Maybe That’s Where Trappist Monks Come From

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Lent. I had to look that up. Not being from a liturgical background myself, Lent comes and Lent goes, and mostly what it means to me is yummy fish tacos and 40 days of my Lent-ing friends being in vile moods ranging from I gave up sugar to I gave up serial murder and cocaine. (Wait… you mean my friends didn’t give up serial murder and cocaine?!!)

In my childhood, Lent was something that just existed on TV. Something that either showed piety, or got laughs. You know, like Corporal Klinger giving up atheism for Lent? It’s not that we didn’t have Catholics and Lutherans… it’s just that they existed in their own schools over there, somewhere. And in the event that there was mixing, you were much more likely to be talking about Girl Scout cookies and camping than religious dogma.

So, I had the abridged, television explanation: Lent was the time leading up to Easter, and you gave things up for it. And then–when the Lent-ers ran out of private school in 9th grade and we wound up in school together–Maybe don’t offer to trade sandwiches, and don’t eat that chocolate in front of them. You know… it’s a tradition, and it’s good they’re doing it.

So, I was quietly supportive. You know the drill. “You can do it” and keep my mouth shut about the fact that I’m not doing it.

Oh, yes, I was ever so appropriate and supportive until…

One day I ran into a friend who had given up smoking for Lent, and there he was… cigarette in his teeth, doing his best imitation of a chimney.

Well, screw quiet support. I liked the guy. I liked his kids. And frankly, children deserve a father with pink lungs and an intact aorta.

What are you doing?

Well, panicking, obviously. He knew he’d been caught. And by the way, I’m not even slightly fooled by that look of confusion on his face. Cheater.

I thought you gave up smoking for Lent.

And that confused look just stays there. Like he doesn’t have the slightest idea what I’m talking about. Lent’s over, he said.

What do you mean, Lent’s over?

To be honest, until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that people gave things up for Lent temporarily. It never crossed my mind that after Easter, they all got to go back to drinking, smoking, and serial murder. I mean, if a thing’s a sin, isn’t it a sin all year around?

Nope. What they really meant was, I gave up smoking for the duration of Lent.

And fine. I admit that giving up smoking for a month is better than not giving it up at all. That probably is one to think about giving up permanently.

And maybe I really hadn’t thought much about it. I mean, if people give things up for Lent, and never go back, shouldn’t there be a bunch of really old Catholics running around living off water and oatmeal after a lifetime of Lents, and griping that this year, it’s down to the oatmeal?

So, happy Lent, everyone, and if you’re giving up something truly unhealthy, please think of your lungs and aortas–and hell, your erectile function–and maybe really do give it up confused-teenager style.

**this story may have been edited for dramatic tension and coherence.

Winter Fun: Snow, Sleds, and Decapitation

It is snowing, again. The kind of white on gray snow that only shows up after everyone’s already sick of the rain.  And the sleet. It’s going to be pretty slick, under that top layer of fluff.

This would be the time of year when Midwesterners tell their kids about their pioneer ancestors, and all those poor children who froze to death in a late snow storm, back in 1890 something. Be sure to take a coat. Because the weather is never guaranteed until at least June, and then, it’s winter again.

I am looking forward to spring. Or the next mini-spring, whichever comes first.**pops another vitamin D pill**

So, in general… the winter around here isn’t long and dreary. Just long and cold. We have storms, the sun comes out, the sky is blue, and the snow is breathtakingly bright. I’ve lived in places where winter is just gray and muddy for months at a time, so I appreciate blue.

This is not ski country. Not enough hills and not enough snow. But once upon a time, my friend’s dad hooked up a sled to the back of his snow mobile, and off we went, zipping through the pastures.

I’m fairly sure that Mr. _________ was not what you’d refer to as a responsible parent. Swinging a couple of un-seatbelted, un-helmeted children from a rope off the back of basically a motorcycle on skis while you do figure eights past trees and barbed wire doesn’t seem like responsible parent behavior.

I’m also quite certain I knew that at the time, and didn’t care.

I’d be horrified, now. I’d probably be calling Child Protective Services.

Or at least yelling at the top of my lungs. You tied those kids to your what?!!

But nobody ever did get hurt. Not badly, anyway.

And it’s still the most fun you can have that close to decapitation.

Other Peoples’ Hobbies and Me

I can kill a plant just by looking at it.

