Two years of lockdown; one year+ writing on Zoom

In March 2020, California decided that non-essential employees should start working remotely. You know, just for a bit, until all the fuss died down and we could all return to our cubicles.

By Feb 2021, after numerous in-person events were either canceled or migrated to online formats, I realized it was probably going to be a serious stretch before I could hang with my fellow word miners. No coffee shops, no bar-cons, no weekend workshops, and no woodsy retreats. Thank you, pandemic-enablers. Really, you shouldn’t have.

We were truly stuck inside for the duration. So, taking a page from a weekend Google Hangout group, I decided to try my luck at this whole Zoom thing. I called it “Story-breaking and kvetching” after two of my favorite group writer activities. It started out as a Saturday thing, and then an occasional Sunday thing, with the times alternating from morning to evening to accommodate folks in different time zones.

Once, last summer, I even held a late-night session from Sweden and was able to snag a guest appearance from a London friend. Score!

The number of participants varies. A few times I’ve been alone and used the time to write quietly. Once we had 10 people. Mostly, it’s a die-hard core of 3-5 folks from Viable Paradise, Paradise Lost, and CODEX. Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings. Plus the odd Thursday when I’m on deadline.

I’ve moved away from the “kvetching” aspect (although that still happens, because, writers) to focus more on a 30-minute check-in before we do 90 minutes of writing. I’m always interested in how people are surviving the Permanent Health Crisis, what are they working on, and hey, did you sell a story or finish your novel? Excellent! Virtual high fives all around.

I’ll be honest. I would much rather sit with my friends on comfy furniture with laptops and beverages than stare at this screen and chat in a side window. And that time will come again, in some form. Meanwhile, I hope people continue to show up, or stop by for the first time, and mine some words.

You are most welcome. Tuesdays and Fridays. Plus the odd Thursday.

The Great March Massacre

In March 1998, I was working with a small market research department at Macmillan Publishing in Santa Monica. It was also my second gig working with my friend John Arthur Maynard. (The first was another industry publishing house whose name is lost forever.)

On that fateful day, Macmillan’s parent company (which I believe was Paramount) decided to liquidate our department as part of a larger corporate reorg. The guys in suits considered the writers and researchers superfluous and handed us our severance checks with only terse instructions to clear our desks. While their goons were trolling through our paper files, I took the opportunity to wipe my PC’s root directory (one quick script) and cut my local backup disks in half. Yes, they were floppies.

For some weeks, we had been hearing rumors about layoffs, and John casually asked me if it were possible to leave some sort of boobytrap for our corporate masters in case they screwed us. I told him I’d look into it.

When the marketing team reconvened across the street for Mexican food and a view of the Pacific, I told John what had occurred at my workstation. He bought a round for the table. And I think the waiter brought us extra drinks when he heard we’d all been sacked. It was a terrible day shared with good people.

“Tell me how you’re feeling today!” Photo by John A Mayard, Ph.D

We even gathered the mob two years later at that same restaurant. We all agreed that it was good to be out of publishing.

John and I had become friends while toiling away at the University of Southern California main library. I was working on my MFA (Writing) and John was finishing up his Ph.D. (History). When he wasn’t working on campus, he was usually hanging out at one of the old-school gyms in Venice Beach, pumping iron with the locals. He was great bear of a man, fond of mugs of decaf espresso and beat poetry.

We went our separate ways after graduation, but both ended up in trade publishing, selling ads and convincing doctors to write free articles for us “to promote their practice.” You did what you had to do to make those student loan payments.

I went into consulting and software training and John eventually found a proper gig teaching American History out at Cal State Bakersfield.

He shared an interest in photography: he was a talented amateur who always carried a small 35mm. He did my wedding pictures. I returned the favor with a borrowed Apple QuickTake. Good times.

While we hadn’t seen each other since his wedding, we kept in touch. I sent him stories. We talked about getting together but I was never in Bakersfield and he didn’t get up to the Bay Area.

He contracted Lewy body dementia some years back. I sent him news and stories, which his wife read to him. She said he enjoyed them.

John died on Monday. I will miss his humor, his intellect, and his unfailing commitment to call me on my shit.

Dr. John Maynard – The Great Massacre Reunion (1990)

2021 Writing by the Numbers

I thought it might be interesting to look at my 2021 writing stats, courtesy of The Submission Grinder:

Note: this includes only those stories that were sent out and responded to during the calendar year.


Never Responded7
Pending Response9
Rejection, Form41
Rejection, Personal16
Grand Total78

Accepted stories

Burial Detail (reprint) – Forthcoming in the anthology Strange Wars
Jizo Rides the Bus – Forthcoming in the anthology Strange Religion
The Stones of Särdal (reprint) – Little Blue Marble
Final Exam – Wyldblood Press

Interestingly enough, both reprints started as original audio productions in The Word Count Podcast.


I pulled one simultaneous submission after the story sold elsewhere.


If I assume “Never Responded” as a tacit rejection, that brings my total rejection count to 64, breaking my 2014 record of 42 rejections in a calendar year. WOOO!

Success rate?

