Little by Little…

Patty by Rick Stromoski

My uncle and I have been working on Stony Road, a graphic novel, for about three years now. We took a year to research and outline, a year to write and illustrate, and a year to revise and pitch agents and publishers.

In addition to pitching the entire book, we’ve also been pitching excerpts as stand-alone short stories. Patty, the first excerpted short story, is this week’s lead piece in Booth literary magazine.

As a writer, I found it a fascinating exercise to storyboard this sequence, to think visually to convey the scene, rather than relying on language to walk the reader through the story. In a way it was quite freeing: Before working on this project, I never had the opportunity to have artwork do the heavy lifting. Having a new medium to help shape a reader’s understanding was new and novel; I quite enjoyed working in this format.

Hoping to have more updates on this project as we continue to pitch. In the meantime, many thanks to the team at Booth!

Image copyright Rick Stromoski

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Even Weird Stories Can Find a Home

This photo shows the subway platform at Sullivan Square in Somerville and Charlestown, Massachusetts

I am a creature of habit, always heading to the same spot on the platform to catch the train, and this macabre progress check became routine: Get off the bus. Swipe my monthly pass. Head to the left, down the stairs, toward the three billboards. Check for the rabbit. Get on the train.

Dead rabbits, subway trains, and the passage of time…I’m pleased to report that even weird stories can find a home. Check out my newest short story, “Sullivan Square,” now up on Scout Somerville and Scout Cambridge.

Photo courtesy The West End on Flickr Creative Commons

Read the First Chapter from Beneficiaries

This photo shows a dilapidated barn with a green bicycle leaning against its front wall.

It seems I’ve taken an unexpected hiatus here on the blog, one I hope to remedy in the coming weeks and months. Why the hiatus? I’ve been working on other writing projects, including Beneficiaries, a novel in short stories.

I’m pleased to share that Embark, a literary journal for novelists, has included the first chapter of Beneficiaries in its second issue. Embark has a great premise in that they only publish the first pages of a novel, “those crucial first pages that must engage the reader’s attention and often receive more polishing than any other part of the book”, as they so eloquently put it.

Here’s the first glimpse of “Barnstorm”, aka Chapter One of Beneficiaries:

The barn was scheduled to come down that afternoon. The demo team had arrived early, however, and worked with efficiency and skill. Caroline watched them fill a dump truck for the third time in two hours and reverse back out to the road; the driver steered with caution. The monstrous truck bleated as though it were as small and vulnerable as a lamb, as if it wouldn’t easily crush any comers that dared to cross its path, even at this slow speed. Caroline sipped a cup of coffee at the kitchen sink, shifting her gaze from the truck to the new empty space now in front of her, noting how the barn’s footprint seemed so much larger, ironically, without it.
It had come down without a fuss, without any protests or resistance. It hadn’t been a lightning storm, or a Nor’easter, or termites that had done it in—though those had all taken their toll, of course. Rather, it had been the gradual soft rains of the past hundred and three years, the sea-salty air that exfoliated the barn’s support beams, the heavy snows that weighed the roof down like a pressure cooker. When the bulldozer came, it took only two hits for the entire structure to crumble like a wad of paper. Rick, the foreman, raised the crane to the roof and tapped, then raked the shovel across the shingles like a comb untangling a strand of knots. The barn’s north and west walls bowed to the ground. Rick pivoted the truck on its base and extended the shovel toward the southeast corner, as graceful as a lion going in for its last wound before a kill. A swift puncture to the base and the barn collapsed in on itself, the old timbers groaning as they fell; a moderate dust cloud rose as the boards settled onto the earth.

 

Want to read more? Check out the full chapter, as well as my Author Statement, over on Embark.

Photo courtesy Alexander Shustov on Unsplash

How to Change Banks: My Changing Banks Checklist

This photo shows a closeup of George Washington's image on the US $1 bill

If you follow my blog or my social media accounts, you’re aware that I recently changed banks. The process took me five months and I ended up paying about $50 in fees to do it. (I originally thought I paid $75 in fees, but one fee ended up getting refunded. Anyway, I digress…) Given that the whole point of this exercise was to stop giving money to my old bank, I found ponying up for these fees incredibly frustrating.

Looking back, I realize that, despite careful research, I made several mistakes along the way—expensive mistakes. Mistakes and unnecessary transactions come with fees attached, and the system is designed for consumers to make lots of mistakes.

Think about it: The changing banks process is already arduous enough. Add in a few fees, and you may get frustrated, angry, discouraged, and/or apathetic. (I’m guilty of the first three.) Worse yet, you may stay put or stop the changing banks process altogether.

Don’t! Persist and move your money to a bank or credit union that better aligns with your values. I’m here to share my experiences, step by step, so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Here’s my changing banks checklist so you can avoid fees, spend less time in the process, and preserve your sanity.

