inasmuch as it concerns Nostalgia:
One who has survived childhood, so they say, has all the material one could possibly need for a lifetime writing career. And here I am.
the last pelican kaffeeklatsch
Today was sunny and breezy rather than overcast and rainy, so John and I took a walk down to the Bonnabel Boat Launch. It was an even more fantastic day for it than we'd realized--when we got past the kids' playground and down into the parking lot on our way over to the water, a pelican suddenly seemed to fly right at us. We ran the rest of the way and saw about eight of them just hanging out on the pier, a kaffeeklatsch of pelicans standing around with their beaks hanging down to their feet. Seagulls jostled around them like seagulls do, playing their eternal game of "I want your perch," but the pelicans just stood there, unflapping and unflappable.
We watched them for about ten minutes. Couldn't get enough of just looking at them. Brown pelicans are the goofiest-looking birds in the Gulf South when they're standing still. When they're flying, they're graceful and huge in a way that I never quite get used to. But when they perch, or when they spot a fish and take a dive, they look like clowns.
On our way back to the house, as we crossed the low, flat pedestrian bridge over Bonnabel Canal behind the pumping station, a pelican actually flew under the bridge, skimming the surface of the water for about twenty feet before pulling up and soaring away again. Two cormorants followed it, swimming a similar distance completely under the water before resurfacing in the pelican's wake.
"We should tell Mom about the pelicans," I said. "She'd be delighted."
John looked pained. "You know what she'll say, though, right?"
And I remembered.
Ten, fifteen years ago, Mom would tell me about the pelicans. She'd tell me how they were coming back to Lake Pontchartrain in huge numbers. She'd tell me how she'd count them as she crossed the Causeway Bridge on her way to see her mother and sister in Covington. Her mother was needing increasingly more care, such that first she needed to move into my aunt's house to have family close at hand, then to an assisted living home, then finally to a memory care center. Mom would drive over two, three times a week to spend time with her, take turns with her siblings taking her out for lunch or keeping her company or giving her day-to-day care. So Mom got a lot of opportunities to count pelicans on her way to and from the northshore. It was a good day if she got to see one diving for fish. The sudden cannonball splash made her laugh. She'd tell me that pelicans are proof positive that God has a sense of humor. She was the one who decided "kaffeeklatsch" was the appropriate collective noun.
But now her mother has passed away, and she herself is beginning to follow in her mental footsteps: losing her memory, as she always feared she would. With sufficient encouragement, she'll do crosswords in a book rated "fun" and "easy" to try to keep erosion at bay. She needs help remembering how common sayings go, what concur means, or how to spell kneel. And with the memory loss comes personality loss, the sharp wit and the sarcasm I remember gone (which, admittedly, is sometimes a relief; her sarcasm could have a nasty bite) from conversations now uniformly shallow, repetitive, delivered with a childlike smile. She still goes to work, she still drives, she still handles day-to-day obligations, but she doesn't discuss, converse, argue, or analyze.
When we came home on the train Saturday and I told her about all the pelicans we saw perched atop dock posts in Manchac, she just smiled absently and said, "Remember the rhyme Grandpapa used to say about the pelican?" Which she then repeated, because once it came to mind she must say it, inexorably, no use trying to stop her: the limerick I always misattributed to Ogden Nash but that Wikipedia tells me is by Dixon Lanier Merritt. Trigger, response. No conversational branches. Just push the button marked "pelican" and out comes the rhyme. Then comes the next part of the ritual. "And did I ever tell you the rhyme I made up about our basketball team? 'What a favored team are the Pelicans / We hope they'll score more than their opponents can...'" Yes, Mom. Yes, you have.
And the weird thing is, she's been like that a long time. At least as long as I've lived in Boulder and called home every week. Trigger, response. Push button, get familiar anecdote. Is that because the mental changes that have seemed so sudden have been growing on her for a longer time than I realized? Or is it because the mental changes have simply crystallized around habits she's always had, eroded away everything around them to leave them stark and bare?
I don't think I'll ever know the answer.
I've come to realize over the past couple years that we will probably never have a meaningful conversation again. The late night discussions we used to share at the kitchen table, when she'd just brought me home from the airport and neither of us wanted to go to bed yet, and we talked about religion and politics and philosophy and our worries and our fears and our hopes--those will never come again. The person I used to have them with is, for all intents and purposes, gone.
I just didn't realize until today that the person who counted pelicans and laughed at God's jokes is gone too.
never too old to need you
Sometimes interactions with my family make me feel as though my adulthood has been confirmed. Anything to do with alcohol, for instance. Sharing a bottle of Abita's "Bourbon Street" Imperial Stout with my dad. Sitting down at Hurricane's as my brother, the bartender, sets a napkin in front of me and makes beer recommendations. (Last night the recommendation was the stout from Arabi-based 40 Arpent, which was tasty all the way down the pint.)
Other interactions make me feel like a child again--some in a frustrating "will they never take me seriously?" way, but others with that "everything will be OK, Mom and Dad will take care of me" feeling that some people were fortunate enough to experience through their childhood. My parents weren't perfect--who is?--and once in a while they screwed up, or indulged in pettiness, or found me hard to like--it doesn't take an outright abusive or dysfunctional family history to look back and see moments like those--but on the whole I was a fortunate child who experienced that cared-for feeling more often than not.
Anyway, John and I went to my dad's pediatrics office and got our flu shots today.
Having a parent be my primary health care provider from shortly after I was born until the day I left home for college was, certainly, in some ways, a little weird. There came a time when it became unthinkable to ask Dad to diagnose certain ailments (mumblemumblepinwormsmumbleblush), and I resolved to make do with a hand-mirror and hard-won experience. I'm sure that time came as a relief to him, too; he never questioned my self-diagnosis, but just poured me a dose of the despised but effective medication.