About 5 percent. At that rate, I would need to make at least 100 submissions this year to beat the sales number. Or write better stories/find more compatible markets.

Let me get on that.

Eligibility Post 2021

This one’s easy:

A Halloween Tale

My story, “Final Exam, Demonology” started out as a contest entry for 500-word stories.

It didn’t win, legitimately. I wasn’t able to create a believable world and enough characterization while staying within that limit. Once I opened things up to full flash length, the story felt complete. The editor at Wyldblood Press thought so as well.


Heja Sverige

Today my story “Stones of Särdal” appears in Little Blue Marble, edited by one of my Canadian friends, Katrina Archer. (An earlier version of “Särdal” appeared on The Word Count Podcast as part of their “Humans of the Future” series.)

Little Blue Marble is a beautiful and fascinating publication that showcases fiction, poetry, and news related to climate change. I’ve wanted to place something with them for a while, and was thrilled that Katrina chose this reprint. Her minor tweaks and insightful questions brought the story into sharper focus and resolved some minor issues that I hadn’t noticed. Good editors are a blessing.

The story was inspired by my clan’s summer home (above) located on the west coast of Sweden. As a bonus, the story’s featured image is a sunset I captured from the Särdal beach this past August. (In a happy bit of synchronicity, the acceptance email for “Stones” showed up on my phone as I was clearing passport control on my way to Sweden.)


Two weeks away and three cats (again)


A few pounds lighter, a bit less fur, but all the attitude

As I noted in my previous post, the Buddhacat had slipped off into the night before our vacation, and two weeks later, we gave up. Told ourselves that he’d had a good life, offering us stolen gloves and found flowers, and that we would look into acquiring another kitten (a white one, perhaps) sometime in the fall.

We left the country on a much-delayed vacation. Our daughter stayed behind to work and watch the house. About a week into our absence, Decaf rolled into the house late one night as if nothing had happened, and where’s the food, please? Fortunately, his nearly month-long absence didn’t induce any major injuries, and I’m happy to report that Kleptocat is back to his old ways, arising at 4 or 5 am to demand a hearty breakfast, opening closed (unlocked) doors, and taking over couches and office chairs because, after all, it’s his house and all the furniture belongs to him.


For our part, we took our first real vacation since 2017, when I last saw my Swedish family (along with a side trip to Helsinki for Worldcon). Due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions (and our expiring flight credits), we ended up flying into Copenhagen, then taking the train into Halmstad, Sweden. My ever-reliable kusin Otto drove us out to the family summer house on the lovely coast of Särdal. (My flash fiction “Stones of Särdal” was inspired by this very property.)

Dandenell summer house (Viket)

Since our last visit, the locals had installed internet fiber, so we had reliable Wi-Fi throughout most of the property. That certainly made things easier for translations, currency conversions, and checking in with folks back home. Elizabeth even managed to proctor a therapist’s license exam over Zoom (and 9 hours’ time zone difference).

I had brought an abundance of books and writing notes & drafts, along with a catalog of online classes that I wanted to check out.

Well, I ended up not doing all that much. I read a novel, some short fiction, and hosted a special “Writing Check-in” Zoom call just to test the bandwidth (and share the late evening sunset).

That was okay. We had a fair number of walks, rode our old bikes into Halmstad, shopped for tea (and new bikes), cooked meals with the new Instant Pot, ate crayfish, and visited with as many relations as we could because that’s what you do there.

This trip was something of an experiment. We wanted to see if it were feasible to conduct our business remotely (definite yes for Elizabeth), and get a better sense of the responsibilities of being a shared owner of the property (still learning the ropes there).

I might (might) be able to convince my employer to let me work part-time / earlier in the day (Pacific Time), which would open up the possibility of off-season visits, when the house is mostly empty. We’ll see.

At the end of the day, I had to acknowledge that this wasn’t a typical vacation or even a typical family visit to Sweden. The pandemic has changed our daily lives so much that it took real effort to step away from the hyper-alert mind state and just sit. Sit with a pot of tea, a plate of home-baked cookies, and family, and enjoy the breeze.

Farewell, Buddhacat

When you get a kitten from the shelter, the animal’s date of birth is usually a best guess from the staff or the vet who examined the beast. There are exceptions, but unless someone witnessed the whelping, it’s an approximation.

Today is—we think—Decaf’s 4th birthday. We first encountered him at a pet supply store just before Valentine’s Day 2018, when he was a seven-month black kitten.

On his first night with us, Decaf almost escaped through an open front door. (Turns out he was hiding under the bed.) Eventually, he bonded to us and the house, and became quite a fixture in the neighborhood. He liked to walk us down to the corner, or around the block, doing his ninja routine behind parked cars and bushes.

At night, he often brought us offerings of gardening gloves (sorry, neighbors) and flowers, rather than dead animals, thus earning his nickname of Buddhacat.

A few days after July 4 this year (with all the fucking explosions), Decaf took a lot of long, quiet naps. Normally, he spent the evenings on the couch, and his days in or near my office chair. But this seemed a bit different. On July 10, Decaf went out after dinner and did not return for breakfast. His best friend, Chai (our newest adopted kitten) prowled the house looking for him, then disappeared into the neighborhood.

