Secret Handshake: Scenes From Under The Same Sun

Red Barn-Norfolk

In Under the Same Sun, the town is also a character in the novel. Lives become entwined in various places throughout Unity. An Italian restaurant, waiting in line at the CVS pharmacy, a high school parking lot after a lacrosse banquet, teenagers sharing a joint on a porch roof, and always Dunkin’ Donuts, the hub of this small town. Unity is not one specific town, it is rural America New England style. Old mills, boarded up buildings, loss of job opportunities, along with entrepreneurs opening breweries and farm to table restaurants, beautiful countryside, breathtaking hiking trails. Hard times and hope.
A widowed Dad raises his twin daughters with the help of his mother-in-law. An edgy, mysterious English teacher who grew up in Unity returns to help her dying father and stays, taking a job at the regional high school. Teenagers dream of escape. Parents wonder how they’ll cover college tuition. And life goes on. People grow old. Neighbors help neighbors. People fall in love.

EXCERPT FROM UNDER THE SAME SUN:

He whispers, “Why are you so far away?”
“Hmmm,” she moans, rolling closer to burrow against him, her body warm.
“Was I making a lot of noise last night?”
“I didn’t hear a peep” she whispers.
Leo walks his fingertips up her arm, her skin as soft as her well-washed, fine cotton pillowcases. He traces the tattoo above her left breast, a small bluebird. She reaches for his hand but brushes his elbow instead. They criss-cross arms, twisting together like a pretzel. Eyes closed, she gropes again for his hand and misses.
“Stay still. What are you doing?” she asks.
In a sleepy voice he replies, “Secret handshake.”

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HOW YOU CAN HELP ME? BUY THE BOOK AND WRITE A REVIEW ON AMAZON

Where do I begin with this subject? It is so fraught with anxiety. Authors are told they need to develop a thick skin but so many of us are sensitive souls. Take John Steinbeck for instance: “Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.”

I learned to write in public. I was working at a mundane job in a cubicle and struggling to keep my sanity. Writing literally saved my life but I had no idea what I was getting into.

The book I wrote, The Reverse Commute, was a roman à clef. Sophie was a strung out, fictional version of myself. She lived in my old house in New Hampshire, her husband painted houses, and she too had squirrels in her bathroom.

One night Sophie is home alone drinking wine and watching Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. She has an epiphany. “This is my life.” The night I was home alone drinking wine and watching Blue Valentine an entire novel popped into my head. From that moment on I couldn’t stop writing.

The novel alternates chapters between Sophie’s story and the story of a young girl also working in a cubicle in the editorial department at the same company where Sophie works in the accounting department.

Several Amazon reviewers didn’t like the fact the chapters alternated between the two women. Many didn’t like the fact the young girl didn’t have a name and that her story led up to the ending while Sophie’s story began after the surprising ending and it is only in the final chapters that the reader is brought back to the fateful day that unites the two women’s stories.

Some readers couldn’t figure things out because the ending didn’t reveal itself until the ending. A few readers even said there was no ending.

Honestly I don’t know what to say to that. Many readers liked the ending. But clearly I had bitten off more than I could chew as a first time writer without the help of a big time New York Publishing editor to straighten it all out and clean it up.

I did promotions on various websites that advertise free Kindle books. I gave away 28,000 copies. Yes, that’s right. 28,000!!! Most of my bad reviews came from readers who wrote things like, “I’m glad I got it for free.”

Let’s just say I’ll never do that again.

Many of these reviewers didn’t like Sophie. They called her a bitch. Ouch! That’s me you’re talking about dear reader. One commented that the writer didn’t know the difference between it’s and its.

I first saw this review when Rich and I were driving across the lonely landscape of eastern Wyoming to deliver our youngest daughter to her summer job at Yellowstone National Park. I had the book with me and started compulsively scouring its pages to find my errors. I found one it’s that should have been its.

“Fucking bitch,” I muttered.

“Hey, give it up,” Rich said. “We’re getting close to the Tetons. Forget those jerks.”

I ignored him and kept searching the book for typos. “You’re missing some fantastic scenery,” Rich kept telling me. But I was obsessed. I couldn’t find a wrong their or there which someone else accused me of. I did find the heal that should have been heel. I started to get paranoid, imagining this one “Heel” had activated a movement and now others were joining in. They were all complaining about IT.

IT felt like a cabal of haters who didn’t like Sophie because of her random liberal comments and her dissatisfaction with being trapped in a cubicle “sitting for health insurance”. One reviewer said, “All the characters seemed to want to move to France. Go ahead then, go there.” One of them even said, “I really didn’t like her and her friends and their wine emergencies.” Hey, those are my good friends you’re talking about. I emailed my friends and apologized for implicating them in this disaster. Channeling Steinbeck, they told me to “forget about those bastards.”