Mostly, though, having Dad be my doctor was convenient. Too convenient, really. As a college student away from home for the first time and finding herself with a fever of 102.5 F on Friday night of a three-day weekend, I had to develop the skill of finding a doctor and making an appointment from scratch and in adverse conditions. And I still called home to wheedle a prescription out of Dad. "Yep, sounds like strep. Where do you want me to call it in?"
But again, I did get well trained in the art of self-diagnosis. If I told Dad, "I think I'm coming down with something. I should stay home from school tomorrow," he would not only quiz me about my symptoms but also test and verify. He didn't even get up from the living room chair. It was just, "OK, bring me my coat." The trepidation, the urge to plead and beg for mercy, the crawling dread of the inevitable that some children learned to feel upon hearing the words "Bring me my belt" or "You go out to the back yard and you bring me back a switch, and no wimpy one either," my brother and I learned to feel upon hearing the words, "Bring me my coat." In various pockets of that coat were the stethoscope, the otoscope, the tongue depressors, and the dreaded throat swabs. O the gagging! The ordeal! I learned early to recognize the symptoms of strep throat, and also to never, ever cry wolf.
The staff at Dad's office includes several nurses who remember me well as the patient who pitched terrible fits about impending needles well into my early teens. A year and a half of treatments and exams to do with childhood leukemia taught me nothing about accepting a shot without making a fuss. If anything, it made the tendency to scream worse. (Do not get me started on the increasingly traumatic experiences with installing an IV needle. Suffice to say that the last few times they simply had to gas me first.) But finally there came one afternoon during the summer that I worked a part-time data entry job at the old office, the one on Robert E. Lee Boulevard that Katrina totaled, when it was discovered that I was due an MMR booster.
I stood against the wall telling myself, You're too old to have a tantrum about this. I kept myself as still and calm as possible, breathing deeply and evenly, attempting to mentally remove all conscious awareness from the arm about to get stabbed. Those years marked the height of my interest in lucid dreams and out-of-body travel; I tried my damnedest to astrally project out of my left arm.
I was so proud of myself! I didn't let out a peep. My first time taking an injection like a grown-up, ever! And I continued being proud of myself as I slid down the wall into yet one more first time experience, that of falling down in a partial faint. (The nurse who'd administered the shot caught me as I sagged, and she made unkind remarks about how "the poor little baby needs her mommy." I remember hearing every word, and feeling her jeers unjust; hadn't I just taken that shot without begging or crying or attempting to flee for the first time in my goddamned life? Anyway, that's how I know it wasn't a complete faint: I remember every word.)
These days I try to get my flu shots regularly, not just to protect myself from the coming season's edition of influenza misery, not just to do my part for herd immunity, but also to continue proving to myself that I can take it like a grown-up. I may always need to prove this to myself. And though it may sound ridiculous at the age of 38 years and 8 months, it felt good today to also prove it to the nurses who knew me back when I couldn't take it at all.
Having proven my grown-up credentials beyond a shadow of a doubt in this manner, I suppose it wasn't too childish of me to have asked my Dad to set up our flu shots in the first place.
"It's OK. Mom and Dad will take care of me."
I suspect there's some joy in that for my parents, too: "It's OK. Our little girl still needs us."
She always will, you know.
Love y'all, Mom and Dad.
these are things that would have happened anyway
- 1,234 words (if poetry, lines) long
Once upon a long, long time ago, like... oh, say, 1992? Anyway, I wrote a story. And no, you cannot read it, because it was embarrassingly full of the Mary Sue.
Surely you've met the Mary Sue? Oh, Mary Sue is wonderful! She's perfect! She's sexy and adorable and everyone loves her. And yet they can never really know her, not truly, not in all her mystical, magical splendor. She is not from this world, you see, she was always destined to leave it and go home again...
In short, it was one of those stories that teenagers write about the storybook character they kind of sort of wish they could be. And also nobody understands them.
Hey, I have a lot of compassion for Teenage Me. But at the same time, I have to admit, she was not immune to the allure of the cuckoo child story: "Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant lands. And one day, the King and Queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and then they'll be happy for ever and ever."
But, being a teenager, I lacked sufficient awareness to prevent me from showing this story to Mom. This story in which a much misunderstood woman went back to her real home and her real parents. I kind of wish I could go back in time and slap myself. "Hey! Hey, you! You do not put this story in front of your adoptive parents. What exactly are they going to think you think of them, huh?"
But, happily, Mom didn't pick up on the vibe of "You're not my REAL mommy!" Or if she did, she never mentioned it. No, what stuck with her was the very dramatic conclusion of the story in which the protagonist's return to her home world also had something to do with Lake Pontchartrain leaping its levee boundaries and flooding the city.
Something like the following year or maybe the year after that, New Orleans had a particularly nasty brush with Maybe This One's Gonna Be the Big One. There was a heck of a lot of flash flooding. (This was at least ten years before Hurricane Katrina.) And Mom said to me, only half joking, "Niki, you write things and they come true! Stop it!"
Well. About that.
These days I find myself writing a lot of stories about snow. And they are not happy winter wonderland stories. There's the one about the midsummer week snowstorm that turns out to precursor Ragnarok. There's the one about the snow-glue disaster from outer space. And now there's "Caroline's Wake," a reimagining of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, in which of course the death of the Persephone character ushers in a particularly vicious snowstorm.
You might think it's an obsession or something. But, look, I live in Colorado right now. It snows here.
Anyway, that's what I'm working on when TWO FRICKIN' INCHES OF SNOW DUMP ON THE FRONT RANGE IN THE SECOND WEEKEND OF MAY.
