September 18, 2014

Ten Most Influential Books

Ten, really? Impossible. Instead, I've narrowed this down to the 15 most influential books I read as a child and another 15 I encountered from junior high on.

Books that most influenced me as a child:

  • Space Cadet Robert Heinlein

  • The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

  • The Velvet Room Zilpha Keatley Snyder (actually, all of her books as a set)

  • Harriet the Spy Louise Fitzhugh

  • Dark is Rising Susan Cooper (the whole series, of course)

  • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler E.L Konigsburg

  • Westing Game Ellen Raskin

  • The Borrowers Mary Norton (again, the whole series)

  • Ordinary Jack Helen Cresswell (whole series)

  • The Pushcart War Jean Merrill

  • The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear Kin Platt

  • The Cartoonist Betsy Byars

  • Seven Alone Honore Morrow

  • Bridge to Terabithia Katherine Paterson

  • I am the Cheese Robert Cormier

Then, the books which have influenced me the most from junior high on:

  • My Name Is Asher Lev Chaim Potok

  • It Stephen King

  • Ender's Game Orson Scott Card

  • Neuromancer William Gibson (actually the three books)

  • Snowcrash Neal Stephenson

  • Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson

  • the Deryni books Katherine Kurtz (the whole darn series!)

  • Way to Rainy Mountain N. Scott Momaday

  • Ceremony Leslie Marmon Silko

  • the Vanyel trilogy Mercedes Lackey

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig

  • The Mask of Apollo Mary Renault (pretty much all of her Greek books)

  • Brooklyn Dreams J.M. DeMatteis, author; Glenn Barr, artist

  • The Body Stephen King

  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce

Some of those books, like the Vanyel trilogy, simply came along at exactly the time I needed them. Others, like Ceremony, My Name Is Asher Lev and Way to Rainy Mountain had a profound overall influence.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:45 PM | Comments (1) | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 1, 2013

Dear Tracy

Dear Tracy,

There are certain people from your childhood whom you never forget. You were one of those people. Bigger than life. Quick to laugh. Quick to anger. Slow to cool. That's my take, but then that's probably what you thought of me as well.

You got to Arlington a couple of years before I did. And when I got there, I was miserable. I was ahead of you guys in reading by a full book. Math, I don't remember so much, but I know I was ahead of where the teacher placed me. It took a couple of weeks before I met you while I grappled with the teachers. But when I moved into Language Arts with you and JS, we soon became a pretty tight little trio.

My first clear memory must have been late October, just before my birthday. My mom told me I could have ONE friend over. I had two friends. You and JS and I had no idea how to pick just one of you without the other getting their feelings hurt. I decided whoever lived closer would be the one to come over and presented that to you both. Tracy, you managed to convince me that you lived closest. JS was kind pissed about that, but I guess she was used to the way you worked and didn't fight it too much.

Soon after that, I remember your math teacher announcing to all of the third grade, "Everyone who belongs in the high math class, come over here."

I bristled, still in the second high class, where I didn't think I belonged. "I oughta go," I muttered.

You heard me and egged me on. "She said if you belong. You belong."

And so I went.

Things weren't always that easy between us, though. Another day, probably not too long after that, I bucked your authority. You and JS had this agreement. You worked until number X on whatever worksheet, then waited for the other person to catch up. Then worked another 10 problems, etc, etc. That way you could both turn in your papers at the same time. Really, though, you were usually the last done and you didn't want to be the only one turning in your paper.

The problem was, I was a speed freak and easily bored. I wanted to be done so I could read a book. And one day ... I saw how far behind JS was. And then how far behind you were. And I just kept working. By the time you realized that not only had I gone past number ten (or whatever), but when JS noticed I'd worked ahead, she, too, left you behind.

I think about this particular situation a lot. We were what, 10? This was 30 fucking years ago, but to this day, Tracy, to this day, I feel badly about it. I wouldn't change it ... but I might try to explain it. I didn't realize then that you didn't want to be the last person to turn something in. I didn't realize you needed that feeling of "pack" when you turned in an assignment. I just knew I was bored already and I wanted to read my book. I was not prepared for you to burst into tears when you saw we'd both worked ahead. I hadn't intended to hurt you and I've always felt badly that I did.

It wasn't long after that we had our first fight. Well, fight by proxy. You "hired" one of the boys to beat me up at recess. Unfortunately, you picked a boy who fought like a girl, scratching rather than punching, and a girl who fought like a boy. Amazingly, no teachers seemed to notice. No crowd gathered.

Most of the time, though, we got along in third grade. And mostly in fourth. By then, it was Tracy, JS, Annette, Jenny and I. I often wonder why the four of you hung out with me. I was so different from the other kids. I like to think it was because of my imagination. But eventually, the differences between you and I became too much, Tracy. Despite the fact that you and I united darn near all of the third grade at the end of the year to re-enact an epic recess of Star Wars ... or an early version of Space Balls ... our big scene was Vader and Leia coming out of her cell, drunk and singing "How Dry I Am" ... we were both just too bull-headed to remain in a group together.

Tracy, I'm sorry. It wasn't until long after college and grad school that I learned what we had in common. For you it was your mom. For me, it was my dad. Those out-of-control parents shaped our childhoods and made us more alike than I realized. You wanted to control your situation. I get that now. I was a loose cannon, sowing dissent. It's no wonder you continued hiring boys to fight me until I finally got the point and drifted away from your group and "your" softball team.

I was tired of fighting. I gave you our friends. I gave you the pitcher's spot on the softball team. I just didn't see the point in everything being a personal battle.

Even still, you didn't make my life easy after that. There were the digs about my not being the stereotypical girl. Hints that I was crazy. And I admit, I was a very messed up little kid at that point. I hated Arlington. I hated my parents. I felt a connection to very little, so losing my friends, too? That was really, really hard. I get why you needed them. And I'm glad you had them. I mean, you guys were friends all the way through high school and into college and that, Tracy, that is something special.

We weren't done with our rivalry, though. We went to junior high and we both latched on to Mrs. Ward as a surrogate mom. I still didn't know that there were problems with your mom. I don't know that you realized how difficult my family situation was. Once more, though, we were competing for someone's attention. You were the first to call her Mom when she got pregnant, but I quickly followed suit.

I think we were both devastated when she lost the baby. October 27. I don't remember the year any more, but I've never forgotten the date.

And then, my mother transferred me to the other junior high and I lost track of you. Even after we were at the same high school, somehow we just never crossed paths again.

I never stopped thinking about you, though. I remember the day you invited me over and we played in the woods all afternoon. We found some Fisher Price Adventure People toys in the creek, abandoned. We took them back to your house, gleefully liberated. It was, all in all, a joyous day. One of the best I can ever remember in Arlington.

And every time over the years that I remembered you, I remembered that day as well. With all the personality clashes we as strong-willed kids had ... that day was awesome. Happy.

And I've never forgotten it.

I've thought about trying to find you a few times. I've talked with Annette off and on over the last few years. Never head back from JS or Jenny. But I never could find you.

Tonight I logged into my blog stats and there you were. There are a few iconic people from my childhood: Chris Balcezak was one. Tracy McGuire was another. People with whom I didn't always get along, but always felt a connection to.

As with Chris, after seeing your name in my stats, I googled you only to find out that you, too, had passed away.

Chris died near the end of 2003. I didn't learn about it until ... well ... just days after you died, Tracy. May of 2008.

In May of 2008, we should all three have been looking forward to turning 40.

I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend, Tracy. I'm sorry I didn't pick up on the things you and your dad tried so hard to hide about your mom. All I could see was how wonderful your dad was, probably because mine was such an ass.

I'm sorry I couldn't deal with your control issues any better than you coped with mine.

Most of all, I'm sorry you left the party so early, Tracy. You deserved better, more. I hope you made the most of it and enjoyed it all to the fullest.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:15 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 17, 2013

The Bruising Will Come Later

The last few weeks had been difficult. Seemed like one thing after another was just not working. But today? Today had been a good day. The sun was shining - though, to be fair, the sun is almost always shining in New Mexico - work was good. When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the place I worked, I had only two things on my mind: the weekend, and my drive home.

My drive home because there was construction by the highway and people are afraid to merge in construction in New Mexico. Though that sentence shouldn't bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. It's a good day. I'm in a good mood. I don't want to fight people trying to merge, or worse, people feeling like they can zip to the front of the line and then force their way into the line. I don't want to have an accident.

On a whim, I decide to go by the volcanoes instead. It's a pretty day and no need to ruin it with traffic because people are such slaves to habit they won't leave the slopes of their home volcano even when it starts to smoke and rumble. I have to drive west for a while on old Route 66 and seeing those signs always makes me smile. I feel home here. My window is down. I'm taking the scenic route today, the weekend starting off right.

The speed limit quickly climbs to 55 because there's nothing out this way. Except, up ahead, there's a little strip mall area. The speed limit doesn't drop, but I ease off a bit. I'm in the right lane, I think, because I'm going to have to turn right up ahead a ways. While there's a bit of traffic now, it's light. Nothing like my usual route with the steady hum of traffic, the squealing of brakes and tires, the harsh changing of gears as the little sports cars shifted up and down, revving their engines loudly as they zipped around the bigger cars, jockeying for position.

And then, for a split second which did not, contrary to popular fancy, last any longer than a normal split second, there was another vehicle coming into the intersection, interrupting my perfectly green light. Someone else had already gone through the intersection. This light was not newly green. It had not turned yellow. It was green and that car, that car was not supposed—

The sounds were muffled, really. As if I were watching it on tv with the volume turned low. And it sounded like a movie, metal rending against metal, tires squealing, glass shattering. Something loud like a gunshot, both distant and immediate.

I remember that brief interlude of there's a car where there shouldn't be and then white cloth in my face and my sunglasses being torn off my face, but my regular glasses staying put, just somewhat askew. I knew there'd been a wreck and that this was no little fender bender. I tried to open my door, but it wouldn't budge. It was locked. It wouldn't unlock. How do you get out of a car if your door won't... the passenger door. Crawl over - oh hey! Look, there's smoke coming out of the vents, yeah, I didn't turn the car off yet. I sag back into my seat and turn the engine off, then start, wow, the car's kind of a mess, I really should have cleaned it out last weekend.

Standing in the bright sunlight. My sunglasses are still in the car, but I don't want to grab them. There's something I'm supposed - oh I should call 911. I think I started to do that when I was in the car, but I forgot how and then the engine and I couldn't get out. It's bright. I need to turn the contrast up and it takes me three or four tries to remember how to call 911.

The instant before the collision there was a white car where there shouldn't have been. And then I saw white. I turn around for the first time and look for the other car. It's a silver Jeep Liberty. It will be days before I realize that the split second of time merged vehicle and air bags into one scene because that faint image has a cloth seam in it. White airbags, silver Jeep Liberty, seam.

And I am talking to 911 even though someone driving by said someone else has already called 911. But you're supposed to call after a wreck and so that is what I do. I do what you're supposed to do.

Wreck
And a man comes up behind me and raises up my left hand.

"You're bleeding," he says.

Oh. Huh. I didn't know. Doesn't look too bad. I twist up my arm so I can see it. Really, just a puncture. Another person driving by thrusts a wad of napkins out their passenger window. The man runs over to grab them and presses them to the puncture where blood is still dripping out onto the sidewalk. I blink at it. Someone's going to have to clean this up. It freaks people out when they see blood in public places. Ever since the 80s, people see a speck of blood and they just panic as if the HIV virus will leap through time and space and force its way down—

"Is anyone hurt?" the 911 operator is asking.

I realize I don't know which is not like me at all because I feel compelled to help people.

I look over at other car. The silver Jeep Liberty, not a white car at all. He is outside the silver Jeep Liberty and he won't look at me. But he is standing. He is walking, even with his cast on. So I guess he's hurt. No. He was hurt before. He's got a cast on, so he's better - geez, that must suck to be in a wreck when your left leg is already in a cast. Poor guy.

"I don't think so," I reply.

The nice man holding my arm above my head and pressing napkins into it so I stop bleeding all over the sidewalk and freaking everyone out says, "Tell them to send the paramedics anyway. Always tell them to send the paramedics."

"Oh. This man here says you should send them anyway."

The nice 911 operator continues talking and I'm really not sure what she's saying. I already told her where the wreck was and that this man in the silver Jeep Liberty must have turned left in front of me because I cannot think what else could have happened. It all happened so fast. Time did not slow down and come to a standstill. There was no moment of realization and then the molasses time where you know what to do and nothing is moving fast enough to avoid the inevitable and you just can't—

The police are here. The 911 operator says something and then I ask the officer if I can hang up on 911 now because they are here. I have to ask him twice and he just blinks at me and nods. "Yes. I'm here now."

He asks me something and the paramedics come up at the same time and the officer walks away before I can answer him. There are either a hundred or four paramedics and they are swarming around me like ants at a picnic. They keep asking me if I have diabetes or high blood pressure and I keep telling them no and then another one comes up and asks me the same damn thing do you have diabetes? What about high blood pressure? And I still say no and then one of them comes at me with the blood pressure cuff and the little pulse thing that goes on your finger and I wonder for a minute about why they didn't take my temperature, too.

I don't remember the exact number. It was something insane like 196 over 120, numbers I have never ever heard in my life in reference to my blood pressure. I'm not sure this paramedic, who suddenly looks like he's barely 18 has seen these numbers before because his eyes widen as if he's looking at a ghost and he blurts them out to another paramedic. The two on my left are hovering even more intensely although they don't step any closer. I think they're waiting for me to fall over.

Thank god for the older paramedic. "Do you have high blood pressure?" he asks for the 18th time.

"No!"

He just looks at the young guy. "Check it again in a little bit." He meets my eyes, then looks at the boy again. Nods toward my car, the implied conversation seems to be "Look at the car, you moron. Your blood pressure would spike if you'd been in that, too." And he walks away.

Another paramedic comes over and I show her my left hand because I have just noticed it's about twice its normal size and already impressively purple. "Hey, my pinky is kind of cold."

She seems disinterested. "Do you have high blood pressure? Diabetes?"

I am bored of this question and quickly look down at my phone. I should probably call someone. But my partner is likely driving home right now and I don't want to call her when she's driving. And she'll probably freak out. It's not good to make someone freak out when they're driving. I text a coworker.

"Can u come pick me up?? Central and 98th"

"Sure. Everything ok?"

I look at my car and back to the phone. "Car totaled"

"Shit be right there. You ok?"

I suddenly realize that I haven't talked to the cops yet, really. I'm not sure if I can leave yet and I don't want my coworker to have to stand around and wait. "Mostly. Don't know if I can leave yet"

"On my way"

And I feel bad for asking her to leave work early. I look around. There's the cop. I fish around in my back pocket for my wallet. Pull out the driver's license and insurance card. What the HELL? I know the insurance is up-to-date, but the card's not. Dammit. Fuck.

I hand them to him, "I can't find the right insurance card. I know it's valid, but this is the last one, but all the information is correct and I always have the right card and I don't know why it's not in my wallet—"

He just smiles and nods and takes my information and heads over to his car.

The paramedic boy checks my blood pressure again. It's been maybe five minutes, but it's coming down. 160 over something stupid now. I officially refuse going to the hospital and have to sign the little computer saying I refused to come in. I am appalled at how crappy the signature is and wonder if the handwriting software is that bad or if the screen just isn't very sensitive. I hold out my hand. Rock steady.

I look around. The nice man who had held the napkins to my arm until the paramedics arrived walks back up and hands me his business card.

"Did you see the wreck?" I ask suddenly realizing I had no witnesses and this was not my fault.

"No. But here's my card. If the police give you any trouble, you give me a call anyway."

I thank him and he walks off.

I look at my car. Walk around to the driver's side. The tire is shredded. And the car is sagging. I bet the axle is broken. Definitely not drivable. And the driver's side door is crinkled and ... kind of pushed back. No wonder I couldn't get it open. The mirror is gone. Sitting inside the car. That's probably what hit my hand.

Wreck

I look over at the silver Jeep Liberty. The wheel well is messed up on the driver's side, but it looks like it might be drivable. The driver is on the sidewalk. Staring at the ground. He won't look at me. The cop calls him over. A woman is standing next to me.

"Someone rear-ended him last week on his motorcycle," she says quietly.

"I wondered why he was in a cast. Is he okay?"

She nods.

I begin getting the most important things out of my car so I'm ready when my coworker gets here. I don't want to make her wait. It's a beautiful day out now, but it was cold this morning and I hope I didn't drip any blood on my coat. It's a tan corduroy coat that I love and I'd be really pissed if there was blood on it. I drop it on the sidewalk next to my bag. I'm hoping there's still an empty bag in my trunk to get the rest of the stuff out. If the car is totaled, I need to get everything out.

There is a bag. The bag I made fun of a few months ago, a freebie from work. I shove everything from the glovebox in there. Clear out the arm rest container, the trunk. Pull out the two six-packs of Diet Pepsi I'd bought this morning. The kitty litter. I make a pile on the sidewalk and feel bad about taking up room on the sidewalk. And that I can't move my car further over. It's in the right lane, all the way through to the west side of the intersection, so at least the road is kind of clear.

"What happened?" the cop asks quietly.

"I was driving west," I said. "And then he turned left in front of me. But I had a green light. Other people had already gone through."

He nods.

"Are there any witnesses?"

He shrugs and I pale. "He said the same thing."

I am incredibly relieved. What a rarity for someone to own their mistake. He still won't look at me. The top of his head seems attached to a string pulling his head down to the sidewalk. Waiting for the ground to swallow him whole.

I see my coworker and wave. I pick up some of the lighter things, my bag, the hiking sticks, my coat and she grabs the other bag, the Pepsi and the litter. I feel bad for making her carry heavy things and as I try to protest, she insists with a look at my left hand, swollen and purple.

I ask another officer if I can go. He's surprised, but amenable. He hands me the paperwork for the towing of my car. I walk away.

We pass the other driver. He cannot raise his head.

I put my arm gently on his shoulder and say softly, "I know we've both had a shitty day, but I want to thank you for telling the police the truth. That means a lot."

I walk away. I don't look back.

We put my things in my coworker's trunk. I check my arm. I don't want to bleed on her car, in her car. She's got a damn nice car. It's stopped bleeding. But I have dry blood all over my left arm. Huh. Didn't realize I bled that much. I mean there were drops on both airbags from where I climbed out and everything. And some on the sidewalk, big drops.

And the paramedics didn't even give me any gauze or anything. They didn't even just run some water over it. Huh. I thought they did that kind of thing.

We begin the drive north to the little 'burb where we live. Neither of us quite knows how to get there from this particular road, but she soon gets us back to the road we both normally take home. She drives the speed limit so carefully. She's a lot like me and knows when to talk a little and when to just let the silence sit comfortably around us. She offers me her water and even though I'm really thirsty all of a sudden, I tell her I'm fine. We talk a bit. I don't want to talk much about the wreck because I know she's had a few traumatic ones and I don't want to make her think about them. Except I can't really think of much else to talk about. There wasn't supposed to be a car there. And then there was and I'm okay. I mean, really, not all that much damage for being in a 55mph zone, if you think about it.

My poor car.

Everyone walked away, though.

At some point, I realize my partner is probably home by now and I call her. "I'm okay," I say. "But Y is bringing me home."

"Why?"

"I'm okay," I repeat and she interrupts with "I heard that, what happened?"

"The car is probably totaled. Someone hit me."

We eventually pull up to the last major intersection and I realize I am probably going to faint if I don't get some water. I really don't want—

"Actually, would you mind if I have a sip of water after all?" I'm pretty sure if I pass out in her car, she will freak and take me to the hospital.

"Of course, go ahead."

I take a long drink. And then another. I don't feel so much like I'm going to faint any more. It's kind of a near thing, but I'm good now. I give her plenty of warning for each turn in my twisty little neighbourhood. And then I apologize because I'm quite sure the dogs are going to be loud, obnoxious little brats. They get cranky when I get home late plus they won't be expecting company.

And they are just incredibly loud. You'd think they were German Shepherds instead of miniature dachshunds. We get everything inside, I apologize for the state of the house, for the dogs' behaviour and then she's leaving. I feel bad. Damn dogs are so obnoxious, ruining the one time she's come over. My partner scurries me into the bathroom to look at my wounds, ready with the implements of cleaning, disinfecting and bandaging.

I look in the mirror. No black eyes from the airbag. My face looks fine. It's just my left arm, I think.

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things that you get ashamed of because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size they they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it?

The bruising will come later.

 

 

 

The first four paragraphs each have a quote or near quote from a different book. The next-to-last paragraph is a quote from a fifth book. The quote in the first paragraph came to me out of the blue and I just went with it. Then I thought it was a kind of fun thing and kept it up for the next couple of paragraphs ... and then I got into the piece I was writing and went with the flow until the last quote also popped into my head. Sometimes life just works that way. Be shocked if anyone can guess which five books.... :)

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:01 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 18, 2013

Fictions We Tell

What's real here and what's not? Eric Hansen asks regarding the Manti Te'o about the hoax or scam regarding his girlfriend.

I'm not really sure why it's national news that a college football star might have manufactured a girlfriend story and then manufactured her death. Or maybe he was scammed into it.

I'm not really sure why whether or not Mark McGwire, Jose Conseco, Alex Rodriguez used steroids to achieve great things in baseball is news. Or why it's news that Lance Armstrong doped, but Armstrong's and Te'o's stories have hit at the same time and it seems that everyone is talking about it.

Why?

We are none of us perfect and yet we are often pushed hard to be perfect. And the more you are in the bright hot spotlight of celebrity in this country, the more you are expected to be perfect and the more scrutinized your life becomes.

Why would Te'o manufacture a girlfriend? Maybe because at Notre Dame it's expected that a football player has at least one girl. Maybe he wasn't ready for a girlfriend and simply started saying he had a girl back home. But then people want details. And you either keep the lie going or say you broke up. And when you're getting ready to be under more scrutiny for going into the NFL ... well, you have to end it because eventually someone is going to figure out she doesn't exist. Your grandmother just died of cancer and in the heat of an interview where you're already sad and not at your best, you blurt out that the fictitious girl also died. You've gotten out of the innocent little white lie that got you through school. It's all good now, right?

This is completely a made-up story on my part. I'm not saying this is what went through Te'o's mind or that this is what happened. I'm trying to show how something innocent turns into a trap. I'm trying to show how easily we let ourselves be trapped by caring too much what others think of us. (And having been to ND for grad school and then teaching there for 9 years, I can tell you, there is an INTENSE pressure to fit in at that school. There's not much room for people who are different in any way.)

Now. Another totally made-up story.

You're the kid of a single mom. Pretty good kid, but you've got a lot of time on your hands. You live in the 'burbs where you're looked down on because you don't have a ton of money. Damn yuppie kids always better than everyone else. You start racing your bike and doing well. Suddenly you're special. You work harder.

Grow to adulthood, now riding that bike for a living. You're good, but you're one of the pack. Your determination and hard work only takes you so far. But you have to prove yourself.

And then you get cancer. A really serious cancer with low survival rates. And as if that weren't enough, it's the kind of cancer that eats at your identity. You screw up everything you've learned about hard work and determination and NOT giving in ... and you kick that cancer squarely in the ass.

And you're determined to kick that damned race that you were all right at as well. There's got to be a way to get that licked as well. After all, you've just kicked cancer. You can do this if you work.

You just need a little help.

Again with the traps we walk ourselves into. And if you've walked into those traps because you want to prove yourself or fit in somehow ... you are so, so trapped. Because to admit that you lied or cheated or were wrong is to admit that you don't fit in. That you're not part of that group. And no matter how strongly you deny wanting to be one of the fellas ... everyone suddenly knows that's all you ever wanted.

You're exposed.

You're vulnerable.

And you're outcast.

It's no good saying, "Oh, well, I would never do that." You're not in the same position those people were with the same baggage and the same pressures.

Believe me, I'm not saying the people in my made-up scenarios made the right choices. But I'm calling the rest of us out on this public anger and shaming of people who have proven they are only human.

Who are we to be angry at someone so broken or scared that they continued lying for 10 years, building themselves a fictional life to show just how innocent and "one of the regular folk" they were?

It's a fiction we tell ourselves that we don't do the exact same damn thing. We may not take it to the same levels, length of time, but most people have some skeleton in the closet they've perpetuated.

We tell ourselves when we leave the house in the morning that our house and our stuff is secure. It's a fiction we tell ourselves because we must. But we know, at the very same time, that windows are vulnerable, doors can be kicked in ... planes can fall from the sky and open up us.

But we also cannot live in constant fear. It's a fiction we tell ourselves in order to keep moving. That's okay and in fact, I think it's necessary to live a healthy life.

These folks in my made-up stories simply took the fictions they told themselves ... and us ... to a different level.

They may have lacked integrity in our eyes. But it was a fiction they needed.

And who are we to cast stones?

They are only human. We are fallible.

Let it go.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:47 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 15, 2013

Fictional Histories

I wrote a story once where the main character was talking about childhood heroes. Max had grown up reading those storybook American Biographies and latched onto the fictional histories.

...(well, I wanted to be like [Kit Carson] 'til I found out he was responsible for the Navajo's Long Walk, then I'se just mad), or or how I'd like to be ole Walt Disney (well, okay, bad example, but I didn't know then that he was some kind of C.I.A. or F.B.I. spy and a McCarthy-ite to boot), or Kermit the Frog (there, see, I found one that is still good and if you know somethin' 'bout him I don't, I don't even wanna hear it).

If there was something about Jim Henson, Max - and I - didn't want to know anything about it. Leave me one hero.

People are complex. We don't live in a vacuum and we aren't as clearcut as most fiction leads us to believe. We get backed into corners or sleep-deprived or we believe the webs other people weave for us and we make poor choices. We get lost in a moment and make choices we don't think we can ever back out of, ever undo. Choices, which, when brought out into bright sunlight, we can't even fathom how we would EVER make that choice.

However naive or stupid or blind or plain dumb this makes me - I don't want to know about Lance. And I still wear my Livestrong bracelet.

I grew up primarily in Arlington, Texas, but Austin was where I started school and was my heart-home for years. Arlington and Plano had a lot in common. Lots of Texas yuppies. I didn't fit in any more than Lance fit in. Mom started telling me about this kid, just about my age, who was doing all this stuff on his bike. And why wasn't I like that? 

Of course, that was because I wasn't allowed to ride my bike more than a mile or so from home, but that's another discussion completely.

By college, I'd forgotten about him. And then he got cancer. And after that, he started winning. And then I got cancer. And I wound up in the same hospital he'd been in. A colleague lent me It's Not About the Bike.

Lance and I? We still kicked cancer's arse. Grew up a town over w/damn yuppies where we didn't fit in. Went to same hospital for cancer.

Anything else? I don't wanna know. I just don't. He's still the guy who worked harder than any other cyclist, practicing longer hours, faster, up higher mountains weeks before anyone else.

He worked hard. Smashed cancer. Started Livestrong.

His work ethic is something I admire.

And beyond that ... I don't wanna know what corners he felt he'd been backed into. What temptation he could no longer turn down.

So don't tell me what he's said now. I'm weaving a fiction of my own, a plot that helps me believe what I need to believe: that an underdog from Yuppieville, Texas, can, with great determination and a lot of work, ride to the top of the world and live strong, live free.

We have millions of stories about how the mighty fall, how they're "only" human.

I choose a story to inspire me instead of remind me how fallible we all are.

I will not cast stones because we all live in glass houses.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:27 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 3, 2013

The Television Humour Polarization Postulation

I have found that many geeky people - self-proclaimed or not - tend to eschew things considered "popular." I think the more you are used to being on the "outside" for liking to program or enjoying D&D or what have you, the more you begin to suspect that "popular" things are simply boring ... or vapid. I found myself falling into this trap with Harry Potter. I love smart children's books. I love good fantasy novels. I refused to have a thing to do with the Potter books at first because how could a children's fantasy novel wind up on the NYT bestseller list? Obviously it must be crap. After Prisoner of Azkaban hit paperback, though, I finally relented.

I found the entire series just brilliant.

My fault for judging the book by its perceived popularity. At least I did finally come to my senses and when I gave it a chance, I gave it a fair chance, an open-minded chance and found a clever new world to play in.

Another thread in this tapestry.

I don't usually like American sit-coms. In general, they insist that I turn my brain off and be vapid for thirty minutes. In addition, I tend to be character-driven in my stories (be they written or acted). Most American sit-coms create caricatures rather than characters and I generally don't give a crap about the characters and thus the show. Seinfeld was one such show for me. I know a lot of people loved it, but because the characters were empty to me, I couldn't care about the show.

I don't know if any of that is true for most geeks and nerds, but it's an important thread in what I'm about to say.

I am a geek. I am a nerd. I am proud of those things.

I love The Big Bang Theory.

I have read more than a few geeks and nerds ripping on the show in the last year or so. (Before that, I had only heard praise.) Hey, difference is the spice of life. You don't like it, that's cool. But I find some of the reasons people are complaining about it to be ... well, honestly? A bit disingenuous.

Complaint 1:
Real nerds are not like Sheldon, Raj, Howard or Leonard. (Oddly enough, Bernadette and Amy Farah Fowler are usually left out of this.)

Oh FFS. Seriously?

Look. Nerds come in a lot of flavours. And, The Big Bang Theory never said ALL NERDS ARE LIKE THESE GUYS. Nope. They said, these particular physicists and this engineer are like this. And you know what? I know people like each one of these guys. I know sleazy dudes like Howard. Dudes who still live with their folks - often because their folks need taking care of - and who think they are awesome at picking up the opposite sex. 

I know guys like Raj. Sweet as can be, but can't quite get over the opposite sex. Guys who like to talk about the possible symbolism of ponytails in Avatar or exhaustive details of The Two Towers.

Sheldon? Know nerds like him, too. Leonard? Again, yes! Hell, I'm a nerd like Leonard and like Sheldon.

When the movie Philadelphia first came out, I heard the same kind of complaints. "All gay men do not love opera!" was the oft-heard lament. Agreed. That character did. Nobody said all gay men love opera in that movie. The same thing goes for The Big Bang Theory. No one said all nerds are like these guys. I think you're taking your fiction a little too seriously if this is your complaint.

Complaint 2:
Everyone is laughing at us and we're not all like that. Nerds are cool, dammit.

This is the most frequent complaint I've seen recently. Of course, it's usually phrased differently. "We're not laughing with the geeks, we're encouraged to laugh at them." Or even "we're not made to like these characters, we're made to be the bullies who laugh at them for being idiots."

Poppycock.

Well, that's how I feel, anyway, and I think feelings are key in this complaint which is why I phrased it "everyone is laughing at us" [change in emphasis intentional] - I think that "us" is the telling word here. I think they're interpreting the humour of the show through some pretty serious baggage of their own. The humour has always struck me as self-deprecating rather than a bully pointing and laughing. I love Sheldon because I see myself in some of what Sheldon does. It's comedy, so that behaviour is taken to a ridiculous (or aspergian) extreme, but dammit, I'm laughing at myself. 

I have not, for example, told someone they cannot sit in my spot because it's the perfect spot, where:

"In the winter, that seat is close enough to the radiator to remain warm and yet not so close as to cause perspiration. In the summer, it's directly in the path of a cross breeze created by opening windows there and there. It faces the television at an angle that is neither direct, thus discouraging conversation, nor so far wide to create a parallax distortion."

But I damn well laugh when Sheldon goes into this oft-used explanation because I do have oft-used explanations for things I have thought FAR too much about and other people just think I'm being silly. Or stubborn. Oppositional. Overly attached to routine or ritual.

I laughed when Sheldon was just a few days past his haircut day because he started blowing his hair out of his eyes. The hair which was nowhere near his eyes - it was just not that long. And yet, today? Today, I kept trying to toss the hair out of my eyes. It wasn't in my eyes. I was just a week "late" for my haircut.

I'm laughing at myself, not pointing and laughing at someone else.

Complaint 3:
The show isn't funny. The humour isn't laugh material. If there was no laugh track, no one would know when to laugh.

This one, frankly, has the most validity as a complaint. And whilst I obviously disagree, humour is a subjective thing. I have laughed at the YouTube snippets where they cut the laugh track out. I have laughed before the laugh track (or studio audience) laugh. Obviously, I find it funny. But hey, that's just me and my sense of humour. Yours is different and that's a good thing. We just disagree is all.

Look, if you don't like something, don't watch it. I didn't like the few episodes of How I Met Your Mother that I saw. I don't whine about the show - it just wasn't for me. I can't watch Game of Thrones. I ought to love it - from all I've heard, it's a great fantasy show. But, for personal reasons, my own personal baggage, I can't watch it. I can't get past my baggage. That's okay. I'm glad the show is out there even though I don't watch it. But I own that. It's my own issues that cause me to not watch it. I'm not going to go on some kind of soapbox, high-horse tirade about how it's a bad show because I don't watch it. I have no concrete complaints.

The reboot of Battlestar Galactica I understand was excellent science fiction television. I can't watch it. I grew up with the original show, and dammit, Starbuck is a man. (And where are Boxi and Daggit, dagnabit!) I can bemoan those choices, but the reason I can't watch the show is because I cannot get past my own baggage. And I own that. 

So really? I don't care if you don't like The Big Bang Theory. You don't have to. 

But come on. Be an adult about it. Own your baggage. Don't fall into silly traps like claiming not all nerds are like the main characters. 

I get this distinct feeling from the self-proclaimed and aggrieved nerds I've read ranting about the horribleness of  The Big Bang Theory that they either are simply reacting to something popular (there's no substance to their rant, nothing concrete, but I do see a trend of "it's so popular"), or they're bringing their own baggage to the show (the show is bullying me and I am not either like any of those characters) or a very pedantic "not every nerd is just like the ones in this show." 

All of these - with the exception of the very simple I don't get the humour - seem far less like reasons to rant about the horribleness of a show to me and instead say far more about our own very human insecurities.

The show, like most, is not perfect. This season hasn't been my favourite, but tonight's episode ("The Egg Salad Equivalency") was just brilliant and I laughed all the way through it.

But that's just me.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:46 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 5, 2012

I Woke Up This Morning

I woke up this morning, happy to go to work. I was relaxed, I was eager to get to my day. I wasn't trying to escape from home. I wasn't dreading the work ahead.

Content and eager.

I drove in to work, marveling at the mountains, the sun playing with the crevices. Oranges and pinks playing in the tiny bits of wispy clouds and reflecting down on the mountain. Driving down the mesa until the sun just POPPED out from a crevice, brightening the remains of the volcanoes to the west. 

I was singing along with Los Lonely Boys at the top of my lungs and looking forward to my day.

Once I got to work, I almost forgot to clock in, my mind already spinning to the various things I had to get done, wanted to get done today.

Eager. Anticipating. Enjoying.

Later in the day, the new guy came over. He was afraid that I had thrown the little cake he brought me first thing this morning away. I was horrified. Of course not! I showed him it was in the fridge. I was thinking I would take it home to share with my partner tonight. He smiled - he's a very smiley kind of guy, his face just lights up - and said that he was going to make that suggestion earlier. He thought it would be nice for us to share that cake. A nice moment together - sharing a treat.

It wasn't until later that I truly marveled over that gesture - not just the cake, but for us to share it together.

You see, I know I grew up post-Christopher Street, post Stonewall. I know that my life has been easier than so many. I was never hassled by a cop wanting to know if I was a male or a female. Never asked how many "gender appropriate" pieces of clothing I had on.

I know that I've had it easy. I've had friends who were gay-bashed - one who suffered a severe brain trauma and despite the bleeding from his head, the cops turned away and wanted to know what the problem was. (He'd been hit deliberately by a car as the driver called him a faggot.)

Matthew Shepherd was murdered while I was in college.

Pat was a popular SNL sketch throughout my high school and college days.

I've had a couple of times when some random stranger wanted to let me know they disapproved, but nothing major. A postal worker refused to pick up a medical bill because of the rainbow sticker on the front door and a bit of Dr. Pepper which had gotten spilled onto the bill. He was certain it was AIDS.

I had a doctor insist he should run an AIDS test instead of a plain, old CBC (basic blood count test). 

Mostly just ignorance without real malice. Still dangerous, mind you, but nothing like what others have been through.

But I didn't realize just how guarded I'd become until today. This happy, joyful day when I was so relaxed and in the moment.

When my new coworker not only sweetly brought me a small birthday cake, but hoped that I would take it home to share with my partner of 13  years.

It wasn't until later in the day, when he insisted on washing a dessert dish that another coworker had brought for my birthday (I tell you again, I am so blessed right now - it's unreal), that everything came together for me. I thought I was doing well to get it back to her that same day. I forgot that there's a sink where we can wash well-scraped dishes. This new guy insisted on taking the dish in there and washing it.

Incredibly thoughtful. (I actually take my dishes home to wash them - I seriously forgot that little wash area was even there.) It was thoughtful and sweet of him to do that. I told him so and thanked him for taking the time to do that. 

He replied a few minutes later that one of his ex girlfriends had once told him he was very feminine. I scoffed and said he was kind and conscientious.

And then it occurred to me. While I told him I was gay and talked about my partner, I didn't expect such a matter-of-fact acceptance and inclusion. I grew up Catholic and Texan. Most people I knew back in the day might have decided they liked me, but would ignore that I was gay and had a partner. I wasn't truly included.

You experience something often enough and you come to expect it. I didn't even realize it, but I expect for people to only superficially "accept" me. I expect there to be a holding back, a staying apart from my supposed "differentness." And I'll admit that I expected a latino man raised Catholic to not accept me.

That was the best birthday present this year. To recognize that guardedness and to realize I need to let it go. To realize that I have to stop assuming that the Focus on the Family folks, that the Westboro folks, that the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage are not the only folks out here. They don't represent the bulk of Americans who can see me for me and not for what they assume I do in my own home.

It was the icing on the cake he brought me, the whipped cream on the trifle another coworker brought me.

Yeah. It was a damn good day today.

And tomorrow, I get to go back to a job I adore, work with people I love and learn something new.

I love my life.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:35 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 26, 2012

Brave

Yep. What the internet needs is another blogger writing about Brave, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

There will be spoilers. If you haven't seen it and you don't want spoilers, come back after you've seen it.

First, I have to say that I've been a fan of Celtic mythos in general since I was a wee li'l monkey. I read tales of Cuchullain, the Red Branch. I found Morgan Llewellyn's stories of Fionn MacCumhaill. Amerigan the Bard. I decided around the age of 6 that since my mother would not tell me "what we were," that I was Irish. I liked the sound of Ireland. It just sounded nifty. And I was fascinated with red hair. And islands. It just seemed a fit.

Eventually I branched out into tales from Scotland and Wales, but it was always... well, that's not really about Brave, is it? Right then. The point being, I've a fair background in celtic legends. Now Brave is not exactly a re-telling of any celtic legend I know and I suspect it's not a retelling of any particular one. Instead, it's a coming of age story told Pixar-style, but I think it's also Pixar's coming of age as well.

Pixar, from the beginning, has been grand about making a kid's animated movie that adults also want to see. I think they slipped a little with Cars 2 - not that it was a bad flick, but it was more ... empty? than other Pixar flicks had been. It was a joyous romp through Cars and spy movies, but that's all it was. (Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. Sometimes we just want entertainment and that's fine.)

Brave is a return to deeper thoughts. And whilst it's still a kid's movie, in some very fundamental ways it is not a kid's movie at all. Oh, they can watch it, don't get me wrong, but it may be a bit scary for little-little guys.

The basic plot is simple: oppressed kid fights with parent, says and does things not truly meant, magic changes parent, kid and parent bond as they struggle to get the magic off the parent and eventually triumph, which naturally changes both kid and parent.

It's a coming of age story and I think in many ways it's a coming of age for Pixar as well. It's as if the movie itself is an adolescent, one minute a child, running free, chasing bears, shooting random arrows; and the next it's quite a deep story about relationships and how difficult it can be to love family and want to change them and to be our true selves all at the same time.

I wonder, though, how much of the script was left on the cutting room floor. I would guess at least 30-45 minutes. It seemed to me that every time I would get deeply - at an adult level - into the story and characters, it was as if Pixar suddenly realized, shit, this is a kid's movie. And they'd go back to a chase scene or humour with the triplets or the like. 

A perfect example of missed characterization is one pointed out by Gedeon on his blog. Both mother and daughter during their early fight, hurt something that the other holds precious. The mother throws Mirada's beloved bow into the fire. Mirada cuts the mother's tapestry of the family. Now, the rest of the movie weaves around the tapestry in a really beautiful way and I'm sure many academics are going to have a field day relating all of that. But after Mirada runs out of the room in shock when her mom throws the bow in the fire, we see the mother realize what she's done and pull the bow out. She puts her head in her hands and sobs not just at the fight she's had, but at her own actions as well. It's clear she realizes that she has not just been petty, but unbelievably cruel with that action. Her daughter's rending of the tapestry was largely the overly grand gesture of an adolescent, not actually trying to cut her mother's tapestry. But she took her daughter's most prized possession, the thing that meant most to her as an object and as a representation of all that was important to her - and she deliberately threw it in the fire, as if that didn't matter. 

What the daughter takes from that is that SHE doesn't matter. Nothing she holds dear matters. And quite possibly her mother might as well have thrown her in the fire.

The mother doesn't mean any of that, of course. And we see the mother realizing what she's done and what it meant. As usual, Pixar tells this part of the story beautifully. But as Ged points out, it's then dropped completely from the story. There is no moment (although there is the opportunity at the end) when the mother returns the damaged bow or even gifts her daughter with a new one. Instead, the girl finally repairs, albeit clumsily, the tapestry that she accidentally sliced, and makes amends ... but not the adult. Why did they leave this out? Very un-Pixar-like as they generally pay close attention to such details. Was it cut to keep the film short enough for children? Or was the message intended to be that children should make up to their parents, but parents don't need to make up to the kids? (I doubt that, but it's still a bad omission which could give kids that impression.)

There are other moments that likewise seem like shortcuts and I wonder if this kind of jerky movement from kid's movie to adult's movie back to kid's movie isn't an adolescent growing pain of Pixar's. The story feels caught in that adolescent limbo belonging neither wholly kid nor adult. In some ways I love it more for that, but mostly I just wish it had been longer and actually filled in some of those gaps.

All of that said, I adored the movie for tackling this parent-kid theme in a way I have never really seen before.

As I spoke of the theme earlier, I specifically used gender-neutral language. Kid and parent. I have always been one to ignore gender. A story about a boy playing baseball, in my mind, can just as easily be a girl playing baseball. A story about a girl becoming a dancer could just as easily be about a boy. In my head, anyway. There are biological plot points - Steel Magnolias could not have the exact same plot and kick if the daughter was actually a son - the whole pregnancy and diabetes bit would fall apart. You could come up with a similar plot, however, and still have the same essential story. Stand By Me could possibly have been four girls going to see a dead body and could have still shown how the four were both bonding and drifting apart. Many of the plot points would likely have been different, but the essential story would be the same. The emotional flavour of the movie, however, would have been completely different.

Brave could have been about a boy and father disagreeing, but as with Stand By Me, many plot points would have been different.

I have never, however, seen a movie truly get to the heart of an acrimonious mother-daughter relationship as Brave; not YaYa Sisterhood, not Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes. YaYa comes close at times, but it really just scratches the surface.

But this kid's movie delves far deeper in. And that is stunning to me.

Neither mother nor daughter are bad people. The daughter is an adolescent and in her adolescence does something as equally stupid as the mother, although without truly realizing it. I disagree with Ged on this being a weak point in the plot, however, and find it a strong point instead. He compares Merida to Arial from Little Mermaid, and I think he does make some good comparisons there. Arial does the magic to herself and it takes a certain amount of bravery to take that life-changing magic onto your self.

He goes on to say:

Our heroine, the person we've just spent the entire first act getting to know and love, suddenly feels it's perfectly okay to possibly poison her mom. Feeding the pastry to Queen Elinor isn't an act of bravery, it's one of cowardice.

I disagree with the first sentence and agree with the second. And it's my perception of the first sentence which led me to greatly enjoy the movie whereas his interpretation of her act led to his disappointment (I think). Now, neither one of us is wrong in our interpretations. I don't think Ged is wrong or I'm right. This is a story and we all bring our own life experiences to bear on every story we see or read or hear and that's what keeps every writer and actor in business because we all see and interpret them differently according to our experiences.

I saw Merida the adolescent completely trusting in magic. She, if we go fully with this being a celtic tale, has grown up with stories of magic. She has been told that will o'the wisps can lead her to her destiny. They led her to this witch. I saw a child trusting that magic would "fix" everything. Now as an adult and a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, I know damn good and well - as do most adults - that this is going to backfire in some fundamental way. But Merida is a child on the cusp of adulthood. She thought she had found an easy answer in the archery tournament and was dismayed that things were more complex than that. She's not ready to accept that there are no easy answers. And look! Here's a trail to her destiny! And a witch! She must feel like she's won the lottery - a quick and easy answer to all of her problems.

The witch attempts to warn her and you can, I think, see on her face that struggle between adult and child thinking. But, the child wins and she rushes home to have her cake and eat it, too. You can see misgivings on her face as her mother becomes ill. And then the child resurfaces and she begins the childish "are we there yet" questions about whether her mother has changed her mind about the betrothal yet. We see it more as she tells bear-mother that "it's not my fault" that it's the witch's fault.

This made the movie far more powerful and realistic to me, rather than making me dislike the main character. Now, that's a fine line, no doubt.

In addition, as I said earlier, there is an intense realism in the relationship between Elinor and Merida. The talking at cross-purposes, the two totally different points-of-view on life, the "what a lady is" rules, and possibly most importantly, the absolute inability to communicate and reach the other is stunningly wrought. The way the relationship builds from the beginning to their time catching fish in the stream rivals, in some ways, the beginning of Up (which I think is honestly the best cinematic story-telling ever). This goes beyond adolescent rebellion. It is a parent who is so rules-bound she cannot see her daughter any more and the scene with Merida in the court dress is the epitome of their relationship. Everything that makes Merida who she is, is hidden and constricted by the rules of ladyhood. It is a child so out-of-sync with her time/society that she cannot continue within its bounds.

What is joyful about Brave is that mother and daughter are able to change and to see each other as separate people. Merida is not simply a lady. She is not simply the queen's progeny. She is not a chess piece. And, by the end, Merida can see that she must balance self with duty, neither giving in completely to selfish "I must be me," nor so stifled with duty that she herself disappears. Likewise, the mother learns to relax and attempt to balance the life of the queen with some of her daughter's favourite activities. And Merida learns some of her mother's as well (the new tapestry combines both aspects).

What makes Brave, in the very ending, come back to a child's movie is that faery tale ending. Everything is fixed in the end. And that's okay. Sometimes it does happen that way. And it is a very Pixar ending.

But that ending also once again brings back the tension of child or adult movie? After getting into deeper adult themes of this familial relationship, it backs out of the difficult story and goes back to being legend, faery tale, happily ever after.

And those of us who have struggled with similar familial relationships (and I sort of suspect this *might* even be specific to mother-daughter relationships) are left a bit cold. Wishing despite the selfishness that there was a magic spell which could change our mothers until they recognized us for who we are (and rather forgetting that Merida also changed...). For us, it can be a very melancholy ending to the movie because that change has not happened and may never happen.

My mother will never stop complaining that I don't dress as she thinks I should. That my life is not the gender-appropriate life she thinks I should have. She laments that I "must" work. She hates my hobbies because they are not "appropriate" to her worldview of how I should be.

Likewise, I find her fear of the world infuriating, her weakness maddening, her constricted views of how people should behave, the roles they should have insane.

I adored the ending to Brave because it gave a closure to the movie that I will never have myself. It felt good.

But I fear it also ripped open old wounds in friends who also shared Merida's essential storyline because at that crucial moment, the movie, Pixar, backed away from adulthood and like an adolescent, retreated back to childhood for a crucial moment and handed us a sweet to make everything all better.

What's the phrase? One step forward and two steps back?

It's a stunning film. Beautifully wrought. The landscape shots at times look like photographs, they're so real, so beautiful. And then it pulls back to a gorgeous animated feature. Tensions between art and photorealism. Tensions between adult and child.

Yes, I think this movie is Pixar's coming of age. And I'm eager to see where they go next.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:09 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 26, 2011

Photo Safari

When I started house-hunting here, I was determined we would get a pueblo-style house. I have loved those since I first saw one - when we moved into the ONLY non-pueblo style house. I was two and a half and I'm still pissed about that. Sadly, given both the housing market and the fact that I have to buy a house before my partner can even put the Indiana one on the market, we just can't afford the more expensive pueblo style. Well, I did look at one, but it was tiny and the neighborhood was squashed in on top of each other. Instead I put in an offer on this:

Little house on the sand

The offer was accepted, but we're not out of the woods yet. The current owner still has to finish the re-shingling project he started and then we have the inspections and appraisal hurdles to get over. I am sad that the gorgeous wagon wheels in the backyard are apparently going to be hauled off along with the unsightly pile of lumber. At least I got one good shot:

wagon wheels
* * *

I've gone out to Rinconada Canyon several times now. The first time was when I was here to interview. I had to catch my flight, so I had to cut my hike short and never made it to the end of the petroglyphs. I went out twice more with Tieg, the fraidy-dog, and he would NOT walk into that park. He'll walk OUT, but I had to carry him in the second time we went.

Don't know what changed ...

Tieg walking into Rinconada Canyon

He needed a little encouragement, but he walked in this time. Of course, he also knew how to stay in the shade ....

I had to be on the lookout for wildlife that might be dangerous because Tieg is oblivious. Can you find the lizard in this picture? Tieg couldn't even when it ran two foot in front of him. He also missed a rabbit.

Lizard in the sand

Luckily the only one of these we ran into was carved into the stone instead of sunning itself on the stone.

petroglyph of a snake

Honestly, the rock is so dark and most of the petroglyphs are not carved very deeply, I was initially disappointed with Rinconada Canyon. We'd seen some more striking petroglyphs in Crow Canyon near Farmington. But then I finally made it to the end of the looping trail at Rinconada...

Clear petroglyphs

They just started jumping out - much more clear and easy to spot ... more detailed and crafted than some of the earlier ones.

More petroglyphs

I thought that one looked a bit like a family of anteaters. Of course, I'm pretty sure I'm WRONG, but that's what they looked like. They're probably antelope, I would guess. Anteater, antelope.

And then there's this dude doing the funky chicken:

petroglyph of a yei, i think

And then I turned and saw this one. Now, when I snapped the shot, I could only see the center lightning figure with the head on it. You have to remember the sun is REALLY bright on the LCD screen and I'm also distracted by trying to look out for rattlers and such and make sure the tiny dog is all right.

Click this one to see it larger and more detail - there was a lot more going on in this drawing than I could see from the ground! In fact, it wasn't until I was choosing shots for this post that I realized just how much. Oh, and yes, those are freaking bullet holes in the petroglyphs here. :(

petroglyph story

There were others that I couldn't really tell if they were yei, graffiti or monsters.

petroglyphs of yei, i think

And while I'm of fair certainty that this is probably a coyote story ... it sure looks like a local dachshund petroglyph to me!

petroglyph of a coyote that looks dachshund-like

After that, Tieg let me know it was time to leave. We still had to hike a mile out of the canyon. I guess once he saw the petrodoxie, he was done for the day. The hike out goes through the center of the canyon so there's less small bits of climbing (less climbing and more a few rocks in the way and going up and down small hillish features). But, there was more underbrush to scan for snakes, so it was still a bit of a long walk.

Tieg ready to leave after the petrodoxie

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:12 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Vacations and Photos | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 21, 2011

The Cleaning Book

So, this umm, friend of mine told me this story about a friend's stay-at-home mom. Seems that Donna's mom was determined to have a clean house. This was so that Donna's mom wouldn't feel as guilty for chain-smoking in the house with two asthmatic kids.

She bought books on how to clean more effectively. There was a book entitled Do I Dust or Vacuum First?, Clutter's Last Stand, Clutter Free! and last, but not least, Is There Life After Housework?

Now Donna was no slouch of a teen. She did the chores she was given about as well as any other teen - pretty much picked up her stuff, cleaned her room, did the dishes and other assorted chores. But her mom had this issue with control. So, at 15, Donna actually asked her mom to teach her to do laundry. She'd heard all the horror stories of mixing wrong things together and ruining clothes, and she didn't want that to happen to her. So her mom essentially did all the sorting and just showed her how to turn on their washer. Just the once. Never let her near the machine again. (Despite the fact that Donna, in fact, had not wrecked anything.)

So one morning around the age of 15, she walks into the kitchen and her mother gathered her and her younger brother up and said:

"Before you do anything else today, you have to do your chores."

Ummm. What chores? They'd already done all their usual things.

Their mother proceeded to pull out The Cleaning Book.

The Cleaning Book was a large 2" or 3" binder. It was filled with thick sheet protectors - the slots were perhaps 1.5" high by maybe 3" across. Each of these slots had a notecard which had been cut down to size. A single chore was written on each one and they were colour-coded with a highlighter.

The coding system was thus: what to clean daily, twice a week, weekly, every 2 weeks, monthly, every 3 months, every 6 months, every year.

Their mother handed them this confetti and suddenly instituted, without warning, Saturday Morning Chores. And expected it to off without complaint.

The chores included things like unscrewing the heating/cooling vent covers and cleaning them in the sink, scrubbing baseboards, cleaning off the lightswitch plates - and the lightswitch plate covers. (Think "plastic wrap" for the wall around the lightswitch. And I only wish - I mean and Donna only wishes she was kidding.) And there were the usual chores of dusting and cleaning the ceiling fan and such as well.

But the chore that about did them all in was when Donna's mother handed her the Black & Decker scrubber and a bottle of some insane bleachy chemical thing and told her to scrub her parents' shower grout. She used the scrubber. She used the chemicals. She used a lot of elbow grease until that little motor just about burned up under the force. But every time Donna asked if that was good enough, her mother decided some spot or another was not yet white enough.

And didn't Donna want to do a good job?

So Donna shut the bathroom door and sprayed the ever-living crap outta that shower with the bleachy-chemicaly stuff and got right back down on her hands and knees and leaned with all her force, trying to scrub imaginary "darkish" spots out of the grout.

Luckily for Donna, her mom did come check on her before she passed out from the fumes.

Also luckily for Donna, the children's constant teasing and complaints about The Cleaning Book meant that "Chore Saturday," like most things in that house, only lasted a few months. Their mother gave in to the pressure and they went back to their normal chores.

Except every time they had to clean the baseboards, Donna strongly suspected that The Cleaning Book was merely hidden away from them rather than held aloft like the shining commandments of a clean home.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:38 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 26, 2011

Coming Out

So there's this rather well-known blogger who runs The Bloggess. She wrote a post Monday called "Coming Out" and it's not about being gay. It's about people coming out and publicly owning their mental frailties, illnesses, disruptions, whatever you want to call them. She decided to do this after a friend of hers lost her husband to suicide.

I do know that the speech she made at Tony's funeral was something that you might need to hear.
Tony took care of everyone. All the time. He was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't speak out when something was wrong.

And this is what you can do for me, for Tony, when you leave here today. All you men, you big men. When you walk away from here, you speak. If something is wrong, if something hurts, then you talk about. Tony was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't care take of himself. So after this, you speak.

This speaks to me for so many reasons. One, because I'm the person who takes care of everything and I mean *everything* and have since I was about seven or so. Maybe earlier. Two, I have never lived in a home without someone with a mental illness.

I have counted myself lucky that I do not have depression - I've had a couple of situational-induced bouts to be sure - but ongoing, clinical depression is not me.

I have friends with depression. With panic disorders. With anxiety. OCD. I have one friend who was horrifically abused who truly has multiple personality disorder (or borderline personality disorder, or whatever they've renamed it this week).

My mother's family was shaped by a narcissist and an alcoholic. Mine was as well, although my mother's took the form of a martyr complex.

A friend, in signing my sixth grade "autograph book," called me an egomaniac. After looking up the word to make sure it meant what I was afraid it meant, I vowed to think of others more. I was always looking for ways to improve, to "do life right."

With all the problems I saw around me, I vowed to be the perfect human ... which for some reason, in my head, despite really hating Star Trek because of William Shatner, I thought meant Spock. Emotions were simply useless things that got in the way. They confused and bewildered me. (And I mean that not in an emotional sense but as the inverse to a state of logic and comprehension of patterns.)

It wasn't until I read Elizabeth Moon's excellent book The Speed of Dark in August of 2005, that I began to have an inkling there might be something ... off ... with me. That perhaps my constant state of "outsider" was not due to everyone else but to my own brain construction or chemistry.

I'd had ADHD testing done in 2001 because after chemo, things I'd been able to control previously were out of control. I was having problems with motivation and organization, something that had not really been a problem before. But the doctor who did the testing did the absolutely bare minimum (and not really even that) and then left me to my GP who prescribed meds. Meds that I don't think did much of anything and so eventually I stopped taking them and really doubted the diagnosis itself.

But reading first Moon's Speed of Dark and then seeing some books talking about connections/similarities between ADHD and autism, I began to see a better picture emerge.

While Hans Asperger had noticed a set of behaviours back in 1944, his research didn't really become known in English-speaking countries until the early 1990s - after I had already graduated from high school. What is now called Asperger's is a form of high-functioning autism. And the more I've read, the more I've suspected this might explain why I was always so very different.

There's really no meds for Asperger's - instead, treatment is behavioural therapy. I read more and more about it, but didn't bother talking to a doctor. What was the point? I kept hearing story after story of insurance not paying for the therapies and that they were expensive. I was getting by - why go through the bother of a label? I would simply work on the less good traits on my own.

Except my wife was getting a little fed up. She didn't like this self-diagnosis business. Hmph. I was coping.

She didn't think I was.

And then an issue came up where all of this kind of came to a head. I'm missing too many social cues.

So, I've gone in for testing. I don't get to talk to the doc until Monday, so I don't know if I have Asperger's or not. Maybe it really is ADHD causing my issues - the doc tested for that as well. Hell, maybe it's both.

But the thing is, I'm taking positive action. And I am owning whatever the hell it is that makes me different.

Because no matter how different I am, there are others out there who are different like me.

And they need to know that being different is okay. It's okay to ask for help.

Hell, it's okay to revel in your differentness. I do. I'm PROUD of the fact that I am not like other people, that I am myself.

But you also have to coexist with other people. And if you're different, sometimes that means you need help learning how to be yourself, allow others to be themselves and coexist in a healthy and happy way.

Lori, I wish you never, ever had to go through what you've been through. There are no words.

But your words at Tony's funeral have been heard all the way around the globe. Loudly.

Tony took care of everyone. All the time. He was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't speak out when something was wrong.

And this is what you can do for me, for Tony, when you leave here today. All you men, you big men. When you walk away from here, you speak. If something is wrong, if something hurts, then you talk about. Tony was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't care take of himself. So after this, you speak.

You speak.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:35 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 20, 2011

Bookends

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you

That's been running through my head for days now, that Simon and Garfunkel song, "Bookends." It was never one of my favourite songs. Not that I dislike it, but it's so short and other songs dominated it so easily.

And it strikes me this morning, that's really the point of this song. Fleeting and delicate like our lives. Like the people who pass through our lives. The things that pass through, the moments.

We can stand still as a rock and watch as everything flows past us. Let the events and people flowing past wear us down. Maybe even erode our foundation until we tumble into the flow and are consumed by it.

We can hop a leaf and go with the flow. Maybe learning to shift our position to change course. Maybe hopping from leaf to leaf to get different views. Of course that can lead to capsizing or going backward. Flailing.

There are no right answers.

Just a plethora of choices.

And might-have-beens are simply a trap to hide your eyes from what is fast approaching.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:53 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Kids

O
nce upon a time there were two kids in the third grade.

Stacy had lived in this same town and gone to the same school all her life. Chris had bounced from town to town and state to state and this school was her fourth school, not counting preschools. Stacy and Megan had been best friends forever and now they decided to also be friends with Chris. They were good friends for a time and their little group expanded over the course of a year to also include Penny and Anna.

What Stacy Knew
Stacy and Megan had been friends forever. They did everything together and Stacy always declared how something was to go. She said when to do schoolwork, what number to stop at and wait for the other person to catch up - so they could turn their schoolwork in together - and what games they'd play. She let Megan decide the games sometimes, but mostly Stacy ran everything.

Then along came Chris. Chris was freaking bull-headed and not very cooperative. She tricked Stacy into thinking she'd also follow Stacy's orders, but she didn't. Why one day, Chris worked ahead on a language arts assignment and not only went past number ten and didn't wait for Stacy (and Megan) to catch up, but when Megan saw where Chris was ... and where Stacy was ... Chris made Megan also work ahead. And then Chris turned in her paper before Stacy and Megan! They were friends; they were supposed to do everything together!

On the playground, Chris had ideas. Big ideas. She suggested they play Star Wars. And somehow most of the third grade got involved. And Chris was directing everything. Stacy won, however, because she got to play Princess Leia while Chris didn't get to be any character because she was bossing everyone around and directing the whole thing.

It was pretty funny, though. Chris decided - and Stacy agreed - that Princess Leia and Darth Vader were actually getting drunk together during the interrogation. Stacy (as Leia) and some boy playing Vader pretended to stumble around, hanging on each other and hiccuping and singing "How Dry I Am." Stacy loved being the center of attention. And hanging on that boy. And being the center of attention.

But honestly, Chris was getting too uppity. It was Stacy who decided what the group did, particularly now that it had grown during fourth grade. To teach Chris who was in charge, Stacy cajoled one of the boys to "take care of her" during lunch.

Despite her best efforts, Stacy was appalled to find out that the boy didn't beat up Chris. And Chris somehow managed to not get in trouble for fighting. In fact, no one except Stacy seemed to even realize there was a fight going on!

Chris did seem to settle down - a little - so Stacy relaxed. But it wasn't long before she sent another boy after Chris. And another. And another.

In the beginning of fifth grade, Stacy got a lucky break. The teachers decided to re-evaluate all of the kids before placing them into groups. Chris got bumped down in language arts which meant that she was apart from the group more. Stacy worked hard on freezing Chris out so she could go back to helping the group be more of a group and support each other better. It worked. By the end of fifth grade, even though Chris had somehow convinced the teachers she should move back up to highest language arts, she was more distant and finally drifted away from the group.

Which was good, because Stacy was pretty sure that Chris was crazy. Why else would she argue with every little thing Stacy said or did?

What Chris Knew
Chris was tired of moving. She wanted friends that would last forever. Chris did everything fast. Run fast, talk fast, usually came to fast decisions. Schoolwork especially was done quickly so she could pull out a book and read something that was actually interesting. Schoolwork, to be frank, was simply a stumbling block in the way of life, always invading and interrupting. It's not that she didn't like learning, but schoolwork at this new school was way simpler than she was used to and it was boring. She was having to repeat work that she'd done at the beginning of the year in her old school. So she had a lot of time to think up new games to play with her friends.

Because she'd moved so much, she had a tendency to plan everything out in her head ... and when things didn't actually work out that way when it was time to act, she got very confused. Didn't everyone know this was the most efficient or most fun way to do things?

In language arts class one day, Chris worked to number ten like Stacy said. She looked up and over at Megan's paper. She was on number five. Stacy was on number three. Chris wanted to go get a book. She fidgeted. Bored. Bored, bored, bored. Looked over again. Oh for crying out loud. She worked the rest of the worksheet (the same one she'd done back at her old school weeks ago). She was appalled when Stacy finally looked up to discover that not only had Chris worked ahead, but so had Megan, and then Stacy burst into tears. She'd have felt way more bad about it if Stacy hadn't told the teacher that Chris had done something to her and made the teacher mad at Chris.

In fact, she was often confused as to why Stacy was mad at her this time. Also confused as to why Megan called Chris an egomaniac. Or why when she tried to make up for doing something wrong by genuinely saying sorry and offering a peace-offering gift, it was always the wrong thing to do. (Even Chris' Mom would say, "Oh Chris, you didn't. You can't just give things after you make someone mad. You can't buy their friendship.")

The more Chris tried to stand up for herself, the more she got in trouble. Teachers and her mom both told her to be more assertive, but it seemed like she'd never learn how. She was either just going along with everyone else to keep the peace or she was in trouble. There seemed to be no in between.

Softball Trophy Held Aloft

She didn't understand why Stacy kept sending boys to beat her up at recess. Or how Stacy managed to keep the teachers away so the fight wasn't broken up. Of course, Chris could take care of herself and no boy actually beat her up. In fact, other than the boy who fought like a girl, clawing at her arms with his fingernails, the fights were actually kind of interesting.

They all tried out for softball. Anna, Penny and Stacy were on the same team as Chris, but Megan lived across the line and had to be on another team. Chris wound up as pitcher, which was cool because she got way too bored in the outfield. She wished they were playing baseball instead, though. Pitching underhand was freaking lame.

Of course, Stacy couldn't stand for Chris to be good at something, so Stacy practiced pitching and practiced and practiced until by the summer after fifth grade, she was top pitcher instead of Chris. Chris let her. Told the coach she was tired of fighting and didn't even want to pitch any more.

Chris was pretty much exhausted in general.

What The Other Kids Didn't Know
Stacy and Chris were more alike than either one of them knew. As it turned out, they both had control issues although none of the kids would have necessarily called it that at the time. They also had the same reason to need to control things.

Stacy's mom was an alcoholic.
Chris' dad was an alcoholic.

As it turned out, so was Anna's dad which might explain why she had no patience for the power games but just spoke her mind and let the chips fall where they may.

Stacy's mom was checked out.
Chris' dad was checked out ... except late at night when he was a little too involved.

Neither kid was in a good position. Neither kid was allowed to control much of their own environment and so, they thought they both just wanted to get their way and feel in control of something.

Chris drifted away from the group because she was confused. Stacy was glad to have won.

In the end, however, neither kid won anything. Both of them continued to deal with an alcoholic and abusive parent. Stacy's mom eventually left ... disappeared. Chris' father remained overly involved late at night and Chris remained unable to speak of it (and almost unable to remember by daylight).

Some twenty years later there's a lot more understanding. Neither kid was actually trying to affect the other or hurt the other so much as understand the very confusing world around them.

There's always more to the story than the bits and pieces from one player. And even when you have the pieces both players are willing (or able) to share ... there's usually even more than that to the story.

Neither Stacy nor Chris was a bully, although listening to the opposite kid in third grade might have convinced you otherwise. There was certainly a war going on and it's a shame that both kids were so good at functioning as if everything were fine. They both could have used more intervention and questions to perhaps ferret out the causes for their behaviour back in the third grade.

But then, that's what it means for many survivors - not so much to ignore, but to rise above anyway. To insist that they can do things themselves, handle things themselves, no matter how tired or frustrated they are - or how unfair it might be. To not explain, because it's not possible to explain what you don't really understand. To take impossible situations and bull through them stubbornly to come through on the other side.