My grandmother–the amateur botanist–spent most of my childhood reassuring me that I was not cursed, and sending me home with various clippings to start plants of my own. In my time, I’ve killed day blooming cactuses and night-blooming cactuses and African Violets (which, admittedly, had no chance to begin with), wax plants, spider plants, plant-plants, bromeliads, and even philodendrons.

I did the best with outdoor plants. I can do roses, and sometimes crocuses, and my forte, Kentucky Blue grass. (I have thousands of Kentucky Blue grass plants, most of them doing quite well, thank you.)

Ultimately, though, I’m just not good at gardening. I’m the person who spends all spring watering, and fertilizing, and hoe-ing, and winds up with that one tiny strawberry about the size of your fingernail, and mostly still green as the over-ripe parts start to rot away.

I got to spend plant-time with my grandfather, too. He didn’t actually grow anything, but he’d settled neatly into his role as head-procurer of manure. This is an especially honorable and important role in the household of a botanist who does not own a farm or ranch of her own.

I carried the bag on long treks through the pastures, while my grandfather picked up the chips for, well… whatever gardeners use cow chips for. (No, I never got that far.) I don’t remember talking about anything in particular, but I do remember the words to the cow-chip song. Those odorous cow-chips. Those hash-cooking cow-chips.

They arrived with a trunk load of gifts, and they left with a trunk load of cow chips and sand.

Isn’t that what all grandparents do?

Field Trips to Nowhere

When I was a kid, school field trips were a matter of piling into cars driven by “class mothers” and going… somewhere… There were usually about eighteen kids in my class, and yes, that includes the year that was 5th and 6th grade combined. (Well, we only had three 6th graders!) The thing about “class mothers” is that they were actually, well, you know… mothers. And they had known us… most of us… since preschool, and longer, if you happened to be related, or went to the same church.

We had really good field trips, back then. You could go anywhere that was vaguely educational, and reachable in an eight to ten hour day.

Military cemetery. Historical Society. Museum someplace down the interstate. Up the side of a really big hill out in the middle of nowhere. You weren’t going with a stranger. You were going with someone your parents know well enough to know that if you don’t come back,  they had a darn good reason.

It was good for discipline.

Case in point… That time we had to stop on the side of the interstate to tell the new kid he’d better buckle his seat belt right now. Because the class mother knew my parents, and she knew (redacted and redacted)’s parents and our parents would let her take their kids to (really fun, life-altering activity) some other time. She didn’t know new kid’s parents.

Seat belt buckled, followed by complete silence, and even strikingly good posture.

Booksellers, Men, and the Cabinet of Sin

We sold pornography at the bookstore where I worked. Not a lot of it, and nothing that would compete with Jugs, Jugs, Jugs down at the local Kum&Go. Sex-positive, consent-positive, feminist, GLBT, fetish stuff. Non-violent. It lived in a cabinet behind the counter, and if you didn’t know it was there… well, you wouldn’t know. Strictly a word-of-mouth kind of thing.

The cabinet of sin was about four feet wide and three feet tall. Double doors. Opaque. And, if you happened to find a group of Booksellers gathered around it, there’s a pretty good chance we weren’t analyzing the latest Haruki Murakami. Hands down, it was the most open and accepting set of co-workers I’ve ever had.

Oh, and then, there were the customers…

You got to recognize that Look, eventually. The Please, Miss… might I trouble you for something from the Cabinet of Sin Look. The… Please, I’ve read this high-quality gift book about garden gnomes three times because I’m just that nonchalant Look.

So, you’d wait for the other customers to go away. The women, and children, that attractive, but is-he-or-isn’t-he guy, the older couple who look pretty much just like anybody’s grandparents. And then… only then… You’d “notice” him standing there.

Can I help you?

Oh, no. Just looking.

Well, fine. I believe you. Besides, what am I supposed to say? Oh, you are not. I know you want something from the Cabinet of Sin, and since I put away today’s shipment, I’ve got a pretty decent idea of what you want?

Moving on.

Noted. One of the unwritten rules of masculinity–apparently–is that whenever possible, you buy your porn from other men.

Or, possibly, female Booksellers are just that terrifying.

Or innocent-looking, or wholesome, or … something. Maybe I sold their kid a copy of One Fish, Two Fish the week before. But the script was always more or less the same. They’d loiter until some man showed up to sell them a magazine.

