Blog Hop: Nancy M. Griffis

Well hello there everyone! My name is Nancy M. Griffis and I’m the proud author of Amoven: Prophecy. Liz has been nice enough to host my blog hop today and it’s a very comfy hop indeed! Isn’t she great?

Amoven: Prophecy cover
Amoven: Prophecy is available now in ebook and print from all major online retailers.
Amoven: Prophecy is about a family of wolf shapeshifters from San Digeo, CA. The McTavish Clan is small by Amoven (pronounced ah-moe-ven) standards with only four siblings–Jim, Daniel, Simon, and Sandy–and Simon and Jim are ‘mere’ humans, looked down on by many Amoven. Daniel wants to restore his Clan to its rightful place at the head of the Council that rules their people.
To accomplish such an ambitious goal, Daniel is tackling the one thing that threatens all Amoven: a devastating decline in birth rates. While not as exciting as hunters on a killing spree, it’s just as deadly to their ultimate survival. Daniel’s arranged a Conclave with most of the North American clans to take place at the seat of Amoven power in the Colorado Rockies and this is where our story starts.
Having so many Alphas in one place is practically asking for a bloodbath, but Cole Bishop is just the Amoven to keep them in line. Grandson to Lauren Bishop–the woman who’s held power as head of the Amoven North American Council for almost one hundred years–Cole has a spine of steel under his manicured, indolent appearance. Publically, he can do nothing but support his grandmother and her backwards, anachronistic prejudices. Secretly, he does all he can to help Daniel McTavish in his goal to become head of the Council.
It’s not until the end of the Conclave that things really heat up. Someone tries to assassinate Daniel. Simon starts having visions of Amoven past despite being human. Sandy mates with a man from a powerful clan to spite her brothers. One of the Councilmembers abdicates his seat and bequeaths it to Daniel along with a prophecy about him being the key to Amoven survival or doom… and that’s all I can say without going into major spoiler territory.
I had such a great time writing Amoven! It’s quite a departure from my usual work in that the women in this book have supportive roles, though they still kick ass and take names on their own terms. This book is about Daniel, Simon, and Cole and their place in a society that doesn’t see them as much of anything but misfits. Plus, Daniel’s a dad of twin boys and the first character I’ve written who has children. It’s a book primarily about family and what you’ll do to protect those you love most.
I hope you love this book as much as I do! I am working on the sequel now, but don’t have a release date just yet.
Thanks again to Liz for having me!
You can find me online at http://www.nancygriffis.wordpress.com, @nmgrif, and http://www.facebook.com/nmgriffis. You can email me at nancymgriffis@gmail.com.

Don’t Finish That Book! Spare yourself the suffering.

Today I was checking Twitter on my lunch break, like you do, and I was scrolling through the usual jokes and promos and discussions, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but this gem from The Atlantic: “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through – and so does literature.”

(insert needle-scratching-on-record sound)

Or, to borrow a phrase from the late Amy Winehouse: What kind of fuckery is this?

As it turns out, more of the same elitist, prescriptivist bullshit I ripped to shreds when it appeared in Ruth Graham’s Slate article. Indeed, author and New York Times editor Juliet Lapidos devotes the fourth paragraph of her own essay to that very article and the “Adults should be ashamed to read YA” controversy. Lapidos admits herself that her always-finish-what-you-start philosophy is unusual, and once I read the article, it was easy to see why. She breaks her case down into three major points, so in the interest of consistency, I’m going to do the same here.

I'm getting tired of this.

Not THIS again.

Pleasure: Lapidos argues that if you stop reading a book part of the way through, you might miss something amazing later. She suggests that reading multiple hundreds of pages of a story you don’t enjoy in order to get to something good is a worthy use of your time. I would be interested to know what working professional has enough time for recreational reading that this seems like a good proposition. My suggestion? Chucking the book you can’t stand after fifty pages and picking up something that engages you in five or ten or twenty pages is a great deal more pleasurable.

Fortitude: I laughed out loud at this one. Here’s an actual quote from the article: “It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength.” To whom? Who, exactly, are you supposed to be proving this strength to? Lapidos says in this section that the “ability to endure intellectual anguish” is beneficial to her job as an editor. And I can relate to that — I’ve been a freelance script reader for over a decade. I’ve paid my bills and put food on the table by writing synopses (which means reading every single word) and critiques of everything from sitcom pilots to 500-page nonfiction tomes about the Iran hostage crisis. Some of them were great. Some of them were godawful. Guess what? Not one of them improved if I still didn’t like them after 20 pages. Not one. And some of them were good and then botched the ending and you do not want to be within earshot when a text I’m engaging with crashes and burns, whether I’m reading for work or for pleasure.

