After the Layoff

“I am free and that is why I am lost.”- Franz Kafka

The Doctor's Dreams, BrooklynFor someone who has become a slave to their work, unemployment is a strange kind of freedom.

In the second novella of my new fiction book, The Doctor’s Dreams, Eve Wissen feels like a decapitated, single head of household after a surprise layoff at work.

A workaholic scientist adrift in New York City, she adds up the unemployment facts. Numbers are no longer her friends. Her sudden freedom thrusts her into a void where she scrambles to reinvent meaning for her life.

Here’s an excerpt from the story, from when Eve leaves her office for the last time.

Excerpt from: After the Layoff, in The Doctor’s Dreams, by J.J.Brown, 2014

On a good day, numbers tell a story, while another day numbers smack you down flat. And today was not a good day. It was a transition day. Today she was on the 23rd floor of an office building in Manhattan, but tomorrow she wouldn’t be. She’d be on the first floor of a small apartment building in Brooklyn. She’d be home.

Walking slowly, her shoes making no sound on the carpet, Eve noticed the open office space was unusually quiet. It smelled faintly of coffee. Freshly brewed coffee gave off over 800 aromatic compounds that were detected by cells lining her nose. It always had triggered something generally positive in her brain.

Eve recognized familiar perfumes too, ones that were tied to fond memories. She passed by the friends she had worked with, eaten with, given wedding presents and holiday cards to for years—but she forced herself not to look at anyone. She felt their eyes drift lightly over her and then move away. No one wanted to be the next in line to be axed. They were watching something like a movie of her, not the real her, the friend. She suddenly felt completely naked. She imagined her skin and eyes were radiating with the words she didn’t have to say, “They let me go, I’m leaving”. In the moment, she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye, to acknowledge that this part of their lives together was over. In her confusion, she forgot to take the carved wooden bird from her desk. As she picked up her jacket, her skin pricked with the heat of embarrassment. Her sympathetic nervous system was sending signals to open the tips of the blood vessels in her skin. The chemical processes of stress.

“They let me go, they let me go, they let me go,” she thought. But no. “Let” sounded as if this were something she had wanted all along, and now the company finally allowed her to do it. Nothing could have been further from the truth! This was not a consensual act. They came to no agreement. She did not want to go. Eve habitually loved the things she did, whatever they were. It was a practice, purposeful, useful. Naturally then, she had loved her job. She always had tried to find a way to make even the most mundane task enjoyable and usually, she could. Sometimes she set up timed challenges along the way, as if her work were a chemistry lab experiment. This experiment was over now.

At the elevator she asked the manager if he was staying with the company, himself. He was.

“Good luck,” she said, and meant it.

The elevator doors clicked closed behind Eve. This was final. The trip down felt like a long fall. As she got out on the ground floor and exited the building through the wide-open lobby, her shoes sounded odd to her. The heels tapped on the marble floor like an animal’s nails or a bird’s claws. She thought about how this was the last time she would walk across that lobby and through those particular glass revolving doors.

She stood still in the chilly spring air just outside the building. She listened to the familiar noises of street traffic. A normal busy day, taxi drivers were still working. Bus drivers were, too. Eve wasn’t.

She wondered how her namesake felt, ejected from the Garden of Eden. Startled, cold, naked, and maybe also vaguely guilty, she imagined. What had she done wrong? No act, no omission came to mind.

“It had nothing to do with you,” the human resources rep had said.

Eve remembered her premonition from earlier in the morning and shuddered. She thought about the accidental death on the train tracks. Now that was bad news, on the gradient from good, toward neutral, and then bad. She felt colder just thinking about it. That was tragic. Her news about being laid-off was only bad luck. A lay-off was not even unusual. So many companies had let workers go this year.

She thought of the statistics that came out from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC. Suicides were trending upwards now, at 40 percent higher in 2010 than they had been in 2000, for middle-aged people. Guns, hangings, drug overdoses—by 2013 suicide had become the tenth leading cause of death for people in Eve’s age group.
Traffic whizzed by as she went through the numbers in her head.

She recalled that suicides had now reached over 38,000 a year in the US. So many lives ended. The recession and the mortgage crisis did it, analysts wrote. But could they really know? The true motives for suicide will always be secrets.


Find After the Layoff in The Doctor’s Dreams, now available in print and ebook editions.

In print here:   Amazon  /   Barnes & Noble   /  Powells

If you’re an ebook reader, find it here:   Kindle   /  Nook  /   iTunes

If you enjoy the story, won’t you leave me a review at your favorite book retailer site?

Secret Dreams of a Doctor

TheDoctorsDreamsJJBrown (1)Dreams are the exclusive property of the dreamer.

