After a long publication drought, I’m pleased to announced that my short story, entitled “Hard Times, Cotton Mill Girl,” is appearing in the latest issue of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, a long-running publication available here in PDF, ePub or Mobi versions.
The story has its beginnings in a day trip I took with some friends to Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell, Mass., a few Readercons ago. It was a fascinating visit; this is an old cotton mill that you could walk through along with a small museum that illustrated the lives of those who worked in it. (And the history of Lowell is, in fact, fascinating — it was an attempt by well-meaning people to create a relatively safe environment for young women doing factory work. If the subject interests you, I encourage you to check it out.)
One reason I was so interested in visiting the mill is this: I was brought up with a consciousness of labor history. And one of the books that I remember looking at over and over again when I was a child had a photo of a little girl in a factory looking wistfully out of a window; it was accompanied by a poem by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn that I learned by heart:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
The memory of that photo and poem, along with the tour we took at the museum, sparked the story.
Finally, when I started writing, I looked for a picture of a girl who could be my protagonist. I found this one. It was taken by Lewis Hines in 1908 at the Lincoln Cotton Mills in Evansville, Ind., and is entitled Girls at Weaving Machine.
I don’t know the name of the girl in the photo, or if there is any way of finding out who she really was or what happened to her. Everything else in the story is, of course, imaginary. But this is the girl I saw in my mind when I wrote about Emilia.
I have three faucet controls above my bathtub. One is for hot, one is for cold, and one is to turn the shower on and off. The fixtures are made of metal holders in which faux-marble handles are inserted. Like everything else in the house, it was designed to look good while being extremely cheap.
Several years ago, the faux-marble handle in the center control, which turns the shower on and off, fell — slipped out of its fixture and landed on the floor of the tub. I tried to tape it back and glue it back, but was defeated by the smoothness of the handle and the dampness of the bathroom.
So for years now, I’ve stored the handle on the side of the bathtub. Every morning, when I wanted to shower, I’d slip it into its fixture, turn it, put it back on the side of the tub, and then do the same when I was done. It became part of my morning ritual.
Then, about two weeks ago, the hot water faux-metal handle slipped out of its fixture.
That was something that was harder to get used to. Not only did I have to place and replace the handle that would turn the shower on and off, but also the one that would adjust the hot water. It was both inconvenient and irritating.
Motivated by my inability to change the hot water when needed (and nervous about getting burned), I actually, finally, came up with a solution — using this fabulous stuff that I had once seen an article about called Sugru Mouldable Glue. (I’ve included the link just in case somebody out there could also use it.) It comes in little packets. You open the packet, take off as much of the clay-like substance as you like, mold it, stick it to whatever you want, give it 24 hours, and it semi-hardens to a rubbery substance. I put the faux-marble handles into the fixtures, stuck the Sugru on either side of the fixture as barriers, and waited.
And it worked! The handles are now staying where they belong, inside the fixtures.
But that’s not what this essay is about.
What it’s about is the fact that I’m still reaching for the central faux-marble handle after every shower — even though I’m reasonably awake and intellectually aware that I used the handle to start the shower. I finish washing, and go to the side of the tub, reach around, and for a split second I wonder what happened to the damned handle — and then think: Oh, yeah — it’s fixed. All I have to do is actually put my hand on it and turn it.
So now I’m wondering: Will I ever forgive the center handle for being fixed after not being fixed for such a long time?
The problem is that it feels so good — so righteous — to blame the fixture for my having to get up, shower, make coffee, and prepare for work in the morning. I’d rather lie in bed until 11 a.m. or so and read, but instead I have to get moving.
I don’t really want to be in a bad mood because I have to work, or because I’m behind on various personal tasks. That means I’m a lazy person, right? But when I had to go fishing for the separate handle every morning, I could pull myself up and say, “Obviously, it’s the handle’s fault that I’m feeling like this” — a very satisfactory strategy.