Liz angry. Liz SMASH.

WTF kind of ending was THAT?!

Respect: You are not disrespecting the author, the act of authorship, anyone or anything by putting down a book unfinished. Well, maybe if you know the author personally, but even then some authors will understand. Lapidos suggests that starting books gives you “intellectual cachet” and not finishing them is “one step above saying ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’” On what planet, outside of maybe certain New York publishing-world cocktail parties, is this even an issue?

This last argument sounds suspiciously like the Internet Uber-Fan argument of “You aren’t a TRUE fan if you haven’t read every comic/seen every episode/listened to every B-side/etc.” — which is something that has stuck in my craw for ages. Who gets to be the arbiter of who has what kind of “cachet” or “cred” or whatever term the community in question likes to use? Who are we trying to impress by attempting to earn this “cachet”? If “cachet” is required for a person to view you as an intellectual equal, do you really want to interact with that person anyway?

As I said above, I’m a professional script reader. I’m also a freelance proofreader/copyeditor, a published author and a copywriter. My ultimate goal is to write for television drama, specifically in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, supernatural and mystery. Consequently, I have read, watched and critiqued pages upon pages, hours upon hours, of creative works that I did not enjoy in the slightest. You know what the result was? For a long time, I didn’t read recreationally. At all. I was burnt out. This happens to a lot of people somewhere around high school, which seems to be the peak time for being forced to finish books we don’t enjoy… so why on earth should adults with limited time and/or resources attempt to recreate the experience?

There are many, many things happening in the real world, either in the news or in our own lives, that cause us “intellectual anguish”; why heap more on top of that? It’s just as baffling in my eyes as continuing to watch a television show after you’ve started to hate it – and, as a future hourlong-drama writer, I have a vested interest in as many people watching as many of the shows I love and/or may work for as humanly possible! It’s in my best professional interest for people to cause themselves intellectual anguish if they have a Nielsen box and the source of that anguish is Grimm or Agents of SHIELD or (insert other beloved show here)… and yet, I shudder at the idea of anyone doing so. Because I am a writer, I want people to love story, in whatever form, and the best way to cultivate love of story is by reading (or otherwise partaking of) stories we love. Stories that engage us. Stories that don’t make us want to hurl our book or Kindle or remote or laptop across the room after we’ve devoted significant amounts of time to them. Stories that we aren’t merely slogging through in the interest of earning some mythological “cachet”.

Life is not an MFA program. There is no assigned reading. Engaging with art and story is not homework. Treating it as such does nothing more than poison people’s hearts and minds against the intellectual and emotional rewards of narrative. I can only hope that a majority of readers continue to find pleasure in whatever narratives speak to them, have the fortitude to ignore naysayers, and respect their own instincts enough to make choices that resonate with their souls rather than obeying the poisonous shoulds of the elite.

YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should”

By now I’m sure nearly everyone in the writing world has read or heard about the Slate piece on how adults should be embarrassed/ashamed to read Young Adult literature. (I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to give them the clicks.)  I couldn’t possibly have missed it – when I checked Twitter on Thursday morning, my timeline was a seething mass of fury. And I… well, went off implies a brief explosion. This took place over the course of nearly three hours, prompting what I consider one of my top five greatest honors of my entire internet history:

Image

And, you know what? It was. When I get up a good head of steam on some righteous anger, it looks a little like this:

ImageMore often than not, I’m reduced to outraged sputtering, but every now and then I am able to find and use my words, and I will show you the life of the mind, even within the limitations of 140-character posts.  But Twitter is so ephemeral that I wanted to collect my thoughts on this topic somewhere more permanent.

Firstly, on whether YA fiction has merit: of course it does.  It has the same percentage of bad, mediocre, good, and transcendent as any other category (and it is just that, a marketing category).  I challenge anyone to deny that Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are serious, important books; or that the characterization and sense of place in Beautiful Creatures are exquisitely nuanced; or that the impact of socioeconomic privilege on the characters in The Raven Boys is poignant and boldly truthful.  But even beyond the merits of subject matter and of craft — what of imagination and fun?  I find Middle Grade and YA novels to be imaginative in ways that many adult novels are not; their target audience, after all, is not assumed to have figured out who they are or how the world works or what is and isn’t possible.  (Not that any of us adults really have either, though a lot of us like to make a good show of it, either for our own peace of mind or for the sake of conformity.)  As someone who’s always becoming, always questioning and growing, I find a great deal to relate to in MG/YA books — we’re all “coming of age” in one way or another, wherever we are in life, and I love the sense of possibility inherent in stories about young people.  It’s not that possibility only exists for the young; it’s just that a lot of us stop seeing it at some point.  Whether that point feels like comfort/stability or stagnation/suffocation depends on the person.