And I can hear my mother saying, "Stop writing about things that come true!"
If I still had that overinflated teenage opinion of myself, I might get worried about this sort of thing. But, really, think about it--if there's a writer out there who's making things happen by writing about it (and I have a novel that I drafted about that, by the way), why would it be me? Why wouldn't it be a much better writer, someone much farther along their path to greatness, someone who's got lots of stuff published and a shelf full of awards? Why, to be precise, didn't Connie Willis usher in the snowpocalypse with her novella "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know"? That would have been just fine. Her snowpocalypse was temporary, lasting just long enough to catalyze a sense of, depending on the character, wonder or forgiveness or love rekindled.
Guess what? Connie Willis is in Colorado too! Where, as I mentioned, it snows.
Writers are not unaware of the world around them. When they live places where hurricanes and flooding are a yearly danger, they think about floodtastrophes. When they live where the winter gets snowy and they don't like it much, thank you, they write about snowpocalypses. And if it snows in May in Boulder or flash-floods in August in Metairie, well, are you surprised? We all know that stuff happens. We know it's a hazard of our territory. It's on our minds.
And stuff that's on writers' minds tends to show up in writers' fiction. That's pretty much it.
So if it snows again in two weeks DON'T BLAME ME, OK?! I'm not predicting, I'm just complaining.
he ain't heavy, he just wants new reading material
One of the real treats of my visits back home is getting to hang out with my brother. As kids, we were your classic case of sibling rivalry: nothing in common, irritated by each other's very existence, fighting tooth and nail all the time. As adults, we've become friends.
There's a part of me can't quite believe it. Habits die hard, after all, and my childhood relationship with my brother lasted from roughly age 6, the age I was when he was born, to age 18, when I went away to college. I haven't yet firmed up the habit of our adult friendship, since I'm only home two or three times a year for about a week at a time. And I usually see him for about four or five hours during each visit, tops. Most of that occurs during that one evening during each visit that I set aside to linger late with a beer or two and my laptop at the bar where he works. (It doesn't hurt that he catches my tab while I'm there.) So hanging out with him isn't just enjoyable. It's also a reaffirmation that, yes, we hang out. We're friends now.
Now, certain wags--most of them family members or other people who have known us since our tooth-and-nail days--will say that the reason we're friends now is we're no longer living together. Then these wags will laugh a big knowing laugh, winking and nudging, inviting me to admit that if my brother and I were housemates now we'd be at each other's throats within the week. These wags are, to put it bluntly, wrong.
Well. I shouldn't be too quick to state too firmly what would or wouldn't happen. It is given to no one to know what would have happen, as a certain fictitious Lion taught me many years ago. But I can at least state that I know myself better than many of these wags do. A lot better than one might expect. A lot of times, it seems the people who were adults while I was a child didn't actually begin to know me until I grew up. It's not just that adult-me isn't child-me. It's that many adults don't take a child seriously when she says, "This is who I am." They often assume that the child doesn't know shit, being a child and all, so they dismiss the child's claims to self-knowledge. So the adult ends up knowing very well the imaginary version of the child in their head, but often doesn't know the child at all. They express great admiration for the competent adult the child grows into, but they don't see how the seeds of that adult were there all along.
I'm reminded of this every time my mother asks me, "Hey, do you remember that time when you were little and you said...?" And she'll laugh. And I'll remember that time, and I'll bite my tongue and burn inwardly with old indignation, because I do remember that time. I remember exactly what was going on in my head when I said it. I remember how frustrating it was that Mom saw it as entertainment, a cute kid creating a cute anecdote for her to tell, while I was trying to put together a sincere expression of who I was, what I believed, what I needed emotionally. And now Mom's asking me to join with her in finding the memory a cute anecdote, because grown-up me must surely agree with her that child-me was tiresomely precocious but sometimes hella entertaining, right?
Anyway. That my brother and I are friends now has less to do with absence making the heart grow fonder, and more to do with time making grown-ups of us both. We are both more tolerant of other people's differences--heck, if we weren't, my marriage would never work. We're also both more easy to tolerate, having learned better how to make room for others in our worlds. And we've found things in common. We share stories of concerts we've gone to, drinks we've enjoyed, video games we've played, friends we've made and sometimes lost along the way.
And then there's the way siblings sometimes develop a sort of gently conspiratorial relationship as they grow up. They have better perspective now on the family that raised them, and, having gone through that experience as equals, they can compare notes. They start to get into cahoots with each other about it. They help each other understand the past, and they help each other keep an eye on the present as their parents grow older too. At least, so it was with my Mom and her siblings. So it is with me and my brother.
There are ways in which I can talk with Mom and Dad now that I couldn't then, but there are ways my brother and I can talk in which I'll never be able to talk with Mom and Dad. They will never entirely get out of the habit of seeing me as less mature, less wise in the ways of the world, less likely to have insights that are new to them and yet still true. Less likely, should our opinions differ, for them to see my opinions as valid, or me as having a right to them. To some extent, they will always feel responsible for my current outlook on life, and so every place where my worldview differs is a place where they are in conflict: Look how independent she turned out to be! ...and look how I failed to instill my values.
This isn't a conflict my brother's going to have with me. He was never responsible for me.
If anything, I'm the one who's a little guilty, now and again, of perceiving him through a limiting filter. He was five and a half years younger than me. I made a childhood career of dismissing him, underestimating him, feeling superior to him, and avoiding him. Sometimes I slip up and do to him what Mom does to me: "Hey, do you remember when you were, like, four, and you said...? Wasn't that hysterical?"
And so today I'm constantly in awe of the grown-up he turned into. I really shouldn't be. That grown-up was there all along, the same way I was there all along. It's oak trees and acorns, isn't it?
