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That beautiful image above came as a surprise in my inbox earlier this month, when the fine folks at Thirty West Publishing (publishers of the audio story-focused e-zine Elevator Stories) let me know that they had nominated my short story “The Murals” as one of their two fiction submissions for the annual Best of the Net awards.
First off, it is really quite an honor and I’m very grateful. I’ve submitted my work to a number of writing awards, and even placed in a few, but it’s another thing for the editors of a publication — who read literally hundreds if not thousands of very, very good stories every year — to single out my work as among the best they published last year.
The feeling of gratitude and validation led me down a thought rabbit hole. Because I also — like so many fiction writers trying to cross the bridge from side hustle to career — put blood, sweat and tears into a novel manuscript last year. I’ve submitted it to several unpublished book contests, and it has placed in a few. I’ve sent it to many, many literary agents, with zero traction whatsoever.
I think the novel manuscript is good. My most honest beta readers who tell me when my work is ‘meh’ think it’s good. And so I’ve been frustrated by finding myself, yet again, stumped at the same point of the book publishing process. It’s enough, after five unpublished novels, to throw my hands up in the air and accept a fine life of writing thought leadership content. After all, what, ultimately, is the point of writing stories with no audience?
But that line of negative thinking is only focused on the audience I want — an audience of novel readers.
I wasn’t respecting or appreciating the audiences I had earned: The type of readers who breath life into a dizzying and diverse array of literary magazines, both online and print. Or the editors at those publications who might one day share my name or recommend me to an agent who can help make my novelist dreams come true. Or the young adult and college-age readers who will hopefully benefit from the upcoming book I co-authored guiding student-athletes on how to develop and manage their brands, now that they can profit from their name, image and likeness.
When I found out I had been nominated for Best of the Net, I felt immensely fulfilled. More than I expected. When I explored that feeling, it came down to the fact that I discovered a depth of appreciation for and gratitude to an audience of readers I had previously been viewing as a stepping stone on a march to a printed hard cover New York Times bestseller.
The lesson can probably be distilled down to a few tried-and-true cliches: Enjoy the journey. Stop and smell the roses. Take a moment to enjoy the view.
Yes, to all of those. It is immensely gratifying to have written a story that made an impact with readers.
Also as mentioned, and something that will certainly be the subject of many future posts when we get closer to the publication date, I’ve co-authored a book with University of Virginia Professor Kimberly Whitler that will be published spring 2022. Learn more about “The Athlete Brand: How to Benefit From Name, Image and Likeness.”
Lastly, The Vultures of Hogwaller — that unpublished novel manuscript I keep mentioning — advanced to the second stage of the 2021 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, which meant it finished among the Top 3% of submissions. Vultures was previously named a finalist — among the Top 5 for all entries — for the Spotlight First Novel Prize (read more here) and made the longlist for the Exeter Writing Prize (see here).
I’ve gone around the write novel -> query agents -> hear nothing -> get nowhere carousel before. So when I wrote The Vultures of Hogwaller, I decided to try some new things to amp up my pitch (and the appeal of my work) to agents. For the first time, I submitted an unpublished novel to various unpublished novel and writing award contents.
The results so far? Pretty good.
Vultures was named a finalist — among the Top 5 for all entries — for the Spotlight First Novel Prize. Read more here.
It also earned recognition on the longlist for the Exeter Writing Prize. See here.
I’ve entered a few other contests with winners to be announced later this summer and fall, so fingers crossed for more success. Honestly, I’m very confident that Vultures is a strong manuscript. The feedback from family, friends and those who barely know me but still volunteered to be beta readers has given me a lot of belief in this story. But a little recognition from industry professionals doesn’t hurt the old ego. And, more importantly, it won’t hurt with literary agents who will hopefully see the outside validation as enough reason to invest a bit of time reading my pages.
My thanks to the Spotlight First Novel Prize and Exeter Writing Prize! It’s an honor to be recognized alongside fellow authors who are out there, just like me, hustling for the opportunity to bring their creativity, blood, sweat and tears to readers.
Back in 2013 in the first weeks of my master’s in creative writing program at the University of Edinburgh, I started on a project called Happy Jack about a man with the power to know exactly what the people around him needed to be happy. The catch: He’s compelled to do whatever it takes to bring them happiness, often at great personal cost.
Everything in my mind then was NOVELNOVELNOVEL, so that’s how I wrote Happy Jack. I love the story. I think it’s actually the best plot I’ve ever devised. But it’s flawed as a novel — mostly due to my learning curve as a young writer.
The story continues to call to me to get it out in the world, but after spending the last several months writing and revising The Vultures of Hogwaller and investing energy to find an agent and get it published, I didn’t want to commit to another novel-sized effort. As it turns out, I read Save the Cat and prepared a Save the Cat beat sheet to adapt the manuscript into a screenplay back in 2017 before some “life” sprung up and waylaid my writing aspirations for a spell.
Hallelujah for the cloud, as all my beat sheet prep work was still online and my copy of Save the Cat was still on the shelf. Looking over my beat sheet, it was pretty good (go, 2017 Jay). I figured now was the time to give screenwriting a try. Less commitment than rewriting the entire novel while focusing on Vultures and I could learn a new form.
It went by pretty fast! Writing 115 pages of screenplay is a hell of a lot easier than 300+ pages of dense prose. I still need to give it a good edit, make sure those Save the Cat-modeled beats really sing, sharpen the dialogue, etc., etc., but here’s a look at the scene where Jack meets the our antogonist, Dr. Archambeau, near the end of Act 1 (Forgive the formatting! Screenplay format doesn’t copy over well):
EXT. SECLUDED DAUPHIN ISLAND BEACH – DAY
Jack is slouched in his beach chair by the van, exhausted. A ghost crab skitters near his feet.
I can’t keep this up. It’s always something. I’ve got to get further away.
The crab runs into its hole in the sand.
Yeah, exactly. Easy enough for you.