I can’t begin to tell you how many adult novels I’ve read — mostly for various jobs I’ve had — that focus on an upper-class, middle-aged character, usually from the general vicinity of New York City, who feels dissatisfied with and stifled by their life.  Certainly, this is a subcategory of book the same way, say, faery stories are a subcategory of Fantasy or space operas are a subcategory of Science Fiction — but if you think I have one ounce of sympathy for the privileged one-percenter chafing at the restrictions they placed on their own lives when they chose conformity (or just accepted it, being unaware of any other options)… ahahahaha. Stories like that might as well be science fiction compared to my rural upbringing and an adulthood spent struggling to create my own life as I want it to be rather than as I’m told it must be.  But, “the 1%”/”the 99%” aside, those books are about people who are miserable because they don’t see possibilities in their lives. I’d always rather read about the people who discover possibilities, and who set off on their own paths before falling into that grey flannel prison.  It’s not escapism, it’s inspiration.  (For some, it’s salvation — the number of readers who have gotten through difficult times in their lives with the help of “escapist” or “lowbrow” fiction of various kinds must be in the hundreds of thousands at least.)

Secondly, on attitudes fostered by Internet echo-chamber culture: I don’t know what angers me more — Slate-ism (“everything you love is inferior because you love it and are therefore not thinking critically/like an adult”) or Tumblr-ism (“everything you love is harmful because everything harbors *isms of various sorts and you are doing harm by choosing to see the good in flawed work”).  I’ve had a hate-on for Tumblr-ism for some time now, but Slate-ism is akin to the elitism of the college English department I fled without looking back, the favoritism of certain subject matter and media in the fine art world, and the blinkered attitudes of some media critics towards non-“Prestige” television; I’ve been fighting it longer and on multiple battlefields.  Both seem to boil down to the following ideas: love is blind, joy is infantile and good is a fairy tale.  Pernicious lies, every one, born in the festering cynicism of holier-than-thou intelligentsia, disillusioned idealists, and the kind of people who have bought into the ideas fostered by the “Eat your vegetables” approach to reading that’s taught in what I imagine is a majority of high schools and colleges.  It seems that not only is adulthood Serious Business, but to be an adult you have to choose the serious, the important, the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no-taste grey flannel suit life and thoughts and attitudes.  Anything else isn’t really adulthood.  Which seems a rather juvenile and simplistic view of adulthood, don’t you think?  Especially considering that childhood and adolescence are Serious Business too, especially when you’re right smack in the middle of them — a fact that MG/YA fiction illustrates exquisitely, whether in realism or in metaphor, time and again. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, I want to address the great, steaming mountain of bullshit that is “Should”.  All this policing of what is and isn’t appropriate to read or wear or do or think or say is contained in that one miserable little word.  If we’re going to throw around ideas about what is and isn’t adult behavior, let’s start there.  That’s what adults do, right? Ask the hard questions and examine their own lives? Serious Business, remember?  So let’s unpack our “Should”s. Where do they come from? Our parents? Our communities? Our religions? Our jobs? Ideological choices made long ago, when entertaining the possibility that there was more than one side, more than one option, was too much for us to consider?  Who decides what “Should” and what “Shouldn’t”? What you “Should” read, watch, listen to, eat, do? Who you “Should” love, hate, marry, work for, emulate? Who you “Should” be? I’m sure a lot of the people who are raising holy hell over the fact that — gasp — people over the age of 21 are reading books that are meant to be marketed to younger people — would be the first to stand up and call bullshit on outmoded sociopolitical “Should”s. Some pretty sweet irony, that.