There was also this sort of comment about Sophie: “Usually by the time you’re middle aged you’ve worked through your choices in life. In my opinion, you don’t have daydreams.”

It hurts my fingertips just typing that, but I guess we all have opinions, humble or otherwise. Imagine no longer daydreaming because you believe you’re too old! I understand someone may have a different political perspective but giving up on dreaming because you’re in your fifties? Sorry, that is really depressing and says a lot more about the reviewer than the writer.

But then things turned around and I got a review titled: “The Book With the Amazing Highs and Lows in Reviews”. The reviewer wrote this: “When I read the reviews I picked this up with a huge dose of curiosity – I thought maybe it was one of those books with a load of good reviews that actually sucked – or maybe it was one of those gems that a whole lot of folks just did not get. Some books are like cilantro – you either love it or hate it. For me – I LOVED the book. I do not think this is a spoiler alert – but I am in my 50s and maybe that had something to do with why I loved it so much. There was a perspective I could grab on to with both hands. But I think the same could be said for a person between 25 and 35 – because the story has a strong story line from that perspective as well….Don’t over think the reviews – just relax – read – and enjoy the ride! I fully enjoyed the writing style – and although I did get a bit confused about the parallel story lines at times I REALLY liked it! This is NOT a formulaic romance novel – it is a unique story line with huge doses of life as it really is.”

I never did like cilantro but I’ve grown to love it.

Somehow, in the midst of my deepest despair, while sitting in an Adirondack chair gazing out at the Snake River and talking to a man from New Zealand who was driving a motorcycle through the American West, the idea for my second novel, Take Me Home, took hold. And despite Rich’s concerns that I was missing the passing scenery I took some notes on a man I met in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. He was an interesting guy who worked in a gas station/fireworks shop and had tattooed fingers that read “Next Time”. Both of these guys ended up in Take Me Home, a fun little story about finding love late in life. Not anything I set out to write when I first started this adventure, but it kept me going as it was true, I hadn’t worked out my life choices. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days in a cubicle. I do have an unrealistic belief that dreams do not end until you’re six feet under.

What I originally set out to write was my frustration with the times I lived in. I have always tried to write by the words of the amazing Oliver Sacks.

“The most we can do is to write —intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” 

Stuck in my cubicle, I saw so many problems. Loss of worker representation when unions were busted. Stagnant wages. Pay increases frozen while executive salaries grew ever more extravagant and the corporation you worked for bought out other companies and expected their employees to “absorb” the additional work load because there was no room in the budget for new hires. And of course, there was always the never-ending struggle to obtain affordable health insurance. College tuition expenses were upon us when I wrote the The Reverse Commute. My oldest was a senior in high school and I was faced with the question, “How the hell do we pay for this?”

I look back at that first novel written in 2012 and see the makings of the 2016 election. It was all right there. Some want to blame it all on racism. Yes, there is a lot of that but I still believe the election could have gone a different way if more politicians were familiar with Sophie’s day to day struggles.

I carried on and kept writing. I got better at it. I attended a writers’ conference in Southampton, NY, took a class with Robert Emmett Ginna, and had the opportunity to meet the esteemed James Salter. In my solitary dorm room I tore apart my third novel Life Is All This. I gained the confidence to get back to writing the stories I felt I needed to share.

An Amazon reviewer compared Life Is All This to the work of Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Someone else compared me to Alice McDermott. All despite the fact Sam Ryder, my main character, was not afraid to voice his political opinions.

Believe me, the fact Sam is an opinionated male and Sophie was an opinionated woman has not escaped me. I will admit when I decided I was going to write the third novel from a male perspective I felt liberated. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Richard Ford once said: “Giving a book a bad review is like driving along the road and seeing a hitchhiker and deciding that instead of not picking him up, you’ll run over him. Sorry, I can’t pick you up, but I will kill you.”

He also said this: “I try to find ways to insulate myself from the feelings of bad reviews. The feelings of bad reviews are not so much that somebody doesn’t like your book but that it keeps other people from reading your book. I hate that.”

And this is where you come in my friends. I need your reviews. Reviews not only help people make book buying decisions. There are book promotion websites that advertise new books. Places like Book Bub which a fellow author called a game changer. But you need a certain number of good reviews to get on there. They don’t tell you how many, they won’t admit this is a criteria, but everyone knows it is.

I am bracing myself for the bad reviews. I now know even Pulitzer Prize winning authors get bad reviews and are hurt by them.

When Richard Ford was asked why reviews matter he said this: “They create the all-important buzz. It becomes one of the little strings that are plucked in the hum of what’s going on about a book.”