But if you found a loved one’s secret dream book, might you be tempted to read it? In my newest book, The Doctor’s Dreams, a lonely man faces this decision while killing time, home alone.

Doctor Marsha Arzt has mysteriously gone missing somewhere between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Just after midnight, while looking for clues, her brother Frank discovers she kept a hand-written dream diary. It unnerves him, but he can’t stop reading, under the pretext of typing up the dream book to help her organize.

Her nightmares seem to predict a future he isn’t willing or able to face, and certainly not alone in the wee hours of the morning.

Here’s an excerpt from the story, when he starts typing up the third of her dreams in a macabre series.

Excerpt from: The Doctor’s Dreams, by J.J.Brown, 2014

December 23. I dreamt of surgery.
The last thing I saw on the way home from work on the M line was an advertisement on the walls of the train car. It was under a glossy, dark blue photo. The ad copy read, ‘Because it’s your other 9 to 5’. I had no idea what that meant. Sleep, maybe. Sleep is my other nine to five, though it is somewhat shorter, more like twelve to six on days when I am not on-call at the hospital. When I am on-call, I have only an hour here, an hour there to sleep.

The setting sun reflected along the surface of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The water looked like a stream of pure gold when I closed my eyes. By the time I woke up it was dusk. The train was no longer crowded and I was deep in Brooklyn, well past my stop. I must have fallen asleep somewhere on the Williamsburg Bridge crossing. I imagine it was around six in the evening. When I realized where I was, I got off at the next stop and transferred to the train going the opposite direction, to retrace my path.

I remembered the dream and wrote it down on the way back home. It went like this:
“What about your other nine to five?” A disembodied voice asked me as I slept. “Have you been preparing?”
“For what?” I asked.
“What is to come,” the voice answered.
“When do I have time to prepare?”
“The other nine to five, that is your time. I gave you more than 12,000 nights in these thirty-five years to prepare, countless hours and more than a million dreams. What have you done with these hours? What have you done with these dreams?”
I could not answer.
“Are you ready? Have you prepared for the end?”

Frank froze. He hadn’t thought of preparing for the end—did anyone, he wondered?


Throughout the novella, Frank goes progressively deeper into a state of confusion as he types out his sister Marsha’s nightmares. What they reveal about her emotional experience working as a doctor, convinces him that the two of them need to make a change.

The Doctor’s Dreams is now available in print and ebook editions.

Find it in print here:   Amazon  /   Barnes & Noble   /  Powells

If you’re an ebook reader, find it here:   Kindle   /  Nook  /   iTunes

If you enjoy the stories, please leave me a review at your favorite book retailer site.


Ai Weiwei Asks Brooklyn: What Does Your #Activism Look Like?

“What does your #activism look like?” Ai Weiwei asks us in his new art exhibit up at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, through August 10th, 2014. His question made me stop and think. As an author, my activism looks like books, Brindle 24 and Stream & Shale. I wrote these about the degradation of nature and human health after toxic gas extraction known as fracking in the United States. Writing the books helped me deal with the pain and inner turmoil I felt reading news and watching documentaries like GasLand, about people suffering nearby fracking sites. It also helped shine a light the ongoing issues we have with fracking here.

Ai Weiwei’s activism is art, and it looks like another world at first, but it is our world too – each piece of art is made with everyday materials like steel bars, backpacks, and even bicycles. His extraordinary exhibit comes to us from China, though the artist cannot. Ai Weiwei lived in New York for ten years. Now, he is denied his passport by the Chinese government, after his art studio began investigating and exposing the deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

In “Straight”, Ai Weiwei collected and straightened steel rods from collapsed buildings after the earthquake, arranged to create fault lines. This massive sculpture is part of the artist’s activism, showing how faulty building techniques were connected to the collapse of China’s schools during the Sichuan earthquake which killed thousands of school children.

Straight by Ai Weiwei

Straight, by Ai Weiwei

I thought Ai Weiwei was with me as I looked at his exhibit’s installation of the names of school children who perished.  He is touching people all over the world with his art exhibits. The lists of children take up the entire wall of a large exhibit room, and more than a number can, each unique name tells a story of loss that he wants us to know and share. The act of exposing these names on his blog was the catalyst for the artist’s persecution which he documents in his film, So Sorry.

Ai Weiwei school children names

Children who perished in the 2008 quake, by Ai Weiwei

One of the strangest pieces in the exhibit is He Xie which has 3,200 porcelain crabs, meant to symbolize harmony in the community. The artist used the symbolic crab in his art, and also in a public feast to protest the destruction of his studio by the Chinese government. His struggles with creating art while being under surveillance, detained, and beaten are documented in the film, Never Sorry.