Not realistic, you say? Well, perhaps not. But sometimes, when we’re angry at a bad situation in our lives or in our world (and lord knows there are enough of those situations these days), it helps to focus that anger on something easy and within reach. Something you can blame. Like a broken shower handle.
But now it’s fixed. Of course, I can, for now, be angry because I find myself searching for it unnecessarily each morning. After that? I guess I’ll have to find something else.
A last minute blog post (because I’ve been so awful at keeping this site up to date): The Heliosphere SF convention in Tarrytown, NY, takes place this weekend, March 9-11, and Jim & I will be there.
Heliosphere is a small, developing con, so it’s more laid-back and less formal than larger, more established cons — which is not a bad thing. We’ll be arriving Saturday morning and will stay through to Sunday, and both of us have a variety of panels.
Here’s my schedule (it’s all on Saturday) — come on by and say hello.
Dealing with Rejection as a New (or Even Old) Writer
Are you a new writer? Depressed at getting rejections? Well, so are we all. Experienced writers talk about how to deal with those nobody-loves-my-work blues.
Panelists: Barbara Krasnoff, Keith R.A. DeCandido, John Grant, Mark Oshiro, Ian Randal Strock, April Grey
LOCATION: Ballroom 4
DATE: March 10, 2018
TIME: 11:30 am – 12:45 pm
Readers: Barbara Krasnoff, Susan Hanniford Crowley, Elektra Hammond, Teel James Glenn
LOCATION: Ballroom 2
DATE: March 10, 2018
TIME: 4:00 pm – 5:15 pm
Re-examining Childhood Favorites Through Adult Eyes
Should I re-read that novel that I loved when I was a kid, but that I now suspect was actually racist/sexist/just plain lousy?
Panelists: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Darrell Schwietzer, Barbara Krasnoff, R. Rozakis
LOCATION: Ballroom 4
DATE: March 10, 2018
TIME: 5:30 pm – 6:45 pm
A little while ago, I was looking at a story that was published recently in Mystic Delirium called “The Ladder-Back Chair.” It describes the experiences of a woman who tries to come to terms with her husband’s death by imagining the presence of a chair she associates with their life together. And then I checked my list of published fiction, and realized that a great deal of my fiction written over the past 15 or so years — more than I thought — has been heavily influenced by a single event in my life: The death of my father in the spring of 2001.
First, a short and very incomplete bio of Bernard Krasnoff — Bernie to his friends. He was born in 1923 to immigrant parents, and grew up in Brooklyn. His college education was interrupted by World War II; he served in the Army in Europe and helped to liberate at least one of the lesser known concentration camps (and kept in touch with two young women who, much later in life, met with him and my mother when they visited the U.S. from Israel). After the war, he studied history at Brooklyn College, where he met and eventually married my mother.
His life was, by all external measures, not extraordinary. He started as a salesman in the “rag trade,” dealing in wholesale women’s clothing. One of my early memories is of visiting his workplace, playing hide and seek among racks and racks of clothes and watching as tailors with pins in their mouths cut out garments amid the smells of machine oil, dust and glue.
Later, after a brief period of unemployment, he managed a mail-order concern for a high-end men’s clothing company. After he retired, he tried out a variety of trades just for the fun of it: He freelanced as a business consultant; worked as a salesman in the men’s department of a clothing store; and became a “meter maid” for the local traffic department (he most enjoyed giving out parking tickets to Cadillacs and other high-priced cars). And perhaps more that I don’t immediately remember.
Other random things I remember: He played the guitar (until my toddler brother sat on it); listened to Woody Guthrie, Alan Sherman, and Beverly Sills; edited a newsletter for the housing project we lived in; supported the Civil Rights movement, opposed the Vietnam War, and was active in local politics; and followed baseball (the Mets), along with other sports (he even watched golf, which for me was about as exciting as watching paint dry). When my family moved from an apartment to a small house in Long Island, he took a huge amount of pleasure in maintaining the house and the garden, and raised an American flag on a flagpole whenever the weather allowed. He supported, defended and loved his family.
I still miss him terribly.