This is how you can help me. If you like the book please help me create that all-important buzz. WRITE A REVIEW.

Authors are encouraged not to answer their bad reviews. Richard Ford didn’t listen to that advice. He once received a bad review in the New York Times from another famous author, Alice Hoffman. He took one of her books out into his backyard and shot a hole in it. Then he mailed it to her.

I was tempted to fight back, but each time I tried to do it Amazon or Goodreads had a little pop-up reminding me that they strongly advise against it.

Before I started writing this blog I went back and looked at the bad reviews for The Reverse Commute. Not a really good thing to do when you’re experiencing the anxiety of having just released a new novel.

This one from LeftBrainedFemale jumped out at me:
Interesting that while the main character works in Massachusetts, she lives over the state line in “live free or die” New Hampshire where they have no state tax. Unfortunately, the author’s disdain for those of us who truly love our freedom was quite off-putting. I can’t wrap my mind around women with grown children and families still whining about their life choices. It’s one thing to recognize poor choices and work to correct them; quite another to be stuck in the mindset of a moon-eyed star-struck teenager.

It wasn’t the familiar moon-eyed star-struck teenager dagger that got me. Like I said, that says a lot more about LeftBrained than me. It was the Live free or die, false tax scenario she was spewing.

Five years after I published The Reverse Commute, the very common day-to-day struggles of Sophie’s life began to see the light of day. Finally, the media and the politicians discovered the problems of rural America and the struggling middle class. And it was the fake news aspect of the review that now bugged me.

I didn’t pull out a shotgun – I don’t own any guns. I just hit the little X at the top of the box that popped up warning me to not respond to negative reviews then started writing.

Dear LeftBrainedFemale, In these days of misinformation and fake news I just wanted to make sure you were aware of the fact that although Sophie lived in New Hampshire where there is no state income tax and worked in Massachusetts, she would nonetheless have to pay Massachusetts state income tax. Her real estate taxes in NH would be higher than MA because they pay for the schools her kids attended, while her MA withholding tax would help pay for the schools her children didn’t attend. I know this because I made this very same Reverse Commute when it was the only job I could find after 14 months of unemployment after a layoff during the Recession, along with the expense of making Cobra health insurance payments of $1200/month. We all do what we have to do to take care of our families. It’s really important to stay informed, now more than ever.
By the way, I did escape my cubicle after I published this book & my husband and I managed a B&B in CT, so sometimes the mindset of a moon-eyed star-struck teenager isn’t all that crazy. Thanks for giving the book a chance. ~ Sheila

I haven’t heard back from her yet.

~~~~~~

***My advice on writing a review: Don’t overthink it. Write what you liked about the book. One or two lines is fine. You’re not writing a novel. But if you have a lot of good things to say, by all means Go For It! Remember, you don’t have to write like a writer. Write like a reader.*** 

And a great big Thank You to everyone for your support over the years.

Addendum: I did catch a typo above. Advice should have been advise. I corrected it. Shit happens. We make mistakes. No one’s perfect.

Under The Same Sun is available here: http://bit.ly/buyunderthesamesun

Under-the-Same-Kindle cover

On Sale Now: Under The Same Sun

Under-the-Same-Kindle cover

“What happens in Unity, Connecticut could happen anywhere in America.

Under the Same Sun begins at a kitchen table on a school day morning in Unity. The novel paints a picture of a struggling rural town during the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election. A portrait of people familiar to all of us, it tells the story of their desires, disappointments, divisions and, ultimately, the beauty and the frustrations of day-to-day life in America’s forgotten places.

Leo Heaton is a widowed father who lives with his twin daughters, Emily and Amanda, and his mother-in-law Dori O’Neil. Their lives are interwoven with the townspeople, including an edgy, mysterious high school teacher who is a role model for the Heaton twins. Helen Tremblay has also attracted the attention of their father and they become involved in a secret romance.

The cast of characters includes teenage friends, a wealthy prep school boyfriend, an interracial family who own a a maple syrup farm, and a Mohegan Indian who hosts parties in his man cave and shares his native wisdom. The citizens of Unity cross paths in chapters set in the simplest of places: the local Dunkin’ Donuts, high school parking lots, auto repair shops and lumberyards, and hiking trails in the Berkshire woods.

When an avoidable tragedy occurs the small town of Unity becomes Every Town America. A place where nothing newsworthy happens and people feel relatively safe.”

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Labor Day Weekend: Stories From Higley Hill

On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Rich and I went on a ramble through rural New England. Our destination was the Nike outlet store in Lee, Massachusetts to buy sneakers with our family discount. Our oldest daughter works at one of the Nike stores in Colorado.

The journey could have started on Route 91 South but we like to take the roads less traveled and we needed to pick up a headlight at a junk yard in Greenfield so we headed south on Colrain Road out of Wilmington, Vermont.

Jacksonville, VT tattered flag

Tattered Flag, Jacksonsonville, VT

In Jacksonville we passed a house with a pretty garden and noticed our friend, whose name is also Richard, out on the front lawn. Vermont Rich is a stonemason and was there to help a widow who needed some repairs done on her chimney. He often helps her and doesn’t charge for his time. It was her husband who taught him the craft of stonemasonry.

Serpentine stonewall

A serpentine stone wall in Norfolk, CT

Labor Day weekend is the holiday that celebrates the American worker,  but here was our friend repairing loose bricks and sweeping the chimney.