The Changing Banks Checklist

  1. Do your research and select a bank that aligns with your values.
  2. Open new accounts at your new bank.
  3. Activate your new debit/ATM card (if applicable) and order checks.
  4. Switch your paycheck direct deposit (if applicable) to your new bank.
  5. See if there are any fees to transfer funds from your old bank to your new bank, and make a plan to deposit/transfer money to minimize what you’ll pay in fees.
  6. Also consider the amount of time it takes for the transfers themselves in your plan to avoid fees (e.g., my old bank charged $3 for a three-day transfer; deposited checks were free and typically took a day or two to clear).
  7. Make a list of all your bills and services that were paid from your old account, including utilities, credit cards, magazine subscriptions, insurance payments, retirement savings, recurring donations, smartphone apps, etc.
  8. Once you have sufficient funds in your new account and/or a few paychecks have been deposited, go through your list of bills and services, one by one, and change each autopayment and/or electronic billing information over to your new bank account.
  9. Monitor your new and old accounts for approximately a month or two to make sure everything is migrating over as expected. Are your paychecks getting deposited to your new account? Are your recurring payments getting taken out of your new account? Are there any straggler bills or services getting paid from your old account? (If so, switch those over ASAP.)
  10. You’re almost ready to migrate everything over—but before doing so, double-check all old bills to make sure they’re set up with your new account, including the next scheduled payment. (I missed one auto pay bill and overdrew my account, leading to a hefty overdraft fee and having to scramble to transfer money back, which sucked.)
  11. When you’re confident you’ve covered all your bases, transfer the majority of your money from your old account to your new account, leaving enough funds to cover required minimum balances (if applicable) to avoid any fees.
  12. When this last transfer clears, call or make an appointment at your old bank to close your account.
  13. Close your account, request a cashier’s check or cash for any remaining funds from your old account, and deposit that in your new account.
  14. Shred your old debit card.
  15. Celebrate! You’ve successfully navigated an incredibly arduous process and migrated your money to a bank that supports your values. (I, for one, treated myself to a honey-dipped doughnut from Mariposa Bakery.)

A final thought: At first, I avoided many in-person conversations because I thought I could save time and money by doing things over the phone or online. Then, after receiving conflicting advice between my old bank’s customer service reps and the website experience—and paying fees for it—I ultimately decided to make an appointment and wrap everything up in person. The in-person meeting took all of 10 minutes and was actually the most pleasant, fee-free, and efficient interaction with my old bank.

(Yes, based on that last exchange, the irony of my new bank being all-online is not lost on me. However, from my experience thus far, they have outstanding customer service.)

Have you changed banks? Which steps did you take to do it? Share your expertise by leaving a comment!

Photo courtesy Rafael Gonzalez via Flickr Creative Commons

Community Gathering

This photo shows a New York City billboard of Ellis Island children covering the side of a building

I’m actually not sure which generations of my family were immigrants—my great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, I’d presume. There are mysteries on both sides: My maternal grandmother’s family has many gaps from her illegitimacy; my paternal grandfather’s gaps stem from his estrangement with my father.

The bottom line is most of us, as Americans, are immigrants.

What I know of my lineage: My mother’s father’s family emigrated from Danzig, now Gdansk, a then-disputed territory on the border of Germany and Poland. Because of this inconclusive geography, I don’t know if my ancestors considered themselves German or Polish, and throughout my upbringing, both heritages were mentioned. These Eastern European relatives settled outside Pittsburgh, with many descendants still there.

My father’s mother’s predecessors came from County Clare in Ireland. Growing up, I never heard her mention her Irish heritage, although some email exchanges before my first trip there revealed said county. When I asked for a specific town within County Clare, she said she didn’t know.

My mother’s mother—New York City, full stop. Her father may have been Welsh. Her mother—no one knows. Thomas and Andersen were the last names. UK? Ireland? It wasn’t discussed.

My father’s father—Italy. Where in Italy? Excellent question. Throughout the years, I heard Naples, Rome, Sicily. While studying abroad in Rome, I found a street near my apartment in Trastevere—Viale Cesare Pascarella. Good enough for me, in the absence of other concrete signposts. Rome it would be. My grandfather passed away a few years back, and I never had the opportunity to ask and find out for myself. Such is the dynamic of respecting the parental relationship and the boundaries that have been long drawn.

These origins, and many customs, have long been lost. However, two things were kept, with varying degrees of success: food and religion.