In any case, the things he remembers about child-me constantly surprise me. When the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie came out in 2005, my brother suggested we go together, because he remembered me reading him the books when he was young. When I played him the video of Lindsey Stirling performing the theme from the Legend of Zelda,he said, "I remember that was the first video game you really got into. You were writing down every single room in every single dungeon, every single square, every place where a monster came out--you were obsessed!" I had forgotten all those graph paper charts until then. The deep satisfaction of mapping my way through the first Legend of Zelda game--the first Nintendo game where you could save your progress, that's why the cartridge was gold--came back to me anew.
So anyway, it's Sunday, April the 6th, and I'm hanging out at the bar. We're having one of those long, rambling, segmented conversations that takes place in between and around his customers and friends. And--I forget how we got here--he says, "That reminds me. Why don't I have a copy of the book with your story in it?"
My brother wanted a copy of my first pro sale. Just... sit with that for a moment.
I can't even begin to adequately express how proud that made me feel. I mean, proud like a child bringing home her class project to show her parents. Look, Mom, Dad, look what I did! My brother--my little brother--wanted to look at what I did. Asked to take a look, unprompted.
It was like being the Grinch on Christmas morning. My heart grew three sizes, just like that. And I didn't even know it had room to grow.
Anyway, my brother texted me today to let me know that the copy of Blood and Other Cravings that I mailed him has arrived safely. I told him to be on the lookout for the print copy of Nameless #3 that I ordered for him, too. "Will do," sez he.
Um. Pardon me. I think there's something in my eye.
initial call for boarding
Usually the order is "first, actually write; then blog about actually writing." Hence the name of the blog. However, in just a few hours I'll be getting on the train departing New Orleans, and I won't have any internet until tomorrow morning in Chicago. So today the order is "first, do the stuff requiring internet; then do the stuff requiring no internet." Thus, an early blog post.
It has been a good trip. I've spent it in full-on vacation mode: eating ridiculous amounts of good food, playing truly silly amounts of Puzzle Pirates, spending time with family, reconnecting with old friends. I had very little schedule to adhere to, most of it taken up with Saturday's Alumni Weekend and Class of '94 20th Reunion activities. The rest of my time I filled by saying "yes" to whatever suggestions came my way (which is how I ended up drinking beer and playing boo-ray with Dad's family the other night) and/or wandering around my old neighborhood on either two wheels or eight (the family bike now has a new seat that isn't falling apart, by the way -- you're welcome).
Saturday night's class reunion was well-attended. I want to say that somewhere between a third to a half of everyone showed up, which with a class of about 60 people means around 25 attendees maybe. Our hosts threw an excellent party in their gorgeous big uptown home, and there was food and drink and a collection of high school year books and unexpectedly excellent weather. In the "why didn't I think of that?" category, there were spike-your-own snowballs. ("These are magic snowballs," sez she. "What kind of magic?" sez me. "Booze magic," sez she. "I'll have mine with almond cream and Amaretto," sez me.)
I discovered that I really need to have snappy elevator pitch answers to "haven't seen you in forever" type questions. By the end of the evening, most of my answers had simmered down to their bare essentials. A detailed description of recent and forthcoming publications, which had the potential to cause eyes to glaze over and certainly wasn't going to be remembered in the morning, eventually became, "Yes, I'm still writing. I have a couple short stories coming out later this year."
I also discovered that some of my old classmates are still in New Orleans, having moved back or having never left, and there's no good reason I don't look them up when I'm town.
Last night I spent hanging out with a beer and my laptop at the Metairie establishment where my brother tends bar. I try to do that once every visit. It's generally quiet on Sundays, so we end up having a long rambling conversation in brief, unhurried segments between his serving other customers or my doing things on the computer. And there's a big difference between seeing him over lunch at our parents' house, surrounded by all those reminders of being kids together, and seeing him in a bar where he works, surrounded by proof that we're both grown-ups now. I got to visit with him in both environments yesterday. It's been a very good trip.
And now I've reached my last morning waking up in my childhood bed in my childhood room, drinking the coffee Dad left for me when he went to work, contemplating packing everything up for travel. And it's Monday. I'll be easing out of vacation mode and into work day mode while the train takes me north to Chicago. I still have a short story to revise. The market I originally wanted to submit it to has extended its deadline, so I might yet make it after all.
Quick! To the Roller Rink!
- 38,744 words (if poetry, lines) long
Today's topic: Why Niki Is So Effing Sore Today. (Don't worry -- this story is totally safe for work. All activities were legal and rated G.) It'll probably be a long post, or at least long-ish, so let's go ahead and talk NaNoWriMo briefly.
I'm behind again, but only tolerably so. Returning to my original 2k per day routine will get me to 50K on time. The real question is, what to fill those 2k per day with? I've gotten stuck on Bitsy and Camerie; the old man from the store shows up and drives them to the land of the dead, but what happens there and why it's so important that Bitsy go I'm not sure.
But the thought occured to me that I hadn't yet written a chapter in which someone tries to return an object to the shop. So I started in on that a few days ago. A 20-something computer hacker name of Lucille is waiting around for the shop to appear so she can do just that. She's got illegal access to all sorts of closed circuit monitoring cameras and a fancy battery of programs to automatically spot anomalies in the footage. And she finally gets what she's waiting for. The shop quietly appears during the predawn hours in what had been a blank gray brick wall:
"What do you want to bet," Lucille said to the open air, "that the pawn shop owner will swear this store was here when he moved in?" Or at least that it had been open for years upon years. Lucille knew how these things happened. She'd grown up on the stories of similar miracles. And this was the miracle she'd been waiting for.