~~~

In late August 2011, almost six years ago to the day, Hurricane Irene barreled into Vermont as a tropical cyclone. Downtown Wilmington’s Main Street turned into a raging river. The only other recorded hurricane in Vermont’s history was back in 1938. It has no name, back then they didn’t give hurricanes names.

Many people lost their homes and businesses. Many historic covered bridges were destroyed. Due to extensive road damage, dozens of rural towns became isolated. We were still living in New Hampshire at the time but our friend was everywhere with his backhoe and his chainsaw and his talent for many helpful survival skills. Six years later three prominent buildings in downtown Wilmington are still empty. One of them recently got an artistic facelift with the artwork of Chinon Maria, a local girl who is now a street artist in New York City.

Chinon Maria

Artwork by Chinon Maria ~  Wilmington, VT

A lot of Texans are spending their Labor Day weekend recovering from the mess Hurricane Harvey left in its wake. Helping your neighbors isn’t just the Texas way.  It’s not just the Vermont way. It’s the American way. The United States of America.

~~~

There’s a stonemason in my new novel, Under The Same Sun:

“Leo Heaton is a regular guy, a builder of stone walls. A man who pays his bills on time, enjoys a beer or two after work, and always uses his blinker. He’s lived in this small corner of New England all his life and believes in the American Dream along with the ideals of freedom and justice for all, despite the fact ideals don’t always ring true. His twin daughters are his pride and joy, although this morning they are not assisting him in his pursuit of happiness.”

~~~

The junkyard in Greenland was only open 10 to 12 on Saturdays. We got there at 11:30 but the place was locked up.

Junkyard Greenfield, MA

Greenfield Auto Salvage ~ Salvage the Best, Recycle the Rest

My stories come from the places I’ve traveled, the jobs I’ve worked, and the people I’ve met. Woody Guthrie once said, “You can’t write a good song about a whorehouse unless you’ve been in one.”

You also can’t write about a junkyard unless you’re familiar with one. I am. I was the bookkeeper at an Epping, NH auto salvage business for ten years. They were just one of many clients I had when I ran my own bookkeeping business. There was also an art gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. I’m familiar with it all, the high and the low ends of the American economy. At the gallery I worked at a desk surrounded by expensive artwork, including a few Salvador Dali’s and beautiful pottery made by Brother Thomas.

At the junkyard I sat at a desk in a large garage filled with old car parts, tires, and an auto mechanic’s tools of the trade. It smelled of oil, grease, dust, and wet junkyard dogs of which there were a half dozen or so on any given day. After a Christmas fire burned down the building and a good part of the junkyard, I worked in an old trailer salvaged from the wreckage. I had to rummage through smoked out paperwork and records, rusty paperclips and soot, to recreate the bookkeeping records and find the insurance policies.

Both of these settings, the art gallery and the junkyard, ended up in Life Is All This. 

The Epping junkyard owner was Hungarian. His hands and arms were covered with rough red patches and he always had a wad of cash in his pocket. On Fridays he’d peel off a couple of hundreds to pay me. Real life experiences often get mixed up and manipulated into fiction.

From Under the Same Sun:

Leo owes Carl money for a used transmission he found for the girls’ car. Dealing in used auto parts is only one of the skills on Carl’s long, checkered resume. He left his job at the casino a couple of months ago.

“The commute and the hours were killing me,” he said.

Years ago he owned a seafood shack down near the shore, close to the Rhode Island border, until he got into a twin lobster pricing war with the diner across the street.

“The guy kept lowering his price. When he got to $3.99 for twin lobsters and threw in a free bowl of clam chowder I was sunk. He was a lobsterman and I was buying my lobsters from him! No way could I compete with that situation.”

In addition to the used auto parts, Carl grows and sells Christmas trees, plows driveways in the winter, grows marijuana in his basement, and breeds boxers.

“How much do I owe you?” Leo asks.