The beauty of Ai Weiwei’s art is the strangeness of it, to me. Every piece of art left me with a question about not just Ai Weiwei and China, but my home in the United States, and myself. He reminded me that art connects us and is part of social responsibility. Find out more about Ai Weiwei’s art and activism at his site and on twitter.

Photo credit: Sophia Rodriguez

Ai Weiwei

Sophia Rodriguez at the Ai Weiwei exhibit, According to What? Brooklyn, NY

Because Our Father’s Were Soldiers – On Memorial Day

Because our fathers were soldiers, on Memorial Day some of us – and I – will think of lives lost in the wars today. Memories flood in of family, friends, and strangers too lost in the conflicts of the past, and risking their lives in the ongoing military campaigns of today.

Sandham - the March of Time

The March of Time – By Henry Sandham (1842-1910)

Because our fathers were soldiers, we think about war. I think about my father’s and his brother’s self-sacrifice when they went into World War II. My father survived, but his brother lost his life in Germany, as 15 million did throughout the world in battle deaths during that war. I can’t imagine that I understand their decisions and what it meant to them as men to join the war as soldiers, but above all I think that they must have put something – hope – out in front, ahead of their own personal lives. They valued and acted on a purpose valued above even their own survival.

My father would tell us how he and the family heard through the media and letters home about atrocities going on in Europe, things that they could not ignore. There must have been a determination inside them to make the world better, to make things right.


On Decoration Day – By John T. McCutcheon

When I remember the soldiers in my family, a host of nightmares comes along too, like a cloud – because when my father survived the war he brought his impressions and stories back with him, as much a part of him as his own skin. While he served, he learned about other places and cultures – Japan and the Philippines –  during his time in the army. But because this time was one of collecting the pieces needed to heal fragmented lives of the ending of a war, those days were remembered as tragic. The tales he told during my childhood were not of making things right, or of honour, not of success – but of horror. Wartime experiences most often came up after dark, when he was tired. And as a child I came to fear the dark, but more than anything, to fear war.

My father’s wartime stories also came out during the bright daylight hours when visiting with his friends who were World War II survivors like him. After a trip to a junk yard where my father and another man walked slowly and discussed old car parts, I remembered the short, older man’s hands and how his fingers were thick and the nails looked odd. When I asked him about it on the way home, my father told me that the man had, with only his hands, dug his way out of a concentration camp under a fence during the war, in Germany – and escaped. That day, I remember how they were so relaxed, standing in the sun together, so free.

At that moment, looking up at this weathered face in the sunlight, I understood that freedom had everything to do with why my father went to war. He gave up his own freedoms for those years, but was thinking about someone else’s.

Mothers in an Industrial World

On Mother’s Day, my heart goes out to all the mothers who live in our industrialized world.

During pregnancy, we mothers are the home for the new generation. Inside us, new beings miraculously develop from a single cell to a newborn baby. This internal, intensely private home is influenced by all the things around us from our world, things that make their way into our bodies through the air, water, and our food.

Bonnie Brown, Jennifer Brown, Lillian Rodriguez - 3 generations of women.

Bonnie Brown, Jennifer Brown, Lillian Rodriguez – 3 generations of women.

We mothers are vigilant about what drugs we take or don’t, what food we eat or avoid. But many of the things that make their way into our bodies are out of our control in the moment of our greatest need, and by this I mean the chemicals that surround us from industrialization.

Just as the birds needed, and still need, protection from chemicals in the environment that weakened their eggs shells in the era when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, we mothers need protections now as well. Our tiny egg has no real shell to see, but within it, the DNA that carries the instructions for the new life to come is as vulnerable and fragile, dependent on us to safeguard it from harms. As a mother and a geneticist, I’m deeply concerned with the chemicals around us that act as mutagens to create health problems in the next generation.

Mother and baby in gas masks, 1941, England.

Mother and baby in gas masks, 1941, England.

In my newest novel, Brindle 24, the character Charlotte is a mother living in a chemically contaminated rural area of New York, who is pregnant with her second child. Through her eyes, I travel the path of a mother who wants to protect herself and her unborn child from toxins all around her. When industrialization comes to the area we live in and affects our air and water, not all of us can move – and those who stay are as connected to their environment as the unborn child is to the mother during pregnancy.

I hope that all mothers will have safe pregnancies with access to pure water and healthy, uncontaminated food. And I applaud the many women who speak out about safeguarding our health. Thank you to Rachel Carson for her books, and to a hero in our own time, Sandra Steingraber for her book Living Downstream for her activism.

Mothers everywhere, I wish you a healthy and happy Mother’s Day.