She was alone in the room. She got no answer, and she expected none. But her phone did gently vibrate in her right hip pocket. She ignored it, watching the storefront shape itself into existence. She watched the door open. An elderly... person; Lucille could not hazard a guess towards the person's sex... stepped outside with a broom and a watering can. She, or he, calmly watered the flower box. Inside, anonymous green shoots were pushing their way toward the sky. She set the watering can down on the corner of the flower box then set about sweeping the stoop and the sidewalk. There was a stoop now; Lucille cursed herself for not noticing this small transformation. Yes, the person with the broom had to step down, sweeping first the top cement step then the next and then the next. Then they swept the sidewalk with brusque, practiced strokes that said I don't much care where the dust goes so long as it settles somewhere else.
Only once the woman, or man, had gone back inside, only once Lucille were satisfied that no further changes were forthcoming, did Lucille take her phone out and look at the message that had arrived. Anomaly: Camera 62, 04:16 AM. "No shit, Sherlock," Lucille said. Then she flipped the phone open and made a call.
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, it's happened. Well, that's for me to know, isn't it? OK, fine, yes, just messing with you. Four-fifteen Davinger Street, right next door to the pawn shop. Yes, I know. Yes. That's the point, isn't it? It wasn't going to be like another frikkin' J. C. Penny's, was it? Right. Put on your wakey face and meet me there."
Lucille snapped the phone closed and held it to her cheek for a moment, thinking hard. Then she slipped it into her right hip pocket. From her left, she drew a small blue ring box. (Her pockets were huge. She liked cargo pants for their capacity.) She flipped open the box and gazed at the ring. It was inlaid all round with a pattern reminiscent of wind currents or perhaps ghosts passing down an empty byway.
"This is for you, Elizabeth," she murmured.
Then she put on her coat and left that place, locking it up behind her as she went.
I wrote that Tuesday. By today, Lucille had become part of a small cabal of people who have all lost family to the shop's questionable merchandise, and the plan is possibly to return the objects all at once together with a little bit of exploding lagniappe tacked on. Maybe. In any case, "Elizabeth" is Bitsy. Whether Camerie is still in the ring, I don't know.
Yesterday's writing introduced Ben Willingham, Martha's father. (Martha was the gal in the first chapter, the one who bought the vampire dress.) Yesterday's writing happened at the Baker Street Pub on 28th Street. And I got a bit of a wild hair. I decide I would rollerskate there. All 1.4 miles of the way.
Like I said on Twitter, this was probably my first time in rollerskates since well before the kids online started deriving terms like "lollerskates" and "lolrus" from the original acronym for laugh out loud. (I suspect "LOL" was already a thing when I last circumnavigated a rollerskating rink, but that the LOLcats phenomenon hadn't yet taken off. The original Happy Cat had not yet begun requesting Cheezburger.) I've ice-skated since, what with Boulder being possessed of a fine seasonal ice rink, but it's been a long while since I had wheels on my feet.
What brought on this sudden nostalgic wild hair? Well, a few weeks ago I got introduced to roller derby.
As you know (Bob), I've been following Havi's blog The Fluent Self. Havi Brooks is one of the most compassionate writers I've ever read on those subjects that bring out the self-loathing in me: procrastination, avoidance, the inability to "just let it go," and so forth. She is on a mission to eradicate, or at least reduce, that toxic societal tendency to find ways to blame people for their own suffering. I took her telecourse "The Art of Embarking" and it was pretty damn magical.
And then I read that she would be in Boulder. Very soon! For the Divide and Conquer Roller Derby Championships. Because she sponsors a roller derby team. So she was going to take the opportunity to teach a Shiva Nata workshop in Boulder.
I cannot explain Shiva Nata better than Havi herself, so go read the "sponsors a roller derby team" link and let her have her say.
It fell off my radar, and by the time I remembered it, it was all sold out. But I emailed myself onto the waiting list, and within hours a spot opened up. So on Thursday the 10th I walked down 30th Street to the Alchemy of Movement dance studio and spent two hours laughing, flailing, laughing some more, and feeling my brain go ping.
Really, that workshop deserves its own post, and this post ain't it. This post is about me getting inspired to dig my skates out of the closet. So. Actually meeting Havi for the first time and then spending two hours deconstructing patterns for their individual parts and putting the parts back together in interesting ways -- that all had an effect. Mainly the effect was to make my brain go "Why not?" at the least provocation. (It also had my brain completely overthinking the lyrics to the sea shanty Havi taught us in the last hour of the workshop. "Who are my 'rolling kings' and what are they 'heaving away' at?" Because that's what Shiva Nata followed by a 15-minute walk does. "Hot buttered epiphanies!" Indeed.)
So when Havi suggested we come out the next day and root for the Rose City Rollers, indeed, my brain went, "Why not?"
Which is how I ended up on a bus to the 1st Bank Center (formerly the Broomfield Event Center) for 2:00 PM on Friday, November 11th.
I watched the first three of the four bouts scheduled that day. It was awesome. I'd never seen roller derby before. I know this much about it: it involved women on skates, it involved physical contact, and, if Jim Croce was to be trusted, it involved an asthetic skewed less toward lingerie and more towards "built like a 'frigerator with a head." Apparently I was wrong in thinking lingerie would be entirely uninvolved; many participants wear fishnet stockings. But other than the occasional mention of a product for keeping your hiney shiny (what is this I don't even), the play-by-play announcers made no mention of body parts except when describing whose elbow slammed into whose side and who got a forearm penalty and who had just demonstrated phenomennal agility on their feet.
By the time the Rose City Rollers came out to play, Havi had invited me via Twitter to come find her, so I got to root for her team right alongside her and pester her with my newbie questions. "So, how exactly does one score points?" "What does the stripe on that one gal's helmet mean?" "What's up with the lines on the ground?" She was exceedingly patient. She was also totally rocking the purple wig and rainbow boa constrictor plushie.