I’m not casting any stones here — I have “Should”s, present and former. We all do.  But, for the love of all that’s precious and important in the world, FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts and follow your bliss, whether that’s curling up with the latest Booker Prize winner or devouring a stack of Gossip Girl novels or reading every issue of Hawkeye or watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again.  I don’t care whether you’re fifteen or fifty; if something brings you joy and causes no harm to others (which, memo to the intelligentsia: that does not count readers’ love of MG/YA hurting your feelings), you should do that as often as you possibly can.  Adulthood is serious business, and to get through it all and take on the responsibility of making the world what we want and need it to be, we need to feed our whole selves — we need those reserves of hope and joy, we need that catharsis, we need those reminders of possibility and who we were and who we could be.  And whether we find that in Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or the new Jay McInerney or a well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye — or, hell, all of the above; we are human, we contain multitudes — doesn’t matter at all, as long as we find it.

Short Fiction: Foolproof

Just a little something for Halloween.

Special thanks to Mere for the enabling encouragement and notes, and to Andy for the nightmare fodder inspiration.  You guys are evil the best.

FOOLPROOF

by Elizabeth M. Thurmond

Creak.

Creak.

The landlord still hadn’t fixed the middle two stairs.  Kind of hard to do everything a guy needed to do without the neighbors knowing all his comings and goings.  If the neighbors weren’t all deaf, stoned or both.  Maybe the rats noticed, but they didn’t matter so much.

Click.

Thud.

Click.

Crinkle.

Clank.

Beep.

Door locked.  Groceries away.  Dinner in microwave.

Beeeeeeeep.

Another Hungry Man dinner.  More low-budget living.  Not that that was a permanent situation.  Just a few days more.  Worth the wait, even if the TV-dinner mashed potatoes tasted like spackle.

Creak.

Creak.

Must be the downstairs neighbors.  Better wait a while, in case one of those potheads decided to knock on the door looking to borrow a cup of Cheetos or something.  A little TV, maybe.  Rabbit-ear antenna on a black-and-white TV… another temporary situation, though it was getting old watching staticky reruns of The Big Bang Theory every night til the neighbors went to sleep.

Scratch.

Squeak.

Rats.  He’d found them gnawing on his equipment again last night.  No matter how many traps he set out, there were always more.  There might be a better way to handle the situation, but… no.  Not til he was ready.  Best not waste time and energy on the rats.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Not a sound except the rats.  Everybody else in the building must be asleep.  Time to get to work.  First, the storeroom.

He had to admit, it was creepy to go in there and see all the faces staring at him.  Plastic, porcelain, wood.  Painted eyes, shabby clothes.  The product of endless searching through thrift shops and antique shops and even the garbage.  The ones with only one leg wouldn’t do, but one arm was enough for most.  He preferred two, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

He moved through the storeroom — freezing cold, the landlord wouldn’t fix the broken window — to the back shelf, where the faces didn’t stare.  The newest arrivals — Howdy Doody, creepiest puppet on the planet, and a baby doll in a diaper with all its hair cut off.  Two arms and two legs on both.  Best score he’d had in a while.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Rats. In the storeroom.  So far none of them had dared actually chew on the merchandise, but the sounds made him twitchy.  He needed everyone intact… or as intact as they were when he picked them, anyway.  The clothes didn’t matter so much, but limbs and eyes…

Scratch.

Squeak.

Cursing under his breath, he left the dolls on their shelf and headed to the kitchen, returning with two rat traps loaded with cheese.  He could feel all the faces staring at him again.

From storeroom to darkroom, dolls in hand.  The negatives were waiting; he’d handled that this morning before he went to work at the tattoo place.  Shitty job, but useful.  He’d found both of his current subjects there.  Most of the customers loved to show off their ink.  And in this neighborhood, a lot of them wouldn’t be missed.  Much.

But before the enlarger… the ritual.  Chalk.  Salt.  Candles.  Herbs.

Thwick.

Just enough fire to burn the herbs.  Not enough to set off the lone smoke detector in the hallway.  He couldn’t disable the thing without somebody finding out — landlord didn’t want the crackheads burning down his rat-infested cash cow, so the smoke detectors were checked once a week.

Scratch.

Creak.

He almost stopped chanting.  Neighbors?  No, it wasn’t coming from the hall.  Closer, but smaller.  Rats.

He completed the ritual.

Click.

Clank.

Creak.

He stopped, one hand on the negative in the enlarger, to listen.

Creak.

Rats?  He could swear they were getting bigger… they didn’t used to be heavy enough to make anything creak.

Enough of that.  On to the project at hand.  Negative.  Doll.  Light.  Face over face, eyes aligned with eyes.  Another chant.  The doll went heavy, thudded to the side.  Somewhere, so did a body.  Not dead.  Coma patients all over the city.  Mostly the worst hospitals.  Mostly on the public dime.  Still on life support — first, do no harm.  Even if they couldn’t find a next of kin.

