Thursday, May 31, 2012

Somewhere Below the Stairs

I’m sure a family of Borrowers lives in my house. (For those who were deprived in childhood of an acquaintance with these little people who “borrow” things like stray buttons, pins, thread and socks, they are the stars of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, first published 1952.)

I now have an impressive wardrobe of earrings without mates. “It must be somewhere” is my affirmation while looking for missing stuff. Or: “It couldn’t just disappear into thin air.” But apparently it could.

Several years ago when I had nothing better to do, I filled a large garbage bag with divorced socks, as I called them. I told my own mate and our three teenage children to sort through the whole bag, claim what they recognized, and try to find socks that matched the ones they had claimed. This didn’t work. Eventually, just before a move, I threw out the whole bag. I didn’t want to haul useless stuff from one house to another, where more things would undoubtedly go missing.

My brain is much like my house. Names are often impossible to locate, even when I see someone I’m sure I met somewhere. (The name usually comes to me, sooner or later, usually after the person has walked away.) More disturbingly, I don’t always remember contexts soon enough. For instance, any attractive man of my acquaintance is likely to be gay, but not always. The guy might be bi, which is why I met him through mutual friends at the gay bar, but now he is strolling through the park with his wife or live-in girlfriend. Or his sister, who is either a sports-loving lesbian or a pillar of the Anglican Church. Before I remember or ferret out a few personal details, my conversation had best be as vague as a weather report.

As a teenager, I studied Spanish in Junior High School in the U.S., and French in a collegiate (academic high school) in Canada. As a result, I’m sure I stored some vocabulary lists in the back of my brain, where they could be retrieved later if I had the right password. (Flipping through a dictionary or phrasebook works much better.)

In 1989, I was temporarily alone in the home of my new girlfriend, a Latina, when her phone rang. I hesitated to answer, but thinking it might be important and I could take a message, I said “Hello,” only to be answered by a startled male voice saying “Hola! Quien es?” or some such.

I had been tidying up my girlfriend’s messy front room, and a word from high-school Spanish class bounced into my consciousness. “La criada,” I was tempted to say. The maid. Ha. Was I bilingual, or what? But I didn’t say it. I identified myself as “la amiga de Mirtha.” I later figured out that “companera” would have been a better fit.

Historical fiction appeals to me (as a reader and a writer), but of course, I can only write it at my own risk. Even the dates of historical changes that happened in my lifetime can elude me until I look them up. Exactly when in the 1960s did school segregation end in the U.S.? Telephones and televisions existed throughout my life, but when did direct-dialling (without the intervention of an operator) become widespread? When did TVs stop requiring tubes?

Much eludes me, including the significance of conversations among my students or their peers (18-22-year-olds). As I’ve learned, though, non-tangible items seem easier to find than lost safety pins or the little clear plastic clips that go on the hooks of earrings for pierced ears. What currently escapes my grasp is likely to pop up when I least expect it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Original and Authentic Kickapoo Indian Primitive Physic (A story of the Elusive)

With deliberate and solemn step six men approached the front of Pearsons’ Pharmacy and Soda Fountain. A wrinkled old man with sharp eyes, wearing a black bear's head, the huge yellowed teeth touching his forehead and the thick bear hide draping his shoulders in the New England summer sun carried a drum under his arm. The other five Indian warriors wearing buckskin shoulder bags, buckskin trousers and moccasins, red chevroned chest plates of bone, and single or double eagle feathers woven into their menacingly long and shiny black hair braids folded their arms on their chests like courtly judges, closed their eyes and as one body sat down in a circle in the dust of main street. The old man placed the tom tom between his knees and started up a steady drumming as another man built a small campfire. The fire rose modestly, the tom tom whumped, as men stepping down from trolley cars stopped and stared, women carrying shopping bags were tugged by the hands of begging children clamoring to get a closer look, and the people in their summer clothes gathered to gawk and point. A barefoot boy in knickers reached out a finger and touched an eagle feather. The warrior’s eyes sprang open and the boy jumped back. The old man’s eyes, watching, twinkled.

The five men stood, ignoring the crowds chatter and questions, reached into the shoulder bags and began passing out handbills to the crowd.

Show Tonight!

The Original and Authentic Kickapoo Indian Primitive Physic

With the Elusive Element
Made only from Natural Roots, Herbs, and Barks
Cures all illness of the Blood, Liver and Stomach
Wandering Uterus and Female Hysteria


Kickapoo Indian Worm Killer and Tape Worm Secret

For Removal of Indwelling Intestinal Animals

Kickapoo Indian Oil

For all Aches and Pains

Doctor Duncans Dandy Dandruff Remover

When the last paper had been passed to the crowd and posted in the Pharmacists window, the old man stopped his drumming, the fire maker kicked dust over the fire and the six warriors together unsmiling and stately as pall bearers commenced in patient pace back the way they’d come, towards the edge of town where the public wigwam had been pitched, followed by a cloud of boys, girls and barking dogs.

By sunset the crowd was circulating among the tents and displays of beads, human scalps, weapons, drums, pemmican and other relics of Indian life. Off near the trees were six private tee pees where the families loafed and played, guarded by a large, imposing but pleasant brave .