Nana’s food: My father’s mother liked to cook. She was an Irish cook, first and foremost, with a specialty for roast pork, potatoes, sheet cakes. She did adapt to her first husband’s cuisine, however, and made a decent red sauce. (Sauce was the term, never gravy.) When I think back to meals around her New Jersey table, though, adaptations of what was readily available were frequent features: small white potatoes, brimming with salt, out of a can. Red Jell-o, both cherry and strawberry, sometimes with banana or pineapple, sometimes not. (Young me preferred not.) Pickled beets and onions. So maybe not so Irish after all…

Grandpa’s food: My mother’s father gravitated toward hearty Polish dishes. Potato soup. Pork and sauerkraut. Bread and roast meats. I was at his bedside, giving him a rundown of all the food I had eaten on a trip to Poland, when he passed away. The last words he may have heard were my descriptions of pierogies, kielbasa, and piwo w sokiem.

Religion: All sides were Catholic, although at the end of their lives, most grandparents were lapsed. To my knowledge, none of their children or grandchildren are practicing. In fact, of all the grandkids, only one was confirmed. (Me.)

I don’t know why my ancestors emigrated from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland.

I don’t know if they were good, decent people.

I don’t know if they were demonized.

I don’t know if they worked hard.

I don’t know who they were.

I can only look back two or three generations, and the gaps are still vast.

And with that blank slate, I look at my new fellow Americans, coming in from all over, for a myriad of reasons, and I know—you too could be my family.

You belong here, too.

Ellis Island children billboard photo courtesy June Marie via Flickr Creative Commons

Why We’re Changing Banks, and How We’re Doing It

This photo shows a pile of cash with a $20 bill on top

I didn’t start out as a Bank of America customer. I moved to Boston in 2000 and needed a local bank. Fleet was close to my apartment, so I went with them. (Don’t judge. I was young and convenience trumped all.) Within a few years, Bank of America gobbled up Fleet. And because of apathy, I didn’t change, just accepted it—even though the fees were high. Even though customer service wasn’t great. Even though the interest was piddling. Their website worked, I liked their app, so fine. Laziness won.

Then I saw this article from Food and Water Watch showing which banks were subsidizing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Oh hi, Bank of America, to the tune of $350 million dollars.

Then Election 2016 happened, and I didn’t want my money to continue passively supporting policies that didn’t align with my values.

My husband and I, after nearly 14 years together, had never combined bank accounts, but it was something we had discussed doing “at some point.” (See above re: laziness.) He was a Citizens Bank customer. We checked the DAPL funding site. Oh hi, Citizens Bank to the tune of $72 million dollars.

So it was time—time for us both to change banks, and while we were at it, combine accounts. We started researching new banks, based on the following criteria:

  1. Is the new bank active in the local community and/or have a community/labor-friendly history?
  2. Did the new bank have a good record of corporate responsibility?
  3. Did the new bank have a strong Texas Ratio?
  4. Did the new bank charge minimal fees?
  5. Did the new bank have a decent customer service record?

Based on those criteria, we narrowed our choices down to five banks—three national banks with strong digital offerings, and two local entities (one community bank and one local credit union).

Each was then evaluated on the five questions above, and from there, we had two finalists: Winter Hill Community Bank (in our neighborhood) and Ally bank (online only).

Winter Hill got great ratings for community involvement, local development, and overall fiscal health. It got poor marks for customer service. It only had three locations in our neighborhood, and charged a fee for using other banks’ ATMs.

Ally got decent ratings for corporate responsibility, and high marks for customer service. It offered slightly better rates for its accounts, and free ATMs through their network. If customers go out of network, there’s a fee, but Ally refunds up to $10/month in fees.

All things weighed, we opted to go with Ally and to use our Ally ATM cards at Winter Hill Bank whenever possible, so they’ll benefit from any applicable fees.

We’re in the final stages of making the switch now, with all the headaches that changing banks entails. But in the long run, I’m glad to be putting our money where our values are.

Photo courtesy Ed Ivanushkin via Flickr Creative Commons

My Favorite

Like parents and children, writers aren’t supposed to have favorite works, right? Each piece holds its own special place, the result of a unique hybrid of ideas, experience, workshops, feedback, revisions, more revisions, pitches, and (hopefully) acceptance and publication. Each work is a snapshot of the writer at a particular moment in time, and reflects the writer’s state of mind up to and at that point. Writing is too subjective a process to rank what’s produced. How can one piece stand apart from the rest?

Yet having said that… my short story, Acquaintance, is my all-time favorite piece I’ve written. Originally part of a larger novel, it was able to be coaxed out and morphed into a smaller work. Sometimes you work on something big, only to find that distillation is what’s needed. In that case, while the effort and result may not be matched in volume or size, the alignment between labor and product lies (hopefully) in resonance and meaning.

Thanks, ink&coda journal, for publishing my favorite.

Read the full story here.