Negative.  Doll.  Light.   Eyes over eyes.

Thud.

Click.

Back to the storeroom.  Two more faces now, staring.

Scratch.

Scratch.

SNAP!

Got him.  An almost-beheaded rat, over in the corner.  Two words, and four of the faces quit staring at him.  Scrabbled down the shelf in a rustle of plastic limbs.  Pallbearers at a rat funeral.  Cheese still intact.  Saved having to reload when the four brought the trap back, empty.  Wasn’t too hard for four dolls to open the trap and heave a dead rat through the broken window.  All they needed was a little leverage.

Another scrabble of plastic, and the four staring faces returned to their shelf.  All quiet.  Still.  Back to the living room.

Too wired to sleep, he took out the book he’d stolen from the library and the pages he’d printed off the internet.  More chants.  Spells. Commands.  Strategy.  Targets.  Not a foolproof plan yet.  The first wave, the ones with the bombs, mostly one-armed, would be cannon fodder, but the second wave… that was more tricky.  Easy for them to steal without leaving fingerprints; not so easy to keep from being traced back to him somehow.

Scratch.

Scratch.

It was coming from the storeroom.

He waited for the SNAP!

It didn’t come.

Rats.

3am.  Impossible to keep his eyes open any longer.

3:15am.  Asleep on the couch, spell book and city maps in his hands.

Scratch.

Scratch.

4:07am.  Rats.  In the living room?  Loud enough to wake him.  He had traps everywhere.  A quick look around — all still empty.  He put the book and papers on the crate he used as a coffee table.  Sleep again.

Scratch.  

Scratch.

He woke slowly.  His lips were stuck together.  How…?

Tape.

He tried to raise his arms, but something was weighing them down.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Creak.

Panic.  What was happening?  Had the junkies across the hall come to rob him?  Good luck to them finding anything they could sell or smoke.

Scratch.

Creak.

Creak.

Not the junkies.  Not loud enough.  Not big enough.

Thud.

He didn’t realize what was happening until he hit the floor, face first.  Dozens of glass and plastic and painted eyes staring at him at the dark.

He’d never asked himself if they could move on their own.  They never had before.

Not a foolproof plan.  Not by any means.

Scratch.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

THUD.

Wasn’t too hard for a hundred and forty dolls to heave a man through a window.  All they needed was a little leverage.

END.

The Viking Secret Diaries: Rites of Passage

with apologies to Cassandra Clare and Michael Hirst

The Diary of Ragnar Lothbrok

Day 1

Survived battle. Destroyed all my enemies singlehanded. Lost sword plunging it into opponent’s sternum.  Damn. Was favorite sword.

Day 2

Taught Bjorn how to use sword and shield. Planning to take him to the Thing tomorrow. Lagertha says he’s too young. If she had her way he’d still be in diapers. Women.

Day 4

Rollo failed to see the genius in my plan to sail west. I’ll show him. I’ll show them all.

Day 6

This kid. I don’t even know. First he doesn’t vote for beheading, then he didn’t want to throw apples at the guilty. Have a bad feeling he’s going to cause trouble one of these days. Still, he got his arm ring from the Earl and his kiss from Siggy. He is a man now. And getting more action than I’m going to see. Dammit, why did I promise Lagertha?

Oh, yeah. She’ll cut my balls off if I try anything.

Day 7

The Seer said we should sail west so I’m taking Bjorn to see Floki. Wonder how to explain that Floki is a pervy tree-fancier…

…no, wait, that tree-groping did a pretty good job of it for me. Thanks, Floki.

Day 8

Rollo showed up just in time for dinner. Going to rope him into sailing west with me and Floki.

Day 9

I’m sailing.  I’M SAILING!

Still not Earl.

The Diary of Rollo

Day 1

Survived battle. Ragnar claims he destroyed his enemies singlehanded. That braggart wouldn’t have survived five minutes without my help.

Day 4

Nephew Bjorn old enough to go drinking and whoring now. Score. I needed a new wingman.

Dear brother Ragnar is on about sailing west on the open ocean. Something about a wooden wheel with a pin in it and a magic rock. Whatever he’s been smoking, I want some.

Day 6

I gotta hand it to Ragnar, he isn’t afraid to start shit with the Earl. Even if he still thinks we should sail west.