Because really? What other choice is there?

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:21 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 30, 2010

Grace

I have railed a couple of times (at least) about television shows I've liked that have been canceled. Yes, I'm one of those people who gets bitterly angry when "my stories" are interrupted, whether that be a book series, comic book run or television. I am notorious for snapping the head off of anyone who attempts communication with me during the last 50-100 pages of a novel that I'm into. I am known for buying an entire story arc of comics and not reading them until the arc is completed and purchased so that I can get through the entire thing in one sitting.

It's not that I use stories as escape from my own life, because that's never actually been the attraction. Instead, others' stories are a clear view into how people work. What makes people tick. Why do they act in the ways that they do. I learned, early on, that a really good story, no matter where it is found, doesn't just tell you about the unique experience of a particular person or group - instead it both tells a unique history and emphasizes how in our disparities we are so very, very similar.

In short, I become utterly fascinated with the dichotomy of different and similar in a good story.

Television stories, however, are often little more than amusement to me. They are rarely allowed to be complex enough to truly explore the differences deeply enough until they become similarities. Television rarely surprises me and it rarely requires my full attention. Frankly, in the last 10 years, I think my television has been on just too damn much - but while I prefer to listen to music, my partner can't read with music on, so I've grown accustomed to no radio. She enjoys having the television on for background noise - I can't read with spoken word as background noise, so my reading habit has gone largely by the wayside and has been replaced by various activities I can do whilst watching television. We watch a fair amount of DVDs since television is largely a cotton candy affair - nice and fluffy, but rarely anything of substance. With DVDs, we can stick to shows that require attention and are at least somewhat intellectually stimulating.

I watched Joss Whedon's Firefly and Dollhouse regularly, fascinated by the complex characters the writers and creator wove into being. Joan of Arcadia was another show that was complex, trusting the viewers to pay attention and think for themselves. Dark Angel started out as another complex show, but the more the network (rather than the writers) screwed with it, the less intelligent and demanding it became, until it, like all the others I've mentioned here, was canceled.

These were all shows which attempted, some better than others, to examine how people work and why they work the ways they do. These were all shows which required thought and sometimes required watching the show a second or third time to catch important nuances. They could all certainly be watched at a surface level - at least I think they worked that way as well. But there was a deeper side to each of these which truly made them worthwhile.

However, only two television shows have ever required my full and complete attention: Showtime's Dexter ... and TNT's Saving Grace. Often, I have finished watching an episode of Grace only to immediately hit "Start Over" and watch it again.

I should have known it was too complex to continue to air, despite its very high ratings for TNT. Fox Television Studios, the producer of Saving Grace, decided last summer (at the end of season 3) that DVD sales were not "good enough" to continue making the show. Apparently they agreed to shoot six additional episodes and TNT is paying for another three episodes so the writers can tie up the series. Thank goodness TNT decided to do that.

Saving Grace has been more complex and important television than anything I've ever seen. As fascinating as Joan of Arcadia's questions into religion and God were, Grace has taken it to a completely new level, at once more realistic and less compromising than Joan (don't get me wrong - I still think Joan of Arcadia was awesome television).

cover of Same Kind of Different as Me book

Watching last night's episode was an experience I can't describe. It was so intense, so realistic, so well acted, written and well-paced - I've never seen television like it. And what I find particularly fascinating is how well it meshed with Same Kind of Different as Me - the book we just finished reading in Sunday School, with current events, with Passover and Palm Sunday both.

A quick recap of the show:
Grace Hanadarko is a detective in Oklahoma City, on the major crimes unit. She's a typical Southern cop - hard drinking, plentiful smoking, hard language, and promiscuous. Except, of course, instead of being a good ole boy, she's female. You get the impression that Grace has embraced the stereotype rather than the writers - because there are plenty of moments where that shell of the good ole cop breaks and we see the real person beneath it. Grace comes from a large Catholic family - her older sister was at the Murrah Building on the day of the bombing. Her father was a firefighter and at least one (if not two) brothers are also firefighters. Another brother is a priest. (She also has a sister and a very beloved nephew - the son of the dead sister.)

The first seasons deals with Grace having a "last-chance" angel named Earl, a real salt-of-the-Earth almost hick type. During the first season, Grace eventually confronts and acknowledges a series of events which largely shaped the woman that she became. (No spoilers here!) The second and third seasons continue to delve into questions of religion and God (never going so far as to call one religion any better or more true than another) but also delves more deeply into the lives of all of the cast. All of their trials. All of their joys. How each of them deals with the myriad of shit that life hands out to all of us. The third season ends with Grace trying to help Neely - someone she met through Earl's intervention and cryptic prodding. Grace and Neely are on top of a twelve story building ... and jump. The last bit of footage shows that both women are alive and well despite the fall.

Title Card for Saving Grace show

This final season begins with them being rushed to the hospital ... and then tackles the questions of belief, faith, miracles and God immediately, without reservation and without trying to sugar-coat anything.

How does Grace, a rather avowed non-believer, deal with a miracle?

As is the character's wont, she does not take it gracefully, but spends the next day rebelling, continuing behaviours she knows are excessive ... and are "naughty." It's as if she has to wash away the good of the miracle with the mud and muck of the world she knows. A world where miracles happen is an unknown that Grace cannot trust. She knows what she gets with a night of beer and tequila. It's comfortable and familiar.

And yet ... she can no longer believe in the fight she's fought for so long.

An early scene in the episode:

Grace, at the altar:
(looks out over the empty cathedral-like church. Stretches out arms in crucifixion pose) Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
(pause)
(Grace takes off running. Goes to the podium area - one of the fancy versions w/ stairs up to its little cupola type spot. Grabs the fancy carved edges of the podium and lets out an almighty scream)
Okay. You've hunted me down like a spurned lover. I'm not going to take no for an answer. How can I deny you any more. You scare me.
I don't know what to trust, I don't know who you are. What you want. I mean, look at this place. This glory for you. Is it enough? Am I enough? I'm trying to hear you but I can't do it in this place. Not here.
(footsteps)
Earl?

It's the kind of breakthrough that Earl has been hoping for ... but we hear no response from God, only the footsteps which belong to a stranger rather than Earl.

In fact, it seems that Earl is with everyone around Grace ... but not really going to her. He seems nervous and in some ways, I think he is in awe of Grace - both who she was before and after the fall. Earl is afraid of the miracle he's seen because Earl is a softie ... and where there has been great light, must then fall great darkness ... and Earl hates to see anyone suffer.

The entire episode is a well-timed choreography blending darkness and light, good and evil, the sublime and the mundane and does so in such a way that you are completely captivated by the story ... and despite the overt theme and language, you do not feel preached AT. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction ... and Earl fears the backlash that will be caused by Grace's miracle fall.

As I write this, I can't help but marvel about the oppositional nature of the show - Grace falls not to her doom, Grace doesn't fall from the heavens to become a fallen, prideful being like Lucifer. Grace falls ... to gain grace/Grace.

Grace at Louie's Bar

And the effects are far-reaching. Her brother Johnny denies that he's ever seen an angel when a doctor questions him on Neely's behalf in the hospital. Later, Johnny sits next to Earl in a bar, the local hang-out.

Earl:
Your boss at the Vatican might be pretty happy. A miracle for the whole world to see.
Father John:
Oh you'd be surprised. The Vatican doesn't need proof of God's existence. When unexplained occurrences are attributed to God, the process to confirm or deny, embrace or reject, causes, excuse me, a shitstorm of political and societal repercussions which frankly, the church doesn't really deal with.
Earl:
So these two women saying they got an angel.
John:
Yeah.
Earl:
What do you think? You think they got an angel?
John:
(instantly) No. (long pause) Yes.
Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid to die. What am I doing? Worry about being silly or ending my career.
Yes, I know those two women had an angel.
Earl:
See. Until the proverbial cock has crowed, there's always time to make it right.

But intertwined with this story of a modern-day miracle, with Grace's newly burgeoning belief, is a cop story about a dog who killed a person. The mundane and the sublime. The muck and the glory.

[THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A SPOILER ABOUT THE EPISODE]
The easy out for the writers would have been to make the character I'm calling "Dark" be the culprit of murder by dog. It would have been quite easy to say that just as Denver in Same Kind of Different As Me said that Deb's light was shining so bright that there would be a darkness coming to balance it, that there be some kind of supernatural act which precipitated the woman's death. That somehow "Dark" used a perfectly good, sweet and innocent German Shepherd and somehow forced him to kill the girl, without the owner's consent. And I was prepared to suspend disbelief and go with it. But the show is more complex and realistic. Why take a cheap and unrealistic shortcut? Blending with the storyline of Grace's discovery of grace, we have a storyline where the rest of the cops in Grace's unit uncover a man who took a sweet puppy and used him as bait. Trained him to attack. Trained the dog to attack people. At the neck. This man trained his dog, sent the dog after this woman "because she was there" and had the dog kill her. And then he took the dog out back behind a warehouse, shot him and threw him in a dumpster.
[END SPOILER]

God did not kill the woman. The mysterious stranger, "Dark," did not kill the woman. It was simply man's inhumanity to man.

Likewise, God did not kill Deborah and take her from her husband, Ron (the co-author of Same Kind of Different as Me). As Dewey (one of the cops in Saving Grace) says, "shit happens."

Shit happens and how we react to it, what we choose to do with our experiences, how we allow those experiences to shape us ... that has always been the core element of Saving Grace that has kept it amazing television.

At the end of Sunday School, as we were finishing our discussion of the book, a discussion question was "how do you think Denver, who'd had such bad things happen all his life, could keep such a simple faith in God? What keeps us from having such a simple faith?"

Now, I'm not going to preach at you. I don't do that.
But I think the answer here is very simple, regardless of what god/gods/higher power you believe in.

I think it's often how we're raised. I don't mean raised with or in a religion. It's something more basic and more profound than that. I think it's with what expectations we are raised. If you are raised to believe things like "if you work hard, you'll have a great job, career, family, interior life, stuff, whatever" - then I think you come to expect those things. Most people do not believe they are doing bad ... most people think they live good lives. So why, then, if you are living a good life, do you not have whatever it is that's missing? Why don't you have kids? Why did this bad thing happen to you? Why did you lose your job, your career, your wife?

We can blame ourselves ... I didn't do enough. I wasn't good enough. But I think there are times when we discover that we really didn't do anything wrong. A friend once told a story of how she went to church every week. And then more than once a week. She was very, very into it. Tried to constantly do good, to live as God and her pastor wanted.

And as she walked home one evening, she was raped under a bridge.

How could God let such a thing happen to her, His faithful servant? She was doing GOOD ... how could God allow this to happen?

She expected, like many people, that doing good, being good, is also protection from evil.

On the other hand, Denver was raised an ignorant farmhand. He owed everything to The Man who owned the property, his clothes, his shitty window-less shotgun shack. He was taught that "this is the way things are." He was taught that God stands with you in times of trouble.

In last night's episode of Saving Grace, the writers covered this as well. Neely is coming to realize that God has not spoken directly to her as she'd thought. She's disappointed, crushed.

Neely:
What's going to take me away from here, Earl? From this feeling I have right now?
Earl:
We're gonna stay smack in the middle of where you are. You and me. Face the feeling.

And while that's not the ending of the episode, it is the ending of this post. Cuz we're gonna sit here, you and me, and face the feeling right here in the middle of where we are now.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:40 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 27, 2010

The Narcissist

There once was a girl with a curl in the middle of her fore'ead.
And when she was good, she was very, very good.
But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Her backyard was a thing of wonderment. The patio was covered by a metal roof bent to and fro like a piece of corrugated cardboard. The far ends of the roof were supported by pieces of what looked to me like wrought iron metal. Standing underneath it during a storm, I would completely lose myself in the sounds the rain made on that patio roof.

Staring out at the yard from the patio and the right side of the yard was bounded by a typical chain link fence. The left was a tall, tall privacy fence with slender boards with practically sharp points - it reminded me of an old west fort. The back fence was the same as the left, but only as tall as the chain link fence. I'd never seen a wooden fence so short before.

But the best part was the old willow trees. The one practically in front of the patio was okay, but a bit sparse. The one off to the left, though ... I played jungle in the branches hanging down every time I went out back. It was interesting how the yard was exotic and somewhat forbidding on the far side - by the tall privacy fence, but open and clear near the chain link side.

The interior of the house excited my imagination just as much - the floor in the den was a wood parquet that I was always dying to take apart. After all, it looked like a floor made out of thin wooden blocks. I always wondered what other designs I could make with the floor if I could just be left alone for a few hours ....

The hallway back to the bedrooms was always dark. The carpet was old and red and had a path worn down the center. I was fascinated by this and would try to walk against the wall, where there was still loads of cushy padding, just to be different. Even the walls were odd. A bit of molding created a frame every so often on the wall. And inside that was some red wallpaper. Maybe some day I'll find a picture of that or try to draw it from memory ... but the pattern of the wallpaper was raised and flocked ... and apparently I was not supposed to pet it.

The front room of the house was a combination living room/sitting room and dining room. The carpet was white. There was a HUGE blue velvet couch underneath a large painting of little boats on a European beachfront. The end tables and coffee tables had magazines carefully arranged, a few tasteful knicknacks and a couple of candy dishes with lids. My first foray into learning to be quiet was trying to remove the glass lid from the blue candy dish to have one piece of hard candy. It was a game I played with myself even when I had asked and been given permission to have a piece of candy.

It really wasn't about the candy ... it was about the challenge.

Everything in that house was a challenge to me of some sort. An exploration of new things. I would crawl underneath the dining room table - a gorgeous Heywood-Wakefield piece with legs curved like the rib bones of a dinosaur - and be lost in my own adventures for hours. Sometimes I was in a submarine, a rocketship or a dinosaur's belly. Sometimes it was a cave.

In retrospect, I was often so overwhelmed by the experience of my grandparents' house in Oklahoma, that I was rather lost in my own little world when there.

This mostly kept me out of trouble.

And like most little kids, I thought Grandma was perfect.

In retrospect that was a combination of a couple of factors. As a child, I largely wanted to be left alone to my own devices. That's not to say that I didn't fall into the tedious "I'm bored" trap, because I did. I did want some attention from adults. But for the most part, if you gave me a project I was interested in, I was pretty self-sufficient and content to be left alone for hours.

Grandma was good at that. We'd go shopping for a few toys or books and then she'd expect me to entertain myself thereafter. She'd give me toys that she felt my aunt didn't want any more (while most of the time she was correct about that ... she also screwed up rather royally more often than I'd like to admit). She gave me my aunt's Mego Batman and Robin and then took me to the store to get some vehicles (and maybe a bad guy - I'm a little fuzzy on that now). These were things my mom considered "boy toys" and Mom would never let me have them. Frankly, I wasn't sure how they were truly different from the Barbie dolls she handed down to me from her childhood, but there it was.

Of course, the stereotype of the grandma in the U.S. is that grandmas spoil grandkids. So naturally she got me special things.

Looking back with adult eyes, though, it was more than that. She would purposely buy the things that Mom most wanted me to not have. A six-shooter. A drum (she'd been very specifically told NO DRUMS on multiple occasions). Various "boy toys" by Mom's definition. All things that made Grandma look good ... and Mom look like an ogre. And it wasn't so much about making me happy ... although she did enjoy making me happy ... but it was often about the adulation and attention she got by gifting me with these things. As well as the opportunity to make Mom feel bad - or make me feel like Mom was in the wrong.

For years, I saw her as my protector. Where Mom seemed arbitrary and overly controlling, Grandma was sure to let me march to the beat of my own drum (that she gave me, of course). Where Mom always seemed to interrupt my playtime (or project time) with an arbitrary chore that for some reason had to be done RIGHT NOW OR THE UNIVERSE WILL IMPLODE, Grandma had no chore agenda for me.

And as her grandchild, that was exactly what I needed.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:24 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 15, 2010

The Stories Our Age Brings

Vi Kalasky-Yocum

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:13 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

1963. Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are

This is a children's book iconic, so well-known, so beloved ... and so short ... it's hard to believe Hollywood would even attempt to make a movie out of it. Of course, they're making re-makes of re-makes, so I suppose they've totally used up all of their creativity anyway. I could rant, but why waste the energy? We all know Hollywood's been sucking for a long time now and that they're making movies designed to be understood by people who've done so much crack and huffed so much paint they can barely stand upright.

Let's face it. Most Hollywood movies don't encourage thought. Those that do, get panned as too artsy or high-falutin'.

(Yes, I'm generalizing. Overstating the case. That's not really a good thing either, but let's roll with it for a minute.)

Anyhow, back to Sendak. When I saw Todd McFarlane's Where the Wild Things Are toys, I was over the moon. I was teaching at a university and my students were working on their essays during class. I was on a computer in the front of the room, ready to help if they needed anything - a student walked up while I was discovering these toy/statues.

"What's that?"

"Where the Wild Things are action figures."

"What's that?"

I blinked. He had never seen the book. So, the day before Spring Break, I brought the book in and after we'd done a little work, told them they could leave if they wanted, but those who wanted to stay, we'd sit down on the floor and have a little story time. I promised it would be quick. There were a couple of kids who started to leave ... but since the bulk of them were already plopping their butts down on the floor, most stayed. I think only 1 or 2 actually left.

Sketch of Max in his boat

Upon hearing that this book was to be made into a movie, I was furious. And it was going to be a live-action flick instead of animated. I was HORRIFIED.

And then I saw the trailer.

I was hooked and couldn't wait for it to come out.

It was absolutely fantastic.

It is not a typical Hollywood flick.

It is not a movie for children the same age as the book's original audience.

It is primarily a movie for adults, not because it's too scary or inappropriate ... but because kids aren't really the target audience. Spike Jonez is mostly reminding us what it was to be a child. The immediacy of emotion, the attempts to fix everything, the surety that a good story could fix the world just by your own force of will and belief. The mercurial emotions - gleeful one moment and devastated beyond the ability to explain in words the next. In fact, the movie is largely about being without words ... and learning to find words ... and being content knowing that sometimes words are completely unnecessary.

I've seen criticism that this movie encourages bad behaviour in children. Not really, although children do mimic what they see and they are sure to mimic the snowball fights and dirt clod wars and perhaps even the odd moment of biting. But they do this because they are children, just like Max and just like Max they are learning how to deal with their emotions and urges ... and their anger.

That's the core of this flick. How to deal with anger, with relationships, with living in community with other people.

Kids are not born knowing how to deal with anger. They are not born understanding that their actions have consequences both emotional and physical.

Max, in the beginning of the film, is a very angry little boy. He's ultimately pretty good at heart, but he is a wild thing. He is acting out. On the one hand, he wants to fix everything and make everyone happy all of the time. On the other hand (or claw), he doesn't know what to do with the anger he feels when he's lonely or sad or can't help his mom to not be sad. And with all of that confusion and anger and frustration, he behaves, oddly enough, like a child.

This is not to excuse him, mind you. His behaviour is unacceptable. His mother's reactions are not depressing, at least not to me, they're freaking realistic. She is tired. She is stressed. And while the boy is a wild thing ... she is obviously doing something right as he's also kind-hearted (when he thinks things through all the way).

However, children have to act like children in order to learn how they are supposed to behave. And if we ignore bad behaviour, they learn nothing and they act like Charlie Weis when they grow up. This movie does not hit us over the head with the punishments Max gets in order to learn how to behave ... that's a typical Hollywood gambit. Max learns it more organically than that. And sure, it's pretty obvious that there a Wild Thing that rather parallels Max ... but I think the movie manages to make that character an extension of Max's psyche in a way that's more of a literary foil than a dumbed-down version.

It's a film that captured, for me, what it was to be a child. It captured all of the things I promised myself I would never forget - how hard it is when no one has time for you, how impossible it is to explain yourself and what you're thinking and feeling sometimes.

Kids watching this flick may act out for a while after seeing it. Testing boundaries and to a certain extent, feeling that momentary freedom of just acting rather than thinking. The movie walks a very fine line with Max's behaviour. As adults, I don't think we need to see his mother punishing him because really, we get that Max gets it - how bad his behaviour has been. It's subtle, but it's clearly there. Children - well, it depends on the maturity and intellectual capabilities of the specific child (or their attention span - the movie isn't really paced for kids). Some of them will get it. Some of them will think Max got away with murder and that they can as well.

If you take a child to this movie, it's up to us as adults to DISCUSS it with the kid afterward. Not hammer them about what was right or wrong about Max's behaviour. Not point out how much trouble they'd be in if they ever behaved that way. Discuss all of it. Ask them if they ever feel that lonely. If they ever get that terribly out of sorts that they feel like an out-of-control wild thing. Tell them how you used to be. How you sometimes still feel those feelings. And what you do to cope with the feelings and still behave like a proper person instead of a wild thing.

I loved this movie because it's not a passive thing. Sure, you can turn your brain off and watch it if you want. You might even enjoy it that way.

But if you engage with it and with other people ... if you discuss it ... the issues it brings up ...

Well, then it's a film that is as timeless as the book itself. A book which caused quite a bit of controversy itself when it was first published. And even more when it snagged the Caldecott.

One of my favourite bits (and it's giving nothing away, it's depicted on some versions of the movie poster) - is the parallel between Max and a Wild Thing walking through the desert and the very similar poster for the absolutely wretched George Lucas flick. Without overdoing it, Jonez is making a comparison, I think, that each of us has an Anakin/Vader battle of our own. Really, Jonez probably places more emphasis and symbolism on the desert the characters cross and its mere existence on the island of the wild things more than he was making a nerd reference to Episode One, but the visual "one-liner" was just one of many delights I found in the movie. For me, that was a still frame every bit as rich and engaging as a page from Sendak's original book.

I hope the movie does well. Maybe it will encourage Hollywood to make more films that don't require we turn off our brains and mindlessly consume without engagement.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:50 PM | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

Homes

When I was just starting school, we moved to a very magical place. The north side of Austin, in a little subdivision called Balcones Woods. You got there via the highway, passing a couple of active quarries - the subdivision was marked by a large stone wall turned into a sign ... that was Balcones Woods Drive, a long, winding road into the subdivision with little branches coming off of it like tiny creeks fracturing off a slightly larger river.

Having just come from the frozen northlands of Indiana and townhouse living, I was mesmerized with the duality of our new house. If I stood in the front yard and faced south, it was a neighborhood. If I stood in the backyard, faced north and through the section of fence that Dad had taken down ... woods. It was beautiful and I was in heaven.

Dad began carving out areas of the backyard for plants. There was a border lined with decorative cement "fence" pieces, scalloped like little half circles erupting from the ground - and rose bushes and other plants safely ensconced between them and the fence. There was the garden area to the west side of the yard. And one little "wild" patch that Dad never did figure out what he wanted to do with. In a lot of ways, that was my favourite area, oppositional child that I was.

Despite my allergies, I spent long and happy hours in the backyard. I learned to not give completely in to Mom's fear of wasps and bees, although they do make me rather nervous now. I played with little garter snakes ... and brought them up to show Mom and Dad both before learning that 1) Mom is terrified of any creepy-crawly, but most especially snakes and 2) some snakes were serious business. Dad was good about it. He told me what to watch for in rattlers - but I never did see one. I'm not sure we really discussed cottonmouths much, but we probably should have.

I continued to pick up and play with my little ribbon snakes, however. And lizards. If I could have caught the rabbits that came into the yard, I'd've picked them up as well.

In the evenings we'd watch as the rabbits and deer would come to the garden for a snack. Dad was alternately furious with the wildlife and entranced. We could have built a critter-fence around the garden, but somehow despite his complaining, Dad never built it. I wonder now if it wasn't because he, too, enjoyed watching the animals come creeping into the backyard through the gap in our back fence.

One of the most memorable and even magical moments, however, was one shared by the entire neighborhood.

I don't know how the whole neighborhood knew to open their front doors and come outside. This was long before cell phones or even cordless phones. Besides, no one could hardly move or take their eyes off the scene.

A large buck was leaping diagonally across Balcones Woods Drive.

I can remember watching as it passed our house, lightly touching down and then this surging ripple in the muscles of the hindquarters and with this silent explosion of energy he was flying all the way across the street to the edge of Julie Koska's yard. Another surge and he was at the edge of Keith's yard, next door to ours. In a matter of heartbeats he was bounding down the street and around the curve out of our sight.

It was one of the most beautiful events I've ever witnessed. It seemed to happen so quickly and yet it also happened in slow motion.

And while it was a beautiful event ... it was also the harbinger of bad things to come.

You see, the subdivision was expanding. We were forced to put our section of back fence back up because the builders were going to put in a two-story house behind us. The woods behind us were bulldozed. Rabbits, opossums, snakes ... these were just a few critters we saw trying to move into our backyard because they had nowhere else to go.

At first, I thought this was wonderful. More rabbits in our yard. More deer. But then the deer stopped coming at all. The two-story house now where my beautiful extended backyard had been looked directly into our back porch and kitchen. An opossum decided to live in our trash can (until Mom freaked out so much that it left when she wasn't looking).

One night, soon after our new backyard neighbors moved into their two-story ... we had some old neighbors decide to move into our house. Mom and Dad were in their bedroom ... when they heard this odd skritch, skritch, skritch sound. They turned the lights back on, went into our wood paneled den and looked around. At first, nothing. Then the skritch.

Then there were three loud THUDs as Dad took a shoe and killed the three scorpions on the wall.

Mom came into my room the next morning and explained how we'd have to check our shoes every morning before putting them on from now on. So, I looked in my shoe carefully and saw something scurrying back and forth. To be honest, I'm pretty sure I would have noticed the critter doing the 50 yard dash back and forth in my shoe even had Mom not warned me. I wasn't sure what the hell a scorpion was, but the thing in my shoe didn't move like a spider, that I knew. I bent over the shoe for a few minutes, studying the speeding critter. Definitely not a spider. And I had no idea what the issue was with scorpions - maybe they were somewhat poisonous. Not rattler poisonous or Mom would have been freaking out more, but maybe they were more painful than a wasp sting. Best not experiment.

Since she'd said something about it, I calmly went into her room, "Mom, there's a scorpion in my shoe."

"Oh honey, just because I just told you about that doesn't mean there's a scorpion in your shoe."

My poor mother never did understand that I was not a child who made up stories like this. If I said I didn't feel good, chances were that vomiting was in the near future, not that I was trying to get out of something. That kind of duplicity just didn't occur to me. If I said there was a critter, there was a critter.

Don't get me wrong, I could make up a wild story, but they were obviously wild stories. And I did like to play practical jokes, but I could never keep a straight face when I did. Which rather gave the joke away.

"Mom, there's a scorpion in my shoe."

"Now, don't make up stories."

I just stood there. Finally, "I've never seen a spider that looked like that."

Exasperated, Mom went into my room, picked up my shoe with casual abandon that I'd never seen her use around a creepy-crawly more than a daddy-longlegs, and dumped my shoe out over the toilet to prove to me for once and for all that there was ...

She screamed. Well, squeaked.

There in the toilet bowl, attempting to swim its way out, was a light tan, semi-translucent scorpion.

I was fascinated to see it where it couldn't hurt me (could it shoot venom or something out of that tail? maybe I should re-think this curiosity thing). Mom pushed me away and flushed the toilet. And apologized.

Whether it was coincidence or not, soon thereafter we began making plans for moving out of Austin to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Dad went up into the attic to lay down some more insulation to make the house more salable ... and discovered one more creepy-crawly who'd moved out of Balcones Woods and into the house.

As we were finishing our packing and waiting for the moving van to take our stuff away, I heard Dad laughing about the "bad luck" of the new home owner who'd bought this house. I should interject now to say that my Dad had the morality and ethics of a child who thinks pulling the wings off of flies is a roaring good time. When he was installing the insulation, he discovered not termites ... but thousands upon thousands of ant eggs. I like to think that he at least sprayed something up there, but probably not.

It's the thing we understand least, I think, when we tear down a "wild" area in order to build a new subdivision. We're not just building up a place for ourselves, we're evicting others. I'm not saying we shouldn't ever build! I do wonder, though, if we shouldn't re-think the arrogance with which we build. We get upset when our homes are invaded by spiders or ants or scorpions. (Or, mice in the attic, I say, shaking my fist at the mouse racetrack above the living room ceiling. Apparently mouse and chipmunk Nascar is held in our attic. Yeah, it's exciting to hear the zooming mice in an oval whilst trying to watch tv.)

What effect is displacing the native wildlife going to have on the neighborhood? What effect will having fewer trees and more concrete and asphalt have on the area? Can we figure out ways to coexist with the creatures we can coexist with?

Some things we learn through experience - like the midwestern farmers who tore down fences and tree lines to keep the landscape unmarked by ridiculous boundary lines (and thus keep us looking different from the "ugly" partitioned farms of the U.K.) ... only to find out that without those windbreaks, small though some of the were, snow swept through the fields and buried farmhouses and barns. Is there some kind of balance to be struck between living near the rich, rich farmland of an old river bottom ... and the completely natural and necessary flooding of that area every decade or so?

Why is our first instinct when an earthquake or hurricane rips through and destroys a town - or a tornado mutilates a trailer park - "well, they decided to live there." Why isn't our first thought a way to adapt to existing conditions instead of putting on blinders and assuming we can "fix" the nature of the area?

I don't know any of those answers ... just another one of my crazy-talk think-pieces.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:41 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 16, 2009

Fictions We Tell Ourselves

I have always had a relatively easy time making acquaintances when I gear myself up for it. What I have always had a difficult time with is making friends. Sure, everyone has this problem to some extent - that's why most folks have more acquaintances than friends and it's why the one line from "The Body" and Stand By Me gets quoted so often: "I never had friends later on in life like the ones I had when I was twelve - Jesus, does anyone?"

But I always struggled making friends. Maybe it was because we moved seven times to six cities before I started kindergarten. And then I went to 3 elementary schools, moved towns once more ... and did 3 semesters at one junior high and 3 semesters at another. It could be that. But I think it's something more fundamental to my core personality.

Invader Zim the alienAs a child, I could chat with adults quite comfortably. Other children, on the other hand, confused me. I felt a bit like Invader Zim in his human suit - except I had no plans to actually take over the world. I was an alien surrounded by real people and I could never quite figure out how they worked or what so many of their gestures or phrases or looks meant. I could hang around with a bunch of different groups of kids ... but I was always on the periphery.

As an adult, that's not really changed - I'm constantly misreading cues from others and misinterpreting things. At the same time, I can generally tell you someone's motivations for actions.

When I first started going to a certain activity as an adult, I didn't expect to like it or to make friends. I'd long since learned that I suck at making friends. I tagged along at first because my partner enjoyed going to this group activity and wanted me to come as well. I was quite surprised to discover I enjoyed the hell out of it. I hoped that I would be able to fit in and to make friends ... but I was unsurprised to have this not really happen. Don't get me wrong, there are several folks I've met there whose company I really enjoy and would love to call friend - but seems like it's mostly a one-way relationship and frankly, I get tired of trying so hard to keep it going.

You can only invite someone over so many times before you get the message, you know?

Eventually, I joined a subgroup in this place - love every minute of it. It's an activity that stretches me and terrifies me and the folks there have been wonderful. No one has judged me, no one has told me I suck or I'm not talented or any of that. They encourage me - it's great! But I also feel like I've never really "broken into" the group either. I still don't feel included, I suppose I'm saying.

And then, a few weeks ago our subgroup has a party. And the "owner" of the main group is also a member of this subgroup - just a member of it though, someone else leads this subgroup. The "owner" says "something came up" and he can't attend the party. I'm disappointed, but I get that. The "owner" is a very busy person and shit does come up for him all the time.

So we're all at the party having a grand ole time ... and somehow the whole thing changes from a party to an impromptu meeting. And the subject appears to be how some folks are thinking that the "owner" isn't a good leader. Parts of this meeting are really good - we needed to do some thinking about our budget for next year and to see if we could do some fundraising or something. We had great discussion around this. But there were these odd moments where everything would shift and grow dark and bitter ... and people told how unhappy they were with the "owner."

I was shocked.

I had NO idea.

None. It was to the point, apparently, that some have thought about leaving the group because the "owner" isn't the kind of leader they understand. He has a legitimate leadership style, but it's one in which the power is NOT vested in one single person, but instead is supposed to be shared among members in various capacities (capacities which are open and transparent, by the way). What he doesn't really do is stand up and say "And now our group is going to do X because I said so."

Ummm, I thought that was a good thing?

I listened. Spoke up now and again. But it seemed like people needed to vent, so I tried to let them do that. They were upset that for the first time ever, the "owner" had not shown up for a group event. They said he was avoiding conflict.

I just had a feeling that he didn't even know there was a real conflict.

And when it was all over, I emailed him and said, "We have to talk."

We did that ... spent two hours telling him everything that I could remember from that gathering/meeting. Not because I'm a tattletale. Not because I thought it would garner any kind of favour.

But because there was a serious problem going on and the people who needed to be talking to each other weren't doing it.

There was no indication at the meeting that anything was said that wouldn't be said to the "owner's" face. There was no indication that this was a closed discussion or that there was any kind of implied privacy or confidentiality.

The "owner" thanked me for having the courage to come forward and let him know what was happening. He'd only heard the vaguest of mutterings and that had only come very recently when apparently this had been going on for quite some time.

He wrote everyone in the subgroup a letter and asked if it was okay if he named me as the one who had come forward. I said it was fine - and it is. If I misspoke or gave him any wrong impressions, the others should know whom to correct. I don't do the crappy behind-the-back shit. That's just cowardly.

A part of me expects that the subgroup might feel betrayed anyway. I knew when I first went to the "owner" that doing so might cost me my membership. So be it. It was the right thing to do. I didn't carry tales - I let there be known what the problems were. I didn't engage in any he said/she said - my memory is not that good.

The owner sent me a copy of the letter before everyone else to make sure that I was still comfortable being named as the one who'd come forward. That what he'd written was a fair interpretation/recounting of what I'd said (inasmuch as it even covered that - really there was only a small section that came from me). And then an invitation for people to please come forward and talk with the owner - to get this worked out.

That sounds like someone who is good at handling conflict to me - not someone who skips a social event because he's avoiding conflict.

Ultimately, I hope this all works out. That all the issues are brought to the forefront and dealt with and we come back in the fall as an even stronger group than we were this year.

But I will never understand why some folks seem to have gone at least a whole year harbouring issues until they festered into wounds and expected the owner to just magically know there was a problem, what the problem was and how to fix it.

And people act like I the alien.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:47 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 26, 2009

Piles of Dirt

There was little more fascinating to me as a kid than a simple pile of dirt. Now I'm not talking Mom-sweeping-the-floor dirt. I'm talking a nice, solid mound at least 3-4 feet high.

Oh, who am I kidding? Even today there is little that will spark my imagination faster than a pile of dirt.

During my lunch hour now, I leave the building and make a quick jaunt to a little subdivision on the edge of Northern Indiana farmland. The subdivision has just four streets so far - two "horizontal" and two connecting "vertical" streets - and maybe as many as a dozen houses, but I doubt there are even that many. It is, I suppose, a victim of our current economy and the housing bubble gone POP.

It's the perfect lunch sanctuary here.

field

I come out here and park the car at the end of an unfinished vertical street, and stop just as the pavement turns to gravel and then dirt. And I face this large meadow to my left and a small line of windbreak trees before me. Just to right there is a huge old tree and I hope they never tear it down just to put another crappy little house up.

And as much as I love trees, and as much as I love to feel the wind on my face, hear the birds and the grasshoppers and the screech of the occasional hawk, it is the simple piles of dirt which mesmerize me.

I look at them and I am instantly ten years old again. Those tire tracks are really desolate roads leading to the mountains and I can see my younger self kneeling in the dirt with absolutely no regard for my now decrepit knees or the pile of hardware that keeps my right leg together and also keeps it tender and stiff.

But there I am, knees grinding into the dirt tracks with my Fisher Price Adventure People action figures. The blue TV van and the green action sports van hurtling down the dirt roads, leaving their own tiny tracks behind in the soft, loose soil.

Fisher Price Adventure People HikersWe pull up to the base of the left-most mountain and the mountain climbers (Jan and a nameless red-headed bearded man in a red lumberjack-like shirt) clamber out of the back of the green van. The motorcross guy helps them with their gear - a climbing rope "backpack" and a "backpack" for their sleeping bags. And while the always nameless motorcross guy is helping them, his brother Joey is getting the motorcycle out of the van and prepping it. Joey will just watch from the sidelines today - his sports are parachuting and kayaking. Fisher Price did not make him with legs to bend at the knee so he could also ride the motorcycle, so in my world, Joey has had an accident which fused his knees. He fouled up a skydiving jump. His parachute is wrapped and ready to go, strapped in to the top of the van, but ... not today.

The mountain climbers begin their arduous trek up the piles of dirt. Throwing the climbing rope and labouriously ensuring that it's caught solidly before beginning the next part of their ascent. Jan, in her shorts, is particularly nimble whilst the poor bearded man is ... well ... a bit clumsy for a climber.

They make a brief rest camp and I climb to the top of the dirt pile and survey what dangers might lie ahead for them and Mr. Motorcross and wish for a tame creek - one I could bring my action figures' boats to and have them go scuba-diving without fear of the current stealing my toys with a minute's inattention.

For example, ants are now travelling over the abandoned Joey and I jump down to smush them because ants are evil and must all be smushed.

My younger self could happily play with my toys out here for a week and really not notice the passing of time as such.

Sadly, that was never allowed.

"You'll lose them."

"The other kids will break them or steal them."

"The other kids will laugh at you."

I didn't care then, but my mother did. I turned 11, 12, 13, 14 and then 15 and I still had not lost interest in my toys and my mother began to panic. She devised any excuse she could think of to disrupt my playtime ... although at 15 I called it storytime and used the toys to act out bits of novels I wrote during school. And finally, she forced me to sell them all.

I am convinced that were I plopped out there today with a tubload of those action figures and a guarantee that no one would see me or disrupt me, I could easily lose myself again - like a fade cut at the end of a movie when the main character finally gets what he wants and we're ready to assume that it all works out, and there are, in fact, no consequences beyond that moment of perfect contentment as the scene closes.

Unfortunately, this is reality and as I check my iPod's clock to see how I've managed to write all of this and NOT use up my entire lunch hour yet, the reality comes flooding back. The alarm went off fifteen minutes ago, but I had turned the external volume all the way down and forgotten. I convinced myself to trust the alarm and just keep writing instead of obsessively checking the time like I usually do. I am supposed to be clocking back in this very second.

I start the car and begin to back up, turn around and head back to the cubicle ...

... once again denying that kid a promising pile of dirt.

field

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:26 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 10, 2009

Complexities of Dollhouse

Most of my favourite books are character-driven books. They have to have a good plot, but it's the character that drives everything for me. The same with television and movies. Oh sure, I'll turn on a rather empty movie or show for background noise whilst I'm drawing ... or working in Photoshop - but it's not something I pay close attention to.

And, I've realized, besides the character-driven aspect, I want a plot that is rich. One that I can't really guess from 200 pages out or from the first three minutes of the show. I will admit I enjoyed the TV show The Pretender - not for its wretched Scooby Doo plots (where the first person the Scooby gang sees is generally the bad guy) - I found the show fascinating for the overall story. Who was Jarod really? Why was he snatched? Would he find his answers? Could he bring down the Center and save Sydney and Miss Parker? How can he claim to be so moral when he's constantly lying about who he is? What is the back story of the Center? of Miss Parker?

The basic weekly plot was a funny li'l side benefit. Nothing to concentrate hard on, but just an interesting side note on the way to delivering the larger story. It was often amusing, funny, touching ... and always revealing about Jarod's real self. It was not the best-written show ever, but I found the premise fascinating and the actors all did a splendid job, I thought.

Now with all of that said, I didn't watch more than a handful of episodes of Lost. It does seem like the show is character-driven. There is in over-arching, series-encompassing plot rather than each episode being a "one-off," a self-enclosed entity. I'm not positive why Lost didn't capture my attention and, in fact, wound up irritating the crap out of me. Perhaps too many characters and not enough hints/clues/info about each? That's the most likely answer - there were too many people and I couldn't focus enough on someone to become invested in. The ending of the few early episodes I saw felt like cheats to me. When I hear co-workers talking about the overall plot now, it does sound like an interesting show ... maybe I'll give it another try and Netflix it later on. But it seemed too spread out and too slow to capture my attention.

On the other hand, Dollhouse captured my attention from the get-go. I had one major character to concentrate on - Echo/Caroline - and two semi-major characters: her handler, Boyd, and the FBI agent who is obsessed with this mysterious dollhouse organization. Then there's two more slightly less air-time (at least at the beginning of the show) characters that I'm fascinated by: Topher and Dr. Saunders. To a lesser extent, I'm somewhat interested in the "madame" of the show as Cowboy Pete called her - and he's right about that. As the show has progressed, I have become much more invested in her character than I ever thought I would.

For those who haven't watched the show, let me explain the concept very quickly: The Dollhouse is a "company" which has developed a way to take your memories and personality and place all of that on a hard drive (a wedge). They can then wipe your brain clean, essentially, and imprint you with a new personality and new memories. It might be a composite of several people - the skills of a bank robber, the law knowledge of a cop, the computer skills of a genius and the empathy of a really good nurse. Or, it might be the straight-up personality, knowledge, skills and memories of a single person.

The "actives," as they call their unwitting operatives, have little personality when they are not actually on an assignment. They are docile half-wits who do what they're told. It's only after they've received a "treatment" to turn them into a full-fledged personality that they "come to life" - as someone other than their "true" selves.

Okay, I have to admit, the concept alone completely fascinates me. Some unscrupulous company is erasing people? Who the hell is going to volunteer for shit like this, it's insane to let yourself be wiped, right? But think of those times in your teens or twenties when something wretched had happened and you just wanted to disappear. Or you thought that if you just had x amount of money, you could get through this and start over, better. In a moment of desperation, the thought of disappearing for 5 years and then "waking up" with 5 years of damn good salary and not having had to spend anything on apartment rent or car payments or well, even food, might sound like a good idea. Momentarily. After all, you're not responsible for anything you do during those 5 years, because it's not really you doing it. And you won't remember any of it anyway. And you'll be through the bad patch with a nice sum of cash. It's kind of like hitting fast forward on a bad patch of your life, right?

Naturally, the situation is more complex than that, but I can easily see how at 22 I might have found that an attractive option in a moment of weakness or desperation. Hell, I can see where a 30something or a 40 something might find that an attractive option after the love of their life dies ... or a traumatic divorce. There are circumstances which make most people wish for a fast-forward and a clean start.

And, from the first aired episode of Dollhouse, we get the idea that at least the main active we'll be watching through this series, Echo, is not quite as "wiped clean" as Topher (the genius tech who runs the wiping and imprinting technology) thinks. There are moments in every episode where we see flashes of Echo's core self, Caroline, coming to the surface even though that's not supposed to happen.

We're also told that Alpha - a doll who at one time was their best male active - was an anomaly whose core personality started "waking up" at least somewhat when he was supposed to be in his docile, empty state. He turned out to be an active who broke the programming, killed a handler, maimed several dolls and escaped. An insane genius, they describe him now. One they'd both like to forget and capture. But their first clue something was wrong was the fact that his core personality starting coming through the imprinted ones.

So, will Echo/Caroline turn into a psychotic repeat of Alpha? Or will she "wake up" and bring the Dollhouse and its company down?

Other Whedon fans have called the show an actor's dream where the main character can be completely different every week - and therefore show off the actor's range. There is some truth to that, I think, but to write the show off as only a Dushku vehicle - a kind of network sponsored demo reel - is to sell literally everyone involved in the series very, very short.

I honestly don't understand the ire Dollhouse has gained from some Whedon fans ... unless it is perhaps too subtle for them? And I think this is the real crux of the problem.

There are a handful of shows that I must actually watch every minute. Dollhouse is one. Dexter is another. Life is another. And Saving Grace is another. I cannot sit and draw and half-watch any of these. The acting is often done in silence as it is in real life. More is communicated through a look or a gesture or a sudden look in an unexpected direction than through the overt dialogue. In Saving Grace, everyone from Holly Hunter through the director, writers and producers have said what a joy the show has been to work on because they don't rely on music or a "hit-you-over-the-head" camera angle to force their viewers to pick up on a subtle detail or clue. You have to pay attention yourself. And the show assumes that you are and that you are intelligent enough to pick up on these things. Imagine that, television that assumes the viewer has a brain and enjoys using it.

Now, don't misinterpret that last paragraph. I don't think that the Whedon fans who dislike the show are stupid - I am NOT saying that. I am thinking that they - for any number of reasons - are not picking up on the subtleties of the show. And that could be true for a variety of very legitimate reasons.

I, personally, have found the Echo/Caroline character fascinating. I see quite a bit of her core Caroline self in her various Echo personalities. I think that to accept that Echo has nothing of Caroline in her either in the inactive docile doll state or while she has been imprinted with a personality and is out on an assignment is to swallow the line that the Dollhouse company is handing out. The evidence is certainly there that the personality wipes are simply not very good. I watch each episode waiting for Caroline to burst through Echo in some way ... to further the mystery, to further her struggle and save herself. To say that only in the last episode does Echo begin feeling stirrings of Caroline is to have not really watched the subtleties of the show from the first episode aired.

You see, I don't think either Echo or Caroline is a damsel in distress and doesn't know it. And I don't think she's waiting for someone else to come rescue her. I think that core personality - that soul as the rather overbearing FBI agent Ballard kept saying in the season finale - is there and is trying to break through. She might be a Sleeping Beauty as Jane Espenson says in the episode with that title - but she's not really waiting for a prince to come and save her. This show is about her struggle to awaken from a situation which seems beyond her control and yet at the same time is a situation in which she got herself into.

That, to me, seems to describe many people I know. How many people find themselves in a situation where they essentially, became lulled by everyday living to the point where they "fell asleep"? I can think of friends who were so caught up in the day-to-day "I have to work 80 hours a week to make enough" or to keep this job or to put my wife or husband or boyfriend through school -- and when that goal is accomplished we can start living again. They are so caught up in that, that they aren't living any more. They're not staying true to their core values even though they've lulled themselves into believing they are. And one day, something happens and they wake up and look at what they've been doing, who they've become, the time they've "wasted" and freak out. They can either be numbed by the realization, go back to sleep and back to the status quo or they can struggle to wake up and make a change, become true to that older ideal and less involved in reacting to the now, but acting upon their core beliefs.

To watch Dollhouse, to me, has been to watch each of the characters struggle with this. How do they balance the ethics of what they do? How do they make a change now? If they just leave, does that really change anything since the dollhouse continues on without them?

Dollhouse is not Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It's not Angel. It's not Firefly. And yet, it does encompass all of the tropes that mark a good Joss Whedon venture. All of his shows have explored the messy choices that we make and how we stay true to our own moral compass. Spike (from Buffy and Angel) was not just a bad guy, nasty vampire. He was, in many ways, better than Angel ever was because despite the demon within (the vampire), he wanted to do good. Angel had a soul forced on him - before then, he was a right nasty bastard who'd given in to the demon.

Mal (from Firefly) was not the immoral smuggler he seemed to be. He was a military man who fought for and believed in the side who lost. He tried to take jobs that either helped people or at least didn't hurt anyone.

All of these characters struggled deeply with the circumstances in which they found themselves. The struggled against societies who wanted them to fall asleep and toe the line - to fit into their neat, little stereotypical boxes and just stay there and be predictable. But life isn't like that. It's messy and it's not predictable.

And neither are we.

Even when we fall asleep and let our circumstances carry us away, we tend to wake up and fight back at the most inopportune moments.

If you wrote off Dollhouse as merely an actor's dream role, I invite you to take another look. If you haven't watched it yet, I hope this has intrigued you to take a look now. The DVDs are available on Amazon and available by the end of July. Or watch it on FOX on demand.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:46 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 30, 2009

Poseidon and the Bitter Bug

The first song I heard by Indigo Girls was, like most folks my age, "Closer to Fine." And I have to say, I really, really liked it. It was infectious, it was fun ... and unlike a lot of "pop" music, it asked you to think a bit, too. While the music, the beat, the progression of notes all can sweep me away, the music that I enjoy the most is music that makes me both feel and think. Every Indigo Girls album from Strange Fire all the way through Poseidon and the Bitter Bug has more songs which make me think & feel than songs that don't. The fact that I have always enjoyed the way Amy and Emily's voices blend and the type of music they coax from their guitars, mandolins and even the banjo (and we all know how much I adore the banjo) ... and the way that they've grown as musicians, adding drums, orchestra (and even *gasp* electric guitars at times) have always remained amazing to me.

There are bands that I once loved, but which grew in a different direction than I did. Best example is U2 - I haven't liked anything they've done since Rattle & Hum - and I adored pretty much everything they'd done up to that point. There's nothing wrong with the music they've done since then, I certainly don't think they're a horrible band now or anything. But I adored the musical direction they took in Rattle & Hum and simply haven't been as interested in their direction since then.

REM is another band where I had to have everything they'd done once I discovered them ... but somewhere around Monster, I stopped buying CDs. I'm not sure why, but the intense connection I'd once had with their music just ... faded.

Indigo Girls, on the other hand, have grown as I've grown and apparently we're still growing in similar directions. I admit, I was frustrated with their frustrations with a big name label and I enjoyed the risks they took in their music and their ever-evolving sound (which nonetheless always remained uniquely identifiable as Indigo Girls) and worried that the record label would try to force them to make only clones of "Closer to Fine." So, I was very curious to see what would happen once they broke away from the big label.

Poseidon and the Bitter Bug came out a month ago and somehow I managed to not notice that until this past week. Interestingly enough, they released a double set - one disc as a "studio" album and the other as an acoustic album.

I find it interesting that the first review I read of the CD complained about the "over-production" of some of their previous albums - I assume the reviewer was thinking of Swamp Ophelia, for example. For me, I found the progression from Strange Fire (their first CD) through Poseidon and the Bitter Bug to be one of constantly growing musically. No album was some odd re-invention of what it meant to be Indigo Girls, but instead was an outgrowth of what had gone before. I found it interesting when their music took on new depth with new arrangements and new instruments added to the mix. This reviewer (I'm afraid I didn't save the link, sorry) enjoyed the acoustic version of the album more than the "studio" version.

And here's where I think Amy & Emily were simply brilliant in releasing this dual album. There are plenty of fans who prefer the simplicity of two voices and a couple of acoustic instruments. A kind of campfire, back to the roots movement. There are some folks who are sick to death of a voice and guitar and that's all there is. I don't quite fall into either category (shocker, I know). But I think it was brilliant of Indigo Girls to both continue to explore their music the way they want to - and to also give that segment of acoustic fans who've been with them since the Uptown Lounge (and earlier!) what they loved in the first place.

As for specific songs, once again, I'm going to have to listen to the whole CD in a place where I can concentrate and read the lyrics along with them. They always make me think. I have yet to get an album of theirs where I don't want to sit with the lyrics and get lost in the music and what they're saying (both lyrically and musically) - this CD is no different in that regard.

From my superficial listen at work yesterday, the songs that have particularly caught my attention are "Sugar Tongue," which wasn't at all what I expected - though I expect that to change again when I can really listen with the lyrics - "I'll Change," "Ghost of the Gang" and most especially, "True Romantic."

Let me tell you, I thought on first listen that Amy had actually swiped Radiohead's "Creep" with "True Romantic." And I'm not the only one who's made that connection. However, when I listened to "Creep" and "True Romantic" back to back - they're not the same song at all. (And, to be honest, I'd be beyond SHOCKED if either of the Indigo Girls actually swiped a song. It's just not who they are.) What amazes me is that as much as I adore "Creep," I think that "True Romantic" goes even further - it's an even better song. I would guess that it's a kind of riff off of "Creep," kind of an extension of it. Of course, I still need to sit down with the lyrics and really study it.

The weird thing, though, is that I have this odd tendency to hear lyrics that are not there. For example, in "Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel, I can clearly "hear" a space in that song for the words "fuck you." The words are not there, I'm not physically hearing them, don't worry. But I can hear the intention of them. I've done this a few times with Indigo Girls songs as well, including some alternate lyrics to "touch me fall" that are rather ... umm ... racy. (And then I found out that there were some alternate, private lyrics to that song that were rather close to what I "heard.") For "True Romantic" I keep hearing "True Believer." Dunno why, I've got to make some time to listen to this CD more carefully!!

At any rate, I think the CD is well worth the money and I love the fact that they added an Acoustic Sessions disc as well.

I fully expect this CD, like all of their others, to grow on me the more I listen to it. And I'm constantly amazed at how they grow as people, as lyricists, as musicians - and that we seem to be growing in the same directions.

And now, I'm late for work ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:05 AM | Blog | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 20, 2009

The Day I Beat the Lie Detector Test

Once upon a time, I was determined that I was going to be a cop and catch bad guys. This was the very beginning of the 80s and I convinced my friends to play detective games at recess every day. (Except when we played Star Wars.) One tree served as the door to every building - it had started life as two trees, but had grown together ... had a huge V opening. We placed a flat rock in front of the tree one day as a "welcome mat" - last time I was in the neighborhood, that rock was still there.

We all read slews of Hardy Boy books - I had the Hardy Boys Detective manual ... a toy forensics kit ... we investigated real crimes. And then "Anne" got a little game with a lie detector. It was not the Mattel Lie Detector game which is all Los InterWebz seemed able to find when I looked, but a little game and kit - the lie detector could be reconfigured to be a burglar alarm which Anne used to guard her room from her big brother and little sister.

But the game is where I got into trouble. I cannot hold a straight face very long. I would be horrible at poker. I was notorious in school for coming up with some insane but yet plausible answer to people's questions ... and then as soon as it looked like they were actually swallowing the bait, I couldn't do it anymore and I'd burst out giggling like a maniac. You could believe what I told you ... because I couldn't really lie to save my life for more than 5 minutes anyway.

So we all gathered in Anne's room one day and began playing the little board game that came with her lie detector game. The game was sort of like clue and sort of like go fish. The other players could ask if you had a particular suspect/weapon/place card ... and then could ask you to put on the lie detector to make sure you told the truth.

It would have been one thing if I could have beaten the cheap, toy lie detector and kept a straight face. I mean, that was a big part of the game - trying to beat the lie detector. It would have been one thing if any of the others could have beaten it with any regularity.

But no, I had to be the only one who beat it regularly AND I couldn't keep a straight face when I beat it. So everyone freaking KNEW I was lying. "Stacy" actually tried to institute a rule that I wasn't allowed to lie during the game so everyone else had a chance to win.

I only remember us playing that game, all together, the one time. Not too long after that, the group and I had a falling out as I got tired of "Stacy" telling me what to do, when to do it, blah blah blah.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:18 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 7, 2009

Brakes Are Over-Rated

My father was ... is ... an alcoholic. So maybe that one tidbit will help you understand a little better my desire for my own set of wheels. After years of being forced to get into the car in the evenings with a drunk, I was ecstatic to be able to take myself places and not have to worry about Dad's condition ... or Mom's reluctance to leave the house for any reason.

So that rolling deathmobile may have represented freedom to me in a way a little bit bigger than it did to most teenagers.

Shortly after I moved out of the house ... actually, as soon as my mother discovered that I was planning on moving out of the house, she planned on divorcing dad.

At any rate, moving out, getting a set of wheels, meant a great deal to me.

But, of course, in the U.S. it generally takes more than a minimum wage job to make even the barest of livings. I was staying in an apartment complex with a roommate for $201 a month and we could barely make ends meet on our budget. Neither one of us went out clubbing -- cost too much in gas to go to clubs and we couldn't really afford the cover charges anyway. And, of course, I was paranoid about drinking and driving given my dad.

In the course of starting college and filling out financial aid forms, I discovered something about my family that completely shocked me. In 1986, my father filed a tax return just under six digits.

We had a hell of a lot more money than I'd been led to believe.

Now, in some ways, this was a good way to have been raised ... I wasn't a spoiled brat and I didn't expect to be given a lot of things like some of my friends. I didn't expect to have the latest and greatest popular stuff. The Swatch watch craze pretty much passed me by, as did a slew of other Name Brand Fads. And, I expected to work for the things I wanted.

But, I've also been led to believe ... just by the society I grew up in ... that when even an adult kid really needed something, something important, that you could rely on your parents to help you to the best of their abilities.

So, I was driving the rolling deathmobile to work one day, about a year after moving out. I worked at Bizmart, an office supply megastore (eventually bought out by the ever-evil OfficeMax).

I pulled up to a red light ... and my brake pedal went all the way to the floor. Nothing.

I slammed the car into neutral and prepared to yank the wheel into a curb to avoid entering the busy intersection. Luckily there was enough of the brake pads left that the combination of the brakes and neutral did stop me. (The emergency brake had never worked.)

By this point, my parents had been divorced for about a year and my father had agreed to help me with college as necessary and to repair the rolling deathmobile when it broke down. At this point, it had only broken down once and he'd been fairly good about getting it fixed.

I finished the drive to work gingerly, but without any further scares. Throwing the transmission into neutral seemed to be the key to getting enough brake power to stop reasonably. The trip home was a little more nerve-wracking, but no major incidents. I called my father and let him know the brakes had completely failed. It was Sunday night.

"Well, I can't do anything about that now."

"I know, Dad, but should I take it in to Pep Boys in the morning? My roommate can get me to work tomorrow, but I need the car back for classes Tuesday."

"Well ... I don't know."

"Dad! I have NO brakes!"

He sighed. "I'll look at it on Saturday."

I was shocked. I thought parents were supposed to be concerned about their children even after they moved out of the house. It's not like I was going to a private university and sucking the money out of him. It's not like I was driving a BMW and demanding that he pay the insurance and maintenance. I'd already gotten grants for my college tuition, so he wasn't having to pay for my schooling anymore. I was taking care of all of my own bills ... our town had no public transportation and walking was not an option -- everything was just too far away.

This was not a hole in the muffler that I could drive around for a week.

Brakes, I thought, were kind of important.

I got off the phone with Dad and was at a loss. My brain was going like 60, trying to figure out how to get out of the problem I was in.

And then, I remembered what I'd gotten in the mail just a day or two before.

My first credit card. $500 credit line for the college student in need. I got it for emergencies.

Brakes seemed like a necessity. Not having brakes seemed like an emergency.

I asked around, found a good mechanic -- NOT Pep Boys -- and paid the $120 repair bill with the shiny, new credit card.

I never asked Dad to repair the car again.

He didn't call me on Saturday to ask about the brakes.

He never did ask me about them.

Guess it didn't matter to him. After all, he's the one who bought the rolling deathmobile to begin with.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:31 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 6, 2009

Rolling Deathmobile

My family was not rich and I had no pretensions growing up that we had money. We didn't have a pool, we didn't have a family room with a pool table or fooseball, and I didn't expect a car for my 16th birthday as many of my classmates did. After all, in the '80s, we didn't have the $500 for me to go to Washington, D.C. with the rest of the honors geeks or the $50 for the PSAT that could have gotten me a national merit scholarship, so I knew we didn't have a lot extra.

What I couldn't understand was that my parents really didn't seem to want me to have a job, either.

At any rate, I will admit to having more than a little bit of envy for my classmates who drove their second hand beaters to school ... and especially for the ones who drove their own BMWs, Porches, the Alfa Romero and the Lamborghini. But it was an idle kind of thing. I had no idea how I would ever manage a car of my own since I was so rarely allowed to take mom's car, couldn't work and my parents didn't have anything to spare.

So, I was trying to take some vicarious joy out of my mother's quest for a new car when her ancient and decrepit Delta 88 had lived far past its prime. I was completely stunned when Mom passed a book to me advising me how to pick a used car -- we were going to use the money from the sale of the Oldsmobile to buy me a car for my senior year of high school. Ecstatic, I threw myself into the task. We made little checklists of things to look for and examine and set out to various used car lots.

But, everytime I found something within the price range, the answer was the same -- "let your father check it out first. We have to wait for him."

After two months of this, I gave up. I'd get my hopes up over a cool car and be ready to drive it to a garage for a check-up only to be told again to wait for Dad ... and he never looked at any of these cars.

I thought maybe I'd get a surprise for my 18th birthday. Nope. Christmas? Again, no. I gave up completely.

Mom tried to bully me into going car shopping again, but I kept asking her what the point was and she, too, finally gave up.

I threw my after-school time into our drama production and forgot all about it (mostly). The day of our premiere, my grandparents and mom were beaming at me from the audience. A shy kid (despite the hyperactivity -- I'm just a mass of contradictions), my mother in particular was shocked and proud when I'd decided to pursue drama. But I was more than a little surprised when Mom and my grandparents dragged me out of the theatre as fast as they could after my performance, telling me I had to come outside NOW.

About a month early, my graduation present sat in the parking lot. A red Buick Skyhawk hatchback with mag wheels. Only 6 years old.

I was completely stunned. I really hadn't expected to get anything.

In retrospect, I would have preferred a nice pen set. You know, like the 5 other uninspired, generic pen sets I got for graduation.

My idea of a new car had been small, foreign and standard. My father's was small, American, automatic ... and red. Yes, the 18-year-old wanted something more practical and the 40-something wanted RED. And, as it turned out, he bought one of the worst vehicles on the lot.

First, the mechanics on the lot had not yet looked at the car ... it had just come onto the lot as a trade-in from the new car lot. Second, my father's idea of working on a car is to stick his lit cigarette face deep into the running engine and bang on things, so his examination was incredibly intense and thorough. Third, the car had a glass roof ... a "moon roof" that was an obvious home-job. I have never seen any project EVER use so much caulk. (It did, however, never leak from the roof, I will say that.)

Oblivious to most of this at the moment, I was ecstatic. My own wheels! Freedom!

The next day I took the car to a shop to get an evaluation of it. The mechanic walked back out white as a ghost and said, "I hope you didn't pay much for it."

The car had been in a serious accident which had broken the frame of the vehicle. It was welded back together underneath the driver's side door. The mechanic looked at me and said, "Don't ever get into even a fender-bender in this car. That weld could snap at any time and the car will crumple at that point ... right at the driver's seat. Don't even let anyone rear-end you."

I stared at him, horrified, looked back at the car and then up to the moon roof. He just bit his lip and nodded. He didn't need to say it. This car was a rolling deathmobile.

As a result, I was probably a far more careful driver than any of my peers, including my best friend Andy, who totaled out at least two cars in high school and the beginning of college.

Somehow, though, we nursed the car along for about two or three years before the repair bills were $200 every other month, rather negating the bonus of having a car with no car payments.

Highlights of the deathmobile were the time that Mom decided she knew "what was wrong with that car" -- she happened to be reading a book on auto repair ... I have NO idea why because she certainly wouldn't deign to stick her fingers in the engine. Coincidentally, the parts needed for this repair happened to be on sale at Pep Boys ....

Net result: Dad broke the timing chain in his efforts to fix a car that had been running just fine. The car wound up at Pep Boys for about three or four days while they repaired the car for me. However, when driving it on the way home, I took my foot off the accelerator for an approaching red light.

The car didn't slow.

It sped up.

Crap. I put my foot on the brake and it did slow to a stop. However, I had to ride the brake all the way home because the car continued acceleration regardless of whether or not I was pushing the accelerator. I called the shop the next day and complain, telling them they need to fix it. They hem and haw around, telling me they were nowhere near the fast idle choke and that they didn't break the car. I point out it wasn't doing that before they got hold of it. Yelling match ensues in which they think they can bully me because I'm a kid ... bad mistake.

I take the car back and they fix it.

Phone call, "Your car is ready, but I have to tell you that there's a potentially dangerous problem with the vehicle."

I'm thinking, yeah, the frame is probably cracking already.

"Three of the four engine bolts that hold the engine in the car are missing."

At this point I'm sure that they had the three frickin' bolts sitting in the mechanic's pocket because he was pissed that I made them fix the fast idle choke. Of course, they have the car ... and I don't have the bolts ... and there's lots of potholes on the way home. I tell them to fix the car and tell me when it's done again.

Two weeks later, the car is ready. They had to order the bolts. Mmmm-hmmm. I believe that. My father, on the other hand, is ecstatic because they only charged me $12.00 to fix the car -- no labor, just the cost of the bolts. He's now convinced these are the most honest mechanics in the world.

But my favourite story about the rolling deathmobile is when the brakes went out.

Well, really, I guess it's a story about my dad more than the car.

But I'll save that one for another day ... until then, if you see a red Buick Skyhawk on the road ... don't scare it ... it'll fall apart if you honk at it, shattering the inch thick glass roof and probably exploding, creating a crater the size of Detroit.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:22 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 22, 2009

If It Weren't For Those Meddling Kids

Once upon a time, I went to elementary school. Well, actually, I went to three of them, but this story takes place at the third one.

Nice suburban neighborhood in a part of Dallas/Fort Worth with loads of creeks and trees, sat Butler Elementary school. It was this insanely progressive school, on the cutting edge. Or that's how they portrayed the school. The reality was it was one huge one-room building, real cutting-edge. o_O

The year after I began attending, my language arts teacher was well-aware that I was determined to be a cop. Actually, I wanted to be Joe Hardy, but that's another story completely. So, when a flasher was reported to be in the woods behind the school - the woods that butted up to our playground - things were a little tense. Add to that, the fact that the group of kids I hung with and I played at the very very outer edges of what was allowed and I think we made our teachers a little nervous. Plus, we played detective stories almost every day. (Except when we were managed to get the entire fourth grade to play Star Wars and made Leia and Darth Vader walk out of the interrogation room stumbling drunk ... yeah, we were ahhhh, interesting kids.)

We were told, rather explicitly I might add, to NOT go anywhere near the woods.

Umm, yeah. Like THAT was gonna work on us. We understood how policework was done. I mean, we weren't just some snot-nosed kids poking around and messing up evidence. (Please forgive the old sketch...one of these days I'll redraw just this portion as a separate sketch.)

Those Meddling Kids

Of course, we hung out at the edges of where we were supposed to be, all but bringing binoculars to school in order to scan the woods more effectively. If my parents had owned a pair of binoculars, I would have brought them to school, no doubt. As it was, I crept as close as I thought I dared and convinced our little group to be very observant of every adult male near the school.

And then I found him!

The parks department had a man with a leaf blower in the park next to the school. There was NEVER ever someone from the parks department there blowing leaves. We found the flasher!

So we ran up to the teachers, panting, out of breath and delivered our discovery. I'm fairly certain that at least some part of me wanted to go run up and bop the dude on the head and drag him in to the teachers, but we did settle for just telling.

The teachers rather pooh-poohed us. There, there, child, sure you have identified the ra--err, flasher.

Turns out we were being incredibly observant. Turns out the dude was not an employee of the parks department after all.

He was, however, a city employee.

Yes, we managed to ID the undercover cop.

Oops.