On stage a small brass band wheezed to life and played a patriotic march for the crowd milling with cotton candy, souvenirs and drinks, ending in a sudden bugle blast as a man stepped forward into the spotlight.   He wore a dark buckskin suit with long fringes and moccasin boots laced up to his knees, a string tie fastened with a silver and turquoise clasp and a broad brimmed beaver hat with a coon tail hanging on a tassel. This last he seized and raised high over his head. His lush Van Dyke beard and  long mustache curled with wax rose in a beatific smile.  He bowed long and low. When  his hat on his head he began.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, grandma and grandpa  as you have well observed our entertainment tonight has been of the most entirely wholesome nature. There will be nothing seen, heard, spoken, or performed that would mar the propriety or impunity in any way shade sound, suggestion, source, manner or form of even the most delicate and fastidious sensibilities of any little lady in the fine community of Hadleysburg.

“I am Edward Bloodworthy the Third, of the Bloodworthys of Cambridge of whom you may have heard. In the vast great plains I am called ‘Nevada Ned’. You have also heard me referred to here as Doctor, I am not a doctor though I have attended the medical school of Cambridge for seven years. But the conventional world of the white man’s science was insufficient for my curiosity. I was a sickly young man. A man cursed by nature. I went to the west and the high plains of Nevada in search of wealth and a strengthened constitution. One day while panning fruitlessly for gold in the wild rivers of Nevada I saw a red skinned savage struggling in the throes of quicksand. I did not see my enemy, but only a man like myself, lacking in fortune, struggling to live and my heart was stirred. At the risk of my own life, tying a mining rope across my waist, impetuously I plunged in and we struggled we two together until at last we stood in the life bestowing sun, not white man or red man but only brothers struck of misfortune.

“The red savage I had saved, who on another day might have snatched the scalp from my head alive, this man was none other than  an original and authentic Indian Doctor, known as a medicine man, descended from the wizards and medicine men of the great Kickapoo Indian nation who had been gathering herbs and that day fallen into peril and destiny. We drew blood, we shook hands and vowed to be blood brothers as long as mortality endured.

“Tonight – we bring you the secrets of native and aboriginal science, hidden for 800 years from the eyes of the white man which have made me the robust specimen you see tonight. Tonight I ask you to curb your fears and cherish your curiosity as I introduce you to Chief Running Rock, Indian physic and prophet of the Southwest Kickapoo Indian Terretories! Here!”

As he spoke six Indian warriors appeared in a line on the stage. Standing at the front was the old man with a lavish war bonnet trailing a line of eagle feathers down his shoulders. He took his place beside Nevada Ned, gazing down upon the hushed crowd.

In a low and growling voice he began to speak, and Ned tipped his head to listen. He nodded and whispered questions. The old man raised his hand and made a gentle tomahawk chopping motion. He folded his arms across his chest and waited for the translation. Nevada Ned stood straight with his hands on his buckskin jacket lapels and cleared his throat.

“Chief Running Rock says he will paint a word picture for you any child can understand. In your home after a meal you keep a slop bucket by the back door for bones and scraps and scrape your garbage into the slop bucket.”

The old man rumbled in his baritone for a moment, Nevada Ned nodded  “After the bucket is full, feed it to pigs, give it to your dog, bury it, do what you will but don’t wash it. Give it a week and then look again.”

The old man spoke for a few minutes at length.

“Chief Running Rock says - there my friends examine closely the filth that clings to the sides, smell the rottenness, touch the slime and ooze with your finger tips, and then realize this comes from the very same food that you have been putting in your stomach for one year, five years, ten years, a lifetime – and say to yourself – I have never cleaned it out! Roiling in your intestines, even where you stand are double handfuls of filth, corrosion, corruption, organisms, nepotisms, fecal matter, maggots and even worms!”

The old man raised his hand and spoke loudly and earnestly. One of the warriors standing behind convulsed and snickered. One put his hand to his face to hide his smile and wheezed. Ned noticed with some irritation the word “kimosabe” go swimming by, one of only seven words in Kickapoo he actually knew. It meant “asshole”.

“Chief Running Rock says - We children of nature have lived close to the mother earth. Any of you knows a mother, a brother, an Aunt, an Uncle who felt in robust health until the moment they were struck by fatal heart failure. In a few hours they were dead. How does this happen? They allowed their blood to become weak and watery, to become thin, until the poor heart could labor no more.”

The old man made a hollow fist with one hand, raised his middle finger and moved it in and out of his fist, speaking in loud and solemn tones. Ned heard the struggling snorts and giggles from the shadows behind and ground his teeth. “Chief Running Rock says - weak blood is the source of all illness, influenza and catarrh, the syndrome of the Wandering Uterus and Female Complaint.”

As he spoke again, the old man raised his fists and began pumping his hips suggestively.

“Chief`Running Rock says - the Kickpoo Medicine Doctors have used the Kickapoo Primitive Physic for centuries, from the days of Christ, the Indians have gathered the herbs, gums and bark of the forest and through generations of experiment have perfected the solution we make available to you today.”

The chief beat his heart with his fist and spoke solemnly. Ned put his hand on his shoulder questioningly. The chief nodded and spoke a single sharp word.

“He makes this available, the Indian Primitive Physic with the Elusive Element not because of you my friends, but insists I inform you it is because of the deep personal debt he feels to me that he wishes to help the white man by sharing the most ancient medicinal secrets of these lofty children of the forest and plain. This is the very substance, the very substantiated miracle, palpitated and promulgated in the scriptures written by the hand of the holy ‘go ye into yonder fields, gather ye together roots, herbs and brew them for the sickness that ye the children of Adam are heir to. And the fruit thereof shall be used for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine for thy blood – yea! – even thy children’s blood.’ “

A man in the audience waved his arms wildly. “I only have ten dollars! I only have ten dollars! Ask the Chief - can I just buy half a bottle? You must, sir! You must! If I only had more time I could get more money, but I’m afraid you’ll run out before I can get a bottle home to my sick daughter.”