Jack looks up to see a man stumbling down the beach. He’s fat, short and ridiculously dressed in a searsucker suit, buckskin boots and a straw hat.
Can I help you?
My name is Dr. Claudius Beauregard Archambeau, and I knew your father in Vee-et-nam. I have an offer for you, Jack Hazelwood.
Dr. A hands Jack a business card.
INT. TOYOTA 4X4 VAN – DAY
Jack and Dr. A sit at a small table in the cramped cabin. Dr. A looks overheated and faint. Jack fiddles with the business card before setting it down.
Are you OK?
I have a number of conditions that contribute to my, how should I say, dashing figure. But presently, I believe a dodgy thyroid is responsible for my state of lassitude. A juice, perhaps?
Jack flips open a cooler and hands Dr. A a Capri Sun.
That’ll do. Tell me. Did your mother, sweet Joy, ever tell you how your father died?
Yeah. What do you know about it?
I was on that plane, Jack. The one that went down. I’m the only survivor.
I was saved by bar-tailed godwits.
What did you say?
Birds. Migrating birds. Birds mean land. I swam, how far I cannot say. The birds kept coming, leading me, to an island, somewhere in the South Pacific. I persevered. I learned to fish the reef. The colors of the fish, they were infinite. Octopi striped like zebras. Sea urchins pink as bubble gum and big as basketballs. Crabs in purple armor, like Samurai warriors. I ate them all. But they couldn’t satiate my loneliness. Thank God for the Japanese fisherman that finally found me.
Dr. A pauses and Jack snaps out of a hypnotized state.
Why didn’t my mom tell me about you?
Oh, I don’t think she wanted you to be haunted by your daddy’s ghost. When Joy died, I tried to find you, to offer my help. It was the least I could do after your daddy saved my life in the war. I didn’t know where to find you. Until there you were on my TV!
Look, it’s been real nice talking to you. But I’ve got a lot to do. The oil spill…
Is a monumental travesty and failure of mankind. But you haven’t heard my offer yet, Jack.’
There’s nothing I need. I’m happy with the way things are.
It looks to me like the way things are is killing you.
I’m needed here. I can’t go.
Maybe what would make you happy is a change of scenery. Learn to live in the real world again.
You don’t know what the real world would do to me…
I know what you are, Jack. You have a gift.
There are people in this world who believe in magic. You make people happy, Happy Jack. And you can learn to control it. I can teach you. Don’t waste your life out here, some maladroit hermit.
It’s safer here.
Come with me. Let me repay the debt I owe your father.
Where would we go?
The Big Easy. N’Awlins, my boy.
I’m excited to share that my short story “The Murals” was published this week by Elevator Stories, a really unique online fiction journal that publishes written and audio stories in theme-based issues. That’s right, they ask authors to record readings of their stories so you can listen to me do my best Morgan Freeman reading “The Murals” at a breezy length of 18 minutes … or save your ears and just read it.
I’m honored to be included among 10 fantastic stories in Level 2, Elevator Stories’ third release. And I’d also like to thank them for the amazing art they create to accompany their published stories (see above).
If you’re reading here, please click there and take a little time to listen or read through the issue. Thank you for supporting fiction and writers like me!
Writing a novel is fun. Getting words down on a page is easy. At least for me, it is.
The business of writing is … not as fun. Getting a novel published is … not as easy. At least for me, it isn’t.
After recently whizzing through a 95,000-word novel manuscript, the business side of the story has begun for me. It’s time (once again) to try and find an agent, who will hopefully place the manuscript with a publisher, who will hopefully publish the book inside of a year, when it will hopefully sell a million copies.
It’s a long, lonely process, and it’s where most writers fail. Sometimes because their work isn’t good enough. Sometimes because they never reached out to the right agent. Or, sometimes, because they find the perfect agent, but that agent had a bad ham sandwich for lunch and passes because the writer’s plot involved a curious Christmas ham.
Anyways, it all starts with a query (#ifykyk). When you’re like me and have next to zero connections in the publishing industry, the query is your one-page, 300-400-word lighthouse signaling “look at me, please.” Authors hope it beckons agents to port, to linger a little longer.
As the writing Twitterati would say, I #amquerying and post today to share my query. Does it make you want to read more? Want to run with the idea to a publisher and say, “Please publish this book! Now!”
Query: The Vultures of Hogwaller
Dear Mr./Ms. AGENT,
I’m seeking representation for THE VULTURES OF HOGWALLER, a 95,000-word contemporary fantasy with elements of historical fiction. The voices of Marlon James’ BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS in a modern-day LOVECRAFT COUNTRY explore legacies of family trauma and racial injustice ignited by the 1827 Monticello slave auction that ruthlessly split apart 130 “valuable negroes” following Thomas Jefferson’s death.
What if the “insufferable concomitance of slavery,” as Civil Rights icon Julian Bond once called it, wasn’t just an idea? What if it lived down the street? The Vulture Crew, as they’re known to the descendants they task with righting the injustice they’ve suffered, are the spirits of the Monticello slaves, cursed to remain as shapeshifters in the Charlottesville backwater known as Hogwaller.
Their makeshift allies — Fernandez, a middle-aged man with a mental disability; a hair dresser named Maybellina; and Malcolm, a homeless ex-convict who hides his traumatic past behind a face covered with tattoos — are running out of time to help the Vulture Crew return to Monticello, break the curse and rest in peace. Gentrification is wiping out the old Hogwaller. Shelly Schifler, the nosey old timer with a sweet front porch persona, has a ruthless plan to aim “urban renewal” at her enemies, not to mention a gang of white supremacist cousins to intimidate whoever stands in the way.
If the Vulture Crew lose their home before the curse is broken, they’ll lose their humanity by transforming permanently into black vultures. Desperation leads to Tim Harris, a white collar intellectual with a lot to learn about the difference between thinking the right things related to racial justice and doing the right things. His idealized notion of the diverse Hogwaller community comes crashing down around his pricey new condo when he’s entangled in the fight. Secrets and enemies lurk behind every neighbor’s door.