I bet that poor cop never lived down his Scooby Doo reputation after that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:40 PM | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 3, 2008

More On The Pronoun Game

So, a while back, Lisa took me up on my post specifically about an episode of the TV show Bones, called "The He in the She." Her feeling, and the feeling of many folk in the trans community, is that the episode wasn't all that great - some would call it perpetrating stereotypes, some call it not enough discussion. Then, of course, I fell down on the blogging job again and have let the subject slip for a while.

It's back.

First, I'm going to intersperse Lisa's comment throughout this post because I think many folks don't really read the sparse comments here on older posts and I think this is an issue worth bringing to the front again. Second, since we're discussing gender and sex, we need a few quick working definitions. Please note that better and more detailed definitions exist - this is a working definition for the purposes of this post. Sex = your biological sex as reflected by your genitalia. Gender = a social construct of ideas defining how each sex should behave. (I.e., females like dolls and shopping and staying at home with the kids. Males like Tonka and cars and going to work every day and avoiding housework and the kids. Gender roles often are interpreted as stark stereotypes ... the reason some folks insist there are more genders than there are biological sexes is precisely because most people do not fit into these narrow stereotypes.) A fast definition of "cis" is someone whose biological sex and genders match within "normal" parameters. That is, a female might like cars, but also very much enjoys wearing dresses and make-up, etc. A cis male might enjoy cooking and spending time with his kids, but still exhibits primarily "male" behaviours and interests.
Think of it as a continuum instead of as a black and white - one end of the line is folks who are stereotypically "male" or "female" whose biological sex is male or female. And then the other end of the line being a stereotypical "male" who is biologically female and a stereotypical "female" who is a biological male. There's LOADS of room in between encompassing all the variations of human existence. But the end that tends to match sex and gender would be "cis" people and the end where sex and gender appear mismatched would be "trans" people.

Now, I think Lisa made some excellent points in her last comment and I needed some time to digest them. First:

Many cis people like to assert that they're confused about trans people's preferred pronouns, which gives them an opportunity to misgender trans people repeatedly. Asking them to use the proper pronouns is asking them to stop taking up that particular bit of space, because trans people do happen to be standing there and need breathing room as well. That's what my point about taking up space was about. I was thinking of Amanda Baggs' analogy about how people are like water when I wrote it.

This is interesting ... but I had to go look up Amanda Baggs' analogy to really get it:

people seemed to be a lot like water. Water spreads out to take up whatever space the container it is in allows it to take. People, also, seem to spread out in a similar way in terms of what actions they view as okay for them to be doing. And they rarely notice all the space they are taking up, until some person or event makes it clear to them. It just feels 'natural' to take up as much space as they're allowed.

At first Amanda is talking about the portion of the Harry Potter books when Neville finally stands up to Harry and his friends and tries to make them play by the rules. Ron fusses that Neville was supposed to stand up to other people not them! Ron is essentially telling Neville to expand to fill the space somewhere else - and not to impede Ron, Harry and Hermoine's expansions. (We're getting back to the cis/trans and pronoun issue in a moment, hang on.)

Then, Amanda goes on to talk about Irit Shimrat's Call Me Crazy. A psychologist who reviewed Shimrat's book was at first offended and dismissive of Shimrat because she felt that her entire profession was being dismissed and belittled ... and then she realized that her "feeling of being discounted and unfairly stigmatized in this book parallels what Shimrat and her colleagues often felt as patients." Baggs goes on somewhat scathingly to protest that the psychologist's "hurt feelings" are in no way analogous to the experiences of "captivity, degradation and torture" which many psych patients are subjected to.

Now, here we can circle back to the cis/trans issues - and indeed, the core issue at stake in the episode of Bones as well.

Crap, I just used academic-speak, didn't I? I'm sorry. I get carried away when I analyze things. It won't happen again.

Anyhow, I think the situations are analogous and, in fact, very useful depending on the person having the revelation. Yes, there are several degrees of magnitude difference between the shrink realizing that there's a parallel and the psych patient being degraded and essentially tortured. But the right shrink getting that realization can make a huge difference. If they have that eureka! moment of epiphany, then change is possible. Has the shrink felt the exact same way? No, but then we're not actually comparing hurts here. We're talking about understanding.

It's the same when we talk about cis/trans issues. If a cis person continually fumbles with pronouns or worse, insists on using the wrong ones, they are like the water expanding to fill all the space at the expense of the other folk in the room. They're like Ron Weasley insisting that Neville should stand up to everyone except them.

Now here's the thing. To effect a long-lasting change in society, we need both the people who see the small steps - like this shrink who finally sees that psych patients are too often discounted even though her experience of hurt feelings is in now way similar to what Shimrat has been through - AND we also need people agitating that this doctor's epiphany is not good enough.

To bring it back to Bones, we need both episodes like that one which struggle with the topic ... AND we need the angry reaction from the trans community to cry out that it's not enough.

The first is a stepping stone ... the second is making sure we can't then step backwards onto our familiar ground, but that we must continue stepping forward.

ARGH. I've written far more than enough in the past hour and covered only one small portion of Lisa's comments (and the excellent post by Amanda Baggs as well). But, I think this is enough to digest for one post. More laterz ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:02 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 19, 2008

The Pronoun Game, part two

When I first met Miccah, it was through a mutual acquaintance. Denise had lived next door to us for a year or so in college and had recently moved into her first all-by-herself apartment near campus. And then one of the banes of college life reared its head: we had a rapist haunting the area - and he'd specifically been targeting the run-down crappily lit apartment complex where Denise now lived. She quickly made friends with Miccah, who did handywork for the complex - and when Miccah became ill and couldn't work, Denise took Miccah in. She did this partly out of a genuine desire to help someone in need - and partly because Miccah looked like Miccah could help protect her from the rapist (even while being sick).

Did you notice I'm playing the pronoun game yet?

I was perhaps 20 or 21, had only been living away from my rather conservative folks and sheltered life for just a couple of years and Miccah's story was beyond anything I'd ever imagined. Denise took Miccah in because Mikey looked like a guy who could take care of himself - and provide some protection for Denise against this campus rapist. But what Mikey had fallen ill with was ... female problems.

Miccah had been born female, but for whatever reason, Miccah's father raised the child as a boy. Registered in school as a boy, used the boy's bathroom, everything. Teachers thought Miccah was a boy. It's not like anyone asked for a physical check. Mikey remembers asking Pop one day why he didn't have a penis like the other boys and Pop replied, "You'll get yours soon. They all grow at different rates, and you'll get yours soon."

Nice, huh?

Well, the long and short of that is Miccah really is more of a male than a female in terms of thought process and behaviour. We can argue until the cows come home over whether this is a nature or nurture kinda deal - my best guess in Miccah's case is that it's probably a little of both.

Who knows how Pop was going to explain away the biological female awakening impending ... as it was Miccah's mom took custody of Mikey at the age of ten.

Imagine this for a minute. Really think about it. Everything you know about who you are during elementary school comes from your parents. And if they've snowballed the teachers into cooperating with that? Think back to when you were ten. All the things you knew about yourself. The stuff you liked to do. The kids you hung out with.

Now imagine your mother coming in to talk to you and telling you as gently as possible ... that you're really not who you think you are. That you are really a member of the opposite sex.

Can you even begin to contemplate your reaction?

Can you imagine your reaction as suits are replaced with dresses or dresses replaced with suits? Can you imagine your favourite doll replaced with a Tonka truck or favourite Tonka replaced with a Madame Alexander doll?

Sure, many of us played with toys that are supposedly "boy" toys or "girl" toys. But can you imagine suddenly feeling like you couldn't play with the stuff you loved best and your mom was forcing you to play with stuff you had no interest in?

By the time I met Mikey, he was in his mid-to-late twenties and I was in my early-to-mid twenties. Maybe five years between us. I'd never met anyone who was a transsexual before. And, with as much as I understood that Mikey would prefer to be a biological male as well as feeling like a male ... I didn't fully understand the way Mikey felt.

My simple reasoning at the time was this: I was cool with Mikey thinking he was a male trapped in a female body. Made sense to me. He didn't seem like a female at all.

But I wasn't going to use the male pronoun in reference to Miccah - because he hadn't had the surgery yet. I fully supported his decision to have the surgery, but until such a time, he was a she to me.

What I really didn't understand was how this attitude made Mikey feel ... and just how difficult and expensive it would be to get that kind of surgery done. I mean, it's not like it's covered under most health plans - and it's not like most people can just walk into a clinic and have it done. It's a long damn process ... and it's damned expensive.

For someone born female to have the surgery involves first finding a therapist who specializes in Gender Identity Disorder. We're talking some long and involved sessions for the therapist to determine that yes, this person does have GID and is a candidate for moving forward. Next, the person has to begin living as the opposite sex. In many cases - like Mikey's - this was a change they'd already made. And for Mikey it was easy. He was built like a guy. Not a football player, but he definitely had that lanky, sinewy look that a lot of 20something men have. If you passed Miccah on the street, you'd have said he, not she.

At any rate, after passing for a year, you have to do things like get your driver's license changed from the birth sex to the intended sex. (Really, this usually happens during the year of "passing.") You also start taking hormones during this time. So for female to male transitioning, you start shooting testosterone. It lowers your voice at least somewhat and often means facial hair growth as well. The body does begin to change and adapt.

Some female to male transsexuals basically live in this state for the rest of their lives. After all, whether or not one has the genitalia that it looks like you probably have is really not anyone's business but that person's and their partner. But for those who do choose the surgery route, there's the mastectomies and then the physical building of a penis.

This ain't for the weak of heart.

Miccah, the last time I talked with him, had never really progressed to the point of the testosterone. He's not had the world's easiest life and every time I hear from him, there's been another round of insane tragedies. The loss of a music career just as it was getting started ... girlfriend troubles (yes, they all know!) ... bar fights ... having to move towns to try to land jobs in music somehow ... having her beloved dog kidnapped (complete with note) ... another dog impaled when he tried to jump a fence to find Mikey. It's never easy.

So there's never been the money and the insurance to really start counseling ... and never the money for the testosterone shots, much less the surgeries needed.

And who am I, really, to pass judgment and call Mikey "she" when it's so obvious that even with the small tidbit of femaleness that isn't even obvious, that Miccah is a "he" and has always been so no matter what the physical biology says.

I've grown a lot in the last not-quite-20 years since I first met Miccah. Today, despite his outward biology, I look deeper. He's comfortable with himself and who he is. Unless you insist on calling him she. Then, he's uncomfortable with you - not with himself. He knows who he is and he enjoys being himself.

Who am I to question that?

Gender is more than our biological sex. It's a sociological set of expectations which change from culture to culture. Some so-called "primitive" cultures knew that some women were born male and some men were born female and they had places for such people - not as outcasts - but places where they belonged.

This insistence on the male provider and the female caregiver is a trope that we've seen throughout history, yes - but the absolute rigid insistence on it is relatively new in history. It's really time and past time that we recognize the diversity of each individual and be glad that we are NOT all the same, that we can learn from the differences in each other and continue to grow.

Were we all alike, we would not have utopia ... we would grow stagnant and boreded and we would falter.

In my last post I spoke about the tv show Bones and in particular the episode called "The He in the She." I laud the writers for having the strength to NOT write an episode where everyone was carefully correct because that's just not how it happens when we are confronted with something outside of our experience - even when we want to be supportive. Instead, we struggle and fumble and get frustrated and call someone "it" in the heat of a moment when we can't decide if we're talking about he or she. It's in our fumblings with what is new and different that we learn and grow.

I know that if I had not met Mikey when I did, I would not have been as supportive and accepting of other people with differences later on.

Even if I did have to fumble with his pronouns for a while. Even if I do still fumble with his pronouns today when I talk about his history. (It's still not easy to say "His mom had to tell him he was a girl.")

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:23 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 18, 2008

The Pronoun Game

I love observing how people interact and particularly with my interest in the autism spectrum, I am utterly fascinated with the television show, Bones. Each one of the characters in the show has some kind of serious issue interacting with other people. Zach, first an intern/grad student of Dr. Brennan, is an obvious example of a character with high-functioning autism or Asperger's - a condition which very obviously meant he had troubles interacting with others. He is mystified by the emotional reactions and actions of others and tries to always live by logic. Dr. Brennan (Bones) herself seems to also be on the autism spectrum, although with her vast experience in field anthropology, she seems to comprehend people's emotional rollercoasters better than Zach - but, it's still from a very intellectual understanding rather than being a part of the whole messy act of being human. She often has conversations with FBI agent Booth where Booth attempts to explain emotions to her. Her best friend, Angela, also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining human reaction and foibles to her - often attempting to explain to Brennan why she herself is reacting a particular way.

Angela and Booth, however, aren't paragons of perfect human interaction either. They also have their very flawed and confused interactions. Angela has embraced the idea of being a "free spirit" and artist so much so that she often reacts primarily out of a stubborn desire to stay within the confines of her definition of "free spirit & artist." When she reacts illogically and emotionally, she does so without apology or, often, explanation. It is what it is. And, this eventually leads a character who often appears to be the most normal in her interactions into a rather stupid decision (to break up with Hodgins).
Naturally, she's somewhat the opposite of Brennan, creating a nice foil.

FBI agents are rarely known for their stellar social skills, so it's not surprising that Agent Booth also has his issues interacting with others although he does have a wonderful ability to read his suspects - an ability that usually confuses Brennan. Booth reads people's tells and body language when they're being questioned ... but he still finds it difficult to do the same with the people he knows.

While the show is technically a crime solver with a different twist from the CSI genre (since almost everyone in the show is a "squint," or scientist, instead of law enforcement), the real interest and drama of the show (not to mention comedy) is to look at how these people relate to each other - particularly how they screw up these interactions. In one episode, the murder Booth and Brennan are investigating involves "pony play." Apparently some people like to pretend they're horses for their sexual excitement. (Frankly, I could have lived my life without knowing that ... but there you are.) Booth is as startled and somewhat confused by this as I was ... Brennan, on the other hand, reacts as an anthropologist studying a new tribe. She explains in scientific terms to Booth what these people get out of it and why they do it - she looks like she understands - but she explains chunks of it in front of the pony play folk, which offends them. Booth understands why it offends them, but he's flabbergasted and somewhat judgmental about them - so he looks like he understands their reactions, but he also offends them in a different way.

In other words, they both understand a piece of the human relationships - but they're completely separate pieces and neither has the whole thing.

It's fascinating to watch.

My favourite social gaffe was when Brennan walked into an interrogation room with Booth to speak with a profoundly overweight character. She immediately said something to Booth about how people who are profoundly overweight often have a funky odour because they can sometimes get a fungus in between the folds of skin. Booth is horrified that Brennan would say such a thing where the character can hear. Brennan protests, "but it's true" as if that makes it okay. It's not that she is trying to hurt the character ... she just doesn't see scientific fact as causing emotional hurt. If it's true, then it shouldn't hurt. In fact, Brennan goes on to point out to the character the very real health problems caused by such a level of obesity and tells her that she should lose weight.

Of course the character is offended and Booth is horrified all over again, trying to get Brennan to STFU. Despite all of her knowledge of how people work from her anthropology studies ... Brennan is completely clueless to the reactions she causes. She looks like a complete ass in this scene, once again underscoring what I feel is the point of the show: how we interact.

So, knowing all of this about the show, I was somewhat surprised to read on Womanist Musings a reaction to one of the more recent episodes, "The He in the She." Since Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, she and her team at the Smithsonian are often called in to help solve murder cases where the remains are in a rather bad state. In this particular episode, we're confronted by either a grad student making a weird mistake or a very unusual set of remains. The new intern (to replace Zach, who is now incarcerated) declares that according to the bones on this set of remains, the person was male.

The team's boss, vetting the new guy as he does his examination, blinks at his declaration. She announces the body is female because "that," she points out, "is a vagina." He insists the bone structure is male.

They're both right.

The remains belong to someone who had been born male and then underwent sexual reassignment surgery to become female.

As the team begins to piece together the mystery, there's some amount of stumbling around the entire transsexual issue. Agent Booth in particular has a difficult time - not with the victim being trans - but with trying to settle on a pronoun. At one point in his fumbling, he begins to call the victim "it" causing Brennan to squawk about giving the victim some dignity. Booth spends a fair amount of time trying to fumble his way through his reasoning and why he's settled on "it" for now. The other characters are clearly irritated with him over this. At another point, he fumbles around and claims that they should always call "him" "her" because that's what "he ... she was when she died and she deserves some respect."

Now the author over at Womanist Musings has an excellent point - it's annoying as hell that when American television portrays a transsexual person, that person is either the comic relief or the victim of horrible tragedy, but never just another person, just another character. But, I remember not so long ago when that was true of all gay characters. Now, however, we're seeing more gay characters who are "just" characters - not there just for comic relief ... not there to show the terrible plight of the queer. (Where I disagree with the author is that the writers of the show were somehow disrespectful to the issue of transsexuals.)

That's pretty much the way it happens on American television. Bring in the marginalized as comic relief, bring them in to show the tragedy ... until the mainstream viewers get used to seeing that group ... and then they can be just characters like everyone else. It's annoying, I certainly agree.

But I think that Bones did this in a really interesting way. First of all, the show revolves around odd forensic mysteries - what's more unusual than a body with both male and female "tells"?? Secondly, you have scientists having to grapple with pronoun because it's got to be jarring to look at a male knee and say "she." It's not that they're being disrespectful or rude - they're reacting to the biological part in front of them at the moment when they speak.

And then, of course, you have the very Catholic Agent Booth trying to grapple with the facts he's getting from his squints ... and with the real confusion of speaking of the transsexual person's past. After all, the history of Patrick could be important to the death of Patricia and it is honestly confusing or difficult to switch between talking about Patrick as "he" when he was an evangelical minister ... and Patricia's ministry and her death.

The characters constantly have to flip back and forth between his history and her history as they put together the facts and clues in the case.

I think this very much mirrors the confusion that many people go through when they first meet someone who is transsexual. It's not that the writers or the characters of Bones were making fun of or somehow disrespecting transfolk as they were reflecting how we react. To me, that made the episode a really important and valuable one rather than one which somehow negated the dignity of transfolk - it attempted to bring the issue to an audience which might not know about it, or which might be rather hoping to avoid it. It was an episode to raise awareness and show us our human foibles and fumblings through the reactions of some wonderfully rendered and flawed characters.

Next time, I'll tell you about the first time I met someone who identified as transsexual ... and how I reacted.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:02 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 14, 2008

The Writing Paradox

Despite the fact that English was one of my favourite school subjects, that I taught college writing classes for nine years, that I've had a blog for a bit over 3 years ... I shocked some friends last week by announcing that I hate writing and would not like to make a career in copywriting. (Oddly enough, technical writing is more interesting.)

I hated writing essays in school, and I think that was one of the things that made me an excellent writing teacher. I remembered where I used to get hung up, frustrated and what caused me to pull my hair out - and I did my damnedest to help my students find ways around those problems - or through them in a less painful manner.

The writing I enjoy is the writing I do for myself. This blog, the large directory on my hard drive called "Thinking" and writing stories.

I confused the hell out of who knows how many teachers in elementary school who knew how creative I could be ... until a creative writing assignment came up. One teacher told me years later that my first creative writing assignment for her just shocked her. Instead of the involved and creative story she had suspected I would write ... she got a typical elementary school paragraph of blah.

I just laughed ... there's a huge difference between making up your very own story ... and being given a paragraph of "starter story" and told to finish it.

It's the same in copywriting. There's a huge difference between writing a novel about a comic book writer and a video game developer who become self-appointed agents of karma ... and cobbling together the disparate ideas of the president and vice president of a start-up company (who, by the way, each has a different idea about the company's direction - president wants to market to average joe and veep wants to market to the already converted & knowledgeable audience).

Later on in elementary school, our language arts teachers began to give us more leeway on picking what to write about and only used writing prompts when we got stuck. My favourite project was also one that got me into the most trouble.

In sixth grade, I had Miss Bailey - the teacher we all loved and adored. (At the time, years later was a different story.) Every Thursday was creative writing day. But one week, on a Monday or Tuesday, she gathered us around for a new creative writing assignment.

"Since I will be gone on Thursday, I'm giving you your creative writing assignment now."

With those words, my fate was sealed.

You see, I was determined to do everything "right."

She went on, describing the project, which was due on Friday as usual. We'd have our standard amount of class time to work on it Thursday and a bit of bonus time to work on it the day she assigned it because it was a bigger assignment than normal.

We spent the next little while searching through newspapers for an article - we were to use the article we selected to write a "book" with at least two or three illustrations. I was excited - and I settled on a story about a plane crash. (What can I say, tragedy always makes for a great story! Actually, all of my early stories were about tragedy befalling kids - and kids pulling out of it despite the incompetent adults around them. But that's another story for another day.)

I dutifully cut out the article like we were told. I worked on the project during the time allotted on Monday. And then I didn't work on it again until Thursday's class. Now, I suddenly had to write a story, re-write it onto my booklet paper, illustrate it - and because I was as interested in realism and crafts as possible, create a cover cut from posterboard and then freaking SEW the thing together. (My idea. Damn over-achiever.)

Yeah, I didn't get close to finished in class. And so many of my friends told me they'd been working on it since it was assigned on Monday. I was shocked.

Thursday was creative writing day. Not Monday. Not Tuesday. They were all cheating! They started EARLY! That was cheating!

I was horrified.

I was even more depressed that evening as I stayed up later than ever before, frantically trying to complete the project to the specifications I had set myself. My mom asked why I hadn't started the project earlier in the week and I responded that we'd been assigned the project on Thursday and it was due Friday. It wasn't a lie - it was how I'd interpreted the week, since Miss Bailey claimed we were getting the assignment on Monday since she wouldn't be there Thursday.

I thought that like most teachers, she simply didn't think the substitute teacher would be able to explain the assignment adequately and address our questions. Hence, she gave us the assignment early, but we were not to start until Thursday as usual.

My mother was rather irked at Miss Bailey for assigning such a project in such a short amount of time.

And, when I was dragging and sleepy the next day, Miss Bailey asked what was wrong. I explained that I'd stayed up late - and confessed that mom was upset with me for staying up late and had asked why I hadn't started the assignment sooner. When I then added that we'd been given the assignment on Thursday and it was due Friday - Miss Bailey gave me that terribly disappointed look and tone as she said my name. We didn't speak of it further.

I was terribly confused and hurt.

I had done everything exactly right according to the rules and I had still gotten "in trouble" for doing things wrong. Everyone else in the class had cheated by starting early and here I was the one getting fussed at.

Today, were I taking a class where this happened, I would still assume the same thing. But, I would now ask the teacher "are we supposed to start on it now or on Thursday?"

I suppose this is another example of "rigid thinking." Despite the fact that I'm creative and very much a think-outside-the-box kind of person most of the time, there's a certain rigidity of thought that creeps into my life in strange ways. It's the same rigidity of thought which caused me to not study for the SAT exams - the SAT was supposed to measure what you already knew ... therefore, studying was cheating. Yeah, I know. I'm a dork.

Oh and the novel about the comic book writer and video game developer who become self-appointed agents of karma? Yeah, I've been working on that sucker since '04, so no stealing my grand concept, k?

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:19 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 1, 2008

Welcome to Thunderdome

My introduction to world politics was ... intense. I know adults who have not paid this much attention to a single international event in their lives - ever.

My elementary school years were marked by major event after major event. Kindergarten was, of course, the beginning of school. I had looked forward to school for well over a year and was majorly irritated that I could not go at age four, almost five; but had to wait until five, almost six. I was further irritated when Stephen was bumped from kindergarten to grade two and I was only bumped from kindergarten to grade one. Along with pretty much everyone else.

Second grade was moving from the about to be integrated public school to a Catholic private school. Supposedly better than public school - but that's because no one asked me. I actually asked to see the principal within the first few months.

Third grade saw me go back to my public school ... and then move from my beloved Austin to the much-hated Arlington. Fourth grade was pretty much a blur.

Fifth grade was a nightmare.

For starters, I can recall my homeroom teacher, Charlotte Christopher. The absolute only reason I recall her first name is because Ashley Wylie and Vickie Furr used to call her "Miss Charlotte" in a very fake Eastern seaboard Southern drawl instead of our Texas-speak. I knew it bothered the hell out of me, but it wasn't until years later that I realized it wasn't just because they used her first name ... they were playing (whether they realized it at the time or not) the race card. Because Miss Christopher was the only black teacher I'd ever seen in the entire elementary school.

It was also the year that I was put into second-high language arts instead of high language arts. The reason was I did not do well at the spelling test at the beginning of the year - because the teacher who uttered the spelling words had a very thick East Texas accent. It was the year I lost the friends I'd managed to acquire at my new school. It was the year that I dangled from the soccer goal in a vague effort to fit in with some group of kids - any group - the boy playing goalie pushed me from behind ... and I broke my left arm.

I remember little of recess until the very end of the school year, when Shannon Heizer befriended me after I'd spent most of the year struggling.

But before I really made friends with Shannon ... it was October 22, 1979 ... the Shah of Iran came to the U.S. to be treated for his cancer. My sister turned seven the same day. And then it was November 4, 1979 ... Iranians seized 52 Americans hostage and I turned 11.

I was suddenly immersed in world politics.

I began watching the evening news in my own semi-obsessive way, hungry for information about the hostages. I began dreaming about them, the hostages. Strange dreams, unbelievably realistic and haunting - mostly involving 52 people ... and yellow ribbons.

For the next four hundred and forty-four days, I was as obsessed as a pre-internet 11 year old could be.

My mother didn't particularly approve of my "sudden" interest in the news, regardless of the reason.

The day after I was born, Richard Nixon was elected President.
November 7, 1972 (just weeks after my sister was born), Richard Nixon was re-elected.
November 2, 1976, Jimmy Carter defeats Gerald Ford.
November 4, 1980, I turn 12 as Ronald Reagan is elected president of the U.S. Despite the fact that I wanted Ford to win over Carter in the previous election, by 1980, I was forming my own political bent rather than parroting my parents'. In 1980, I was crushed and depressed that Reagan was elected instead of re-electing Jimmy Carter - a regret I carry to this day.
November 6, 1984, Reagan is re-elected. Again, I'm not best pleased.
November 8, 1988, George Sr is elected. By this point, I'm resigned, but not happy. I'm particularly irritated that the man I voted for in the primaries neither won my state nor the country.
November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton is elected.
November 5, 1996, apparently when the election falls one day to the left or right of my birthday ... my candidate wins.
November 7, 2000 - the dark reign begins in earnest as The Shrub is elected amidst much controversy.
November 9, 2004, the shrub is re-elected. Depression, in many senses of the word, sets in.

November 4, 2008 - I turn 40.

I beg you, United States, give me a birthday gift I will cherish.

The first time I was old enough to vote, I could not vote ... I threw up all day instead. Not one of my better birthdays. That spring, I was happy to vote in my first primary ... and to the chagrin of my mother, I voted for someone most Texans did not vote for: Jesse Jackson. I liked him in 1988. I liked what he stood for. I don't regret casting that vote even though he was not chosen as the Democratic candidate, even though my mother thought I had voted poorly.

This year is the first time since 1980 that election day falls on my birthday. I wish, to be honest, that it did not fall on my birthday this year. I would rather be selfish on my 40th birthday. I would rather the day be about me.

All of my friends are politically active. They all know that my 40th is also the decision between Obama and McCain.

When I think of 1980, I recall sixth grade ....

... the year that Reagan became president.
... the year that Miss Bailey taught me that teachers are most decidedly NOT perfect.
... the year that I screwed up a friendship and hurt Susan Stetson's feelings on advice of a trusted adult.
... the year that I dreamed of a month of yellow ribbons.
... the year that I began to look outside of myself and think of others (inasmuch as I'm capable).

... the year that I began to realize that the U.S. was not headed down the best path and that there was little to nothing I could do to stop that.

Next I plan to talk about what did happen that year, eventful as it was for me.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:30 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 25, 2008

Artistic or Autistic (or all of the above)

I have been around acrylic paints, oil paints, pastels, Sakura Pigma Microns, Prismacolor markers, X-Acto knives and the like all my life - and that was just Mom's kit. With Dad it was Testor paints and train kits and loads of balsa wood. He scavenged little chains and wires to make realistic details to a train rig that was laid out for perhaps four years. He worked on it from the time my grandmother gave he and I a starter set for Christmas when I was five until I was about 17 when he finally decided to start selling it off. He'd buy a kit, take it out to his toolbench in the garage and work on assembling it, painting it, and then adding clever little touches to make it more realistic. When he was done, he'd carefully box it up so it didn't break and add it to the stack of like boxes on the shelves in the garage.

Mom bought books on art and when we lived in Austin, it seemed like she painted all the time. She did a lot of tole painting at that time as well as working in pastels and doing some portraits. Because she was overly critical of her own work, she often used others' drawings as her "template" and mimicked them onto the wooden object she was decorating. They were fun, whimsical paintings ... and now that I think about it, they shared a fair amount in common with comic strip or cartoon art. I kept a couple of her pieces for years, but alas, too many moves finally took their toll and I'm not sure that I have any of them now.

Suffice it to say it was not unusual for our home to reek of art supplies which covered even the smell of my parents' chain smoking.

My sister and I were surrounded by music and artistic endeavors during our childhood. Besides their different artistic pursuits, they both played piano. My mother became self-conscious about it eventually, but when we were very small, we would beg her to play us to sleep in the evenings. Dad played by ear, Mom played by the rules. In other words, Mom always played sheet music ... Dad made up his own song and occasionally played other songs by ear - but that song generally became "his" song. I couldn't tell you what genre of song it was ... perhaps honky-tonk comes closest (but not in that country-western way, not really). It was a rocking, rollicking series of licks up and down the keyboard.

My sister picked up the bulk of the musical interest and talent in the family - she was in training to begin international competitions as a pianist when she decided that wasn't what she wanted and pulled back some. I hit my own wall a little sooner.

I was, to be perfectly honest, overly sensitive to any criticism from my mother from a very early age. So when I bragged about how wonderfully I was colouring a page in my colouring book and was met with a critique - I was sure already that I was not artistically inclined. The truth of the matter is that I was colouring like a kid. Mom was colouring with me - like an artistic adult. As I remember the look on her face as she coloured with me, she was quite obviously lost in the art of what she was doing. I was happy to stay in between the lines for once. What she perceived as a helpful comment - sharing with me what she'd learned about making the colour as consistent as possible, I perceived as "you're doing it wrong."

I was also a child who did not foncorm to much of anything at all. If I had an arts & crafts project with a suggested pattern or suggested paint scheme, you could pretty much guarantee that I would be oppositional and refuse to use that guide. Sometimes this meant some pretty chaotic projects - but a lot of times it meant something pretty cool to me.

I can remember getting a cartooning book one summer at my grandmother's house and spending days practicing that book ... and for some reason feeling like it was not a form of art that Mom would approve of, so it didn't last past that summer. Then there was the art enrichment class I took a summer or several later. I had loads of fun with that class until we were assigned a still-life drawing.

I couldn't get it to work right and I was ready to throw that damned apple right through the kitchen window. I wanted to do a black & white chiaroscuro drawing, but I really didn't understand how to do this and had never had anyone try to explain it. Finally, frustrated and pissy, I slammed everything down on the table and pronounced it done.

Mom threw a fit and began the "I know you can do better than that" over-achiever line at me.

I was marched back into the kitchen, forced back into the chair and I eventually did produce something better. Something that I actually kept for years.

What we didn't know back then was that I have some mild learning disabilities. I've not been officially tested for dyscalculia and dyslexia, but there definitely seems to be some similarities. I was diagnosed with ADHD about 7 years ago, but frankly, I distrust the psychologist who did the testing, so I'm unsure of that diagnosis as well.

I can say that I have a series of symptoms or issues which do tend to correspond to learning disabilities. One of those is a kind of frustration and rigidity of thought which occurs during a math or math-pattern based activity which can really escalate into a shutdown for me. An example is this: I play guitar - I'm no great shakes, but I can play several songs well enough to be recognized. My difficulty is in changing them up. A few guitarists at my church got together to play a song - and at the "last minute" (to me that's what it felt like) they wanted to change the rhythms that we strummed. This takes some time to practice, but it's really not that hard to do.

I could not do it. My brain totally shut down and I refused to play. I tried to be reasonable about it - I told them to play the song without me - not as a threat, but because I just couldn't get it in the few days left before the performance and I knew it. I can remember learning Boston's "More Than a Feeling" - and my guitar teacher trying to get me to add a grace note after I'd learned the bulk of the song. I could NOT fit that damn note in there no matter how hard I tried. I had the pattern in my head and that was it.

What does that have to do with art? Well, in many types of art, you layer shadings or colours on top of each other until you get the look you want. That appears to be the equivalent of adding a grace note to a song I already know ... my brain begins a weird shutdown pattern and tries to freeze.

I noticed this a few months ago when I was attempting some sketches of some mesas and canyons. I wanted to get the outline right and then begin the shading. And what would happen time and time and time again was I would get halfway through the outline, the rough sketch, and get seriously pissed and frustrated and go to a clean page. Finally, in the van on the way to New Mexico, I was able to force myself through the entire process and wow ... the drawing actually came out half-decent. The problem is that I can only see what's on the page at the moment - I can't always hold that drawing in my mind, the piece that I'm sketching from and the unfinished bit on my page - and blend them into a finished project. The brain winds up focusing on the unfinished so much that I can't actually complete the sketch.

Luckily for me this only happens in realistic drawings requiring subtle shadings. I suppose this is one of the many reasons I prefer drawing cartoons or comic strips.

It has taken years of my playing in Photoshop, web design and even action figure customizing to realize that I do have an eye for design and an eye for art, but that I have my own style which is very different from that of my mother's or of my father's. Or, for that matter, my sister's.

Today, I suspect the brain melt-downs over attempting to change patterns is either a function of ADHD or, I lean a bit more now to thinking it may be a function of Asperger's. After all, it's quite odd when a normally very logical person suddenly has a meltdown over something essentially stupid and inconsequential.

But the bigger realization for me has been just how artistic my family has always been. And that I'm not so far outside the mold as I may have once thought.

Or maybe I've just sniffed too many art supplies over the years.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:27 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 31, 2008

Living at the Edges

In Austin, we had lived miles from both elementary schools I attended, the beloved Pillow Elementary and the much despised St. Louis. After just six weeks back at Pillow for third grade, we moved to Arlington (in between Dallas and Fort Worth). My mother was ecstatic that they'd found a good school for us ... and just six blocks from our new house. Once again, my father had chosen a home with a backyard that was bounded by a fence ... and behind that, no other houses. In Austin, we'd lived in Balcones Woods and behind our fence was a wild tangle of woods untamed, unkempt and beautiful. Here, it was simply an empty field, but at least it was not another home staring straight into ours. I suppose this was Dad's response to living "in town" ... I don't think he liked the 'burbs any more than I did.

At any rate, Mom was ecstatic that I would be able to walk to school or ride my bike and she could be relieved of that burdensome chore.

There was a playground outside the school, but it seemed it was always reserved for the younger children. The older kids went out to the field to the south of the school.

Since I'm strolling around the elementary school stomping grounds, I thought I'd show you the climbing tree I mentioned in my previous post. This is shot from just south of my climbing tree ... a little west of the other day's dreaming valley ... and looking northward to the school. Clicking the image will open a new window with a somewhat larger version .. you know you can refer back to the big images whilst I point out details. :)

Elementary school tree


Hit Play to listen to a song that always reminds me of this time period ... and just the general feel of my warm woodsy places.

Things have changed both more and less than I had thought when I went back for a look a couple of years ago. My personal playground of trees were all still intact, including my climbing tree here. It's just a scraggly ole twisty pine tree. Resin would "bleed" out of the tree and stick to our hands and clothes. And as you can see here, being up in the tree, you really had little cover to hide from the teachers if they happened to come by that way. The funny thing is ... I'm horribly allergic to any of the aromatic trees. Cedars are the worst, but pine trees will set me off, too. But I don't recall ever getting an allergy attack from this tree.

In the middle area of the picture, you can see a fire lane. That wasn't there back in the day. Instead, there was a little run-off. We called it the dry creek ... unless, of course, it was raining. I would pretend it was a canyon for my Fisher Price Adventure People (these were the precursors to the Star Wars action figures), even though I wouldn't bring my prized toys up to school. The various undercuts and sediments in the "canyon" there made me think of my beloved New Mexico and cliff dwellings and I often lamented the fact that we didn't have such a cool run-off in our backyard so I could play in it properly. My parents, of course, were flabbergasted that I would want such a nasty trip hazard in the backyard. Parents are so short-sighted sometimes.

The other fun we would have in the creek was "mining for lead." Until we realized that lead was a metal and not the stuff inside our pencils. Then it became "mining for graphite." The dirt was a brown-red colour, tan in places, darker in others. And buried in the hard sediment were "pebbles" of graphite. We'd take hardened sticks and perform our digs ... sometimes grabbing sharp rocks to help break apart the hardpan dirt. Suddenly, you'd get this red-brown marble to pop out, usually showing some of the graphite where your stick had burst the outer skin of dried mud.

For some reason, the school did not really appreciate our graphite markings on the sidewalks and bricks. It wasn't vandalism to us, we'd do it right in front of the teachers. It was decorating our home. Leaving our mark on the place where we spent so much time.

Adults, truly, were unfathomable at best. So picky. So many stupid rules just for the sake of rules.

For a suburban school, we had a pretty "rural" playground unfettered by an overabundance of metal apparatus or being restricted to the concrete and asphalt. The soccer field to the left of the picture? That was mostly an area of no grass and had deep creases in the land from rainwater run-off ... nothing like our dry creekbed ... but enough to make playing soccer there a bit more complicated than the norm. Back then, our goal posts didn't have the diagonal outcross where the net is attached now. We had just a rectangle of thick pipe delineating the goal. Most of the time, there would be a mob of boys on the soccer field, standing in little groups here and there ... and then a huge mob with a cloud of dust, scrabbling over the ball. Girls were not really welcome on the field, although I did play a few times. I mostly got yelled at for kicking the ball in the wrong direction. Which was interesting, really, seeing as I was not on anyone's team. Girls were not picked for sides in soccer there ... so I became my anarchist, oppositional self and simply kicked the ball wherever I wanted to kick it.

I can recall one day in fifth grade, hanging from my hands ... I was perhaps an inch or so off the ground, just dangling from my grip on the huge pipe. There were probably six or seven girls pretending to do some sort of arcane gymnastics off the bar, but in reality, we were all just kind of hanging around. The boy who was goalie on this end got mad and wanted us all to go away. He hollered. We ignored him. The ball was waaaaay down the field on the lower end. It was not coming up here for quite a while. I think he was bored more than he was mad at us. He paced. He groused.

And then he came up behind me, shouted "GET DOWN AND GO AWAY!" and he pushed me in the small of the back.

I landed on my ass, my arms out behind me propping me up. The left arm hurt and I wanted to cry ... not from the pain in my arm which was not that bad - I'd felt worse ... but because I had been singled out. There were a bunch of girls still hanging around. Why was I different? Why was I a target?

I stood up, dusted myself off and headed down the hill.

I didn't realize that my arm was broken. I thought at worst it was sprained and I dutifully told my mom that night at dinner that I thought I had sprained my wrist. She rolled her eyes, always certain that my sister and I were making up any maladies, because, well, that's what kids did. In the eleven years as my mother, she had yet to realize that when I said "ow" ... there was a serious problem afoot, probably more serious than I thought. So Mom rolled her eyes and asked how bad it hurt and I said, "Not that much. I think it's just sprained." Instead of upgrading it from "not that much" to "crap, my kid is hurt," Mom downgraded it from "not that much," to "kid is exaggerating it."

And with a great many kids, that's not a bad guess. The thing is, you have to know your child to make this call, and of course, sometimes you still get it wrong. But I would have thought my dramatic eardrum bursting at age 4 or 5 would have been the one incident to point out to her that I have a very high tolerance for pain.

After three days of trying to use my left hand as little as possible, I finally told Mom that I thought I needed to see a doctor. This was a big deal in our family, and it often felt like I was making a huge imposition on Mom's time and budget. She fussed, but agreed to take me. I could hear her telling the nurse that no, she didn't think my arm was broken, but that I wanted it looked at.

The doctor sent me in for an x-ray and as we drove back to the doctor's office ... Mom pulled out the x-ray and looked at it. Well, okay, not while she was driving, but as we sat in the car before returning to the doctor.

"It's not broken," she pronounced as she looked at the film. "All of this is for nothing. Do you know how expensive x-rays are?"

"I thought we had health insurance," I protested.

"Well, yes, but it still costs something."

Chastised and down-hearted, I stared out the side window all the way back to the doctor's office. Once there, he took the film, put it up on his light and pronounced quickly:

"Yep, it's broken, all right."

My mother was in shock.

So was the nurse. "You told me there would be no casts today!" The doctor was a little surprised at her vehemence. "I wore my black slacks today because you said there would be NO CASTS."

Since the break was at least 3-5 days old at this point and since it did not need to be set, the doctor decided on a compromise. They wrapped my arm and then made a U from the elbow out to the wrist. Then they put an ace bandage over that. The doctor was proud of the lightweight cast. The nurse didn't get any plaster on her black pants.

And I missed out on the rite of passage to have your cast signed by all your friends.

And to add insult to injury? They gave me a crappy square of some kind of cotton-thin canvas material to use as a sling.

I was floored. No plaster cast for everyone to sign. No cool, form-fitting sling. Just a painful knot at the back of my neck.

I had had enough. Mom refused to buy a "cool" sling and I was not going to take any more "good enoughs" that day. I dove into Mom's fabric basket and came out with a decent sized piece of blue corduroy, some thread, a needle and headed back to my room to sew myself a nice, form-fitting sling. Took quite a while to sew it all by hand with one arm in a sling, but it came out pretty well.

The next day at school, all the teachers wanted to know where I'd gotten that cool sling and their eyes bugged out when I nonchalantly answered, I made it. ... no, I didn't have a pattern. No, I didn't have any help. I didn't like the sling I had and I got mad and made the kind of sling I wanted.

I was stubborn that way.

At recess, I sat at the base of my climbing tree, my t-shirt getting bark and resin on the back ... and I watched the boys playing soccer, my eyes constantly scanning for one.

I never did know which boy broke my arm.

I spent the next six weeks reading books under my climbing tree until the cast finally came off. At the edges of the playground. On the edges of the kids playing. Watching. Reading. At the edges.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:53 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Vacations and Photos | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 29, 2008

Dreaming ...

It is a well known fact to anyone who knows me at all well, that I hate winter with a fiery passion. That, in fact, I proclaimed in CCD (think Catholic Sunday School) loudly and frequently that hell was not hot, but cold. Naturally, the parents who'd volunteered to teach were scandalized but hardly knew what to do with a child who simply out-logic'd them about the issue. (Well, we say "left out in the cold" when someone leaves us ... or "turns a cold shoulder," right? And if hell is the absence of God ... then God has given those in hell the cold shoulder and therefore, OBVIOUSLY, hell is cold. These poor volunteer teachers just kind of blinked at me and ignored the issue all together.)

Come to think of it, this is the way most adults tended to deal with me. Anyway.

I talked in an earlier post this month about when I first moved to Arlington and began attending Butler Elementary. There was one area we used to stage our Pretend games of Hardy Boys ... Nancy Drew when Tracy got upset and put her foot down about us playing at being boys. Sometimes Star Wars and sometimes we just made stuff up. There was a tree that was our front door ... another that helped delineate the "rooms" of our "house." Another that I climbed incessantly despite the fact that tree climbing was expressly forbidden. (And it's a measure of how invisible I felt ... and possibly how much the teachers knew what "being in trouble" meant to me ... that they sometimes walked right underneath the tree I was in and never said a word ... despite the little ratty tattle-tales.)

But this place ... this place was for dreaming and the photo does not even begin to do it justice.

Elementary school valley

If you click through, a desktop wallpaper version will pop up ... 1680x1260.

That rock, that's flat to the ground, mostly buried ... yeah, over there on the bottom, kind of to the right. We used to sit on that and look down into that little "valley" below us and just dream. We were always quiet and serious there. Some places just ask that of you and even grade-schoolers can sense it. Later, when recess was a little less about games of Let's Pretend and a little more ... for me, anyway ... trying to figure out life, the universe and everything, I can remember laying on my back, watching the sky ... trying to find a way to watch the sky and my little valley at the same time ... and, of course, solve all the issues in the universe. All in a 30 minute recess.

For me, the small pathway entrance into the woods represented so many different things. And that clearing you had to pass to get to it. Completely exposed ... except because it was a "valley" ... the teachers couldn't see us if we went down there.

I know my love of that spot drove most of our teachers crazy. It was at the very, very edge of our "safe" playground area. Going down to that valley, or worse, into the woods, was strictly forbidden. The kind of forbidden that kids hate because you can feel the adults' fear behind the edict ... when they are honestly scared that "bad things" will happen to any child who disobeys. It's a very different feel from the arbitrary, we're-imposing-order-upon-you kinds of rules.

And, to be honest, the entire time I went to Butler, at least once a year there were reports of "flashers" in raincoats just waiting to show off for some kid. And, there was a creek which ran through the narrow strip of woods ... home to the ever-lovely cottonmouths (water moccasins).

For me, the woods represented something else completely. Some flashes of a special place. Tinged with hints of fear. Coloured with a need to explore and discover and learn. A need to know and put an end to something that I couldn't name ... and at the same time I was terrified that I was not ready to know what answers the woods might hold, what they might unlock.

Our teachers took small groups through the woods on science expeditions from time to time. And I could see where the older kids ... the neighborhood kids had set up BMX bike ramps and obstacles. A rope swing to get across the creek.

The magic of the woods danced on the unknown edges during these excursions, as if the mere presence of adults ... of a gaggle of other children ... forced the things I needed further away into the undergrowth ... dancing up the vines into the treetops ... lurking in the gaping wounds of some of the tree trunks.

A couple of times, when I was near the end of elementary school ... when I had started junior high and was playing one summer, I went into the woods alone, hoping to unlock this thing that kept teasing me. Nothing bad ever happened. I saw a couple of other kids, playing. No adults. No snakes.

And no answers to my mystery, either.

Despite the fact that the woods taunted me from my recess perch ... when I was finally able to explore them, I was left with one conclusion:

These were the wrong woods.

Beautiful and interesting in their own right. Mysterious and captivating.

But these woods were not, after all, my woods.

And my woods ... Balcones Woods ... back in Austin ... those had been torn down.

I would have to find my answers another way.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:23 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | Vacations and Photos | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 24, 2008

Writing

Dan Leone over at Cafe Leone was wondering if other writers prefer to write their stories longhand or on the computer. After I'd typed in two paragraphs in his comments and was getting read to start a third, I decided that perhaps I should make a blog post about this instead of leaving poor Dan a novella of a comment.

So, longhand or computer for writing? Well, it depends on my thinking process, actually. There are times when I want to move more slowly and deliberately and think through things - that's when I write longhand. I'm usually still getting a feeling for the characters at that time and possibly the plot (at least the beginning details) as well. Often I haven't fully built the world in my head yet.

Once I'm rolling, I certainly prefer the computer for writing. I can type much faster than I write and my handwriting, particularly since I have ADHD, is beyond atrocious. I have a terribly tendency to write with a .5 or .3 mechanical pencil and begin writing smaller and smaller as the story goes on. This makes transcribing it later a nightmare.

Joe Schumacher's Videowriter imageThe first novel I wrote in high school, Lichtman's Bluff, was based on a dream I'd had which really, really captured my imagination and I knew I had a great storyline and great characters. School that day was a torture - I wanted to write, not listen to boring classes. That evening, I had to babysit my favourite family. As soon as the kids were in bed, I found some paper, pulled out my trusty .3 pencil and commenced. The first draft was about 30 or 40 pages, light pencil scratch on baby blue paper ... no margins to speak of. Then I began transcribing it into the Commodore 64 word processor. I could not touch type then. It took forever. A year later, I had my own word processor, a Magnavox Videowriter, and was working on the third draft. At that point I was closer to touch typing and the story went a lot faster. Not to mention, the action on the C-64 keyboard almost required me to two-finger type anyway. The action on the VideoWriter was much easier and less stressful on my li'l ole fingers.

(I was going to post a scan of that draft ... but I can't find the original draft any more. :( )

Most of what I write today begins life on the computer. Not everything, though. I have been known to grab scraps of paper and begin a character outline ... or a bit of plot ... just to capture the moment. Even I don't have my laptop with me every moment of the day. (I know this is hard to believe, but it's true. Of course, when it's not with me, I go through withdrawals, but that's another story.)

However, the biggest drive to using the computer to write fiction today ... has less to do with the feel of paper and pencil versus keyboard. It's much more practical than that. You see, I prefer to write in the dark. I can, to quote Adam from MythBusters, "reject your reality and substitute my own" far more easily with the lights off. And since I have a happy MacBook Pro with the light up keyboard ... writing in a dark room with just the glow of the stereo and the computer, I can more easily transport myself into the world about which I'm writing.

So, the short answer to Dan's question is that I use both ways of writing at different times and for different purposes.

* Photo of the Magnavox Videowriter is from Joe Schumacher's EXCELLENT photography site. If you have not been there, please check him out. There are just some stunning shots there.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:00 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 16, 2008

It

In high school, I wrote my first complete novel. I'd been attempting novels since the sixth grade, but I had this amazing dream early in my senior year of high school and spun it into a novel. It turned out to be a horror novel, which surprised me. I'd never read any horror books and thought they were probably all lame - scandalous elitism (hush, cabal) from someone who loved science fiction and fantasy books. So, I decided to read Stephen King to see how I stacked up. I found Carrie interesting and appalling both. It was interesting enough ... too short ... definitely a writer's "early" work ... and great googly moogly, but I could write that well. Sheesh, if that was the bar for getting published ....

And then I read Stephen King's It. I was hooked on Stevie-Boy for life at that point. My friend Andy dragged me to go see Stand By Me. Again, I was mesmerized. Stevie-Boy and I thought a heck of a lot alike.

What hooked me the most was his ability to write characters and to understand them so very well that not only do you get deep insight into many of them, but the interplay between characters, particularly in "The Body" and It, is almost to be one of the gang. What was particularly poignant for me was a line near the end of chapter 32 of "The Body" novella in the Different Seasons collection:

Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant, did you ever notice that?

We moved so often when I was little, friends were hard to come by for me and they were precious. So while I understood that you lost friends and made new ones when you moved, I was searching for stability in my friends ... and I didn't understand how they could move in and out of each others' lives and mine so "easily."

A fast breakdown for those who haven't read the blog long:
born in Amarillo, Texas; moved to Houston, another place in Houston; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oklahoma City; Carmel, Indiana; Austin, Texas. Then I started kindergarten in Pillow Elementary. Second grade at St. Louis Catholic School. Began third grade back at Pillow, but after the first six weeks of the year, we moved to Arlington, Texas. Out of six possible semesters of junior high, I had 3 at Nichols and 3 at Shackelford. High school was blissfully the same all three years.

Despite having both a mother and a father, a "stable" family unit ... my life was anything but stable. I was always waiting for the next time I would have to move on. I was terrified to make friends and too lonely to not make them.

I can remember the first weeks of third grade at my third new school in as many years vividly. Being introduced to Carrie Thompson, who was to be my "official" friend and show me around the school ... show me the ropes, as it were. We became good acquaintances ... she came over to my house and I went to hers, but we didn't seem to have a great deal in common. And then I stumbled into Tracy and Jill. We seemed to hit it off well at first. Recess games were fun. We hung together in Language Arts class. But, unbeknownst to me, Tracy and I had some similar family issues which made us both bull-headed in different ways. For Tracy, it was a need - and this is totally my interpretation and may not be at all how she sees things - but it seems to me she had a need to be in charge and to not let anyone truly outshine her. I don't think she wanted to be noticed any more than I did, really. But she was determined not to be at the bottom, either.

So for the first week or two that the three of us were friends, Tracy ran our schoolwork with a fist more iron than that of the teacher. Third grade in the 70s consisted of mimeographed purple worksheets. Half the time, the sheets were still damp from the machine and sadly lacking a grape smell that might have made the purple colouring tolerable. Tracy would tell us what number to work to. Maybe to number ten. Then you would stop and wait for the others to catch up. That way, we could all be twinkies and turn our papers in at the same time. I soon learned it was so Tracy wouldn't be the last one to turn in her worksheet, but that we could all three turn them in together.

Our school was "Open Concept" which was, in general, an utterly hellish educational experiment of the 70s and 80s:

Years before the recognition of Attention Deficit Disorder issues, Butler Elementary began as an "open concept" school, with grades one through six in one large "room" of the building. Each grade level was "divided" by rolling bookcases about five feet high and more of these bookcases were used to lightly subdivide each "classroom" within a grade level. Teachers' desks were in a cluster in the center of the grade level area.

I struggled at the beginning of that year. I was put in the second high language arts and math classes at first, despite the fact that at my old school, I was much further ahead in both subjects. When I was finally bumped up, to the "high" classes, they were still behind where I had been at Pillow. So it didn't take long at all before I tired of waiting for Tracy to catch up on the worksheets. And the day I did, despite how much I wanted to make BFF with Tracy and Jill, was the day that I inadvertently started a war.

I remember clearly working on the purple inked paper. Looking over to see where Jill was. And then looking over to see how far behind Tracy was. There was just no way. I couldn't pull out a book and read until I was finished with my worksheets. And I just couldn't sit there and wait for Tracy to catch up any longer. I continued working on the worksheet. When Jill reached the requisite number, she turned to look at my worksheet. The look on her face ... panic. Alarm. And that probably should have been a warning to me as to how Tracy would react. Jill looked over at Tracy's worksheet. Back at mine. I remember her hesitating. Shrugging her shoulders. And continuing her own work.

When Tracy finally got to the stopping point, she looked at Jill's paper. Shocked and betrayed. Looked over at mine. The look of terror and anger both overwhelmed me. I hadn't expected this. I didn't mean for it to be a big deal. I just couldn't wait any more.

Tracy, however, saw it as my attempt to usurp her power. She burst into tears and told the teacher that I had called her a name or some such nonsense. I was shocked. The look of loathing on her face. And from that moment on, the war was on. For the rest of third grade and fourth grade, we did remain friends ... and even added new people to our little group. But from that point on, Tracy was diligent about remaining in charge and largely held that group of four together through high school.

And partly because I didn't see the point in "being in charge" of my friends ... and partly because I was terrified to even attempt to make other friends, I tried not to fight her. Even when she got ticked off and "hired" boys to come beat me up during recess. (Oddly enough, the closest one ever came to beating me up was a boy who fought like a girl, all cat scratches and no good solid roundhouses.) She would always tell me that she didn't do it, but invariably when I asked the boy why in the hell he was attacking me, he'd always say, "Tracy asked me to."

By fifth grade, I had no friends to speak of. Tracy had finally gotten furious with me for something I can't recall and commanded everyone in our group to stop having anything to do with me. For my part, I was tired of fighting with her and I simply stopped even trying to hang out with the others in our group. It was simply no longer worth it. I eventually did make other friends, but it wasn't until ninth grade that I had really close friends again.

And perhaps this is why Stephen King's "The Body" and It speak so poignantly to me. Both books revolve around the concept of friendship, of doing anything for your friends and of knowing them well enough to know their weaknesses not so much to exploit them (although teasing is, of course, perfectly acceptable), but to keep them out of trouble and to protect them from others.

Gordie and Chris from "The Body," knew that their families were ... let's say not supportive. Chris' family was outright abusive and the surrounding community simply abused Chris further. Gordie's family ignored him. The boys became family for each other. Teddy's family was also extremely abusive and Vern's was a little harder to read (or I don't remember it as well). Certainly Vern's older brother was not going to win any good brother awards .... But, despite the fact that the four boys were something of a family to each other, Vern and Teddy slipped away ... "like busboys in a restaurant." Chris and Gordie continued to be family to each other.

In It, there is a larger group of children and a definite set of enemies for them to fight. (One supernatural and one set was "mundane.") And again, the children bind together in an exceedingly strong family for the duration of the crisis. (The slipping apart has more to do with the supernatural plotline, so I'll skip that.)

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 - Jesus, did you?

Those friends for me didn't come until later, until I was 14 or 15 or so. And that was largely my own fault as I had simply never learned to be human enough to truly let potential friends in. Even still, I found it difficult to let my friends know just how important they were.

And, I suppose, that ruminating on all of this is why I have been trying so hard to hook back up with the people I knew in high school (and some of them even longer than that). It is partly a reality check on my memories (do you remember when we did ...) - but it's largely because to me, my close friends were like family to me then and I've always hated that we let that connection slip away. On my end it was simple fear that I had imagined that connection and that they meant far more to me than I to them. On their ends?

I've no idea.

I love that I've reconnected with some of them. One of them is even from Tracy's little group, although she wasn't part of the fighting from third grade, and, in fact, was friendly with me all throughout school and even college. I'm proud of her like I'm proud of my buddy, Andy. Like I would be proud of siblings. There is still that family connection to me.

I know now that a portion of this is that we do have families of choice as well as families of origin ... and that this is especially true when there was significant childhood trauma involving the family of origin. But I don't know how to express what I'm thinking and feeling at this moment ... just trying to explain what those old friends meant and still mean. I'd hoped by this point in the post, I'd be able to say something meaningful ... but because we do think so much alike, instead I'm left with one last quote from Stephen King's "The Body":

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless...

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:46 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 1, 2008

Cheese Circles

The current project ... a page from Cheese Circles: A Children's Book for Grown-Ups.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:13 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 25, 2007

Serendipity

First, I'll be honest. I had one of those utterly, I-am-content-with-the-world days that simply don't occur often enough for most of us. I was relaxed, happy ... shoot, I even braved the mall for some last-minute serendipitous shopping. (And yeah, I'm writing this at 4 a.m. on the 25th ... but I still haven't been to sleep yet, so "today" is still the 24th to me)

I know most people avoid leaving their homes as much as humanly possible on the 24th of December. Traffic is horrible. Most people are tense and tired and cranky and feeling sooooo pressured.

And yet, it's one of my favourite days to go out. Maybe it's that oppositional thing that my therapist called me on. Dunno, don't care. I go out, and I feel no pressure. Check this store and that store ... is there something I didn't know about that might just make someone's Christmas that much better?

And ... I like to go and make sure I smile at all the retail workers. I can recalled Christmases whilst I was in college ... working retail ... and trust me, it can be hard to even believe in God at all during the "joyous" Christmas season in retail. I'm pleasant ... I'm smiling ... I'm not rushed, but I'm not moving at OAP speed, either.

In fact ... today I went to the one store people pray to every god imaginable that they don't have to visit on the 24th. I went to a toy store. I discovered some LEGO Indiana Jones sets that I don't think are supposed to be out until January. At least every website I saw after I got back home said January. And considering that this store was selling them for more than the suggested retail price, I'm pretty sure a manager thought these would fill out their empty shelves and sell well. (The $50 kit was selling for $70 ...)

I wandered around, looking for a Humvee toy for my other half. She works for AM General, building the H1 Humvee, and I know she showed interest in one when we were there months ago. They didn't have those anymore, but they did have some old skool G.I. Joe figures that I knew she liked. Snagged 'em. Serendipitous shopping. Neither one of us knew these existed, but her face sure lit up at seeing Scarlett and Lady Jaye.

And when I was through poking around, I went to check out. Short line. Staff didn't look too terribly stressed and frenzied. I noticed there was some stuff on the counter, but I thought they belonged to the woman checking out. Just as I'm about to put my stuff on the counter, a woman rushes up with a toy or two in hand. She's freaking. She's apologetic. "I just need to add these couple of things," she blurted out, terrified I would tell her to head to the end of the line (which, actually, ended with me). The few things on the counter already were hers.

I smiled and told her not to worry about it. She apologized, tried to explain. She was speaking so fast, she was tripping over her words. I smiled again and told her, "Look, it's fine. I'm not on a schedule."

I thought she was going to fall over. "You're NOT???"

I just smiled. "No, really. It's okay, go ahead."

She couldn't stop thanking me. And I suppose this is why I like going shopping on Christmas Eve. Random Acts of Kindness ... spreading a little peace around.

And then, tonight at church ... lol

I was more than a little bouncy myself. It had been a good day and a great evening. I spent some time really reflecting how I'd been in such a bad mental space last year. This year, I have no job and I'm getting nervous about the severance running out before I find one ... but still, things are better this year.

Across our round sanctuary sat ... mmm, let's call him Thomas ... so Thomas sat across the sanctuary from me. He'd been on the computer, checking NORAD's Santa site to see where Santa was now every couple of minutes before church started. Running all over the place. All that pent-up Christmas energy. And our 11 o'clock service is a very meditative, calm, peaceful time. How was he going to survive it?

And as soon as I thought that, he looked up at me. I gave him a smile ... not my usual Hey-why-don't-you-and-I-get-in-trouble grin ... but a nice smile. He gave me the sweetest, most genuine smile in return.

Instantly, I remembered a Christmas when I was a few years older than Thomas. Our family tradition was to open our gifts Christmas Eve after we'd been to mass. (Early mass ... my mom didn't have the stamina to stay up much past the evening news.) This one year, Mom wanted me to open one present early. She had a present picked out for me and one for my sister ....

It was the mid-80s and it was a Timex digital watch. It looked so adult, with its black leather band and the gold watch itself. The glass was a bubble and in the center was a small digital bit of circuitry. There was a button to push for light. It wasn't something I'd asked for, I don't think. Wasn't something I'd thought about, really. And it was sooooo adult looking. I was enthralled with it.

I can remember sitting in church, much like Thomas this year. Trying to listen, trying not to bounce. Staring at my watch in awe. In fact, and I'm sure this is simply my "old" person's memory banks using Adobe Premiere and AfterEffects with the images stored in my head, but I can see that dreamy golden glow around the whole image of me admiring my watch in church.

And as I type this, speaking of serendipity ... Green Day's "Time of Your Life" just came on. While the song might have felt like a semi-bitter break up song to its lyricist, the wistful and dreamy quality of the music on this song coupled with the lyrics (which don't necessarily scream break-up) speaks to all of this for me.

Another turning point;
a fork stuck in the road.
Time grabs you by the wrist;
directs you where to go.
So make the best of this test
and don't ask why.
It's not a question
but a lesson learned in time.
It's something unpredictable
but in the end it's right.
I hope you had the time of your life.
So take the photographs
and still frames in your mind.
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time.
Tattoos of memories
and dead skin on trial.
For what it's worth,
it was worth all the while.
It's something unpredictable
but in the end it's right.
I hope you had the time of your life.

Serendipity indeed. Funny how "way leads on to way" ... the paths our memories and our lives weave.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:55 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 8, 2007

Paddington Bear ARRESTED

Prime Minister Brown is set to take on illegal immigration in the U.K. and has served notice by going after one of the most loved and well-known illegal immigrants in the U.K. - Paddington Bear.

"It's an outrage!" claimed Paddington from his home West London after his initial release pending further investigation. "I was a mere cub and was forced onto the boat by my auntie. I knew nothing of immigration papers or applications."

However, a neighbor in Notting Hill recalls a gleeful young Paddington bragging about beating the system. "He was constantly laughing at me and telling me to call the Border and Immigration Agency but that it would do no good. He said he knew someone on the inside and that I was simply a cranky curry to be tossed in the bin and thought of no more."

"I may be from darkest Peru," the angry bear stated early in the day from his holding cell, "but I know this is just a ploy to boost his polls. I don't understand why the government must persecute me in this way."

The Home Office had this to say: "We are taking a robust approach to tracking down people who have no right to be here and removing them from the UK."

However, Mr. Bear's family and friends claim this is all a dark plot to paint Mr. Bear as a terrorist. "We just don't understand why the government would make these claims! Certainly his fur is a sand tan colour, but he is Peruvian, not Middle Eastern. This is racial profiling at its absolute lowest form - because it's not even based on facts, just the appearance of a different ethnicity."

Long-time friend and companion, Pooh Bear of 100 Acre Woods, declared he overheard two bobbies claiming Paddington Bear quite obviously fit the profile of a suicide bearer. "I mean, indeed!" exclaimed Mr. Pooh Bear. "Everyone is quite well aware that the phrase is suicide bomber, not bearer. This is simply gross bearism in its most heinous form."

Mr. Bear has resided at 32 Windsor Gardens, Notting Hill, west London since his arrival in the U.K. some fifty years ago.

BBC article regarding the arrest here.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:59 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 7, 2007

For Friends, Whenever I May Find Them

What a dream I had ...

We walk into a large, very fancy library. The kind of library which is supposed to look old and formal, but comes off looking new and pretentious ... complete with marble lions standing guard outside and a long, panoramic array of steps leading up to the library ... those very shallow steps that you could take four or five at time, except they're wide ... you could almost put two feet heel to toe before you reach the next step. And, of course, there's no visible wheelchair ramp.
I have a purpose for being at this library but since I am simply relating a dream, all I know is that there is a dream-logic to that purpose which fades away very quickly once we're inside. We have walked inside the library and around a center area whose floor is lower than the rest of this narthex. As we come in, we walk on the right side, past the area for checking out books. Before us are the large and ornate wooden doors which lead to the library proper. Before we can enter, I turn around and look down in that little "pit" in the center of all this marble tile. People are busily working on honestly old wooden tables, some with piles of books around them, some still beating on the keyboards of the computers to find the sources they need.
I stop dead in my tracks. It can't be. After all this time, some twenty years ... constantly wondering whatever happened ... why did she never get back in contact with me ... I'm seeing things, it can't possibly be her.
I'm down the steps in a heartbeat, rushing up to this person I haven't seen since the summer after high school. "Janet?" Another step. "Kyungah?"
She turns around and it's true. My illustrious locker partner, as I used to call her back in school.
She's a bit standoffish and tries to quickly direct my attention to other Lamar people I know who are also here. They are certainly people I know, but not as well as KK. I'm puzzled and hurt. All I can think is, "but you and I were friends ... I only know of these people." The wall remains despite having found Janet at last.

Most people I know can't wait to forget about high school. They stay connected with a few friends, but seem to try to put everything else completely behind them and move on. Except of course for those few who prefer to live in their "glory days" and constantly rehash all the wonderful moments.

I don't seem to fall into either category.

And yet I would love to still be friends with some of those folks, I regret losing contact with so many.

I suppose that because I often felt more at home at school than at home, I came to think of some of these people almost as siblings and favourite cousins than friends. I didn't expect that I would completely lose contact with them for so long ... and when I have caught up with them, we've had (for the most part) a single good conversation ... which fades into politeness. We don't really know each other anymore and apparently it's too much effort ... or it's too much a reminder of another time others would prefer remain forgotten ... and the effort at renewing friendship seems to fade clean away to a dream-state of a million yesterdays ago.

And yet, I can't quite let go of those old friendships.

I want to know what life has thrown them. I want to know that they are okay, they are happy, they are loved, they are content. I want them to know that there are those folks from "back in the day" who are rooting them on to meet their dreams, whatever they may be and however they may have changed over the years.

