Saturday, August 31, 2019

a moment in the day: valerie

Oh man, it hurts my heart to find out that Valerie Harper has died. Is it weird to be this sad when a celebrity dies? After all, I didn't know that person. And anyway, Valerie Harper didn't create Rhoda, she just was Rhoda, so why should I mourn Rhoda, because really, yeah, I guess I'm mourning Rhoda.

The thing about Rhoda is that when something bad happened, she was like, oh rats. She was like, damn it! I don't remember what she actually said, but that's the feeling I got. Sincere, regular old disappointment. Sometimes mixed with sardonic humor. Rhoda was like my... whatever the opposite of a doppelgänger is. When something bad happened in my life (or almost happened, or might possibly happen), my reaction was tragedy. Horror. At the very least, dread. In school when my one pushy bully of a friend was absent and I had to figure out how to navigate the lunch hour without her and probably hide in the library, I was bereft. When maybe I would have been better off had I said, rats! Damn it! And gone off to try to find someone else to hang out with.

I basically felt, and often told myself, throughout my childhood and much of my young adulthood, that my life was a sad one. Sad can breed sad, when you don't know how to Rhoda.

Maybe it wasn't just Rhoda. I'm sure plenty of other fictional characters out there know how to Rhoda. Mary Richards for sure. My mom certainly knows how to say rats! Damn it! And do what needs to be done to make things better.

I was more the Brenda Morgenstern of the family, carting my self esteem problems all over the country once I left home and joined the circus. I should have had more fun. I was a clown, for god's sake. I should have taken a tip from Rhoda:

Didn't make 'em laugh in the ring again? Rats.

None of the women will talk to you in the women's dressing room? Rats.

Got to get up at five in the morning and stand under a street lamp in the forty degree chill to put your makeup on because the circus generator's still off, so you can get carted off to stand around a used car lot and hand out promotional flyers for the circus for three hours? Rats.

Married for fifteen years to a man you don't really love?

I didn't like to tell myself, because I didn't like change and I didn't like confrontation, but what I really wanted was to leave.

One of the problems with the circus is that you're always together. Working together, living in a tiny, little van together. But once in a while he was booked to do a short engagement on his own. Some spot date that needed a single clown or a ringmaster. He'd pack himself off and I might have a week to myself at the apartment. It didn't happen too many times, but each time, I did the same thing. I walked downtown to the little bakery. I bought a cake.

Yellow cake with fluffy frosting. Hazelnut. Or lemon. Raspberry jam between the layers. The thick smell of sugar in my small apartment.

Every night, I cut myself a piece. I set myself up in front of the TV and maybe I ate it for dessert and maybe I ate it for dinner. I relaxed with my little Chihuahua on the couch. I watched Rhoda.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Book Cover: The Royal Abduls

I've been having fun working on the book cover for Ramiza Shamoun Koya's upcoming book The Royal Abduls, due out in spring, 2020, by Forest Avenue Press. Here's the description from the publisher:

Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s debut novel weaves together the lives of an evolutionary biologist and her eleven-year-old nephew, who is struggling with his cultural identity in post 9/11 Washington, D.C. Omar’s mother is white, and his first-generation American father never wants to talk about India. Or what it means to be Muslim, especially after what happened with the planes. When Amina leaves the West Coast for a D.C. lab job studying hybrid zones, Omar’s parents begin relying on her for childcare. Amina finds her nephew curious and lonely. Despite the demands of her male-dominated workplace and her preference for solitude, she befriends Omar and begins to form a clearer picture of her brother’s seemingly perfect life. Amina’s hesitant romance with a Sikh cricket coach and bookstore owner blossoms as Omar’s parents’ marriage fractures. THE ROYAL ABDULS, a family drama about the lives of secular Muslims post-9/11, engages with the struggles of women in the workplace, the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America, and what it means to truly be yourself.

One of the main threads of the story is that eleven-year-old Omar creates a fantasy in which he's descended from Indian royalty. While trying to trace his family tree and learn all about the country of his father's people, Omar tries in every way he can to own some piece of his Indian heritage, royal or not, even affecting an Indian accent at school.

Thinking about Omar's beloved fantasy, I pictured two cityscapes, one right-side up and one upside down, one American, one Indian.

I started by building some elements. Townhouses, trees, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, all to represent the American half.

For India, I started with the Taj Mahal. The definitive Indian structure. In learning about the country, Omar would surely have discovered and wondered over the exotic beauty of its huge dome and flanking minarets

Then I found out where Omar's ancestors hailed from: a city called Hyderabad. The major landmark in Hyderabad is a monument and mosque called Charminar.

So I knew that needed to go in there too.