Day 8

Lagertha’s got a bug up her ass just because I said she used to be a shield maiden. I haven’t seen her use a shield lately so what’s the big deal? She didn’t seem impressed with tales of my conquests in town, either. Why won’t she let me show her how I handle my sword?

The Diary of Earl Haraldson

Day 6

I love a good beheading. Fuck that guy and his ZZ Top beard.

Fuck Ragnar too, with his newfangled ideas about sailing west. My ships, my raid, my decision. I am the Earl… this can’t possibly go wrong.

The Diary of Lagertha Lothbrok

Day 2

Ragnar gets to go out and destroy his enemies while I am stuck stabbing eels for dinner. Came home to find him preparing Bjorn to pledge loyalty to the Earl. Bjorn too young but my dear husband insists. Men.

Politely asked Ragnar not to screw any other women while he’s in Kattegat. He agreed. He knows I’d cut his balls off if he tried anything.

Day 3

Was teaching Gyda how to weave when two assholes showed up at my door looking to get laid. I beat, burned and stabbed them, then threw them out the door.  I’ve got skills they’ve never seen.

Day 8

Ragnar’s back. Finally got laid. Totally not telling him I kicked two guys’ asses while he was off drinking with Rollo.

Why is it every time Ragnar leaves, some scumbag tries to put the moves on me? I mean, I know I’ve got it going on, but really? My pig of a brother-in-law? Please. I have standards.

Welcome to Fiction Friday. For today, a short story.

The search for a place to park had put Martha off the Downtown art walk before she even reached the first gallery.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned, jelly-shoed, romper-wearing hipsters spilling out onto the pavement did nothing to help.  It was near impossible to even get into the gallery for a clear look at the exhibit, which appeared to involve old plastic doll parts, a blowtorch, and chicken feathers.  She managed to squeeze back out of the room without anyone spilling two-buck Chuck on her clothes and made her way to the next gallery, which contained only half as many hipsters and (which probably accounted for the smaller crowd) some very nice black-and-white photographs of rusted industrial equipment.  Martha spent a while with these, wondering if the crowds at the other gallery would appreciate their quiet simplicity or if they were too ordinary to satisfy this generation’s insatiable appetite for the “edgy”.
Once that exhibit had been thoroughly examined, she moved on. The next stop was overflowing with more wine-drunk hipsters, so she headed down the street.
Looking around for the next likely place, her gaze fell on a small storefront sandwiched between a defunct watch repair shop and a convenience store.  MYSTERY HOURS, the sign above the door read.  It was done in blue Art Deco tile, with a dusty, still-working brass clock set in the “O”.  There was a light on inside, and the window display of antiquarian books and dusty old knickknacks was so appealing that she had to have a look around.

A tiny bell heralded her entrance into something that definitely wasn’t just a bookstore.  In addition to shelves of old books in all languages, a glass case displayed wrought iron jewelry and trinkets accented with stones of different colors.  A corner cabinet held bottles of perfume with faded Art Nouveau labels.  Looking closer, Martha was able to make out strange names like “Dusk #2” (in an iridescent blue bottle) and “Halcyon” (in a delicate clear bottle with white swirls).

A noise from a far corner caught her attention.  Here an old-fashioned console TV was showing video of a modern woman staring directly into the camera.  She appeared to be speaking, shouting even, but static in the picture and audio garbled her words; it was almost as though she was speaking backwards.  The eerie faded image sent a chill up Martha’s spine and she turned away, only to be faced with what appeared to be a piece of parchment in a  frame, but the words on it kept changing.  First it said I WANT, which faded into some sort of Medieval French text, which faded entirely until the first words slowly appeared, this time in a different color.  She told herself it was a high-tech trick, but couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t quite natural.  Or the feeling that someone was…

She turned around quickly, to find a woman emerging from a curtained area in the back.  It was almost a relief to discover that someone really was watching her.

The woman wasn’t much older than Martha, about thirty, with shimmering waist-length red hair.  Her dress appeared to be handwoven, a simple long tunic in sage green, cinched with an iron-accented leather girdle and worn with beaten-up brown boots.  She smiled.  “May I help you?”

“I…” Words suddenly failed Martha, who wasn’t quite sure how to ask about the parchment and somehow didn’t think she wanted to know.

“Just browsing?”  The red-haired woman perched on a high stool next to the antique cash register.  “Happens a lot on Art Walk nights.”