Photo courtesy Jonas Boni via Flickr Creative Commons

Same as it Ever Was: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

This photo shows a vista in Topanga Canyon, California

Welcome to Same as it Ever Was, a series in which I’ll review books, movies, and music from the archives that are still timely and relevant, shedding light (for better or worse) on present-day political, cultural, and sociological issues. Let’s kick things off with T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, set in Topanga Canyon/LA County, published in 1995.

Does the following passage sound familiar?

Safety. Self-protection. Prudence. You lock your car, don’t you? Your front door?” A cluck of the tongue, a shift from one hip to the other, blue eyes, solid as stone. “Delaney, believe me, I know how you feel…but this society isn’t what it was–and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

The borders. Delaney took an involuntary step backwards, all those dark disordered faces rising up from the streetcorners and freeway on-ramps to mob his brain, all of them crying out their human wants through mouths of rotten teeth. “That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”

“Not in the least–it’s a question of national sovereignty. Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined–and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us. They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills–all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machinery that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost.” He dropped his hand in dismissal. “It’s old news.”  …

“Look, Delaney,” Jack went on, cool, reasonable, his voice in full song now, “it’s a simple equation, so much in, so much out. The illegals in San Diego County contributed seventy million in tax revenues and at the same time they used up two hundred and forty million in services–welfare, emergency care, schooling and the like. You want to pay for that? And for the crime that comes with it?”

T.C. Boyle has always been an astute observer of what Vogue called “the need for control, the increasing helplessness of white males.” But with The Tortilla Curtain, he almost takes on the role of soothsayer. Written 21 years ago, this conversation (and other similar points throughout the book) could have informed so many stories that drove the 2016 Presidential election, both overtly and under the surface: the President-elect’s first speech, demonizing Mexican immigrants, as he announced his candidacy. The ongoing marginalization of minorities. The hidden economy that preys on illegal immigrant labor. The disregard for the environment, to our ongoing peril.

When I finished the book, I suspected Boyle had intended to create a modern-day version of Candide, Voltaire’s immortal satire/tragicomedy, in which the hero is subjected to increasingly over-the-top disasters in his recklessly optimistic pursuit of a better life. Indeed, Boyle’s Mexican protagonists, Candido and America, are named so-on-the-nose that the reader has little reason to doubt they’re stand-ins for much larger statements. But, despite Boyle’s possible intent, can The Tortilla Curtain be considered a tragicomedy today, knowing how little progress we have made in more than 20 years? And is it now to be interpreted as an out-and-out tragedy, given the now-legitimate policies of our president-elect? Without giving plot points away, this story starts and ends with violence, one man-made, one natural. Given how little we’ve learned, I’m pessimistic (perhaps like Boyle and Voltaire) that we may still find ourselves on the same trajectory.

I do have a few nitpicky points for this book review: The four main characters in The Tortilla Curtain tend to surreptitiously cross paths frequently, in ways that took me out of the story. (LA is a big place, no? How do these four people always tend to find themselves at the same intersections, grocery stores, etc., always at the same time?) The villain is seemingly without motive and at times cartoony, an evil presence who wreaks havoc with all four protagonists (and also happens to be an illegal immigrant). Instead, I would have loved Boyle to depict a conflicted INS agent as the malevolent presence in this book, a by-the-rules person just doing his/her job, with all the gray area and compromises that requires.

But perhaps that’s for another book–after all, given how little has changed, it seems we’re due for a sequel.

Photo courtesy DrumsKickAss via Flickr Creative Commons

Right of Way: A Vietnam Travelogue

I look at the traffic, coming in droves from all sides: mopeds, taxis, pick-up trucks, and bicycles. The mopeds are the most impressive; some solely carry their driver, others are laden with flowers, food, cartons, ducks, hens, pigs, and other animals, with cargo carried on baskets behind the driver, or on laps, or on a well-constructed and expertly balanced pyramid over the rear wheel. Others carry families, three kids flanking a parent, laying waste to the idea of a saloon or people mover as a household requirement. Lanes, to the foreigner’s eye, are nonexistent, and instead, one sees constantly created pathways as each vehicle finds its own way, in its own time. The moped engines are the loudest — a quick rev of each engine as they weave through the melee — but the tut-tut honk from the cars and trucks give them decent competition for volume. The sound, collectively, takes on a low-level roar.

On my first day in Saigon, I am intimidated by the streets, and stick close to Van, my old friend and host for the next two weeks. I confess this outright, so we can address it right away.

“Perfectly normal,” Van says as we approach our first intersection. Her gait is smooth and unhurried, perfected over eight years living in the city; her tone is calm and soothing, developed after welcoming countless Westerners here.

We stop at the curb and look at the waves of oncoming traffic. The impulse, whether Western or Darwinian, is to dart. But it turns out this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Read the full story over at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel

Photo courtesy M M via Flickr Creative Commons