The Chief looked stern and growled.

“My friend –“ said Nevada Ned, “What is your life worth? What is your daughter’s future worth? Who can put a price on the life of an ailing child?”

The Chief looked thoughtful, glanced down at his moccasins, looked up and smiled. He whispered in Ned's ear.

“The Chief has given me this opportunity to make an unprecedented offer – did I hear you right Chief?”

The chief nodded and made the tomahawk motion again.

“This is extraordinary. You have moved his heart, sir, never before has this offer been made. I have been given permission, - nay – solemnly intoned – by Chief Running Rock, wizard and medicine doctor of the Kickapoo nation for this night only to offer this Kickapoo Indian Primitive Physic with the Elusive Element not for twenty dollars, not for ten dollars but for the no! It cannot be I heard you right, Chief.”

The Chief looked at him, raised a forefinger and shouted two words in Kickapoo. One of the warriors guffawed.

“One dollar, sir.” said Ned. “Chief Running Rock demands, out of deference and respect for the Great Spirit of Life we will offer an entire bottle of this Primitive Physic for one dollar! One single and solitary dollar. And six bottles for five dollars. And for your sick child sir, Chief Running Rock of the Kickapoo grants a bottle as a gift.”

The chief smiled and spoke.

“Chief Running Rock says he is a grandfather also.” As he handed the bottle to the man, a piano threw out the first bars of “Stars and Stripes Forever” and hands waved with silver and paper dollars. The warriors jumped into the crowd, passing out bottles and making change. The piano played, the chief nodded and looked on benevolently. Soon the music changed to brass and the Tumbling Thompsons began their acrobatic act.

People began uncorking the bottles and sampling. Men passed bottles to ladies and the chief grew concerned as he watched from behind the curtain. The air seemed to acquire a rich muskiness.  After a moment the women began to flush and squeeze their knees tightly together. Their lips parted avidly. Men acquired the stare of hard lust.

“Well, old buddy,” said Ned to the chief. “I don’t know what elusive ingredient you’ve been putting in that stuff, but it is the vocation of a gentleman to read the signs of nature.”

The Indian women rolled up the tee pees. The roustabouts packed the stands and snacks and put them on the wagons. After the first two shows they had learned their lesson.  They were ready in twenty one minutes flat.

The music faded. Clothes began to fly into the air. Nevada Ned packed up the cash and loaded the wagons as the first shrieks of passion from the women and groans of release from the men began. Bare skinned bodies, rolled entwined on the ground. “County line is twenty minutes from here,” said Ned to the chief. Once we’re past Ogallala Creek they can’t touch us. We’ll need you to start another batch for Yazoo County next week before word gets out. Then I suppose we’ll be back in ten months with the Kickapoo Infant Formula.”

Women screamed in ecstasy as naked men pulled their hair and feverishly hammered their loins together. Knife fights broke out among discovered adulterers. The wagons and horses vanished into the night.

In the new camp, in his private tee pee the medicine man began the seed batch of herbs and barks that would be watered and fermented over the next two days. He smelled the fumes. It was time for the elusive ingredient upon which their livelihoods depended.

From his steamer trunk he took a small wooden box with a latch. He unhooked it and opened the box.

Inside was a necklace of seashells and bone beads. His wife’s. There was a small drum, their baby son’s. They had died on the reservation from small pox caught from blankets handed out by soldiers. He pressed the beads to his lips. He tapped the little drum. Soon the tears began. He bent over the pot and thought of home as the tears fell.

C. Sanchez-Garcia

And just for Fun:

This is The Band performing "The W S Walcott Medicine Show"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tentacle Monster

Elusive is a good way to describe writing. Characters elude me all the time. They don't want to talk, or they do want to talk but then I'm sure they're saying the wrong things. Though they're not half as bad as plots, which run away from me at every turn.

I think I'm telling a tale about X, the plot thinks I'm telling a tale about Y. It grows slippery and too big, like a tentacle in some monster movie that I'm kind of scared to watch. It's sprouts a million heads, and all of them are laughing at me for not being able to streamline, focus, get to the point.

I hate plots. I like the characters to drive everything, but of course then the characters decide to go off road for fourteen miles and suddenly I'm lost in Inner Monologue Land.

Because when it comes to inner monologue, brevity eludes me. Part of the reason I write is because of the mystery of other people's minds. I love exploring their landscapes - I could stay in someone else's head forever. I want to explore their foibles, their tics, their dreams, their wishes.

But of course the problem with that is that I stay too long. And readers don't want books that stay too long in someone's head. They want action, lots of action - most of which eludes me. I mean, it's not that I have anything against action. I love a good limb-tangling sex scene as much as the next person. But I far prefer monologue and dialogue to someone's leg moving a certain way.

In fact, dirty talk is one of my favourite things to write and read about. Sometimes this thing eludes me or that, but talking never does. Once I get to the conversation, the writing zips by like nothing else - so really I can't feel bad about the rest of the stuff I can't really do. The slippery tentacle monster is big, and he's pissed, and he won't let me plot or jam in lots of action.

But he at least lets me think, and talk. And for that, I am grateful.

Monday, May 28, 2012


By Kathleen Bradean

My feet are hot. I can't sleep when my feet are hot. I kick the covers back and wrap one leg around them, but that only reminds me that my hands are hot too. Sighing, I turn on my side and state at the wall. Minutes later, I try my other side. Now my view is the alarm clock. 

Past the nightstand, shapes get fuzzy and melt into shadow. When I was young, I could give them the spark of life and soon monsters would begin a weird game with me where they could only creep closer if I looked away or blinked. If I looked directly at them, no matter how fearsome they were, they couldn't move.