And, as it happens, most of the time, I did just happen to have a spare man just lying around. Well, not so much lying as laughing his ass off behind a partition. (The unwritten rules of masculinity–apparently–do not apply to SuperBookseller.)

In the end, SuperBookseller always had to sell the–whatever it was–and he was the king of straight faces.

Oh, yes… The women tried to be approachable. We tried to look understanding. We tried all kinds of things:

  • Putting things away in and/or organizing the Cabinet of Sin.
  • Sympathetic smile.
  • In a rush and much to busy to notice, even if someone tried to buy 3 kilos of cocaine and a baby elephant.
  • Sitting on the Cabinet of Sin.
  • Sitting on the Cabinet of Sin while eating a cookie taken from the Cabinet of Sin. (Yes, there are cookies in the Cabinet of Sin. Stop judging.)
  • Sitting on the Cabinet of Sin while eating a cookie and reading a paperback copy of deSade (Yes, the one with the picture.)

None of them worked. Once a guy decided he was not going to buy porn from you… well, mostly his mind was made up. He’d be there for hours, just… waiting… if you let him.

What are you going to do?

SuperBookseller, HELP!!!!

That’s why I named my vacuum cleaner after him.

Acupuncture, Abortions, and Denver

When I was a kid, I lived in one of those towns. Big enough to have some entertainment, and quite a few restaurants, and isolated enough that as far as it went, there was no driving to a bigger city just for fun. Bowling  alleys, a small summer carnival, and a sadly misshapen swimming pool. Enough to keep people happy.

Or at least, quiet.

If somebody went to a big city, there was a reason.

9 times out of 10, it was because the local hospital ran out of options, and the choice was Denver or death. Well, I know. Some people did take a while to think about that one.

But that 10th time? Well, that was interesting.

If you went to Denver, and you weren’t dying, there was probably a good story about it, and if little girls were very good, and very quiet, and looked like they weren’t paying attention, they could probably hear that story. And why not? Everyone else already had.

We had a family friend who went to Denver regularly. She wasn’t dying any time soon, but she had M.S. and she saw an acupuncturist. (If you’re reading that right, you heard it in the same voice you’d use for “She sacrificed chickens.”) An acupuncturist! And I wasn’t even allowed to get my ears pierced.

My mother asked her about it, once. I remember sitting and listening while she described the general idea of acupuncture, and showed us the black dots the acupuncturist drew on her skin, so that her husband could keep up her treatments at home.

They did a demonstration for us. He took out a long, skinny needle and a glass tube, and tapped that needle right into a black dot on her leg. Sure enough, the muscle–which she couldn’t use, herself–twitched. Yup. That was it. A twitch.

Hope, more than anything else.

The other thing you could do in Denver was get an abortion.

I didn’t find out about that one–or abortions in general–until I was eleven or twelve, and a friend’s mother… her recently divorced, and even more recently pregnant mother… went to Denver.

Her father–my friend’s grandfather–made the appointment. He was the one to drive her to Denver. And in all honesty, he was also pretty much the one to bully her into thinking about it.

No one needed to know.

Except, of course, that she was still pregnant when she got back from Denver. Tough to hide that. Even tougher to hide a ten pound baby boy.

Oh, the humanity! The thought of that five hour drive to Denver with him and then the five hour drive back, when there wasn’t any abortion, and just being trapped in the car all. the.way. back. Ugh.

Hello, Family. Good news! You’re My Blog Topic for the Day.

I’ve been keeping score. The number of times one particular aunt asks how I am vs the number of times she asks how some material possession is. Not exactly a nail biter here. Material possessions are slaughtering me. If this were a football game, the fans would have packed it in and gone home at half time. My current score? Zero. Aunt has not asked how I am once. Not when she was talking to me. Not when she was talking to anyone else.

I’m having one of those lives where I tend to wonder how long it’s worth trying to salvage relationships with people just because we happen to share a few alleles.

This is a woman who is so loud, and so outgoing, that she gave me panic attacks when I was a child, and she never noticed.

I don’t have a lot in common with my family. I’m incredibly guarded when I’m around them. I don’t know whether that helps or hurts the situation. Maybe they’d be impressed that I’ve written n novels, or that I’m looking to publish. Maybe they wouldn’t. Either way, I’m sure they’d feel entitled to read and comment, and probably get out the red pen. **shudder** Tell me what I’m doing wrong. Take credit for what they think I’m doing right.