Watching roller derby also had the effect of sending me on a trip down memory lane. Anyone remember the roller rink Phil's Big 8 in Metairie? Right under the clover-leaf ramp from Causeway onto Jefferson Highway? I went to so very many birthday parties there. I participated in all the floor games and won my share of free Cokes off the two-lap races. For the longest time, I thought the J. Geils Band song was called "Free Skate" because the DJ so often played it upon reopening the floor. During the free skates, I would zip through the crowd, zig left, zag right, and imagine myself in some competitive event in which I'd have to take down my opponents by clashing my wheels with theirs.
And there were these skates in my closet that I hadn't worn for at least a decade. Well... why not?
(I mentioned to Havi, "Watching this makes me think, 'Dude, I could do that!'" She said, "You totally should!" Then she introduced me to Juno, who was sitting next to her on her other side, and Juno introduced me to the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls Derby Days. As soon as NaNoWriMo is over, I am so there. My roller derby name will be "Fleur de Beast." Mwahaha.)
So this is why yesterday I got the bright idea to put on my skates. For, as I say, the first time in more than a decade. And to attempt to skate the 1.4 miles from my house to the Baker Street Pub. I was unreasonably optimistic.
I had this vision of me whizzing down 30th in the bike lane, texting to Twitter as I went: "Hee. I'm on my lollerskates. :)" NOT HARDLY. Being a decade out of practice doesn't just mean my endurance was no longer up to speed. My balance was also out of whack. It didn't help that I'd probably never skated with a backpack on before. There was no question of doing anything with my cell phone while skating. I windmilled and jerked and whoopsied my way down 30th, falling down at least three times and acquiring a gorgeous pre-adolescent-style skinned knee on the way, before putting my shoes back on at maybe the half mile point. It was a disappointing experience. I walked the rest of the way to the write-in in a bit of a funk.
But I couldn't help but notice that the newer sidewalk that starts around the big Barnes & Noble at 30th and Pearl and continues on past Walnut was so very wide and smooth...
On my way back home, I sat down on a parking spot bump in front of Karlequin's Game Knight and I put my skates back on. And I kept them on all the way home from there. I didn't fall down again, either.
It's starting to come back to me.
But that's why Niki's really, really sore today. Ow.
The Book Thief: A Literary Confession
When I was in fourth grade, I stole a book.
I won't say it's the only time I've been a thief. As a youngster, I once "borrowed" a few pennies from my grandmother's table when she and her daughters were playing penny-ante Boo-Ray. In fifth grade once I picked up fifteen cents, the exact amount of spare change you got back from a dollar from the lunch cashier at St. Catherine, telling myself that found change on the ground was fair game, even the ground right underneath the monkeybars right after classmates had been hanging upside down there. As an adult in the workforce, I've committed my share of "oops, I cooked too many hot dogs, these will have to be thrown out" and I've taken home the odd office supply item too.
But only in one case did I steal a thing outright, with no rationalization prepared, with no contrived justification in my head but only a blatant desire for a thing that wasn't mine. And it was a book.
There was this battered copy of Edmund Wallace Hildick's The Active-Enzyme, Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch amongst the random collection of middle grade books in my home room. It was on the bottom shelf, half-invisible due to the dog-eared state of its spine. Already a committed fantasy reader, attracted to stories about kids and magic, I settled down on the carpet to read as much as I could before my block of free time came to an end. I read it over several days, nibbling it and biting it and swallowing it whole over a series of free periods. I loved it.
I loved it so much I took it home with me and never brought it back.
Actually, depending on how you count vices, this book was the occasion of more than one.
Arrogance, for instance. Thinking that what I enjoyed must necessarily be univerally enjoyable, I eagerly brought it to the teacher's attention when she was next looking for read-aloud material. Shame and embarrassment soon followed when my classmates bored of it and the teacher abandoned it before the end of Chapter 1.
Then there's witchcraft itself, and heresy, and disobeying one's parents. This was the book that firmly cemented in my head the notion that casting spells was something I could really do, thus laying the groundwork for my discovery of witchcraft as part of a religion people actually practiced. Which the Catholic Church was probably not down with, and my parents definitely weren't down with.
See, unlike most stories of youngsters doing magic I'd read until then, this one was realistic. Hildick's protagonist, Alison, is neither spirited away to Narnia nor visited by fairies nor given supernatural gifts. Instead, she finds a book forgotten on a shelf and begins experimenting with the magic spells described therein. The synchronicity wasn't lost on me: I, too, had found a book forgotten on a shelf, just as though, meant for me alone, it were disguising itself against other curious eyes. And the spells Alison performs are clearly spelled out on the page, easy for a reader to try -- complete with Alison cavalierly substituting whatever came to hand when the grimoir called for things she couldn't find. And the author left the results of her spells deliberately ambiguous: coincidence, or magic? You decide.
Remember the furor over kids turning to witchcraft over Harry Potter? I found that ridiculous from the start. Any kid who tries to emulate Rowling's wizards will be disappointed on the first attempt. No, if you want a book that gives real-world-followable instructions on magic that you can convince yourself actually worked, and bears certain resemblances to modern-day Wicca, that's Hildick's book.
So. Fiercely wanting to hold onto my newly found witchcraft instruction manual, freshly convinced that I was alone in valuing the story, and worried that the teacher, having been made aware of its existence and its universal disapprobation (well, near-universal, but I was a known freak; I liked Neil Diamond and I was a girl who played with Transformers), might cull the shelves and make the book vanish forever... well, I simply preempted her, and performed the vanishing act myself.