The night rules were very clear about that.

There were other rules, like the monsters had to give me a few seconds after I switched off the light to sprint across my room before they could grab me, and once I was under the blanket, with my back pressed to the mattress as I gulped air into my heaving chest, I was safe.

But now my feet are outside the blanket and my eyesight is too fuzzy to see if the monsters cheat and move while I'm looking directly at them.

I roll on my back and drape my forearm across my forehead. Sleep is probably hours away.

Because my feet are hot, my mind won't shut up. I think about tomorrow at work and all the things I want to get done before my boss goes on vacation. I realize my daughter will start driving lessons in two weeks and now my nightmares about her getting hurt will change to include that. All those things I have to do and everything I want to do are equal burdens at this time of night. They make the air heavier and harder to breathe.

And then there's a blank moment, where it feels as if someone wiped my memory or possibly I was asleep for just a second, but all I know is that I went from hot feet and worries to blank to this better place where I'm thinking about the story I'm working on. As it is when these things happen, I can imagine how it smells there. I can feel the humidity. I'm staring into my dark bedroom but I can see the colors of the setting too like a holographic image overlaid on the darkness, like a movie, but I control it.

And now I'm in that scene that's been giving me fits. The scene rolls forward, then stops and loops back. This time it's subtly different, either his words or her reaction or both. And I let it roll forward until it feels wrong. Then I rewind and replay, over and over, making the actors practice the scene until someone says something so brilliant that it transcends everything and I hold my breath for the perfection of. I make them repeat the line. It is still true and perfect, but fragile as a soap bubble. And I know I should get up and write it down. But I'm comfortable, and besides, I'll remember.

Of course I'll remember.

And that's when the night folds her gentle arms around me, and the words disappear like night shadows with the dawn.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

On the Tip of My Tongue

By Lisabet Sarai

It happens more and more often these days. I'll reach for a word, and it isn't there, or at least I can't grab hold of it. Usually there are traces, ghosts that taunt me from the murky depths of my memory. I'll be able to tell you what sound begins the word, or how many syllables it has. If my husband suggests alternatives, I can easily dismiss them. That's not the word I'm thinking of, I confidently assert, but the specific item of vocabulary I'm seeking remains inaccessible.

This happens not only when I'm writing but also when I'm speaking. I'll trail off, unable to summon the word that's dangling there on the tip of my tongue. Occasionally, I'll come out with a related term, knowing that isn't what I really mean. Sometimes these substitutions are bizarre.

I'm an author. My sense of self is inextricably entwined with my ability to weave worlds out of words. I've always been able to rely on my extensive vocabulary. I barely thought about it. Now I worry that my verbal facility has begun to desert me. And that's terrifying.

Is this part of the normal process of aging? I'll be sixty soon, but that doesn't seem that old compared to my ninety year old aunt, who still follows politics and who told me, the day after Obama was elected, that “she felt as happy as if she had a new lover”. Are these lapses the first signs of a more serious deficit, Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia? In the case of the former, I've read that keeping your brain active appears to have some prophylactic effects. I teach kids in their twenties and write computer software; surely that's active enough, isn't it? But it's all a crap shoot, I gather, and worst of all, there's no cure for what the media suggest is an epidemic.

In the past, when I imagined getting older, I expected declines in physical capabilities. I can picture myself blind, deaf, unable to walk, even paralyzed. I've always consoled myself with the notion that however limited my body becomes, I'll still have the life of the mind. I'll be able to read, or listen to, books. I'll be able to write, even if I have to dictate my stories as opposed to typing them.

Now, as with increasing frequency I struggle to grasp the elusive word, the exact term to express both the meaning and the mood I'm trying to set, I glimpse another, far bleaker future – one in which the glorious universe of ideas and their multifaceted expression in language gradually crumbles to dust, until my head is filled with sawdust like the scarecrow of Oz. I honestly think I'd prefer death to that sort of half-life.

Shanna Germain has a magnificent story in The Mammoth Book of Threesomes and Moresomes, entitled “Remember This”, that treats this theme with tremendous sensitivity and depth. A woman joins her husband and long-time female lover in an ecstatic but bittersweet encounter full of echoes from the past. Although she's barely in her fifties, she has a genetic predisposition to memory loss. She comforts herself with the thought of the poison she's secreted from her lovers, not ready for that step yet, but knowing she won't have to endure the dissolution of what is precious.

And of course Garce's much acclaimed tale “An Early Winter Train” goes even further, showing us how desperately sad the physical shell becomes when the mind has mostly departed. These days I can't even think about that story – it's too frightening.

And yet, here I am, penning this blog post, obviously with some verbal memory left. Perhaps I'm overreacting. I sometimes joke that I know so many words, I could forget half of them and still have a normal vocabulary. I know my laughter's a defense, though.

The other thing is – the words aren't gone. I can't deliberately summon them, but later they may sneak up on me, bubbling up from my unconscious while I'm thinking about something completely different. It's as though the glass between my conscious intent and the depths where language resides has grown cloudy – almost like cataracts of the mind.

I try not to think about it, because honestly, I find it too distressing. Instead I muddle along, pretending there's no problem, hoping that I'm being alarmist. And when a word escapes, I chase it, unwilling to let it get away.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


by Ainsley Gray*

“Deny thy father and refuse thy name – or if thou wilt not, but be sworn my love, and I will be a Capulet no more.” In Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy (or dark comedy, according to some), Juliet says this to her boyfriend Romeo, whose family (the Montagues) have feuded with hers for years. The lovers have to meet in secret because Montagues and Capulets can’t meet openly without exchanging insults. The men usually challenge each other to duels to the death. And Juliet is betrothed to a man her parents chose for her, an ally of her family.