I earned a master’s in creative writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh, and my short fiction has appeared in The Legendary, Pythia Journal, Oblong Magazine and the Eunoia Review. In my day job, I write, edit and publish as editorial director at the University of Virginia’s Darden School.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
In summer 2019, I drew up a plan to exit the 9-5 working world for a bit and return to writing fiction. In fall 2019, an idea started to come together for a book I would write when I finally followed through on that plan. In spring 2020 (with some coronavirus pandemic modifications), I made the leap, left full time work and started writing.
In fall 2020, I finished. The Vultures of Hogwaller is a completed 95,000-word urban fantasy blending magical realism and historical fiction. From multiple characters’ perspectives, it explores through-lines to the present from the 1827 Monticello slave auction that ruthlessly split apart 130 “valuable negroes” following Thomas Jefferson’s death.
Of course, done is never really done until a manuscript is picked up by an agent and publisher and then baked in their editing process before publication. So it’s DONE in the sense that I’ve written it, completed a first revision, and am now working on more revisions based on feedback from a test group of first readers.
And I’d love to share a little bit more of it. I shared a draft chapter of one character’s backstory in September, and here’s a look at the opening of the manuscript:
The Vultures of Hogwaller
By Jay Hodgkins
“Two years after this, Mr. Jefferson died. Then began our troubles. We were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we meet in another world.”
— Recollections of Peter Fossett, published in the New York World, January 30, 1898
They faced Monticello, the little mountain turning green with spring. Even to their extraordinary eyes, Jefferson’s mansion was lost in the unfolding canopy of hickory, oak, maple and ash. Its legacy, though, was visible everywhere in these parts. To them, that legacy was as blood red as the dawn light reflecting off the mist that shrouded the mountain summit.
They sat on the spine of a shingled roof that topped a dreary box of a home with hardly a window to enjoy the sweeping view of the surrounding foothills. Four apartments were cramped inside, Charlottesville’s high-minded excuse for low-income housing in the ’80s. Their perch was mid-hill, just over the old, crumbling livestock auction stockyard that some said gave Hogwaller its name. Down there on the stockyard’s rusting tin roof, in The Bottom, is where the rest of their committee assembled. Their native home was just a bit further through the marsh around an ancient, dying sycamore tree, pale as a ghost on the southern bank of Moores Creek.
There were about a dozen of them perched in a row on the tenement’s roof, their dark wings spread wide to capture the sun’s rays. Nothing could interrupt this daily morning vigil. Not the police patrol cars circling in ceaseless vigil, the drag races down Franklin, the sick people stumbling out of drug houses, the strange poor people in their bric-a-brac strewn yards, the young people throwing stones at them, or the homeless people traipsing through from their tent town hidden in the woods of The Bottom.
Depending on who you were in Hogwaller – and there, by this time, were every sort of folk – you hated the endemic black vultures or, at best, found them a fittingly peculiar addition to the oddities, mysteries and eclectic ramshackle sprawl of the neighborhood real estate agents and White folks in the new duplexes had taken to calling “Upper Belmont.” A fewer number of people protected them, and a still fewer number understood their true nature.
There were folks in Hogwaller whose occupation it was to watch the vultures. Not birders, who might also delight in the red-headed house finches building nests in air vents or the cackling mockingbirds and jays, always aggrieved by something. These people watched these specific black vultures, all 130 of them, never more, never less. They watched them on the rooftops of Hogwaller every morning, on piles of garbage on trash collection days, and on the mounds of sand and gravel in the lot by the stockyard.
On this cold morning, just after dawn, the vulture watchers sit on a porch across the street, wrapped in blankets, also looking toward Monticello through the vulture silhouettes, each a partial eclipse of the rising sun. Together, they share this Hogwaller hillside draped in the shadow of Monticello and 200 years of its history.
At first glance, the black vultures, now rising from the shingled rooftop on an updraft of air quickly warming in the bright sun, has naught to do with Monticello’s legacy.
At first glance, the vultures were vultures. Coragyps atratus. Vulture-raven dressed in black. A disliked, disregarded species, existing on the fringes of human activity, feeding off the scraps, grunting and hissing to protect what little they possess. They were scavengers, not often credited for the benefits they provide to society, cleaning streets and forests of carrion that otherwise would spread disease to humans and pets alike. They were the only species of New World vulture to live and hunt in large family groups, capable of working together toward such ends as killing livestock, say a baby calf by pecking its eyes until it collapses in shock.
At first glance, it would appear Hogwaller was the perfect confluence of climate, habitat and opportunity for a committee to become so large and bold. Lowland marsh speckled with old forest. A reliable wind down the Rivanna River gorge to use for whipping up into a kettle over the foothills of the Appalachians. A community too bogged down with the rigors of human life to lock up its trash tight.
At first glance, to the old timers in the neighborhood who remembered the livestock wallowing down in the marsh off Moores Creek at the stockyard, it seemed the vultures had arrived with appetites whetted for a chance at the calves auctioned off weekly from 1947 til the last gavel was dropped in 2012. Now some years later, it seemed perhaps they stayed in the bird-brained hope the calves – tasty shit and tastier entrails – would return.
One of the vultures spins out of its kettle to ride down the edges of the updraft into The Bottom. It lands on the rusting tin roof of the old stockyard before spreading its wings to glide lightly down to Franklin Street. There, it begins to investigate the flattened carcass of a green frog run over in the night. There isn’t much left to it, but enough entrails to make it worth the effort to pick through. A pair of cats lounging in the doorway of the abandoned stockyard look on in lazy contempt.
The vulture invests itself in its meal so much that it does not hear the car accelerating down Franklin toward it. It never sees the black Ford Escort or the woman with short, dark hair smiling as she bears down. It never hears the laugh of glee she belches out when she feels the bump of the vulture’s body and sees the tufts of feathers swirling in the air as she speeds off.
The dead vulture has a name. Miles. Miles has suffered from the cruelty of the human race for a long time before this moment. Now, Miles is dead.