“Is the Art Walk good for business?”  Martha turned back to the case of jewelry.  It looked like it hadn’t been opened in months.

The woman waved dismissively. “These young ones, with their mayfly memories and surface understanding.  They only see the next gallery and the next glass of cheap wine.”

“That’s too bad,” Martha said, with a sudden feeling that this woman, though she looked thirty, was immeasurably old.

“Not really,” the woman said as she wound her hair into a knot and pinned it with a magnificent metal comb.  Getting down off the stool, she joined Martha at the display case.  “Those who see what’s here and appreciate it for what it is, though rare, are always worth the wait.”  She gave Martha a searching look.  “See anything you like?”

Martha pointed.  “That one.”

“That one” was an iron ring with a green stone set in it.  “Protection,” the redhead said, with another searching look.  “Yes, I think that’s right.”  She took a key ring that hung from her girdle by a chain and unlocked the case.  Before placing the ring in Martha’s hand, she examined the stone carefully and rubbed off a bit of dust.

The green stone gleamed brilliantly, and looked dramatic against Martha’s dark skin. “It suits you,” the woman said.

Once it was on her finger, Martha knew she had to have it.  She reached into her purse for her wallet.  “I’ll take it.”

The redhead smiled.  “An excellent choice.”

While her purchase was rung up, Martha gathered the courage to ask — “That parchment with the changing words…”

The woman’s eyes twinkled.  “Just a trick for the easily impressed.”

Seeing that no further explanation was forthcoming, Martha paid, thanked the woman, and left with the ring on her finger.

It had grown much darker since she went into the shop, but not so dark that the drivers on the street could all be bothered to turn their headlights on. A taxi narrowly missed her as it blasted through the intersection she was crossing to reach the next gallery.

Once safely inside, Martha went to get a glass of wine.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned boys near the refreshment table had turned a bit rowdy… she had to dodge a couple of staggering “patrons of the arts” just to get within reach of the table.  As her hand closed around a plastic cup, one of the boys shoved another, who spilled his drink.  It should have landed on Martha’s white blouse, but somehow fell to earth right at her feet.  Another boy stumbled, and should have bumped her at least, but went careening wildly into the nearest wall.

A glint of green drew Martha’s attention to the ring on her finger.  “Protection,” she mused, thinking of the red-haired woman’s words.

Suddenly weary of the crowds and the mediocre art exhibits, Martha set her cup down and walked outside.  It would be dark by the time she got back to her car, and she needed to get home anyway.  As she walked back to the parking garage, another speeding taxi flew up the street, hitting a puddle. Not a drop fell on her.  “Protection.”  Martha smiled and looked back towards the little shop, but couldn’t make it out in the growing darkness.  If she didn’t know better, she’d have sworn it had disappeared. Shrugging, she adjusted her bag on her shoulder and continued on her way.

Adventures in Unemployment

So, let’s say that you find yourself unexpectedly unemployed.  This is a particularly distressing turn of events since you did this already last year, then worked part time and drew partial unemployment, then had to get an emergency extension (thanks, President Obama!), then cobbled together full-time work from multiple part-time jobs.  Goddamn it, you think, not only am I not working, I have to fill out all that paperwork all over again.

And so, despite the fact that you’ve cashed out your retirement savings in order to be able to, you know, eat and pay rent, and would almost (almost) rather eat expired yogurt than jump through all those hoops again, you sit down with your pay stubs and your computer’s calculator and try to figure out exactly how much you earned in the past five calendar quarters.  This is not easy, because you can’t find all of your pay stubs, and you have to Go Ask Chuck ™ exactly how much was in your 401(k) before it got taxed sixty ways to hell and back, and you have to reverse-engineer some of the information based on the post-tax amount you deposited in the bank. But somehow you manage to figure out your pre-tax income using only your brain, a calculator and the back of a Starbucks receipt, because while you may have a degree in Underwater Basketweaving and let Chase Online balance your virtual checkbook for you, you’ve been doing your own taxes (1040 Long Form plus Schedules C and SE) for years and fuck if you’re going to let this get the best of you.

Then you send off your paperwork and hope they don’t deny your claim, all while still playing catch-up with November on your previous claim… because whoever read your last continuation form couldn’t read the multiple teeny tiny addresses you wrote in the quarter-inch of space they give you, so they took a week to figure it out then said “fuck it” and sent you a duplicate form.