I still have it today, even more battered than ever, squirreled away in a chest of precious things. I get it out and reread it periodically. It's a damn good book. Hildick died in 2001, recently enough for me to feel keenly the regret of never getting a chance to tell him how that book changed my life. And it did. The witchcraft thing? Superficial. I'd have gotten there eventually. No, there were more important effects. In that book, Hildick spoke to the pre-teen's constant undercurrent of frustration in a mature flowing language that challenged the young reader to competence. He didn't talk down to me; he understood me, and he respected me. In under 300 pages, in a book published three years before I was born, he conveyed to me what it was to be me.
Being a child means being surrounded by, ruled by, and often belittled by a sea of adult voices. Those adult voices said that if I thought I was being treated unfairly, I was wrong and it would all make sense when I was older. They said that if I was unhappy it was because I brought it on myself, usually by being disrespectful. They that if I was frustrated I must be overreacting. If A then B. QED.
But Hildick created the character of Alison, and from the first page her frustrations are respected even when they are overreactions. Her sense of injustice is validated even when no one really can be accused of being unfair. In writing Alison, he told me I was not alone. I wasn't a freak. Gods, it was good to hear.
Why am I telling this story now?
Well, see, I lied way up there in the third paragraph, about that being the only time I stole something outright. Sort of. I mean, had I told this story this morning it would still have been true. Um. Except not if I hadn't been very good Tuesday afternoon...
I confess. I have discovered in myself a disturbing tendency to wish to liberate books. Specifically, neglected books. Books being misused as decorations. While others steal coffee cups from Denny's, I'm tempted by the monogrammed blank hardbacks in the Banana Republic outlet in the Lakeside Mall. (Why does a clothing store have a decorative pile of books? And why not use real books from a library sale? And how cool would it be to use one of their blanks as my next dream diary?) The obviously valuable collectables getting dusty at the Dark Horse, those I don't think I'd touch...
...but this book that's now in my canvas tote bag, it was published in 1981, it has library markings all over it down to the shelving sticker on its spine, it was hardly a valuable collectable, and it wanted so badly to be read.
When I was at my cousin's pre-wedding cocktail party at a French Quarter restaurant, I stole a book...
How To Eat French Onion Soup
- 2,847 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 1,312 words (if poetry, lines) long
Writing metaphors! They're not just for breakfast anymore! In fact, they're what's for dinner. Also lunch for the next three days, because we cook in quantity.
So on Wednesday John and I had our first Cooking Date of the year. We made French onion soup and insalata caprese. It was all a spectacular success, and, as implied above, I've had leftovers to eat every day since then.
Today at lunch I sat down with a freshly broiled toast-and-cheese top on a rewarmed crock of our awesome soup, and, apropos of nothing extraordinary, I finally figured out how to eat the dang stuff.
Pause. Rewind. Replay a Wednesday night in Metairie, Louisiana circa 1988. Maybe it was a Sunday, I don't know. Once a week, or maybe just once a month--memory is hazy here--a group of neighborhood ladies got together to sing barbershop harmony. They had hopes of founding a brand-new Sweet Adelines chapter. Mom met with them and brought me along, and this was when I first got pegged as a baritone. (Yes: I was a Type A at the age of 12.) But where I'm going with this trip down memory lane is down the road from the neighborhood home in which we rehearsed to the local Ruby Tuesdays for late night appetizers. Where I always, always, always ordered the French onion soup.
And I always made a mess trying to get through that toast-and-cheese lid. And Mom and all the other grown-ups enjoyed great and gentle amusement at my exasperated expense.
It's not simple! A spoon isn't sharp enough to get through that thick swiss cheese. And even if it was, the toast is floating; you can't very well slice it with a knife and fork. There's no leverage. Best I managed to do was poke at the edges of the cheese until I had a hole through which to sip the broth down to a less perilous surface level, such that mangling the toast and cheese no longer caused catastrophic overflow.
Even John asked the question when we sat down to dinner: "Now how do I eat this?" "I have no idea," I told him. "You just muddle through and make a mess. It's why I put the soup crocks on plates."
But today at lunch, I got it. If you just let the soup crock sit, all patient-like, until all components are cool enough to eat without burning your mouth, the soup will have soaked into the toast and softened it up. Then you can push... not too hard... very very gently... at the cheese-topped toast with the edge of your spoon, until it gives way. The cheese will try to glue it together, but once the bread breaks, the cheese will stretch thin and you can bite through it when you eat the broken-off bite of bread.
After that, everything's much easier.
So this was my discovery. And I thought, "That's another metaphor for writing, isn't it?" (Yes. I know. Everything's a metaphor for writing. Shut up, I'm making a point, it's an effin' marvelous point, it's bloody brilliant. Because I say so. Hush.) Of course I thought that. I was in the middle of my writing day, and I was trying to figure out how to get my mental spoon through the thick cheese topping that was keeping me from going deeper than babble draft into anything.
The plan was to spend a good hour moving an unfinished short story closer to submission-ready. Only I didn't know which one. "First Breath" was done and out the door (though it may yet see further revisions pending an ongoing conversation a colleague and I are having about its worldbuilding details). "Lambing Season" also hit the slush again yesterday. A number of stories are in the post-critique "almost perfect, but not quite" stage, but none felt... permeable, if you know what I mean. None felt accessible. I spent half an hour going through my files, looking for some half-baked idea from a freewriting exercise that might spark itself into a full-blown story. Nothing went ping.
Finally I latched onto a "scene" from the Daily Story Idea yWriter file. It had to do with sentient, human-sized Ants coexisting with humans. One of them goes into a coffee shop and orders a cappuccino. As story ideas go, this one was light and fluffy and funny and nothing at all like "First Breath," and it amused me to read it. I had no idea what to do with it, though. I didn't even know what to call it. ("The Ants Go Marching Latte-ward, Hurrah" is very much not a working title. It's an "I have to call this something and I mustn't take it too seriously this early in the game" sort of for-now title.) I set the timer for another half hour and attempted to figure it out where this thing was going.
