be interesting.

Of course, people probably have already told these stories. I just ordered Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book, English HistoryMad Brief, Irreverant and Pleasurable. If you have a better suggestion, please share it in the comments. I picked Smith’s book because my mom grew up near him and has mentioned him when talking about her childhood. 

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