Then you have your eligibility interview, via telephone.  Then you get a letter saying that you’ve been granted a claim for a Small Amount of Money per week.  You see nothing unusual about this because you didn’t make all that much money last year; it’s not like you had some cushy corporate gig.  And then, on the same day, you get another letter saying that they can’t verify your identity and can you please send them photocopies of your driver’s license/passport and a W-2 form within ten days?

At this point you’re too stressed out about other things to panic over the thought that someone might have attempted to steal your identity, or might recognize the blue envelope (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, is that a Blue Letter?!!!) and the address on it and think, “Here is someone who is sending copies of their identifying documents through the mail. I will steal them and open a credit card with this person’s info and shitty credit score.”  You lost the keys to your fireproof box long ago, so you pick the lock with a hairpin (no, really) and get out your passport, photocopy it and a newly-arrived W-2 from one of your many jobs, and drop it in the mail.

And you wait.

And you receive a notice in the mail that your claim has been denied, either for a couple of weeks or indefinitely (you can’t figure out which), because you did not send them copies of your identifying documents. Which you did send them. Over a week ago.

Fuck.

The next day, it’s time for you to go in to the One-Stop Employment Center for your re-employment assessment interview.  So you drive your unemployed ass aaaaalllll the way down to your assigned office, and arrive 15 minutes before your appointment, as requested.

And you wait some more.

Then you’re instructed to go into the conference room with about thirty other people, and there’s a projector in there, and you think, “Jesus Christ, are they going to force us to watch the orientation video?! I watched it at home like they told me! I have the certificate! Noooooooo!” Because that damn video is half an hour long, and you don’t want to sit through it again.

You wait some more. Then an EDD employee comes in and requests that everyone who has the “I watched the video” certificate go line up at Window 5 with their paperwork to sign in.  So you do.  You’re sixth in line. You don’t have one of the papers they said for you to bring, but they don’t care.  They have you sign at the bottom of some form or other, and then you go sit down in an uncomfortable plastic chair.

And you wait.

And you wait.

Finally, they call you in, and the gentleman assigned to handle your interview flips through your paperwork, makes a photocopy of one of the forms for you, and gives you two things to sign.  And then you pull out your claim denial letter and ask him to help you make sense of it — does it mean they aren’t paying you for a certain week, or does it mean they aren’t paying you at all? Because Small Amount of Money is small, but every little bit helps.  You make a remark about how you would have just called the EDD hotline, but you can never get through.  So this kind gentleman says that they have a direct line to the EDD people and you can use the phone in the next cubicle to call them.

You get your hopes up — a direct line! — and then they come crashing down when you realize that all this means is that instead of being disconnected if there is a longer-than-15-minute-wait (as you do if you call from your house phone), you are allowed the privilege of waiting on hold. With the same brief loop of hold music. And the recorded “please stay on the line” message. Over. And over. And over.

So you wait.

And you wait.

And you wait some more.

Thirty-two minutes later, the hold music shuts off. You wonder if you have been disconnected — is there a 30-minute limit for being on hold even from this line?!

You sit there and pray to every deity you can think of for someone to get on the phone.

And you wait.

And you consider hanging up and going home.

Then, finally, someone comes on the line and you read them the first paragraph of your letter.  They inform you that they have received your documents and that they must have crossed the denial letter in the mail.  The hold has been taken off your account and your benefits will be deposited in your bank the next day.  When you say something about hoping no one had tried to steal your identity, they explain that at least one of your employers used a DBA that did not match your claim application, so that was why it was held up.  And so you hang up, thank your interviewer — who says that the next time you need to call EDD, you need to come down and get on one of their phones in order to get through, like it’s no big deal to drive an hour and fifteen minutes round-trip to sit on the phone for half an hour to get a single question answered — and leave.

That night, you receive notice of a direct deposit of more than two weeks’ worth of Small Amount of Money.

Two days later, you receive an Amended Claim letter that includes all of your income from last quarter — you had thought they deliberately didn’t count your 401(k) cash-out — and says that you’ve been awarded the maximum benefit.  You’re also notified that one of the two weeks you submitted a claim for was a “waiting period” week so you aren’t getting paid for that, but you have zero fucks to give because now you don’t have to just sit there and watch your savings be depleted as your many Indeed.com job applications go unanswered.  And they’ve extended the Federal emergency benefits through the end of 2013 (thanks, President Obama!) so, just in case those dozens of resumes and cover letters and favors and referrals and the hours of legwork (virtual or otherwise) don’t pan out, at least you aren’t going to starve.