I pasted that ridiculous excuse for a working title at the top and printed out the not-yet-a-story. Then I read it again, letting its broth soak in and soften things up. Then I got out a pen and began making notes as tentative as the spoon's assault on the toast-and-cheese. "Barista shouldn't be too enlightened; anti-Ant prejudice shouldn't all be big bad boss's." "Would Ant use mandibles for speech? How would Ants speak?" "What barista thinks but doesn't say parallels what Ant doesn't say but telegraphs with her antennae." Several of those notes put together became a solid story development idea, like a nice big bite of toast that lets you finally get your spoon into the soup. And after that, everything becomes much simpler.
Really, everything about writing that looks scary and impossible tends to seem less so once you take that first nibble. But then, isn't that the case for most scary and impossible tasks?
Of course I meant the Natchez, not the Creole Queen. It's the Natchez has the steam-powered calliope on top.
"N.O. Woman Tells of 60 Years of Visions"
- 3,891 words (if poetry, lines) long
Bares Her Life Secret To Members Of Dr. John Fletcher's Psychology Class. Says She Has Communicated With Spirits Of Other World Since She Was Five Years Old. Relates Her Shades Of Roosevelt, Gen. Grant, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll and Others Visited Her. Declares T. R. Urged Her To Inform World Of Her Experiences. She Was Once Governess To A Prince, She Says.The Williams Research Center is a quiet place of loveliness, from the front desk where the docent greets you and hands you the guest book to sign, to the beautfully-made lockers where things not allowed upstairs may stay securely for no extra charge, to the Acadian History exhibit with maps, paintings, and a glassed-in copy of Longfellow's Evangeline. And all of this is before you actually get into the records room.
The New Orleans Item-Tribune was a merging of the Morning Tribune and the Item, which I understand to have happened after my target date of January 19, 1930; but January 19 was a Sunday, and perhaps Sundays were different. In any case, once I had the JAN 1930 microfilm in the machine, I found that the heading on each page was indeed The Item-Tribune. I read, or skimmed, the January 19 edition from cover to cover.
It is very hard not to get distracted, browsing old newspapers of your home town. Everything is fascinating. Everything is recognizable. But the language of each story is almost fairy-tale alien, and I'm not just talking about the inevitable racist and xenophobic attitudes hard-wired into crime reports and population statistics. The details chosen to add color to a story, the adverbs and adjectives sprinkled over the top, the very choice of story material, these all reveal a very different world. I want to learn all about that world, because it gave birth by slow progressions to my world. I want to take the entire newspaper home with me and love it and hug it and give it cookies.
In any case, I thought I'd found something on the very first page, where a tenant's sudden death by, it is assumed, poison, is reported. The landlady heard him screaming in his room and called the ambulance. But the mention of this date in Gumbo Ya-Ya was supposed to be not another death, but "an account of this amazing instance of spectral assistance in making a financial success of a boarding house." So. Keep looking.
I think I struck gold on almost the last page of the January 19 edition, which was devoted in the main to the story whose headline I've titled this blog entry with. The woman in the story is "a 69-year-old French woman, who has lived in New Orleans for the past 10 years," and lives at 1429 St. Charles Avenue. Her name is Madame Marie Teresa Guizonnier. She "feels she is ready to tell about ... a strange double existence that she has kept secret for seven decades."
"Theodore Roosevelt has come and spoken to me. He has appeared in my room as I sat at my sewing; he has looked over my shoulder at the newspaper clippings and read them with me. He has told me things about the universe beyond that I think will startle the world," she says.Madame Guizonnier, a college-educated native of Alsace-Lorraine, first encountered spirits at the age of five. The description of her first visitation is reminiscent of Coraline's time behind the Other Mother's mirror. Seems she was punished for some transgression by being locked in a "chamber under the stairs."
"Houdini has stepped down to tell me of the unhappy time he is having adjusting himself in the spirit government. General Grant, always on his horse, has come riding from the clouds to encourage me in my messages with the spirits...."
"Suddenly I saw little girls sitting around me and holding dolls in their arms.Trying to link this up to the ghost story related in Gumbo Ya-Ya, however, is problematic. Here is the story's sole mention of Mark Twain:
I spoke to them and they answered. Soon I was able to carry on connected conversations with them, and I began to welcome the 'punishment' of being sent into the dark room. Later I could see the same children walking about the halls--even in daylight, and I talked with them too.
Mark Twain appears to her from time to time in a bed in which he continues to write, she says. He lies on his side and as he talks of his spiritual existence, he makes notes on paper placed on a little table beside his resting place.And as for "making a financial success of a boarding house," there is no mention in the story at all. In fact, her occupations are listed as "a nurse, a teacher, a governess to a Rumanian prince, a business woman, and a dressmaker." The occupation of landlady is mentioned not at all, though "business woman" might cover it. "Dressmaker" appears to be the current profession she practices at the time of the newspaper story, an occupation taken up to help her through a financial decline during her time in New York.
She moved to New Orleans in 1919 following the death of her husband, and was compelled to stay by her ghostly visitors.
"I did not intend to stay here when I first arrived. I have no further interest in the city. But whenever I attempt to leave, I find they will not let me. They demand that I continue to communicate with them."It's probable that the authors of Gumbo Ya-Ya conflated Madam Guizonnier's story with that of someone else, creating one narrative from a patchwork of dubious historical accounts. But I have time to read through a year and some of the newspaper every morning for the next week. And whatever I do find, there's story in it.
Hey, at least now my character has a name!