Some readers/viewers see Romeo and Juliet as helpless, innocent pawns of forces they can’t control. Juliet is fourteen at the beginning of the play, and Romeo isn’t much older. (In fact, his sidekick Mercutio teases him about his recent crush on a lass named Rosaleen.) So do the teenagers fall in love because that’s just what happens naturally when adolescent hormones kick in?

Romeo meets Juliet at a masquerade ball at the Capulets’ villa. Because everyone is in disguise, he is able to sneak in without being recognized, but he is still taking a huge risk. Is it really just a coincidence that Juliet, the young daughter of Lord Capulet, catches his fancy? And is Juliet’s response to Romeo based on his looks and charm, and nothing else?

To this day, teenagers are often more attracted to someone from the other side of the tracks, or from a community their parents disapprove of, than to the boy/girl next door. The saying “opposites attract” describes a situation in which young people who want to assert their adult independence choose dates their relatives are unlikely to accept.

Carl Jung, described as one of the fathers of the study of psychology, claimed that everyone has a kind of internalized personality of the “opposite” gender (an anima for men, an animus for women), and this serves as a model (usually not consciously understood) of one’s ideal love-object. So how well does this kind of attraction work as a means of finding one’s life-partner?

Whether Romeo and Juliet would have loved each other for a lifetime if the family feud hadn’t destroyed them is anyone’s guess. Based on my own youthful experience, I would say that the attraction of opposites produces great drama but no lasting rapport.
Sometimes the sheer force of desire, blind and reckless as it may be, is fascinating in itself. That’s probably why tragedy hasn’t gone out of style. And it’s usually not far from wry comedy.

*Jean Roberta's other pen name and alter ego. She couldn't find a guest-blogger for this week.

Friday, May 25, 2012

It Takes All Kinds

by Kristina Wright

I've always been attracted to people who are different from me. I've read that we seek out the similarities in others-- looking for the common ground so that we can relate. Too much difference in others makes most people uncomfortable. "Birds of a feather," and all that. But I have always sought out relationships with people with whom I have very little in common. Not necessarily the opposite of me; the opposite of me would be a young single child-free religious Republican gay man in an engineering profession. And that's maybe a little too different for my tastes. (I'm also not even sure such a man exists.)

I have no writer-friends in my day-to-day life. That has become more and more troublesome in recent years, as I grow to crave the understanding and commiseration that one can only get from another writer. I'm drawn to (and fascinated by) other creative-types outside of writing-- artists and musicians and singers-- because I lack those talents and wish I had them.

I'm drawn to differences in others because I'm intrigued by what other people are passionate about. I get excited when I hear someone else talk excitedly about something they love as much as I love writing and books. I find myself feeling disappointed if I meet someone who doesn't have some sort of passion, whether it's their job or a hobby. The people I feel most connected to are the ones who are as passionate about something as I am.

I think writers in general are drawn to people who are different from us because our job requires us to know a little about a lot of things. Oh sure, you can always do research, but I've found that it is really nice to be able to draw on the experiences and lives of the people in my personal life. Or maybe I'm just lazy. Probably that.

I'm married to someone in the military, a world with rigid rules and regulations; a world in which I wouldn't and couldn't thrive. Not that I'd be there long-- they'd ask me to leave before the week was out. My circle (and it's a small circle) includes the military and law enforcement and education and counseling and veterinary medicine. Professions that serve the community in some way. Professions that have a hierarchy, a guidebook, a specific and expected way of doing things. In other words: completely unlike writing.

Often, I feel like my job is frivolous-- and I suppose in a way it is. Left on a deserted island with the others, I would certainly be the first to be cast off. (Cast out of the military, cast off the island... I'm sensing a theme here.) In an isolated world that requires structure, order and basic survival skills, a writer is about as useful as a rock. Even less so. At least a rock could be used to kill dinner. I could make a case for my usefulness-- writers are creative problem-solvers, right?-- but I'll avoid taking cruises, just to be on the safe side.

(Interestingly, in thinking about it, I do happen to be friends with a young single child-free possibly religious gay IT guy. Hmm.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

O Cruel Sorceress!

From the imaginary dream journal of Nicholas Flood Davin, circa 1885:

Why dost thou haunt me, cruel phantom? Thou savage woman, so foreign to the civilized man!

Art thou a wild woman of the Cree or Assiniboine nations, or an Oriental beauty, boldly seeking entrance to this great land to populate it with thy cursed offspring? Why do my loins burn so at the mere sight of thee? Begone!

O would wishing make it so! Thou art the Medusa of my nightmares, with thy ropes of serpentine black hair and thy unfathomable dark eyes, which methinks speak reproachfully to me, the Man of Laws.

It would take a Shakespeare to describe thy power, drawn from the mysteries of nature. I have not that power of expression.

Asian seductress, I will do what I can to keep thy fecundity from this land.

Indigenous harlot, I will rescue thy children and teach them the ways of enlightenment. Curse me as thou wilt, I offer them this blessing.

And yet mine own forebears were not Christian, nor did they speak English. How fiercely did the Celts of old fight the Romans, and then the English, even to this day. And women – savage, half-naked women or blazing-eyed modern Amazons – have led the charge.

There is something in them which I cannot answer. Their allure torments me, and I must fight it until the spearlike pen falls from my vanquished hand.