Most of the work I did in creating the cover for The Royal Abduls was in moving around my elements, adding and discarding them, choosing just which should be included and how their arrangement would look best on the page.

One thing I like to do in my process is overdo things and then have to go back and simplify. I loved the detail of illuminated windows in my buildings, but putting them all together in a design was just too busy. So for the India half, the detailed silhouettes became straight silhouettes. For the America half, having one window stand out evoked a sense of intimacy that I liked. I did a lot of tinkering.

Simple got even simpler. I shared samples and consulted with publisher Laura Stanfill and author Ramiza Shamoun Koya, and as we narrowed things down, the landmarks of Washington DC got left at the wayside in favor of a simple line of townhouses representing home.

Laura thought the element of the moon felt unnecessary, so it went away. I tried a bit of a border, but we discarded that too. I played with some fancier lettering, but in the end we went with simple again, afraid that fancy might blur into exotic, which can easily slide into cultural appropriation like the Asian-flavored lettering on a Chinese takeout box.

What I think all of us wanted was a simple design that would allow the eye to focus on the geographic information of America/India and for the mind to pick up on the hand-in-hand themes of longing and home.

The Royal Abduls will be out in May of 2020. More information is here.

Here's an excerpt.

A couple of weeks later, Amina arrived at Omar’s private school a few minutes early for her presentation. She stood at the door in the back of the classroom, pushing her hair off the hot back of her neck while the teacher finished her lesson on democratic principles. Amina had first put on jeans, then traded them for khakis, but they were too loose to look actually professional, and she had already sweated through her button-up.

The school was a fairly exclusive one, the opposite of the scruffy public schools she and Omar’s father had attended. Omar’s classroom was bright and neat and new, and the students sat in groups rather than rows.

“Who exactly gets to vote in a democracy?” the teacher asked. Omar raised his hand from a front table, his eyes bigger than ever, his chin raised in eagerness. To Amina’s astonishment, he answered using a heavily applied Indian accent.

“It is depending,” he began, “on which period in history we are speaking of.”

Amina peered at him. He was second generation, born in America with a white mother and a father who had never spoken with an ethnic inflection in his life. Omar was speaking like his grandparents, like Amina’s parents, like a real, bona fide, not raised in the States or maybe even just recently arrived, Indian. Actually, it seemed a little exaggerated, like Apu from The Simpsons.

a moment in the day: float

I don't know how long I've been floating in this sensory deprivation tank. The session is supposed to last ninety minutes and right now I'm thinking maybe I've been floating for two hours. And I'm thinking maybe I've been floating for thirty minutes. There was that indeterminate amount of time at the beginning where I was drifting here waiting for them to turn the lights out before I realized I was the one who was supposed to turn the lights out—how long was that?—and I have no idea how long it's been since.

I've probably been doing this wrong. Surprised by the texture of the silk-slick water, I've spent a bunch of time moving around, running my arms and legs through it, setting myself to swirling and bobbing in the black. Staging my own private Busby Berkeley By a Waterfall musical number to no music.

By the name, a sensory deprivation tank is supposed to be about getting you out of your body and into your mind, but I've been completely anchored in my body the whole time, hyper-aware of the strange buoy of myself in the water, the tiny droplets ticking across my skin, the sound of my heartbeat behind the muffle of the earplugs.

At the same time, I'm uncomfortable in my body when there's no clothing to separate me from myself. I've been trying to lay my body out across this weird cushion of water and allow myself to just be. I don't know how to do that.

My brain says to me: let yourself go.

My brain says to me: don't be afraid to be big in the world.

I'm not the size I was when I was forty. Thirty. Ye gods, twenty. When we're no longer young enough to be Busby Berkeley girls with tiny, youthful bodies, we spend far too much time wishing we could shrink and hide ourselves, and truth be told, it would be nice to know how to allow myself to be big in the world.

The drift of the water presses my shoulder softly against the edge of the tub. I reach out and push myself off, into a twirl.


Being big in the world could also mean letting yourself get away with doing what you want for once. Stopping all that worrying about whether you're doing it wrong like I've been worrying about whether I'm doing this wrong. I wonder what Stephen's doing in the next tank over. Maybe he's meditating peacefully, having epiphanies in the bobbing blackness. I should be having epiphanies.

I'll bet like forty percent of people pee in the tank.

OK, fourteen. Maybe fourteen.

I lay my body out across this weird cushion of water and try to allow myself to just be.

My brain says to me: to be big in the world, you have to reach beyond yourself.

You have to do something big and good, something that's not about yourself. Working and coming home and hanging out with friends and writing and designing book covers is a wonderful life, but it's not being big in the world.

The music begins, to signal the end of the session.

My brain says to me: what are you going to do?