So this song has been running through my head today ... really, only the first line of the real song has anything to do with this at all ... but I've done what I used to do in high school all the time ... re-written it into something else. It's mushier than I would like, but not as mushy as the original song, so I suppose that's an improvement. (For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her - Simon & Garfunkel)

What a dream I had
dressed in fogginess
clothed in adrenaline
and wistful happiness
sweeter than the rain

I've wandered empty malls and
past the shop displays
I heard distant murmurs
floating through the hallways
as I walked on

and when we met again
your dreams changed as the night
you've walked on frozen streets and fields of daffodils
I remember then

And now look what you've become
(silence)
I wish you happiness
With my grateful memories
Oh I miss you all
Oh I miss you

(I told you it was mushy. Bah)

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:17 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 21, 2007

Who Are You? Who, who, who who

Incinq from BlogCatalog asked a great question about ethnicity/heritage. I started to reply over there and then realized that my own answer is so odd and lengthy, it'd simply make a better blog post.

By the time I was about five, I began to understand that there were other countries than the U.S. in a very visceral and real way. I would pore over the atlas and pull out all of the ancient encyclopedias just to look at maps. Using the encyclopedias as my maps, however, caused some interesting glitches. Think about this list for a minute:
island, England, Ireland, Greenland, Poland.

Yeah. I thought Poland must be an island. I got into a very heated argument with my mother over this about the age of five. I was utterly convinced that she was wrong and I was right. It all made perfect sense. To me, anyway.

The long and short of that, though, is that my parents were highly uninterested in our cultural heritage. I was searching for roots that they had long since dug up and tossed aside. When I asked ethnicity we were, I was told American. Okay, that's great, but that's only a part of the story. Where did we come from? And I don't mean the stork.

Unfortunately, I was not quite savvy enough to say it like that then. So, predictably, I got a book on where babies come from instead of an answer. This was a recurring theme of misdirection in our family when someone didn't like the questions being asked.

Eventually I got Mom to say that her mother's mother had emigrated from Lithuania. Excited, I asked where that was. Mom's reply was that Lithuania wasn't there any more. It had been swallowed up by Russia.

Now, you have to understand that I was about five at this time. And to my mind ... which worked in oddly logical and literal ways (as most five year old's minds do) ... this meant Lithuania didn't really count because it didn't really exist.

Frustrated that we were apparently not "anything," I began to search for a good heritage. I decided that I was Irish.

To this day I have no idea what made me choose Ireland. I recall my mother being irritated with me and telling me that we were NOT Irish. I would calmly smile and tell her, "I am." It was as if, for whatever reason, I needed roots that my parents did not. I know that both of my parents had moved some when they were kids. But I don't think they had the tumbleweed childhood I'd had by the time I started kindergarten. Six towns and seven homes by the time I was in kindergarten. Perhaps I just wanted something consistent in my life.

I know that when I was a little bit older, and I would ask again (this was a constant question throughout my childhood), Mom would sometimes recite a little ditty that her father used to say, "We're Irish and Dutch and don't amount to much." This simply fueled my Irish flame. I researched the country periodically. I aligned myself with the IRA (without any real realization of what that meant ... to my mind they were simply freedom fighters). I often growled about "the bloody English" and especially that fool, Cromwell.

I begged to be allowed to do the foreign exchange program and go to Ireland for a year of high school. My mother, ever paranoid about everything, refused on the grounds that Ireland was a land of war. I argued eloquently that the fighting was primarily in the northern six counties. I pointed out that Ireland was Catholic, so I would never miss mass. All in vain.

In the course of growing up, besides deciding I was Irish, I became very very invested in being a Texan as well. These two "ethnicities," if you will, gave me a certain grounding and identity. I adored teasing my sister about being an Okie and pointing out that Dad and I were true Texans ... whilst my sister was "just" an Okie. {Why does Texas not fall in the Gulf of Mexico? ... ... ... cuz Oklahoma sucks ... ... ... MWAhahahahaha} I periodically teased my mother for being a damyankee.

In retrospect, the reason that I constantly looked for some kind of national identity was because I wanted to belong ... and I never did feel like I belonged to my family. We always seemed like a foursome of random people who happened to share the same home. I was close to my sister and I tried to help her deal with our odd little family ... but somehow ... I always felt like an outsider ... biding my time until I could escape into my real life.

Looking for a heritage was simply looking to belong to something bigger than my life; something which with I had an affinity, something in common.

There was a third component to my search for heritage.

We lived in Albuquerque for three months when I was three years old. Dad had already been there for a while on what was to have been a temporary assignment. It dragged out for quite some time. The last time I talked with Mom about this, she had thought he'd only been there for three months before we joined him. But on thinking about the timing of it all, she thought he'd actually been out there much, much longer than that.

I was two when he left for Albuquerque on this temporary assignment and when I was a teenager, my mother would bitterly tell me how hard it had been for her to deal with me. Not because I was acting up whilst Dad was gone. But because I was depressed that Daddy wasn't there.

To understand her bitterness, you have to understand that my father was not a particularly nice man most of the time. As an adult, my mom had figured this out after about 8 years of marriage. As a two year old, of course, I had not yet figured that out. She was hurt that I was upset at Dad's absence when she was still there to hold me and play with me. I suppose it's simply a complicated thing and I don't know if you, Gentle Reader, will really understand it without having lived it.

At any rate, this was about 1971. Mom and I finally moved to Albuquerque to join Dad since it looked like this temporary gig was going to be a bit longer than that.

In 1969, a group of American Indians took over Alcatraz Island.
In 1970, a group from the American Indian Movement seized the Mayflower replica on Thanksgiving day.
In 1971, the American Indian Movement also had a group occupy Mount Rushmore.

Remember how my mother would not let me go to Ireland for school when I was a junior in high school? Because she feared it was a country of war?

New Mexico has a large native American population. Tensions were running quite high in the 70s. My mother was utterly terrified of anyone different from her ... so Albuquerque was a city of dirt and fear to her.

I, on the other hand, thought I'd gone to heaven. I was back with Daddy, I could run outside, there were mountains. And, I'm sure that given my asthma, I was feeling far better in the dry Albuquerque than the humid, wet armpit of Houston.

Mom and Grandma and I made a trip up to Santa Fe one day to see the fabled "The Mall." This trip has become legend in my mind ... I don't know how much of it I have embellished over the years, but this is my story and I'm sticking to it:

Mom was surprised that "The Mall" was actually an outdoor collection of handicrafts, jewelry and such. We wandered from booth to booth, Mom becoming more and more scared by the collection of "dirty indians" around us.

I, of course, was utterly fascinated. I can just picture myself poised over a blanket of pottery and sand paintings, all cautious and curious three-year-old style. Hands to myself, eyes sharp and darting from storied item to storied item.

And then the questions started. "What's that?" "What does that mean?" "A Thunderbird? like the planes?" "What's a yei?" "What does it guard?"

Thirty six years later, I see this poor shopkeep as a patient man. Chuckling at the bilagaana child. I like to think that I was polite and curious, waiting for his answers ... but that may simply be because I know Navajo speech can be considered slow and pondering by anglos.

During my informal schooling in the symbols used by this Navajo artist, my mother thought I was still with her. She'd gone off to look at other booths. She was always like that once she got into shopping ... focused on the next booth or store or rack. Naturally, she eventually realized that I had not placidly followed her like a duckling straggling after its mother. Naturally, she panicked and began retracing her steps. Just in time to hear me tell the patient shopkeep:

"When I grow up, I'm gonna be an Indian, too!"

Whether it's clear memory or my vivid imagination, I can see him chuckling and then swallowing all emotion quickly ... a flash of fear before the mask of nothingness settles ... and my mother grabbing my arm and yanking me away.

We argued for years after that. I was going to grow up to be a Navajo. I was quite certain of it. Mom was appalled. She finally got it through to me that I would not be Navajo when she pointed to a picture of some native Americans and asked me what colour their skin was and what colour my skin was.

"You'll never be an Indian. Look at you."

Now that I think about it, that may be why I decided I was Irish. Pale as can be ... Mom's hair was auburn and mine was beginning to carry some nice red highlights.

So, my ethnicity and heritage is really a lie, in a way. I know far more about Ireland and about the Dineh than I do about Lithuania.

And yet, somehow it seems fitting to me that my heritage is something that I've chosen rather than what I was born into. So much of my life has been about abandoning that which I found dysfunctional and unhealthy and trying to align myself with carefully chosen healthy connections.

And yet, when it comes to the holidays, I find myself craving Koogali, a family recipe passed down from Mom's side of the family ... from Lithuania.

My heritage? I think the simplest answer is that my heritage is one of contradictions and obstinance.

Which then reminds me of a line from my second novel: Coyote is a trickster.
I have a certain affinity for this trickster figure. Unfortunately, it comes from the bilagaana's incomplete understanding of the type of trickster that Coyote actually is. He's not just a benign teacher of lessons. There's a darker underside to him ... and apparently these darker stories are not really much shared with the bilagaana.

So my heritage is chosen, incomplete, contradictory and in some cases, just flat out wrong.

But it is certainly unique to me. And despite the fact that I started my quest for a heritage in order to belong, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:36 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 1, 2007

Yet Another Rowling Post

So, back on the 22nd of October I listed a few things that I intended to blog about after I recovered from the exhausting trip to Texas. I think I covered most of them, but was reminded that I had not yet discussed J. K. Rowling's announcement that Dumbledore was gay.

First, let me say that this is not going to be some emotional, reactionary piece. In fact, whilst it uses Rowling as an example, it's a post about children's literature ... how we treat kids ... and how we treat people who are different.

The Discussions:
Timing of the announcement.
The series is over. Why announce now that Dumbledore is gay?

The "controversy" of having a gay character in a kids' series. Is Rowling making it up now for attention now that the series is over? Were there signs? Why bring sex into a children's series?

First, why announce it now? Well I would think that the fact that the series is over and done with is certainly a major factor. The mad rush for the Potter books is somewhat over. It is, in one sense, relatively "safe" to make such declarations now. Had this been announced with, say book 3, there would have been much uproar which over-shadowed the excellent story telling and character development. Rowling is a business woman and has been quite canny about protecting her story and characters. Why open herself up to more criticism for something which was, ultimately, a behind-the-scenes bit of plot and characterization?
Dumbledore's love life, ultimately, is a non-issue in the series ... with the exception of the fact that there was a history/connection between Albus and Grindelwald. In other words, it didn't matter to the core of the series what ANY of the teachers' sexuality was. It is, after all, a children's series and about the children who grow up during the series.

Which leads me to two: why include this at all, were there clues, why bring sex into a children's series?

Rowling NEVER brought sex into the series.
EVER
Let's just get that out of the way. To those reactionaries who claim that to announce Dumbledore is gay is to bring SEX into a child's series, I say, bullshit. I know there are those who claim that if a person says "I'm gay" or they say "That person is gay," that they have brought sex ... or "who they sleep with" ... into the public arena. HomoSEXuality. Why broadcast it for all to know?

What Rowling did was simply to honestly answer a child's question: Did Dumbledore every find his true love? The adult answer is: not really. He fell completely enarmoured of the young Grindelwald. No one who has read the books would deny that there was a definite connection between the two young men.

From an adult perspective of the text, I think it's easy to see what happened. They fell madly in love. Infatuated with each other. Perhaps over their intellectual ideas as Aberforth certainly believed. But it became clear that through the course of their interactions, a very deep connection was made. One in which Albus was not thinking normally. He was blinded. When his eyes cleared and he could see ... well, obviously his first "big" love had not gone well.

Dumbledore states that he knew he should never have power. That he became too easily engulfed in power and therefore he could not be trusted with it. When I first read the Deadly Hallows book, I took this at face value. When Rowling said, Dumbledore is gay ... it fell into place. He knew he could not be trusted to have power, true. But he also feared something else. He feared that his falling in love caused him to be too easily influenced to do things he shouldn't. That to keep and enjoy that love, he would lose a piece of himself. Despite his telling Harry over and over and over that love was the answer, Albus always meant philia, the love between friends, rather than a romantic eros love. (I don't think he discouraged eros, just that he focused on philia or agape.) One of the great tensions and complexities of the books, and probably one of the reasons that the child asked about Albus finding his one true love: despite his great love for all people ... he held himself aloof from a great love of one partner.

At least, that's my interpretation of the sum of his life that we get in the books.

Rowling's books do not say that Albus and Grindelwald dated. What possible plot point could that really convey in a series whose books were often called "too long" by adults? We did not hear about Minerva McGonagall's dating life. Nor Professor Sprout's.

We knew that the Weasleys were married. And now I have a question for those people who think that saying "I'm gay" is declaring "who you have sex with." Isn't being married the same announcement? An even more specific declaration? Isn't announcing "I'm not gay" the same thing?

At any rate we see only the burgeoning relationships of the children discussed. And it's all age appropriate stuff. Harry and Ron being confused and scared. The girls' being disgusted with the boys awkward attempts and their painful misunderstandings. Hermione straining to be noticed.

And we see just one adult relationship begin and grow ... and end. We see how isolated and how much of an outcast Lupin is. We see that Tonks is really something of the same. She's young, she has unusual talents, she's clumsy. So even though she is more a part of society than Lupin the Outcast can be, she is still, like many of Rowling's characters, an outsider.

Dumbledore is a power unto himself in the series. He is apart from much of the society, but it is apparently because he is a private man who keeps close counsel. He holds himself apart.

Lupin is an outcast because of something he cannot help. He is not "normal" according to society. He is ill. He is defective. He is Not To Be Trusted.
Lupin is an outsider, a leper, a symbol of all of those who are cast out because of their differentness. He is the AIDS patient, the cancer patient (bald and wan and fading), the racial outcast, the one below the poverty line.

And yet, Lupin and Tonks together, despite being outsider and outcast, are ultimately greater together than they are apart. They accomplish more. Their sum is greater than their parts.

Just as Hermione, Harry, Ron, Ginny, Neville and Luna have a sum which is greater than their parts.

And it bears repeating now: Dumbledore is a power unto himself. Why discuss his relationships? They are not a part of the plot.

Why announce that Albus Dumbledore was gay? Because Rowling does not sugar-coat the truth in her books. She came under fire when the series became increasingly dark. Despite the fact that she said repeatedly from the beginning ... this is a story of war and it will be honest. Rowling likely knew from the beginning, or at least fairly early on, about the relationship between Albus and Grindelwald. Her books are too well thought out ... too coherent ... to suddenly spring this revelation after the fact. Besides, the clues are in the final book at the very least.

A child asked, Did Dumbledore ever find his true love?
A lesser writer would have said, no, he never did. Or perhaps, yes, he did, but it went badly and so he decided to always be alone.

But Rowling has some fervent beliefs. One is that people should be accepted for who they are ... and their differences should be looked upon as good things. Neville could so easily have been dismissed as a buffoon. She didn't let that happen. Draco could have easily been dismissed as "the bad kid" ... but things got more complicated than that. She did not want one-dimensional cardboard children, which leads to her second fervent belief: children are not stupid.

Given those two beliefs, how else could she answer that question, knowing the truth of that character? It was time to acknowledge the "missing piece" of the Albus/Grindelwald subplot. And, it might also have helped to explain Aberforth's turmoil with his brother as well.

To those gay rights activists who have lost their freaking brains and have been raving that "Rowling didn't do enough" ... that "Lupin was really the gay character and she caved and made him marry a girl" ... to those people I say: STFU.

Rowling had a story to tell. An important one. There were LOTS of little side paths.

But there was no place in the storyline for which sex Dumbledore preferred. There was a place for his story with Grindelwald ... but there was no place for their bedroom life, whatever that may have been. This is a children's series. The plot does not call for saying Albus slept over on many occasions and shyly stuttered or lost his voice when around Grindelwald. Why add a subplot which serves no purpose? Rowling is not Stephen King ... and the Harry Potter books are not It. (sidenote: that's one of my favourite books of all time ... I'm not knocking it ... just acknowledging differences)

There was no place in the storyline for the bedroom life of Arthur and Molly. Or for Lupin and Tonks. The difference is that we know it did exist because there was the issue of that activity.

I am sure there are some gay rights activists who might even scream, "Rowling is homophobic" because the relationship between Albus and Grindelwald turned into this Hitler-esque nightmare of ethnic cleansing.

Again, I say pish and tosh. Being straight did not make the Dursleys good people. And, honestly, we don't know that Albus never loved again ... only that he did not seem to ever settle down with a "one great love." And that answer does not belong in a children's series, so of course, it's not in the books.

Were the plot hints there? I think they were. And I think there were all the way through the series, and as age-appropriate and plot-appropriate as they could be in the final book.

And, ultimately, what does all of this mean? That Dumbledore was gay?
Not a darn thing ... except that it furthers Rowling's agenda of tolerance and celebration of differences.

I thought about simply naming this post YARP for Rowling's honesty in answering this child's question.
To paraphrase Whitman, "I sound a mighty, barbaric YAWP"
Well, YARP is darn close, anyway.

Rowling sounded a call to children and adults alike. That good can triumph over evil; that not every "bad guy" is clear cut (look at Draco); that differences among people can lead to a stronger group; that difference is not bad; that love for each other, that listening honestly to each other are good things.

That even our heroes are flawed ... Albus, the great man that he was ... sometimes didn't listen. How often did he tell Harry all the mistakes he had made? The stupid things that he had done? That he was human and only doing the best that he could, the same as Harry. The fact that Harry is heterosexual and Albus homosexual did not matter to the series.

I applaud Rowling for her honesty in the books. For her knowing what details to put in a children's series and what was not important. For saying what needed to be said, despite knowing that she would once again rile people up.

Who cares that Dumbledore was gay? I don't. Instead, it makes me sad that he never truly found a one, great love with whom he could share his life, that he was so traumatized and even frightened with what had transpired the first time, that he could not allow himself to risk it again.

Bravo, once again, to J. K. Rowling for honesty and a storytelling skill that surpasses most adult fiction published today. For knowing what to say, how much to say ... and when to say it.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:28 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 31, 2007

A Halloween Ghost Story

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the third in the series, "Haunted" being the first. And "The Haunted House" being the second.
And the third being The Graveyard (and there's a second part to that one ... you'll see the link to it at the top of the post).

Enjoy!

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And now for your Halloween ghost story ....

In the Haunted story, I talked about a ghost that haunted the sub shop I worked in during college. As John and I discussed the possibility of a ghost running the juke box and occasionally making things fly around, he eventually told me that these things just tended to happen to him. If you're into the paranormal, you might call John a sensitive or a medium. Ghosts just tend to like him.

His first experience with a ghost was at seven.

John went to spend the night at a friend's house. His family lived waaay out in the country at a small gentleman's farm and they had just moved in about a month before. John met Kyle at school and the two fast became inseperable.

The two boys ran around the farm and played for hours and when it was time to come in, they played board games. Including ... well, what Halloween story would be complete without the Ouija board?

At first the boys played with it like most kids play with the Ouija board, making it say things and being silly. Then, for whatever reason, the little plastic piece begins moving on its own. John gave Kyle a look and Kyle snatched his hand off the toy. It was still moving. Half-convinced that John was just messing with him, Kyle began asking questions.

"Who are you?"

The board spelled out J - O - N.

Kyle laughed. "You can't even spell your own name right."

"I didn't do it," John told him.

Kyle laughed and put his hand back on the toy. "Right, John, right." He looked back at the Ouija board. "Where are you?"

R-I-G-H-T H-E-R-E

"No, I mean where do you live?"

H-E-R-E

M-Y B-R-O-T-H-E-R I-S S-C-A-R-E-D

"Why?"

D-A-D

"This is dumb, John, make it say something good."

"I told you, I'm not doing anything."

"I wanna talk to something good and scary."

"I don't wanna play this anymore, Kyle. I don't like it." John took his hand off the plastic toy.

With both boys' hands off the toy, it began flying across the board.

"What's doing that?"

I A-M J-A-M-E-S
Y-O-U A-R-E B-A-D

"Kyle? Make it stop. How are you doing that?"

Y-O-U-V-E G-O-T T-O B-E

John picked up the board and tossed it across the room. Kyle was white as a ghost.

At seven, of course, they did what any sane seven-year-olds would do -- they ran out to the living room for Kyle's mom.

Of course, Kyle's mom figured the boys had been telling scary stories and had just frightened each other. She gave them a snack and sent them back to Kyle's room and told them to go to sleep and not tell anymore scary stories.

After kicking the game under one of the beds, the boys wrestled and played until Kyle's dad came in and told them to knock it off and go to bed. So they did.

A few hours later, Kyle's mom woke up to all sorts of noise coming from Kyle's room. Convinced the boys were playing, she opened the door only to find everything in Kyle's room flying around in a circle. His clothes, his toys, everything. Completely unable to believe what she was seeing, she was convinced that she was merely dreaming and walked back to bed.

The next morning, Kyle's dad went out to the barn to muck out the horses' stalls and finally stormed back into the house. "Were those boys out in the barn yesterday?" he asked his wife.

"Of course, they were playing out in the loose hay."

"I have told Kyle a million times that pitchfork is not a toy." And his dad stormed off for the boys' room.

Every toy and piece of clothing Kyle owned was scattered around the room.

"KYLE!"

Neither boy moved. His dad, completely disgusted, turned around, surveying the "damage" of Kyle's playtime the night before. The door to Kyle's closet was open, the light was on and there was nothing in the closet. Every piece of clothing, every toy, jigsaw puzzle, everything was in the middle of Kyle's room.

Except the pitchfork, leaning against the back wall of the closet.

Kyle's dad snapped. He'd had it with his irresponsible son who just didn't seem to understand that the farm tools were not toys. This was the first time he'd found one of the tools in the house, but not the first time that Kyle had wandered off with one hand tool or another. Furious, he grabbed the pitchfork from the closet and began hollering at his son.

The two boys woke up to Kyle's furious father screaming and coming toward them, pitchfork in hand.

His mom walked into the room and screamed - partly at the total mess in the room (and remembering her "dream" of the night before) and partly at the sight of her husband wielding the pitchfork at the boys. Surely it was just to emphasize his anger, but still ....

Kyle's parents left the room and calmed down, got rid of the pitchfork and then came back in to talk to the now terrified young boys. They explained that the boys shouldn't have trashed the bedroom or taken the pitchfork into the house -- shouldn't have played with the pitchfork at all.

Of course, they both protested and insisted they had done no such thing. And of course, Kyle's parents assumed the boys were lying. His mom was somewhat disturbed by the odd dream she'd had the night before, but it had to have been a dream.

So, the boys' first sleepover was a bit of a disaster and John was in trouble again when he got home for not behaving properly as a guest.

But, a few weeks later, John's parents called and asked to come over with Kyle. Not sure what was going on, but responding to the tense voice of Kyle's mother, they agreed.

They sat around the kitchen table ... both sets of parents and both boys.

"I know this is going to sound strange, but I need to ask John a very serious question," Kyle's mom started. "What happened when you and Kyle were playing with the Ouija board?"

John blinked a few times and then told them. "At first me and Kyle were just making it move around and being silly. But then it started to move on its own."

"John!" his mother was shocked at this bald-faced lie.

"Vivian, wait, please. John, what did it say?"

He told them that it said its name was Jon, it lived "here" and that his brother was scared. Kyle's parents blanched.

"I told you!" Kyle said. "I told you!"

"Then what happened, John?"

"Well, Kyle thought I was doing it and he thought I was being stupid so he said he umm, that he wanted something scary."

"And then? This is really important, John. What did the board say next?"

"This is ridiculous," John's father said. "What are you getting at? The boys were playing silly games and they acted up."

"It's more than that. We've done a little research." Kyle's dad turned back to John. "What did the board say next?"

"It said we were bad. And it was gonna do something, but we stopped playing."

"Anything else?"

John thought for a moment. "James. It said its name was James."

Kyle's mother blanched.

"What the hell is going on here?"

"Boys, you go on up to John's room and play," Kyle's father said.

The boys, of course, scurried around the corner and eavesdropped on the adults.

As it turned out, John and Kyle discovered that about 20-30 years before, James and Madeline Winchester and their two sons, Kyle and Jonathon had lived in the farmhouse. Not more than a few months after moving in, however, James had completely lost his mind and murdered the two boys in their bed with his pitchfork.

After the third time the pitchfork found its way into Kyle's closet, his mother couldn't stop thinking about the "dream" that she'd had when John had stayed over and began asking around the town about the house. The local librarian helped her research the house and discovered the story of the Wincehester family.

Of course, John's parents took far more convincing than the boys did, but as it turns out, Kyle's folks just wanted to confirm with John what Kyle had already told them. The final straw for John's parents was the news that they had already talked to the local priest and scheduled a cleansing of the house which was to be followed up by something resembling an exorcism for the house itself.

At the very least, John's parents realized that Kyle's folks were taking this seriously. They went on to explain what Kyle's mother had seen that night and other things that the boys had not yet heard.

Of course, John's parents didn't want John spending any more time at Kyle's house ... and he was fine with that. He'd had the crap scared out of him waking up to Kyle's father and the pitchfork. Particularly when Kyle told him why his parents had begun researching the house. Kyle was now terrified to go to sleep in the house, and had, in fact, been sleeping with his mother in a motel for the past week.

His father had been caught sleepwalking several times, each time found either in Kyle's room or on his way down the hall to Kyle's room, pitchfork in hand.

A few weeks later, the "exorcism" of the house was ... well, not particularly successful. The priest insisted that the entire family needed to be present at the home. Kyle refused to tell John what had happened, but the family moved into a motel immediately thereafter and quickly moved to another town. John never saw him again.

And, of course, in the true tradition of all haunted houses like that, no one ever bought the farmhouse. By the time John left home and moved away to college, he said the farmhouse had begun falling down. The town had talked about having the house bulldozed in an effort to make the property saleable ... but it hadn't happened by the time John left.

Happy Halloween!!

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:58 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 26, 2007

The Graveyard, Continued

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the third in the series, "Haunted" being the first. And "The Haunted House" being the second.

Enjoy!

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This is a continuation of yesterday's post, The Graveyard.

A few years after my trip out to witch mountain, I'm still kind of fussing at myself for getting worked up enough that I kept imagining hands trying to grab my feet from below ... and not even a cheesy imagining zombies reaching up from their grave -- I kept imagining it from the "clean" area at the front of the cemetery. The area that hadn't yet been used for graves. What a weird little imagination I have.

So, again, near Halloween, I'm talking with some friends and I share the story of going to witch mountain.

Candice goes absolutely as white as possible. I'm talking no blood left in her face at all.

"You went WHERE?"

"Some witch mountain place out near Duncanville. It's way out in the country. It's this funky graveyard."

She just blinks at me and doesn't say anything for a minute, so I continue telling the story that I wrote here yesterday.

"You were damn lucky to get out of there," Candice says.

"What do you mean? It was the middle of the afternoon."

"Promise me you won't ever, ever go out there again."

"What is the deal?"

As it turns out, Candice's folks were highly religious and expected her to be as well. As part of her teenage rebellion stage, she did what every teenager does - went as far opposite her folks as she could think of. She joined up with ... you guessed it, a satanic cult. The very cult that used that graveyard I'd visited.

According to Candice (whose name and details I've changed here for her protection), the things that my classmate had told me about the graveyard were just the tip of the iceberg.

First, the cult did rule the graveyard after five. They'd show up (I didn't ask if they drove and made the cops let them in) at the graveyard, practice some random vandalism and then ...

... then they'd crawl into their tunnel system for the real rituals.

Evidently the most recently dug up grave was always the entrance to their tunnel system.

And, evidently, that weird thought I kept getting about having a hand reach up for me was not so weird after all. Or, depending on your point of view, it was even weirder than it had been before. The tunnel system honeycombed that whole front area.

Then Candice tells all the stuff this group was into.

Now, here's the deal before I go any further. It is a known fact that there are satanic cult groups all over the U.S. (and other countries, to be honest). Many of these groups are completely harmless and only "play" at being evil. That is, they get together and read the Satanic Bible and hold their masses that are a perversion of the Catholic mass and that's all there is to them. Other than offending a lot of people, they don't really do any harm.

Then you have groups of teenagers who get together and do things they think that satanists would do and at the same time, try to scare the crap out of each other. This often involves heavy drinking or sometimes drugs. These groups are mostly harmless.

Then there are groups that take things a step further. They look up old books, they attempt to follow old patterns from mostly forgotten ancient cults. They generally find at least a few victims to terrorize. They may go as far as to sacrifice animals. (Some Santeria practitioners, for example, will do this to chickens and perhaps goats.) Those groups can get more than a little frightening just on a personal safety level.

Then there are groups who do worse things.

The group Candice had been involved in was one of those.

Now, again, there are two types of these nasty groups. One type simply stages scenes. They'll go to elaborate lengths to make new initiates believe that they have supernatural powers -- perhaps by breaking a thick marble gravestone into pieces. There are also groups that appear to actually be able to do things they shouldn't be able to do. The problem is, most of the time you can't tell the difference between these two groups. They're both dangerous.

I can't tell you if Candice's group was one that was simply staging events or if some of the folks involved could really do some things they shouldn't be able to do. I wasn't there and no one was running scientific equipment to try to verify any of the events. So, you'll have to make up your own mind.

Evidently this group had built a series of tunnels under the "blank" part of the graveyard up near the gate. The tunnels were actually a maze. Some of the tunnels led to deadfall traps. Others took a funny turn and dumped you out on the dropoff -- and if you weren't careful, you'd end up in the river below pretty easily.

Some members of the group stayed in the tunnels during the day. They were supposed to guard the ... well, for lack of a better word ... the secret hideout from anyone not in the group as well as from the newer members who might be trying to discover secrets they shouldn't.

Candice told of bonfires in the fields (and I accidentally typo'd that as bonefires which is a much scarier image). She told me about the time one of the head guys in the group slaughtered a German Shepherd as part of some insane ritual.

She also told me that I was damn lucky, broad daylight or not, to have made it out of there without any confrontation at all. Evidently they'd leave a large group of people alone during the day, but groups of two were fair game to attack ... either a mundane fight or scare or actually try to drag you down into the tunnels.

She claimed they'd killed more than one person.

Now that's a lot of hearsay. I don't know how much of it was true, but I do know that Candice was honestly scared out of her gourd. She stopped a couple of times and had to mutter to herself that they wouldn't hurt her now. That they couldn't know if she revealed some of their secrets.

The fact that I announced I wanted to go back there to check all of this out terrified her beyond words.

Then she told me about some of the supernatural things she'd seen: simple levitations, curses, the standard scary stuff.

But then, stumbling and almost stuttering her husband told us about finding a severed goat's head in the middle of the living room, floating. Obviously still shaken, he told of how Candice had freaked when they came home and discovered it. Oh, sure, he freaked too. No one likes to see a floating goat head in their living room.

Candice said it was a sign that they had found her and had not forgotten her. It was a sign that they were coming for her. She was practically hysterical. The head fell to the floor and her husband called the police. The police recognized it for a cult calling card and said they'd keep an eye out. No one mentioned the floating part, though. Who would believe that?

In fact, over the years, they've called her repeatedly, left other pleasant calling cards. She did finally escape them ... but it took moving to Saudi Arabia for a few years before the group finally quit contacting her.

I never did get back out to that graveyard. I still want to.

And I'm curious now. Duncanville was starting to really build up in that area. Candice told me when she first joined that cult, you couldn't see anything but trees or prairie grass anywhere around. But when I saw the place, there were some condos within sight of the graveyard and signs out along the road claiming that more would be coming soon. Not that they'd even broken ground yet, but still .... If this group was really such bad news, how would they react to a residential development? Would they wreak so much havoc the developers abandon their plans? Or would they be forced to leave their secret hidey-tunnels and find a new graveyard in a more isolated area?

I don't know. But I'm still awfully curious about it.

And I never did actually promise Candice that I wouldn't go back.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:01 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 25, 2007

The Graveyard, Part One

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the third in the series, "Haunted" being the first. And "The Haunted House" being the second.

Enjoy!

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Here's one of the spooky, but slightly less ghost-infested stories.

My first year in college, I was going to my voice and diction class (I started out as a drama major, go figure) and talking to one of the kids in my class. It was probably about this time of year, weather barely turning cool -- it's Texas, remember -- and she tells me about this place near where she grew up -- maybe half an hour or so away from school. The kids called it witch mountain or ghost mountain or something. She told me that it was this awesome old, old graveyard out in Duncanville. It's one of those perfect old graveyards, way out in the country, trees all around.

And, she says, she doesn't know about haunted, but the satanists "own" this graveyard.

My interest is now beyond piqued. "Let's go out there after class," I enthuse. She's a little less sure about that, but I finally talk her into it.

As we're driving out there, she tells me that there's only one road that goes up to witch mountain. And there's a gate on that road. And every evening, there's two cops in a patrol car stationed at the gate. They'll open up the gate if you absolutely insist on going up there, she says, but they also warn you that if you break down even ten feet inside that gated area, they won't go in there to help you. No one goes in there after dark unless they're part of it or stupid.

Now, personally, I wondered why the cops didn't just start taking everyone who wanted up there after dusk in for questioning on the vandalism at the graveyard, but whatever.

She tells me about all sorts of horror stories about this graveyard. Mostly the standard types of scary stories -- these satan worshippers kill people there, hold all sorts of scary rituals. They're so bad even the cops are scared of them.

So, when we get into Duncanville and out into the hinterlands, sure enough, I see the gates open on the side of this road. They're the basic kinda triangular metal tube gates that often block off parking lots at universities and high schools. Stephanie (the girl from my class) is now visibly nervous. It's maybe noon on a Thursday and she's actually already scared to be driving up to this cemetery.

We get to the cemetery and park just across the little street. There's an open field on the side of the street where we park, all blowing prairie grass. The cemetery is bounded by trees on two sides. The other two sides, near the road (the road makes a right turn here), are bounded by an old-fashioned wrought iron fence. There's a great big wrought iron archway and gate at the entrance to the graveyard and a large expanse of grass in the front before you get to the modern graves. There's maybe four or five rows of modern graves before we start getting into folks who died in the 40s, 30s, 20s and a whole bunch from the 1800s. The cemetery is maybe about 75 yards long and about half that wide. As we walk closer to the entrance I can see why they didn't even bother to bound the north end and the east end with a fence. There's a dropoff there. A little kid might say there's a cliff on those two sides, but really, it's not quite high enough or steep enough to truly be called a cliff. Nonetheless, I can't imagine too many people would want to make that climb.

The leaves had already fallen on many of the trees, leaving some at the top level looking dead and barren -- while some whose roots were deeper and a little further down the incline still with a full "head" of green "hair."

The weirdest thing that I noticed as we approached the front gate is that some of the trees appeared to be wearing decorations. I couldn't quite see what they were but it wasn't some kid's lost kite.

The gate to the cemetery was open and I noticed a set of heavy chains and a really heavy duty lock that was used to lock the place up. All shiny new, they really stood out against the black matte and rust of the wrought iron fencing. There was a sign just outside the cemetery listing the hours it was open. It closed at five p.m. Now that seemed really weird to me. Why would you close a cemetery that early? Most of the ones I knew of were open until at least nine or ten p.m.

We walked in across the "front yard" of the cemetery -- all that blank expanse of grass just waiting to be filled with more graves. We walked quickly past the modern graves, but I admit, I got creeped out almost immediately. In addition to the multiple modern gravestones that had been broken, there was a grave that had been dug up.

Now this was not a freshly dug grave. This was not something where the coffin had just been buried. No, there were bits of flower arrangements, bits of plastic wreath frames, and a vase or two sticking out of the dirt. Also, a freshly dug grave doesn't generally stand about three feet higher than the ground level.

And there's generally not a hole big enough for a human to actually disappear into left there.

Despite my very overactive curiosity, I was seriously creeped out by that grave. I walked quickly past it after a very cursory look and went on to look at the old graves instead.

On the way to the back of the graveyard, I could see where someone had tossed plastic wreaths out into the trees, leaving them trapped there. I'd thought it was some kind of weird frisbee before.

I was fascinated by the old graves and appalled by the vandalism. But I'd really seen nothing that said satanists used this place.

Except for the dug up grave.

Oh and the really weird thing ... you know that wind whistling through the trees that you hear in horror movies? I always assumed that this was some goofy sound that Hollywood had made up and was just a stupid contrivance to signal that something scary was going to hapen.

I heard it repeatedly that day. Now if that's not enough to get an overactive imagination running wild.

Well, as we were leaving, I got seriously creeped out going across that expanse of lawn. I kept imagining someone reaching up through the ground and grabbing my feet.

Silliness right?

Tomorrow I'll tell you want happened a couple of years later, as I was telling one of my friends about my trip to witch mountain.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:56 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 18, 2007

The Haunted House

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the second in the series, "Haunted" being the first.

Enjoy!

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Since I was a tiny, little thing, I've been determined to meet a ghost. Well, actually, I misspoke: I wanted to see a ghost. That still hasn't happened, but I have met a few.

As a kid, I did not understand AT ALL, how people could be afraid of ghosts. What's the big deal, I thought way back then. They're not physical beings, so they can't possibly hurt you.

I was misinformed.

Okay, I would STILL love to see a ghost. But I don't ever ever ever ever want to live in the same house as one any more.

1144 E. Corby Blvd. is a haunted house.

I lived there from 1994 until 2001. And at first, I didn't notice anything at all odd about the place, other than the fact that South Bend has some of the tiniest homes with the most oddly teeny-tiny little rooms that I've ever seen.

Between my various roommates and I during this time, we had anywhere from four to six cats in the house. Cats notice odd things, right?

It was ultimately the way the cats would act when one of us was already noticing something odd that finally let us start talking about the possibility of ghosts. I mean, no one actually ever saw anything odd happen. But you would be sitting alone in the house and you could hear people talking. Get up, look out the windows, nope, no one was near the house. Stand in the doorway to the basement -- bingo! The conversation stopped. Hmm.

The corner of the living room where I sat when I heard those conversations was the one corner every cat who ever entered the house would try very hard to avoid. Double-hmm.

Again, sitting upstairs, I would hear a kid giggling. Now, as I've said before, I collect old Fisher Price Little People. And at the time, I had a bookcase in the far corner of the basement which was filled with all the old playsets: Sesame Street, the old garage, the children's hospital, a couple of houses and so on. Well, I would hear a kid giggling and that distictive clink/thunk of a little Fisher Price car rolling off the bookshelf and hitting the astroturf floor. (I don't know, this house was the landlord's "party house" back in his college days. I guess astroturf is easy to clean up after wild parties.)

I'd look around upstairs. Every one of the cats was up here with me. Go down to the basement: sure enough, some of the pieces had been moved around and there was a car on the floor.

Well, okay, so what. The floor's not perfectly level down here and, as it turns out, we live close to a fault line which occasionally rumbles a little bit. Just a little fault line, the North/South continental divide. (Who would believe there's a fault line that close to Notre Dame? I keep waiting for the earth to just up and swallow that place!) Anyhow, things fall over. But what's with the giggling?

If this had been all there was to it, I would have totally ignored it. Maybe a ghostie, but probably just the house settling and those little earth rumbles. (But what about that giggle?)

But there was also a really nasty, nasty bad ghost living in that house. Got the distinct impression it was a 'he,' but who knows.

If you heard a serious thud from the basement, you could freaking feel the bad ghost at the same time. It was one of the creepiest times of my whole life. And the weirdest thing was that I would go downstairs and look through the whole basement -- and I couldn't find anything that had been knocked over. But the whole time I was downstairs, I could just feel that malevolence issuing from the basement. Feeling a bit stupid, I'd just head back upstairs (a little hurriedly, of course!). Again, the cats were NEVER in the basement when this would happen and they'd stay out of the basement for quite a while after.

But the worst of it, even worse than just the weird feeling -- wait. You know when you watch a really scary movie late at night, alone and you get that feeling that the serial killer is just on the other side of the door? or waiting in the next room? And you know you're being silly and stupid and it's just because of the movie that you feel all paranoid, but you can still feel it?

Well try getting that feeling at random times while walking around your family room (the basement) for no apparent reason at all. It's even creepier when you can't blame it on a scary movie. And it's even creepier when there's this bit of personality attached to the feeling. It felt male. It hated any nudity at all. (Occasionally you could feel him in other areas of the house, too.)

So anyhow, even worse than the weird feelings were the nightmares that everyone who stayed more than a couple of nights had. You know how in most dreams you have dream logic? You know it's your house, for instance, but in real life you've never lived anywhere even remotely like that?

These dreams weren't like that.

These dreams always took place in that house and if you were really lucky, you could make yourself wake up before the obvious conclusions happened.

Some examples:
I would walk into a room in the house and reach for the lightswitch. Nothing. Horror movie feeling. Overwhelming fear. Lights across the house go off. I've got to go down to the basement and mess with the circuit box. Flip at the basement stairs lightswitch, just in case I'm lucky.

I'm not.

Flashlight on, I head back into that corner of the basement where he lives. If I'm lucky, I wake up now. If I'm not, I go back into the room that used to be the landlord's darkroom. Just a flashlight. The feeling is becoming unbearable. I know he's there, in the back-most part of the basement, by the furnace, water heater, crappy toolbench and the circuit box. Under the stairs. I know he's there.

On occasion the dream goes far enough that I turn and see him briefly with the hunting knife. But I always wake up before he can strike.

The feeling lasts for a couple of days -- not just a few hours like with most nightmares. And no one after having one of those, will actually go into that back part of the basement -- especially not when one of the breakers trip. And they trip all the time in that house. I'm not saying the ghost actually tripped the breakers, but going back to the circuit box usually involved figuring out who had had the nightmares last.

The worst nightmare that I had involved me waking up in the morning and walking out of the bedroom. The house was not air conditioned, so I'd put a little window unit in the bedroom because I canNOT sleep if I get too hot. So the bedroom door was always closed during the summertime to keep that cool air in.

So in this nightmare, I walk out of the bedroom and into the living room. And into one of the worst things I've ever seen in dream, reality or movie.

Not so graphic version: my cats had been killed. Stop reading now if you're the squeamish type. Skip down until you see
*****HEY IT'S OKAY NOW*****

*

Seriously, you don't want to read this if you're easily grossed out.

*

Okay, I double-warned you. I walk out into the living room and each of the four cats I had at the time has been mutilated. Each one has a frickin' railroad spike through the chest/tummy area and is nailed to a wall. One cat to one wall. There's writing on the wall, using of course, the cats' blood. I don't remember what it said, I'm not sure I even remembered once I woke up for real. They were further bloodied, but I won't go into it.

*

*****HEY IT'S OKAY NOW*****

And we all knew that those weird nightmares that took place in that house were related to that ghost. I've never had any nightmares similar to that since.

But the last coincidence that really just confirmed things was when one of my roomates had a friend over. We were sitting on the living room floor when this friend suddenly got a weird, weird look on her face.

"Is there a ghost in this house?"

I shrugged. "I think so. There's a kid who plays with the toys down there. I can hear him giggling sometimes."

She shook her head. "No, there's some--" She shivered and paled a bit.

Now, look. I think this lady's a bit of a flake most of the time, but this was really freaky. She was sitting in that spot where the cats wouldn't go -- above the spot in the basement that I thought of as the ghost's. And it was obvious from her reaction that she wasn't doing this just for her "rep" or for attention. You don't turn that color for fun. And I never saw her do anything like it ever again. (Of course, she didn't set foot in that house again, either.)

"What's the matter?

"There's something wrong in your basement."

My roommate shot me a look. I nodded. The bad ghost had been very active lately.

"There's a bad ghost down there, too."

About six months and two roommates later (I'm a little more stubborn), I finally had a roommate who was himself so scary that the bad ghost quieted (or left, I was never sure which).

How did Justin get the ghost to leave? He played techno-goth every night. He watched more horror movies than any human on the face of planet. And anime. The really, really violent anime.

I don't know if he scared the scary ghost or if he just satiated the ghost's need for violence.

And that's the story of the bad ghost. And that's why I no longer think that ghosts are harmless. I don't think they could physically hurt me ... but that one taught me they can make you hurt yourself just from the paranoia you start to get!

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:54 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 11, 2007

Haunted

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

Enjoy!

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My cousin used to tell me terrifying ghost tales. I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In second or third grade, I checked out every book in the public library on ghost stories and hauntings.

I'm not some wishy-washy, new-age, granola-eating hippy who thinks ghosts are real.

But I do think ghosts are real even though I've never seen one.

I have been around a few ... as the meme the other day reminded me.

In college I worked for a sub shop in Texas -- Gino's Subs, a properly New York-Italian sub shop. The shop out at the mall was in an outlying building rather than the mall proper, right next door to the movie theatre. I don't know a whole lot about the building's history, but I know it was haunted.

The first few run-ins with the ghost were just odd little things. I couldn't quite explain the things that happened, but I was prepared to think it could have just been a fluke. During a really busy lunch one day, I saw the soda fountain do something bizarre. There's a sticker where you can label what pop should come out of that spigot and over the sticker is a piece of clear plastic to help keep that sticker legible longer. The clear plastic piece over the Sprite suddenly shot off the machine and landed about ten feet away. Not too odd, there's got to be some pressure on the plastic to get it to pop into place. But that pressure should have made it pop forward more than it did. It was more like it moved out about an inch forward and then moved ten feet sideways, not diagonal. Weird, but these things happen.

Another lunch rush the lid to the toothpick dispenser shoots straight up in the air, nearly hits the ceiling and then lands on the counter. Lined up perfectly with the toothpick dispenser. And somehow, tucked neatly under the little "arms" that hold the dispensed toothpick.

Okay that was really freaky, but still, could have just been a fluke.

What sealed it was the night that John and I were working the shop alone. We'd closed the store at 11 p.m. as usual and were working on cleaning up. I went over to the old Wurlitzer juke box and perused the 45s (yeah, this was the late 80s). I popped in a quarter and picked "Mandolin Rain" and "Our House." John calls from behind the counter, "What'd you pick?"

I tell him and he likes "Our House," but violently hates "Mandolin Rain."

"Our House" plays first. Cool. John has me call out the name of every song on the machine so he can pick some out. "Ooooh, I love 'West End Boys.'"

The next song to play? "West End Boys."

Hmmm. Maybe the jukebox shares John's taste in music. Maybe it's not wired right. Whatever.

A third song plays. Huh? Two songs for a quarter ... and a bonus song. Okay, the jukebox is a bit eccentric. Must be the wiring.

But the third song is some old fifties tune. I think it's Elvis, but I can't read the label on the spinning 45. John pops his head out "What song is that?"

"I have no idea."

"But you picked it."

"I didn't pick it. I think it's Elvis." Whatever it is, it's a sappy 50s love song and we're both glad when it's over.

The radio still doesn't come back on as we're treated to an encore performance of "West End Boys."

Very odd, but we figure the wiring on this juke is just old and goofy. I leave a note for the manager to tell her the jukebox guy ought to take a look at the thing.

Over the course of the next few weeks, any time John and I are working alone together, we're treated to "West End Boys" a couple of times a night. After the store has closed. Never when there's customers and we can safely assume that someone is messing with us. And when we close at night, I usually do the front -- near the juke -- and John does behind the counter. There's no way he can be doing it or I'd see him near the juke.

When the jukebox man finally comes in, I happen to be there. "Hey, make sure to take that Elvis record out of there, okay?"

"I don't think there's one in here." He runs through his list. "No, there's no Elvis in here."

"Yeah there is, I saw the thing." And I run through the whole story for him. He literally takes every single 45 out of the juke box. I watch him.

No Elvis 45 is in there. No funky 50s 45 is in there.

In fact, there's no 45 in there with the funky color of blue that I saw that night. You know, that old funky blue with the silver writing that used to be on a lot of records from the 50s and 60s. Nothing like that is in the machine.

WEIRD.

But the really weird thing doesn't happen until John quits. I mean, come on, it's a sub shop and college kids can do better, even in 1989, than $3.85 an hour.

So, I'm closing the store one night with a new kid. She's cleaning out front and I'm cleaning behind the counter. She's barely started sweeping the floor and hasn't made it anywhere near the juke box yet. John's been gone for about a week.

"West End Boys" starts up.

The new kid's head pops up. "When'd you put money in the juke box?"

"I didn't." I don't bother to explain at first. I mean, it sounds crazy to say that a ghost just likes that song. Actually, John and I had a running joke that the ghost had a crush on John and that's why it played the Elvis love song and John's favorite song.

"West End Boys" plays again. And now, I get this weird feeling of query and sadness. I don't know how else to explain it other than I could feel the question in the air. Umm, I'm kinda thinking that the ghost really did have a crush on John.

The song begins a third time. A fourth time.

Finally, the new kid is kinda freaking out. Especially when I explain the whole ghost thing.

When the song starts for the fifth time, and that sense of question and sadness has just gotten more and more intense with every iteration of the song, I finally say out loud, "I'm sorry. John doesn't work here anymore. He quit. I'm sorry."

This time the radio comes on after the 45 finishes.

I never saw the ghost, but me, John and the new kid knew it was there. The manager of the store knew about it, too.

I always felt sorry for that ghost. It was so obvious that it liked John and it was terribly sad when he left.

But that was a nice ghost. Later I'll tell you about the one I lived with who was definitely NOT a nice ghost.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:52 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 21, 2007

Recovered Memory

When I was at the Shedd Aquarium a few summers ago, I was entranced with the seahorses. I've always loved them, but I know a lot of fish enthusiasts who just despise the things. For a long, long time, I had a dried seahorse that was one of my special kid-possessions. I don't know when I finally lost it or got rid of it, but I remember still having it as a teenager - it probably went in the great purge of summer '84.

And then, while looking at the photos from the Shedd, I suddenly remembered back to when I was two or three - Dad had an aquarium with a seahorse in it. I could clearly remember sitting, utterly spellbound. There are no lights on in the house except the almost blue glow of the aquarium light. My mom is sound asleep in my parents' room (dad's at work) and I'm watching the seahorse bob in and out of the plants in the aquarium. Three of the sides are just covered in plants, but the center of the aquarium's front is open. More plants sparsely spot the middle of the aquarium and I'm sitting on my knees, the nasty 70s shag carpeting leaving red imprints in my kneecaps, watching as he bobs around. I could stay there all day.

When Mom finally wakes up, she shuffles into the den with her lit cigarette and startles when she sees me. "What are you doing in here in the dark?"

I don't answer. It's between me and my seahorse.

I don't remember when the seahorse died -- I assume the dried one I had was probably that same one from Dad's aquarium. The aquarium was probably emptied when we moved. I didn't see it come out again until Dad decided to put it in my room and fill it with minnows so he could go fishing and always have live bait.

Funny. I haven't thought about that in ages and ages, even though I've always said that I liked seahorses. I didn't remember that right after seeing the seahorses at the Shedd. Took a few days and it suddenly just popped into my head, kind of out of nowhere. But now, it's so clear. I can't remember much of anything about the house, the room that we were in ... just the aquarium and "my" seahorse.

Weird how that works.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:32 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 23, 2007

Ghost

My mother discovered very early on that I was perfectly content to keep my own company. Apparently as an infant and early toddler, I would wake up in the morning and play by myself in my crib until Mom could wake up at her own pace and be ready to face her day. Of course, by the time I was seriously toddling, Mom figured out VERY quickly that a quiet Red Monkey was not necessarily the good thing she'd once thought it was.

There was the day that I grabbed my little blue chair and dragged it to the baby gate, unlatched the gate and then grabbed the ... of all things! ... Vaseline. Apparently I remembered to lock the baby gate behind me when I went back to my room. Mom only figured out that I'd escaped (again) because I left my little blue chair there next to the gate. Well, that and the Vaseline on every available surface that I could climb. (And I enjoyed climbing.)

My imagination was a machine in overdrive. Blue curtains turned my room into the ocean (particularly after watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks). A piece of packaging from Mom's acrylic paints would become a spaceship. A book served multiple purposes (including a passport to somewhere else, once I was old enough to read).

Just before I turned four, however, I got the one companion which became my constant, my conscience and my stability.

I was born in Amarillo, but we moved when I was simply tiny, a babe in arms. My parents moved to Houston. Another apartment in Houston. Then, Dad moved out to Albuquerque on what was to be a temporary trouble-shooting job. Mom did not want to move us again, so she and I stayed in Houston. I turned two. Three. I got my first hit of Fisher Price Little People, and let me tell you, I was hooked. I'd just lost all of my stuffed animals, so these little wooden guys were a delight. I suppose they were a distraction from the fact that Dad was gone. And, like is typical for the age, the Little People family became my family. The blue mom with the intense curls became my mom, even though my mom's hair was a deep auburn-red and not blond ... and certainly never pulled back into a plastic ponytail. The dad became my dad. The little blue girl with blond pigtails became me. At least, I named her with my name.

Finally, deciding that the Albuquerque posting was more permanent than previously thought, we moved there to join Dad. It lasted just another three months. Then, we moved to Oklahoma City, the city of my mother's mother. Was it six months? Nine? Ten? Eventually I began cutting up the plastic plates brought back from the hospital where my mom was "getting" my little sister and creating accessories and homes for my little wooden family.

Then it was Carmel, Indiana. Our first (and thank the gods, the ONLY) foray out of the south. My sister followed in my footsteps and was still a babe in arms when we moved. My little wooden family had friends now ... a yellow and blue house ... an airport ... a houseboat.

We drove down the road, southwards ... and a snow plow driver was moving from car to car. The snow was coming down in near white-out conditions and no one wanted to be out here. Not wanting to wait ... and knowing the traffic wasn't really going anywhere anyhow, Dad went out to see what was up. Came back pale as the snow falling around us. We, and the whole line of cars in front of us and behind us, were driving in the ditch instead of the road. The snow pack could give way at any moment.

We finally arrived back in Texas. In Austin. Imaginative and creative, I still could be maddeningly literal-minded at five. I was ready to start school instantly upon arrival. I'd been asking for years when I could go ... Mom had said after we move. Well, we were moved! I was ready.

But with a November birthday, I was going to have to wait until fall.

That wooden family had tons of friends by now and they all had the most incredible adventures. I rarely used the adults anymore. Just the kids. The adults were nearly always bad guys or at least, people to ditch so we, I mean so the kid wooden people could get on with what they needed to do.

My sister grew old enough to begin to play with me. We took turns picking who got which guys. Choosing up our sides, our teams. I always picked that little green boy, the oddball of my first family. Mom, Dad, me ... and the little green boy, who didn't exist in the real world.

I started school finally. Kindergarten and first grade in Pillow Elementary. Second grade, it was off to Catholic school. I hated it. Back to Pillow for third. Teacher-Parent conference.

Suddenly, we moved again. The first six weeks spent at the beloved Pillow, and then off to the unknown. With those wooden peoples. I was bounced from class to class a bit when I first arrived at the new elementary school, but then things seemed to settle. Fourth grade, fifth ... sixth. Junior high. Halfway through the second of three Jr. High years, I'm moved to the other Jr. High. Then it's high school.

There were several constants in my life. Moving was one of those constants. My mom, dad and sister were others.

The one stable, consistent and positive constant was one which no one but me seemed to know was so important. Over the years, this one bit of dowel and paint had come to mean potential. Had come to mean both hope and happiness. I had endowed him with everything that I wanted to be ... and didn't think that I was. I had created a character who was every bit as real to me as the other members of my family, despite the fact that I did know he was nothing more than a sliver of wood and a large chunk of imagination. He'd been through the bulk of the moves - at least the ones that I could remember.

(Click for the larger picture.)

My ghost ... 35 years later ... he still lives with me ... Chris.

... done with Copics, Pigma Microns and Copic Multiliners.

Entry for the HeartSong contest for July.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:53 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 19, 2007

Wooden Iguana

At last ... the last pages are up at Wooden Iguana. If you click the preview image below, you'll be taken to page 30 and you can navigate to page 31 from there. To help keep people from seeing things out of order, the final page will publish on Friday, July 20 (about 3 p.m. or so Eastern time).

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.


If you really really can't wait to see the final page ... find the easter egg in this entry and click there for a view of the jpg.
lock.png

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:16 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 10, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:05 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 2, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:19 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 26, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:32 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 23, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:09 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 19, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:26 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 14, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:23 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 12, 2007

Wooden Iguana

The Cleavers, eating dinner.

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:38 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 7, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Discovering yet more.

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:40 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 5, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Discoveries and confirmations.

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:04 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 31, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Dream weaver ....

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:42 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 29, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Well, this is what happens when you read books ... ya starting thinking and things. (Or imagining things as the case may be.)

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:48 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 27, 2007

The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo

Check out this work on ComicSpace and then run over to your local comic book shop ... or to Diamond online ... and pre-order this book ... you'll love it.

I just adore the artwork to pieces.

From the writer:

But here's what this solicit doesn't tell you:
1. The graphic novel features "The 8 Lost Pages of Poo." These pages will appear exclusively in the book and will not be available on the webcomic site.
2. "96 Pages" means 96 pages of story. No fillers here, my friends. From the moment you open the front cover, till you contentedly close the rear cover--you will encounter nothing by story!
3. The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo will be a beautiful, over-sized book. The dimensions of this must-have graphic novel will measure in at 10.7 x 8.3 x 0.4 inches--the same format as Image's acclaimed "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Graphic Novel" graphic novel!
Other books may give you a five page preview of the book, but not us. Oh, no! We are offering a FREE 19 PAGE PREVIEW in the form of a webcomic. So bookmark the page and read it at your own leisure. And be sure to check back every Saturday when a brand new page is posted.
READ THE FREE 19-PAGE PREVIEW HERE
To find the nearest comic shop, you can use the SHOP LOCATOR.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:34 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 25, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Well, well, well. I didn't think I'd get Thursday's page done ... and yet ... there it is. Was surprisingly done before 8:30 p.m. last night, which is good. I felt like utter crap all day Wednesday and Thursday and I'm really hoping I'm done with this stomach crap I seem to have gotten ... yet AGAIN.

Clicking the preview will take you to the current page. On the other hand, clicking this link will take you to the main page where you can start from the beginning should you need to do that.

Oh, and ComicSpace is supposed to be back up today. WOOHOO

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:51 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 22, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Since ComicSpace is temporarily down ... and since I intend to spin off a whole series of comics, I bought a new domain. It's a wee bit of a mess right now, but it is navigatable ... so click the pic to go to Mud-Walker.com and see today's page of the Wooden Iguana ... there's navigation in the upper right corner of that site to go back to previous pages ... and a Previous button at the bottom of the page ... whatever version of the nav that floats your boat.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:44 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 17, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:17 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 15, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:20 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 10, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

In today's page the mysteries deepen and ... there's even a full-colour panel with my beautiful Copic markers. (Can you really be in love with markers? Well, I guess if you're me, you can. Copic markers are DA BOMB ... so smooth ... it's like painting with them instead of colouring. Did you hear that Mr. Happily Anonymous? COPIC MARKERS ARE NOT CRAYONS!!!! These are serious artist's tools, yanno. Hmph.)

Oh yeah ... please ... go read ... enjoy ... comment, fer crying out loud. Comment there ... comment here ... just say something.

Sheesh.

(Yeah, I stayed up too damn late tonight so I could get this page done and uploaded.comments/exciting.gif )

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:05 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 8, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:42 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 3, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

I'm working on another post now, really ... I'm just so mad, I hardly know what to write.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:28 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 1, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:01 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 26, 2007

Hullo Muddah, Hullo Faddah

Well, the next page of Wooden Iguana is postponed until Tuesday ... just couldn't get caught up after being sick last week. But, here's a new character who'll debut then. comments/exciting.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:08 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 24, 2007

7 Yr Old Asks: May I Go to the Principal's Office

Some kids just can't stay outa trouble ... and then there's Devon ...

Click the image to check out today's page of The Wooden Iguana.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:48 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 20, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:03 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 17, 2007

Wooden Iguana

As always, click the pic to go to the full page at ComicSpace ... and there's additional navigation there if you're a new reader or just need to catch up.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:53 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 12, 2007

Wooden Iguana

The plot thicks ....

Okay, okay, that's The Tick, not The Wooden Iguana, but you get the idea. In today's page, you'll meet the Wooden Iguana itself. Here's the preview:

As always, click the preview to check out the whole page.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:04 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 10, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Here's a preview of the next page of The Wooden Iguana comic book.

As always, click the preview to go to ComicSpace for the full page (and if you're a new reader ... there's navigation there to start at the beginning).

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:10 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 5, 2007

Wooden Iguana

Here's a preview of the next page. comments/exciting.gif

As always, click the preview to go to ComicSpace (and if you're a new reader ... there's navigation there to start at the beginning).

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:53 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 4, 2007

Stimulations

I asked Jodi the other day why she paints. And, as I was surfing first Mike's blog and then following the link to fellow 9Ruler blog by James Mathias, I got to thinking about my own creativity.

Since I was very small, I've told stories ... no, not tall-tale lies ... I mean I have always been a writer. Sheesh, damn peanut gallery around here. Anyway, words, I suppose come easily to me ... so easily that I'm convinced there's really nothing special in my writing, despite what others have said. That doesn't mean that I stop writing ... and I do enjoy it. I suppose it simply comes so naturally that it just seems normal to me.

So, in high school, I wrote like a fish swims. Constantly. I wrote my first novel in high school ... and all of my teachers thought that I had suddenly started taking excellent notes. I got an idea for my second novel in the last year of my college years ... and again, my teachers simply thought I was taking excellent notes.

In the in between years, and, in fact, since ... I've not been one of those writers who insists on writing every day ... I've always considered myself a binge writer ... writing when I have something rather than the CONSTANT VIGILANCE of daily practice. (Can you tell I'm ready for the Deathly Hallows to come out???)

I guess my writing has been much more the case of Gordie in Stephen King's "The Body" (or the movie Stand by Me, whichever you prefer): my stories bubble up like bubbles in soda. It just kinda happens.

But since I graduated from a creative writing program, I've been oddly dry of stories. The fizz just kinda up and left for a while, I suppose. Without any real challenges, I went flat.

However, since I started drawing again ... I've noticed not just the desire to practice every day ... but a compulsion to improve what I do and stretch it every day. Not because "great artists" or paid artists or whatever, draw every day ... but because I was not given the same "easy" gift at drawing that I was at writing, it's more of a challenge to me. And that challenge is eminently more interesting to my li'l ole ADHD self than the ease that writing had become.

I suppose that is why I'm drawn to comic books, cartoons and graphic novels ... I can combine writing and drawing ... a segment with which I'm very confident and secure ... and another where I can feel myself stretching and beginning to achieve what I want. The challenge of it all stimulates me further.

I suppose it's the fact that I have to concentrate on a good story ... character design ... backgrounds ... how to show the action ... shading ... highlights ...

There's just so much more to do. So much, in fact, that I've noticed myself stopping to look at how a cartoonist will set things up ... how they shade ... how they make things "imperfect" and thereby make it more real. It's all fascinating to me. And I've noticed that I've begun seeing almost everything in shapes instead of seeing objects.

No point to this post, I suppose ... just a bit of an internal dialgue into just how my mind and eyes are working lately.
comments/exciting.gif comments/exciting.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:41 AM | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 18, 2007

The Absence of Me

So, I posted the Goth House/Haunted House sketch the other day ... Jodi from Looking Beyond the Cracked Window was working on putting together another poetry book and as we were chatting, she said something about looking for a Goth House to put on the cover. On a whim, I decided to see if I could sketch one up. I showed it to Jodi, not really expecting it to be what she wanted for the cover of her book ... but apparently I tapped into the inner goth well and she really liked it.

So ... now I give you the finished book cover (click to visit Lulu.com and see her book):

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:14 AM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 22, 2007

Black Noser

Dewey Tied UpWhat is the fascination little kids seem to have with tying each other up? Is it a way to play with complete control at an early age? Curiosity about a complete loss of control?

A friend stopped over the other day to chat and said that he'd spent most of Monday night in the E.R. with the youngest kiddo. Immediately, I popped off with, "What'd he do?" You have to understand, this is a bright and creative kid, and those, of course, are the ones who get into interesting predicaments.

So "Joshua" tells me that he'd just gotten home, grabbed a little bite and was laying down for a wee bit of a nap, just drifting off ... when he hears screaming upstairs. By the time he gets up there, his wife,"Siobhan," is dealing with the screaming and crying and bleeding-everywhere six year old, so Josh corrals the other three kids and says, "What happened?"

The trio looks at the floor, nudges each other, shuffles their feet. Eyes huge, startled and scared by the blood all over their littlest brother, they say nothing at first. After all, it was an innocent little thing ... they'd never conceived that someone might get HURT.

Finally, the explanation begins dribbling out ...

"We were playing cops and robbers ...." Already there's something of a parental wince here as the family is dedicated to non-violence and peace, and while police are a necessary social job ... the playing of cops and robbers can get a little ... well ... witness the blood: violent at times.

Apparently, little "Tieg" (yeah, I swiped that name from Katherine Kurtz) was either the bad guy tied up in jail ... or perhaps he was a convenience store clerk being robbed. At any rate, the others tied him up.

To the ladder of the bunk bed.

And then they left the room.

Yeah. So you know what happens next ... Tieg struggles to get loose ... jerking around ... immobilized by scarves and t-shirts, he's reduced to wriggling and attempting to hop.

And then the hook slips off the top bunk ...

Yeah ... it was like that. Kid tied to ladder ... ladder tipping over ... straight into the dresser .... Apparently, Tieg caught the dresser with his nostril, ripping it open. (The nostril, not the dresser. I mean, the kid's tough, no doubt about that, but come on. Wood or flesh? Wood's gonna win.)

So, once Josh and Siobhan had assessed the damage, it was off to the E.R. And, thinking only of getting their son fixed up, they hadn't really thought about what to say when they got there.

"How'd he get this tear?" the nurse asked.

"Umm, well, he kinda fell. I mean, he caught the dresser with his nose."

Suspicious look. They cart the kid and Siobhan off to x-ray to make sure the nose isn't broken as well as torn. Josh sits and waits in the little room. He's got a moment to reflect on just how fast they got a bleeding kiddo out of the waiting room and into the E.R. when another lady walks into the room.

"I just need a little more history," she says. "For the paperwork, you know." Disarming. "So, he was running in the bedroom and he fell?"

"Umm, well, no."

"How did he sustain the injury, then?"

"Umm, well, he fell ..." and the light bulb goes off. Concerned about his son, somewhat embarrassed by his older children's game design theory, he'd not thought about this aspect. He and his wife both and hemmed and hawed around exactly what happened to Tieg ... not thinking that this might possibly look suspicious to the hospital staff. He was being "interrogated" by a case worker!

With that flash of recognition, he meets the case worker's eyes and relates the story in a little more detail.

Disconcerting enough that he'd been awakened from a nap by a screaming 6 year old ... and then the long drive to the E.R. ... waiting to see how bad it was ... what they'd need to do ... was it broken ... oh, and by the way, did someone beat the crud out of the boy? Having nothing to hide, Josh actually didn't mind the questions. If that's what it takes to save some other kid ... then it's all good.