The first story I published after 2001 was called “Lost Connections” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 2002) and was a time-travel story in which a woman visits both sets of grandparents in a useless effort to warn the children who would become her parents against their own futures. The next, “In the Loop” (Descant, 2003), was about a man who becomes lost in the nightmarish unreality of dealing with his father’s illness and death.
Interestingly, the one that I wrote just after my father’s death, “Cancer God” (Space and Time, 2009), wasn’t sold until eight years later. It’s about a smart-ass, aging salesman who is in the hospital and tries to fast-talk his way out of dying. “Waiting for Jakie” (Apex, 2009), was written later but sold the same year and is about the inner life of a Holocaust survivor obsessed with a young soldier she met briefly after liberation.
There are others that I never finished, or never sold (including a very angry revenge story about one of his doctors that I will probably never publish). But now, after “The Ladder-Back Chair,” and as fond as I am of the stories I’ve written over the last 15 years, perhaps I should experiment a bit — try to see if I still have the imagination and skill to work in a wider arena.
I’ll let you know if I succeed. Or, perhaps, you’ll let me know.
When I was about 12 years old, I was awakened early one morning by the sound of an explosion right outside our building. I ran to the window (we lived on the seventh floor) and, still not completely awake, saw a pillar of thick smoke rising and gathering. For one moment, I was so terrified, I couldn’t breathe.
It turned out to be the smoke from a car explosion — in an act of revenge for some slight or other, somebody had apparently thrown a molotov cocktail at an empty car parked outside. But when I found out what had caused the explosion, I wasn’t all that impressed. Because it wasn’t the idea that people were throwing around home-made bombs in my neighborhood that had frightened me so badly.
It was that, for that one second, I thought I was looking at an atomic blast.
I was born early enough so that I have vague memories of watching President Kennedy talking on TV during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening, but I did understand that my parents were also watching, and that they were very, very frightened. I also understood that there could be a war, and that the nuclear explosions that I’d seen movies of could blast us out of existence at any moment.
I had nightmares for weeks after that — not helped by the atomic war drills that we had at school. (Which, even at an early age, I knew were ridiculous — was sitting in a hallway with our arms over our heads really going to protect us from a nuclear blast?)
In fact, I spent my childhood and adolescence living with the terror of an early death from a nuclear war as a constant background hiss in my consciousness. It was like the static from a badly-tuned radio station — you tried to ignore it, you even forgot about it occasionally, but it was always there. It only began to slowly ebb in my college years — while there were still fights to be fought, I began to finally feel that I, and my younger brother, and the even younger children around me, might survive into adulthood, along with the rest of the world. And in the years following, I was grateful that, although there were other problems to be faced, and other horrors around the world, at the very least annihilation by nuclear holocaust was not an imminent threat. That people younger than me didn’t need to know what that felt like.
And now, the nightmare is back.
Our president is tweeting about pressing the nuclear button as though he and Kim Jong Un are a pair of teenagers playing the dozens on a street corner; as though the threat of unleashing a force that could murder millions — hell, billions — of people has no real significance.
There is nothing I can say to something like this. I doubt if there’s anything anyone could say to impress upon Mr. Trump how unbelievably frightening it is when somebody at his level of government and with his level of power exhibits this level of childish bluster. He is threatening our lives, and the lives of our children, and the lives of adults and children around the world, just so he can play “mine is bigger than yours.”
I have never been religious. I am pretty much an agnostic. But if there is a god, or gods, or any kinds of deities out there, then this is my sincere and fervent prayer: Please let us survive this man. Whatever humanity’s sins, we don’t deserve him.
Because it’s that time of the year: One of my favorite and most personal stories, titled “The Ladder-Back Chair,” was published this year by Mythic Delirium, and so I thought I’d invite you to read it, if you’d like. (And as long as you’re at Mythic Delirium, look around — there’s some excellent stuff there.)
I’m sorry to say that I haven’t kept good track of some of the stories I’ve read and enjoyed this year; but I’ll be coming back sometime later with at least a few recommendations.