“Five hundred for the transmission and thirty for the tree minus the beers you bought me last week.”

Leo hands Carl a wad of cash – a couple of hundreds, two fifties, and a lot of ATM twenties. Carl fans it then shoves it in his pocket.

“Aren’t you going to count it?”

“I worked the blackjack tables for years. I know it’s all there.”

Every line in the above excerpt is fiction but it has a connection to real life. Maybe some day I’ll share all the stories that led to that exchange.

~~~

 We had slept late on the Saturday morning of the three day holiday weekend. Rich had been working hard all week; climbing ladders to paint a house with high cathedral ceilings.

Rich and his work

Rich showcasing his work ~ Wilmington, VT

The owner of the junkyard probably gave up on us and decided to get a jump on his Labor Day festivities. So we continued on and took Route 5 South past Deerfield Academy, a prestigious private prep school where the well-to-do send their children to be socially polished and primed to enter an Ivy League college.

American flags on telephone poles snapped with the breeze. Trump signs tacked to a barn greeted us in the asparagus farmland of Hadley, MA as we rolled on through to Northampton where gay pride flags fly and Black Lives Matter.

Telephone Pole flags-Leeds MA

Leeds, MA

In Florence we stopped for a grinder – Italian for me, roast beef for Rich.

Miss Florence Diner Florence, MA

Florence, MA

 

Sunday we laid low. It rained all day and we had a fire burning in the wood stove. We reminisced about twenty years of Labor Day parties on Cape Cod’s national seashore and watched rock ‘n roll documentaries.  I was multi-tasking, reading New York Times  articles and other writings about work in America.  After all, it was Labor Day so the media was on topic. But brace yourself, one of the upcoming debates during the budget talks will be taxing our 401K savings upfront – when we have the contribution withheld from our paychecks. We won’t be hearing a lot about that from the media after the holiday is a sweet end-of-summer memory. So pay attention. If taxes are taken out at the time of the contribution instead of when we retire, that means that over the years we earn less money on our savings. Don’t let the bastards fool you.

~~~

We cooked a lot over the weekend. We made homemade pizza, grilled scallops, stuffies, and ahi tuna, had lots of fresh local veggies, drank bloody Marys, cold beers, and crisp Sauvignon Blanc.

I told my husband about a young boy I saw in the Nike store. The place was packed. Shoeboxes lined the floor and sat on half the seats people need to try on shoes. The employees were everywhere, straightening things out, smiling and helpful. I thought of our daughter working lots of hours on this very American holiday weekend.

The young boy was arguing with his mother. “Go ahead. Buy it,” he said, his lip curling into a surly sneer. “But I’m not ever going to fucking wear them. They’re fucking ugly.” I listened to them argue back and forth while I tried to find a pair of sneakers I liked. Then I waited for a seat. Two Indian women where standing next to me. One sat down to try on the same style sneaker I had chosen. She moved some boxes to the floor and in her lilting accent said, “Here. Please. Sit down.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“But of course.”

Meanwhile, the young boy kept swearing at his mother. The shoes were not the ones he saw in a magazine. They probably hadn’t made their way to the outlet stores yet.  His mother looked like she could burst into tears at any moment. Her hands were filled with shopping bags from The Gap, Sun Pac, American Eagle, and other outlet stores, most likely filled with back to school clothes that were busting her monthly budget.

The Indian woman shook her head and looked down, embarrassed by a stranger’s behavior.

~~~

Oliver Sacks once said, “The most we can do is to write —intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” 

Ever since I wrote my first novel and started blogging, that’s all I’ve ever tried to achieve.

~~~

We finished the weekend stacking firewood and listening to Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler writes lyrics like few other musicians. His songs tell heartfelt, real life stories. I once heard him in an interview share the story of all the jobs he worked at before he began to earn his living as a musician. He said was glad he had done all those things.

“It gives you sympathy for other people’s lives,” is how he summed it up.

Yes. But of course.

 

 

 

 

Stories From Higley Hill: It Wasn’t a Good Fit

“This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.”
~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road: From the Original Scroll

Paperwork

Notes From A Temp Worker’s Journal: Week Three – The Final Two Days

Moses sat across from me, his desk perpendicular to mine. He is an Alaskan Inuit with a mohawk, but not a crazy mohawk. It’s attractive, short, not shaved on the sides, longer on top and down the back of his head, like the tail of a coonskin cap. He also has a Fu Manchu mustache, a bushy beard, and, below his lower lip are two skinny green tusk-like piercings. In each ear he has two hoop earrings; one silver, one black. He is married and the father of two boys; one three, the other six months.

We discussed books while we collated and stapled. He recommended A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I told him about Nickel and Dimed. I also mentioned it was The Grapes of Wrath and its powerful ending that made me want to be a writer. He told me he read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley to his wife when she was pregnant.