But next time, he'll get his story straight before he walks in. There's nothing more disconcerting than being worried about your kid ... and interrogated for abuse all at the same time!

UPDATE: Having been sick and then with all the snow and then fog we've had lately, Tieg's missed about two weeks of school. So this morning, Siobhan takes him to school and as they pull up to the school, Tieg suddenly turns to her, horror-stricken.

"Mommy, is it ... is it still all black?"

Concerned that he was going to be self-conscious, she starts explaining that it was going to take some time to heal and yes, it was still black.

Scurrying out of the car, he pumps his arms up and yells, "COOOOOOL!" And he ran off to show off his battle scars.
LOL

Much thanks to "Josh" for letting me post this story ... and a huge kudos to he and his wife. I love listening to his stories about the kids because it's so obvious to me that they are the kind of parents I would love to be. They think, they reason, they talk, they interact with their kids. They talk with them, they explain things ... in short, they treat the kids like they have brains and feelings ... the kids aren't spoiled ... they have boundaries ... but they also know they are loved and safe and protected. (Unless tied up to a bunk bed ladder)
I hope, when I finally get around to adopting, that I can do the type of job they do.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:04 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 10, 2007

Race Tracks and Sarlaac

We bought this house back in 2002, I think. It was 50 years old, and one of the few brick homes in our town within the subset of: we could afford the thing. It needed a little tuckpointing and a few minor things here and there, but it really wasn't a fixer-upper kind of house. (Let me note: all houses are fixer-uppers ... this was not one of those, gee, it'll be a great house if someone will put two years of work and 10,000 bucks into it.)

Three years ago now ... we were invaded by chipmunks. They would frolic in front of our huge picture window, dancing in and out of the ground cover planted outside. I was enthralled that entire summer. I have adored the cute li'l critters for ages and ages and was just delighted with the chance to watch them all summer.

Fall happened. It got cold.

We didn't ever get around to tuckpointing the house.

Can you see where this is going?

Asleep in the bed one Saturday morning, I am awakened to an odd scrabbling noise. Above my head. In the ceiling.

The chipmunks are no longer adorable when they are making a nice comfy nest in the insulation above your head. Particularly not when you're a light sleeper. We place traps. They eat the peanut butter gleefully. They ran off with the glue trap. At least one ate the green bar of poison bait -- and lived. We went up to the attic in the day when they were out of the attic and tried to block any kind of hole we could find.

Either that worked or they only nested during the coldest times ... because it stopped.

We had the dead tree in the backyard chopped down. Branches sized for a wood chipper sat around the backyard for months before we managed to actually rent the woodchipper and haul it back to the house. The chipmunks grew fat and multiplied.

We chased them off partly by means that I won't tell now ... I'll save that story for another day ... and partly by simply cleaning up the damn yard. The next winter was blissfully quiet. I thought that was the end of that.

Bloody fooken hell, it was NOT.

There is a freaking village of mice in the attic now. Traps have managed to catch two. I was horribly traumatized by the caught mouse on the glue trap. The second I caught in the live trap and released several miles away. The rest ... grew wary.

They have a nice little living space directly above my head. There's a bar-n-grill over by the front door to the house - they refuse to eat the lovely mothballs I attempted to put on their menu. But above my recliner in the living room ... that's their real hot spot.

The mice have their own Nascar track.

You think I'm kidding? Dude, I will be sitting there in the evening and all of a sudden I can hear the throngs of fans taking up positions in a freaking oval. A hush. And then all hell breaks loose as two of the little beasts run in an oval at top speed for at least 3-5 laps.

They're not good sports, these mice. The loser invariably squeals and squeaks and squreams in angry denial over the loss.

Of course, I think the Mutant Chipmunk, the one who ate of the poison and lived (he looks like a freaking baseball ... not just fat ... this sucker is ROUND), I think the Mutant Chipmunk is perhaps the Jabba the Hutt of my Tatooine attic. I'm beginning to wonder if they don't just feed the loser to the Mutant Chipmunk. It would explain the frantic preparations of the race and the over-reaction at the end.

I'm about ready to ask Luke to come kill these darn womp rats and feed them to the Sarlaac pit.

Posted by Red Monkey at 8:13 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 6, 2007

David's Ladder

In the post Time Out, I put up this picture. It was kind of an unofficial Wordless Wednesday thing ... today I realize that I need to add words to it. (This is the main reason I do not participate in Wordless Wednesday ... I'd never be able to leave it alone every week!)

Potato Creek State Park Photo
Click for the larger picture (~50kb)

This is a spot at Potato Creek State Park in Indiana, not very far from where I live. This particular bend in the path, reminds me of Lake Tenkiller, where my grandparents lived while I was a teenager. I can remember always looking at the far shore when we'd walk down to the lake. Thinking what a mystery it always was ... the same way I used to think about "tomorrow" as a kid. Knowing that the far shore was a concept, not a destination. Cuz once you arrived at tomorrow or at the far shore ... it was no longer tomorrow or the far shore. It was today. It was here.

The distance was far more interesting than here and now.

I enjoyed the shrouded mystery of the far shore in ways that I still can't articulate.

But this picture in particular reminds me of a short story that I wrote back in the 90s. My first thought was that I'd make this an extended entry and post the story as well ... but I just pulled it out of the filing cabinet ... and well, umm, it sucks. The concept was really good, but the writing was ... well, that of a young 20something trying to write flash fiction. Trying to write a hybrid of story and Literature (spoken with that shitty stuck-up English Professor As King of All Knowledge accent).

So, of course, since it's a good concept, I had to re-write it. And since I was more focused on writing this post than re-conceptualizing the story at this moment, it's still quite short and not quite as fleshed out as I would like it. But it gives you the point.

"Ladder in the Lake" (opens in a new window)

It struck me Sunday, when I went down to Potato Creek again ... that this spot is very much like where David goes swimming. Of course, it was darker then ... and ready to storm.

But this misty far shore, that place where you can never actually arrive, strikes me as very much the kind of place David was trying to reach.

The problem, of course, being that once you reach the far shore, the place you came from has now become the far shore.

The other problem being that if you focus too hard on the far shore, you miss a lot of other things. The danger signs of an impending storm. The actual distance. How you can manage to make the crossing. What you might actually find when you get there.

And, sometimes you just don't have the strength you once thought you did.

And you settle for something in the middle that ought to be good enough. But that "good enough" is sometimes just a mirage, a story you tell yourself so that you don't feel bad about not embarking on the full journey into the Misty Mountains or through the Mines of Moria.
(No, I have NO idea, why the Tolkien books suddenly popped into my head ... I suppose this picture somehow reminded me of Bilbo and the others heading off to the Grey Havens or whatever it was. And, no, I haven't seen the movies. I refuse to see them. I love the books.)

Sometimes it does feel like there's a ladder in the middle of the lake, ready to take us to some magical otherworld which will somehow make things better.

But like the far shore, that ladder is much more of a journey than it is a destination.

Just a bit of rambling pseudo-philosophy for the weekend.

Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:21 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 28, 2006

Coyote and the Spider

First: a word of warning. Don't ever write a post whilst charging a brand new laptop battery and then unplug the computer because the new battery is charged.

Yeah. It was like that.

POOF!

Anyhow, as I was saying earlier, before the battery ate my post, we moved to Austin, Texas, sometime just after I turned five. This was by far my favourite of the six homes and five towns we'd lived in. There were no windows in the front two bedrooms which faced the street. (If you look at the picture, you'll see what I mean.) I had the bedroom that looked over the little covered entry to our front door and I loved it. I could see everyone who came and went to our house ... provided, of course, I was in my room at the time. It certainly meant that I had a good watch for any babysitters ... or for any visiting relatives.

One Halloween when I was about seven or so, I got some little plastic black spiders. Nowadays you usually see these as little rings ... I think they're less of a choking hazard that way, but back in the day, these were simply spiders.

I kind of need to back up for a moment and remind you that my mother is not a lover of nature. In fact, the outdoors terrifies her. Horrifies her. (Don't forget the Possum Story.) Naturally, in Austin, then, she was terrified of scorpions and black widow spiders. These atrocities were, of course, around every corner and underneath every rock.

With all the thinking that goes into an elementary student's decorations, I put some of the black plastic spiders in my window screen. You know, where spiders GO.

So the next time my mom and I are coming home from somewhere, I am more than a little bit startled when she SHRIEKS and points at my window.

Apparently she thought the stationary, shiny, plastic spiders were real.

As any good lower elementary school student, I fell onto the front porch and rolled on the cement, laughing. I think I nearly peed my pants, I was laughing so hard.

Of course at that age, if you do it ONCE and it's funny ... doing it MORE is even MORE funny.

So, every few days, the spiders would go back in the window and every few days, Mom would SCREAM as she once more saw the plastic spiders in my window.

After a few weeks of this, I was absolutely, positively FORBIDDEN to put the spiders back in the window.

The problem with this, of course, is that I was a very creative ... and Calvin-like ... child. So, I did not put the spiders in the window after being forbidden to do so.

I put them on Mom's pillow instead.

I knew when she went to sleep every night for about a week. She woke me up with that scream. And I chortled myself back to sleep.

Eventually, this too, came to a stop.

Fast forward to Friday, December 22, 2006. My mom calls to ask if we are still coming to Christmas, which I found puzzling until the other half reminded me that we had at least two Christmases when the weather kept us from traveling. As Mom and I are chatting, somehow, the subject of the little plastic spiders comes up, gets discussed and Mom chastises me whilst laughing.

Fast forward two more days. My cousins and I are going to go out and about and buy stocking stuffers at Foy's Five and Dime in downtown Dayton, Ohio. This is actually something between a Halloween store and a candy store ... and an old fashioned five and dime. It's incredible. I picked up a tiny kite that was a Thunderbird plane, I picked up a good old-fashioned Nerf ball (even though it's not Nerf brand comments/sad.gif), some good candies, some bad candies (salt and lemon ... very little lemon ... LOADS of salt ... and they're pop rocks ... if you can make it thru the salt ... did i mention LOADS and LOADS of salt?).

And little plastic black spider rings.

Oh yeah.

I went there.

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Naturally, I also purchased a single black spider ring. I carefully snipped the ring part off and at the earliest opportunity, I planted it in Mom's suitcase.

And I hovered, waiting for her to open it. Which she did.

And she didn't see it. Several times.

So, of course, I had to re-situate things. I unrolled her PJ bottoms since they were a nice light colour, and re-placed the plastic spider carefully. Showcased it.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

And then, as my aunt and my partner and I are all sitting around in the living room, I hear it. A huge scream, followed quickly by "EEEEENNNNNNNNNDERRRRRRRRRRRRR!"

LMFAO

It's just as good 30 years later. I might be 38 chronologically, but ya know ... you're only as old as you think you are.

I damn near wet my pants I was laughing so hard.

Ahhhh, just like old times.

Never mind that no one else found it quite as funny as I did. Mom got the joke. She remembered. I remembered.

And it was a damn good memory. comments/haha.gifcomments/haha.gifcomments/haha.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:15 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 12, 2006

Dusk ... text

Since I was tiny, nothing has calmed me more quickly or better than dusk in the woods, particularly if there's a creek, river or lake nearby as well.

So, when it was 65 degrees on the last day of November, I immediately headed out to Potato Creek State Park.

Actually, when I left for lunch that day, I was a bit out of sorts. Well, more than a bit. And as I walked out into the gloriously beautiful weather on my way to get some fast lunch, I thought ... I wonder ... I wonder if Potato Creek is too far to drive.

The short answer is that it really is. It's about 20 minutes from work, maybe 15 with the way I tend to drive and if the lights are with me. So that was 10-15 minutes to get to the fast food place ... at least 30 minutes driving time round trip ... an optimistic 15 minutes to spend in the park. Hmmm.

I left the fast food joint (Taco Hell ... hey, there's no freaking decent fast Mexican food up here in the land of ice, snow and freaking hoosiers - just for you, Mike, just for you, you big cheesehead). And I'm bemoaning the fact that I don't have ...

I passed the turn back in to work.

Apparently my impulses were simply going to take over for lunch today. My first thought was, well, I don't have to drive all the way out to the park. I could just drive out to the country area where we lived a few years ago. Lots of trees and nature and such. That'll do.

Drove past there, too.

Drove all the way out to Potato Creek, forgetting that it would be a longish drive to a parking lot where I could eat (too wet outside to sit on any of the picnic tables), and then head into the woods.

Look at the clock, decide I have 15 minutes to walk. (This was a VERY optimistic estimate.) I head out into the trails. I have no watch, left the cell phone in the office ... since this was a very unplanned excursion. It's kind of misty out, the trails are full of slippery fallen leaves and it doesn't take more than five steps before I can feel all the tension beginning to leach out of my muscles. I have forgotten, though, that this segment of trails is very short and does not really go to the area of Worster Lake that I most enjoy. That's okay. A few minutes here have already restored a feeling of peace and contentment that I've been lacking for weeks.

All too soon, I decide that I cannot push the time limit any further and I turn around, head back to the car. EEK! I way overstayed. I have five minutes to get back to work.

On the way back, I can't shake that feeling of being drawn into the nature around me. The rest of my day is surreal with the fluorescent lights, flickering computer screens and the constant sound of keyboards chattering away.

I stop at the house after work only long enough to pick up my camera and a fresh pop. I get back to the park by 4 or so, begin with the short trail because I had noticed several things that I wanted to take pictures of. Then, I head up to the real trails.

I've got my cell phone with me this time ... more so I can keep track of time than anything else. Reception isn't great, and frankly, I don't want to talk to anyone anyway. I want to be here, in this moment, in this place.

Squirrels, chipmunks, a hawk. Ducks, geese. A blue heron (or a crane, I'm never quite sure which).

The heron lets me get unbelievably close and thanks to the goodness of a 1 GB card, I snap shot after shot after shot, hoping that some will turn out in the dim light. Apparently the next time I go trekking in the overcast and dusk, I really need to bring a tripod as a walking cane, though.

I walk a little further on, to the place you see in the post below. It's dusk and I am looking out over the water at the far shore. The mist hangs in the trees, blurring everything with a wistful fog of potential and regret both. The trees that once stood on dry land and now are only poles complicating navigation on the lake. Providing bits of interest ... bits of rest, a place to steady yourself for a moment before moving on.

Times like this I feel like I could hop in a rowboat or a canoe and simply be on the lake forever, dreaming of the limitless possibilities and potentials. Rocked by the gentle winds on the lake, creating ripples of waves ... drifting with the currents.

Of course the reality of that is a lot more bleak. Umm, food? drinking water? bathroom facilities????

But staring out across the lake, listening to the birds, the squirrels and the water. Transporting myself to the middle of the lake for just a time, staring wistfully at the mystery of the misty shrouded far shore ...

I have to shake it off ... get back to the daily grind. But, even though it's in the 40s and raining outside now ... I still can get lost in that peace and potential just staring at the photo and remembering.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:23 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 5, 2006

Hall of Presidents

Something during a Google search today got me to thinking about the trip I made to DisneyWorld when I was seven. (No, this isn't some long rambling post about a vacation - hang on, there's more to this.)

This was back in the day, when you were issued a booklet of coupons and you had to budget the different letter coupons so you could go on the rides you really wanted to go on. For example, I think Space Mountain was an E ride and I hoarded my final E coupon for hours until we neared the famed roller coaster ride.

One of the "rides" that I really wanted to see was the Hall of Presidents. I know, I know. Dude, I've already said it: I'm a geek. I thought that seeing robots was cool and I desperately wanted to see Abraham Lincoln speak. I got a thrill just thinking about watching a lanky robot stand and utter something from the famed liberator. The rest of the family thought their coupons were far better spent on things like the Teacup ride and that cloying Small World ride. (That my sister, who'd begged to go on it. . . what? oh yeah. No rambling. Okay.)

Finally, I pestered Mom enough about this ride that she handed me the map and helped me figure out exactly where the Hall of Presidents was in relation to where we were. Since no one else wanted to go with me, Mom decided that at 7 I was big enough to walk through the huge amusement park alone and go see the show. We were to meet up again at some ride I've long since forgotten after the show was over. Now, Mom was pretty over-protective most of the time and I'm not really sure why she thought that a little kid would be perfectly safe heading across the park alone. I guess because it was Disney World and what harm could come to a kid at Disney World? Or maybe she was just exhausted from my constant updates about how much longer until the next Hall of Presidents show. To quote the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial, "The world may never know."

So, I'm both thrilled and terrified to be heading across the park alone. I mean, this is a rite of passage here: I've got to officially be a big kid if I can navigate my way across this park and see a show by myself. But I've also heard plenty of Stranger Danger commercials and seen enough posters to know that kidnappers can appear anywhere and you have to be really aware of your surroundings. I was mentally trying to look everywhere at once and to try to figure out what Hong Kong Phooey moves I could do if attacked. Hey, it was the 70s, everyone was paranoid.

Finally, I arrive in front of the show's little building and I'm just so excited. I can't believe it. I'm going to hear Lincoln free the slaves. This is the coolest thing ever. I'm practically gibbering to myself in excitement. We'd been taught only that Lincoln had freed the slaves and that he was a great hero -- no one had bothered to mention to a bunch of little kids that the whole thing, that the whole civil war, in fact, was more complicated than that. Lincoln was a hero for freeing the oppressed.

I slide into the big theatre and make my way to a seat kind of in the back of the theatre, but not all the way in the back. I want to be close enough to see my hero. I keep checking my watch, with the little bee's eyes that move back and forth with each second that ticks away. How much longer now? When is it going to start?

Before it does, I hear a couple of people sit down in the row right behind me. I slump down in my theatre seat. Are they going to kidnap me? I'm here all alone and there's no adults I know nearby at all. I risk a glance over my shoulder.

Oh no! They're black.

I slump even further into my seat.

And then my brain kicks into overdrive.

"Now wait a minute," my brain says to me. "Why are you here, exactly?"

"I want to see Lincoln."

"You want to see Lincoln do what?" my brain keeps prodding.

Oh. Oh yeah. What the hell is wrong with me?

I look back over my shoulder again. It's a young couple. Maybe in their twenties - it's hard for a seven-year-old to gauge the age of adults, after all. Yeah, they're black. And young. And in love. They nudge each other and give me a smile.

You know, that was a really simple thing on their part. They could have ignored this terrified white kid, afraid that any nice action they made would have repercussions for them. Being young people, they could have tried to tease me or make me smile with a funny face. But they just gave me a little smile.

I smiled back.

I relaxed. I sat upright in my seat. I was here to see my hero free the slaves. Blacks weren't any different than whites. There was no reason to be afraid of them; they were nice people.

When the show was over and I stood up, the young couple was already gone. I don't think I even heard them leave. I do remember being a lot more confident as I wound my way back through the park to the rendezvous point and waited for my family. I didn't tell anyone about the young couple or how scared I'd been. I was embarrassed that I'd been scared at all.

I grew up in Texas during the 70s. I read Dr. Seuss books; I watched Free to Be You and Me, Sesame Street and Electric Company. I didn't know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, but I wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement. Of course, I was born too late - the civil rights movement was over. (I thought it was, anyway.) My Dad used the n-word. The Klan.

And somehow, that one smile solidified my whole outlook to all people. A pretty simple thing, a smile.

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Like I've said, I was raised primarily in Texas in the 70s. I started school in Austin and ended at a high school in Arlington (yuppie-ville between Dallas and Fort Worth).

At my first elementary school, Pillow, I don't remember ever seeing a black student. We had two students, twins, who were either atheists or, I think now, they may have been Muslim. I was in first grade when I first met Rex and the finer points of religion just weren't a big deal to me. After all, I'd met Jon Comb in kindergarten and he was Jewish and it hadn't been any big deal. Whatever. Seemed to me like there were 18 million different flavors of religion and they were all sure they were the right one. My opinion at the time was very child-simple: God was all-loving, so anyone who tried honestly to do good and right would eventually be all right with God.

So anyhow, the point is we didn't have a whole lot of diversity in my school. I didn't really notice much. I had my good friend, Nancy, and she lived down the street from us. Her brother, David, was my exact same age -- we had the same birthday. I'd known them for ages before I said something to Nancy about wishing that my skin tanned so nicely like hers did. I have always had that pasty Irish complexion, complete with freckles. Nancy's skin was just a nice, tanned color -- not real dark, but not so glow-in-the-dark white either.

When I told my mom what I'd told Nancy, she just spluttered. "You didn't!!"

"Did. I do wish my skin would tan like that."

No one had bothered to inform me that Nancy was half Mexican. Once they did, I still wasn't sure what the BFD was. Great, you get a Mexican and a white person together and you get a built-in tan. Why don't all white people marry Mexicans? All white people want tans. Wouldn't it just be easier to marry a Mexican instead of trying to "cook" your skin into that color?

I really didn't get it.

And my mother was appalled with me.

Evidently there'd been some fuss in the neighborhood when the Tapias first moved in. The scandal! A mixed couple. (I thought that all couples were mixed - one man and one woman. Whatever. I thought adults were completely insane.) And I learned interesting new words, like wetback. But, everyone seemed to like the Tapias now, so I assumed that everything was all right.

But the real eye-opener for me was the first day of second grade. You see, we lived several miles away from Pillow Elementary. The Balcones Woods subdivision was probably a good 5 or more miles away. And you had to drive on the highway (always a big deal in my mom's mind), and you had to drive past an active quarry.

Despite the car pool, the parents complained about this drive constantly. They kept demanding a bus to take us to the school, but it didn't happen in kindergarten and seemed to be getting closer by the end of first grade.

So, after the trip to Disney World and watching Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents, I was ready to go back to school just a few months later. Our school handed each teacher about 30 students at random levels of learning and development and this year I had been moved to another class different from most of the kids I'd had in my class the year before. And after my Disney World experience, that was much more scary to me than the fact that I also had a black teacher for the first time.

When we walked in that first day, there was a folding table set up just inside the building with a posterboard hanging from it. It said "Stop the Busing."

"But I thought we wanted a bus!" I exclaimed to my mom.

She frantically tried to get me to shutup.

"But why? I thought you were tired of taking me to school." I was trying to whisper -- you know, the kind of whisper actors use to reach the back of the theatre, but still feels like a whisper? That type of whisper that seems to be the specialty of every little kid.

Well, my response relaxed the tense parent behind the table. And despite Mom's promise to explain it all to me later, it wasn't until years later that I figured out what busing these parents wanted to stop. And it made me sick. Every student at that elementary school that I can remember was white. We had some latino kids, and we had a couple of kids who got to sit down during the Pledge of Allegience (the whole Under God thing -- don't start, that'll be another post later and you can scream about it then). Of course, we lived in Texas, so there were lots of latinos everywhere. Enough so that I didn't realize that Mexicans (like my best friend who lived down the street from me) were another "race." I didn't realize that some white folk didn't like Mexicans or latinos of any flavor. I thought my friend would be extra-popular because she had a great tan.

Two weeks into the school year I was told that there was an opening at the Catholic school and was shuttled off to "shop" for my uniform.

Was it because busing appeared to be imminent? Was it because my teacher was black? Was there really a "sudden" opening at the private school?

At the time I was terribly confused. Here we were about to get buses and now Mom suddenly wants to carpool. And I have to wear a uniform. And go to Mass ... was it every day or just Fridays? I think it was just Fridays. We had to go to this church that I'd never been to and go try on uniforms -- some green plaid jumper with a white shirt. Before I could burst into tears over the jumper -- we'd already had this discussion in kindergarten when I insisted on wearing jeans or pants every day -- Mom told me that we were buying one jumper and I could also wear a white shirt and green jeans. Now that's a progressive Catholic school for the mid 70s.

And what I didn't understand then or now was this: if we were so religious as to send me to a Catholic school, how Christian was it to be that way to other people? to be so scared of them and for no reason at all?

I don't remember any black kids at the Catholic school. I had a latina teacher, but didn't see any black teachers there.

I hated it there.

I was utterly miserable the whole year I spent there.

And I don't think I saw a single black student there. Certainly no Jewish kids like Jon. Or atheist or Muslim kids like Rex. Just a bunch of pasty-white kids. And school was every bit as boring here as at Pillow. In fact, I was a bit behind where I had been in the public school.

I asked my Mom once why she didn't want me to be part of busing - either bused to another school or a school where others were bused in.

"Because I knew that someone would tease a kid - a black kid call a white kid something or a white kid call a black kid something - and you would be right there in the middle of it, defending someone. I didn't want you to get hurt."

Well, she probably had a point. I would have been. I didn't understand that type of "teasing" and I always tried to make friends with the underdogs and the kids that no one else would take to. And I never knew when to back down, so I probably would have gotten the heck whupped out of me.

But you know, the deal is that none of this stuff changed how I felt after that smile at Disney World.

Those two events ... the trip to the Hall of Presidents and the sudden turnaround about busing us to school ... shaped my life more than I could have imagined at that age. The two events together solidified something that I had been struggling with for ages ...

I learned that I could not trust my parents.

Now, before someone screams, let me explain that a little bit further. It wasn't just because I realized prejudice was wrong ... it was because I was finally starting to see through some of the mixed messages I was getting from them. Mom would tell me that black people were the same as white, but she'd also lock her car doors if she saw a black person walking along the street. She'd tell me "you can be anything you want to be" and then tell me I couldn't be a cub scout or an indian guide. She'd poke me in church during the scripture on obeying your parents, but then she'd give me direct orders to disobey my father. And, honestly, Dad was giving me the same mixed messages.

At that point, I came to the conclusion that there are good people and bad people in the world and a lot of shades in between ... but you could not figure out which people were to be avoided by how they looked. My father looked like a great businessman in his fancy suits. He looked like Gerald Ford, enough so that in the late seventies, women in the grocery store wouldn't believe him when he said he was not the ex-president.

It didn't really matter that he was white or that someone else was black or tan or kind of yellow. You learned more about people by comparing what they said with what they did ... and, of course, by watching their eyes. And Dad's eyes scared me. Mom's eyes seemed somewhat blank and empty. I began to distance myself from them.

That wound up saving my life.

Well, that and the bookmobile.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:19 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 2, 2006

For Paddy

Long ago, when the people were still new in this world, Coyote came up to his brother Wolf and said, "Brother, why must they sicken? They struggle hard to please this world, but their efforts only bring some pain and sickness even when they honor the earth as they should. Can't we at least take away sickness from them?"

Wolf did not look up from his work, but answered, "Sickening serves to remind them that everything in this world is fleeting. If they do not have this reminder, they grow lax and think they have all the time in the world for their own cares. Sickening reminds them to take care of each other so that someone is there to take care of them during their need."

Knowing how wise Wolf was, Coyote determined to watch the People further and find some way to help them. He watched how they struggled to raise crops and to hunt. Their days and months revolved around gathering necessities to keep them fed. He returned to Wolf and asked, "Brother I understand why they must sicken and see that you are right. But must they also toil so hard and so long just for nourishment? Surely we can help them and provide their food for them."

Again Wolf did not look up from his work. This time, he was silent for a long time until Coyote began to get restive, his bristle-tail twitching with the strain of trying to be patient. "If they do not work to stay alive, Little Brother, they quickly forget the beauty and harmony in this world and their walk becomes unbalanced and eventually destructive."

Coyote thought about this for a while and said nothing more to Wolf. After a time, he went back to the People, watched them suffer with sickness and with war and then returned to Wolf again.

"Brother, I have seen how those who do not stay connected to the earth and strive to call forth nourishment from her do destroy that which they no longer understand. But the People's lives are so short and filled with pain. Why can't their lives be long like ours? Why must they die?"

Wolf paused for a moment in his work, but did not look at Coyote. "It is to remind them that life is precious, brother. When it is fast and short, they value it more and treasure each other."

Coyote sat with his brother for some time and then, as his brother continued in his work, Coyote turned and walked to where Wolf's cubs were playing. He observed them at play for a while and then, without warning, struck a cub down with one great swipe of his paw. The others, shocked, were silent and then began to howl at their still brother.

Wolf came quickly and stood in horror at his dead cub and looked in astonishment at his brother. "What have you done? Why would you do such a thing? Why?"

Coyote finished cleaning his paw and said deliberately, "If the People must remember that life is precious, a treasure, you should also feel what death means."

---

I don't recall what American Indian tribe this myth belongs to or where I first read it. I'm sure I've mangled the details a bit, but it's always stuck with me. Some tribes, particuarly Navajo, believe that Coyote is a very sinister trickster and while this story does have its sinister aspect, Coyote is essentially arguing to make people's lives easier.

I think it's telling that Wolf cries "Why" on the death of one of his children. Most of us wonder the same thing at the ending of any life that comes suddenly, sometimes those that come slowly, and particularly those that come premature.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:41 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 12, 2006

Remember When

From the time I was very small, I loved getting out my baby book and flipping through the notes Mom had made, the cards people had sent, and the photos that she'd put into the book. One thing that always fascinated me was comparing what I remembered with what I saw in the baby book ... or in the photo albums. We moved so frequently between my birth and the time I started school, that I've always been amazed at just what I could remember from an early age ... although I'm certain that having all of those different locations on which to pin an age helped me to realize that those memories were from a specific age. I would guess that children who don't move so much probably pin most of their early memories at an older age ... one that seems more "rational" to our adult minds. I'm lucky, I suppose, in that I can pin those memories to an age a bit more accurately, just from where we were living at the time.

At any rate, we lived in Carmel, Indiana, for just a year. Moved there probably in December of 1972 and left probably about the same time period in 1973, or perhaps in early 1974. It was the only year we lived "up north" and despite having a very good friend who lived next door to me, it was the one place we lived (pre-kindergarten, anyway) that I hated with a passion. Dad was working for National Sherdata at the time and I can remember him taking me up to work with him one day so I could see the computer room. Yup, that was the time of the big punch card machines and I was quite fascinated with the noisy mess and how those little manila cards with their oddly-spaced holes could be so important.

Since I've been back in Indiana for the last 12 years (I only intended to be here for two, darnit), I've often thought about driving down to Carmel and trying to find the old apartment. I don't know why I'm so driven to re-connect with the many places I've lived, but I've always done that. (And, don't you know I just LOVE Google Maps for getting a bird's eye view of places today.) So, when I was able to scan pages of my baby book and photos from Mom's photo albums this summer, I was really excited to find a page which listed all of the addresses we'd lived while I was growing up.

And, when our church choir was invited to sing at our regional assembly down in Indianapolis, I knew all the stars had aligned perfectly ... and I was going to make a detour down memory lane on the way back home from it all.

The directions from MapQuest weren't very good once I got to the apartment complex ... I should have used GoogleMaps instead, because after I got home, I could see exactly what I should have done. However, MapQuest had a few details wrong, and so when I turned into the complex, I had the strangest thing happen.

My instinct was to make a left turn and then another left. MapQuest told me to turn right almost immediately, and then I'd be there. I followed directions and ignored my instinct. As it turns out, and I very vaguely remember this now that I've been there again, the complex is actually a mixed setting of "townhouses" and apartments. Some buildings have a door that leads to several apartments ... some buildings have a door for each two story "townhouse." So, I'm looking for the address, and looking at the buildings ... and I'm not surprised but I am disappointed. Looks like they've re-faced everything and remodeled into strictly apartments. I drive around where the directions said my old home was ... and other than somewhat recognizing shapes ... well, it just wasn't that familiar. Even the street names didn't match memory or MapQuest.

Since I have no one in the car with me and I'm not on any schedule, I decide to just drive around the complex for a bit and see what I can see.

Sure enough, my memory of this place where I lived for just about a year when I was four and just past when I turned five ... over 30 years ago (33 years since my fifth birthday, for those who need details comments/exciting.gif ) ... that instinct was right on the money.

The steps aren't as steep as I remember and the little "hill" up from the parking lot is also not as steep as I recall ... but I did remember the turns it would take to get to the old apartment! How weird is that?

The door on the right was to our place ... the door to the left was where my best friend, Megan, lived. I can recall, early one morning, bored because only the televangelists were on ... and not my beloved Scooby Doo, I decided that all little kids run away. And it occurred to me that I had not yet done this. I was getting old and I should do this soon. So, having no idea whatsoever how to go about running away, I merely snuck out the front door as quietly as possible ... walked down our steps ... through the grass ... up Megan's steps ... and knocked on their door. When her mom answered, I couldn't really think of anything to say except, "Can Megan play?"

Her mom tried very hard not to laugh. My hair, baby-fine and far too long for me to comb, was tangled and ratted and standing up all over the place. I was in my yellow pajamas with the odd flowers ... a nice flannel set for the cold weather. And ... as was usual for me ... I was barefoot.

"Megan's not awake yet," she said. "I think maybe you better run along back home." I nodded. I was very compliant at that age.

And thoughtful, too. I grabbed the morning paper on the way back in and left it on the kitchen table for Mom. It was supposed to be a surprise, but I forgot to lock the door when I came back in, so instead of being thankful for the paper, I was chastised for not keeping the door locked.

And, as I remembered this and other things as well, I turned the car away and prepared to drive back out of the complex. That carport! Oh my!

As we returned from shopping one day, Megan and I safely tucked in the back, my sister in her car seat between us, our Moms both in the front, someone jumped out in front of the car with a gun! He jumped out just like on TV or in the movies, legs spread wide ... he'd been hiding in the carport, just waiting for someone to hold up.

As it turned out ... it was just Chris, the evil bully of the neighborhood, with his BB pistol. My mother was horrified and actually almost as scared as I was. Megan rolled her eyes and tried to make me feel better. Megan's mother was furious. She creeped the car forward and refused to actually come to a stop, which forced Chris to either hold his ground and get run over or move out of the way. We all saw him bunch up all his leg muscles and Megan's mom yelled out the window that if he jumped on her car, there was going to be HELL to PAY! Apparently he changed his mind, and he ran back into the carport.

Ahh, gotta love that 70s decor, huh?

And those 70s outfits. Sheesh.

It was truly odd to put those memories and those physical pictures I have of the inside of that apartment together with the way the outside looks today ... which really, is not much different at all from the way it looked back in the day.

What I didn't expect was just how much clarity of memory I would have as I sat in the parking lot, snapping pictures. I didn't expect to see "movies" of events so clearly. Like in this piano picture above ... I can see Mom and I crouched at the edge of the carpet, in runner's poses ... our backs to the piano, we're facing that front door. Dad is calling out, "Get ready, get set GO!" I am positive that I am a far better runner than my mother, never mind her legs are far longer than mine and the distance we're running is short. I didn't get a chance to make the run, though. As Dad yelled, "GO!" he also reached forward and grabbed my ankle so that I landed flat on my face in the entry hall. I was hurt, I was furious. I could BEAT Mom, I could! She gloated that she'd beaten me and I kept shouting that it wasn't fair.

We set up a re-match and honestly, I think Dad was having a "Lucy moment" (from Charlie Brown ... you know, her lovely football stunt?). After the third attempt, Mom was quietly chastising a laughing Dad and I was so furious I hardly knew what to do with myself.

Amazing what tidbits our minds hold for us.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:57 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 5, 2006

Inside the Magic

When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Houdini, like many kids are. I was fascinated both by his love of sleight of hand and escape ... as I was with his fascination with disproving charlatans who claimed they could do "real" magics. So, for years, I practiced escaping ropes and eventually moved on to attempting to escape from handcuffs.

Of course, at six, your parents evidently don't feel that real handcuffs are a "toy" and therefore should not be given to children. Hmph. I tried to explain that it wasn't a toy, it was a PROP and I desperately needed it for my burgeoning career as a young Houdini (but not David Copperfield ... for some reason, I always despised Copperfield).

I got plastic handcuffs with my sheriff's outfit. Unfortunately, escaping plastic handcuffs simply takes a flick of the wrist ... then the plastic chain holding the cuffs together and you're back to not having any handcuffs to practice with again.

An unimpressive trick at best.

Years later, my mother decided that I should enroll every summer in enrichment classes sponsored by the local gifted and talented program. I took a drawing class, a class in playing Dungeons & Dragons ... and a class in magic.

The instructor was a rather odd looking bald man who made eye for an uncomfortably long time and it wasn't long before most of us would prefer not to look him in the eye at all. This may have been a part of his magic strategy, I don't know.

I enjoyed the class very much, and probably annoyed everyone who would sit still long enough for me to show them a trick. I went to the trick store periodically and stocked up on new equipment ... and eventually I joined a magic club.

I was the youngest person there and I was highly nervous to be hanging out with these adults once a month, but I also loved my Saturday afternoon learning new tricks. I learned how to build a cardboard box prop where I could make some sizable stuff disappear. Every month, someone had to teach the rest of the group a trick, and the month after the cardboard box ... it was my turn. I had found a delightful little card trick with some fun patter and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. I was just terrified to be doing in front of these adults who'd been doing magic tricks for so long.

The trick involved a special card and I'm fairly certain that while performing the trick, my hand slipped and probably gave away the secret ... but everyone was patient with this obviously nervous kid and they let me get all the way through the trick and through my explanations.

I was mortified. I thought my trick was dumb and lame.

I only attended a few more meetings after that before deciding that maybe magic wasn't my thing after all.

It was several weeks more before I figured out why I lost interest in performing magic ... and when I did figure it out, it was blindingly obvious to me.

When you watch a good magic show, you know you're being duped. It's not the fact that the dude has made a person disappear or sawed a lady in half ... it's the fact that you were not able to see for sure how he did it that fascinates us. I had stepped inside the magic and found that the entire process was now transparent. I am fascinated with the "how'd they do that" ... not with the trick itself. It's a mental challenge ... can this guy beat me or can I figure it out?

As I've grown older, I've found this process of stepping inside the magic is common to other things as well. The short stories and novels I've written are also "transparent" to me ... because I've created everything there. There are no real mysteries to the characters for me because as the writer, it's my job to know why the characters behave as they do. Of course, when I'm deep into writing a story, my characters might surprise me from time to time, but once I'm over the initial surprise, I can see just why they did or said what they did.

And, it's the same with the drawing and animation that I do as well. I can look at someone else's sketches and be utterly amazed. I can be entranced in the way they made lines and shapes and created something wonderful. But when I draw my own characters or scenes, I'm constantly comparing what is on the page or screen to what is in my head ... and I'm never as happy with that interpretation I've committed to paper of the art that I see in my head.

I have a friend, a professional musician, and I offered to do an animation for one of her songs. Today, I showed her the half-finished vector drawing of her motorcycle, with much trepidation on my part. I expected her to note the flaws or the areas for which my vision of her motorcycle just was not coming out the way I'd wanted.

I forgot, you see, that I've stepped inside the magic here again. I can see the might-bes ... my friend is seeing what is there.

Apparently there are all kinds of magics ... art, writing, acting, engineering, medical investigation ... and when we are the actor, then we are seeing the world through the transparent mist of the magic. It's easy to forget that everyone else sees the magic we've created because they're looking at it instead of through it.

So the next time you think that your writing is not touching someone else ... or your art, or your singing, or the millions of things that you do ... remember that it might feel that way because you're looking through it.

You never know the lives you touch in the simplest ways which may have made all the difference in the world.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:27 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 31, 2006

Cue the Wind

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:17 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 30, 2006

A Halloween Ghost Story

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the third in the series, "Haunted" being the first. And "The Haunted House" being the second.
And the third being The Graveyard (and there's a second part to that one ... you'll see the link to it at the top of the post).

Enjoy!

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And now for your Halloween ghost story ....

In the Haunted story, I talked about a ghost that haunted the sub shop I worked in during college. As John and I discussed the possibility of a ghost running the juke box and occasionally making things fly around, he eventually told me that these things just tended to happen to him. If you're into the paranormal, you might call John a sensitive or a medium. Ghosts just tend to like him.

His first experience with a ghost was at seven.

John went to spend the night at a friend's house. His family lived waaay out in the country at a small gentleman's farm and they had just moved in about a month before. John met Kyle at school and the two fast became inseperable.

The two boys ran around the farm and played for hours and when it was time to come in, they played board games. Including ... well, what Halloween story would be complete without the Ouija board?

At first the boys played with it like most kids play with the Ouija board, making it say things and being silly. Then, for whatever reason, the little plastic piece begins moving on its own. John gave Kyle a look and Kyle snatched his hand off the toy. It was still moving. Half-convinced that John was just messing with him, Kyle began asking questions.

"Who are you?"

The board spelled out J - O - N.

Kyle laughed. "You can't even spell your own name right."

"I didn't do it," John told him.

Kyle laughed and put his hand back on the toy. "Right, John, right." He looked back at the Ouija board. "Where are you?"

R-I-G-H-T H-E-R-E

"No, I mean where do you live?"

H-E-R-E

M-Y B-R-O-T-H-E-R I-S S-C-A-R-E-D

"Why?"

D-A-D

"This is dumb, John, make it say something good."

"I told you, I'm not doing anything."

"I wanna talk to something good and scary."

"I don't wanna play this anymore, Kyle. I don't like it." John took his hand off the plastic toy.

With both boys' hands off the toy, it began flying across the board.

"What's doing that?"

I A-M J-A-M-E-S
Y-O-U A-R-E B-A-D

"Kyle? Make it stop. How are you doing that?"

Y-O-U-V-E G-O-T T-O B-E

John picked up the board and tossed it across the room. Kyle was white as a ghost.

At seven, of course, they did what any sane seven-year-olds would do -- they ran out to the living room for Kyle's mom.

Of course, Kyle's mom figured the boys had been telling scary stories and had just frightened each other. She gave them a snack and sent them back to Kyle's room and told them to go to sleep and not tell anymore scary stories.

After kicking the game under one of the beds, the boys wrestled and played until Kyle's dad came in and told them to knock it off and go to bed. So they did.

A few hours later, Kyle's mom woke up to all sorts of noise coming from Kyle's room. Convinced the boys were playing, she opened the door only to find everything in Kyle's room flying around in a circle. His clothes, his toys, everything. Completely unable to believe what she was seeing, she was convinced that she was merely dreaming and walked back to bed.

The next morning, Kyle's dad went out to the barn to muck out the horses' stalls and finally stormed back into the house. "Were those boys out in the barn yesterday?" he asked his wife.

"Of course, they were playing out in the loose hay."

"I have told Kyle a million times that pitchfork is not a toy." And his dad stormed off for the boys' room.

Every toy and piece of clothing Kyle owned was scattered around the room.

"KYLE!"

Neither boy moved. His dad, completely disgusted, turned around, surveying the "damage" of Kyle's playtime the night before. The door to Kyle's closet was open, the light was on and there was nothing in the closet. Every piece of clothing, every toy, jigsaw puzzle, everything was in the middle of Kyle's room.

Except the pitchfork, leaning against the back wall of the closet.

Kyle's dad snapped. He'd had it with his irresponsible son who just didn't seem to understand that the farm tools were not toys. This was the first time he'd found one of the tools in the house, but not the first time that Kyle had wandered off with one hand tool or another. Furious, he grabbed the pitchfork from the closet and began hollering at his son.

The two boys woke up to Kyle's furious father screaming and coming toward them, pitchfork in hand.

His mom walked into the room and screamed - partly at the total mess in the room (and remembering her "dream" of the night before) and partly at the sight of her husband wielding the pitchfork at the boys. Surely it was just to emphasize his anger, but still ....

Kyle's parents left the room and calmed down, got rid of the pitchfork and then came back in to talk to the now terrified young boys. They explained that the boys shouldn't have trashed the bedroom or taken the pitchfork into the house -- shouldn't have played with the pitchfork at all.

Of course, they both protested and insisted they had done no such thing. And of course, Kyle's parents assumed the boys were lying. His mom was somewhat disturbed by the odd dream she'd had the night before, but it had to have been a dream.

So, the boys' first sleepover was a bit of a disaster and John was in trouble again when he got home for not behaving properly as a guest.

But, a few weeks later, John's parents called and asked to come over with Kyle. Not sure what was going on, but responding to the tense voice of Kyle's mother, they agreed.

They sat around the kitchen table ... both sets of parents and both boys.

"I know this is going to sound strange, but I need to ask John a very serious question," Kyle's mom started. "What happened when you and Kyle were playing with the Ouija board?"

John blinked a few times and then told them. "At first me and Kyle were just making it move around and being silly. But then it started to move on its own."

"John!" his mother was shocked at this bald-faced lie.

"Vivian, wait, please. John, what did it say?"

He told them that it said its name was Jon, it lived "here" and that his brother was scared. Kyle's parents blanched.

"I told you!" Kyle said. "I told you!"

"Then what happened, John?"

"Well, Kyle thought I was doing it and he thought I was being stupid so he said he umm, that he wanted something scary."

"And then? This is really important, John. What did the board say next?"

"This is ridiculous," John's father said. "What are you getting at? The boys were playing silly games and they acted up."

"It's more than that. We've done a little research." Kyle's dad turned back to John. "What did the board say next?"

"It said we were bad. And it was gonna do something, but we stopped playing."

"Anything else?"

John thought for a moment. "James. It said its name was James."

Kyle's mother blanched.

"What the hell is going on here?"

"Boys, you go on up to John's room and play," Kyle's father said.

The boys, of course, scurried around the corner and eavesdropped on the adults.

As it turned out, John and Kyle discovered that about 20-30 years before, James and Madeline Winchester and their two sons, Kyle and Jonathon had lived in the farmhouse. Not more than a few months after moving in, however, James had completely lost his mind and murdered the two boys in their bed with his pitchfork.

After the third time the pitchfork found its way into Kyle's closet, his mother couldn't stop thinking about the "dream" that she'd had when John had stayed over and began asking around the town about the house. The local librarian helped her research the house and discovered the story of the Wincehester family.

Of course, John's parents took far more convincing than the boys did, but as it turns out, Kyle's folks just wanted to confirm with John what Kyle had already told them. The final straw for John's parents was the news that they had already talked to the local priest and scheduled a cleansing of the house which was to be followed up by something resembling an exorcism for the house itself.

At the very least, John's parents realized that Kyle's folks were taking this seriously. They went on to explain what Kyle's mother had seen that night and other things that the boys had not yet heard.

Of course, John's parents didn't want John spending any more time at Kyle's house ... and he was fine with that. He'd had the crap scared out of him waking up to Kyle's father and the pitchfork. Particularly when Kyle told him why his parents had begun researching the house. Kyle was now terrified to go to sleep in the house, and had, in fact, been sleeping with his mother in a motel for the past week.

His father had been caught sleepwalking several times, each time found either in Kyle's room or on his way down the hall to Kyle's room, pitchfork in hand.

A few weeks later, the "exorcism" of the house was ... well, not particularly successful. The priest insisted that the entire family needed to be present at the home. Kyle refused to tell John what had happened, but the family moved into a motel immediately thereafter and quickly moved to another town. John never saw him again.

And, of course, in the true tradition of all haunted houses like that, no one ever bought the farmhouse. By the time John left home and moved away to college, he said the farmhouse had begun falling down. The town had talked about having the house bulldozed in an effort to make the property saleable ... but it hadn't happened by the time John left.

Happy Halloween!!

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:17 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 28, 2006

Continuation of The Graveyard

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the third in the series, "Haunted" being the first. And "The Haunted House" being the second.

Enjoy!

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This is a continuation of yesterday's post, The Graveyard.

A few years after my trip out to witch mountain, I'm still kind of fussing at myself for getting worked up enough that I kept imagining hands trying to grab my feet from below ... and not even a cheesy imagining zombies reaching up from their grave -- I kept imagining it from the "clean" area at the front of the cemetery. The area that hadn't yet been used for graves. What a weird little imagination I have.

So, again, near Halloween, I'm talking with some friends and I share the story of going to witch mountain.

Candice goes absolutely as white as possible. I'm talking no blood left in her face at all.

"You went WHERE?"

"Some witch mountain place out near Duncanville. It's way out in the country. It's this funky graveyard."

She just blinks at me and doesn't say anything for a minute, so I continue telling the story that I wrote here yesterday.

"You were damn lucky to get out of there," Candice says.

"What do you mean? It was the middle of the afternoon."

"Promise me you won't ever, ever go out there again."

"What is the deal?"

As it turns out, Candice's folks were highly religious and expected her to be as well. As part of her teenage rebellion stage, she did what every teenager does - went as far opposite her folks as she could think of. She joined up with ... you guessed it, a satanic cult. The very cult that used that graveyard I'd visited.

According to Candice (whose name and details I've changed here for her protection), the things that my classmate had told me about the graveyard were just the tip of the iceberg.

First, the cult did rule the graveyard after five. They'd show up (I didn't ask if they drove and made the cops let them in) at the graveyard, practice some random vandalism and then ...

... then they'd crawl into their tunnel system for the real rituals.

Evidently the most recently dug up grave was always the entrance to their tunnel system.

And, evidently, that weird thought I kept getting about having a hand reach up for me was not so weird after all. Or, depending on your point of view, it was even weirder than it had been before. The tunnel system honeycombed that whole front area.

Then Candice tells all the stuff this group was into.

Now, here's the deal before I go any further. It is a known fact that there are satanic cult groups all over the U.S. (and other countries, to be honest). Many of these groups are completely harmless and only "play" at being evil. That is, they get together and read the Satanic Bible and hold their masses that are a perversion of the Catholic mass and that's all there is to them. Other than offending a lot of people, they don't really do any harm.

Then you have groups of teenagers who get together and do things they think that satanists would do and at the same time, try to scare the crap out of each other. This often involves heavy drinking or sometimes drugs. These groups are mostly harmless.

Then there are groups that take things a step further. They look up old books, they attempt to follow old patterns from mostly forgotten ancient cults. They generally find at least a few victims to terrorize. They may go as far as to sacrifice animals. (Some Santeria practitioners, for example, will do this to chickens and perhaps goats.) Those groups can get more than a little frightening just on a personal safety level.

Then there are groups who do worse things.

The group Candice had been involved in was one of those.

Now, again, there are two types of these nasty groups. One type simply stages scenes. They'll go to elaborate lengths to make new initiates believe that they have supernatural powers -- perhaps by breaking a thick marble gravestone into pieces. There are also groups that appear to actually be able to do things they shouldn't be able to do. The problem is, most of the time you can't tell the difference between these two groups. They're both dangerous.

I can't tell you if Candice's group was one that was simply staging events or if some of the folks involved could really do some things they shouldn't be able to do. I wasn't there and no one was running scientific equipment to try to verify any of the events. So, you'll have to make up your own mind.

Evidently this group had built a series of tunnels under the "blank" part of the graveyard up near the gate. The tunnels were actually a maze. Some of the tunnels led to deadfall traps. Others took a funny turn and dumped you out on the dropoff -- and if you weren't careful, you'd end up in the river below pretty easily.

Some members of the group stayed in the tunnels during the day. They were supposed to guard the ... well, for lack of a better word ... the secret hideout from anyone not in the group as well as from the newer members who might be trying to discover secrets they shouldn't.

Candice told of bonfires in the fields (and I accidentally typo'd that as bonefires which is a much scarier image). She told me about the time one of the head guys in the group slaughtered a German Shepherd as part of some insane ritual.

She also told me that I was damn lucky, broad daylight or not, to have made it out of there without any confrontation at all. Evidently they'd leave a large group of people alone during the day, but groups of two were fair game to attack ... either a mundane fight or scare or actually try to drag you down into the tunnels.

She claimed they'd killed more than one person.

Now that's a lot of hearsay. I don't know how much of it was true, but I do know that Candice was honestly scared out of her gourd. She stopped a couple of times and had to mutter to herself that they wouldn't hurt her now. That they couldn't know if she revealed some of their secrets.

The fact that I announced I wanted to go back there to check all of this out terrified her beyond words.

Then she told me about some of the supernatural things she'd seen: simple levitations, curses, the standard scary stuff.

But then, stumbling and almost stuttering her husband told us about finding a severed goat's head in the middle of the living room, floating. Obviously still shaken, he told of how Candice had freaked when they came home and discovered it. Oh, sure, he freaked too. No one likes to see a floating goat head in their living room.

Candice said it was a sign that they had found her and had not forgotten her. It was a sign that they were coming for her. She was practically hysterical. The head fell to the floor and her husband called the police. The police recognized it for a cult calling card and said they'd keep an eye out. No one mentioned the floating part, though. Who would believe that?

In fact, over the years, they've called her repeatedly, left other pleasant calling cards. She did finally escape them ... but it took moving to Saudi Arabia for a few years before the group finally quit contacting her.

I never did get back out to that graveyard. I still want to.

And I'm curious now. Duncanville was starting to really build up in that area. Candice told me when she first joined that cult, you couldn't see anything but trees or prairie grass anywhere around. But when I saw the place, there were some condos within sight of the graveyard and signs out along the road claiming that more would be coming soon. Not that they'd even broken ground yet, but still .... If this group was really such bad news, how would they react to a residential development? Would they wreak so much havoc the developers abandon their plans? Or would they be forced to leave their secret hidey-tunnels and find a new graveyard in a more isolated area?

I don't know. But I'm still awfully curious about it.

And I never did actually promise Candice that I wouldn't go back.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:57 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 27, 2006

The Graveyard, Part One

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the third in the series, "Haunted" being the first. And "The Haunted House" being the second.

Enjoy!

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Here's one of the spooky, but slightly less ghost-infested stories.

My first year in college, I was going to my voice and diction class (I started out as a drama major, go figure) and talking to one of the kids in my class. It was probably about this time of year, weather barely turning cool -- it's Texas, remember -- and she tells me about this place near where she grew up -- maybe half an hour or so away from school. The kids called it witch mountain or ghost mountain or something. She told me that it was this awesome old, old graveyard out in Duncanville. It's one of those perfect old graveyards, way out in the country, trees all around.

And, she says, she doesn't know about haunted, but the satanists "own" this graveyard.

My interest is now beyond piqued. "Let's go out there after class," I enthuse. She's a little less sure about that, but I finally talk her into it.

As we're driving out there, she tells me that there's only one road that goes up to witch mountain. And there's a gate on that road. And every evening, there's two cops in a patrol car stationed at the gate. They'll open up the gate if you absolutely insist on going up there, she says, but they also warn you that if you break down even ten feet inside that gated area, they won't go in there to help you. No one goes in there after dark unless they're part of it or stupid.

Now, personally, I wondered why the cops didn't just start taking everyone who wanted up there after dusk in for questioning on the vandalism at the graveyard, but whatever.

She tells me about all sorts of horror stories about this graveyard. Mostly the standard types of scary stories -- these satan worshippers kill people there, hold all sorts of scary rituals. They're so bad even the cops are scared of them.

So, when we get into Duncanville and out into the hinterlands, sure enough, I see the gates open on the side of this road. They're the basic kinda triangular metal tube gates that often block off parking lots at universities and high schools. Stephanie (the girl from my class) is now visibly nervous. It's maybe noon on a Thursday and she's actually already scared to be driving up to this cemetery.

We get to the cemetery and park just across the little street. There's an open field on the side of the street where we park, all blowing prairie grass. The cemetery is bounded by trees on two sides. The other two sides, near the road (the road makes a right turn here), are bounded by an old-fashioned wrought iron fence. There's a great big wrought iron archway and gate at the entrance to the graveyard and a large expanse of grass in the front before you get to the modern graves. There's maybe four or five rows of modern graves before we start getting into folks who died in the 40s, 30s, 20s and a whole bunch from the 1800s. The cemetery is maybe about 75 yards long and about half that wide. As we walk closer to the entrance I can see why they didn't even bother to bound the north end and the east end with a fence. There's a dropoff there. A little kid might say there's a cliff on those two sides, but really, it's not quite high enough or steep enough to truly be called a cliff. Nonetheless, I can't imagine too many people would want to make that climb.

The leaves had already fallen on many of the trees, leaving some at the top level looking dead and barren -- while some whose roots were deeper and a little further down the incline still with a full "head" of green "hair."

The weirdest thing that I noticed as we approached the front gate is that some of the trees appeared to be wearing decorations. I couldn't quite see what they were but it wasn't some kid's lost kite.

The gate to the cemetery was open and I noticed a set of heavy chains and a really heavy duty lock that was used to lock the place up. All shiny new, they really stood out against the black matte and rust of the wrought iron fencing. There was a sign just outside the cemetery listing the hours it was open. It closed at five p.m. Now that seemed really weird to me. Why would you close a cemetery that early? Most of the ones I knew of were open until at least nine or ten p.m.

We walked in across the "front yard" of the cemetery -- all that blank expanse of grass just waiting to be filled with more graves. We walked quickly past the modern graves, but I admit, I got creeped out almost immediately. In addition to the multiple modern gravestones that had been broken, there was a grave that had been dug up.

Now this was not a freshly dug grave. This was not something where the coffin had just been buried. No, there were bits of flower arrangements, bits of plastic wreath frames, and a vase or two sticking out of the dirt. Also, a freshly dug grave doesn't generally stand about three feet higher than the ground level.

And there's generally not a hole big enough for a human to actually disappear into left there.

Despite my very overactive curiosity, I was seriously creeped out by that grave. I walked quickly past it after a very cursory look and went on to look at the old graves instead.

On the way to the back of the graveyard, I could see where someone had tossed plastic wreaths out into the trees, leaving them trapped there. I'd thought it was some kind of weird frisbee before.

I was fascinated by the old graves and appalled by the vandalism. But I'd really seen nothing that said satanists used this place.

Except for the dug up grave.

Oh and the really weird thing ... you know that wind whistling through the trees that you hear in horror movies? I always assumed that this was some goofy sound that Hollywood had made up and was just a stupid contrivance to signal that something scary was going to hapen.

I heard it repeatedly that day. Now if that's not enough to get an overactive imagination running wild.

Well, as we were leaving, I got seriously creeped out going across that expanse of lawn. I kept imagining someone reaching up through the ground and grabbing my feet.

Silliness right?

Tomorrow I'll tell you want happened a couple of years later, as I was telling one of my friends about my trip to witch mountain.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:36 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 19, 2006

The Haunted House

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

This is the second in the series, "Haunted" being the first.

Enjoy!

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Since I was a tiny, little thing, I've been determined to meet a ghost. Well, actually, I misspoke: I wanted to see a ghost. That still hasn't happened, but I have met a few.

As a kid, I did not understand AT ALL, how people could be afraid of ghosts. What's the big deal, I thought way back then. They're not physical beings, so they can't possibly hurt you.

I was misinformed.

Okay, I would STILL love to see a ghost. But I don't ever ever ever ever want to live in the same house as one any more.

1144 E. Corby Blvd. is a haunted house.

I lived there from 1994 until 2001. And at first, I didn't notice anything at all odd about the place, other than the fact that South Bend has some of the tiniest homes with the most oddly teeny-tiny little rooms that I've ever seen.

Between my various roommates and I during this time, we had anywhere from four to six cats in the house. Cats notice odd things, right?

It was ultimately the way the cats would act when one of us was already noticing something odd that finally let us start talking about the possibility of ghosts. I mean, no one actually ever saw anything odd happen. But you would be sitting alone in the house and you could hear people talking. Get up, look out the windows, nope, no one was near the house. Stand in the doorway to the basement -- bingo! The conversation stopped. Hmm.

The corner of the living room where I sat when I heard those conversations was the one corner every cat who ever entered the house would try very hard to avoid. Double-hmm.

Again, sitting upstairs, I would hear a kid giggling. Now, as I've said before, I collect old Fisher Price Little People. And at the time, I had a bookcase in the far corner of the basement which was filled with all the old playsets: Sesame Street, the old garage, the children's hospital, a couple of houses and so on. Well, I would hear a kid giggling and that distictive clink/thunk of a little Fisher Price car rolling off the bookshelf and hitting the astroturf floor. (I don't know, this house was the landlord's "party house" back in his college days. I guess astroturf is easy to clean up after wild parties.)

I'd look around upstairs. Every one of the cats was up here with me. Go down to the basement: sure enough, some of the pieces had been moved around and there was a car on the floor.

Well, okay, so what. The floor's not perfectly level down here and, as it turns out, we live close to a fault line which occasionally rumbles a little bit. Just a little fault line, the North/South continental divide. (Who would believe there's a fault line that close to Notre Dame? I keep waiting for the earth to just up and swallow that place!) Anyhow, things fall over. But what's with the giggling?

If this had been all there was to it, I would have totally ignored it. Maybe a ghostie, but probably just the house settling and those little earth rumbles. (But what about that giggle?)

But there was also a really nasty, nasty bad ghost living in that house. Got the distinct impression it was a 'he,' but who knows.

If you heard a serious thud from the basement, you could freaking feel the bad ghost at the same time. It was one of the creepiest times of my whole life. And the weirdest thing was that I would go downstairs and look through the whole basement -- and I couldn't find anything that had been knocked over. But the whole time I was downstairs, I could just feel that malevolence issuing from the basement. Feeling a bit stupid, I'd just head back upstairs (a little hurriedly, of course!). Again, the cats were NEVER in the basement when this would happen and they'd stay out of the basement for quite a while after.

But the worst of it, even worse than just the weird feeling -- wait. You know when you watch a really scary movie late at night, alone and you get that feeling that the serial killer is just on the other side of the door? or waiting in the next room? And you know you're being silly and stupid and it's just because of the movie that you feel all paranoid, but you can still feel it?

Well try getting that feeling at random times while walking around your family room (the basement) for no apparent reason at all. It's even creepier when you can't blame it on a scary movie. And it's even creepier when there's this bit of personality attached to the feeling. It felt male. It hated any nudity at all. (Occasionally you could feel him in other areas of the house, too.)

So anyhow, even worse than the weird feelings were the nightmares that everyone who stayed more than a couple of nights had. You know how in most dreams you have dream logic? You know it's your house, for instance, but in real life you've never lived anywhere even remotely like that?

These dreams weren't like that.

These dreams always took place in that house and if you were really lucky, you could make yourself wake up before the obvious conclusions happened.

Some examples:
I would walk into a room in the house and reach for the lightswitch. Nothing. Horror movie feeling. Overwhelming fear. Lights across the house go off. I've got to go down to the basement and mess with the circuit box. Flip at the basement stairs lightswitch, just in case I'm lucky.

I'm not.

Flashlight on, I head back into that corner of the basement where he lives. If I'm lucky, I wake up now. If I'm not, I go back into the room that used to be the landlord's darkroom. Just a flashlight. The feeling is becoming unbearable. I know he's there, in the back-most part of the basement, by the furnace, water heater, crappy toolbench and the circuit box. Under the stairs. I know he's there.

On occasion the dream goes far enough that I turn and see him briefly with the hunting knife. But I always wake up before he can strike.

The feeling lasts for a couple of days -- not just a few hours like with most nightmares. And no one after having one of those, will actually go into that back part of the basement -- especially not when one of the breakers trip. And they trip all the time in that house. I'm not saying the ghost actually tripped the breakers, but going back to the circuit box usually involved figuring out who had had the nightmares last.

The worst nightmare that I had involved me waking up in the morning and walking out of the bedroom. The house was not air conditioned, so I'd put a little window unit in the bedroom because I canNOT sleep if I get too hot. So the bedroom door was always closed during the summertime to keep that cool air in.

So in this nightmare, I walk out of the bedroom and into the living room. And into one of the worst things I've ever seen in dream, reality or movie.

Not so graphic version: my cats had been killed. Stop reading now if you're the squeamish type. Skip down until you see
*****HEY IT'S OKAY NOW*****

*

Seriously, you don't want to read this if you're easily grossed out.

*

Okay, I double-warned you. I walk out into the living room and each of the four cats I had at the time has been mutilated. Each one has a frickin' railroad spike through the chest/tummy area and is nailed to a wall. One cat to one wall. There's writing on the wall, using of course, the cats' blood. I don't remember what it said, I'm not sure I even remembered once I woke up for real. They were further bloodied, but I won't go into it.

*

*****HEY IT'S OKAY NOW*****

And we all knew that those weird nightmares that took place in that house were related to that ghost. I've never had any nightmares similar to that since.

But the last coincidence that really just confirmed things was when one of my roomates had a friend over. We were sitting on the living room floor when this friend suddenly got a weird, weird look on her face.

"Is there a ghost in this house?"

I shrugged. "I think so. There's a kid who plays with the toys down there. I can hear him giggling sometimes."

She shook her head. "No, there's some--" She shivered and paled a bit.

Now, look. I think this lady's a bit of a flake most of the time, but this was really freaky. She was sitting in that spot where the cats wouldn't go -- above the spot in the basement that I thought of as the ghost's. And it was obvious from her reaction that she wasn't doing this just for her "rep" or for attention. You don't turn that color for fun. And I never saw her do anything like it ever again. (Of course, she didn't set foot in that house again, either.)

"What's the matter?

"There's something wrong in your basement."

My roommate shot me a look. I nodded. The bad ghost had been very active lately.

"There's a bad ghost down there, too."

About six months and two roommates later (I'm a little more stubborn), I finally had a roommate who was himself so scary that the bad ghost quieted (or left, I was never sure which).

How did Justin get the ghost to leave? He played techno-goth every night. He watched more horror movies than any human on the face of planet. And anime. The really, really violent anime.

I don't know if he scared the scary ghost or if he just satiated the ghost's need for violence.

And that's the story of the bad ghost. And that's why I no longer think that ghosts are harmless. I don't think they could physically hurt me ... but that one taught me they can make you hurt yourself just from the paranoia you start to get!

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:05 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 13, 2006

Haunted

To get everyone in the mood for Halloween, I'm reposting the four ghost stories I have experience with over the next couple of weeks. These are all true stories, so far as I know. Several of them I have personal experience with; one happened to a guy I worked with as he and I discussed whether or not there was really, truly, a ghost where we worked.

Enjoy!

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My cousin used to tell me terrifying ghost tales. I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In second or third grade, I checked out every book in the public library on ghost stories and hauntings.

I'm not some wishy-washy, new-age, granola-eating hippy who thinks ghosts are real.

But I do think ghosts are real even though I've never seen one.

I have been around a few ... as the meme the other day reminded me.

In college I worked for a sub shop in Texas -- Gino's Subs, a properly New York-Italian sub shop. The shop out at the mall was in an outlying building rather than the mall proper, right next door to the movie theatre. I don't know a whole lot about the building's history, but I know it was haunted.

The first few run-ins with the ghost were just odd little things. I couldn't quite explain the things that happened, but I was prepared to think it could have just been a fluke. During a really busy lunch one day, I saw the soda fountain do something bizarre. There's a sticker where you can label what pop should come out of that spigot and over the sticker is a piece of clear plastic to help keep that sticker legible longer. The clear plastic piece over the Sprite suddenly shot off the machine and landed about ten feet away. Not too odd, there's got to be some pressure on the plastic to get it to pop into place. But that pressure should have made it pop forward more than it did. It was more like it moved out about an inch forward and then moved ten feet sideways, not diagonal. Weird, but these things happen.