At first glance.
There’s a lot of pain and loss in the world right now, and this is a post about losing my dog — the late, the great Uli Mclovin Hodgkins aka Uli Bear aka Uli the Grey aka Uli Booli. So, yes, writing is my therapy, and this will undoubtedly involve some self-indulgent self-therapy, but if you stick with me, I will try to spin a story at least somewhat worthy of my incredible companion for the last 13 years.
I have a friend who recently became a father. I saw him for the first time in several years earlier this month and my first question was: “What does it feel like, being a dad?”
Predictably, he lit up with a smile. He’s Brazilian, and English is his second language, so he worked hard to find the words. He said, “I can’t describe it. It is love, but it is a totally different kind of love I didn’t know existed before.”
I understand completely. Though I don’t have a child and so don’t know that unique love, I think it is a perfect analogy for the strange, possibly irrational love many dog owners feel for their dogs. I loved Uli in a way I didn’t know love existed before having her in my life.
Uli wasn’t easy. In fact, she’d be better described as many different stages of difficult. Perhaps with one exception where our roles reversed, but more on that in a minute.
There was young Uli, rescued from the Charlottesville SPCA in 2007 at two years old with virtually no training. Wild, with limitless energy, incredible speed and an insatiable love for running away. She barked at everything that moved. If a door was left open even a crack, she was out of it. She would probe fences for weaknesses, and so we dubbed her “The Velociraptor.” Escape, and the game would be afoot — chase me, get close, too slow, try again.
Then there was the growing separation anxiety as she got older. Suddenly, this dog you could leave out in the house for hours with no consequence (except the occassional loaf of bread pirated from a counter top … she LOVED bread!) turned into a tornado of destruction. At first, shoes and remote controls, then chunks of door and wall chewed and scratched out. She once bent a sturdy metal crate into a pretzel trying to escape because we put her in this usually safe space in someone else’s house. She snapped her canine tooth in Chicago and we had to schedule a root canal in Madison, Wisconsin. She once ate through an ENTIRE FRONT DOOR (glass panels and wood frame) when I left the house for an hour. Why? She just wanted to be in the front yard. I found her lying in the grass looking pleased as punch, somehow just a tiny bit of blood on her fur. Uli 1, Door 0.
Then there was old Uli. Very mellow. Very sage. I could even finally let her off leash to trot along beside me or, often, just behind. A place the young Uli would have NEVER accepted. But like all old things, age caught her. She dislocated her hip in November 2019 and staged a miraculous recovery… miraculous but requiring an immense amount of human effort to help pull off. There was Cushing’s Disease. Waking up in the middle of the night for emergency potty breaks. Pills. So many pills. Extra vet visits. Constant vigilance to make sure she didn’t slip and fall on our hardwood floors or try to take the stairs on her own. (Short aside…when she was still in a VERY precarious state after her hip injury, she somehow escaped out of her overnight kennel at the vet’s, made it down a staircase, helped herself to a vast store of prescription dog food, and made it back up the stairs. The vet staff told us they watched it all on video the next day. This, in a nutshell, was Uli. Both charming and vexing in her determination).
The point is, like all of us, she aged, and age is hard. Very hard. Both on those experiencing it and their caretakers.
But as I reflect on all these stages of Uli, it’s very clear to me how much credit she deserves in my personal growth as an adult.
Let’s just say I’m not perfect. I’m stubborn. I am not inclined to change. Where humans have failed to lead me to change they sought or needed from me, Uli’s will and very nature as a dog gave me no choice. When I wanted to be selfish and travel or do whatever I wanted to do, which I’m great at doing over human objections, Uli said, “Sorry. You have to take care of me. Figure something out. Because if you don’t, I’ll either destroy your house or I’ll die. Your choice. By the way, I love you no matter what.”
Young Uli taught me patience and how to better regulate my emotions (anger and frustration, usually, but others, too). Anxious Uli taught me how to change and adapt and problem solve, because sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you just have to figure it out. Old Uli taught me to give of myself in a way I wasn’t always sure I had in me. Selflessness over selfishness, and then the discovery that selflessness is actually a gift to yourself and your beneficiary.
To walk the trail with a dog through its life is to sign on for a series of very real life challenges. I’m so grateful for the growth. I never expected it.
I don’t think anyone needs a lesson on the value of a dog as a companion. It’s basically THE reason people choose to bring a dog into their life.
But Uli’s gift of companionship diverged from the usual at a very important time.
My ex-wife, Carrie, and I went through a very difficult period that really spanned a number of years, resulted in a yearlong separation and ultimately divorce. I don’t think Carrie or I realized it was happening at first, but when we began to become more distant in Scotland, Uli was my constant walking companion. I had not taken up hiking as a serious pastime at that point, but with no yard, her need to go out for walks was an entre. We started walking…further and further and further. I’d estimate we covered 2,000 miles in 14 months. Every inch of Edinburgh and more. She kept me occupied and fulfilled at what might have otherwise been a lonely time.
Uli settled into an unusual era of peace and tranquility when we moved into our new home in Charlottesville in 2015. She was 10. She had a wireless fence and could roam the yard all day, whether we were home or not. I call this her “Bilbo Baggins phase,” when she had come home to the Shire from life’s great adventures and contented herself ruminating upon them.
When Carrie moved out, Uli was, with no exaggeration, my rock. I chose to suffer that very difficult year of separation telling almost no one what was happening. I made the mistake of not calling on the people in my corner. But I never felt alone, because on my worst days, Uli with some supernatural instinct would insist on lying as close to me as possible. She was a constant companion at my side. She spent countless hours lounging in her bed on the porch next to me while I read books. On weekends that I dreaded for being alone and having nothing to do, she gave us something to do in the form of so many great walks in the mountains, over rocks, through streams. The Blue Ridge Mountains were our playground, and these were beautiful times of solitude within the healing power of nature that she loved as much as I had learned to.