Backstory: Nicholas Flood Davin (1843-1901) was born in Kilfinane, Ireland on January 13, 1843. An orphan, he apprenticed to an ironmonger, then attended the University of London, became a lawyer and then a journalist. He became editor of The Belfast Times, then left in a flurry of lawsuits. In 1872, he emigrated to Canada.

In Toronto, he tried to launch careers in law and journalism. He joined the Conservative Party, and ran unsuccessfully for office.

Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald (noted for his heavy drinking, as was Davin) commissioned Davin to write a report on the education of indigenous people. Davin submitted A Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds in March 1879, in which he recommends “civilizing the savages” by taking children away from their families and training them in residential schools. The Canadian government implemented this recommendation by setting up a residential school system, which lasted for almost 100 years. It caused massive personal trauma and cultural disruption.

In 1882, Davin moved west to Regina, a dusty prairie town where in 1883, he launched the town’s first newspaper, The Regina Leader (which still exists as The Leader-Post). In its pages, Davin aired his conservative opinions on issues of the day, including Canadian government policy on Chinese immigration.

Davin was opposed to letting the Chinese wives of male Chinese labourers (paid half the salaries of white men doing the same work) come to Canada to join their husbands because then they would populate Canada (particularly the sparsely-populated West) with Chinese babies. Davin’s recommendations on immigration policy worked much better than most forms of birth control available at that time.

Note: Sir John A. Macdonald’s great dream was to build a railroad to unite eastern and western Canada, and the importation of cheap Chinese labourers was crucial to this project. 700 of them died as a direct result.

Davin was a great admirer of Shakespeare as a literary exemplar of “civilization,” and once wrote a political satire of Romeo and Juliet. He was in favour of extending the vote to white women.

Davin moved to the town of Winnipeg and shot himself to death there in 1901.

His name appears on several local landmarks in Regina, now the capital of the province of Saskatchewan (formed in 1905). So far, there has been no public commemoration of the indigenous or Chinese families that were devastated by the policies he recommended. Feh. (Googling his name will turn up much more information.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Character Web


. . .  She began crawling towards him on her knees, her arms out.  “Lieber Gott!  Look you, God, I’m telling him to run.  Do you see me - Gott?  Are you watching, do you see I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore, do you see? Oh Gott!   Please stop!”   She crushed her arms around herself and crumpled into a ball, weeping.
        Father Delmar left the bed and came over to her.  “Cut the drama, young lady.  That’s enough.”  As he put his hand on her shoulder, she screamed and jumped away, kicking her feet against him.  “Don’t touch me!  Don’t touch me!”
        He fell to his knees and took her by the shoulders.  “Stop it.  Just stop it.”
        “Don’t touch - ME!”  She screamed.  “My soul will rot in hell!  And you – may you rot in hell too.  Nasty man!  Wicked, nasty sonovabitch man, you!  I came to you; you are a man of God, you should help me, not tempt me to more sin.  Fuck you!  I trusted you with my soul!  You should have mercy on me.  I came to you with all my hope and on my knees like a beggar.  I’m not a beggar!  Ich bin nosferatu!   I’m Nixie the vampire!”
        He swung and with a sound like a gunshot slapped her face hard with the back of his hand.  She put her head between her knees and he held her, speaking into her ear.   “Now you listen to me, Nixie the fucking vampire. Listen.“ 
       Her shoulders writhed and she tried to twist away from him.
       “Listen.  Nixie – God is dead.”
       Her mouth fell open.  “No! Don’t say this.”
       “God is dead, Nixie.  There is no God.  God is a fairy tale, like this vampire shit you’re pulling.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry Nixie, but I have to tell you.  No one is going to save you or forgive you.  You’re waiting for a savior, but no one’s coming.   I wish there were.  God, how I wish there were because I need Him as much as you do.  There isn’t.”
       “That’s not true.”  She sat up straight and pointed an accusing finger in his face, her wet stained chin quivering.  “That’s not true.”
       “There is no God.  No one to forgive you.  You’re a whack job, honey.  You’re just as crazy as a mud bug. That’s all.  We’re all damned, no matter what.   I love you.   I’m sorry as hell for you and me both.”
       “You don’t believe in God.  That’s why you have no hope.”  She shook her head.  “Vater, vater, there is really a God; yes, yes, and He hates me and I need His forgiveness because I’m evil.  Please.  I just know there is, I’m proof there is.”
    “Because you’re a vampire?  Bullshit!”  Father Delmar seized her in one hand by the back of her neck and shoved her face down hard into the bedroom carpet. 
    “Smell that, kid.  That’s bullshit down there. Bullshit and mud.  That’s what the world’s made out of, Nixie - bullshit and mud.  You need to take this Vampirella crap and all your comic books and all your supermarket novels and bury them or shove them up your ass or something and get involved in the world.”  His voice was choking.  “It’s bullshit and mud down there but it’s all there is.” 
        He let go of her neck and lifted her gently, his hands cupping her face, looking into her eyes.  “I don’t like this world anymore than you do.  But you can’t run away from it.  It’s your world as long as you’re in it.  I got a gut ache from wishing, Nixie, you don’t know.   I wish I’d met you thirty years ago.  I’m tired too, I’m more crazy than you even.  Can you see that in me?  I’m not as bad as you think.  I paid a price for my faith, I really did, but God didn’t keep His end of the deal.  There’s no God for either of us, I’m sorry.”
        His throat tightened and he began to weep.  “I wish for both of us there was, but there isn’t.  There just isn’t.”  He melted into braying sobs and she held him close in her arms as he fell apart.  He put his arms around her and they leaned on each other and wept together. . . .