Another lunch rush the lid to the toothpick dispenser shoots straight up in the air, nearly hits the ceiling and then lands on the counter. Lined up perfectly with the toothpick dispenser. And somehow, tucked neatly under the little "arms" that hold the dispensed toothpick.

Okay that was really freaky, but still, could have just been a fluke.

What sealed it was the night that John and I were working the shop alone. We'd closed the store at 11 p.m. as usual and were working on cleaning up. I went over to the old Wurlitzer juke box and perused the 45s (yeah, this was the late 80s). I popped in a quarter and picked "Mandolin Rain" and "Our House." John calls from behind the counter, "What'd you pick?"

I tell him and he likes "Our House," but violently hates "Mandolin Rain."

"Our House" plays first. Cool. John has me call out the name of every song on the machine so he can pick some out. "Ooooh, I love 'West End Boys.'"

The next song to play? "West End Boys."

Hmmm. Maybe the jukebox shares John's taste in music. Maybe it's not wired right. Whatever.

A third song plays. Huh? Two songs for a quarter ... and a bonus song. Okay, the jukebox is a bit eccentric. Must be the wiring.

But the third song is some old fifties tune. I think it's Elvis, but I can't read the label on the spinning 45. John pops his head out "What song is that?"

"I have no idea."

"But you picked it."

"I didn't pick it. I think it's Elvis." Whatever it is, it's a sappy 50s love song and we're both glad when it's over.

The radio still doesn't come back on as we're treated to an encore performance of "West End Boys."

Very odd, but we figure the wiring on this juke is just old and goofy. I leave a note for the manager to tell her the jukebox guy ought to take a look at the thing.

Over the course of the next few weeks, any time John and I are working alone together, we're treated to "West End Boys" a couple of times a night. After the store has closed. Never when there's customers and we can safely assume that someone is messing with us. And when we close at night, I usually do the front -- near the juke -- and John does behind the counter. There's no way he can be doing it or I'd see him near the juke.

When the jukebox man finally comes in, I happen to be there. "Hey, make sure to take that Elvis record out of there, okay?"

"I don't think there's one in here." He runs through his list. "No, there's no Elvis in here."

"Yeah there is, I saw the thing." And I run through the whole story for him. He literally takes every single 45 out of the juke box. I watch him.

No Elvis 45 is in there. No funky 50s 45 is in there.

In fact, there's no 45 in there with the funky color of blue that I saw that night. You know, that old funky blue with the silver writing that used to be on a lot of records from the 50s and 60s. Nothing like that is in the machine.

WEIRD.

But the really weird thing doesn't happen until John quits. I mean, come on, it's a sub shop and college kids can do better, even in 1989, than $3.85 an hour.

So, I'm closing the store one night with a new kid. She's cleaning out front and I'm cleaning behind the counter. She's barely started sweeping the floor and hasn't made it anywhere near the juke box yet. John's been gone for about a week.

"West End Boys" starts up.

The new kid's head pops up. "When'd you put money in the juke box?"

"I didn't." I don't bother to explain at first. I mean, it sounds crazy to say that a ghost just likes that song. Actually, John and I had a running joke that the ghost had a crush on John and that's why it played the Elvis love song and John's favorite song.

"West End Boys" plays again. And now, I get this weird feeling of query and sadness. I don't know how else to explain it other than I could feel the question in the air. Umm, I'm kinda thinking that the ghost really did have a crush on John.

The song begins a third time. A fourth time.

Finally, the new kid is kinda freaking out. Especially when I explain the whole ghost thing.

When the song starts for the fifth time, and that sense of question and sadness has just gotten more and more intense with every iteration of the song, I finally say out loud, "I'm sorry. John doesn't work here anymore. He quit. I'm sorry."

This time the radio comes on after the 45 finishes.

I never saw the ghost, but me, John and the new kid knew it was there. The manager of the store knew about it, too.

I always felt sorry for that ghost. It was so obvious that it liked John and it was terribly sad when he left.

But that was a nice ghost. Later I'll tell you about the one I lived with who was definitely NOT a nice ghost.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:28 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 3, 2006

The Cleaning Book

My mother liked to keep a clean house. She didn't work until after I was in high school and my sister was in junior high, so she chose keeping a sparkling-clean house as her job. However, like most people, she really really really hated cleaning house.

So, she had plenty of books to help her figure out how to best manage her time ... Do I Dust or Vacuum First? ... Clutter's Last Stand ... I am not making these up ... I wish i were!

She went on a kick. Organized everything in the house. Threw away all of the boxes to all of our board games. Used a stencil (yes, she went out and bought an alphabet stencil for this little endeavor) and used a magic marker to STENCIL the name of the game and its number onto the back of the board. The number corresponded to a folder wherein she either cut up the game box to "rescue" the directions for the game ... or she photocopied the directions. All directions were encased in a nice plastic paper protector. All game pieces were ensconced in a crappy metal box of drawers which she apparently bought wholesale because she used several of them to also organize Dad's garage workbench, spending a week sorting out different kinds of nails and screws and nuts and bolts.

She instituted The Box ... duhnduhnDUUUUUUUHN.

If you left something out in the living room or dining room ... really, anywhere she didn't want to see it ... it was taken to The Box ... duhnduhnDUUUUUUUHN ... and you couldn't get anything out of said box until Saturday from ten until noon.

There was also the dusting "game" wherein Mom hid pennies in little nooks she thought we would probably not dust. Supposedly this made dusting a nice "scavenger hunt" for us.

Perhaps if you're FIVE, this might work. I was 15. So, I let my 11 year old sister do all the dusting ... which ticked Mom off, because all of the books said that children just LOVED this game. I once spent an idle Saturday afternoon attempting to explain to her all the subtle differences between teenagers and children, sadly, this advanced parenting lesson was quite lost on her. I even pulled out the "How to Deal with Your Unruly Adolescent" books that she had purchased and "hidden" in her bathroom cabinet, helpfully highlighted. (Presumably while she was using the ... ahhh, facility.) I pointed out some of her highlighted passages and insisted that there were large differences in handling teens and children. I then attempted to point out that I was actually a very well-behaved teenager and she need to quit treating me like a little daemon.

This didn't go over well, logic not being my mother's strong point.

Oh, and actually ... I really was a great teenager. I never once snuck out of the house, I never got detention at school, was always home in time for curfew, never tried drugs ...
wait ... if I continue talking about what a hideous goody-two-shoes I was, everyone will leave.
Umm, and I got sent once to the Group W bench.

At any rate, Mom's solution to my lack of interest in the scavenger hunt dusting was to fold up dollar bills for my sister to find and for me to get ticked off over. That worked. I got 25 pennies in my room and she got $3.62??

However, her stunning cleaning/OCD achievement was The Cleaning Book.

This was a notebook of epic proportions. A D-ring 3-inch binder filled with the thickest page protectors I'd ever seen. She whipped out this tome of terror one Saturday morning and informed us both that there would be NO fun to be had until we had done our Saturday Chores.

Umm. What Saturday Chores, I asked. We'd had plenty of chores before. But no Saturday Chores.

Mom then places The Cleaning Book on the kitchen table. With an ominous thud. She opens The Cleaning Book.

Safely ensconced in these sheet protectors with teeny tiny pockets were bits of notecards. Approximately 3 inches wide by 2 inches high, there was a highlighter-width colour swath across the top of each one. Colour coding? She cut apart all these notecards to get to this size and then COLOUR CODED THEM????

What to clean daily.
Twice a week.
Every two weeks.
Every month.
Every three months.
Once a year.

Down to when to dust the tops of the baseboards and doorframes. When to take off the grills on the air exchange and dust them off. When to wipe clean the lightswitch plates. And the lightswitch plate COVERS! (Oddly enough, we never did have plastic over the coucn and recliners ... I always wondered why her obsession didn't go that far.)

So my mother has an extra page in the front of this book for me and one for my sister. She shows us our pages. She hands us all the little-bitty notecards from our pages.

These are our Saturday chores. This confetti that she is handing out is what we are suppposed to do before we can play, read, go outside, call a friend, whatever. When we finish each notecard-chore, we are to put it back on our page and she will put them back in the proper places later on.

But the crazy thing was, she could NOT comprehend why we both squawked about this.

As I said, we had chores we were supposed to do. But we'd never had a list sprung on us in such a short time and told we couldn't do ANYTHING else until this confetti was finished. Very disconcerting, particularly when you've got your whole day planned out already.

I think we complained so bitterly that The Cleaning Book only lasted a few weeks. But, OH, what weeks they were!

I still hate dusting.

Though I did one time find a nice envelope filled with 3 $20s when dusting my first apartment. Of course, I had LOST that envelope about 3 months before ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:06 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 23, 2006

Lay My Head Down,

There are some days, particularly as the summer begins to tire and weaken and give way to fall and cold and slumber ... when lyrics seem to hold more sway than conversation. Times when my thoughts all turn to music ... written by others.

Of course, those days seem more frequent when I get new and thought-provoking music. Such is the new Indigo Girls CD, Despite Our Differences. On the first listen of the CD, I thought ... yeah, it's them ... more of the same. Then I listened to it instead of having it on as background for work ... and I'm instantly thrown back into introspection and being "lost in the moment." (Yeah, I'm tossing Eminem into a post about Indigo Girls, what about it?)

Lay My Head Down ... Emily Saliers

Oh the party's kicked up a few notches
Look at us getting loose
She leans back against the wall and she watches
Tugging her collar like it might be a noose
And everyone's tied to their thing
To their past or their drink or the date that they bring
I just get tired all of a sudden taking it in
And I want to lay my head down on you
Because you're the only solid thing in this room
A roomful of changes, strangers, illusion, confusion
I speak from my heart but I'm not really sure if it's true
I want to lay my head down on you
Oh they say don't waste too much time planning
Or you'll get the rug ripped out
And the only way you'll be satisfied
Is learning to live without
But some plan for the kingdom of heaven
And some take their chances and bet lucky seven
I don't know what to believe I just show up and breathe anymore
And I wanna lay my head down on you
Because you're the only solid thing in this room
A roomful of dressers, professors, lookers, hookers
If I don't get out I'll do something I don't wanna do
And I wanna lay my head down on you
Was it so long ago
That we sat and talked in your car
Your things were all packed
And the place you were headed was not really that far
Years later I think
That I would've been much more alive
To have taken you up on your offer and taken that drive
Well everything that's come before us leads to where we are now
And that's simply, I know, so why can't I let go of the feeling
That I'm lost somehow
Just a ghost looking in
Out of my own life just visiting
In search of a body to have and to hold and to keep and to sleep
I wanna lay my head down on you
Because you're the only solid thing in this room
A room full of missed chance, slow dance, cold fate, heartache
I showed up for a party and saw my life story full view
And I wanna lay my head down on you.

I love the whole song ... but the lyrics that immediately capture my attention every time:

A roomful of dressers, professors, lookers, hookers
If I don't get out I'll do something I don't wanna do

Yeah. Exactly.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:34 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 18, 2006

El Condor Pasa

Thinking of Simon & Garfunkel and the spaces in between word and action and thought, I had to remember the summer that Simon & Garfunkel held their renunion tour. It was the same summer that I spent with my aunt and uncle. I absolutely idolized them. They loved Tolkien, they loved history, they loved exploring the area around them ... and while there were certainly rules of behaviour, they were reasonable rules ... rules I could understand.

My aunt and uncle got me a book for my birthday every year, a tradition that I thought was the absolute coolest thing ever. I still have the copy of The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl that they got me for my birthday one year ... and I can remember my aunt worrying that perhaps I didn't want a book every year. Geek-in-training that I was, I hastened to reassure her that not only did I enjoy getting a book from them every year, I looked forward to it! In fact, eventually, my aunt got so busy with her own kids, her career and the mundanities of life that I didn't get a book any more and I was terribly sad to see the tradition fade away and be forgotten.

Yeah, it was a magical summer all the way around, so far as I was concerned. I was about 14 and I had been "hired" to watch my cousin Matthew and the newborn Chris while my aunt finished up her dissertation and began preparing to search for a job as a professor of theology.

Umm, yeah. These were probably not the best circumstances to have an idyllic summer, but I didn't know that at 14. I thought I would babysit Matt during the day, my aunt said she'd mostly take care of the infant and I'd get to earn some cash and have a great summer all in one fell swoop. I had no idea how much stress a dissertation caused. I had no idea how difficult it was to "babysit" a kid while mommy was still home. So, I both love that summer and it was something of a nightmare as well.

I re-discovered Tolkien that summer in my aunt and uncle's giant one volume copy of The Lord of the Rings. I mean, that sucker had the coolest typeface ... great illustrations ... and the smell ... sorry, got carried away. I guess I caught the bibliophilia that summer. I attempted to read A Tale of Two Cities that summer in preparation for my English class in the coming school year. I say attempted because more often than not, I fell asleep while trying to learn how to be an industrious little English geek. (This was, actually, a "skill" I would simply hone further during my undergraduate studies ... wonder if it's the ADHD ... hmmm.)

One of the most memorable events of that summer, however, was when we all heard that Simon & Garfunkel were coming to Milwaukee. This was HUGE. I mean HUGE. I'd never been so anxious to go to a concert in my life. (And I'd not been to any concerts at all yet.)

The tickets were insanely expensive for the time. Not that I'm surprised. Concerts are far more expensive to hold than most people think ... and given that they were touring only a few select cities, the price per concert was going to be high. My aunt, uncle and I got very excited, but in the end, we were all disappointed and wound up not going. After all, they were living with the debts caused by going to graduate school and having two kids ... and I sure didn't have a lot of money. Naturally I was more than willing to give up my entire summer's salary to pay for us all to go. However, we all knew that the instant my mom heard I'd done that, we'd ALL be in trouble.

It was also the summer that I learned how to do research in a university library. My aunt had finally enrolled my cousin in a montessori preschool as we ALL got stressed out by the attempts to keep my young cousin occupied, the youngest cousin quiet, and allow my poor graduate student aunt to finish working on that albatross of a dissertation. (Not that she was struggling ... just that ALL dissertations are albatrosses!) A few times my aunt seemed to feel bad for dragging me to the library so often, but put me in a big building with a bunch of books and trust me, even at 14, I'll keep myself occupied and then some.

The first project I gave myself was to research the Civil War in the U. S. a bit more. I headed over to the rows and rows and rows and rows of catalog cards. Found the batch of cabinets marked Subject. Wandered down to the Cs. Nothing!

There were NO cards in that catalog marked "Civil War"!!! Could Marquette University truly have no books on the Civil War? There's no way! And so, I learned that summer that up north, them weird yankees called it "The War Between the States" instead of the "Civil War" because it wasn't until I began looking at "War" instead of "Civil War" that I found anything at all.

I discovered books so old I was afraid to take them out of the stacks. I relished the smell of the seemingly "ancient" texts.

I became convinced that summer that I had been born into the wrong family somehow. I'd been convinced for years and years that I didn't belong in the family I was born into ... but I was sure that summer that I'd been meant to be my aunt's child instead of my mother's daughter. We seemed to share so many things in common. Books, history, learning ... a love of exploration and discussion. Both my aunt and my uncle seemed eager to teach me, to learn with me, to engage with me.

I was poised on the brink of asking them if I could live with them ... a serious discussion that terrified me as I knew what kind of turmoil it would create. And then a small series of incidents, all of them mild in and of themselves, made me re-think it all.

First, I asked my uncle to play chess with me one evening (having just discovered chess, I was still trying to learn the game). If I remember correctly, this was one of the few times that my uncle was a bit busy and my aunt had some free time. With all the tact of a young teen, I insisted that I wanted to play with my uncle and not my aunt ... the reason being ... and I caught myself before I could actually utter this "reason" aloud, was that I thought my uncle might actually ratchet his level of play down to keep me "in the game" while not totally throwing the game to me. My aunt, however, I assumed would play at her top ability ... and I didn't think I'd learn as much from a fast killing. They both insisted that I tell them why I thought I should play my uncle and not my aunt and I was at a complete loss for words. It would be rude for me to say that my uncle might let me win or at least let me keep up a bit, whereas I was certain my aunt would show me no quarter at all. I sat there, mute, looking from one face to the other. Stuck. And in that moment, I stopped reacting to them and instead reacted to how I often felt trapped at home with my parents. I couldn't speak. I finally just ducked my head, shook my head, and put the chess set away despite their attempts to re-engage me.

The second incident was a pivotal one to me, but it may be hard for anyone else to really understand. My smallest cousin was in his little automatic swing. My toddler cousin was not supposed to touch the swing which was not the world's sturdiest and most stable contraption ever. However, naturally, little Matthew wanted to push his brother on the swing. He wanted to play with his brother and teach him to enjoy the swings. So, one early evening before dinner, young Matt kept pushing his brother on the swing and making the whole machine move. My aunt was trying to finish something up before making dinner and before her husband came home. I was trying to earn my keep, afraid that now that Matt was going to preschool, my aunt would send me back home for the rest of the summer, unneeded. So, I tried to get the toddler to stop.

You know what happens when you tell a toddler who really wants to play that he can't do something? They scream. They yell. They do it anyway, more clumsily than if you'd left them alone.

Naturally, I told my cousin to not touch the swing machine. He screeched and pushed his brother. His brother squealed as he'd been more asleep than awake.

And, predictably, my aunt flew away from her nasty Xerox computer and her dissertation and came bellowing into the dining room area where the three children were supposed to be staying out of her hair and she yelled at me. Something about sending me to my room if I didn't leave Matt alone.

All she knew was that here she was, trying to get this damn dissertation done and that I had made the older boy holler which in turn made the younger boy holler. All I knew was that I was trying to watch the boys and keep the older one from doing stuff he wasn't supposed to and my aunt suddenly went ballistic on me. On me!

I was shocked. I was certain in that moment that both my mom and my aunt were given to irrational behaviour. And, obviously, my aunt didn't want me living there anymore. I was simply in the way, not helping out at all.

Now, I don't know that my aunt was thinking any of that. With adult eyes I can certainly see why my aunt reacted the way that she did. And, of course, she also didn't know about the irrational chaos that I'd been exposed to for the last 14 years, so she had no idea how an innocent and natural explosion like that might affect me.

For the rest of the summer I simply tried to stay out of everyone's way. I tried to keep the boys relatively quiet, but I no longer pushed them when they argued, letting Matt run to his mom when he didn't like what I had to say. It didn't stop my aunt's frustrations since she was interrupted almost as much as if I hadn't been there at all.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:07 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 17, 2006

Crayon Rosary

The first time I saw a "real" Simon & Garfunkel album ... an "original" album from one of the first printings, I was babysitting for the Hamptons, a family I'd just started sitting for and loved to pieces. The album I first played on their stereo system was Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and I was utterly hooked. I had the stereo on so softly, I could barely hear "Homeward Bound," "The Dangling Conversation" and the rest of the songs. But I utterly panicked when "Silent Night" came on. Somehow, the television was bleeding sound through to the stereo! I could hear a news announcer over the song. Obviously, I had done something wrong with the stereo. Had I broken their stereo system?

Panicking that I had somehow touched a wrong button somewhere, I began systematically looking through the whole stereo, looking at the back of the machines trying to figure out how the television could possibly be connected and "bleeding through" to the stereo.

Eventually, I looked at the album cover and discovered the name of the song was actually "Silent Night / 7 o'clock News."

Oh. So, you mean I didn't break the stereo. The song was supposed to do that?

I was enthralled. What a freaking cool concept!

Despite the fact that I grew up in the time of Air Supply, Duran Duran, Twisted Sister, Guns N Roses and WhiteSnake, I found that I usually was more fascinated by Simon & Garfunkel; Peter, Paul & Mary; the Kingston Trio; the Monkees and the Kinks than I was the music that my friends were interested in. (Except perhaps, U2 from Rattle and Hum and earlier ... and R.E.M. ... I think those were the height of my "cool" musical interests.) Don't get me wrong, I had a copy of Purple Rain and several Air Supply albums, but the music that really shaped who I was, was much older.

So I'm not really sure why I didn't rip my collected Simon & Garfunkel collection to my computer before today. But in the last week, I've realized that I really wanted to go back to that mental space that I occupied so often as a teenager, listening to Simon & Garfunkel with my huge headphones on ... watching the lights on my stereo flicker, up and down the equalizer, green and red dancing in time to the music, watching the needle bob and weave on the record.

More often than not, I'd turn the light off in my room and watch the stereo deliver the music and think about the lyrics, losing myself in the music, the moment, owning it, feeling like I could exist in that space forever, never letting it go.

"Bleeker Street" ... "Sounds of Silence" ... "Blessed" ... "Kathy's Song" ... "Richard Corey" ... "I Am A Rock" ... my own list goes on and on.

Songs that defined me and helped me learn to stand on my own. To learn that rebellion could also encompass responsibility and not simply pointlessness.

"I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail ... I'd rather be a hammer than a nail ... I'd rather be a forest than a street ... I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet ..."

"And the train is gone suddenly / On wheels clicking silently / Like a gently tapping litany,
And he holds his crayon rosary / Tighter in his hand."

"Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit.
Blessed is the lamb whose blood flows.
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on,
O lord, why have you forsaken me?
I got no place to go,
Ive walked around soho for the last night or so.
Ah, but it doesnt matter, no.

Blessed is the land and the kingdom.
Blessed is the man whose soul belongs to.
Blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers.
O lord, why have you forsaken me?
My words trickle down, like a wound
That I have no intention to heal.

Blessed are the stained glass, window pane glass.
Blessed is the church service makes me nervous
Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers.
O lord, why have you forsaken me?
I have tended my own garden
Much too long."

I think, ultimately, I was drawn to everything in Simon & Garfunkel which is encapsulated in this single song. Concern for others. The differences between religion, spirituality, action and belief. The spaces between what we say, what we do and what we believe.

Songs like this always made me think about the spaces in between, where we live. And how what we do and say affects others in ways that we may never know.

I think I'll be listening to this stuff for a while again. And contemplating those spaces in between ... those spaces that we don't always want to think about.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:22 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 8, 2006

SF/F

Top 50 SF/F (Science Fiction/ Fantasy) Books from some random list somewhere.
Bold = read it ...
Italics = I made a comment about it

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert ... started it ... got bored
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson

7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe ... started it ... got bored
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. ... read it ... hated it ... poor writing ... good ideas ... i'm picky
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett ... for some really unknown reason Pratchett drives me straight up the wall ... my other half loves him and we own everything he's ever written, I think ... but I can't stand him.
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey ... got bored ... also, I think these are the books that have some of the same names as Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series ... which just made reading these too freaking weird
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson ... got bored (i'm seeing a pattern here)
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven

40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock ... got bored
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks ... got bored

49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer
(list from Epic-Fantasy.com)

Eh, this list is okay. There are, in my opinion, some big deals left off of here and some crap left on.

In no particular order, I would recommend:
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and for sentimental reasons both Rolling Stones and Space Cadet ... all by Robert Heinlein. Also, Citizen of the Galaxy.
Melissa Scott's Jazz, Trouble and Her Friends and also Night Sky Mine
Elizabeth Moon ... haven't come across a bad book yet ... but I hear her earliest stuff is a bit odd.
Neuromancer, Count Zero, MonaLisa Overdrive ... William Gibson
Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon ... Neal Stephenson
All of the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz... it's fun to read them in historical order instead of i order of publication.
The Last Herald-Mage series by Mercedes Lackey ... she quickly became a formula writer, but this trilogy is excellent. (Except you can *almost* skip book two.)
Lord of the Rings, of course ... goes without saying.
Chronicles of Narnia as well.
Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper.
Clarke always seemed a bit over-rated to me. Asimov was all right ... but I think I read him too early ... I was in third grade at the time ... seemed a bit dull.
Bradbury is another one ... great ideas, crummy follow-through ... I slept through most of Dandilon wine and Farenheit 451 ... even though I liked the concepts and ideas.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle ... actually that whole series is quite good.
Bard Morgan Llewellyn.

And, of course ... I've Heard Coyote Howl. By me. Yeah, I know. I'll sell you the PDF for $5.00 if you email me and have a PayPal account. About 300 pages of computer science fiction (not really cyberpunk, but not space sci-fi either), southwestern American Indian Coyote myths, the life and times of James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan all rolled up into one novel. Try it, you'll like it.

And that's my Sci-Fi/Fantasy rundown.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:31 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 29, 2006

Thunderbird

As I was surfing today, I came across a post happy about rain in West Texas ... and I remembered living in Austin ... the beauty of the thunderstorms.

I can't resist sharing the rather stream-of-consciousness comment I left there:

I miss the thunder boomers. Big, old crashing thunder ... the trees blowing in the wind before the rains begin ...

The sky starting to go grey, then black, the daylight turned to a dim dusk, the trees showing the undersides of their leaves, white, as the winds blow ... the first fat drops of rain striking slowly and loud enough to hear the individual impacts on the cement sidewalk ... or the hard packed and cracked clay-dirt. Watching the drop penetrate and spread.

Flash of light, head snapping up just in time to catch the tail end of the jagged tear in the sky and then ... the low rumbling that goes on for seconds, minutes.

Running pell-mell for the house, running through the house while mom's yelling at me to not run, tearing open the sliding glass door and watching the storm from the comfort of the screened in porch.

Thunder crashing ... rain now pouring from the sky in torrents of white noise, the grass instantly standing taller and already more green ... the beautiful contrast of the dark thunderclouds, dark black-grey and the light underside of the leaves.

Feeling the cold mist of the rain dissipated through the metal screens ... the tangy taste of the metal ... the acrid smell of the lightning jumping from cloud to cloud and cloud to earth. Kindergartener's shaky and jagged line of lemon yellow across a crayon black and grey sky ... count ... one mississippi ... two missisippi ... dang, that one was CLOSE! The breeze ... the smell of fresh rain ... of things growing. A child's feeling of daring the world ... mom's fears that the lightning would seek me out and strike me dead before her eyes ... a joyous rebellion and invincibility and independence ... all dancing together with the lightning to the beat of the thunder and the melody of the rain.

I could spend hours just watching. They never lasted long enough. And sadly, in Indiana, we just don't get 'em like that.

Specifically written for Red ... both for asking me to write every day ... and for giving me a great topic.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:57 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 28, 2006

Redneck Penny Loafers

It's been a long couple of weeks. So I give you my tuff guy picture in which I am both tuff and taking care of my little sister, all at once.

Tuff li'l thang

Mom made me that vest ... fortunately the skirt she made me will NEVER appear on this blog. I think she made me wear the skirt all of twice, so she could take pictures of her prowess as a seamstress. I insisted that cowboys wore JEANS not jean SKIRTS. Sheesh.

We were living in Austin and I wanted to be a cowboy. My grandfather, as I understood it at the time, was a cowboy. What I discovered later on is that while he did work in the cattle industry, he was a buyer of cattle for Armor meat packing ... and he wasn't really a "cowboy" in the strictest sense. However, I begged to go to work with him one summer day because I was certain he was a real cowboy. He kept telling me that he was not a real cowboy, but I was positive ... who else but a cowboy would spend that much time with cows??? And besides, while he didn't live in in Texas like a real cowboy, Oklahoma was close ... probably close enough to work.

As we drove into his work, he began shooting down my ideas one by one. He did not ride a horse. (He did have on a cowboy hat, though ... and boots.) We drove a bit further. There were no horses at work. This I refused to believe for several, several miles. Finally, he got it through my thick head that there really weren't any horses at the "ranch."

"Can I ride a cow, then?"

Well, I mean, hey ... if I couldn't ride a horse, cows were kinda horse shaped, right?

It was several more miles before he convinced me that I would not be riding a cow, either.

Apparently cows, according to Grandpa, are too stupid to be ridden like horse. Any thought of ever being a vegetarian completely went out the window at that point. To my mind, cows will always be too stupid to be anything but meat. (Not meant to be offensive to vegetarians ... just the way I was raised.)

It was the summer after that little episode when Mom made my cowboy outfit ... to go with the six-shooter that Grandma had already gotten me. A trip to Shepler's later led to not one, but TWO cowboy hats and a pair of boots.

Now, my mother was convinced that I would not become some li'l redneck chile. So, anytime I began to evidence a touch of an accent, Mom and Dad both corrected my pronunciation. Repeatedly. And the cowboy boots and cowboy hats were definitely NOT to be everyday wear. In fact, the cowboy boots weren't even leather ... Mom insisted that I get the bluejeans boots. Now, I was just as enthralled with them as with "regular" boots ... largely because the boots had a "back pocket" in which I could put a penny. I guess they were really redneck penny loafers of a sort.

At any rate, I certainly thought I was more than cool in that outfit. Ready to save the whole world.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:29 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 24, 2006

Barnett & Scott

One of my most favourite Sci-Fi writers ever is Melissa Scott. She's got some amazing books, Night Sky Mine, Trouble and Her Friends, The Jazz, Dreaming Metal. She writes both SF and cyber books ... and I say cyber without the punk, because not everything in that sub-genre is truly punk. Trouble and Her Friends leans toward cyberpunk, while Night Sky Mine and The Jazz are less punk and more "just" computer driven. (All the while having excellent plots and delightful characterization ... I can't read a book if there's not some well-drawn characters in it.)

My partner, A, had introduced me to Melissa Scott in 1999 or early 2000. I think I started with Trouble or maybe it was Dreaming Metal. But, I was well and truly hooked. You see, I grew up reading every Robert Heinlein book I could get my hands on and while I'd read all of his stuff and little bits and spurts and forays into other SF, I'd kind of wandered off into more historical fantasy books like Kurtz's Deryni series (and yet I'd missed the Barnett/Scott books somehow). SF had gotten too far away from story and characterization for me. So reading Gibson and Sterling and Stephenson was getting me back to SF ... and discovering Melissa Scott really sealed it.

In fact, I was chatting with some online friends, the Banshees, and was telling them (in 2001) that my cancer had returned and that I was to have a bone marrow transplant. Everyone was asking what books I liked to read, trying to get a care package together so that I would have something to do during my minimum stay of 21 days for the transplant. Dawn was ecstatic when I listed Melissa Scott first (or nearly so ... honestly, I don't really remember the list of authors and books now). Turns out Dawn knew Melissa, contacted her friend and next thing I knew, I had some autographed books from one of my favourite authors. I was over the moon! Ooops, so to speak, I mean.

I got through the transplant in just 17 days instead, and the books were a big help ... even though my attention span during those 17 days was about that of a hyperactive gnat on crack.

So, when we were in Texas last week, we went to Half Price Books, my Mecca. They don't have Half Price Books quite this far north, and I'd been looking forward to showing that chain off to A while we were down in Texas. Naturally, we came home with a slew of Scott books that we'd not been able to find locally.

Today, A was surfing the web looking to see what new books Scott had written recently. She discovered this first:

Melissa Scott is a science fiction author from Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied history at Harvard College and Brandeis University, and earned her PhD. in comparative history. She lived with her partner, author Lisa A. Barnett, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire until the latter's death on May 2, 2006.

From Wikipedia

I was shocked.

I've never been one to much pay attention to "celebrity's" lives, but this still completely shocked me.

� Death   Fantasy writer Lisa A. Barnett, born 1958, died this morning [May 2, 2006] at her home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from brain tumor. She and her partner Melissa Scott published three fantasy novels together, The Armor of Light (1988), Point of Hopes (1995), and Point of Dreams (2001), the last of which won a Lambda Literary Award in 2002.

From Locus Online

Turns out, Melissa Scott hasn't written prodigiously lately because her partner has been battling breast cancer for the past three years. And despite one hell of a battle, the cancer metastasized and moved into the brain.

They were together for 27 years.

I go in for my five year checkup in August ... five years since the bone marrow transplant ... and I hope for yet another clean bill of health. I guess I'm officially in remission or officially "cured" if I'm clean this August.

I think of Lance Armstrong, who grew up just a town or two over from me in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, who kicked a really serious cancer right back in the same spot that it tried to kick him. Me and Lance went to the same hospital for our major treatment ... and within just a couple of years of each other, I think. I can remember my mom telling me when she read about this upstart boy in Plano riding his bike around and winning contests, asking me why I didn't do something "special" like that. I just continued writing my short stories and beginnings of novels and didn't comment.

I think of Melissa Etheridge kicking the cancer back.

And I really mourn that sometimes no matter how hard you kick back ... no matter how hard you struggle and fight and do everything you're supposed to do ... sometimes it just doesn't matter. Sometimes the dice or the cards or the random number generator just doesn't roll your way.

I have never met Melissa Scott nor her partner, Lisa Barnett, and I have the feeling I'm the poorer for it. But it's amazing how deeply I can mourn someone I've never met.

I've added a link to Melissa's blog in the sidebar of the main page ... I'll get around to adding it on all the pages later on. It's well worth the read ... and it's not all depressing, either. In fact, if you enjoy the way I wrote some of the travel posts, I think you'll really dig Melissa's blog as well. I laughed completely outloud several times. She's got an amazing sense of comedic timing.

The last thing I expected this evening was a sucker punch like this. But I imagine it's only a pale reflection of the sucker punch felt by those who actually knew and loved Lisa.

What an odd and random world we live in.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:15 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 12, 2006

Candy Bar

I'm going to tell you a wee bit of a story. The names and places are mostly all changed up, but the essential details are true. I was reminded of this story today during my vacation ... because today I stopped in the tiny little sandwich shop where I worked when I first moved out of the house at 19. (Stick with the story ... there's a murder in this one ....)

Once upon a time, there was this awesome little sandwich shop chain called Gio's. The owner, Giovanni, of course, was a refugee from Hell's Kitchen, but had been in Texas long enough to have lost most of his accent, if not his pattern of dress and love of fast, hot cars. He was married and had four kids, so naturally he was a family man to the core. (Uh-huh ... I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, too.)

There were two Gio's in Arlington, another in Coppell, and a brand new one in Dallas. Things were beautiful.

The first time I met Giovanni, I had been working in the original store for just a few weeks. All I knew was this big dude holding a young girl walked into the mostly deserted restaurant and asked for "a bit of pickle." Now, we sold pickles, half pickles and quarter pickles. So, I asked him if he wanted a half or a quarter of a pickle. He replied that he just wanted a bit of pickle. He cocked his head toward his kiddo, "For her," he said.

Wanting to get everything exactly right, I decided he meant a quarter pickle, sliced him one, handed it to him and then moved down to the register and rang him up. "Sir? Sir, that'll be 27 cents, please."

Richie, our store manager, about dropped his jaw to the floor, and I'm certain that his eyes popped out of his head, hit his thick, military grade glasses and then popped back in to their sockets.

"You rang him up????" Richie exclaimed.

"Well, yeah, he ordered a bit of pickle."

"Do you know who this is?"

Gio, waved Richie aside, chuckling. "No, no, no ... she was doing her job. It's already rung up, let me pay."

That was the first meeting with the infamous Gio. I quickly learned that I had been lucky. Sometimes Gio would scream at someone for the same thing. Sometimes he'd threaten them. Sometimes he'd fire them. He had the stereotypical Italian anger issues. I thought that was odd. I'd never met anyone who embraced a stereotype before, but Gio reveled in the stereotype of the Italian goodfella.

Then, I discovered the reason for Gio's quick flips between being magnanimous and being, well, scary as hell, to be honest. More than once I saw Richie blanch while on the phone with Gio. I saw another manager, Thera burst into tears after talking with him.

Dude was a coke addict. Probably dealt the stuff, too, given his Cadillac sports car. He was magnanimous to the extreme while high ... and a real a-hole right after he came down. And there was no telling which way he'd be until after you'd opened your mouth and stuck your foot firmly in it.

An example ... Gio brought his kids into the store fairly regularly. One day, he brings in the whole family and little Frankie comes barrelling up to me, cuts in front of the sole customer in the joint and demands a candy bar. I tell him to get one from the machine. He looks at me in utter disbelief and says:
"Do you know who I am?"

I looked this 10 year old brat straight in the eye and said, "I know you're not going to pay for the candy bar. Now, you can let me serve this customer and then I will take you back to the cooler with me and let you pick your own, or you can sit out here and wait until I'm done with this customer and take whatever thing I give you. Your choice. Which do you want?"

Thera stared at me from across the room ... she made shooing motions at me to go get the candy bar for the brat when she thought Gio wasn't looking.

I finished up with the customer, Frankie sat absolutely quietly in a chair nearby and waited pretty patiently for me ... considering he was about 10, he did really well. When I finished with the customer, I called to him to come back into the cooler with me and pick out his candy bar.

I never did have a lick of trouble with the boy after that ... but I did hear my co-workers talk about how he completely ran over them. He was daddy's boy and they were all afraid of him and Frankie knew it.

I refused to fear a child, and, to be honest, while I'm not sure I would behave any differently today, I would be far more afraid than I was that day.

You see, a few months later, I began putting all the little pieces together. Keep in mind, I was all of 19 and had led ... well, not exactly a sheltered life, but I did think that things you see in movies and on TV were just things that happened there. I didn't know that "based on true events" really meant that this shit sometimes happened for real.

One night, a Friday night, we were fast running out of our special bread. No bread, no sandwiches. Richie called the baker in Dallas and then looked for volunteers to drive the hour, hour and a half round trip. We were all young idiots and didn't even think of asking for mileage. If I'd known what we were driving into, I'd have asked for hazard pay, because of course, I said I'd go. We got directions and took off for one of the sketchiest areas near Deep Ellum (remember, this was late 80s). Now, I'd been out to Deep Ellum before and was cool with that. But this neighborhood, whoa. I mean, this was a bad neighborhood. Enough so, I stayed in the car and kept it running while my co-worked literally ran to the door, snagged the bread and RAN back to the car.

I felt stupid when I got back to the store with the bread ... I mean, we'd not seen anything actually happen. Sure the neighborhood was terribly run down. Sure, there were some odd looking guys just hanging around in the doorways of some of the abandoned buildings. But nobody did anything. I mean, streetlights aren't always lit everywhere you go. The world's an imperfect place, light bulbs fall out all the time, right? (Get the movie reference and I'll give you 20 BlogMad credits.)

The next week, though, I was a bit vindicated. We didn't have a baker anymore. His bakery burned down.

Then, Thera let me and another person in on the real story.

Actually, our baker had been shot between the eyes.

Then the bakery was burned down, after the workers were told to leave.

It was a mob hit. Gio was connected. He wasn't playing at being a Goodfella, he really truly was one. Perhaps on the periphery, perhaps not.

And, while no one ever said it ... there was the fear that this hit might have been a warning to Gio.

Things were getting worse at the stores. The Dallas store went under. Then the Coppell store. He lost the sportscar. He was edgy all the time.

I found another job.

I still love Gio's, though. It's a great little sandwich shop. So, of course, I went back there today and swapped stories with the current employees. Almost everyone from "my" time period was gone. Richie, Greta - the main store managers, operations managers ... gone. Gina, VP of the company during the hey-day ... long gone. Thera had left about the same time I had.

I found out that little Frankie ... Gio's son ... went to Padre Island for spring break his senior year. Always one to live for today, to enjoy his priveleges, including his sports car.

Seventeen. Padre Island. Spring break. Sense of entitlement. Sense of invulnerability.

I was glad to hear that Gio apparently stopped his coke habit as I spoke with the employees tonight. But I have to wonder if he cleaned himself up because of the mob hit, or because he lost almost all of his stores.

Or because Frankie didn't come back from Padre that year. Because Frankie'd wrapped his car around a tree doing God knows how many miles an hour.

You know, I have to wonder ...

If someone else had told Frankie to sit down and wait his turn, would it have made any difference at all?

I was so happy to eat at Gio's tonight. I was happy to see the food was the same, sooooo delicious.

But I'm haunted by the picture of Frankie waiting so patiently in that chair for me ... just so he could come back to the cooler and pick out his own candy bar. It was a small thing for me at the time. But remembering the joy on his face when he got to go to the back room ... this was a big thing for him.

It's odd when you suddenly miss someone you met only fleetingly, some 15 or more years ago. When you realize he oughta be about 28 right now ... securing himself in his career ... and instead, he's been dead for about 10 years now.

I can still see him so clearly, sitting in that chair, alone, in the dining room of the store.

Posted by Red Monkey at 8:51 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 15, 2006

World Cup Feets and Hands

So, back in the day, late 70s, I lived in the most perfect city in the United States: Austin, Texas. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know many of you Americans will claim New York or Chicago or even the sprawl of the OC and LA. But nothing beats the beauty of the Texas hill country and the bustling combination of big city and country that surrounded Austin in the 70s and 80s.

Well, back in the day in Austin, the big kids and the little kids did NOT play together in the schoolyard. But David Tapia, despite having the same birthday as me, was a bit bigger than most of the little kids, so he often got away with hanging out and watching the big kids play.

He brought home the most fascinating game we'd ever heard of. Feets and Hands. We all admitted it was probably Feet and Hands ... but that didn't sound as cool to us.

David hurriedly organized the neighborhood kids in his backyard. Nancy and I were one team. David and John and Debbie and my little sister were the other team (I think ... we might have gotten one of the little kids). The object, he said was to score goals. Well duh. We picked out two planks on the fence on one side of the yard ... and two planks on the other fence on the other side of the yard. Okay, we had our goals duly marked.

"Now," David said, all important at teaching us lesser mortals a sport, "you try to kick the ball into the goal."
Easy we said.
"But," he added, "you can only use your feet. Except, you can yell out HANDS at any point in the game and then you can only use your hands to handle the ball. And if you use the wrong body part, then the other team gets the ball."
Cool, we said.

We must have played our version of "football" or "soccer" for weeks like that. The Tapias dad snickered at us on a regular basis when we'd scream out HANDS and begin flinging the ball around, only to have someone else holler FEETS. The playing field was generally utter chaos. Particularly once David observed an older kid perform a head shot and tried to tell us that we now could also yell HEADS. That particular call was pretty much only used once by each of us until we discovered that it hurt to do that with a fully inflated ball ... and it hurt differently to do it with a mostly inflated basketball.

When I moved to Arlington a couple of years later, the biggest game at recess was something I'd never heard of: soccer. I was so very confused to discover that "hands" was a penalty call, not a way to handle the ball. And after our convoluted rules, I just couldn't see the magic in the simple way my new school friends played this "soccer."

Watching the Germans play yesterday, I do see the interest now. It's certainly more interesting to me than baseball or American football ... though arena football is a far better sport than NFL football. It's complex, it's difficult and it's kinda fun to watch someone in total control of his skills, simply run a hair too fast and almost lose the ball, his balance and everything all at once. Seems to me it's more of a sport than a lot of the commercialized junk I see most of the time. After all, it's grass, some dudes and a ball. There's no high tech bat to make the ball go farther. There's no "Eh, he slam dunked the ball, so we'll ignore the travelling." There's no, I'm 8' tall and 500 lbs, so no one's going to knock me over. It's skills based. It's a HUGE field, so there's not generally a great rapidity in scoring.

In a lot of ways, it reminds me of skateboarding ... simple equipment ... people pushing each other to excel. In skateboarding, you get a bunch of skaters together and they try to outdo one another with their skills. Sure, there's no goals to score, but there's a very solid emphasis on fitness and skill. I just don't see that same emphasis on skills and love of fitness in many American sports anymore. I suppose that's why I find the NBA and even college basketball boring anymore.

Or maybe I've just become an old fogey who just doesn't get it. Wait, an old fogey whose favourite sports are skateboarding and snowboarding? Well, I guess it could happen.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the Ecuador v. Costa Rica game today ... too bad I won't be able to watch it at all since it takes place during my work day. (And I can't bring myself to tape a sports event unless it's skateboarding/ snowboarding.)

Wonder if I can teach any of the neighborhood kids Feets and Hands?

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:12 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 6, 2006

The Gas Station

I'm going to tell another set of stories on my poor bug-phobic sister and then I'll leave her alone for a while. But I should probably also say that she's not nearly this much of a wuss anymore.

Picture it, Texas, during the energy crisis (no, not this one) ... two youngsters on their way to the promised land: DisneyWorld. What? Oh ... I've been watching old episodes of Golden Girls in the afternoons while I vegetate after getting home. Apparently Sophia is contagious. At any rate, we were preparing to head across the country from Texas to Florida so we could go to Disney World. My sister was all of 3 and a half and I was just 7 and a half. I was beside myself despite knowing that it would be a two day trip in a very packed Delta 88.

Grandpa drove and we reached New Orleans and drove through the French Quarter briefly on our way. My sister and I fought over who was sitting next to grandma in the backseat ... this was a complicated debate because it meant having to sit in the middle of the long bench seat and be squashed by a sibling on one side and grandma on the other side.

And, of course, these were the days before iPods or Walkmen, before GameBoy ... Advance, DS or plain-ole plain-ole. We had a set of car bingo "cards," one of those magnetic face dudes (that I eventually tore apart to see just how soft those magnetic filings really were ... cuz they looked soft), and some books.

Somewhere between Disney World and home, we made a pit stop at a gas station. It had a nice restroom, white tile - pretty palatial for the time. Naturally, as the kids, my sister and I made a beeline for the stalls. Just as I'm ahhhh, relieving the pent up tension of the trip, my sister begins screaming.

Three year old. Room covered in ceramic tile. Great set of lungs. Ummm, OW. Mom and Grandma finally get out of her what's wrong: spider.

Now, in the stall next to my sister, I am trying to finish up frantically before this huge nest of tarantulas comes and eats me alive. Because that MUST be what's happening to my sister given the amount of terror in her voice.

I am hurriedly trying to escape my stall before these hideous creatures come over to my side and I'm also positive at this point that my poor little sister is obviously dying given the horrendous screams coming out of that gas station, reverberating restroom. However, in my panic, I'm twisting the little knob to get out of the stall too far. This particular design let you turn the knob half way to open the door. I am frantically turning it all the way one way ... can't get out ... and all the way the other direction ... can't get out. Finally, I keep pressure on the door as I turn the knob and it pops open. I flee to the safety of my grandmother's arms. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty ....

"Go crawl under the stall door and let your sister out of there," my mother tells me.

WHAT?

Sure the kid is still screaming and therefore still alive, but come on ... it's been like eleventy minutes of solid screams in there ... surely she has been bitten so many times that she's going to die. And now Mom wants ME to go in there?

At this point I turn into a babbling fool.

My sister has barely stopped screaming to breathe. I am now under the impression that she can scream while drawing breath in as well as while exhaling. I'm also certain that is only a matter of minutes before she inhales spiders and stops making that infernal racket.

Mind you, I'm sad that my sister is obviously dying of spider bites ... but not so much so that I want to risk joining her in death by crawling into that spider's nest of a stall where she's been mutilated by foot long spiders.

Mom insists that I crawl under the door and rescue my sister because I'm smaller and I'll fit. I'm terrified. Petrified. This is when Grandma begins telling Mom that she should let my poor little sister out. Mom insists that she won't fit under the stall ... baloney, she's at least as scared as I am at that point. Plus, it's kinda undignified.

During the argument between Mom and Grandma, I discover the groove in the lock to the stall. I calmly insert my fingernail, frantically look at the floor for the swarm of angry spiders ... and begin slowly twisting the lock open. Finally I have it.

My sister has absolutely no mark on her. She's still screaming.

There is no swarm of tarantulas. There are no tarantualas. In fact, I don't even see the spider at first.

I go in, lead her out by the hand.

The first moment I can remember of older sibling disgust.

Daddy longlegs.

There is a single daddy longlegs in the corner of the stall.

Poor thing was probably terrified by all the commotion.

As we finally finish our tasks, wash up and leave the restroom, there's practically a crowd of people carefully not-looking at us as we exit. My sister is still kind of hitching and snuffling, but I'm rolling my eyes and completely unconcerned anymore. My mother, on the other hand, is utterly mortified. The Public Service Announcement commercials advertising the Child Abuse Hotline have just recently been introduced around the country and my mother is certain that everyone at the gas station has lined up at the pay phones to call the cops on her for so obviously beating her child half to death and back.

I didn't know it then, but that was my introduction to my sister's bug phobia and a good preview of what we'd be dealing with at Disney World in the days ahead. (Apparently the Mad Tea Cup ride was the perfect ride and even the It's a Small World "roller coaster" was too much for her. Well, she was just three.)

A daddy longlegs ... sheesh.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:44 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 28, 2006

Ax Murderer

Finally the weather here is getting warm and I can actually revel in being outdoors again without having to put on 18 different layers and wondering if I'm going to get a cold rash (don't ask ... turns out I'm actually allergic to the cold). And as I was watching a brother and sister run around in the glorious - though terribly humid - weather, I was reminded of when I had first moved from Austin to DFW.

My mom and I were back in her bedroom going through plans for something or another ... I was probably in trouble again for wandering out of earshot, actually, now that I think about it. So we're discussing what to do with me now and we hear this utter, ear-piercing, someone-is-stabbing me-to-death, utter screeching from my little sister who is just about to turn five. Mom and I exchange that startled glance "Oh crap, what the ..."

And Mom motions me to go on.

I flee through the house in full superhero mode, I mean I can't get to the back door fast enough. Pelting pell-mell through the unfinished patio that Dad was building on the weekends and pull up near the shed where my sister is standing, tremulously pointing at the tool shed. You know, one of those hideous white metal things that everyone had in the 70s and 80s.

There is no blood on my sister, but she still hasn't stopped screaming. I can't decide if it's more important to cover my ears or find out what's going on. I mean, that kid has LUNGS.

So, I carefully, with much trepidation, peer around the side of the shed. I am positive that lurking in the corner between the shed and the back fence, there is an ax murderer. There must be. My kid sister is just petrified. I have to protect her.

I should also mention that I wanted to be a cop at this age. This would be my first collar. Impressive for an almost nine-year-old. I screw up all my courage ... peer around the corner ... I am picturing this deranged man, hunched down over his axe.

Nothing.

Nothing at all.

I screw up all my courage again ... he must be hiding back further behind the shed. I walk back there ... I'll be pratically trapped if he lunges at me.

Nothing.

Geez. Talk about anti-climactic.

So, I waltz back around the front of the shed and stand, hands on hips, in front of my sister.

"WHY are you screaming?"

She doesn't hear me the first time. Because she is still screaming bloody freaking murder. Even though there has been no murder. I'm beginning to contemplate one, however.

"WHY ARE YOU SCREAMING?"

With the next breath and the next bit of screaming, only discernable to someone who has spent the past almost five years learning her version of screamed English, I get what the issue is.

Ant.

There's an ant.

On her finger.

The one that she is holding out away from her body. As if that will keep it away from her ... as if that finger is no longer a part of her.

In utter older sibling disgust, I take one glance at the ant on her tiny outstretched hand and roll my eyes. You have GOT to be kidding me.

I start back into the house and she becomes even MORE hysterical. So, as if I had planned it this way all along, I slap at her outstretched finger as I pass by, both whacking her for being a dork and getting rid of said ant, all in one fell blow.

At least the ax murderer theory was more interesting.

Ants. Geez.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:40 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 8, 2006

Good Enough

What makes a book ... or a story or a movie ... good? Is it good because you enjoy it? Because it's enjoyed by many people?

Just what do we really mean by "good"??

I got into a bit of a conversation last night about this because someone who generally likes the same kinds of books as I do made a comment about not liking Stephen King, whereas I think Stevie-boy hung the proverbial full moon. I feel that It was an outstanding book (and I'm weird in that I wouldn't mind if it had been even longer - I know many others would prefer that it had been edited down to something more manageable). Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, Rose Madder, Misery, The Dark Half, obviously I could keep going for a while. I do agree he's had his duds. I didn't really like Tommyknockers very much and, I'm almost ashamed to admit, I can't get into the Dark Tower books despite having the first several and repeatedly trying to get into them.

But what makes them ... or any other book for that matter ... good?

I happen to enjoy Stephen King books because I enjoy books that are character driven. That's one piece of data that makes It a good book to me. I find the characterizations astute, clever and realistic ... more points in his favor. The writing style is, again, for me, easy to read. Another point in his favor. The themes and tropes that he uses are also ones that I enjoy ... more points.

But ... what if you, Gentle Reader, don't like curse words? Well, then, that would be points subtracted for your enjoyment of It as the book has a fair amount of foul language. What if you prefer less on the characters, a faster pace and more action?

Well, then, you might not find It very "good."

You see, "good" is relative when we're talking about literature or music or movies or the like. It's not an absolute based for everyone on Ebert or the New York Times Bestseller list.

So how do we judge what is good if there are no absolutes?

Well, it's total anarchy, but it's up to each individual to make that call because, you see, it's all opinion.

You can argue that killing a person is a heinous act and should be against the law, and, therefore, helping someone to live is good. Culturally, most of the Western world would agree with that. But does it then necessarily follow that a book in which someone is murdered is also a bad book? Of course not. But why?

"As a culture, we DO have a meanting for "good", we mean "lots of people like it" [so] if good means lots of people like it, than a book that sells many copies IS a good book."

I think this premise is catagorically wrong. We are often led to believe this is true by the media and the marketers, we're enticed to jump on the band wagon and try Red Monkey Jeans or The Da Vinci Code, or the Next Big Thing.

A book, a movie, a song ... these things are not "good" and they're not "bad." We personally either like them or dislike them or some variation in between. And my thinking Stephen King is a good author doesn't make it so, nor does Mr. O'Rourke's belief that Stephen King is bad make that so either. It means we have differing tastes and opinions and that the word "good" in this context means next to nothing at all.

The Dark Half is a good book, merely means that I enjoyed it. Will you also find it "good"? I don't know. But the more we discuss our likes and dislikes with each other, the more we find people who think like us and validate us ... and the more we find people who think differently and challenge us.

And all of that, in my opinion, is good enough.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:14 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 1, 2006

Controlled Connection

I don't do this often, but thought I'd share an old poem with you. It's somewhat in the slam style. Hope you enjoy.



I was once fast and vibrant,
running thru life at the breakneck speed of a skateboard punk
thrashing my way thru the concrete construction playground
grinding on handrails,
body    board    wheels
suspended madonna in the air and crashing down together.
controlled connection to the ground
connected

and then I banked off you,
skidded to a slow stop
stepped on the end of the deck until it spun
up thru the air
and into my hands.
controlled connection

We strolled out of the concrete granite park
into an apartment and rolled into commitment
knowing exactly how to make the jump at the end of the vert ramp
where Sketchers would land on wood
and wheels would land on concrete

Well, we did land on concrete.

I tore the trucks off my deck and
placed them under your feet
wheels to keep you moving.
And then I patched your motivation
with my board.
Nailed it
to the wall
as you nailed
your hands
to my edges,
chaining yourself to a transportation you didn't understand
but wanted.
and we cruised.

Bearings full of mud
I finally saw:
you had stopped moving.
ground to your own halt
and I alone was moving

your dreams were full
of skateboard punks
thrashing their way thru concrete construction playgrounds
grinding on handrails,
body    board    wheels
madonna in the air and crashing down together
controlled connection to the ground
connected

But you couldn't unchain your hands
from the board
preferring the stigmata of weight
(responsibilities untaken but nailed)
And you couldn't
control
And you couldn't
connect

But you said, happy, as I sailed back up the vert ramp alone:
"You're so fun to watch!
wish you didn't love it so much.
hate myself
wish i were,    not me.
scared.
just trying to hold on.
life goes on, tears or not
please don't hate me.
I've stopped."

And I make my jump at the end of the vert ramp
where my Sketchers land on wood
and my wheels land on concrete,
wheels spinning
foot pushing off the crumbling concrete behind me
and then resting on the back of the board
a quick 180 to make sure
   and another to go on
I continue to move
bearings gliding, spinning
grinding on handrails,
body    deck    wheels
madonna thru the air and coming down together.
controlled connection to the ground
connected movements

moving on
moving

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:13 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 7, 2006

How Dry I Am

May 25, 1977.

Oh yeah, some of you geeks already know what this post is about now. Some of you are wondering why in the world I would type that date up there. It's not my birthday ... it's not an important date to anyone in my family.

That May was the end of second grade for me ... the end of the grand Catholic school experiment which had failed utterly and miserably. And, it was also the time period that I got to see my first, real, grown-up movie ... my first PG movie. At first, this movie showed on less than 40 screens around the U.S. In fact, many cinemas had to be bullied into taking the film at all.

This was, of course, Star Wars.

Now, I'm not going to yammer on about how this movie changed my life ... it didn't ... or how it was the greatest movie since Metropolis ... it wasn't ... or even beat that dead horse, which of the movies was the best ... Return of the Jedi, but I'm in the minority here ... instead, I'm going to go back to storytelling.

You see, about six weeks into third grade, we moved to the hated Arlington, Texas. And Butler Elementary. I loathed that school. And, I did not want to make new friends yet again. I had physcially moved 7 times before starting kindgergarten ... and then switched from Pillow to St. Louis to Pillow and now Butler between kindergarten and third grade. I was really tired of making new friends only to leave them again quickly, so I was hanging back a bit at the new school.

I was first introduced to Carrie by a few teachers who thought we'd get along swell, but I rapidly fell in with Tracy and Jill instead. And before too long, we had begun attempting to stage Star Wars during recess.

Now, you have to understand, this is Texas and it must have been spring before we really got this rolling ... nearly a year after the movie had originally come out. It was warm and we had plenty of dried out dirt all around us ... kind of like Tatooine. In fact, here's a shot from GoogleLocal of the school:

Things started out simply enough. The three of us began trying to figure out who would play which role. Obviously, there just weren't enough of us. And none of us wanted to play Darth Vader anyway. So, Tracy invited one of the boys in to play Vader. And then another wanted to be a stormtrooper.

And of course, the fight over who was made to be Luke and who got to be Han.

Of course, everyone wanted to be one of the main characters instead of some random droid or bounty hunter.

Naturally, I had to develop more subplots to accommodate our growing cast.

Soon, I began humming a song while directing the cast of about 50-80 kids (depending on the day) began playing out their assigned roles.

"What's that song you keep humming?"

And this is the only scene I can now recall from the Butler Elementary School third grade production of the much expanded and completely non canonical version of Star Wars.

"Okay, okay, I need Darth Vader and Princess Leia over here."

Two kids scurry across the dirt field.

"Okay, so this is the part where you're gonna interrogate Leia, right?"

Darth Vader nods gleefully. Leia is less than amused.

"Okay, but we're going to do this a little different. See Leia smuggled in some whiskey and she tricks Vader into drinking it."

Both of the other kids are grinning ear to ear now ... "And you're gonna come out of the interrogation all drunk and stuff ... and singing this song." I stopped and whistled a bit of it.

"What is that song?"

"How dry I am." I had seen the name on the bottom of a music box that was shaped like a martini shaker.

And that's how we played it. For about three days we rehearsed the drunken Vader and Leia scene until we had nearly all of the 180 kids in the third grade either rehearsing some part of the movie or in stitches as we had Leia and Vader stumbling out of their "cell" together, shoulder to shoulder, hiccuping like professional B-Movie veterans.

"How ... hiccup ... dry I ... hiccup ... am hiccup."

I don't think we ever tried to give that song more lyrics than that name I'd read on the bottom of the music box.

And, of course, after the third day of rehearsing this "scene," one of the teachers ambled over to watch. She made some snide comment or another about pretending to be drunk, but then wandered back off, leaving us to figure out what to do with our army of Han Solos, the reluctantly whiny Luke and the slew of girls that Lucas had not scripted for us.

Odd, when you think about it really ... we gave Luke more than a few sisters since they all wanted to date Han ... and we had Leia having drinkies with her dad. Funny what we knew even before the remaining films and books and comics and such were out!

Even more amazing when you think about it ... we got about 50-80 kids ... half of the grade level ... to play the same game for about three weeks, all together.

I guess it was an amazing movie after all to have sparked that kind of imagination and interest in that many kids.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:01 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 4, 2006

Living Days

Everyone has had one of those moments in time. You think, "Hey, I oughta ...." My friends in high school talked about going to El Salvador or Nicaragua and helping the rebels. We knew little of the conflict and little of the politics, but it was a neat thing to think. We often talked about "if we had just been teenagers in the 60s, we could have been actively marching for civil rights." Our creative writing class wanted to publish a little magazine of our short stories ... but we wanted a PG-13 rating so we could use words like crap, damn and shit. Hey, we were about 16, 17 years old ... I think almost every one of us had some "curse word" in a story. Our teacher went to bat for us, fighting for our right to free speech. No dice ... the school board was appalled that we'd even had the temerity to ask.

We began organizing an underground magazine ... complete with protest against the school and selling of the magazine off school property.

Most of the protesters were seniors. The principal took one of them aside, said he would withold graduation from anyone who protested, whether we did so legally and off-campus or not. Despite the fact that most of these kids knew the laws and knew that we wouldn't dare do that (most of us were in the top quarter of our class ... including several students in the top 12) ... they ALL caved. Instantly.

Evidently, though, Fort Lauderdale builds them with a little more resolve. After a class on immersion journalism, one student decided that he wanted "to live my days so that my nights are not full of regrets."

And what was his interest? Iraq. He claimed he wanted to broaden his mind and said, "I want to experience during my Christmas the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday [sic], so that I may better emphathize with their distress."

However, like most teenagers with a bright idea, his plan had a couple of flaws. Now look, I'm a big believer in the fact that "kids" can do just about anything they put their minds to. I'm not one of those "grown-ups" who believes that kids are stupid or that they never think things through, et cetera. I've known a lot of kids who can plan circles around adults.

This boy was not one of them.

He must have started off well as he managed to leave the U.S. without his parents' knowledge. I've no idea what fast one he pulled on them, but he flew to Kuwait and then ... here's flaw number two (I'm working around to number one): he thought he could just hop a taxi and jump across the border from Kuwait into Iraq. I mean, really ... you can take a taxi anywhere, right?

Undaunted by this, he journeyed onward to Lebanon and stayed with some family friends for a few days ... then hopped a plane to Baghdad.

(In a vague and obligatory defense of my friends and I at his age, I don't think any of us had access to that kind of cash ... flight to Kuwait, travel to Lebanon, flight to Baghdad, living expenses in Baghdad ....)

Once in Baghdad, you'd think that since he'd been inspired by a class in immersion journalism, Farris Hassan would now attempt to blend in and immerse himself in the culture.

Instead, he stayed at an international hotel ... and then revealed to himself flaw number one:

Farris Hassan does not speak Arabic.

And, in fact, looking at a picture of him on the BBC report of his little adventure, the boy managed to look very American somehow. Check out this article from the BBC for pictures (and some details).

Evidently the young Hassan didn't really think the lack of speaking Arabic was a big deal ... until he pulled out a little phrase book while in the middle of a marketplace. At that moment, he finally thought, "Hey, I could be in trouble." Apparently people started looking at him funny.

Now, I'm torn on his next action. He went to the local AP bureau and told them who he was and what he had done. Now see, if he was truly there for the experience, wouldn't he have holed up in his room for a few days and tried to study some basic Arabic so he could pull it off? Then again, I've no doubt that Farris was in danger and he probably should have gone home ... but I'm not so sure that he truly lived his days so he would not regret his nights. He saw an international hotel and a few minutes of a marketplace. How was this really experiencing the everyday hardships of the Iraqi people? Yes, he certainly did more in that direction than the average teenager ... but did he accomplish the goal that he set for himself?

I would say no. He did extricate himself from a dangerous situation before anything happened to him and should be applauded for showing that level of good sense.

However, besides not truly considering all of the ramifications of going to Iraq, Farris also didn't seem to truly think through the consequences of returning home after this little escapade. His mom said that "We are going to watch his every move. We are going to take his passport. We're going to limit his access to money."

You'd think that a boy who lives in the U.S. and has Iraqi parents might have thought they'd be a little upset about his trip ... of course, I'm sure that's why he didn't tell them ahead of time.

Oh, and evidently his school wants to meet with his parents before he's allowed to return to school ... evidently they did not consider this an extra credit assignment!

But, I will give him this ... he saw one of those moments and he did make an effort to grab it. He may lay awake at night later on, regreting that he didn't plan the excursion better and actually get to experience Iraqi life as he'd intended to do. But ... he did attempt to grab his moment and live it fully. How many of us can say that?

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:26 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 28, 2005

Pigs

During college, I lived in a little duplex on campus. It was a nice little place ... the rent was unbelievably low even for an on-campus place. The drawback was that the place was tiny and only had one small and ancient window air-conditioner ... and this was hotter than hades Texas we're talking about.

So, we moved off campus to another duplex. Doubled the size of our living space (at least doubled) and we also doubled our rent. And, our neighbors became ... well ... let's just say they were interesting. We called the place the Neighborhood of the Pigs. (And realize now, that this was highly offensive to the animal pigs ... who are much cooler than any of these neighbors were.)

On one corner, in front of our new home was an alcoholic who lived with his much older wife. He'd yell horrible things at her periodically ... it was a true joy to listen to. Not.

In the other half our our duplex were the friends who had talked us into moving in here ... wonderful people and it was quite nice to continue to live next to people we actually knew and liked.

On the other corner (we lived on the top bar of a T intersection), however, were the rednecks from hell.

Seriously. These were the people with an American flag as their curtain on the front door ... and one of the largest Confederate flags I've ever seen as their curtain for the living room windows. They had a gorgeous, large front porch that I was jealous of. But, they also had the bench seat from a school bus and the back bench seat from an SUV as the seating arrangement on the porch.

I never did figure out how many people were living there, either. There were at least 3 guys and one woman. And, any given week, there might be as many as 5 guys living there.

They were typical rednecks. They hated our next door neighbors because they were gay. They'd occasionally come outside and scream horrible things at Stacy and Melanie ... and then the weird dyke commune women from two streets over would inevitably come out and just stand in the street and glare at the rednecks until they got scared and ran back inside their house. (Neither we nor Stacie and Melanie knew any of these women ... but they would just magically appear in the street whenever the rednecks began thinking of getting out of line ... was very odd.)

And, of course, the rednecks had a hound dog and junk all over the yard and lined up by their privacy fence. They couldn't have been more a stereotype of a crappy redneck if they'd actually tried to be one. Although, I did find their mode of transportation amusing ... they drove a hearse!

Needless to say, the neighborhood was highly entertaining.

One evening, the drunk's wife was out of town. Not having her to scream at, he came and stood in his driveway, wavering there and looking for someone to yell at.

Redneck Girl came out of their house. With a bicycle. She gets on this red Schwinn 3 speed with the granny seat and handlebars, affixes her little bicycle helmet, checks her tall orange flag (I'm not kidding here) and proceeds to labouriously pedal off.

Drunk Man is happy now. He has someone to yell at. Hands on hips, he screams out "Ya fat cow! You're gonna have to do more than ride that bike once around the block if you want to lose some of that fat cow weight." He continues calling out "Fat Cow" at random intervals.

She rode around the block once ... and retreated back into Redneck Central. It was the only time anyone ever saw her on that bike.

But the most amusing night in Pigs Neighborhood was the night the cops descended on Redneck Central.

You see, the five redneck boys and their girl were sitting in the house when they heard a noise in the backyard. Now, if the front porch was a junkyard mess, the backyard was far, far worse. There were paths of junk, bits of car parts, metal, miscellaneous stuff. One of the rednecks tip-toed outside, heard a noise from a different part of the yard and he high-tailed it back into the house.