Chai came home late but Decaf did not.

He missed dinner the next day. And the next.

We put up posters and filed reports with the local animal shelters and neighborhood websites. Someone called me to say they’d seen him, but it was a hard moment when I realized the caller was talking about our other black cat, Chai. (Chai wears a blue collar. Decaf’s is red.)

As much as I hate to admit it, the great glove thief is probably gone. Someone evil might have taken him. He might have left us to die in solitude, as cats are wont to do. We don’t know. And that hurts. I would have liked to have added his ashes to the yard he loved so much.

Farewell, Decaf. You weren’t with us for very long, and we will miss you. Even the early morning wake-up calls and weapons-grade farts.

May you find your way to the Pure Lands.

BYOB (Bring your own bag)

This week when I went to our local Trader Joes to get a few things for dinner, the very pleasant crew member asked me if I needed a bag. I had a little Japanese fabric bag rolled up in my pocket, so no, I didn’t. “Great,” they said, handing me my basket so I could go outside and bag my groceries on the “isolation” tables set up there. As I left, the crew member said that next week they would start bagging my groceries for me. With my own bag, if I had one.

Cool, I replied.

My city and county has been opening up public activities recently, like a slightly confused butterfly pulling itself out of its chrysalis. I’ve also had my vaccination, and though I still wear a mask inside when other people are present, the situation feels different. Not normal, not by a long shot, but heading in the right direction.

I’m flying to the Midwest soon to help my daughter move out of her college housing, and I’ll admit that the prospect of sitting in airports or crammed next to potentially infectious strangers isn’t causing me to lose sleep like it would have even a month ago. Sure, I’m worried about traffic and getting everything packed into storage and making sure our reservations are set. Regular, run-of-the-mill sort of concerns. What I’m not particularly worried about is contracting a virulent disease and facing the rest of my life with limited lung or cognitive capacity, or worse, ending up paying for my daughter’s education with my life insurance proceeds because the hospital ran out of ventilators.

I’m not foolhardy. No vaccine is perfect and viruses mutate. I’m traveling just enough to deal with family business and then it’s back to walks on the local beach with plenty of space around me, and working online. DayJob is talking about a “Flex” plan of office space without providing any real details and timeline for contractors, so I’m probably safe for the rest of 2021 at least. If COVID is going to get me, it’s going to have work for it.

When I think back to my first visit to Trader Joes at the beginning of the lockdown (excuse me, “shelter in place”), the difference is substantial. On that day, I got up early and stood in line an hour before the store opened. There was no shade because the mall never imagined people would ever queue up alongside the parking lot. I was wearing a homemade bandana over a paper mask. My hands were sweating under my latex gloves. My heart rate and blood pressure were elevated, and I was hunched over with the weight of my ignorance. How was the disease really transmitted? How long until we could get treatments? Would there ever be a vaccine? Everything was just damn scary.

So I waited in line, trying not to fall into recursive negative thoughts, and hoped that there would be a shipment of bread (maybe) and enough toilet paper (unlikely).

I gave up after that shopping trip, and instead spent hours online trying to snag one of rare delivery appointments from Whole Foods, or Safeway, or Nob Hill Foods. Anything to avoid the lines and the people and the rising panic in my brain.

Now I can walk down to the store and pick up a package of eggs, or butter, or fresh lettuce, and wait a minute or two to use the self checkout. Or maybe there’s no one there and I go to the checker and smile out of habit, even though they can’t see that part of me.

It’s not how things were, nor is it normal. Things are different now. They are, all things considered, not bad. And getting better.

Let’s hope we learn something from all this. I’m trying to appreciate small details. Like bringing my own bag.

Grief is a ninja

Today was tough.

I had serious issues on a financial website that absolutely didn’t want to work with my security software even though it was just freaking fine yesterday. Took me an hour to resolve the problem and download the docs I needed for my taxes — just to learn that I wouldn’t get the deduction.

Then I spent another 90 minutes, plus two phone calls, trying to get through a government site so I could get the appropriate ID number to submit paperwork to an insurance company for my wife’s corporation.

DayJob was… well, DayJob. Three reminders from the Powers That Be to submit our timesheets appropriately and please reply to this email by 3 PM saying you read and understood all the minutia contained therein.

So when the cold rains starting whipping the house I thought I would take a break and walk to the post office to drop off an important letter. Almost lost my umbrella. Dropped the letter (missed the puddle, though).

On the way home, umbrella folded, rain soaking my pandemic mask, I was struck by a craving for an overly sweet Hot Butter Rum. Like my Dad sometimes made for me when I was sick. It probably wasn’t very good (made from a grainy batter in a jar, I recall) but in that moment, all I wanted was a fire, and a hot drink.

And my father.

The grief darted out from its hiding place and punched me in the solar plexus, then disappeared into the gray. I had almost forgotten it was there.

So I’m calling it a night. Going to make chicken soup, read a good book, and stare into the fire. I don’t have any rum but I have my spouse and several warm kitties.

Be good to each other.