By the third week, I felt I knew Moses well enough to ask about the tusks. He told me about his grandfather, the last Inuit on a remote Aleutian island to have the tusk piercings. The island was where Moses spent his childhood. The tusks are a symbol of the walrus. Moses is named after his grandfather so he got the piercings to honor him.

One day during a fire drill we stood together on a hill – what was referred to in the temp manual as one of the grassy knolls where employees are instructed to gather when the alarm goes off. As we walked out of the building a supervisor called out, “Make sure the temps know where they’re going.” There are so many of us I guess she was afraid we might get left behind. There was always the possibility of an ammonia leak and we needed to pay attention to the direction the wind socks were blowing. Supervisors were in charge of leading us through the parking lot to the safest grassy knoll that wasn’t downwind of a potential leak.

The early morning sunshine was warm and it was nice to be outside. Moses told me he was planning to start his own IT consulting business. He also shared his philosophy regarding this mundane temp job we were both currently trapped in.

“I know this is not my fate. It is for a finite amount of time. It serves a purpose,” he said.

I agreed and tried to remind myself of that when we returned to our desks.

Werner Herzog believed all original art “must have experience of life at its foundation.” Well yes, yet still. I kept asking myself how did I get here? I’ve had a lot of experience with working in places from a junk yard in Epping, NH to a vape shop in Pompano Beach, Florida. I’ve been subjected to unfair work policies, mundane tasks, and unequal pay for equal work. I’ve written about it, I’ve blogged about it, I’ve lived it. I’ve got enough material for several more books.

I recently read an article about writing workshops in beautiful, expensive places. Mountain retreats. Caribbean islands. Mediterranean hillside towns. The author of the article wondered what kind of meaningful real life writing could come out of these workshops. And who were the writers who could afford them? In moments of despair, while stapling, filing, and copying, I told myself this was my writing workshop. I was here to share the stories of the people who rarely show up as characters in the books that make the New York Times Book Review. The stories that don’t often attract literary agents who respond with rejections like this:

“This has less to do with your strengths as a writer and more to do with my goals as an agent and the trends of the current literary marketplace.”

Do tell. What are these trends? More self-help? More addiction memoirs? Stories of wealthy New York millennials filled with angst after losing Wall Street jobs during the Great  Recession, or even worse, their inheritance?

I thought about the places I have landed, the people I have met, the places I have traveled. If I weren’t here what would I write about while attending workshops in Aspen and Positano?

That worked for awhile but when I looked at the clock only twelve minutes had ticked by. We were three hours into the Monday workday, and that included the unexpected recess for the fire drill. I already missed Pink.

She was not the only entertainment missing during my final days at the temp job. A funny, sarcastic young guy who had a cubicle near the copy machines was sent to Providence for the week to train his replacement.

He had a handwritten sign tacked to his cubicle. “Crazy Guy’s Cube”. He fed us work, all those invoices we copied and collated and stapled and filed. He would stop by our office several times a day and offer up ironic commentary on the difficult situation he and the other permanent employees faced during the “transition phase”.

Crazy Guy had been offered a chance to transfer but he has a serious girlfriend who has a child and she shares custody with her ex. Crazy Guy also likes where he lives. He grew up around here and doesn’t want to move. “I’m a local boy,” he told me.

One afternoon last week Crazy Guy was training Moses on the preparation of MPDs or CMDs or some acronym I didn’t know. Whatever they were, they were making Crazy Guy evener crazier.

“I’m sick to death of talking to everyone about CMDs. Explaining CMDs. Training people to produce CMDs. Thinking about CMDS… CMDs…. CMDs.” He was clearly emotional that day. Getting choked up he told us, “This is the longest job I’ve ever worked at.”

Despite the CMD crisis, Crazy Guy was kind and patient with Moses and always used a dash of humor when he entered something wrong on the Excel spreadsheet they were working on. At one point he swirled his chair around, leaned over, picked up a large paper clip from the floor, and handed it to me as if it where a rose. “For you,” he said.

One afternoon a handsome black man from Providence who was wearing neatly pressed trousers and a dress shirt joined us in our crowded little office so he could train with Alpha. I sensed her anger and frustration. I had nothing but sympathy for her situation. A recent divorce, twelve year old twins – a boy and a girl – and a handicapped brother who also lived with her. She and her husband sold their house during the divorce and she’s trying to find a three bedroom apartment she can afford. The rental market is difficult. One afternoon she had to leave early to move her brother into a nursing home. The search for a four bedroom apartment would have been impossible. And she’s about to lose her job.