Nixie and Father Delmar from “The Dying Light”

I've been thinking recently about an excellent blog post by Remittance Girl on her web site on the subject of creating deliberately vacuous characters:

There is a view that some characters in the most commercially successful popular fiction (i.e. "Twilight", "50 Shades of Gray") are deliberately created as hollow shells that a reader can cast themselves into, like sticking your fingers inside a hand puppet. Either that or the characters were just so incompetently crafted a reader could fill them up with anything.

I dunno what to think.  RG definitely has a point.  These books are hideously successful and the authors have become hideously rich and popular overnight.  Sure I envy them.  We all secretly envy such writers and imagine they do not have a rich inner life like we do, but with that kind of money who needs one.  One is tempted to sniff "but will anybody be reading them a hundred years from now?"  No, probably not.  They probably won’t be reading any of my stuff either, but that's not why you write.  

So the obscure apprentice writer asks himself – how can I at least avoid creating vacuous characters?  How do I fill them with soul?

From a craft viewpoint, there are a lot of busy things going on in the above scene. The story, “The Dying Light” is told from Father Delmar's viewpoint.  Delmar is a Catholic priest who has secretly lost his faith and become an atheist, though he goes through the motions as a professional priest..  When he encounters Nixie in his confession booth one night, she is an anonymous voice on the other side of the screen, wretched and  spiritually devastated after the events in the story "The Lady and the Unicorn".   Nixie challenges his cynicism in every way with her longing for redemption and the quest to regain her connection to humanity.  Simply she tells him plainly she is a "nosferatu", and consistent with his rejection of all supernatural things, including God, he denies her up front and thinks she's crazy though he’s concerned about her claims to have murdered uncounted numbers of people over the years.  The dirty secret is that Delmar is suicidal and this murderous  "little moon maid" who has landed on his doorstep in the dead of night may be just the ticket.

These are two very different people who profoundly affect each other.  We learn of them through setting up  a craft element called "the character web".

Characters, vacuous or otherwise, do not exist in a vacuum.  Just like "real" people, characters express themselves in a web of experience and interaction with other people.  Its through the interaction with others that the character is defined to the reader, its through the character web that we experience all different sides of a personality.  We know best who Nixie is or who Delmar is by the violent collision of hope and despair they bring out in each other and by the ways in which they try to use each other for their own ends.  One of the things implied in my vampire mythology is that my vampires instinctively provoke darkness in people.  Just being in the same room with Nixie has a way of dragging up the sad things inside of you.  If you think about it, you probably know people like this.  Nixie is a Typhoid Mary of the soul and being around her can make whatever is bugging you way worse.

A couple of years ago Lisabet and I had a dialogue (I loved those dialogues!) about the nature of villains and heroes.  For now, it’s better to revert to Aristotle’s terms "protagonist" (hero) and "antagonist" (against the hero).   Father Delmar is nobody's idea of a hero, and Nixie isn't exactly a villain.  But its their collision of personalities that causes their characters to emerge and experience change in the context of the story.  Nixie fervently believes in God ("No one has faith like the damned.") and Delmar has lost faith in his despair over the human condition.  In the shaping of a character web, the antagonist should mirror the protagonist in some basic way, they should recognize in each other a common connection or goal - Nixie and Delmar both have serious problems with God - but should be different enough to throw each other into a stark contrast that would not exist without each other.  We understand Delmar through Nixie.  We understand Nixie through Delmar.  You don’t need a lot of characters, but you need enough to knock sparks off each other, sparks bright enough to illuminate them.  This is what a good character web can accomplish, and the best way to go about it is to find the deepest conflict your characters can fight over. 

From the beginning we are always taught "show don’t tell", and most of the time this is true, but why is it true?  If the reader infers from words and actions what is in the characters heart, which is of course the way we do it in "real" life with people we know, it has more impact because he/she is being invited into the creative act.  You’re inviting the reader to get up and dance.  Writing the words "Nixie was furious with Father Delmar for not believing she was a vampire." is okay, but you can feel how flat it lays on the page.  The reader doesn’t own the idea, it’s been forced on them.  If a character drinks a bottle of beer its lazy to say “The beer was delicious.”  You should find a way for the reader to taste it, you need to invite them to the dance.  If we witness Nixie shaking her finger in his face and screaming accusations and curses at him the reader owns the conclusion he/she draws from the character’s behavior - Nixie is furious at Delmar.  When mild mannered Delmar turns around and belts her a good one, we see how deeply he is provoked and scarred by her words, and especially by her hope.  We are witnesses.  When a reader owns an idea, or an emotion, or especially in erotic writing a physical sensation, it has far more power than simply being stated by the writer.  This is the clockwork of the character web. 

Public Farts

Dammit! I'm on a deadline at the moment and think I may have missed my slot. So if this comes up  for Wednesday massive apologies to Garce. But I wanted to write something anyway just to prove that I'm nto a total flake or maybe at the very least to prove that I'm only half a flake. Only now I can't think what to write for Opposites Attract and my computer's not working right. Everything's stalling as I try to write it, so my thoughts are going faster than the words are coming out.

I've never been a big believer in opposites attract. Or at least I wasn't until I met my husband, who:

Does not read

Embarrasses easily

Is quiet

Writes three words a minute with one finger

And after that, I became something of a believer. Because obviously I'm the opposite of all these things. I read like a demon and I never get embarrassed, not even when I fart in public. I'm loud all over the internet and I type 80 words a minute.

Though I will say this: we both love TheSimpsons. And Masterchef. And cheesy restaurants in America. And we both love to cuddle. Man, I couldn't live with someone who didn't like to cuddle. So perhaps that was all I had on my list, really:

Cuddles forever.