They called the police. Because someone was trying to steal their junk. (And they were too scared to confront the burgler.)

Three or four cop cars show up, lights blazing. Some go in through the front door, others head around to the backyard.

The privacy fence falls over.

Turns out the privacy fence was something they had taken from a construction site and just leaned up against their crappy chain link fence. Scared the crap out of the cops when a whole section of fence fell over. But they started laughing. Guns drawn, they continued on into the junk infested backyard.

About 15 minutes later, the cops are laughing their butts off and getting into their squad cars. One last cop stood on the front porch and talked to the five redneck boys and the redneck girl for quite some time.

The prowler?

It was their pot-bellied pig.

The one they forgot they owned! These big, tough, redneck boys had been scared senseless by their own pet.

Naturally, the ASPCA came and picked up the pig soon thereafter. And their hound dog.

So they got a cocker spaniel pup that winter.

Some people never learn.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:17 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 25, 2005

Banjo

I don't know if other people used to do this, but I was completely fascinated with the baby book that my mother had started for me and would look through it often as a kid. It is a big white book, loosely wrapped with an odd plastic "cover" ... kind of like a library book, but a softer plastic like the bag you use to put your fruits and veggies in at the grocery store. In the front were some basic baby facts, length, weight ... the fact that I kept Mom in labour from midnight until nearly five p.m. the next day ... typical baby book stuff.

And, tucked into one of the early pages is a card of congratulations on the new baby. I don't remember the sentiment on the card, only that it was a Snoopy card and inside, there was a little red plastic banjo.

Evidently the sender of that card knew something about my personality before anyone else did ... I was enthralled with that little plastic banjo from the first time I discovered it in the card and remained fascinated by banjos my entire life.

I can recall, also, walking from the bright, bright Texas sun into the extremely dark Shakey's Pizza Parlour. There was a window that looked into the kitchen where the pizza was made, but I hardly gave the tossed dough a glance ... I could hear something around the corner and ever the kid to follow my curiosity, I headed into the main room to see a man in a red and white striped shirt, seated on a tall stool. He had one of those straw barbershop quartet hats on and he was playing a banjo.

I immediately sat on the floor in front of him and stared up as he played, utterly enthralled.

My mother, coming around the corner and expecting me to be like the other three kids in the pizza joint -- pressing my nose to the glass looking in on the kitchen, felt a moment of panic when I was not there ... panic that intensified when she realized that I was actually listening raptly to the banjo player.

My mother grew up the daughter of a cattle buyer ... they lived in Iowa, Nebraska (I think) and Oklahoma. There was nothing worse in my mother's mind than anything related to "hick" or "country."

My father grew up in Texas ... always small towns, always the wrong side of the tracks. There were six kids ... an older brother from a previous marriage, an older sister, my dad, then three more girls. He went into the army before Viet Nam, got out in time to not be called back up ... and then went into computers. He, too, avoided anything and everything that had to do with "hick" or "country" ... except for an unnatural obsession to the TV show, Hee Haw.

So my "sudden" fascination with this banjo-player in Shakey's frightened my mother beyond belief.

I was dutifully pulled away from the banjo player and ensconced in a booth, to await our pizza. I tried several times to go back to the banjo player, but Mom insisted that I stay in the booth until it was time to leave.

And, she thought, silly, silly woman, that that was the end of that.

Silly, silly woman.

A few weeks later we were at a church bazaar/carnival thing. You know, cheesy games for the kids, crappy arts & crafts projects being sold to adults? The prize for one of the games was this plastic, orange banjo and I was determined that I would win it before we left. I used every ticket I had on a game I can no longer remember. Went back to Mom and asked for more tickets. Back to the game.

Mom found me there a while later and tried to get me to go do something else. She pointed out carefully that the orange banjo would not sound even remotely like the banjo in the pizza parlour. I was having none of it. I would have that banjo. It would make pretty music.

I don't remember the game itself or how long it actually took me to win that banjo, but I do recall walking back to the car, clutching this orange banjo shrink-wrapped onto a piece of white cardboard.

Of course, its plastic strings sounded NOTHING like a real banjo. I tried moving the tuning keys, but had no idea what "in tune" was for a banjo.

Fast forward to today ... I've been watching banjos on eBay off and on for about a year now. Have bid on a few, but always get outbid in the end ... which is fine, my bids have been rather low as I'm not convinced that I want to spend a lot on a used banjo I've not held in my hands.

But I did go ahead and put a banjo on my Amazon wish list this year ... unfortunately, the supplier ran out of the banjo starter kit early on. No banjo for the Red Monkey this year. Of course ....

There's always the tax return money to use on a special treat ... maybe this "carrot" will mean that I get my taxes done in January so I can order this new toy.

Meanwhile, I'll just have to sit and think about that old orange, plastic banjo and content myself with my guitars instead.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:06 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 21, 2005

Flicker

So, yesterday, I was sitting on the futon, working on a delightful project (sound and graphics ... hopefully I can post it here soon) when I heard an odd noise somewhere next to me. Looked up, looked around, nothing. Went back to work.

Again. And then, the cats flock to the fireplace, followed by the older dog.

Yep. There's a little flicker in the fireplace and she's pissed off. She was hanging off the screen and was pecking at it, making the screen bang against the glass door as if she were knocking to come in. And when I say she was pissed off, I mean PISSED OFF. After about an hour of pecking for five minutes and silence for five minutes ... as well as being stared at intently by the dog and two of the cats, she quieted down ... and so did Scrappy. Here he is attempting to watch the bird in the fireplace (animal-cable, we call it):

And then ... after the bird quieted down:

This morning, still a flicker in the fireplace. This afternoon after work? Blessed, blessed silence!

Turns out the wind or the flicker managed to knock the flue "door" off its track which is why the room felt drafty and how the bird got into the fireplace to begin with.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:21 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 30, 2005

A Halloween Ghost Story

If you're looking for some scary stories, I have a few scattered through out the last six weeks. Here's the links for you:

Bad Water
The Graveyard
The Haunted House
Haunted

And now for your halloween ghost story ....

In the Haunted story, I talked about a ghost that haunted the sub shop I worked in during college. As John and I discussed the possibility of a ghost running the juke box and occasionally making things fly around, he eventually told me that these things just tended to happen to him. If you're into the paranormal, you might call John a sensitive or a medium. Ghosts just tend to like him.

His first experience with a ghost was at seven.

John went to spend the night at a friend's house. His family lived waaay out in the country at a small gentleman's farm and they had just moved in about a month before. John met Kyle at school and the two fast became inseperable.

The two boys ran around the farm and played for hours and when it was time to come in, they played board games. Including ... well, what Halloween story would be complete without the Ouija board?

At first the boys played with it like most kids play with the Ouija board, making it say things and being silly. Then, for whatever reason, the little plastic piece begins moving on its own. John gave Kyle a look and Kyle snatched his hand off the toy. It was still moving. Half-convinced that John was just messing with him, Kyle began asking questions.

"Who are you?"

The board spelled out J - O - N.

Kyle laughed. "You can't even spell your own name right."

"I didn't do it," John told him.

Kyle laughed and put his hand back on the toy. "Right, John, right." He looked back at the Ouija board. "Where are you?"

R-I-G-H-T H-E-R-E

"No, I mean where do you live?"

H-E-R-E

M-Y B-R-O-T-H-E-R I-S S-C-A-R-E-D

"Why?"

D-A-D

"This is dumb, John, make it say something good."

"I told you, I'm not doing anything."

"I wanna talk to something good and scary."

"I don't wanna play this anymore, Kyle. I don't like it." John took his hand off the plastic toy.

With both boys' hands off the toy, it began flying across the board.

"What's doing that?"

I A-M J-A-M-E-S
Y-O-U A-R-E B-A-D

"Kyle? Make it stop. How are you doing that?"

Y-O-U-V-E G-O-T T-O B-E

John picked up the board and tossed it across the room. Kyle was white as a ghost.

At seven, of course, they did what any sane seven-year-olds would do -- they ran out to the living room for Kyle's mom.

Of course, Kyle's mom figured the boys had been telling scary stories and had just frightened each other. She gave them a snack and sent them back to Kyle's room and told them to go to sleep and not tell anymore scary stories.

After kicking the game under one of the beds, the boys wrestled and played until Kyle's dad came in and told them to knock it off and go to bed. So they did.

A few hours later, Kyle's mom woke up to all sorts of noise coming from Kyle's room. Convinced the boys were playing, she opened the door only to find everything in Kyle's room flying around in a circle. His clothes, his toys, everything. Completely unable to believe what she was seeing, she was convinced that she was merely dreaming and walked back to bed.

The next morning, Kyle's dad went out to the barn to muck out the horses' stalls and finally stormed back into the house. "Were those boys out in the barn yesterday?" he asked his wife.

"Of course, they were playing out in the loose hay."

"I have told Kyle a million times that pitchfork is not a toy." And his dad stormed off for the boys' room.

Every toy and piece of clothing Kyle owned was scattered around the room.

"KYLE!"

Neither boy moved. His dad, completely disgusted, turned around, surveying the "damage" of Kyle's playtime the night before. The door to Kyle's closet was open, the light was on and there was nothing in the closet. Every piece of clothing, every toy, jigsaw puzzle, everything was in the middle of Kyle's room.

Except the pitchfork, leaning against the back wall of the closet.

Kyle's dad snapped. He'd had it with his irresponsible son who just didn't seem to understand that the farm tools were not toys. This was the first time he'd found one of the tools in the house, but not the first time that Kyle had wandered off with one hand tool or another. Furious, he grabbed the pitchfork from the closet and began hollering at his son.

The two boys woke up to Kyle's furious father screaming and coming toward them, pitchfork in hand.

His mom walked into the room and screamed - partly at the total mess in the room (and remembering her "dream" of the night before) and partly at the sight of her husband wielding the pitchfork at the boys. Surely it was just to emphasize his anger, but still ....

Kyle's parents left the room and calmed down, got rid of the pitchfork and then came back in to talk to the now terrified young boys. They explained that the boys shouldn't have trashed the bedroom or taken the pitchfork into the house -- shouldn't have played with the pitchfork at all.

Of course, they both protested and insisted they had done no such thing. And of course, Kyle's parents assumed the boys were lying. His mom was somewhat disturbed by the odd dream she'd had the night before, but it had to have been a dream.

So, the boys' first sleepover was a bit of a disaster and John was in trouble again when he got home for not behaving properly as a guest.

But, a few weeks later, John's parents called and asked to come over with Kyle. Not sure what was going on, but responding to the tense voice of Kyle's mother, they agreed.

They sat around the kitchen table ... both sets of parents and both boys.

"I know this is going to sound strange, but I need to ask John a very serious question," Kyle's mom started. "What happened when you and Kyle were playing with the Ouija board?"

John blinked a few times and then told them. "At first me and Kyle were just making it move around and being silly. But then it started to move on its own."

"John!" his mother was shocked at this bald-faced lie.

"Vivian, wait, please. John, what did it say?"

He told them that it said its name was Jon, it lived "here" and that his brother was scared. Kyle's parents blanched.

"I told you!" Kyle said. "I told you!"

"Then what happened, John?"

"Well, Kyle thought I was doing it and he thought I was being stupid so he said he umm, that he wanted something scary."

"And then? This is really important, John. What did the board say next?"

"This is ridiculous," John's father said. "What are you getting at? The boys were playing silly games and they acted up."

"It's more than that. We've done a little research." Kyle's dad turned back to John. "What did the board say next?"

"It said we were bad. And it was gonna do something, but we stopped playing."

"Anything else?"

John thought for a moment. "James. It said its name was James."

Kyle's mother blanched.

"What the hell is going on here?"

"Boys, you go on up to John's room and play," Kyle's father said.

The boys, of course, scurried around the corner and eavesdropped on the adults.

As it turned out, John and Kyle discovered that about 20-30 years before, James and Madeline Winchester and their two sons, Kyle and Jonathon had lived in the farmhouse. Not more than a few months after moving in, however, James had completely lost his mind and murdered the two boys in their bed with his pitchfork.

After the third time the pitchfork found its way into Kyle's closet, his mother couldn't stop thinking about the "dream" that she'd had when John had stayed over and began asking around the town about the house. The local librarian helped her research the house and discovered the story of the Wincehester family.

Of course, John's parents took far more convincing than the boys did, but as it turns out, Kyle's folks just wanted to confirm with John what Kyle had already told them. The final straw for John's parents was the news that they had already talked to the local priest and scheduled a cleansing of the house which was to be followed up by something resembling an exorcism for the house itself.

At the very least, John's parents realized that Kyle's folks were taking this seriously. They went on to explain what Kyle's mother had seen that night and other things that the boys had not yet heard.

Of course, John's parents didn't want John spending any more time at Kyle's house ... and he was fine with that. He'd had the crap scared out of him waking up to Kyle's father and the pitchfork. Particularly when Kyle told him why his parents had begun researching the house. Kyle was now terrified to go to sleep in the house, and had, in fact, been sleeping with his mother in a motel for the past week.

His father had been caught sleepwalking several times, each time found either in Kyle's room or on his way down the hall to Kyle's room, pitchfork in hand.

A few weeks later, the "exorcism" of the house was ... well, not particularly successful. The priest insisted that the entire family needed to be present at the home. Kyle refused to tell John what had happened, but the family moved into a motel immediately thereafter and quickly moved to another town. John never saw him again.

And, of course, in the true tradition of all haunted houses like that, no one ever bought the farmhouse. By the time John left home and moved away to college, he said the farmhouse had begun falling down. The town had talked about having the house bulldozed in an effort to make the property saleable ... but it hadn't happened by the time John left.

Happy Halloween!!

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:55 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 25, 2005

Bad Water

Halloween is creeping closer, so I thought I'd tell another creepy story. No ghosts ... I think ... it gets kind of confusing to tell at one point ... but it's a good creepy story.

I've changed some details and most names just because I think it's probably a good idea. You'll see.

(The beginning of this story does involve relating a bit of child abuse. I've tried to keep this non-graphic and sketchy, but it is important to the story.)

I have a friend who has lived just outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan for most of his life. His mom was the "hands-off" type which sounds cool to a kid until you realize that means you're completely alone. By the age of ten, he was "dating," if you want to call it that, a twenty-year-old woman who worked for the volunteer fire department in one of the little towns that are scattered around Kalamazoo and Battle Creek (home of Kellogg's).

Now Mike is a pretty cool guy, but that early relationship and the neglect of his folks really screwed him up a bit. Not only did his dad once say, "Well, I didn't like him dating so early, but what could I do about it?" but he never gave Mike any curfew or rules or anything. In fact, there were times when he didn't come home for two or three days and nothing was really said.

What Mike's folks didn't bother to find out about the relationship with Tina could fill several novels, but this is a blog and I'm trying to keep this to just one entry, so I'll cut to the chase. Besides having a sexual relationship with a ten-year-old boy, the relationship was abusive in other ways as well. After earning Mike's trust and the ten-year-old's version of love and adoration, Tina introduced Mike to her other passion: the occult.

Again, I don't know if these folks were serious about the occult or just messing around with younger kids' heads and I'm not sure it really matters. The truth of it is that Tina and some of her friends had a little group of twenty-somethings several of whom had a younger kid as a "partner." These folks bonded together in the firehouse and would use their little tight-knit group for orgies (including the kids). They'd also light black candles and say spooky things and scare the crap out of the kids.

One of the stories Tina used to tell Mike was about the old mental hospital and how one day Tina would take him there and chain him to the walls and leave him to die.

Naturally, Mike was terrified of Tina.

Fast forward to Mike's early 20s, when I met him. I'd go up to Kalamazoo and visit him and we'd wander around town. There's one building in the downtown area which just gave me the creeps and I still don't know why. It's just an old "skyscraper" (from back in the day when skyscrapers were only 20-30 stories high) with Kalamazoo something or another painted on the side ... just a typical painted-on sign that you see on a lot of old buildings. It's not even a creepy font, just a basic Times/Times New Roman style font.

I mention this in passing to Mike one day and he tells me it's because Kalamazoo is evil. Now, knowing his history a bit, I blow him off. Of course he's going to overreact to such things. That kinda thing will seriously mess you up.

"Anyway, it's the whole town," he continues. "The local tribe's word for Kalamazoo meant 'bad water,' and they didn't just mean this nasty river."

"What do you mean? Why'd they think the water was bad?"

As it turns out, the area made people go crazy.

Don't believe me? Look up the history of mental health in the United States. The first mental hospital in Michigan was in Kalamazoo and it was one of the first mental hospitals in the United States.
There's a reason for that.

Just from local lore, there seem to be an improbably large number of stories about people going stark-raving mad.

As we're wandering through town in the huge cargo van -- there are about six of us including Mike and I -- we pass by one of the large, old graveyards. We decide to get out and wander around for a while, looking for old gravestones to rub. We spend about an hour telling each other creepy things and looking at the truncated rock slabs that supposedly tell our stories after we're gone. Dates and a short verse from the Bible somehow don't seem to tell enough of the story.

Or maybe I'm just long-winded.

At any rate, almost as one, the six of us look up at the building on the hill above us. It's more hidden than visible, to tell the truth. You have to search through the summer trees to find it and you have to really be looking through the winter trees to see it, too.

A little odd that we all decided to look that way at once.

"What's that?" Dave asked. There was an instant chorus of discussion.

"The old asylum," Mike said. Everyone there got quiet for a minute. I think we all knew at least that much of Mike's history.

You know what we used to do with the really crazy people back in the 1850s and up through at least 1900? The really, really, dangerous crazy ones? They'd put those folks down in the "basement." Only it was generally more like a kind of roughed out dirt basement. Or one carved into the bedrock below. A very primitive kind of basement.

And in some of the old hospitals that had that type of system, they'd toss those dangerous folks who seemed to have no grasp of reality at all anymore down those holes. There'd be a barred trap door that the orderlies would just toss food and water down without opening the door up.

And of course, Tina had embellished these stories when telling them to Mike when she'd dated him. She'd told him how there was an underground hallway where there were chains still hanging from the walls ... from where they had chained some poor creatures by their wrists and their ankles to the wall. And Tina told Mike that if he ever told anyone, she'd take him back to that hallway and chain him to the walls. And she'd kill him.

Naturally, Mike was terrified. Even now as we're all standing around the graveyard, he knows we all want to go up there.

Without a word, we all file back into the van. Mike takes the wheel and begins trying to find the right road to get us back up to the old asylum. My knee is bouncing up and down in a rapidfire tattoo of anticipation. Dave hasn't stopped cracking his knuckles. Michelle is utterly white-faced, but corrects Mike once as he almost turns away from the hospital.

We were all completely in the thrall of this ancient building. When we finally pull up to the parking lot, Mike stops the van and rests his hands on the keys. "Do we have to?" is all that he says.

The rest of us are out of the van already. This is not normal behaviour for any of us. Mike is very gung-ho about facing his fears. Michelle is a fraidy-cat who we could barely get to go to a graveyard, much less this creepy place. I'm usually more sensitive to how other people feel -- I mean, this has got to practically be hell for Mike.

And yet I'm the first one heading for the gate.

"There's cameras."

We look around and spot more of the security cameras.

"They really on?"

Kimball nods. "Yeah, yeah they are. My sister works for the security place that monitors them."

I have walked completely away from the group at this point. I am standing at the gate and looking into the trees off to my left. I am certain we can get in without getting into any trouble.

This is really not like me. I am paranoid about doing "bad" things and trespassing is definitely a bad thing.

"There's a way in over here," I call out softly. I don't wait for the others, but begin walking into the underbrush.

Finally, Michelle and Kimball both start to panic.

"We have to leave now," Kimball says.

Now you have to understand, Kimball is a big football playing dude. As in he played for Michigan State, big. He was white as a ghost and heading toward me. He'd literally grabbed my arm before I even realized what he meant to do.

He had to drag myself and Dave back to the van. Everyone else came on their own, more or less reluctantly.

And for whatever reason that was causing him to act, he made Mike hand me the keys and told me to drive the hell away from this town. I looked at him like he was crazy, but before I could open my mouth, Mike took the keys back and started the engine.

"Aww, come on, guys, I never do stuff like this," I said as we started to slowly go back across the parking lot. I had the van door open and was ready to hop out whether Mike stopped or not when Kimball's hands grabbed my shoulders and hauled me back in. Dave shut the door.

Five or ten minutes later ... and finally out of sight of the hospital, Mike pulled over. "I can't drive anymore." He sat next to Michelle and kept telling her over and over, "I just wanna go back there. Why? Why would I want to?"

I got behind the wheel and Kimball, who hated driving the van, just kept a hand on my shoulder until I was on the highway and pointed out of town.

Ten minutes passed. Fifteen.

And I could feel something "snap."

"What the hell?" Michelle asked.

I pulled over on the highway shoulder. "So I'm not the only one who just felt that?" I was physically shaking -- not from fear, because I wasn't scared. It was more like the tremors you get after a heavy exercise ... quivering muscles from over-use.

Dave, Kimball, Mike, Michelle and Donna all shook their heads.

"Until just now I was gonna go back there by myself tonight," Dave muttered.

"Me, too."

Kimball just shook his head. "Ain't none of us ever going back there again. There's something not right there."

"Well I frigging TOLD you THAT!" Mike yelled. "I told you that place was messed up and you didn't believe me, you just thought it was old Mike going off again."

There was a chorus of heart-felt apologies at that.

I don't know if it was just the power of suggestion ... after all, we all knew Mike's story and we had just been in a graveyard. And we did all know the basics of how early mental health patients were treated. Did we all just work ourselves up into a frenzy over nothing?

I would think so except for a couple of things. We all turned and looked at the building at the same time. Every one of us. Like we'd all heard a loud noise, not the staggered one person looks up and the next person tries to see what the first one is looking at.
And two, the same time I felt something give way was the same time that Michelle exclaimed. And nobody asked her what she was talking about.

Since then I've done some digging via the internet, trying to find out more about the hospital. I keep intending that one day I'll do some serious research into the Kalamazoo area and maybe do a good scary novel based on that. Supposedly gangsters and murderers were also tossed in this particular "loony bin," certainly the types of folks that you might expect would leave around an evil ghost or creepy-crawly.

But I also found out that the building hidden in the trees atop the highest hill in Kalamazoo ... was the Tuberculosis Sanitarioum, not the mental hospital. Of course, the first buildings of the mental hospital were torn down long, long ago. The currently standing buildings were built later on the Kirkbird model.

Of course sanitarioum patients weren't always treated well, either, but still.

What was it about that building that called to us? And what was it that kept its grip on us for so very long?

Bad water .... I know the joke is that when going into a foreign country, don't drink the water ... but now ... now I gotta wonder if it's safe to drink the water in Kalamazoo, too.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:18 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 24, 2005

Hi, I'm a Binge Writer

So, I decided to try National Novel Writing Month again this year. I tried this a few years back in an effort to kick start myself into writing more fiction again, but ... well ... let's just say it didn't last long at all.

I used to write stories all the time. From about fifth grade on, I always had some short story or novel that I was working on in my big spiral notebooks. (This was even before the Commodore-64 "computer," kiddos.) Even at that time, those short stories which didn't start out as creative writing assignments in language arts class, started out as my exploring some weird dream that I'd had. The first novel I finished all the way through (in high school) was based on a dream that I had. I was bored babysitting the night after I'd had the dream, so I started to try to write down this intriguing dream that I'd had.

I still have those 40 sheets of light blue paper (the only paper I could find in the kids' craft supplies) and they are filled with my teeny-tiny writing in .3mm pencil. When I started typing those 40 pages up in the Commodore-64, it turned out to be well over a hundred pages -- and that was just a first draft skeleton of the story.

I spent the next several weeks writing almost non-stop during school hours. I stopped paying attention in American History and English so I could spend more time writing -- besides, the teachers couldn't tell the difference between my writing a story and my taking notes.

Or so I thought. But at least one of them commented on my improved study habits ....

I probably had that first draft done in about two or three weeks. And then I began typing it into the decrepit computer and then re-writing those pages in class again.

I wrote short stories and the beginnings of many more novels during the next few years. I finally finished my second novel my last year in college. I went on to graduate school in creative writing and used the next two years to refine and polish the story.

By then, I was teaching. I wrote one short story in 1996 or so. I haven't really written anything since, until the short story I posted here a few weeks ago.

My high school creative writing teacher, like many writers and writer-wannabes, said repeatedly, "good writers write every day. You have to carve out the time to work on the stories every day or you'll never be a writer."

My answer was always, "I'm a binge writer." I might not write for a few weeks or even a month, but I always come up with another story, get excited and then write in every spare moment possible until that story is done. But trying to force myself to write when I'm not "in the mood" is a generally painful experience. I've done it a time or two, but it sounds forced.

Is the advice to write every day good advice? Yeah, to a point. You should force yourself to set aside some creative time every day. But you might not really get creative work done every day -- at least not the creative work that you can concretely measure for the world to see. Might just be that you need to spend a day or two listening to the nuances of a new CD and letting your brain float, recharge those creative batteries a bit.

And that, I think, is why I didn't really write from '96 until 2005. I wasn't really taking care of my creative batteries. It gets harder, for me anyway, once I was not going to school and working. Seems like I should have had more time to write, right? After all, I had been working 35 hours (or more) a week and taking 9 credits a semester. I suppose because I started teaching right away, I just didn't have that time. I taught the class everyone hates: freshman English. Now, I'll tell you, I did not have 150 people in a class. I had 20. And I only taught 2 or 3 classes a semester. But ask any freshman writing teacher how much time it takes to help students by commenting on the first draft, second draft and third draft of three major essays. Plus, of course, some miscellaneous other assignments. We're not talking grammar worksheets, either.

By the time I got home from work, I just didn't feel like writing anything for myself. And, eventually, the ideas stopped coming around so much.

But since I was told Notre Dame students don't fail in the spring of 2004, I've been trying to re-vitalize those batteries again and I can feel ideas starting to shake loose and attempt to find flight.

I'm just hoping that NaNoWriMo is the ticket I need to get rolling again.

I pulled out one of the novels I was working on in high school. I think that's going to be completely recast as a SF novel instead of a regular fiction story. And we'll see where it goes.

50,000 words in a month. I think I can do that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:12 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 21, 2005

The Quest for the Bagthorpe Triangle

About 1979 or so, I discovered a marvelous book. Called Ordinary Jack, it was the story of a normal kid living in a family of self-proclaimed geniuses. Poor Jack attempts to make himself more interesting by posing as a seer. The resulting attempts of this kid to gain the attention of his family could be rather depressing, but Cresswell made it hysterically funny. I devoured the book then and went on to read as many Cresswell books as I could find.

At one point, the dog becomes famous (and poor Jack get attention by default as the owner of the dog). Before that, the entire family begins entering every newspaper and magazine contest they can find and then re-gift each other for Christmas with the unwanted winnings. Their trip to Wales and confusion over the seemingly millions of people surnamed Jones was almost more hysterical than the wretched search for a ghost at their "haunted" cabin.

Unfortunately for me, Cresswell was a British author and finding British children's books isn't always easy. Since then I've managed to purchase Ordinary Jack, Less Than Zero, Bagthorpes Unlimited, Bagthorpes Vs. the World, Bagthorpes Haunted, Bagthorpes Liberated and Bagthorpes Besieged. Bagthorpes Abroad and Bagthorpes Battered are on the way from Amazon.UK and eBay.

But I can't find The Bagthorpe Triangle. I have searched, I have asked folks in Australia, New Zealand and the UK to keep an eye out. Nada. Looked through book services. Zilch. The only thing I can find is the audiobook and I want a real book, not a performance.

It seems that The Bagthorpe Triangle has indeed disappeared into that triangular zone where great children's books often disappear.

Next quest: locate the BBC television series ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:42 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 17, 2005

The Graveyard, Continued

This is a continuation of yesterday's post, The Graveyard.

A few years after my trip out to witch mountain, I'm still kind of fussing at myself for getting worked up enough that I kept imagining hands trying to grab my feet from below ... and not even a cheesy imagining zombies reaching up from their grave -- I kept imagining it from the "clean" area at the front of the cemetary. The area that hadn't yet been used for graves. What a weird little imagination I have.

So, again, near Halloween, I'm talking with some friends and I share the story of going to witch mountain.

Candice goes absolutely as white as possible. I'm talking no blood left in her face at all.

"You went WHERE?"

"Some witch mountain place out near Duncanville. It's way out in the country. It's this funky graveyard."

She just blinks at me and doesn't say anything for a minute, so I continue telling the story that I wrote here yesterday.

"You were damn lucky to get out of there," Candice says.

"What do you mean? It was the middle of the afternoon."

"Promise me you won't ever, ever go out there again."

"What is the deal?"

As it turns out, Candice's folks were highly religious and expected her to be as well. As part of her teenage rebellion stage, she did what every teenager does - went as far opposite her folks as she could think of. She joined up with ... you guessed it, a satanic cult. The very cult that used that graveyard I'd visited.

According to Candice (whose name and details I've changed here for her protection), the things that my classmate had told me about the graveyard were just the tip of the iceberg.

First, the cult did rule the graveyard after five. They'd show up (I didn't ask if they drove and made the cops let them in) at the graveyard, practice some random vandalism and then ...

... then they'd crawl into their tunnel system for the real rituals.

Evidently the most recently dug up grave was always the entrance to their tunnel system.

And, evidently, that weird thought I kept getting about having a hand reach up for me was not so weird after all. Or, depending on your point of view, it was even weirder than it had been before. The tunnel system honeycombed that whole front area.

Then Candice tells all the stuff this group was into.

Now, here's the deal before I go any further. It is a known fact that there are satanic cult groups all over the U.S. (and other countries, to be honest). Many of these groups are completely harmless and only "play" at being evil. That is, they get together and read the Satanic Bible and hold their masses that are a perversion of the Catholic mass and that's all there is to them. Other than offending a lot of people, they don't really do any harm.

Then you have groups of teenagers who get together and do things they think that satanists would do and at the same time, try to scare the crap out of each other. This often involves heavy drinking or sometimes drugs. These groups are mostly harmless.

Then there are groups that take things a step further. They look up old books, they attempt to follow old patterns from mostly forgotten ancient cults. They generally find at least a few victims to terrorize. They may go as far as to sacrifice animals. (Some Santeria practioners, for example, will do this to chickens and perhaps goats.) Those groups can get more than a little frightening just on a personal safety level.

Then there are groups who do worse things.

The group Candice had been involved in was one of those.

Now, again, there are two types of these nasty groups. One type simply stages scenes. They'll go to elaborate lengths to make new initiates believe that they have supernatural powers -- perhaps by breaking a thick marble gravestone into pieces. There are also groups that appear to actually be able to do things they shouldn't be able to do. The problem is, most of the time you can't tell the difference between these two groups. They're both dangerous.

I can't tell you if Candice's group was one that was simply staging events or if some of the folks involved could really do some things they shouldn't be able to do. I wasn't there and no one was running scientific equipment to try to verify any of the events. So, you'll have to make up your own mind.

Evidently this group had built a series of tunnels under the "blank" part of the graveyard up near the gate. The tunnels were actually a maze. Some of the tunnels led to deadfall traps. Others took a funny turn and dumped you out on the dropoff -- and if you weren't careful, you'd end up in the river below pretty easily.

Some members of the group stayed in the tunnels during the day. They were supposed to guard the ... well, for lack of a better word ... the secret hideout from anyone not in the group as well as from the newer members who might be trying to discover secrets they shouldn't.

Candice told of bonfires in the fields (and I accidently typo'd that as bonefires which is a much scarier image). She told me about the time one of the head guys in the group slaughtered a German Shepherd as part of some insane ritual.

She also told me that I was damn lucky, broad daylight or not, to have made it out of there without any confrontation at all. Evidently they'd leave a large group of people alone during the day, but groups of two were fair game to attack ... either a mundane fight or scare or actually try to drag you down into the tunnels.

She claimed they'd killed more than one person.

Now that's a lot of hearsay. I don't know how much of it was true, but I do know that Candice was honestly scared out of her gourd. She stopped a couple of times and had to mutter to herself that they wouldn't hurt her now. That they couldn't know if she revealed some of their secrets.

The fact that I announced I wanted to go back there to check all of this out terrified her beyond words.

Then she told me about some of the supernatural things she'd seen: simple levitations, curses, the standard scary stuff.

But then, stumbling and almost stuttering her husband told us about finding a severed goat's head in the middle of the living room, floating. Obviously still shaken, he told of how Candice had freaked when they came home and discovered it. Oh, sure, he freaked too. No one likes to see a floating goat head in their living room.

Candice said it was a sign that they had found her and had not forgotten her. It was a sign that they were coming for her. She was practically hysterical. The head fell to the floor and her husband called the police. The police recognized it for a cult calling card and said they'd keep an eye out. No one mentioned the floating part, though. Who would believe that?

In fact, over the years, they've called her repeatedly, left other pleasant calling cards. She did finally escape them ... but it took moving to Saudi Arabia for a few years before the group finally quit contacting her.

I never did get back out to that graveyard. I still want to.

And I'm curious now. Duncanville was starting to really build up in that area. Candice told me when she first joined that cult, you couldn't see anything but trees or prairie grass anywhere around. But when I saw the place, there were some condos within sight of the graveyard and signs out along the road claiming that more would be coming soon. Not that they'd even broken ground yet, but still .... If this group was really such bad news, how would they react to a residential development? Would they wreak so much havoc the developers abandon their plans? Or would they be forced to leave their secret hidey-tunnels and find a new graveyard in a more isolated area?

I don't know. But I'm still awfully curious about it.

And I never did actually promise Candice that I wouldn't go back.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:00 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 16, 2005

The Graveyard

As we get closer to Halloween, I'll share a couple more spooky stories with you. Given that tonight is more or less the half-way point, I thought I'd start out with one of the spooky, but slightly less ghost-infested stories.

My first year in college, I was going to my voice and diction class (I started out as a drama major, go figure) and talking to one of the kids in my class. It was probably about this time of year, weather barely turning cool -- it's Texas, remember -- and she tells me about this place near where she grew up -- maybe half an hour or so away from school. The kids called it witch mountain or ghost mountain or something. She told me that it was this awesome old, old graveyard out in Duncanville. It's one of those perfect old graveyards, way out in the country, trees all around.

And, she says, she doesn't know about haunted, but the satanists "own" this graveyard.

My interest is now beyond piqued. "Let's go out there after class," I enthuse. She's a little less sure about that, but I finally talk her into it.

As we're driving out there, she tells me that there's only one road that goes up to witch mountain. And there's a gate on that road. And every evening, there's two cops in a patrol car stationed at the gate. They'll open up the gate if you absolutely insist on going up there, she says, but they also warn you that if you break down even ten feet inside that gated area, they won't go in there to help you. No one goes in there after dark unless they're part of it or stupid.

Now, personally, I wondered why the cops didn't just start taking everyone who wanted up there after dusk in for questioning on the vandalism at the graveyard, but whatever.

She tells me about all sorts of horror stories about this graveyard. Mostly the standard types of scary stories -- these satan worshippers kill people there, hold all sorts of scary rituals. They're so bad even the cops are scared of them.

So, when we get into Duncanville and out into the hinterlands, sure enough, I see the gates open on the side of this road. They're the basic kinda triangular metal tube gates that often block off parking lots at univesities and high schools. Stephanie (the girl from my class) is now visibly nervous. It's maybe noon on a Thursday and she's actually already scared to be driving up to this cemetary.

We get to the cemetary and park just across the little street. There's an open field on the side of the street where we park, all blowing prairie grass. The cemetary is bounded by trees on two sides. The other two sides, near the road (the road makes a right turn here), are bounded by an old-fashioned wrought iron fence. There's a great big wrought iron archway and gate at the entrance to the graveyard and a large expanse of grass in the front before you get to the modern graves. There's maybe four or five rows of modern graves before we start getting into folks who died in the 40s, 30s, 20s and a whole bunch from the 1800s. The cemetary is maybe about 75 yards long and about half that wide. As we walk closer to the entrance I can see why they didn't even bother to bound the north end and the east end with a fence. There's a dropoff there. A little kid might say there's a cliff on those two sides, but really, it's not quite high enough or steep enough to truly be called a cliff. Nonetheless, I can't imagine too many people would want to make that climb.

The leaves had already fallen on many of the trees, leaving some at the top level looking dead and barren -- while some whose roots were deeper and a little further down the incline still with a full "head" of green "hair."

The weirdest thing that I noticed as we approached the front gate is that some of the trees appeared to be wearing decorations. I couldn't quite see what they were but it wasn't some kid's lost kite.

The gate to the cemetary was open and I noticed a set of heavy chains and a really heavy duty lock that was used to lock the place up. All shiny new, they really stood out againt the black matte and rust of the wrought iron fencing. There was a sign just outside the cemetary listing the hours it was open. It closed at five p.m. Now that seemed really weird to me. Why would you close a cemetary that early? Most of the ones I knew of were open until at least nine or ten p.m.

We walked in across the "front yard" of the cemetary -- all that blank expanse of grass just waiting to be filled with more graves. We walked quickly past the modern graves, but I admit, I got creeped out almost immediately. In addition to the multiple modern gravestones that had been broken, there was a grave that had been dug up.

Now this was not a freshly dug grave. This was not something where the coffin had just been buried. No, there were bits of flower arrangements, bits of plastic wreath frames, and a vase or two sticking out of the dirt. Also, a freshly dug grave doesn't generally stand about three feet higher than the ground level.

And there's generally not a hole big enough for a human to actually disappear into left there.

Despite my very overactive curiosity, I was seriously creeped out by that grave. I walked quickly past it after a very cursory look and went on to look at the old graves instead.

On the way to the back of the graveyard, I could see where someone had tossed plastic wreaths out into the trees, leaving them trapped there. I'd thought it was some kind of weird frisbee before.

I was fascinated by the old graves and appalled by the vandalism. But I'd really seen nothing that said satanists used this place.

Except for the dug up grave.

Oh and the really weird thing ... you know that wind whistling through the trees that you hear in horror movies? I always assumed that this was some goofy sound that Hollywood had made up and was just a stupid contrivance to signal that something scary was going to hapen.

I heard it repeatedly that day. Now if that's not enough to get an overactive imagination running wild.

Well, as we were leaving, I got seriously creeped out going across that expanse of lawn. I kept imagining someone reaching up through the ground and grabbing my feet.

Silliness right?

Tomorrow I'll tell you want happened a couple of years later, as I was telling one of my friends about my trip to witch mountain.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:18 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 12, 2005

Which Way to Go?

So, Croaker over at BlogExplosion, requested another ghost story. I had intended to save the rest of my spooky stories for just a little closer to Halloween, though.

For the moment, I'll give you a small hint as to what ghost stories you can expect to be coming in the next few weeks. Two of the stories involve satan-worshippers. Now, I want to be perfectly clear about this before even starting in ... satan-worshippers and pagans are NOT the same thing. At all. Pagan is actually an old generic term for people who aren't Christian, so in some senses, I can see how the confusion settles in. However, today, suffice it to say that most pagans follow some form of old earth religions. Maybe wiccan, maybe wittan, maybe something Native American (although we're generally better about identifying those folks as believing in a Native American religion).

Okay, lecture over.

Story One: John Discovers He's "Sensitive"
Story Two: Ender Discovers Satanists Really Do Exist -- And the Cops Are Afraid of Them!
Story Three: Kalamazoo Means "Bad Water" - and they ain't talking about the taste!

For now, I'll just tell you about something a little on the odd side.

As a kid, I had a perfect sense of direction. I never got lost. Now, you can maybe say I had a great ability to pick out where the sun was and get my bearings. Maybe I just did that instinctually. Of course, it doesn't explain why I could still do that inside a big building or a mall, but maybe I was just intensely talented in being able to retain the bearings I'd gotten while outside.

It doesn't really explain the night that the scout camp decided to test me, spinning me round and round and round and blindfolded. And when they stopped me and asked for north, I could feel it. I pointed. They marked where I was standing and where I had pointed.

When the sun came up, the compasses came out. Dead on for north.

Now, this intrigued me. I was dead on for magnetic north, which is actually not the same thing as north "for really."

As I grew up, I irritated all of my friends at some point or another simply by being able to tell how to get somewhere. They'd insist that as a passenger in the back of a car, not paying much attention, I should NOT be able to find a place I'd only been to the once. And then they'd get mad when I did it.

When I was in college, though, I discovered one "null spot." On a road trip to a conference in Oklahoma, I exited the highway on one of those grand cloverleaves out in the middle of nowhere. Flat prairie land all around. One gas station on the turnabout. I immediately headed north.

Except the signs eventually told me I was headed south. I pulled over. I felt out the area. I was headed ... I couldn't tell anymore. In fact, I realized that I couldn't tell any direction at all. It was one of the weirdest feelings I've ever had.

We stopped at a gas station, got headed in the right direction and about ten miles north of that cloverleaf, SNAP. North was right back in my head where it was supposed to be.

On the way back to Texas, we took a different route. Never lost my sense of direction.

Going back to Oklahoma City a few years later ... same damn thing happened.

The third time I drove through there, I had that spot marked on the map and a navigator ready to straighten me out. Sure enough, I couldn't tell which way was which until about ten miles north of that same cloverleaf.

Today, though, I only have a good sense of direction. Not the unerring one I had as a kid. What changed?

That sense of north lost a lot of power when I had to undergo chemo-therapy for Hodgkin's disease. I don't know if it was during the first round of chemo or a year later during the bone marrow transplant ... it was a slow process, I think.

That said, I still don't lose my way too often.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:19 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 7, 2005

The Rest of that Story

All right, I started this story a few days ago and finished the first draft of it tonight. Even though there've been no comments on it, I'm still gonna post it. :)

Again, if you're not a reader of online fiction, don't click the "Continue Reading" link and just scroll down for a great picture of a koala bear hanging out in some Australian's driveway.

You've decided to give it a shot? All right then! If you've already started the story and just want to finish reading it, click here.

Untitled, a short story in progress
(c) 2005, all rights reserved


The playground grass was never green. Not in Texas. Not in September. Maybe in the spring, for a few weeks before the heat burned it all to a uniform, creamy tan again. We loved outside recess anyway, though. Except for kickball days � those were the worst. School was regimented enough as it was. We couldn't do anything but sit still and do our work and that barely took half the day. If I was lucky, I'd be allowed to go to the library and check out a book after proving that all my schoolwork was done already. But the librarian wouldn't let me check out anything from the big kid's section. Rules and regulations. Conditions and terms. Restriction.

So kickball days when we were herded onto the blacktop with the enticing basketball goals hanging out above us, their nets blowing free in the breeze, were particularly painful. It just wasn't fair to make us play an incredibly stupid and regimented game during recess. I wanted to be more like the net, blowing freely around the schoolyard.

I wasn't quite a year old when Neil walked on the moon, but the space bug bit me awfully early anyway, so of course, my favourite piece of equipment on the playground was a huge rocket ship made of steel bars. There was a slide coming out of the middle and ladders that took you all the way to the top. I would spend most of recess in that rocket ship (or trying to fly on the swings if they happened to be open). The rocket ship was the perfect metaphor for my childhood. Completely free and full of imagination. Completely trapped inside the bars and longing to be out.

***

"Michelle, can I talk to you for a moment?"

Michelle looked about in panic. She hadn't done anything wrong. She'd done all her schoolwork on time (early, actually ... and finished her homework already, too).

"It's okay, you're not in trouble," the teacher murmured quietly.

She gave one last longing look at the double doors to outside, freedom, recess and sighed. "Yes?"

They walked back into the classroom and Michelle sat back down at her desk, like she was supposed to. Miss Burciaga pulled out a small chair and sat down next to her. "Are you doing all right here?"

Michelle shrugged. What an odd question for an adult to ask. "Yeah. I mean, I'm doing all right in all our subjects and everything." Her shoulder twitched again. "It's easy."

"Well, I've just noticed that since you came back to Pillow from your other school, you seem ..." she trailed off. "It seems like you're by yourself a lot. Are the other kids teasing you?"

***

I loved that school, Pillow. I thought it was the best of the three elementary schools I attended. This library had better � and more � books than the one at the private school. And the classroom set-up was far better than what I would become lost in later on, in my last elementary school. We stayed with one teacher all day, every day. She was given any 30 kids, but then she divided us up into small groups for reading and math. Sometimes there'd only be two of us in my math group. Sometimes there'd be four. It just depended on how fast you got the concepts or if you had to stay home from school due to illness.

And in the third grade, we'd added some Spanish since our teacher was Latina. Every Friday we played bingo in Spanish. I loved school.

***

Some of the boys were climbing all over the rocket ship, forbidding the girls from getting to the slide. Michelle couldn't play on the rocket ship today, anyway. She was wearing a stupid dress that she hated.

Across the playground, away from the swings, the teeter-totter's ragged blue peeling paint, the caterpillar that wasn't really monkey bars and the regular slide were several concrete tubes. Probably meant to form a sewer system at the school, but leftover for whatever reason. It was cheaper to let the kids play in them than for the construction company to haul them away again. Michelle sat in the furthest one, back pressed tight against the curved wall, feet braced against the opposite curve. Looking out onto the schoolyard. Observing. Watching.

***

An athletic child, I rarely stopped moving. I was always up for a game of touch football or running races. Despite being a scrawny asthmatic (or maybe because of it), I was in constant motion, pausing only momentarily to use the nasty inhaler if I absolutely had to.

In the schoolroom, that constant movement was sated somewhat if I had something to occupy my restless brain. It didn't matter if it was studying my spelling words, working on my math homework during work periods or finishing our reading text. So long as I was busy, I was quiet and behaved. Let me run out of work to do or books to read and I would devise my own amusements, and like most grade school children, those generally weren't school sanctioned activities.

***

"David," called Miss Burciaga. When he walked up to her desk, she handed him his report card. He didn't bother looking at it as he went outside to his bus. "Michelle." She didn't look at hers either, none of the children did. The little Ss and Es didn't much matter to them.

She ran outside to catch her bus and discovered Tim Balcezak bullying one of the younger kids, trying to get the kid to stand on one leg and recite the alphabet backwards. He couldn't have been more than a kindergartner and probably barely knew his alphabet as it was.

"Let's hear you recite the alphabet backwards, Tim," she called out loudly enough for the bigger kids to hear. The sly grins on their faces was all it took.

"Awww, you're just a baby, anyway." He started to shuffle off but the hand of the vice principal caught him gently on the shoulder.

"Guess I'm riding with you today," he announced to the schoolyard.

***

We lived way out in the country, on the far north side of Austin, beyond the quarries. It used to scare me a little, all of the signs that warned of blast zones, and the huge crack of the dynamite as we'd pass through doing 55 on the highway to get to our quiet little suburban neighborhood.

Where we lived wasn't quite a closed-gate community, but it wasn't far off, either. Stone walls flanked either side of the single entrance to the neighborhood, proudly proclaiming Balcones Woods � and they'd had to strip down a fair number of trees to make those stone walls readable from the highway.

Let me put it this way, it wasn't at all unusual for us to see deer, 'possums, raccoons, and all manner of wildlife wandering the streets. It was a beautiful place to grow up, the hill country of Austin. Everything a kid could ask for.

***

Michelle laughed at the look on Tim's face as the vice principal actually got on the bus with them and sat in the same seat as Tim.

"Tim," some clueless kid from the back of the bus called out, "how does that song go? That on top of old smoky thing?"

"Yeah, Tim, why don't you start that one for us."

Michelle snickered to herself and settled into her seat alone. Since coming back to Pillow, she hadn't really made any new friends. It was hard. She'd known every one of her classmates in first grade. In second she'd gone to a private school and made better friends with some of the teachers than with the students until almost the end of the school year. Now, back at Pillow for third grade, she was back to not knowing anyone and back to making friends with the teacher instead of the kids.

But she'd known Tim since before kindergarten. He lived around the corner from her. And it was good to see him get his comeuppance.

***

Despite all of the moving we'd done when I was younger, I was a very outgoing child, rarely alone. In fact, Mom used to tell a story about when we were looking for a new nursery school for me. She toured the school with one of the teachers and "lost" me. I had found the small stage in one of the main rooms and had a gaggle of preschoolers gathered around me as I sat on the edge of the stage, enthralling the kids with a story.

I adored large groups of people, and while I didn't have to be the center of attention, I loved being in the limelight.

***

Michelle hopped off the bus and knocked on her front door.

"How was school," her mom asked as she opened the door, cigarette smoke curling upward into the dim foyer.

"Fine. Can I go play?"

"Do you have any homework?"

"No." Miss Burciaga had assigned some, but Michelle had finished it long before classes were over for the day. She'd spent the rest of the day with a book about Kit Carson.

"Your sister's sick, so you can play in the garage, but you can't go outside. We might need to take her back to the doctor, so I don't want you wandering off."

Her shoulders slumped. She had plenty to do in the garage turned playroom, but she'd been hoping to go down the street to her friend's house.

***

Having just come from a two bedroom apartment, we all thought the three bedroom house with its front room, large den and kitchen was simply enormous. Soon, however, Mom tired of my sister's and my messy rooms and insisted that all of the toys be moved out into the garage, which was renovated to become our playroom. A huge home improvement project, we were ecstatic to have plenty of room to spread out all the Weebles we had.

***

Michelle changed out of the hated dress and into the Health-Tex shorts and matching shirt that were laid out on her bed. They weren't allowed to wear school clothes into the playroom because it was still too dirty out there. She pulled out the Playskool McDonald's, motel, the national park and started setting them all up around the big cabinet that divided their play area from her dad's workbench.

As she played with the toys that wobbled and fell over constantly, unlike the Weebles she'd really wanted, she never turned her back on the door to the house or to the workbench, but she also was very careful to never look directly at them, either, except in quick, carefully guarded glances.

***

My sister and I had every Weebles playset ever made, I think. The Mickey Mouse clubhouse, the haunted house, the circus, the Pooh bear treehouse � we had them all and I loved the little roly-poly guys. The Lopezes down the street, where I played nearly every day, had the Playskool sets with the squared people made of cheap plastic. The national park set was intriguing, but those were never as interesting as my beloved Weebles.

We would spend days setting up elaborate towns of Weeble sets, using TinkerToys and blocks to build an extra ranch, roadways, everything we needed to make a completely different world.

***

Leaning against the cheap trailer-park paneling that had "renovated" the garage into the playroom, Michelle wiggled just to feel the panel move beneath her. As the door to the house opened, though, she froze. Square people in each hand hovered in mid-air.

Had anyone been paying attention, the sequence would have looked more like a video after the pause button had been hit. First, the playing, wiggling child and the slightly vibrating wall behind her, then ... pause. Still. Even her chest seemed not to move.

"Dinner'll be ready in ten minutes. You need to come in the house now and wash up."

"But, Mom, I'm busy right now." The little people landed inside the McDonald's, seated at their little table. Michelle stood up and carefully stepped over her little village. Her mom had already gone back inside the house, the usual dance completed without either of them paying any attention to it.

***

After dinner was always a time for Meggie and I to play board games together. We'd set up Sorry! or Park 'n' Shop or even Clue and play until it was time for bed. Since my sister was sickly and five years younger, I tried to let her win about half of the time. Of course, this was an easier task to accomplish if we played while my beloved Hardy Boys were on. Or Battlestar Galactica, or The Man From Atlantis, or ... well, any of my favourite shows.

The funniest thing, though, was that during the mid seventies, public service announcements were as common as regular commercials (or so it seemed to me). There was the commercial with the native American crying at all the trash on the side of the road � every child knew that commercial. Drinking and driving commercials were just starting to air, but the most controversial one of all was for the child abuse hotline. It was funny to me because every time it came on, Meggie got this all-too familiar, stubborn jut to her jaw and determination in her eyes and then refuse to do the next thing Mom asked her to do.

She'd get that three-year-old's intensity in her face, shout, "NO!" at the top of her quite well-developed lungs and then proceed to browbeat our poor mom with her threat to call the child abuse number.

The first time this happened, Mom laughed at her and said something about Meggie's not being able to remember that long number.

And then Meggie recited it for her, furious as only a child who thinks she's been oh-so-hideously wronged can be.

***

"One Eight Zero Zero Five Five Five Three Three Four Two."

Michelle's mom stood in shock at this recitation and stared at her youngest daughter. Even Michelle, who knew that Meggie was smarter than Mom gave her credit for blinked at her sister.

"That number says you can't make me go to bed an' I'm not gonna," she proclaimed, arms crossed against her chest.

Michelle poked her little sister in the ribs. "You're gonna get if you don't stop," she whispered.

"Am not. Am not gonna get in trouble. Mommy's going to get in trouble because she can't make me go to bed. It's child abuse."

Michelle almost snickered, and then, as their mom started laughing, she did, too. "That's not what that number is for, baby."

"I'm not a baby! And I will call them. I will too." And the little girl in her footie pajamas moved to the kitchen, grabbed a chair from the dining room table and proceeded to drag it to the wall phone.

Still chuckling, their mom intercepted Meggie as she climbed on to the chair, lifted her up and hauled her, kicking and screaming as usual, back to her bedroom. "Come on, then," she said. "I'll lay down with you for a while."

***

I always did have to take care of Meggie. For one, her mouth got her into more trouble than practically anyone else I've ever met. And she ran her mouth more than anyone I've ever known my entire life. She pulled that child abuse phone number out all the time after that. I couldn't begin to count the number of times she threatened Mom with that number � and always for the stupidest stuff.

If anyone actually needed that number, though, it was the poor little girl who lived next door to us for a short while. Angela was a year or so older than me and since her family only lived next door for one summer, I don't know if she'd have gone on the bus with me to public school or if she would have gone away to private school. Oh, I know she would say she was going to a private school, she was just that kind of kid.

For example, one day I was walking over to the Lopezes house as usual. We didn't have sidewalks out here in the boonies (even if it was the suburbs), but I had always walked roughly where the sidewalk would be if we'd had one. This particular day, Angela comes running out of her house like it was on fire, screaming at me to get off her property. The more we talked, the more adamant she became that I not only get off her property, but that, in fact, she owned the street as well. If I wanted to get to the Lopezes house from now on I had to cross the middle of the street before coming into their yard. Of course, I disagreed.

***

Michelle lay in her bed and stared at the dark ceiling. The little pebblies on the ceiling made nice patterns, mountains and valleys. She imagined taking her Playskool people up into those upside down mountains. It was a new national park.

She heard her mom and Meggie giggling quietly in the next room. Despite her protestations that Meggie was a big girl and should be made to sleep alone in her big girl bed, their mom bought Meggie a full size bed and moved the extra twin bed into Michelle's room.

"It's just easier. Your sister is very high strung."

Michelle heard a car door and peeked out her window. It was a huge window, the edge coming right to the edge of her bed and it gave her a great view of the front door to the house.

Sure enough, her dad was loping up to the door, black suit all neat and tidy as always. Now that Daddy was home safe she could sleep. And she closed her eyes with a smile.

***

The fight between Angela and I continued to get heated, until Angela leaned over into the grass and pulled up a stick. Not having any idea at all what was coming, I simply watched as Angela carved a backwards letter J into my stomach with that stick.

Too shocked to do much of anything, I certainly wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I stepped around her and continued on to the Lopezes.

They weren't there.

I crossed the street carefully, praying my mom wasn't looking out the window and then crossed back into our driveway. After a few minutes of trying to pretend that Angela really hadn't scratched my stomach, I finally went to mom to show her. Horrified, Mom and I walked over to Angela's house to let her parents know exactly what had just happened.

***

Crying, Michelle raised her shirt up to show her mother.

"What happened, Michelle?"

"Angela said I couldn't walk across their yard to get to Debbie's house," she said as her mom sprayed Bactine all over the cut.

"Well, you should stay out of her yard, then."

"But she wanted me to cross the street, 'cuz she said that side of the street is her yard, too."

Her mother laughed. "Now, now, don't exaggerate. I'm sure she just doesn't want you walking on her grass."

"No, Mom, she told me that her dad paid for that house and the yard and they owned the street all the way out to the middle."

"Well, if you think she really said that." Her mother smoothed her shirt down over the cut. "There you go, all better."

"But she's gonna do it again. She said. Every time I try to go to Debbie's house."

Her mother laughed. "Well, if you think it's going to be a problem, you should go talk to her parents."

Her dad stood in the doorway, now that the "surgery" was over. "I think you need to go do that right now," he said. "You can't let her get away with that."

"By myself?" Michelle squeaked.

Her parents exchanged a look. "You need to learn to do these things yourself."

And so she went next door alone.

***

Her mother answered the door. Angela was peeking around a corner, shooting me daggers as I tried not to hide behind my mom. Our moms spoke for a few minutes, I "showed off" the scratch Angela had made and then the door closed. But before we could walk away, we heard Angela's mom yelling for the dad and then the both of them yelling at her. At first I was glad she was getting in trouble, but when I heard the slap and the scream and the repeated smacking noises, I got scared. Mom's lips thinned into a line and we hurried home and away from the violence.

***

Angela's father answered the door and barked out a gruff, "Yeah?"

"I, umm, Angela was telling me that I can't walk even in the street by your house."

Angela's dad just stared at Michelle.

"And, umm, when I said I wouldn't cross the street, she took a stick and carved in me." Michelle blinked rapidly a few times and then reluctantly pulled her shirt up a bit and showed the gouge mark in her stomach.

Angela's dad grunted, turned and shut the door. "ANGELA!" he hollered.

Michelle just stood and stared at the door for a second until she realized that Angela's dad was hitting her and Angela was crying and then screaming.

***

The funny thing about all of this � not that anything about Angela was actually funny � but Dad had to ask Meggie what the number was for the child abuse hotline. As soon as we walked in the door, Mom pulled Dad aside and told him what happened. She wanted him to go next door and have a talk with the man, but Dad had far too much sense for that and insisted that we call the child abuse hotline and the cops, both.

It's one of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood. Hearing Angela screaming as her father beat her. Then seeing the flashing lights of the cop cars, sirens screaming, in the dusk out in the woods of our neighborhood. I wasn't surprised that they moved away soon after that.

***

Screaming in the night. Open mouth, no sound. No lights. No noise. Overbearing weight. Thud of the headboard.

***

Meggie, of course, didn't understand why no one found her threat of calling the child abuse number amusing any more. Like most three, not quite four year olds, she simply thought she always got her way and nothing short of that was fair.

None of the kids in the neighborhood said anything about that night. No one asked about the police, no one said a word when the Mayflower truck pulled up and took everything Angela's family had away. But no one played outside until after the Mayflower truck was gone.

***

Snapped to the breaking point. Aching, not crying. Wrists sore but no marks. Overwhelming. Alone. No bruises that show.

Sneaking out to the living room. They're all asleep now. Crickets chirping. Barely breathing. Reaching for the phone and the directory. Fumbling with the rotary dial.

***

Once school started again, Debbie and I sat in the top of the rocket ship on the playground and talked about it just once. She said the cops had come over to our house, not Angela's, but her window didn't have a very good angle and I'm sure with as many cops as there were, that it might have looked like the whole street was blanketed with police. But I can still remember sitting in the rocket ship, legs dangling out freely as other kids charged up the ladder and then down the slide and describing for Debbie the whole scene all over again. Everything from the argument and the stick in the stomach to Dad's phone call. Debbie just gave me an odd look.

(Fumbling with the rotary dial.)

We didn't get to talk about it again as we moved to another town just two months into the school year.

***

Huddled in bed. Lights flashing outside. Voiceless. No sirens. No noise at all. Silence.

***

I may have only been a third-grader, but I was furious when I found out we were moving again. I loved my school and my teachers and I was tired of changing schools. And Angela was gone, so the neighborhood was safe again. Above all, I couldn't imagine leaving my rocket ship.

***

The front door shook in the frame from the pounding. Still silence. Not even a cricket chirp. Just the whirl of lights.

Activity. Lights pop on, flooding the house. In the distance, on the highway, the wail of a far distant siren.

Voices in the hallway. Whispers. Talking. Crickets chirping.

Even washed out by the hall lights, still the blues and reds spray across the wall.

Blue uniform, sitting on the desk chair. Questions.

There are no words. Crying from the other room. Yelling. Female yelling. Hushing noises. Blue uniform leans over and then leaves.

There are no words.

***

Of course, to this day, when I hear a siren, I think of poor Angela. Given that they moved away and how bad the children protective services were at that time, I wonder if her parents escaped the system and if she ever found her way out of the family trap she was in. And I think of my sister threatening our parents with the child abuse number and I just have to think, dumb kid. She didn't know how good she had it.

***

There's a lot of walking back and forth. Every light in the house is on. Female wailing in the den. Child crying in the next room. Blue uniform talking, calm. Questioning. Nice.

I have no idea why they would be here. I have no words.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:21 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 4, 2005

A Story

I just hate these divided up entries like the one I'm about to post. It's just a personal preference, but I don't want to have to click a link in order to read the article. I already clicked a link to get to the page and you're telling me I gotta click another one?? That's generally a fast way to send me surfing again.

But ...

There's always a but, isn't there? But in this case, I also have to say that I generally don't like fiction blogs. Generally speaking, by the time I stumble across one, I'm coming into the middle of a poorly written, grammatically nightmare-ish autobiography thinly disguised as the best fiction story ever.

So ... if you want to check out a piece of short and unfinished fiction, click the link for the story. If you don't, you can scroll down and read some of my articles. Call this post me getting ready for NaNoWriMo. :)

Untitled, a short story in progress
(c) 2005, all rights reserved

The playground grass was never green. Not in Texas. Not in September. Maybe in the spring, for a few weeks before the heat burned it all to a uniform, creamy tan again. We loved outside recess anyway, though. Except for kickball days � those were the worst. School was regimented enough as it was. We couldn't do anything but sit still and do our work and that barely took half the day. If I was lucky, I'd be allowed to go to the library and check out a book after proving that all my schoolwork was done already. But the librarian wouldn't let me check out anything from the big kid's section. Rules and regulations. Conditions and terms. Restriction.

So kickball days when we were herded onto the blacktop with the enticing basketball goals hanging out above us, their nets blowing free in the breeze, were particularly painful. It just wasn't fair to make us play an incredibly stupid and regimented game during recess. I wanted to be more like the net, blowing freely around the schoolyard.

I wasn't quite a year old when Neil walked on the moon, but the space bug bit me awfully early anyway, so of course, my favourite piece of equipment on the playground was a huge rocket ship made of steel bars. There was a slide coming out of the middle and ladders that took you all the way to the top. I would spend most of recess in that rocket ship (or trying to fly on the swings if they happened to be open). The rocket ship was the perfect metaphor for my childhood. Completely free and full of imagination. Completely trapped inside the bars and longing to be out.

***

"Michelle, can I talk to you for a moment?"

Michelle looked about in panic. She hadn't done anything wrong. She'd done all her schoolwork on time (early, actually ... and finished her homework already, too).

"It's okay, you're not in trouble," the teacher murmured quietly.

She gave one last longing look at the double doors to outside, freedom, recess and sighed. "Yes?"

They walked back into the classroom and Michelle sat back down at her desk, like she was supposed to. Miss Burciaga pulled out the small chair and sat down next to her. "Are you doing all right here?"

Michelle shrugged. What an odd question for an adult to ask. "Yeah. I mean, I'm doing all right in all our subjects and everything." Her shoulder twitched again. "It's easy."

"Well, I've just noticed that since you came back to Pillow from your other school, you seem ..." she trailed off. "It seems like you're by yourself a lot. Are the other kids teasing you?"

***

I loved that school, Pillow. I thought it was the best of the three elementary schools I attended. This library had better � and more � books than the one at the private school. And the classroom set-up was far better than what I would become lost in later on, in my last elementary school. We stayed with one teacher all day, every day. She was given any 30 kids, but then she divided us up into small groups for reading and math. Sometimes there'd only be two of us in my math group. Sometimes there'd be four. It just depended on how fast you got the concepts or if you had to stay home from school due to illness.

And in the third grade, we'd added some Spanish since our teacher was Latina. Every Friday we played bingo in Spanish. I loved school.

***

Some of the boys were climbing all over the rocket ship, forbidding the girls from getting to the slide. Michelle couldn't play on the rocket ship today, anyway. She was wearing a stupid dress that she hated.

Across the playground, away from the swings, the teeter-totter's ragged blue peeling paint, the caterpillar that wasn't really monkey bars and the regular slide were several concrete tubes. Probably meant to form a sewer system at the school, but leftover for whatever reason. It was cheaper to let the kids play in them than for the construction company to haul them away again. Michelle sat in the furthest one, back pressed tight against the curved wall, feet braced against the opposite curve. Looking out onto the schoolyard. Observing. Watching.

***

An athletic child, I rarely stopped moving. I was always up for a game of touch football or running races. Despite being a scrawny asthmatic (or maybe because of it), I was in constant motion, pausing only momentarily to use the nasty inhaler if I absolutely had to.

In the schoolroom, that constant movement was sated somewhat if I had something to occupy my restless brain. It didn't matter if it was studying my spelling words, working on my math homework during work periods or finishing our reading text. So long as I was busy, I was quiet and behaved. Let me run out of work to do or books to read and I would devise my own amusements, and like most grade school children, those generally weren't school sanctioned activities.

***

"David," called Miss Burciaga. When he walked up to her desk, she handed him his report card. He didn't bother looking at it as he went outside to his bus. "Michelle." She didn't look at hers either, none of the children did. The little Ss and Es didn't much matter to them.

She ran outside to catch her bus and discovered Tim Balcezak bullying one of the younger kids, trying to get the kid to stand on one leg and recite the alphabet backwards. He couldn't have been more than a kindergartner and probably barely knew his alphabet as it was.

"Let's hear you recite the alphabet backwards, Tim," she called out loudly enough for the bigger kids to hear. The sly grins on their faces was all it took.

"Awww, you're just a baby, anyway." He started to shuffle off but the hand of the vice principal caught him gently on the shoulder.

"Guess I'm riding with you today," he announced to the schoolyard.

***

We lived way out in the country, on the far north side of Austin, beyond the quarries. It used to scare me a little, all of the signs that warned of blast zones, and the huge crack of the dynamite as we'd pass through doing 55 on the highway to get to our quiet little suburban neighborhood.

Where we lived wasn't quite a closed-gate community, but it wasn't far off, either. Stone walls flanked either side of the single entrance to the neighborhood, proudly proclaiming Balcones Woods � and they'd had to strip down a fair number of trees to make those stone walls readable from the highway.

Let me put it this way, it wasn't at all unusual for us to see deer, 'possums, raccoons, and all manner of wildlife wandering the streets. It was a beautiful place to grow up, the hill country of Austin. Everything a kid could ask for.

***

To be continued ....