Not long after our divorce and when I entered into a new relationship, Uli started to slow down. It was probably coincidence, of course, but it felt like she knew she could relax. Her work was done. She had given back and carried me at the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I needed carrying.
On Saying Goodbye
Boy, this part’s hard. It feels too cliche to boil this part down into life lessons, but as I’ve gotten older and more cynical and the distractions of and weight of the world have led me to generally feel less, it was a rare gift to have a moment where I was so intensely present and so immensely overwhelmed with feeling.
Uli died on September 11, 2020, almost 13 years after she came into our lives. Though Carrie and I divorced, we remained civil through the process and emerged on friendly terms. Because of our mutual desire to co-parent Uli, she became a final fragment of family that reminded us to be as kind as we could to each other.
And so Carrie and I came together on a grassy patch under a big pine tree behind the wonderful Georgetown Veterinary Hospital for one last visit with her. She had developed pancreatitis and wasn’t responding well. She had stopped eating and drinking. She made it very clear it was time.
She was mildly sedated when she was brought out to us, and I wasn’t sure how aware she was that we were there. It didn’t matter. It felt good to touch her one last time and feel her breathing.
But Uli loved something so dearly in the years Carrie and I were together. She loved what we called “the double pet.” We would chant “double pet, double pet,” and she would wriggle and squirm up the bed to get within our reach and lavish in four hands scratching and petting her entire body. We remembered “the double pet,” and started to scratch her ears and neck, side and rump, together while singing “double pet, double pet.”
Uli opened her eyes. She looked at us both. She smiled. As if to confirm it wasn’t just some reaction of the muscles, she lifted her head a bit, set it back down, and smiled again, that silly pit bull grin. We broke. We laughed and cried and dripped snot and made strange noises with no volume control because it was just too much. Too perfect. A perfect goodbye. Uli closed her eyes and went back to sleep. We called the vet down. Dr. Donald Peppard isn’t just the guy who gives your dog medicine and sends her on her way. He’s the guy who knows your dog, who your dog is actually excited to come see, who tells you because he’s been her vet for years and knows how precocious she is that it’s really sad to see her like this, and he means it because there are tears in his eyes.
Dr. Peppard sat with us for a good while and talked, then he gave her the drugs that would stop her heart. As he injected the drugs and felt for her heartbeat, Uli’s eyes opened wide and she looked at me. Right in my eyes. I don’t know what she saw, or if she saw. But that moment will endure in my mind and it was another of her gifts.
Carrie and I lingered around for hours at the spot after Uli was taken away. Ever the planner, Carrie had bought a beer from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont that was made in honor of their passed brewery dog, Damon. We got to stay in that moment, remembering her greatest adventures, without letting go of it too quickly. We could do that thanks to the work Uli had helped us do being OK around each other, and the act of unity itself honored her legacy.
Life has a sense of humor when you’re open to observing it. The first song on the radio as I drove home was George Michael’s “I’m Never Gonna Dance Again.” So cheesy, it deserved a laugh, but it felt wonderful to sing. The second song, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Possibly my favorite song about time and life marching forward.
I got home and reminisced with Desiree, who has been an incredible dog stepmom and bore much of the weight of caring for Uli in her old age. She let me stay in the moment a bit longer, because I wasn’t ready to start the process of “moving forward” yet. But time does that for us. A couple of whiskeys and fond memories later, I was falling asleep after an emotionally draining day. The morning came. There was Bella the dachshund to let out. Skye the weimaraner to take for his walk. All pushing me forward, out of that moment, because that is how our experience of time works.
But is “forward, ever forward” how we experience time? Exclusively, anyway? I had the distinct, vivid impression in my last visit with Uli and into the night that I was everywhere with her at once. I had memories of her in moments I had completely forgotten ever happened. I relived acutely the hard work of caring for her these past few months. I remembered her first day with us in her forever home. The memories were literally rushing over me, like her life was flashing before my eyes. All I can say is that this felt very real to me, and I hope it’s a shred believable.
I felt, for at least a short while, that I existed in all of those moments with her, that they were happening now, all at the same time. If you’ve ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or know the story of Dr. Manhattan from “The Watchmen,” I’m not the first person to have felt time at least could be experienced this way. It’s a theory rooted in Einstein and the concept of spacetime.
I remember a day in a lit criticism class while getting my master’s in Edinburgh where we were debating “Slaughterhouse Five.” The teacher argued vigorously that Vonnegut was being satirical in his depiction of a race of aliens experiencing time as one continuous spaghetti string of then, now, forever and always, in which they could look to and experience various points of their choosing. The conventional view is Vonnegut was poking at our human tendency for wishful thinking. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just look at the nice parts of time, and never look at the bad.”
I disagreed with the teacher just as vigorously. You’d have to ask Vonnegut, but I think he was commenting on the inevitability of good and bad in our existence and our ability to shrink the space and time of the bad or expand the space and time of the good through the one true element of control we have over reality … our perspective.
Either way, I went home after that class to be greeted, as I was nearly every day for 13 years, by an overjoyed Uli whose only conception of time was that any time I was gone was too long. And its end always worthy of celebration.
Thank you to everyone in my life who gave Uli so much love over the years, helped take care of her, watch her, let her crash their parties and get into their hearts.
Thank you, Uli. It’s hard to say goodbye.
Six years. SIX! YEARS! That’s how long it’s been since I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with my master’s in creative writing and left Scotland to come home to Virginia. Time is a tricky thing. I’m incredulous that it’s been so long. It feels like almost no time at all has passed. Yet, enough has happened to prove plenty has.
I got divorced. That was less than fun, and a contributor to about two years disappearing in a blur. I’m in a “new” relationship that, lo and behold, is now two years old. My dog, a middle-aged sprite when I came home, is now in her sunset. It’s hard to deny the photographic evidence of friend’s kids growing up in front of my eyes. And all that is nothing to say of our shared experiences: a global pandemic rapidly coming up on its one-year mark, civil unrest in the U.S. over this country’s inability to support racial justice and equity (more on that in a moment), and the 24/7 anxiety storm of the attention-craving, oxygen-consuming Trump presidency.