So, what’s new? Lately, I’ve been looking at this more and more as a zero-sum game. I don’t want my creative space invaded. I don’t want to pretend to be someone else in order to be accepted in their space. I definitely don’t want to become someone else.

And my family wants me to be someone else.

I want out. And in a strange way, I think I’ve always wanted out.

The first time I can remember not wanting them around was fifth grade. Wanting them NOT to be there, I mean. There was a banquet for an award I had won, and I didn’t want to invite them. Didn’t invite them.

I want belonging, but all I get is tolerance. And after a while, the difference adds up to a lot of weight.

So, here’s the question, for all you writers and creatives with meaningless day jobs, while you work toward your real goals… How do you get along with the people who think you’re just your day job? How do you strike the balance?

Beginning at the End

Over lunch today, I started in on that memoir. The one that’s probably in bad taste, and definitely too soon, and maybe will never see the light of day, no matter how much time I put in on it.

And it isn’t half bad.

There’s a voice in the back of my head that tells me no one cares. That no one will ever care about anything that small, or anybody that insignificant, and that the people who do care–no, that’s not contradictory–will be royally pissed off and hate the whole thing.

They will probably set fire to my books, my home, and me, personally.

I’m having one of those weeks, where Facebook turns into a mob, and even though there’s not one thing anybody can do about it, people don’t stop trying.

And–as it turns out–stirring shit really doesn’t make it smell any better.

Who knew?

So, anyway… I started writing the writing that’s coming to me, now. It’s not what I usually write. I haven’t done anything with autobiography or memoir since… well, since the last time one of my teachers made me.

Over my lunch hour, I got enough words in to know that it’s going to be tough to write. Well, I knew that. I got enough words in to know it’s going to be tougher than I thought it would be.

I might not ever finish the thing. I might go back to writing about aliens an psychopaths. But I think I’ll keep working on it for now. When I have time, and if I feel like it. I don’t have to decide what to do with it until after I actually have a manuscript.

I’ll think about it.

Memories and Memoirs

I don’t know if I could ever make much of a memoirist. None of the people I know have ever been out of the galaxy, and very few of them have gills or wings. I do know a parrot that swears. Once you’ve made the mistake of letting one slip in the parrot’s presence, it swears loudly, and in your voice, so there’s no pretending you didn’t teach the bird those words.

And it keeps doing it, after you’re dead.

It seems like there should be an Etiquette Handbook for Parrots. Something with guidelines that suggest not swearing, not ringing like the telephone during funerals, and certainly not (under any circumstances) calling out to the grieving widow using her dead husband’s voice.

Doesn’t matter. The parrot’s still there, and it’s still cussing it’s little heart out in a wide variety of voices. And it’s good. It stops you in your tracks, and leaves you–for one unworldly second–thinking you’re hearing them. People who have gone before…

But it’s just the damn parrot.

I’m a lot like that parrot. Plus or minus a few common courtesies. And I could use an Etiquette Handbook for Writers. How long does a person have to be dead, before you can start telling the stories?  How long before you can start telling those stories honestly?

How long before other people who knew the person are willing to admit that your stories are honest? Or, at the very least, not malicious?

I’m coming off of a death at the end of a complicated relationship this week. That’s what the trip was. All those hasty pictures. I barely had time to breathe.

And the moments when I did catch myself thinking–what moments there were–I found myself thinking in terms of structure. Literary structure. The story begins here. This moment, this fragment. Something taking shape, even if shape doesn’t actually imply making sense.

I began the week–or maybe ended last week, I’m not sure anymore–with a screeching lecture on the subject of memorializing people’s good points. Let’s be honest. Tensions were high.

Complicated.

And somehow, reducing someone to a two-dimensional saint, a cardboard cut out of something half of what they were, seems worse than not memorializing them, at all.

There were good things, of course. There always are. And the good things mattered. But they weren’t all that mattered. I can’t help feeling that there’s more change to be had–more difference to be made–in the grit and the truth and the pain, than in all the prettiest stories I could pluck out of reality.

How do memoirists deal with this stuff? The blood and guts, but Uncle Herbert was NOT a cannibal stuff? How long before you stop insisting that Uncle Gynecologist and Uncle Dentist were delightful company at dinner parties? When can you admit that Aunt Maisie’s cooking bordered on chemical warfare?