MORNING COMMUTE

FREEDOM TOWERA few minutes after I sat down on a crowded 3 train, the man next to me asked if I had enough room. I smiled at him and said yes. He could have been complaining that he in fact did not, but I didn’t think he was.

“Do you have enough room?” I asked back.

“Yes.”

I began reading the Sunday Styles section of the weekend paper.

He leaned close in and said, “You gonna read all that- all those words?” He chuckled.

I chuckled back, “Yeah, I am.”

When I rearranged the paper five minutes later to get to the bottom half, he again, interrupted me, “You read it all! You finished all that. I’m just kiddin you- you know I’m just kiddin you, right?”

Each time he turned to me, the brim of his baseball hat actually touched my head. We we’re that close. But strangely, I didn’t mind any of it.

As we stopped at the first stop in downtown Manhattan, Wall Street, he asked, “Were you here that day?”

I knew what he was talking about. “In New York?” I asked.

“Yeah, were you here?”

“Yes, I was here.”

“Were you in that tower?”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“I was in Tower 7,” he told me. Again our heads were touching and I smelled a faint whiff of alcohol. He was a little cross-eyed and wearing black jeans and a black baseball cap and had the friendliest smile, and I liked the guy. “I ran! I ran so fast, I ran right out of there.”

“You still work there?”

No, he didn’t. He told me his new address, very nearby. I told him I worked right there now, right next door to the new tower. He said, “Yeah,” like he knew that or expected it. Now we were one stop from my work and I was actually disappointed.

“Sister. We’re all sisters and brothers you know?”

I nodded. I knew.

“I got out of there and got me a forty and ran right to the train, I got the last subway to 125th street. They said, ‘This is the last stop.’ and I said, Fine- this is far enough.”

We both laughed happily.

I looked around for a second and saw two women observing my new friend and me, starting to smile.

“This is my stop. Take care!”

“Take care, Sister.”

COUPLES: the digital web series on my couch

https://player.vimeo.com/video/134990435“>http://

About a year ago, my husband Bill went to the bar a block away from where we live and came home saying he’d met the people he could make Couples with. Bill is a screenwriter, and has also written a novella, a musical, stories, short films, and a digital comedic web series about couples therapy among other things. He feels very empowered by this project because he, and his talented collaborators made it happen, with an attitude of let’s do this and let’s not need anything and let’s not be stopped. Bill wrote the scripts, they’re sitting on my couch, they’re wearing their own clothes….you get my point. Season two, an episode seen above, was directed by Bill and produced by Cameron Bossert and starred Yelena Shmulenson and Allen Lewis Rickman. I asked Bill recently what money was spent to make season two. Without irony, he reported they needed two cabs and bagels for the shoot. Films, shorts, web series etc. very often linger endlessly as ideas because of the stuff/people/money required to get the idea off the page- actually you’re ahead if it’s even on the page. This has been a pure pleasure project, and one rarely says that about couples therapy. Please enjoy!

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

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You may have noticed a change in the header of this blog. It might seem like I recently married. In reality, for some people it takes precisely five years to settle into a new name. Five years ago last month, I got married. I gave only a little thought to going to a social security office in Brooklyn and changing my name from Rachel Stolzman to Rachel Stolzman Gullo. I was six months pregnant on our wedding day, and I know my decision to change my name was largely fueled by the baby on the way. It seemed like a good thing to board future airplanes with a baby and eventually kid that shared the same name as me. I vaguely imagined him going to school and wanting the school to see my name and his name as the same. I wanted the kid to have one last name not two. But, I was also forty and had been a Stolzman for forty years and I was a published novelist with my name. Somewhere in my head was the thought, “I won’t use it.” It was for documents, planes and schools, bank records, passports, it was my official name. And in fact I did not use it. I didn’t introduce myself as Gullo, or submit short stories or articles with Gullo, and so on. But pretty fast there were some credit cards, some bills, some mail and even my pay checks (!) where Gullo was popping up. I kind of looked away, confused. Neither name felt like me anymore. I thought about more important issues and let it go.

When my son was about two, I got in a car accident that was my fault. When the cops arrived they asked for my name. For the first time, without hesitation I blurted out, Rachel Gullo! Her. Not me. More years went by, still no name that felt very true anymore. I didn’t give it much thought, except when I’d call the cable company or check-in at a hotel and I’d have no idea what name I’d given. I debated what I’d use for publishing, and didn’t really decide. It didn’t matter, my novel wasn’t ready. Well recently, our five year anniversary came. And I think it’s significant that my husband and I have been paying more attention to our union lately, not just what to call ourselves, but our connection and commitment; I’m quite sure that has been part of settling into my name. Secondly, our boy talks now. Some of the things he says include, “We’re the Gullo family.” He knows me as Rachel Gullo, just as he knows himself as Enrico Gullo.

Recently several poems I wrote were accepted for publication in a journal called Sixfold. I had submitted them under the name Rachel Stolzman Gullo. When they asked for final proofs, I made a few edits to the poems and also asked that they please publish them under the name Rachel Stolzman. And finally, enough psychic and pragmatic lasers crossed in my brain and I was abruptly able to see the name that felt like me, it wasn’t Stolzman or Gullo, but both. I’d made that decision five years ago, but never actually took it in, felt it. Until now. I imagined a book arriving later this summer with my poems inside, and my name on the page header. I imagined showing Enrico, “Hey look, I wrote some poems and they’re in this book.” I imagined him saying, “Why doesn’t it say Gullo?” It’s a small thing in the scope of the universe and even in my own concerns and life, but as I changed my name on social media and on this blog header, and when I rushed to contact Sixfold before it was too late to say, I figured it out- my name is Rachel Stolzman Gullo, it felt really settled-in and nice.