It’s actually been quite an eventful six years, and perhaps that’s exactly why I’ve perceived it to go so fast. That, and work. Work is the great high-powered blender of time. Work in America claims the bulk of your productive hours and energy, and, in exchange, if you’re fortunate as I’ve been, it offers a level of personal security that is definitely nothing to sneeze at. If your work is well aligned with your purpose and passion, it can offer much more. And that’s why I’m making a change, because it’s been six years since my work (and time and energy) has been aligned with my purpose and passion.
After five-plus years in a full-time job that has compensated me well, provided me a wonderful work environment and allowed me to meet wonderful and extraordinary people, I’ve stepped back to work in the role at roughly half time. The other half? Creative writing (fiction, creative nonfiction and freelance work that tickles my fancy) and the tasks needed to grow my professional profile as an author. It’s what I love to do (the writing part, anyway).
Woe is us, dear writers. We could have chosen an easier path, but did we choose?
So, because I’m me, the first thing I did with my newfound — let’s not call it “free,” but rather unpaid professional — time was start writing a new novel manuscript. It’s my fifth bite at the apple. The last two bites were better, and to torture this analogy a little longer, I think my age, life experience and growing depth as a human being is taking my writing to a place where an agent or publisher might want a bite at the apple, too.
So what’s the new manuscript about?
It’s about the things I’ve always been interested in — systems, norms, power structures and ways of life in America that are unjust and the people who suffer at their feet yet keep fighting for better. That, with all the societal context that’s been broiling the last six years and coming to a head in 2020.
Let me stop being vague. It’s about Charlottesville. Monticello. A little place called Hogwaller. It’s about the legacies of racism, the throughline of history that shapes people, place and relationships. It’s about the guilt and shame we live with and the complexity of how blended groups of Black people and white people think — about themselves, each other and their realities. It’s about vultures and feral cats. It’s about reality — what I see happening on the streets around me — and magic. Because I can’t resist a little magic.
Here’s an early excerpt (totally unedited because I am just churning out pages right now):
It was Saturday, September 21, 1968. I was 17 years old, a senior at Lane High School and I woke up knowing this would be the best day of my life.
I was mistaken.
It was the first time I had ever been invited to a social event outside of Hogwaller, and to a classmate’s party in Woolen Mills no less. A girl from Hogwaller getting an invitation from a boy who might have been a suitor who lived in one of the big, old Victorian houses was like … Well, I don’t know if there is a comparison, really. Like Jackie Robinson getting the call to join the Big Leagues, I reckon.
You might think that’s an odd comparison to choose, what with me being an old white lady of my generation. Oh, I know how you young folks like to pigeon hole us. My grandbabies tell me. Put us in a box. Or a meme. Whatever you do on the internet with your OK, Boomer smart aleck nonsense. I hope you believe me, I never had a problem with the integration at Lane High School. Neither did my parents, and neither did most of the white folks in Hogwaller. That’s because black and white folks all lived together in Hogwaller already, and we were the only place you could say that in the city of Charlottesville, especially after the blacks got run out of Vinegar Hill earlier in the ’60s and didn’t have their businesses to mingle with the downtown working white folks anymore.
We all got on alright together in Hogwaller, at least as well as colored folks and whites could in those days. Well, we called em colored back then. I know that’s not kosher anymore, but, Jesus, let’s leave the Israelites out of this. The point is, we was all poor, so nobody had anything to look down on the other for. As kids, we all had the same thing to play with – a thing called nothing – so we played with each other in the pastures and in the woods and swam in Moore’s Creek together. Put us under the sun all summer or cover us in mud from the bog out behind the stockyard where we used to torment the wallowing pigs, and the kids all looked pretty much the same anyways. Don’t get me wrong, there’d be scraps between white boys and colored boys in the neighborhood, and like as not the white boy would be one of my cousins and he’d call out n***** this and n***** that, but that’d just be because he was ignorant and not because he hated the boy whose lip he had just busted open.
It was the uppity white folks who come down to the county from up north to renovate the old plantations to be their fancy country estates who had a problem with the blacks. Just plain mean and ornery when they didn’t get their way, those ones. They just up and started a bunch of new private schools to keep the blacks from their kids when the public ones integrated. The middle class whites working in Charlottesville who couldn’t afford the new private schools felt like they had the most to lose. They were outright ugly to the blacks that whole cursed decade, and for some reason they made Lane High School the bullseye for their bull shit.
Forgive me, Lord. I need to wash my mouth with soap.
As I was saying, a girl from Hogwaller getting an invitation to a social event in Woolen Mills was no small thing. It was an even bigger occasion that John Tyler had invited me over to watch the University of Virginia Cavaliers football team take on the No. 1 ranked Purdue University Boilermakers on their brand new TV set. John’s dad was a big time player for UVA before World War II and his game day parties were legendary on the east side of Charlottesville. UVA had had a right decent season in 1967 and had Frank Quayle coming back at running back, one of the best to ever wear the Orange and Blue. Folks thought maybe the Wahoos could catch the Boilermakers napping before their big game against Notre Dame the next week. Here’s a spoiler alert before you check the history books: It wasn’t close. But even so, most folks were just looking forward to the college football season to get their mind off everything else in 1968.
In a proper little southern town in 1968, using drugs to ease the pain was not yet in the playbook like for folks in the big cities. College football was the next best salve. Everybody in town was looking forward to the Wahoos taking the field. Three hours of bliss on Saturday to forget about civil rights and integration and Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Oh, that Bobby Kennedy was so handsome. I always thought handsomer than his brother because he was real. Not the prince rode down from Camelot like John. My folks weren’t in love with Bobby Kennedy like I was, and neither was Charlottesville or Virginia. Ike with his kindly grandpa smile and military grit broke the blue wall in the 50s and the Kennedys were just too slick for southerners to abide. With those clam chowda accents, they never had a chance in Vuhginyuh. The point being, the political winds had already shifted in Virginia by 1968, but my little teen heart did love Bobby Kennedy true.