Let’s start with one premise: Most women (hell, most men) do not have naturally red lips. Or perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Or darkly-lined eyes. Or blue-gray shaded eyelids.
There is a very funny scene in the premiere episode of upcoming Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which I’m very much looking forward to, btw). Our heroine goes to bed, waits until her recently-wed husband is asleep, and then tiptoes to the bathroom. She puts her hair in curlers, removes her makeup, douses her face in cold cream and then goes back to bed. She wakes about half an hour before the alarm, removes the cold cream, brushes out her hair, applies her makeup (lipstick and all), and then goes back to bed and pretends to be asleep until the alarm goes off, and her husband “wakes” his fabulous-looking wife.
For me, it was a wonderful setup of a popular movie trope: That beautiful women always look perfectly cosmeticized. Women in most films — especially before the last decade or so — always have artfully placed hair, red lips and carefully detailed eyes. It doesn’t matter if they’ve just gotten out of bed or just finished cooking a five-course dinner. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been dumped in the river or a pool, spent hours trudging through a jungle, carried around by a monster, saved from a fire, pulled onto a horse, — except for an artfully placed smudge, their makeup is always perfect.
(And yes, I’m aware that everybody actually wears makeup in movies. But except for silents and early talkies — have you seen how much lipstick Bing Crosby wears in some of his earliest films? — men’s faces are carefully made up so they don’t look like they’re wearing cosmetics. But women always do — at least, to those of us who know what women look like without makeup.)
I have to admit, as somebody who has never been at all good at (or all that interested in) makeup, I harbor a bit of secret resentment about that. When I was young and inexperienced at looking for love, I was told by several young men that they preferred their women to be “natural.” I took them at their word — until I noticed that, for the most part, the women they asked out were the ones who knew how to use cosmetics to enhance their faces without looking made up. Not having that skill, I was never able to come up to their expectations of what natural should look like in a woman. Natural wasn’t what real women looked like without makeup. Natural was what the women on movies and TV looked like.
More recently, though, many women’s faces on screen have become a little more realistic. When they’re supposed to be just out of bed, or just spent two days running from evil would-be world dominators, their lips and eyes often look plainer and more natural; their hair becomes tousled and even, god help us, truly messy. I love that. I’d love more of it.
Which finally has me coming to what inspired this rant. One of the latest Netflix series to attract attention is a Western called Godless, which is about a town that is inhabited mostly by women who were widowed by the violent deaths of their husbands.
I’ve only been able to watch half of the first episode so far. It’s obviously well written and well acted. So far, it seems to be more about the male protagonists than the women, so my expectations were a little disappointed, but okay — it still could be a fine series.
However (and yes, this is petty, but screw it, I deserve to be occasionally petty if I want to) the cosmetics on the woman who plays Alice Fletcher, what looks to be the lead female role, annoyed the hell out of me.
Most of the other women up until then — the ones without too many lines — appeared to be sturdy, attractive-without-being-fashion-models characters. But Alice is different. She lives with her Paiute mother-in-law and her young son on a remote ranch where the nearest neighbor is probably several miles away. She has had a tough life. She knows how to use a gun to protect herself. She cares for a corral full of horses. The family works hard to provide for themselves.
And this down-home, hard-working, 19th-century Western woman is walking around her ranch wearing red lipstick and blue-gray eye shadow, perfectly manicured eyebrows and carefully applied eyeliner. In contrast to her mother-in-law (who is older and not a love-interest and therefore doesn’t count), she obviously spends considerable time each morning — perhaps before she feeds the horses and chops the wood and cooks the breakfast — touching up her face in case any interesting strangers show up at the old homestead.
Which, I’m sorry to say, hit one of my “oh, please!” buttons and kept pushing me out of the otherwise interesting plotline. So I’ll just let my totally personal rant ends with this: Can we please, please, please make sure our tough, hard-working heroines look like normally attractive women rather than fashion models? Can we try to remember that it takes time and effort to look preternaturally gorgeous rather than try to make us believe that some women have naturally bright red lips and blue-gray eyelids?