Throughout the day we followed Crazy Guy’s progress in Providence. He checked in to Alpha’s cell phone via text message.

“Did he buy new clothes for the business trip?” Talks to Herself asked.

“He can’t afford new clothes on his salary,” Alpha replied.

As if by osmosis he sent a response. “”I look like an auto mechanic compared to everyone else here.”

Around the office, Providence has a reputation for big city sophistication.

There are so many people I met that I haven’t mentioned. A woman I was filing next to one day told me she met her husband when she was five years old.

“When I tell people that they don’t believe me,” she said.

She raised her children in a nearby town. They still live in the area and so do her grandkids. She and her husband have already downsized to a smaller house in preparation for retirement. They both planned to work until they qualified for Medicare.

“But we’ll manage somehow. Hopefully I can get on my husband’s insurance until I find something,” she said. “Not this kind of job, although it is an honest wage.”

She told me she had been distracted and worried that morning. Her husband must have sensed her anxiety. He followed her to work and when she got out of her car, she asked, “What are doing here? Is something wrong?”

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he told her. “You seemed upset when you left the house.”

There are more stories. I’m using pseudonyms but these are real people I spent a brief moment in time with. They have hopes and dreams, worries and concerns. I get angry when I think of the problems we aren’t solving while wasting time on a President who got himself involved with Russian interference in our election, can’t stand up to Nazis, and clearly doesn’t give a shit for anyone but himself and his own ego. We continue to fight old battles while the problems that effect people’s lives fester and grow larger.

But words are adding up here. Blogs are supposed to be short for the short American attention span. A lot of people don’t want to hear stories like this. People once fought and died for unions to protect worker’s rights, ensure safety on the job, negotiate for fair wages and a retirement with dignity. Now we’re told “You’re lucky you have any job at all.”

Workers are hired as temps so the employer doesn’t have to provide health insurance, workman’s comp, and paid holidays. Many voters are misinformed. They vote against their own interests. They tell you not to cause trouble. You might get fired. Unions are a thing of the past. They’re never coming back.

Why? If people fought and won this battle before why can’t we do the same? How did we ever let ourselves lose our rights to begin with? Did we as a nation learn nothing from the Great Recession? How fragile the middle class is. How important workers’ rights and collective bargaining are. Instead of working together to improve our plight, we judge others by claiming people in these work situations courted their own demise by making poor choices or not working hard enough or not acquiring the right skills and education. But isn’t this just making excuses for The Man?

I’ll stop rambling but please America, pay attention.

Anyway, this is how it went down. On Tuesday evening of Week Three, I checked my phone at a red light in Brattleboro. There was a message from the temp agency.

“They don’t need you to return to work tomorrow. Please call us in the morning.”

For the rest of the drive home I wondered what I’d done wrong. Was it that day I stapled the invoices incorrectly?

Notes From a Temp Worker's Journal Well! Apparently, I am not very good at stapling. I had a stack of invoices and a stack of backup info. I stapled the two together. Thank God we have electric staplers!!! The stapled piles get very tippy. No one told me we have to staple in the top left corner. I decided it would be better to shake it up a little bit – some in the middle, some halfway from the left corner and the middle. The pile ended up being neatly stacked and easy to transport over to Accounts Payable. Wrong!!! AP sent it back. They said they were missing some as they picked up an invoice and entered it. They said they needed to feel the staple in the left corner. Are they doing this with their eyes closed? So I got to to remove the staples with a handy dandy little staple remover and re-staple. Yes, I went to college for this. So here I am again ordering takeout. This time it's scallion pancakes and pad Thai @ThaiBamboo in Brattleboro #takeoutThursday #thejobfromhell #tempwork #workingwomansblues #workinamerica #thewritinglife #forsomeofus

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Maybe it was the occasional walk I took around the cubicle block to relieve my back pain? Or the stretches I did while waiting at the copy machine? I never talked politics and although I daydreamed about being a union agitator I kept my mouth shut. I offered encouragement and told Alpha how I too had lost jobs and maybe something better was coming her way.

The next morning I called the temp agency. The recruiter told me they gave no specific reason. They just said it wasn’t a good fit.

Well, I already knew that. I knew it on my first day of work. The rows of cubicles, the anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I was back at the cubicle job that led to my near nervous breakdown that only writing my first novel saved me from. I also knew it wasn’t the right fit when they photographed me twice. What’s coming next I wondered. Fingerprints? And even before I started the job I knew this wasn’t the right fit when the temp agency told me I had to return to their office to be subjected to a drug test. Let’s just say I fretted about it and drank copious amounts of water for two days only to find out I didn’t have to pee in a cup. Instead I sucked on a spongy lollipop and passed the test. I’d also like to point out marijuana is legal in both Vermont and New Hampshire.