But if there was one thing that could heal my broken heart, it was the chance to be courted by John Tyler. To this day, I think the boy truly did take a liking to me. Whether he had a kind heart that pitied me or a fool heart that loved me, I don’t know. I’d never have the chance to find out. On that day, Saturday, September 21, 1968, I didn’t care. It just mattered that he invited me. It felt like he was holding a heavy door I was too weak to open and I could see a whole new world through it. My heart was flitting around like a hummingbird at the feeder and my head full of goose feathers that morning just thinking of marrying John Tyler. No, I wasn’t against the feminist movement that was coming into its own in those days. It’s just that a poor girl from Hogwaller didn’t have the luxury of prioritizing her fancy over her financial security. My family couldn’t afford a refrigerator, much less to send me to college, even a state school. And I didn’t have the grades for a scholarship. I wasn’t going to be nobody’s country bumpkin turned Madison Avenue ad copy girl success story. The route to security for me looked much safer the old fashioned way – through a man. And best do it while I was still young, my bosom still had all its perk and my legs were skinny. In the deep, dark soul of men, nothing fuzzies up their brains like a skinny pair of legs of the kind that usually belong to a little girl. And fuzzying is what I needed to do before any decent man recalled my parents didn’t have two nickels to rub together. If I waited too long, I wouldn’t be the first in my family to land right back in the Hogwaller toilet with a Shifler cousin, or worse yet a Shifflerr cousin, or worst of all a nice, handsome black boy from Hogwaller, which wasn’t really worst except I wouldn’t ever be able to talk to my daddy again. Ideally, I’d find a man with prospects. Not many in my little universe had better prospects than a Woolen Mills boy like John Tyler.
What I didn’t count on, though I should have, was what the other Lane High girls at the party from Woolen Mills were going to do to me. It wasn’t just the poor girls like me who were looking for a husband by the time they turned 18 in those days. Plenty of girls who could’ve done better if they had one lick of gumption just wanted to hitch their wagon to a man and carry around his babies barefoot in the kitchen as soon as they could. Little southern towns was full of girls with no imagination in 1968.
But for all they lacked in imagination, these little southern town girls of 1968 knew how to protect their turf. Wolves in miniskirts. Woolen Mills boys were for Woolen Mills girls. Or maybe Rugby girls or Fry’s Spring girls or Ivy girls, if they couldn’t help it. But certainly not Hogwaller girls.
Those girls did attack me like a pack of wolves, too. Like you wouldn’t believe.
The high point of my day came blushing at John when he invited me into his home. I flipped my long, dark hair – I kept it long then, but don’t have time for all that now so I keep it short and off my shoulders – as I walked past him into the living room, where I started to curtsy to every man in sight. I felt the radiance of John’s shy smile heat up the bare skin on my neck as I settled into the room, but no sooner did I sit down as prim and proper as I could in my white sundress that was years out of fashion than those girls swooped in. “Well, if it isn’t Smelly Shelly. Smells like you brought the sewage plant with you from Hogwaller. I bet she washes that filthy dress in sewage water.”
Never mind that the smell was actually from the Moore’s Creek wastewater treatment plant, and that Woolen Mills – especially homes like the Tyler’s on the Rivanna River – bore the brunt of the smell as bad as Hogwaller did. In their minds, the sewage plant was the perfect symbol for Hogwaller, a place to dump all the city’s stinking shit. In truth, that’s exactly what it was, which is why I had no zippy comeback for them girls even though I was twice as smart and twice as pretty. The fact is, that sewage plant disgraced the entire neighborhood when it got dropped on Hogwaller in the 1950s. Everyone knew the government only put the unsavory things needed to run society in the places where the people didn’t matter and had no power. The whites in Hogwaller had no idea they were regarded that low until that sewage plant got built in their backyard. As I recall, the blacks weren’t that surprised.
I have to admit, I did have a little problem with my temper back then. Maybe I still do, but I’ve learned patience and back then I had none. I started to jaw, them just baiting me along. Jesus, forgive me, it’s hard not to hold tight to your pride when that and a frayed sundress is all you got. See, Hogwaller girls used to grow up playing rough and tumble with Hogwaller boys, just like whites played with blacks. You could say there’s only one curriculum for growing up when you’re poorer than dirt. But playing with the boys teaches you to have an angry streak like the boys. Loud, in your face, don’t back down from nobody.
Before I know it, Mr. Tyler is shouting us down to stop all that noise while the game is on. We can either watch or get out. The Woolen Mills girls all point at me and say together, like they had rehearsed it, “Shelly started it, Mr. Tyler. She’s from Hogwaller.”
That’s all they had to say. They didn’t need to say what I said. What I did. There didn’t need to be no trial. No evidence. Being from Hogwaller was evidence enough for Mr. Tyler. He turned to John and said, “God dammit, boy, what are you doing dragging filth from Hogwaller over to my house? Your mother cleaned all night and day, and now she’s going to have to do it again. Girl, get on back to the other side of those train tracks and don’t let me see you over here again.”
I shattered to pieces looking at John’s red, shamed face.
Mr. Tyler turned back to the TV mumbling something about God dammit and biggest game of the year and what was he thinking. It felt like I was frozen for an eternity, John’s wet, sorry eyes on mine, the Woolen Mills girls’ eyes burning holes in my hot face while they smiled their wicked smiles waiting to see what would happen next.
I nearly jumped out of my flats when Mr. Tyler shouted, “God dammit, girl, I said GIT!” and pounded his table so hard the TV shorted out. It wasn’t even the end of the first quarter. I got up and ran out of the room crying. That was the worst part, I let those girls see me cry. Hogwaller girls might not have had much, but at Lane High, we at least had our reputation for being tough.