WHITE PRIVILEGE

I think about my white privilege often. I think about it when I intentionally run a red light, when I ride my bike on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one-way street, when I drink alcohol in Prospect Park on my picnic blanket, and when I self-serve myself coffee at my local Pret and decide I’ll “pay later” because there’s twenty people in line.

Alongside the deep horror and painful grief of the endless events of racist police brutality and murders, I am gladdened and also surprised by, taking note of the proliferating media coverage and political commentary on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration. Racism in policing and in the criminal justice system is nothing new. All the attention on it is not a constant, to say the least.

In my twenty-plus years working in public health, in the HIV and AIDS field, it is a constant that we discuss racial disparities and inequalities, health and wealth disparities. There are wildly different stats in this country for premature birth, infant mortality, disease acquisition and life expectancy between black and white people. This can be attributed largely to poverty (racist economics) and the everyday stress of racism.

I attended a panel discussion not long ago about AIDS amongst gay black men, and yes, even as we discuss the end of the epidemic every single day at my office, it is gay black men who continue to have new infections of HIV and will bear the brunt of the epidemic as it winds down in America. This panel of gay, black professors, academics and physicians, referred regularly to white supremacy in their talk. I was startled by the phrase. It was used in place of where I would have expected “institutionalized racism” to appear.

But I liked them describing the bias in our American society as white supremacy. I live in a land where I can steal coffee, drink wine in public, and break traffic laws in front of the police, and not only am I not arrested and assaulted and accused of assaulting an officer, I don’t even suffer the heart palpitations and chemical reactions to stress of fearing these things.

Here’s one small example of how institutionalized racism or white supremacy has been established in our land. When FDR initiated Social Security for senior citizens in 1935, it excluded two groups of workers, domestic workers and agricultural workers. 95% of black Americans held one of those two jobs in 1935. This created a legacy of poverty where poverty was already abundant. Black senior citizens could not support themselves when they stopped working. Their middle-aged children could not acquire wealth so easily because they financially supported their parents. Without a single word about race in the Social Security bill, a huge system of government entitlements institutionalized the racism that prevailed throughout the country. It’s one small example of so many.

I’m convinced that part of ensuring an avalanche of attention on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration- and hopefully a societal shift in attitudes and policies- is that we white people recognize our white privilege. Noticing how we “benefit” by being dominant can create a cosmic adjustment. There are so many out there that deny racism even exists anymore. I think most people do not deny it, but I think most people have a ways to go in seeing how racism has not hurt them, and what the cost of that has been.

A WRITING DAY

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Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

BOWERY BUMS

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I’m reading about an alcohol detoxification program that began in 1967 in New York City for homeless men. It’s making me think of my grandma Lill, who was born in New York City in 1911. On payday she used to make sandwiches for the “bowery bums,” and walk down Bowery Street handing them out. She often told me, “Those men were good men and really interesting to talk to. Most of them had read all the classics.”

ARRIVE LATE, LEAVE EARLY

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Arrive late, leave early is a writing adage that you can hang your hat on. Crudely explained, it means enter your scenes (your openings especially) when the action is underway. Put the reader in front of the action as it takes place, without the reader needing to walk in half a mile to find it. Leave early is a little more elusive in meaning. But get out when the reveal/peak/climax is hot and new and not explained to the last crumb. Show your reader what there was to be gained from the story, what was gained or lost by the characters and then split. Leave the reader wanting more, not wishing you’d shut up.

I’m reading a novel right now that I want to love but I don’t. It’s a recent literary-fiction post-apocalyptic story. I’m about two-thirds through it and am starting to give up on being wowed. I couldn’t figure out why it was failing me, until I thought of “arrive late, leave early.” The novelist has chosen to arrive very, very late. How late? Well, the two main characters have gone through the end of the modern world when we meet them. I personally would have liked seeing the end of the world with them. But I understand, things ended very gradually and perhaps their story occurs afterwards. Then they finally, after two years, meet some neighbors in the woods. Then there’s this time jump to after the neighbors have poisoned their children and then themselves. I could have standed the novel being there for those events too. Then they make their way to a settlement of people- they haven’t seen more than 4 other people in years- this is exciting. The settlement has survived the raids of pirates, terrible things have happened- but it was years ago. We learn of it through dialogue. The settlers tell them. All the good plot delivered after the fact through dialogue? Years later? This is arriving way too late. It’s like watching home video of a great circus, but it’s actually footage of the empty tent after all the performers cleared out. I have often wondered how much weight dialogue can bear in fiction. I wrangle with this in my writing, not trusting dialogue to do much heavy-lifting. I like dialogue sort of as proof. You’ve established through prose who your characters are, what they’re like and then you prove it through their dialogue, or you show that they’re being disingenuous, deceitful or changing(!) by the dialogue disproving what we know. But plot-delivery through dialogue makes me wary.  This novel is almost an experiment in that. The author thought the whole book could rest on dialogue, after the fact. Why not just move the novel 4 years earlier; see the world collapse, see the pirate raiders, see the suicides? Arrive earlier damn it. I’m going to finish the book for sure. I’m still hoping something crazy will occur that wasn’t years ago. Maybe it will be the last page and the whole book is a set up for a series….

On another note. When I went running today along the Hudson River, there were two girls about fifteen or sixteen years-old, skate-boarding on the bike path. They rode plastic skateboards, mostly just scooting and gliding, nothing fancy. It was 61 degrees and overcast. They were vaguely dancing while they skated to music coming from an iphone one of them held. She was wearing an off the shoulder tiny purse too. They looked alike. The world could use more of that.