One day during our fifteen minute morning break, Pink told me, “I was always the good employee. There was one time when I hurt my knee really bad but I came to work anyway. It was year-end and you know how crazy that is in the accounting department. I couldn’t call in sick and leave my co-workers with a heavier work load. So I didn’t go to see the doctor until three weeks after I hurt myself. By that time the metatarsal tear was worse. It required surgery and now, years later, my arthritis is really bad in that knee. And you know what? In the end, I didn’t get anything for my good behavior. Instead, I got laid off at sixty-four with one year to go to Medicare.”

And here I was bending over file cabinets and sitting in a shitty seat with no leg room under my desk. There was another woman I met at the file cabinets one day. She’d worked 34 years for a company that went paperless and laid off a lot of people when they needed fewer clerical workers. So now here she was, temping alongside me. One day at her old job, her back went into spasms. She couldn’t stand up or walk. She felt nauseous. Her boss wanted to call an ambulance. Instead someone brought her to the hospital where she spent seven weeks while they tried to manage her pain.

I had a few back spasms over the weekend. Maybe this was the silver lining. If I had finished out the remaining six weeks I too could have spent weeks in the hospital. In which case, my health insurance deductibles and co-pays would have negated my earnings.

If you live long enough just about anything that can happen will happen. I have been laid off due to mergers and lack of work and Ronald Reagan cutting the National Endowment for the Arts but I’ve never been fired. Or told I wasn’t a good fit.

I’m trying to avoid thoughts of the life not lived. Asking questions like, What if I had started writing sooner? Where would I be now? Jackson Hole? The Greek Isles?

But would I have been able to write the book I just finished and is about to be published?

I don’t think so. I think Simone de Beauvoir was right.

“Chance … has a distinct meaning for me. I do not know where I might have been led by the paths that, as I look back, I think I might have taken but that in fact I did not take. What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.”

***My new book, Under the Same Sun will on sale at Amazon on September 6th.***

 

 

 

A Book Review: Crapalachia

After being sorely disappointed with Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, I went in search of a better book about Appalachia. Vance’s conservative think tank solutions to the problems this region faces, his pick yourself up by your boot straps mentality, and the underlying belief these people don’t deserve help because they choose not to rise above their circumstances left me feeling cold and angry. I wanted something more.

What I found was Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan. A sympathetic and heartfelt depiction of Appalachia, including the title itself. In the appendix at the back of the book McClanahan tells us:

“My mother said this to me the other night. “Why are you calling this book Crapalachia? That’s not a good title. It’s a horrible title.” I told her, “No it’s not. It’s a good title. Shit makes the flowers grow.”

And the flowers certainly do grow. Scott’s stories of his Uncle Nathan, a fifty year old man with cerebral palsy, will make you laugh while you’re crying. I’m thinking of one scene in particular that takes place in the men’s room at a restaurant. The story is told through the eyes of Scott during his adolescence. His empathy in sharing this particular mundane and truly embarrassing, uncomfortable vignette is so real and heartbreaking it took my breath away.

The book does not offer opinions on solutions to the area’s problems but it did share some history of the region from the perspective of ninth grade Scott. He learns about politicians stuffing the ballot box and how it “goes on all day and then the men are paid in liquor. This is how you get them drunk and steal an election fair and square. This is democracy.”

And how you build civilization: “They used a bunch of poor people to dig it. A poor person means either their skin was dark or their accents were thick. That’s the best way to do anything—get a bunch of poor people to do it. So they cut and cut into the mountain but there was a problem. They didn’t wet the dust from the cut limestone—so the men developed silicosis. The men started dying by the tens and then the twenties and then the hundreds and then—the thousands? Since they were poor the company just buried them.”

Some of his family’s frustrations are the same as any us dealing with the bureaucracy of insurance companies or any other American bureaucracy but the response had me laughing hysterically:
”She told us the story about how he was trying to get his pension from the mines. But before he got it, he had to fight for a couple of months. He finally got a letter that went…”Dear Mr. McClanahan, we regret to inform you that we’re unable to approve you at this time. Please send your response within seven days and we’ll schedule another hearing.”
Elgie didn’t say anything.
He just took it down to the outhouse and wiped his ass with it. Then he put it back into the envelope, sealed it up, and sent it back.”

McClanahan wrote this story so these people would be remembered. They were people he knew and loved, and he wants us to know them too. He also wants us to know this place for what it is and what it meant to him. He wrote it from his heart. As a reader who is familiar with the rural places of New England where the Heroin Highway cuts through a much different region of America that shares some of the same problems and concerns it reminded me we are not stereotypes and although we have differences we all share the human condition.

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