Mrs. Tyler caught me by the arm as I bust through the screen door to the front porch, and I had enough manners to slow up and listen. I tried to hide my face, but she lifted my chin and wiped my tears. Her hands were so soft. The softest touch I think I ever felt. The little I remember of her, she was a kind woman. After allowing me a moment to compose myself, she said to me, “I knew you were sweet on John; it’s written all over you. It was very brave of you to come here today. Don’t you ever lose that bravery. But Shelly, bravery has its place, and so do people. We’re all better off if we remember to stay in our place.”
I tell you all this because that day – Saturday, September 21, 1968 – wasn’t the best day of my life, but it did teach me the most valuable lesson of my life. A lesson I repeat to myself every morning when I wake up with Stan, the loving fool whom I have called my husband for 50 years after calling him cousin for 18, at my side in bed. That lesson is this:
If a person has to stay in their place, then you best make your place something you want it to be.
Get in your car and drive. Drive for hours. Drive down the loneliest bi-way and the darkest backway. Drive so deep into the American back country that you’re sure the only non-native creatures around are you and the feral pigs.
If there’s a good hiking trail where you stop, I assure you there will be someone else: foreigners.
No matter where I’ve hiked in the United States, I’m always amazed by the number of foreign languages and accents I hear on the trail, offering friendly “hellos” in passing.
In the past few months, I’ve hiked Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob near Roanoke, Va.; Old Rag Mountain and White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run near Sperryville, Va.; and Humpback Rock near Afton, Va; among others.
The thing that’s consistently amazed me on these very popular hikes, save Humpback Rock (the shortest hike and easiest to access), is that a clear majority of the people hiking them were not from the United States.
Today, I walked the 8-mile White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run loop on a beautiful 60-degree February day and I’d conservatively estimate that at least 75% were foreign-born hikers. And we’re talking Madison County, Va., here folks. There ain’t much more than white folk and flags preferred by certain types of white folk in those parts. So any non-‘Merican hiker there is probably driving at least an hour from Charlottesville or the Washington, D.C., area.
I’ve witnessed hundreds of foreign hikers on these walks, and their groups tend to fall into a few stereotypes that I always find entertaining:
- The Chinese hiker: Travels in large groups of married couples; flashy, bright, shining new hiking gear and walking sticks.
- The European hiker: Travels in small groups — couples or 2-3 women; high-quality, well worn gear. Often German, Northern European / Scandinavian or Eastern European. Usually, full metal hiking badasses. Occasionally, Gucci sunglasses-wearing glam Eastern European women.
- The Indian/Pakistani/Middle Eastern hiker: Travels in family groups of mom, dad and kids. Often look totally out of place in “city clothes.” Travel without food, water or good hiking shoes.
The characteristics of these groups always give me a smile and spur my curiosity. But, look, the point here is not to point out stereotypes. It’s not even to wonder why, in a sea of white Americans in central Virginia, more aren’t out enjoying nature. Though I suspect there is something wrong with our cultural priorities when more of the few million Americans within an hour of the Skyline Drive aren’t out enjoying the bounty of natural splendor the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer.
The point is to applaud the fact that, despite their incredible differences and diverse cultural backgrounds, all of those foreign-born groups are out enjoying nature in numbers that vastly over-represent their populations in the area.
And when we’re talking about hikes near Roanoke and Madison County, I think we can safely assume these people are, by and large, not tourists. They are green card holders and visa holders. They are students and professors and engineers and custodians. They are immigrants and refugees.
And they are lovers of nature.
Above all, the most important thing I need to know about them is that on an abnormally warm February day, they chose to spend their time driving for an hour or more just to spend their day walking in the woods.
Politically left or right, friend or family, the best people I know all share an appreciation, if not love, for nature.
Americans are engaged in a heated debate over who should be allowed into this country (and kicked out). The winds are blowing toward a nation isolated behind walls and locked doors. Beyond the studies that already prove how essential immigrants are to the U.S. economy, I wonder how much American culture would suffer without people who so clearly understand the value of a hallowed American tradition — love of the great outdoors.
“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” — Carl Sagan
Yes, President Obama brought this quote to the fore recently, but I lead with Sagan intentionally … it’s an apolitical point. American anti-intellectualism has been weighing heavy on me lately. When professors are scared to lead class discussions on gender or race because their college students demand a safe space free of emotional triggers, this is anti-intellectualism. When we reject solid science because the finding doesn’t fit with our belief system or is economically inconvenient, this is anti-intellectualism. When supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump start throwing fists because they can’t emotionally manage a challenge to their worldview, this is anti-intellectualism.
A post like this is not much better than shouting into the void, but the vast majority of my friends are well educated or smart people (sometimes both). I hope my conservative friends will insist that facts lead your issues, not bluster that feels good as an ends-justifies-the-means path to #winning despite the fact that it’s intellectually bankrupt. And to my liberal friends: I hope you wipe the smug, holier-than-thou looks off your faces, because our set is not exactly trending positive, even if it feels like liberal mob wisdom is on the good side of history while rationalizing another instance of muzzling free speech.
Mr. Sagan was right about the means by which we can judge progress. And by those measures, we’re going the opposite direction of progress. With the last 500 years more or less on the side of progress, I’ve always had the sense that it is inevitable. But the current tide against progress, rising from both sides, society acting like a stubborn family that insists on riding out a storm in their barrier island home while the sands shift away and the sea pinches in from east and west, is a black mark in the ledger that says inevitable progress is a myth. It reminds me that 1,000 years of medieval Europe came after the progress of Greece and Rome.
Anti-intellectualism is a frightening trend that any thinking person has a vested interest combating. President Obama is right: the rejection of facts, of reason and science, is the path to decline. If the fact President Obama made that statement causes you any desire to reject the sentiment out of hand, you need to think hard about who you are and what kind of person you want to be.
Mike Judge made a very silly movie about American anti-intellectualism in 2006 called Idiocracy. In what is truly sweet irony, the guy who created Beavis and Butthead satirically predicted that America would devolve into an unthinking society guided pliably by dumbed-down marketing and specious ideas within 500 years. Just 10 years later, what seems most silly is that Mr. Judge thought it would take that long.