And maybe I don't care about things. Traits, likes, dislikes. I only care about one thing:

He loves me. Despite my farting in public.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Yin and Yang

By Kathleen Bradean

Even though Pops was in the Air Force, we lived in the college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma because he and my mother were working on their PhDs. Living far from the military was just fine by them, although there was one perk they couldn't pass by, and that was shopping for groceries at the commissary, where food was much cheaper than at the local market. So every once in a while - I don't remember how often since I was in kindergarten at the time - we'd make the long drive from Stillwater to the military base near Oklahoma City.

Like one of the drivers in the opening scene of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, I remember Pops swerving around box turtles crossing the highway. I don't know if he swerved for tarantulas. And even though I was glad for the mercy he showed the turtles, the swerving didn't help my perpetually carsick stomach. So they often put me in the front seat - to the dismay of my sisters - and turned the air conditioner full force onto my face in the hopes that would keep me from puking. It didn't, but it was a great seat to watch for turtles from.

An adult would have measured the drive to Oklahoma City in miles, but I had my own landmarks. There were the signs for Lake Carl Blackwell, a shallow graveyard of drowned trees where we often went fishing and never caught anything. Sometimes another fisherman would land a catfish and I'd stare at the quivering barbs around its huge mouth while the men admired or sulked at the catch. Much closer to Oklahoma City was a genuine tourist trap done up in timbers like log houses and touting arrowheads and other Indian goods. We'd been to Boot Hill in Dodge City a few times so I knew what we'd see if we ever stopped - plastic drums and toy horses and cheapie bow and arrow sets that couldn't hit a damn thing. Still, I wanted to look. I always wanted to look. My parents never did. I knew better than to ask.

Between the lake and the tourist trap though was a glorious haven where we always stopped for gas and to use their restrooms. The bill boards started miles away and counted down. 18 MILES TO STUCKEY'S. FREE DIVINITY WITH PURCHASE OF GAS. Ooh boy. I sure loved divinity. We always filled up with gas, but I never saw the candy. 12 MILES TO STUCKEY'S. CLEAN BATHROOMS! 10 MILES TO STUCKEY'S. HOT COFFEE! We never sat down in the restaurant, and I don't remember either of my parents buying a coffee there even though they drank pots of it at home. 8 MILES TO STUCKEY'S. PECAN LOG ROLLS. Pecan log rolls were another longing that would never be filled even though my mother was from Georgia and by law - to my way of thinking - should have been honor-bound to love all things pecan. But I also knew that we were so poor that my parents couldn't afford such fancy things as pecan rolls and coffee shop coffee where you had to tip the waitress and maybe buy some food for the kids to keep her from giving you the stink eye.  Just as I began to wonder how long it took to drive eight miles, I'd see the blue roof off in the distance. From the way they squirmed in the back seat with me, so did my sisters.

Finally, we'd pull off the highway. While Pops filled the car, Mom grabbed our hands and headed for the bathrooms. There was usually a line, which was all right by me, since the thing about Stuckey's was that they had stores filled with all kinds of interesting stuff, like cans you could turn upside down and when you turned them back over, they'd moo like a cow.  And they had all kinds of pecan candy, nuts and dried fruits that looked like moist jewels laid out all fancy on a doily with a bright red candied cherry in the center. When Mom got to the front of the bathroom line, she'd call us over - to the nasty glares of women behind her - a send us in one at a time. Then I had to hang close, but then I got to look at the vending machine that sold exotic stuff like rain bonnets that folded into a carried the size of a matchbook and these little magnets that looked like a Scottie dog and a Westie. Black and white. Yin and yang.

I might have wanted divinity and pecan logs, but I lusted after those Scottie doggy magnets like you wouldn't believe. Every time we left Stuckey's, I'd mourn leaving them behind. I dreamed about them. I looked forward to seeing them. I still remember the awful, horrible day that the slot for the Scottie doggie magnets had a stupid sewing kit instead. Thwarted love never hurt so bad. I was nearly in tears, except that crying was not allowed, and crying over something like Scottie doggie magnets would have ended in some epic tragedy like Pops pulling to the side of the road, kicking me out of the car, and driving off, so I didn’t dare even snivel.

But what I could do was plot. To plan.

I saved my birthday money. Then I got crafty and starting hinting that we should go to the commissary. I might have demanded. Anyway, months later - or so it seemed to me - we finally headed back to Oklahoma City. I started squirming with anticipation before the eighteen mile billboard. My sisters pinched and punched me to keep me still. In all my excitement, I of course got carsick so we had to stop for that. I was rather practiced at throwing up by then so I made short business of the episode and was back in the car in seconds. Finally, we pulled into the parking lot at Stuckey's.

In some stories, this would be where the kid runs inside and sees the vending machine replaced by a cigarette machine (this was back when they had them) or row after row of stupid sewing kits, but in this story, the Scottie doggie magnets where there, and I got to spend my birthday money on them, and I was incredibly happy.

Someone should have been more careful about gluing the black and white plastic dogs to the magnets because my Scottie doggies would only sniff butts. (This should have been an omen.) I tried to make them kiss, but they repelled. I'd try to sneak one up on the other, but I'd feel the resistance growing the closer they got. Sure, I could force them together, but they'd spring apart as soon as I left go. Eventually, one of my little scottie doggies couldn't take the stress of being forced into a romance and, repelled by their matching poles, disappeared under the seat, never to be seen again.

 I should have just let them enjoy sniffing each other's butts.