(providing, that is, there's any interest in it at all)

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:41 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 1, 2005

My Roomate, the Lizard

All right, fresh from Azba ... Azkaba ... Turkmenistan, here's the latest update on the poor lizard who got stuck in the goo:

To update everyone who�s following the lizard story, I have some sad news. I have not seen even a streaking glimpse of the little guy since that fateful feet-stuck-in-goo night. As I rather like his quiet company and ant-eating skills, I�m hoping that he�s just laying low ... but I�m afraid he may have left the premises in one way or another.
Another possibility is that the lizard was eaten by a giant beetle I saw strutting across my living room a few days ago. This thing was amazing ... about an 1" long and �" thick, but he walked up high on long spider-like legs. I know this because I got a great view of him as I snuck up to squish him ... but as I was pondering what a beetle that sized would do, once squished, to my rug, he ran under the sofa. Oh ... and I have to mention that when I grabbed a shoe for squishing-purposes), I found what appeared to be a daddy-longlegs on steroids. As I�ve already had a series of very bad spider bites since being here and didn�t relish more on my feet, should it find my row of shoes to be better housing than the wall, I took great pains � involving turning off the light, broom in one hand, shoe in the other � to get rid of it. Where is a good attack lizard when you need him?!?!

And, can anyone identify the obscure 70s song this title is based on? "My Roommate" by ..... who? What band did this during the disco era? (and that's all the hints I'm giving!)

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:14 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 30, 2005

Writing playlist

Someone requested the current version of my "writing" playlist, so here it is. I'm still tweaking it ... I had Eminem's "Lose Yourself" in here at one point and keep toying with putting it back in. And there's a couple of others that need to be repeated more frequently. I also have got to replace some of my early U2 records as some of those early, early songs were on my early writing mix tapes. I'll try to find the mix tape I used to write my first book and post that old one this weekend. This particular writing playlist is a generic, get-the-muse-over-here-and-let's-get-busy kind of playlist. Once I start working on something seriously, I'll develop a playlist specifically for that piece.

For me, when i'm writing a long creative piece, I have to have a soundtrack. There's one novel that I've been working on in fits and starts where both major characters have their own playlist which suits their individual personalities.

Current "Generic" Writing Playlist:
"Wake Me Up When September Ends," Green Day, American Idiot
"Time Passages," Al Stewart, Time Passages
"Time In A Bottle," Jim Croce, Jim Croce
"Reminiscing," Little River Band, All-Time Greatest Hits
"Fast Car," Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman
"I'm With You," Avril Lavigne, Let Go
"Let The Day Begin," The Call, Let The Day Begin
"Under The Milky Way," The Church, Starfish
"Destination," The Church, Starfish
"Van Diemen's Land," U2, Rattle And Hum
"Enjoy The Silence," Depeche Mode, Singles 86-98 Disc 1
"Personal Jesus," Depeche Mode, Singles 86-98 Disc 1
"Wendy," Tapes, Miccah
"Life in a Northern Town," Dream Academy
"Dear God," XTC, Skylarking
"Save A Prayer," Duran Duran, Greatest Hits
"Return To Innocence," Enigma, Love Sensuality Devotion
"One By One," Enya, A Day Without Rain
"Lazy Days," Enya
"Orinoco Flow," Enya, Paint The Sky With Stars
"Book of Days," Enya
"Unwell," Matchbox Twenty, More Than You Think You Are
"Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen, Greatest Hits I
"Freshmen," Verve Pipe
"Superman," Five for Fighting, America Town
"Mother," Pink Floyd, The Wall (Disc 1)
"Landslide," Fleetwood Mac
"Songs About Rain," Gary Allan, See If I Care
"Wake Me Up When September Ends," Green Day, American Idiot
"River," Indigo Girls, 1200 Curfews (Disc 1)
"Thin Line," Indigo Girls, 1200 Curfews (Disc 1)
"Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee," Indigo Girls , 1200 Curfews (Disc 1)
"cordova," Indigo Girls, All That We Let In
"One Headlight," Wallflowers
"Nightswimming," >R.E.M., Automatic for the People
"Try Not To Breathe," R.E.M., >Automatic for the People
"Low," >R.E.M., Out Of Time
Belong," R.E.M., Out Of Time
Texarkana," R.E.M., Out Of Time
"Country Feedback," R.E.M., >Out Of Time
"Philosophy of Loss," Indigo Girls, Come On Now Social
"gone again," Indigo Girls, Come On Now Social
"cold beer and remote control," Indigo Girls, Come On Now Social
"Kid Fears," Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls
"Blood And Fire," Indigo Girls, >Indigo Girls
"Welcome Me," Indigo Girls, >Nomads Indians Saints
"Cool Change," Little River Band, All-Time Greatest Hits
"Live to Tell," Madonna, Immaculate
"Concrete Angel," Martina McBride, Greatest Hits
"Rest Stop," Matchbox Twenty, Mad Season
"You Can Sleep While I Drive," Melissa Etheridge, Brave And Crazy
"Speed," Montgomery Gentry, My Town

So that's the current playlist and I can feel it starting to work its mojo. Between that and the discussion on BlogExplosion's shoutbox last night about National Novel Writing Month, I'm even getting some ideas for complete re-tooling of an old idea. I'd stopped working on that novel long, long, long ago because being in high school at the time, I realized I didn't have the subtlety to do the idea justice. Also, at the time, I was fighting being seen as a "genre writer." Now, I don't care. I love the SF genre. There is so much incredible stuff going on in the genre, so many ideas and topics and issues that are important to me (and, of course, I think they should be important to everyone). Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think a novel should be "about An Issue." Nope. A novel is about a story you need to tell and about the characters. If you can also, by the by, work in an issue that fits that story - and often it makes the story even deeper and more focused - then great.

Anyhow, that's the playlist and a bit of discussion on my ideas about creative writing. What are your ideas and what kinds of songs do you listen to while writing?

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:18 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 28, 2005

fall

If there's one season I hate, it's fall. Even with as much as I hate being cooped up inside during the winter, even with as much as I hate the cold -- especially now that I'm living in Indiana.

As the weather starts to cool off and that nip hits the morning air as I walk out to my car, I can feel the impending doom of winter building. And that feeling of the impending winter, fighting with the snow and cold and nasty, short grey days, just sucks all the life out of me.

It doesn't help that my allergies will kick into overdrive in the fall and just makes the whole thing even worse.

I used to be able to circumvent this a bit when I was teaching. After all, the semester would only be about five weeks old at this point in the year. I'd have finally solidly learned all my students names (I stink at names and faces -- I'm a names and personalities kind of person). The first paper would be turned in and I'd be so distracted by trying to get those graded within 2-3 days, that I'd be able to ignore the need for a light jacket and trudge on to classes, loaded down with folders of papers and responses.

Yeah, I guess I'm a little melancholy today. It's been in the 40s and 50s when I leave for work in the morning. I still haven't been able to make myself grab a jacket as I walk out the door, though. And then I get to my pointless job and wonder ... if I was still teaching, where would we be in the semester? What would we be doing in class today? How are the "kids" who would have been "mine" doing? Are they getting the lessons? Is their writing improving? Are they having fun (or at least as much fun as they can have in a freshman writing class)?

When I packed up my office, I didn't really go through most of my papers. I packed them into boxes and took them straight up into the attic. It was just too painful to try to go through all of that and admit that that part of my life was over - at least for a while. But I keep hearing our mutant chipmunk up in the attic, scurrying around like he does. Is he going through my papers for me, shredding them up for a nest amongst the insulation?
I'm afraid to go up there and find out.

I still can't face those boxes of papers. It's been about a year and a half since I taught a class.

I really hate fall now. Almost as much as the kids who're simply sad that summer is gone and school is beginning again.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:07 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 23, 2005

nIghTmaRes

Didja ever have one of those nightmares that wake you up, not screaming and thrashing, but with every muscle perfectly tensed and still, frightened to move at all?

I am so glad that it's Friday. Maybe I'll get some sleep this weekend.


I can hear him struggling with the door. Another peal of thunder, the long lingering kind where the bass goes on forever. The electricity's out again and I can't help but think that BG must have planned this for a night with a thunderstorm. One more cheesy touch to his idiotic fantasy life.
I'm trying to convince M that we need to move and we need to move now. There's no time to pause to call the cops. We have to make the unexpected move now, while we have the time. In fact, what can I do to buy us more time?
Another flash of lightning and low rumbling thunder. We run to the master bedroom and I lock the door although that won't make him pause for long. Not with as pissed as he is right now. I don't know why he didn't break a window. It's as if he has something to prove to the front door right now -- that no doors will ever keep him out. And, of course, there is no back door. Of course. We have to go out a window and we have to do it fast and quietly.
With the exception of the recently remodeled bathroom, though, none of the windows in this tiny little bungalow even open and that's where we're headed. M locks that door as well as I start trying to get the window opened, undoing each of the four flathead screws before we can get out of here and hope to be gone before he realizes we're not in the house anymore.

Yeah. Stupid dream logic. It's really not a very scary dream. And why in the world does this house have only one door and just one functioning window????

But, dream logic rarely makes much sense to me after I wake up.

Well, I'm running late for work, so I'd better skedaddle.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:11 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 20, 2005

A Piece of the Possum

When I was five, we moved to Austin, Texas, and in my heart, I never left there. There's something about the Hill Country in Texas ... no matter what else you may think about Texas, boots, horses, the Shrub (yes, I mean the ex-National Guardsman who pretty much loses interest in everything and walks away), wilderness, snakes, rednecks, regardless of all of that, Austin is the most beautiful place in the world to me.

At the time, we lived waaay out on the outskirts of town, up on the North end, just off the highway and down the road from a quarry. Balcones Woods, as our community was called, was mostly woods when we moved there -- in fact, Dad took a section of the fencing down so we could go walking in the woods behind our house. Of course, my sister and I weren't allowed out in the woods without him, but it was fun to get as close to the gap in the fence as possible to see how long it took before we got yelled at.

I loved watching the rabbits and the deer wander into the yard and didn't really understand why Dad was trying so hard to keep them out of the garden -- they could eat all the green beans they wanted as far as I was concerned! I was utterly fascinated with all the wildlife (except the scorpions -- I even played with the "baby" ribbon snakes on a regular basis).

Mom and Dad converted our garage into a playroom for my sister and I -- and for Dad's train set (don't touch!) and his tools (don't touch those either!). Jenny and I were out there playing one day and Mom opened the side door to take the trash out.

She promptly screamed and slammed the side door.

"What's the matter, Mom?" I asked calmly. I was about seven and used to these little outbursts.

"There's a big ugly 'possum in the trash can and now I can't throw away the trash."

"I'll take it."

"NO!"

She stood there, quivering, next to the side door. She couldn't seem to put the trash down (it's dirty, after all) and she couldn't seem to move, either.

I moved toward the door. "I'll just knock the trash can over, Mom. Then he'll run away and you can toss the trash out." I generally tried to be helpful. Generally.

"NO!" She finally moved. "I'll call your dad at work."

"Why?"

"I'll get him to come home and get rid of the 'possum."

"I said I would do it, Mom."

Now, here's where the story gets either interesting or sad, depending on your frame of mind. I tend to find it hysterically funny. Most days.

Mom stared at me in shocked horror. "You can't!"

I rolled my eyes. "All I gotta do is knock the trash can over, Mom. 'Possums aren't that heavy."

"No! It has rabies and it will kill you."

Now Mom decided that it did have rabies after her split second look. Not that it maybe had rabies, but that it definitely did.

"I'll run back inside real fast," I assured her.

"No." She was still standing at the doorway, staring distrustfully at the door, as if that crazy ole 'possum was going to tear it down any minute now.

I sighed with all the grace of a seven-year-old. "I'll knock it over with a stick."

"No, it'll get into the house and give us all rabies."

"How about this, I'll just open the door up a little bit, knock the can over with this broom handle and then shut the door real fast?"

No. The 'possum was going to magically dart into the house the moment the door opened, bite us all and give us all rabies and we'd evidently be dead before Dad even got home from work.

I rolled my eyes again. "Well then, you hold the door handle mostly shut against the broom handle. I'll knock the can over with the broom and then yank the handle back into the house and the pressure of you holding the door against the handle will shut the door before the 'possum can get in."

Now she's finally full-blown hysterical.
The 'possum was going to jump out of the trash can at the sound of the door, use its little hands to rip open the door because it was stronger than Mom and it would rip the doorknob right out of her hands, come into the house and, say it with me kids, "bite us all and give us rabies and kill us."

At that point, I decided my mother needed more help than a seven-year-old could give her and I walked off. She finally set the trash down next to the door and went off to call Dad, who, of course, did not leave work to chase away the nasty 'possum.

And I, of course, went outside as soon as possible to see if I could rid the trashcan of the 'possum and play hero (even though I knew I would get in trouble if I did it).

Stupid thing was already gone by the time I got outside.

That was the day, though, that I realized something wasn't right with my mom. I probably should have realized it before then, but hey, I was only seven after all. And it would be a long, long time even after this incident before I realized that there really wasn't much I could do to make her feel safe.

But I could always go back into the backyard, look at the trees, rocks, grass, critters and everything else and feel that all was right with the world.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:28 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 18, 2005

My Roommate

This is just too good to not pass along. My partner's sister is currently teaching English in Turkmenistan (Ashgabat, to be exact) and is staying at the American embassy with a wonderful roommate. I just have to share her latest roommate story with the world.

I�ve been seeing more of my lizard-roommate lately�perhaps that means he�s getting braver. it still makes me start to see him scuttling away, but Friday night was the worst! I walked into the kitchen to make dinner, and I saw him just underneath on of the counters, flicking himself back and forth rapidly. My first thought was, "Oh, no, something bigger is under there eating him!" and I started to worry about snakes, huge spiders, and scorpions. Then he stopped flailing about, so I went closer � and discovered that he was trapped in one of my cockroach-cum-pseudo ant traps. Let me clarify�there are none of the small plastic poison-filled tray ant traps available here. In fact, there doesn�t seem to be anything available to combat ants, and instead I was given some gel-goo that was supposed to get rid of cockroaches�and by get rid of, I apparently mean that it would capture them and hold them fast until they died in a place I could reach to dispose of them � gross!
I digress � so there are 3 hardening globs of this gel at random intervals on my kitchen floor, just under the counters so I don�t step in them, and the lizard was trapped in one. When I bent down to assess the situation, he began to flail again, whipping himself side-to-side as hard as possible even though his back feet were stuck fast, making a noise much akin to that of a rattle snake. Now I�m thinking, "Great, he�s going to die slowly there, and I�ll have to first watch and then pry a his body off of my floor!" I decided to attempt to rescue him � so I covered on hand in a towel in case he tried to bite me or whatever tiny lizards do. Then I used a paper towel to put some warm water on the gel to soften it to the point that he might be able to get out, all the while fearing I�d drown him or mash his hair-like toes as I tried to scoot him out of the mess. Meanwhile, he�s still hissing, but he stopped flailing � probably because I was hurting him. Anyway, it eventually worked, and he ran off.
Now I have no idea what will happen when the gel that is still on his feet re-hardens � I guess I�ll have a lame lizard, probably still slowly dying in some hard-to-reach place, like under the washing machine. I should have trapped him and released him outside, I guess, but I didn�t have the wherewithal to think that far ahead. I suppose I�ll just have to wait and see if I catch sight of him running away over the weekend � ah, good times in Ashgabat!

(And five obscure music points to the first person who names the group who sang a song with the same title as this post!)

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:33 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 12, 2005

House Dreams

As a kid, I was far more interested in mom and dad's old toys than a lot of the new, hip stuff. I've already talked about dad's old parcheesi game and a little about a game called Park N Shop, but those weren't the only things I found.

Dad had a "stash" of bookcase games that he kept out in the garage when I was little. We'd converted our garage into a playroom within a few months of moving into that house in Austin. And even though we were "outside," I loved it. I could set up all those Fisher Price Little People sets and play for days without having ot pick everything up.

Dad had weird games like some stocks & bonds game and other business type games. I never saw him play them; I never actually played them, either. But I would occassionally slip the box down out of its spot and open it up. The rules were recorded in some long and involved booklet that I scanned from time to time. There was no board to play on -- instead, just cards and pieces and colorful play money. And this wonderful old graphics that didn't look anything like our board games of the 70s.

But the real treasure trove for me was my grandparents' garage. Canes made from bamboo, ancient radios wrapped in leather or made from a strange swirly, opaque plastic (bakelike). I would go through the garage and pull out five, ten of these radios and set them all up on top of each other and revel in the command center of my spaceship, imagining and anticipating the computerized era fast approaching.

That was where I found my aunt's MouseTrap! game, with its many, many pieces. In fact, at first, I didn't even realize it was a game. I just dumped all the pieces out and starting building mouse traps -- and that kept me busy for hours.

The real find, though, was a green and white and black cardboard box.

Now, you have to understand one thing before I get into this. I was never much for dolls. I like some of them. They're okay. I liked ones that were really unique or different like the soft sculpture doll that my grandma won as a prize -- it was a native american doll with a real leather outfit and nice beadwork (I've forgotten what tribe it was from, though). And I never showed a lot of interest in Barbies. Changing a doll's clothes didn't seem as fascinating to me as it did a lot of other kids.

But then I found the green, white and black box.

This was the 1962 Barbie's dreamhouse. It had a nice handle on the top and latches to keep it all closed up when transporting or storing it. But inside was a treasure trove of cardboard furniture -- thick cardboard even thicker than the back of a legal pad. There were little cardboard records to play on the cardboard tv/stereo console. There was a built-in bookshelf, vanity and closet. And hangers to hang up Barbie's clothes. Chairs, a couch, a coffee table.

And I also discovered a slew of Barbies. There were two Barbies (one was probably Midge or one of the other girls) and an Allen doll. I already had Skipper (she of the fly-away long-ass hair). More clothes than I had ever imagined existed for Barbies. There was an airline outfit complete with American Airlines bag. A doctor's outfit, bag and stethoscope! A clown outfit for Allen. Suits, tennis shoes, dress shoes, roller skates, ice skates! A sailor hat. There were green flippers to wear while snorkeling. There were even some wigs.

I could open up that old piece of cardboard and be lost for days.

I guess, for me, there's just something about the smell of vintage cardboard and the look of vintage graphics that just transports me to a whole nother plane.

I only have a few pieces left of that vintage Barbie treasure trove. I gave to of the dolls to my now ex-mother-in-law. Had my ex and I stayed together forever as I'd certainly planned, I'd never have regretted it. Now, though ... I gotta admit I wish I had them back. They're worth about $200 apiece even in all their blue eye-shadowed semi-glory. But I still have Allen -- he was easily my favorite. And I still have my Skipper doll with her hideous haircut that I gave her in lieu of cutting my own hair.

And I still have roller skates, ice skates, the doctor's outfit ... sadly, the stethoscope is missing the little end that you put on someone's chest. And the second stethoscope is just the silver yoke to put in your ears. I still have the happy little clown outfit and at least one of the suits.

But I'd only ever seen that cardboard dollhouse once in the intervening years since mom's purging of my toys and my grandparents' down-sizing and down-sizing and down-sizing (with each move, it seemed like more of my childhood just drifted away). I was in an antique store in Niles, Michigan ... and there it was, up on top of a shelf. I reached for the price tag and then refused to touch the house itself. $120 for that house, devoid of any accessories. I didn't enjoy Barbies or the house enough to pay that kind of money for it.

Yesterday, though, we were cruising around the LaPorte Antique Fair which was sadly devoid of any Commodore 64s and any Fisher Price Little People. But when we walked into the far commercial building, I about fell over.

Alone at the end of a table, the dreamhouse was opened up for all to see its cardboard glory and stellar early 60s interior design. And the price was nothing near what I'd seen at the antique mall. Decent shape, all the furniture there and all the legs pretty much intact -- not too common for cardboard furniture. All the little albums, even the beloved Kingston Trio one.

Yeah, it's at the house now. Like I could resist a piece of my childhood history like that!

I went down to the basement and pulled out the little stash of Mego superheroes, Sunshine Family dolls and the tiny stash of the Barbie collection and brought it all upstairs. Opened up the dreamhouse and started putting some of Allen's clothes on the hangers, arranging the furniture.

Holy crap, I did a HORRIBLE job of cutting Skipper's hair. I may actually get out the scissors again just to even it up. I should probably let it alone, but man!

I must have sat on the floor amidst our two miniature dachshunds in all their rapt puzzlement at my activity and messed with that Barbie stuff for an hour or more. I got all of Allen's shoes lined up in the base of the closet, moved the picture of Ken around a few times, let Skipper watch tv (when I wasn't trying to smooth her hair out and try to figure out WHAT I thought I was doing to her hair).

It's amazing that a little bit of cardboard can be that fascinating and make me that happy.

Oh, and I think I found the Parcheesi board on eBay. It should arrive this week, too.

Maybe I'm just addicted to cardboard ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:17 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 10, 2005

Innocence Can Never Last

Ever since I was small, certain moods and certain songs just seem to go together for me. When I was writing my first novel in high school, I made a mix tape of the songs that just fit the book. I did the same thing for the novel I wrote in college.
There's one song playing on the radio around here these days that just really feels particularly right tonight.

Green Day ... American Idiot ... "Wake Me When September Ends"

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends

Like my father's come to pass
Seven years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends

Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars

Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are

As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost

Wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends

Ring out the bells again
Like we did when spring began

Wake me up when September ends

Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars

Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are

As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost

Wake me up when Septdmber ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends

Like my father's come to pass
Twenty years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends

Wake me up when September ends
Wake me up when September ends

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:02 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 7, 2005

The Brain is a Fascinating Place

Why is it that as a society in the U.S. we'll believe in the repressed memories of Viet Nam vets ... and now we'll be understanding (or at least, more understanding) of folks who forget what leads up to a nasty car wreck or other trauma ...
but we have such a difficult time believing that someone abused as a child would or even that they could forget darn near the whole thing?

Is it because when we're thinking about Viet Nam vets, we're assuming there was one day out of 365 that they can't remember the traumatic events? Is it because if John Davies forgot the hour before and after his car wreck, it's still a pretty limited time period?
Is it because we find it hard to believe that someone could forget years at a time?

I'm just thinking out loud. I can see Private Duke forgetting about the day that everybody went nuts after no sleep and not even much in the way of MREs and everyone on alert for days and days at a time ... and then going psycho on a hut of folks who may or may not have been innocent. And really, in Nam, how could you tell who's innocent or not after a little kid blew up your best friend?
I mean, I can see the stress and lack of sleep and food just contributing to the shock of seeing (and doing) something horrific. I can see how you could forget under those circumstances.

And having been in a minor wreck or two, I can also see how you're just driving, doing what you're doing -- you're not consciously trying to recall how to drive and which street you're passing. So I can see where it would be easy to block out of your mind exactly what happened. I can see how it would be easy to completely forget the whole thing ... the shock would contribute to the "daily routine" aspect and it can be really hard to remember much.

But when we think about child abuse, the whole tenor of belief seems to change. First, we don't seem to want to believe kids who do say that something terrible has happened to them.
Is it because so many kids are so imaginative and live in their own worlds? Is it because we simply don't want to think that horrible things could happen to a kid we know? Is it because we don't believe the particular person the kid names could be capable of that? Is it because we hear on the news about all sorts of false accusations?

And then, when we add the concept of a repressed memory to the mix that we already want to disbelieve ... is this simply one step too far, stretching our suspense of disbelief to the breaking point? (And yes, I used a term normally associated with fiction on purpose.)

Is it because the events generally described in these repressed memories just seem too horrific to be forgotten? If so, how is this any different from some of the horrific Viet Nam repressed memories that have been corroborrated by other vets?

Is it because we simply can't believe that someone, some adult, didn't notice the event(s)?

Is it because we just don't want to believe there's that kind of evil in the world?

I've listened as an older friend talked haltingly about Viet Nam. And when he crept up on some of the recovered memories ... the shame in his voice ... the shaking ... the whole affect of his body language changed. He still hadn't fully dealt with those things ... even though he'd (mostly) recovered the memory. In some cases, he simply related stories that the other guys in his unit told him had happened because he still couldn't remember.

I've listened to friends after a car wreck. Again, the whole affect changes. If they still haven't recovered memory of the wreck, the affect often stays very "blank," for lack of a better word. They're reciting facts, cold and rehearsed. There's a tension behind that blankness and you can generally watch as muscles become tight. Or, a few people react with no emotional cues at all. These folks will relate a horrific wreck almost as if reading the grocery list -- no connection to the event at all.

And I've listened to friends who have always remembered childhood abuse and some who've recovered a memory. Those people I believed had the same range of emotional response: some shook, some changed body language, some recited without emotion, some tensed up, some sounded like they were back in the past living it again.

Those I haven't believed? They've been few and far between, now that I think about it. There have been times when I've thought that something surely happened to that person, but perhaps not quite the scenario they related. After all, it seems like it might be easy enough to lead a child to think they've witnessed one thing, when it was actually a staged event. (I particularly think about all the little elementary kids who used to think that tv wrestling was a real athletic competition instead of a staged demo of moves.)

But, I've also heard the little twerps in the laundrymat or the grocery store who use the excuse of abuse to prevent their folks from leveling a justified punishment.

A knotty problem that I sure don't know the answer to and I'm not so sure anyone else does, either, but I'd love to hear your comments.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:12 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 29, 2005

C. McNair Wilson's Imaginu!ty Workshop

So, the workshop was a bust. I should have definitely Googled the guy before going. It's not that he was a bad speaker or anything -- he was quite entertaining. It just wasn't actually a workshop. As it turns out, C. McNair Wilson, according to his website, "lives his life at the confluence of faith and art," and while this was a group of folks from my church going to the seminar, I for some incredibly asinine reason didn't think it would be a mega-Christian seminar. Silly, silly me.

While some of the ideas were interesting, the whole thing was much more of a motivational meeting than any kind of workshop or even seminar. He talked about brainstorming with groups. Here's a link to someone else's site who did a nice write-up. It'll take you far less than half the time to read this than it did to sit through even just the brainstorming portion of the day.

Now, here's the deal: McFace (as one of the kids he knows likes to call him) is a great guy. But anyone who professionally motivates others drives me insane. I cannot take that much chipper, go-get-'em crap. One man stated during this seminar that he had always wanted to learn to fly, but it was just too expensive. Now, I have no idea what this man's finances are, and neither did McFace, yet he tells the guy that it can't be that prohibitively expensive and the guy should find a way or admit that he doesn't really want to learn how to fly.

And after each of his little "solve your issue in 60 seconds or less" pronouncements, he goes off into a story about someone at one of his previous seminars who had a similar issue and rose above it and did that thing they had always wanted to do. And that's fine if we're talking about a girl at a music conference who's always wanted to play guitar. Sure, by the next morning that girl, coached by about 50 guitar players at the conference, got up and played 2 songs in front of everyone, but what about those people who want to "make it" in a creative field? There's a certain amount of skill and luck that combine to get you and your work noticed so that you can "make it."

And, you may really, really, really want to be an actor, but you may also really, really, really want to stay in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and raise your kids there. How do you balance both? Well, in this case, it might be relatively simple to join the local theatre league in Kalamazoo. But there may not be a really easy answer for every situation.

I enjoyed McNair's stories of working with other creative folks - he worked for the Disney think-tank, the Imaginarium. And it's obvious that he's a very talented improv actor. (He calls himself a professional third grader.) If you need a kick in the butt to get started on being creative, then check out McNair's site and his books. He's entertaining and he'll help motivate you.

If you've already been bit by the creativity bug; if you're already creating stories, drawings, sculpture, music, whatever, then there may be better ways to spend your time than going to his Imaginu!ty seminar.

If you like amusing stories and a very animated speaker, go check him out. He's a stitch. He's also very Christian and goes off on Bible riffs and applauding Mel Gibson from time to time, so be forewarned if those aren't your cup of tea.

I used my time pretty well during the seminar. Since my scanner's absolutely refusing to talk to my computer, I'll see if I can take a picture of the sketches I did during his talk and post them tonight ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:05 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 23, 2005

Threat of the School Bus

Thinking of Aries Spears yesterday and thinking about the frickin' Klan reminded me that I haven't continued what I started in "Hall of Presidents" (used to be called "The Smile," but I hated that title so I finally got around to changing it).

Like I've said, I was raised primarily in Texas in the 70s. I started school in Austin and ended at a high school in Arlington (yuppie-ville between Dallas and Fort Worth).

At my first elementary school, Pillow, I don't remember ever seeing a black student. We had two students, twins, who were either atheists or, I think now, they may have been Muslim. I was in first grade when I first met Rex and the finer points of religion just weren't a big deal to me. After all, I'd met Jon Comb in kindergarten and he was Jewish and it hadn't been any big deal. Whatever. Seemed to me like there were 18 million different flavors of religion and they were all sure they were the right one. My opinion at the time was very child-simple: God was all-loving, so anyone who tried honestly to do good and right would eventually be all right with God.

So anyhow, the point is we didn't have a whole lot of diversity in my school. I didn't really notice much. I had my good friend, Nancy, and she lived down the street from us. Her brother, David, was my exact same age -- we had the same birthday. I'd known them for ages before I said something to Nancy about wishing that my skin tanned so nicely like hers did. I have always had that pasty Irish complexion, complete with freckles. Nancy's skin was just a nice, tanned color -- not real dark, but not so glow-in-the-dark white either.

When I told my mom what I'd told Nancy, she just spluttered. "You didn't!!"

"Did. I do wish my skin would tan like that."

No one had bothered to inform me that Nancy was half Mexican. Once they did, I still wasn't sure what the BFD was. Great, you get a Mexican and a white person together and you get a built-in tan. Why don't all white people marry Mexicans? All white people want tans. Wouldn't it just be easier to marry a Mexican instead of trying to "cook" your skin into that color?

I really didn't get it.

And my mother was appalled with me.

Evidently there'd been some fuss in the neighborhood when the Tapias first moved in. The scandal! A mixed couple. (I thought that all couples were mixed - one man and one woman. Whatever. I thought adults were completely insane.) And I learned interesting new words, like wetback. But, everyone seemed to like the Tapias now, so I assumed that everything was all right.

But the real eye-opener for me was the first day of second grade. You see, we lived several miles away from Pillow Elementary. The Balcones Woods subdivision was probably a good 5 or more miles away. And you had to drive on the highway (always a big deal in my mom's mind), and you had to drive past an active quarry.

Despite the car pool, the parents complained about this drive constantly. They kept demanding a bus to take us to the school, but it didn't happen in kindergarten and seemed to be getting closer by the end of first grade.

First day of second grade, I walk into the school building and there's a table with a posterboard taped to it. The parent sitting behind the table has plenty of sheets of paper that the other parents are signing.

I was shocked. I turned to my mom and exclaimed, "But I thought we wanted busing!!"

Well, it's not like a second grader can tell the difference between being bused from our neighborhood into our school and "The Great Evil, Busing to Mix the Races" just from seeing a "Stop the Busing" sign!

My panicked mother was frantically trying to get me to shut up and at the same time explain to the other parents that we lived out in Balcones Woods. I was furious at being told to shut up and that I didn't understand. I knew how to read. I knew what the sign said. Why couldn't adults ever just say what they meant?

We walked into the cafeteria to wait for time to start classes and then Mom walked me down to my new school room. Now, Pillow, in my ever-so-humble opinion, had a good system going for teaching to a kid's level. They'd throw any 30 kids into a classroom and then the teacher would evaluate and place students into groups of 2, 3, 5, however many kids were at the same reading or math level. I knew most of the other second graders in my class already, so I'm running up to friends and getting ready to pick a seat and the whole deal. My mom was just kinda standing there in the back of the class, with some of the other parents.

Yeah. Our teacher was black.

Two weeks into the school year -- so fast that I literally remember nothing about second grade at Pillow except that first day -- I became a part of white flight. My mom pulled me out of the local public school and enrolled me at St. Louis elementary.

At the time I was terribly confused. Here we were about to get buses and now Mom suddenly wants to carpool. And I have to wear a uniform. And go to Mass ... was it every day or just Fridays? I think it was just Fridays. We had to go to this church that I'd never been to and go try on uniforms -- some green plaid jumper with a white shirt. Before I could burst into tears over the jumper -- we'd already had this discussion in kindergarten when I insisted on wearing jeans or pants every day -- Mom told me that we were buying one jumper and I could also wear a white shirt and green jeans. Now that's a progressive Catholic school for the mid 70s.

I hated it there.

I was utterly miserable the whole year I spent there.

And I don't think I saw a single black student there. Certainly no Jewish kids like Jon. Or atheist or Muslim kids like Rex. Just a bunch of pasty-white kids. And school was every bit as boring here as at Pillow. In fact, I was a bit behind where I had been in the public school.

I asked Mom years later about that. Why she had sent me to the Catholic school and avoided the public school. She had thought it would give me a better education. And, honestly, she was afraid of the busing.

She knew me well enough to know that whether other kids were bused in or I was bused to another school, I'd be in the middle of the trouble. You see, I was always the kid who was looking to smooth things out between everyone, the peacemaker. I had declared with the frequency of a kid who has NO idea that she is in the middle of the South in the 70s, that I wished I had been able to work with the civil rights movement. I declared frequently with no notice of the rednecks around us in Shepler's that I thought blacks were just the same as whites and how stupid did people have to be to try to make them use a different water fountain? And why couldn't they sit in the same lunchroom?

Mom told me that she knew before I even entered a new school or before the new kids entered ours, I would be right there, trying to make friends with the new kids and getting mad at anyone -- including adults -- who made racial comments about anyone else. She told me she was afraid I'd get hurt.

She was probably right that I would have been in the middle of things and that I probably would have gotten hurt.

But she was wrong to take me out of public school for that reason. And I have to wonder if her real reason wasn't what she saw in my classroom on that first day of school: a black teacher.

I wish I remembered that teacher's name. I'd apologize to her for my mom's fears. It probably sucked for her that year, knowing the racial tensions that were rampant in the school, in the town. I doubt I was the only kid who was pulled out of school and that kind of extra tension on a teacher is an immense load.

to be continued further ...

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:38 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 19, 2005

The Haunted House

Since I was a tiny, little thing, I've been determined to meet a ghost. Well, actually, I misspoke: I wanted to see a ghost. That still hasn't happened, but I have met a few.

As a kid, I did not understand AT ALL, how people could be afraid of ghosts. What's the big deal, I thought way back then. They're not physical beings, so they can't possibly hurt you.

I was misinformed.

Okay, I would STILL love to see a ghost. But I don't ever ever ever ever want to live in the same house as one any more.

1144 E. Corby Blvd. is a haunted house.

I lived there from 1994 until 2001. And at first, I didn't notice anything at all odd about the place, other than the fact that South Bend has some of the tiniest homes with the most oddly teeny-tiny little rooms that I've ever seen.

Between my various roommates and I during this time, we had anywhere from four to six cats in the house. Cats notice odd things, right?

It was ultimately the way the cats would act when one of us was already noticing something odd that finally let us start talking about the possibility of ghosts. I mean, no one actually ever saw anything odd happen. But you would be sitting alone in the house and you could hear people talking. Get up, look out the windows, nope, no one was near the house. Stand in the doorway to the basement -- bingo! The conversation stopped. Hmm.

The corner of the living room where I sat when I heard those conversations was the one corner every cat who ever entered the house would try very hard to avoid. Double-hmm.

Again, sitting upstairs, I would hear a kid giggling. Now, as I've said before, I collect old Fisher Price Little People. And at the time, I had a bookcase in the far corner of the basement which was filled with all the old playsets: Sesame Street, the old garage, the children's hospital, a couple of houses and so on. Well, I would hear a kid giggling and that distictive clink/thunk of a little Fisher Price car rolling off the bookshelf and hitting the astroturf floor. (I don't know, this house was the landlord's "party house" back in his college days. I guess astroturf is easy to clean up after wild parties.)

I'd look around upstairs. Every one of the cats was up here with me. Go down to the basement: sure enough, some of the pieces had been moved around and there was a car on the floor.

Well, okay, so what. The floor's not perfectly level down here and, as it turns out, we live close to a fault line which occasionally rumbles a little bit. Just a little fault line, the North/South continental divide. (Who would believe there's a fault line that close to Notre Dame? I keep waiting for the earth to just up and swallow that place!) Anyhow, things fall over. But what's with the giggling?

If this had been all there was to it, I would have totally ignored it. Maybe a ghostie, but probably just the house settling and those little earth rumbles. (But what about that giggle?)

But there was also a really nasty, nasty bad ghost living in that house. Got the distinct impression it was a 'he,' but who knows.

If you heard a serious thud from the basement, you could freaking feel the bad ghost at the same time. It was one of the creepiest times of my whole life. And the weirdest thing was that I would go downstairs and look through the whole basement -- and I couldn't find anything that had been knocked over. But the whole time I was downstairs, I could just feel that malevolence issuing from the basement. Feeling a bit stupid, I'd just head back upstairs (a little hurriedly, of course!). Again, the cats were NEVER in the basement when this would happen and they'd stay out of the basement for quite a while after.

But the worst of it, even worse than just the weird feeling -- wait. You know when you watch a really scary movie late at night, alone and you get that feeling that the serial killer is just on the other side of the door? or waiting in the next room? And you know you're being silly and stupid and it's just because of the movie that you feel all paranoid, but you can still feel it?

Well try getting that feeling at random times while walking around your family room (the basement) for no apparent reason at all. It's even creepier when you can't blame it on a scary movie. And it's even creepier when there's this bit of personality attached to the feeling. It felt male. It hated any nudity at all. (Occasionally you could feel him in other areas of the house, too.)

So anyhow, even worse than the weird feelings were the nightmares that everyone who stayed more than a couple of nights had. You know how in most dreams you have dream logic? You know it's your house, for instance, but in real life you've never lived anywhere even remotely like that?

These dreams weren't like that.

These dreams always took place in that house and if you were really lucky, you could make yourself wake up before the obvious conclusions happened.

Some examples:
I would walk into a room in the house and reach for the lightswitch. Nothing. Horror movie feeling. Overwhelming fear. Lights across the house go off. I've got to go down to the basement and mess with the circuit box. Flip at the basement stairs lightswitch, just in case I'm lucky.

I'm not.

Flashlight on, I head back into that corner of the basement where he lives. If I'm lucky, I wake up now. If I'm not, I go back into the room that used to be the landlord's darkroom. Just a flashlight. The feeling is becoming unbearable. I know he's there, in the back-most part of the basement, by the furnace, water heater, crappy toolbench and the circuit box. Under the stairs. I know he's there.

On occasion the dream goes far enough that I turn and see him briefly with the hunting knife. But I always wake up before he can strike.

The feeling lasts for a couple of days -- not just a few hours like with most nightmares. And no one after having one of those, will actually go into that back part of the basement -- especially not when one of the breakers trip. And they trip all the time in that house. I'm not saying the ghost actually tripped the breakers, but going back to the circuit box usually involved figuring out who had had the nightmares last.

The worst nightmare that I had involved me waking up in the morning and walking out of the bedroom. The house was not air conditioned, so I'd put a little window unit in the bedroom because I canNOT sleep if I get too hot. So the bedroom door was always closed during the summertime to keep that cool air in.

So in this nightmare, I walk out of the bedroom and into the living room. And into one of the worst things I've ever seen in dream, reality or movie.

Not so graphic version: my cats had been killed. Stop reading now if you're the squeamish type. Skip down until you see
*****HEY IT'S OKAY NOW*****

*

Seriously, you don't want to read this if you're easily grossed out.

*

Okay, I double-warned you. I walk out into the living room and each of the four cats I had at the time has been mutilated. Each one has a frickin' railroad spike through the chest/tummy area and is nailed to a wall. One cat to one wall. There's writing on the wall, using of course, the cats' blood. I don't remember what it said, I'm not sure I even remembered once I woke up for real. They were further bloodied, but I won't go into it.

*

*****HEY IT'S OKAY NOW*****

And we all knew that those weird nightmares that took place in that house were related to that ghost. I've never had any nightmares similar to that since.

But the last coincidence that really just confirmed things was when one of my roomates had a friend over. We were sitting on the living room floor when this friend suddenly got a weird, weird look on her face.

"Is there a ghost in this house?"

I shrugged. "I think so. There's a kid who plays with the toys down there. I can hear him giggling sometimes."

She shook her head. "No, there's some--" She shivered and paled a bit.

Now, look. I think this lady's a bit of a flake most of the time, but this was really freaky. She was sitting in that spot where the cats wouldn't go -- above the spot in the basement that I thought of as the ghost's. And it was obvious from her reaction that she wasn't doing this just for her "rep" or for attention. You don't turn that color for fun. And I never saw her do anything like it ever again. (Of course, she didn't set foot in that house again, either.)

"What's the matter?

"There's something wrong in your basement."

My roommate shot me a look. I nodded. The bad ghost had been very active lately.

"There's a bad ghost down there, too."

About six months and two roommates later (I'm a little more stubborn), I finally had a roommate who was himself so scary that the bad ghost quieted (or left, I was never sure which).

How did Justin get the ghost to leave? He played techno-goth every night. He watched more horror movies than any human on the face of planet. And anime. The really, really violent anime.

I don't know if he scared the scary ghost or if he just satiated the ghost's need for violence.

And that's the story of the bad ghost. And that's why I no longer think that ghosts are harmless. I don't think they could physically hurt me ... but that one taught me they can make you hurt yourself just from the paranoia you start to get!

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:21 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 16, 2005

Haunted

My cousin used to tell me terrifying ghost tales. I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In second or third grade, I checked out every book in the public library on ghost stories and hauntings.

I'm not some wishy-washy, new-age, granola-eating hippy who thinks ghosts are real.

But I do think ghosts are real even though I've never seen one.

I have been around a few ... as the meme the other day reminded me.

In college I worked for a sub shop in Texas -- Dino's Subs, a properly New York-Italian sub shop. The shop out at the mall was in an outlying building rather than the mall proper, right next door to the movie theatre. I don't know a whole lot about the building's history, but I know it was haunted.

The first few run-ins with the ghost were just odd little things. I couldn't quite explain the things that happened, but I was prepared to think it could have just been a fluke. During a really busy lunch one day, I saw the soda fountain do something bizarre. There's a sticker where you can label what pop should come out of that spigot and over the sticker is a piece of clear plastic to help keep that sticker legible longer. The clear plastic piece over the Sprite suddenly shot off the machine and landed about ten feet away. Not too odd, there's got to be some pressure on the plastic to get it to pop into place. But that pressure should have made it pop forward more than it did. It was more like it moved out about an inch forward and then moved ten feet sideways, not diagonal. Weird, but these things happen.

Another lunch rush the lid to the toothpick dispenser shoots straight up in the air, nearly hits the ceiling and then lands on the counter. Lined up perfectly with the toothpick dispenser. And somehow, tucked neatly under the little "arms" that hold the dispensed toothpick.

Okay that was really freaky, but still, could have just been a fluke.

What sealed it was the night that John and I were working the shop alone. We'd closed the store at 11 p.m. as usual and were working on cleaning up. I went over to the old Wurlitzer juke box and perused the 45s (yeah, this was the late 80s). I popped in a quarter and picked "Mandolin Rain" and "Our House." John calls from behind the counter, "What'd you pick?"

I tell him and he likes "Our House," but violently hates "Mandolin Rain."

"Our House" plays first. Cool. John has me call out the name of every song on the machine so he can pick some out. "Ooooh, I love 'West End Boys.'"

The next song to play? "West End Boys."

Hmmm. Maybe the jukebox shares John's taste in music. Maybe it's not wired right. Whatever.

A third song plays. Huh? Two songs for a quarter ... and a bonus song. Okay, the jukebox is a bit eccentric. Must be the wiring.

But the third song is some old fifties tune. I think it's Elvis, but I can't read the label on the spinning 45. John pops his head out "What song is that?"

"I have no idea."

"But you picked it."

"I didn't pick it. I think it's Elvis." Whatever it is, it's a sappy 50s love song and we're both glad when it's over.

The radio still doesn't come back on as we're treated to an encore performance of "West End Boys."

Very odd, but we figure the wiring on this juke is just old and goofy. I leave a note for the manager to tell her the jukebox guy ought to take a look at the thing.

Over the course of the next few weeks, any time John and I are working alone together, we're treated to "West End Boys" a couple of times a night. After the store has closed. Never when there's customers and we can safely assume that someone is messing with us. And when we close at night, I usually do the front -- near the juke -- and John does behind the counter. There's no way he can be doing it or I'd see him near the juke.

When the jukebox man finally comes in, I happen to be there. "Hey, make sure to take that Elvis record out of there, okay?"

"I don't think there's one in here." He runs through his list. "No, there's no Elvis in here."

"Yeah there is, I saw the thing." And I run through the whole story for him. He literally takes every single 45 out of the juke box. I watch him.

No Elvis 45 is in there. No funky 50s 45 is in there.

In fact, there's no 45 in there with the funky color of blue that I saw that night. You know, that old funky blue with the silver writing that used to be on a lot of records from the 50s and 60s. Nothing like that is in the machine.

WEIRD.

But the really weird thing doesn't happen until John quits. I mean, come on, it's a sub shop and college kids can do better, even in 1989, than $3.85 an hour.

So, I'm closing the store one night with a new kid. She's cleaning out front and I'm cleaning behind the counter. She's barely started sweeping the floor and hasn't made it anywhere near the juke box yet. John's been gone for about a week.

"West End Boys" starts up.

The new kid's head pops up. "When'd you put money in the juke box?"

"I didn't." I don't bother to explain at first. I mean, it sounds crazy to say that a ghost just likes that song. Actually, John and I had a running joke that the ghost had a crush on John and that's why it played the Elvis love song and John's favorite song.

"West End Boys" plays again. And now, I get this weird feeling of query and sadness. I don't know how else to explain it other than I could feel the question in the air. Umm, I'm kinda thinking that the ghost really did have a crush on John.

The song begins a third time. A fourth time.

Finally, the new kid is kinda freaking out. Especially when I explain the whole ghost thing.

When the song starts for the fifth time, and that sense of question and sadness has just gotten more and more intense with every iteration of the song, I finally say out loud, "I'm sorry. John doesn't work here anymore. He quit. I'm sorry."

This time the radio comes on after the 45 finishes.

I never saw the ghost, but me, John and the new kid knew it was there. The manager of the store knew about it, too.

I always felt sorry for that ghost. It was so obvious that it liked John and it was terribly sad when he left.

But that was a nice ghost. Later I'll tell you about the one I lived with who was definitely NOT a nice ghost.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:07 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 11, 2005

What Really Happens?

I have always been fascinated with the stories we tell. You see, the brain is built, it's hardwired, to look for patterns. When we're confronted with something that doesn't make sense to us, whether it's out of our realm of experience or just unrecognizable at first, we try to fit it into a pattern.

That's why even people who hate to be categorized and put into little boxes, tend to try to categorize other people (or at least various traits). Some suppose that this is also the reason that autists tend to do things in patterns or look for patterns. After all, there's evidence to suggest that autists are simply not getting various stimuli as quickly as other people, which means that much of their time is at a different pace from the rest of the world, explaining why they start looking for patterns. I mean, if you had to sit still for an hour waiting for something with nothing else to do, don't you eventually start looking for patterns on the wallpaper, the floor, whatever?

This desire to look for patterns that we all have is probably the root of my love of stories. I like hearing the same story from two separate people and then figuring out the divergences and why the paths diverged. An example: I've been to numerous friends' houses when the whole family gets together to discuss the good old days. Invariably, an event is narrated which everybody remembers, except for the parent. Why doesn't mom remember the terrible gash from the time Johnny thought he could tow a bale of hay with his Huffy? Well, to Mom, it was probably one of a hundred times that Johnny did something crazy with his bike. For Johnny and siblings, it might be memorable because it was the first time Lucy was involved in one of his schemes or because all the kids had a bet on whether or not Johnny would make it or hurt himself.

There's a comic book, actually, a series of graphic novels called Brooklyn Dreams by J.M. DeMatteis that I just love. It's the story of one guy who's trying to recapture one of the pivotal times in his life. He says something about telling the reader a story that's a story, but still true. I'll mangle the quote now, but I'll correct it when I get home from work tonight, "Let me tell you lies more accurate than truth."

In other words, you might be able to tell the bare, objective facts of a story and not ever come close to the truth of that story. On the other hand, you can tell a story whose details only remotely relate to the actual factual event, but still tell more truth than the bare factual version. Why? Because it's all about patterns and nuance.

All of this lead up is to tell you to check out the Bulldog Manifesto's post today.

Many of us are still striving to find the patterns and the truth behind 9/11. I'm not so sure that this article has "the" answers, but it does let us look at some of the patterns in ways that we might not have looked before.

My question to everyone is this:
I was watching FoxNews at work (it was the only station we could get) and at one point, they announced there was one plane in the U.S. still unaccounted for. A few minutes later, there was a plane headed to D.C. A few minutes later, fighters were scrambled in the direction of that plane.

Then nothing.

Quite a while later, the last plane crashes in Pennsylvania.

Months later, the government decides that in case such a situation ever happens again, the Air Force can be authorized to shoot down one of our own commercial planes in order to avoid another 9/11 catastrophe.

Does anyone else remember fighters scrambled to intercept that last plane?

"Lies more accurate than truth."
What does that mean to you?

What really happens to anyone ... how do we find those truths?

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:01 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 9, 2005

The Speed of Dark

I just finished reading this book by Elizabeth Moon called The Speed of Dark, a really interesting look at a future not too far away and a man named Lou Arrendale. Lou works at a company where he is employed to "find patterns."

As it turns out, Lou is one of the last generation who is an autist. By the time Lou was born, there are wonderful educational techniques which enable people with autism to interact and socialize with the world more like the high-functioning autists of today. But, not long after Lou is born and learning through these new methods, a new treatment for autism is discovered -- correcting the issue and making those who've had the newest treatment normal (or nearly so - we get some intimations that their social interactions are a touch off, but no more so than the typical insensitive person).

What I found fascinating about the book - besides the wonderful writing and really vivid characterization - was the similarities between geek culture and the culture that Moon created around these folks with autism.

Lou and the other folks like him at his work, enjoy a small gym where they can go to calm themselves down. There's a small trampoline and a treadmill; there's classical music to help them get into a project or calm down; there's lots of colorful spinners in Lou's cubical which help him focus himself on his pattern finding projects.

Geek culture has some similarities, I think. Our jobs often involve either a creative process or programming process (sometimes both) that the higher ups generally don't even pretend to understand. And most true geeks that I know have at least a few toys (action figures, cars, PVC statues or minis, LEGOs, Star Wars and/or Star Trek, Nerf!!!). They have these toys to keep them creative, to keep them focused, to keep them sane under pressure - even though others may think them childish or simply silly.

And, of course, there are a lot of geeks (not all, by any means) whose social skills are still not very great. A great many geeks would prefer to do away with some of the niceties of social interaction and just "say what you mean." We see a lot of this in the book, too. Lou often thinks to himself about various common social phrases and has to think through both the literal meaning and then what he knows the social meaning of the phrase or act is. And he constantly asks himself if it wouldn't just be simpler to say what you mean instead of these weird social codes. You can still see the "damage" that autism has caused in Lou's interpretation of social cues, where he has a fundamental confusion over why people do some things that's not even seen in geeks.

But the parallel is there.

And, of course, there's been a lot of news coverage and research lately into the creativity and ... well, the geekiness of high-functioning autists. How they get into art or music or computers or pure math.

Just makes me wonder ... how many "diseases" or disorders are out there where the diagnosis is only quantifying a segment of a continuum? Does talent in one area cause a deficit in another? Or does a deficit in one area cause a talent in another?

If we know the speed of light, why don't we know the speed of dark?

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:35 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 31, 2005

You Can't Be Careful on a Skateboard, Man

I wrote earlier this week about learning to waterski and mentioned that had also done a little skateboarding.

The first skateboard I had was actually a hand-me-down that I found in my grandparents' garage in Oklahoma City. I adored going through my grandparents' garage - they had such cool stuff. I found old radios and would stay in the garage, setting them all on top of each other ... some leather encased, some bakelite, some plain old transistors and metal. That was my spaceship.

But one day, when digging through all of the interesting stuff in their garage I came across something I'd never seen before. It was a piece of flat wood with these funky axles on the bottom of the board and some metal wheels - just like my roller skates. The top of the board said Sidewalk Surfer in red and showed some little foot icons. Cool.

I set it down on the ground and carefully stood on it. Shifted my weight and made it move. Whoa, this was weird! Used my left foot to push a little and the thing just zoomed on the ultra smooth and ultra slick concrete in the garage. Wicked!

I trot into the house with it and ask Grandma what it is. "I don't know, that's your aunt Sandy's. I think it's a skateboard. She doesn't use it anymore, you can play with it."

Mom flips out - "Ma, ma, that looks dangerous, she can't play with that."

"Oh Sharon, leave her alone."

I hurry outside before an edict can be made, but Mom comes to the door and shouts out after me, "First time you fall off that thing, it's going in the the trash!"

Damn. I dart off the little front porch and put the skateboard down on the sidewalk, pointing to the steep driveway. Right foot at the front of the board. Left foot push. Rest the left on the board's back edge when not pushing - I didn't find out until the debut of the Tony Hawk video games that this was called goofy-footed. Figures.

I'm pushing down the sidewalk and then I hit the seam in between squares. The board stops. I don't. But I keep running and I don't skin my knees, so that doesn't count as falling off. Mom huffs and goes back in the house.

I know from my metal-wheeled roller skates that the only way to get over things like sidewalk cracks and seams is to go fast. But how can I go fast on this thing without falling off? I fell all the time when I was learning to rollerskate. I mess around with the skateboard for a little while on that short expanse of sidewalk, running off the board when it looks like I'm going to fall. This is now officially boring. What else can I do on it?

So, I sit down and point myself down the driveway, turning the board at the last possible second and ending the ride dumped in the grass. Again, if you sit on the board and tumble into the grass, it doesn't count as falling off. Mom's rules are often arbitrary and unnecessary, but I have already learned how to work the system to my benefit - at least to some extent. No scrapes = keep playing.

That skateboard eventually came home with me, but I didn't get a skateboard I could really play around with until a few years later. The shape of the board hadn't changed a whole lot - it was still skinny, but now it had a little bit of a tail at the rear which angled up. And the front end now narrowed to a point.

Best of all the wheels were now some kind of funky plastic! My cousin Tanya kind of laughed at how enthralled I was over this chunk of old plastic that she didn't really play with, so she tossed it at me and told me I could have it.

Mom re-issued the edict: "First time you fall off it, it's going in the trash."

So, I played with that one in my room, where she wouldn't know if I fell off or not. I learned to do a 180 spin and but I couldn't quite get the 360.

I had at least two more skateboards before I moved out of the house and I had seen a couple of freestyle contests on TV, including one where people only did flatland tricks - like the stuff I tried in my room. Somehow they'd flip the board and stand on the side of it - one guy even did all sorts of stuff with two skateboards, a foot on each board!

Today, I still ride skateboards. I can't do many tricks because every time I try to ollie (make the board jump), I can still hear my mom's voice, "First time you fall off that thing, it's going in the trash." She was well-known for making edicts like that and carrying through. My favorite red baseball cap that I'd gotten at Disney World when I was seven was the first thing she'd thrown away. It still haunted me as a teenager. I'd worn that Donald Duck baseball cap to school for hat day against one of her edicts. When I got home from school, she asked where it was because she knew I'd taken it to school. When I finally handed it to her, she threw it in the kitchen trash. I was about nine at the time. The reason she didn't want me to wear it to school? Because she thought the other kids would make fun of me for wearing a Disney character at such an old age.

I know she can't throw away my skateboard now. But I'm still so cautious. I don't want to fall off it. I have a World Industries board, a mountain board (big knobby wheels and a handbrake for going "off-roading"), a long board, a stow-board, an antique 60s style metal wheeled board, a 70s plastic piece of crap, a Pivot (a board with no wheels but it balances on a pivot point so you can practice your balance). (And a snowboard, too.)

I would still rather practice skateboarding in the house because over the years my mind and body have become convinced that I won't get in trouble or get hurt skateboarding in the house.

You can imagine this does not go over well with my other half ... or, to be honest, with any of the four cats and two miniature dachshunds, either.

I keep trying to replace that old Mom tape with one from Stephen King's book, It. "You can't be careful on a skateboard, man." And you can't. Riding a 'board is all about taking risks, throwing your body weight around, moving your center of gravity and above all, experimenting. It's a sport, an activity, that promotes the idea that you have to fail a LOT of times before you succeed. And I think that's a valuable lesson for anyone to learn.

One of these days, I'm going to learn to ollie and kickflip and the rest of the basic flatland tricks. One of these days I'm going to quit hearing Mom's voice and I'm going to be able to finally stop letting that hold me back.

I hope it's soon. I'd like to have a little less of the Hogwart's Hufflepuff in me and a little more of Griffyndor.

Meanwhile, I have my Tony Hawk Tip Tricks DVDs and my Tony Hawk video games. I study how to do the ollie. And I do still take out the longboard for downtown surfing and the mountain board for a couple of good spots in the Potato Creek State Park.

But I'm going to learn to ollie. One of these days.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:57 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 28, 2005

My Grandfather-in-Law

I learned how to waterski when I was a teenager. I was probably about 14 or 15 and my cousin Tanya invited me out to Lake Whitney for a bit over the summer. It took me a while to get the hang of leaning way back while being pulled rather forcefully forward. I enjoyed it. I didn't even panic when I saw the stick, I'm telling you it was a stick in the water and it was NOT wiggling sinuously through the water. I ran right over that stick (and was really relieved that I didn't fall down anywhere near there).

But I learned to love water-skiing with my grandparents-in-law on Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma.

Let's see, this takes a little bit of explaining. My mom's sister is Aunt Sandy. She married Uncle Bryan. His mom and dad weren't technically related to us, right? Well, I figured if they were Aunt Sandy's mother-in-law and father-in-law, they were my grandparents-in-law.

My grandparents and my grandparents-in-law both moved from bigger cities in Oklahoma out to Cookson, which was just a post office station on the lake. The nearest real town was Talequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation -- and Uncle Bryan's family is part Cherokee.

At any rate, C.B. (my grandfather-in-law) and his wife Florence loved to take the boat out on the lake. I was just beside myself when they asked if we'd like to go out on the lake with them and to waterski with them as well. I was ecstatic. The Mizes, Uncle Bryan, and my sister and I would pile into the boat for a day on the lake. It wasn't long before it was my turn to waterski.

I couldn't get up.

I couldn't figure it out. I'd been waterskiing before. I knew how to get up. But I just couldn't manage it. I thought for sure I'd lost my chance and someone else would ski next. But C.B. was really patient with me. He kind of frowned for a moment and said in that soft and yet commanding voice, "Why don't you use my skis? They're a little heavier in the back and I think you'll be able to get up better on those."

I think I got up on the first try with his skis. I was so excited that I stayed right in the wake of the boat and just tried to ride as long as I possibly could.

Every time I'd tried to do anything even remotely related to what we now call extreme sports, my mom would put the brakes on me. When I got my first skateboard, she told me that the first time I fell off of it, it was going in the trash and there wouldn't be another one. I became a careful skateboard rider (notice I didn't say skateboarder - you can't actually be a careful skateboarder because you have to take risks to learn any tricks at all). I tried a few tricks on my bike, but that was quickly squashed as well.

So, I was trying to waterski the same way I did every other cool sport -- careful. Of course, waterskiing carefully is not really a lot of fun. I mean, it can be interesting and it's still good exercise. But it does get kind of boring.

The next time C.B. took me out waterskiing, he told me he wanted me to leave the wake. He encouraged his kids to experiment with tricks when they were younger and he even told me that he still had a pair of their trick skis that I could work my way up to, if I wanted.

If I wanted?!?!?

I didn't know any adults that encouraged reckless behaviour like that. I was ready to try everything at once.

Of course, long years of having to be ridiculously careful made it a little bit difficult for me to really be very reckless, but I did learn to leave the wake, to go side to side. I even learned to really love waterskiing on days that the lake was a bit choppy. I skied tandem with C.B. and even started trying to feel my way into small jumps.

The last summer I got to spend time on Lake Tenkiller, I had to miss the last waterskiing trip of the year. If I'd known then that would be my last time to waterski, and more importantly, the last time I'd get to spend any real amount of time with C.B. and Florence, I'd have moved mountains to go out on the lake with them instead.

The next summer I was living on my own, working full time and it would be at least a dozen years before I would be able to afford to take more than two days off in a row.

While we were swimming in the lake one day that last summer I spent there, Florence and I were talking and she said she'd always wanted to play the accordian. I promised myself that one day, I'd save up enough money and buy her one. Every time I passed one in a music store or an antique store, I'd stare at it wistfully, sigh and walk past. I never did get the money together to get one for her before she died. I still think of her every time I pass one.

Two years ago, I rode with my Uncle Bryan and his two boys from Ohio to Texas for my sister's wedding. We passed through the Lake Tenkiller area on the way down and had an evening's visit with C.B. before driving the rest of the way to Dallas. On the way back, we spent some more time with C.B. before driving back home.

He sold the lake house not too long ago ... it was really too big, too isolated for him any more. All of the kids were grown and had grown children, his wife was gone. He moved back to the city.

At the beginning of this July, his heart started giving him problems again. Uncle Bryan flew down to Oklahoma City to be with him, make sure he was doing all right and had the care he needed.

He had surgery either late last week or early this week. Day after surgery he was doing great. Sitting up in bed, eating a sandwich, talking, joking.

And the next day he died.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:40 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 26, 2005

Recovered Memory

When I was at the Shedd Aquarium the other week, I was entranced with the seahorses. I've always loved them, but I know a lot of fish enthusiasts who just despise the things. For a long, long time, I had a dried seahorse that was one of my special kid-possessions. I don't know when I finally lost it or got rid of it, but I remember still having it as a teenager - it probably went in the great purge of summer '84.

And then, yesterday, I suddenly remembered back to when I was two or three - Dad had an aquarium with a seahorse in it. I could clearly remember sitting, utterly spellbound. There are no lights on in the house except the almost blue glow of the aquarium light. My mom is sound asleep in my parents'room (dad's at work) and I'm watching the seahorse bob in and out of the plants in the aquarium. Three of the sides are just covered in plants, but the center of the aquarium's front is open. More plants sparsely spot the middle of the aquarium and I'm sitting on my knees, the nasty 70s shag carpeting leaving red imprints in my kneecaps, watching as he bobs around. I could stay there all day.

When Mom finally wakes up, she shuffles into the den with her lit cigarette and startles when she sees me. "What are you doing in here in the dark?"

I don't answer. It's between me and my seahorse.

I don't remember when the seahorse died -- I assume the dried one I had was probably that same one from Dad's aquarium. The aquarium was probably emptied when we moved. I didn't see it come out again until Dad decided to put it in my room and fill it with minnows so he could go fishing and always have live bait.

Funny. I haven't thought about that in ages and ages, even though I've always said that I liked seahorses. I didn't remember that right after seeing the seahorses at the Shedd. Took a few days and it suddenly just popped into my head, kind of out of nowhere. But now, it's so clear. I can't remember much of anything about the house, the room that we were in ... just the aquarium and "my" seahorse.

Weird how that works.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:13 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 24, 2005

For Diane

Long ago, when the people were still new in this world, Coyote came up to his brother Wolf and said, "Brother, why must they sicken? They struggle hard to please this world, but their efforts only bring some pain and sickness even when they honor the earth as they should. Can't we at least take away sickness from them?"

Wolf did not look up from his work, but answered, "Sickening serves to remind them that everything in this world is fleeting. If they do not have this reminder, they grow lax and think they have all the time in the world for their own cares. Sickening reminds them to take care of each other so that someone is there to take care of them during their need."

Knowing how wise Wolf was, Coyote determined to watch the People further and find some way to help them. He watched how they struggled to raise crops and to hunt. Their days and months revolved around gathering necessities to keep them fed. He returned to Wolf and asked, "Brother I understand why they must sicken and see that you are right. But must they also toil so hard and so long just for nourishment? Surely we can help them and provide their food for them."

Again Wolf did not look up from his work. This time, he was silent for a long time until Coyote began to get restive, his bristle-tail twitching with the strain of trying to be patient. "If they do not work to stay alive, Little Brother, they quickly forget the beauty and harmony in this world and their walk becomes unbalanced and eventually destructive."

Coyote thought about this for a while and said nothing more to Wolf. After a time, he went back to the People, watched them suffer with sickness and with war and then returned to Wolf again.

"Brother, I have seen how those who do not stay connected to the earth and strive to call forth nourishment from her do destroy that which they no longer understand. But the People's lives are so short and filled with pain. Why can't their lives be long like ours? Why must they die?"

Wolf paused for a moment in his work, but did not look at Coyote. "It is to remind them that life is precious, brother. When it is fast and short, they value it more and treasure each other."

Coyote sat with his brother for some time and then, as his brother continued in his work, Coyote turned and walked to where Wolf's cubs were playing. He observed them at play for a while and then, without warning, struck a cub down with one great swipe of his paw. The others, shocked, were silent and then began to howl at their still brother.

Wolf came quickly and stood in horror at his dead cub and looked in astonishment at his brother. "What have you done? Why would you do such a thing? Why?"

Coyote finished cleaning his paw and said deliberately, "If the People must remember that life is precious, a treasure, you should also feel what death means."

---

I don't recall what American Indian tribe this myth belongs to or where I first read it. I'm sure I've mangled the details a bit, but it's always stuck with me. Some tribes, particuarly Navajo, believe that Coyote is a very sinister trickster and while this story does have its sinister aspect, Coyote is essentially arguing to make people's lives easier.

I think it's telling that Wolf cries "Why" on the death of one of his children. Most of us wonder the same thing at the ending of any life that comes suddenly, sometimes those that come slowly, and particularly those that come premature.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:54 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 21, 2005

Severe Betrayals

If you haven't finished reading the newest Harry Potter book or you're tired of the whole Harry Potter obsession, scroll down and look at the pretty frog pictures I took at the Shedd Aquarium. Or, patiently wait for your 30 seconds to be up and click on to the next Blogexplosion blog.

DO NOT READ THIS POST IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE

Okay, with that out of the way, I have to say a few things about some objections I've read about the book. First, I thought the book absolutely wonderful and just what it needed to be.

Things that surprised me:
1) I didn't expect Harry to state that he wasn't coming back to Hogwart's for his final year.
2) The amount of snogging. (But this often surprises me - mind you, given the whole story arc, I think it was necessary to have it there, but it did surprise me.)
3) That we find out about Snape's double-cross in this book instead of book 7. (But, given the first few chapters and the knowledge that since Riddle was denied the Defense Against Dark Arts post, no DADA teacher has lasted more than a year, it wasn't surprising.)
4) The surprise that some people have shown in Snape's actions.
and finally,
5) That the whole Snape and Dumbledore ending smacked strongly of Obi-Wan and Vader from Star Wars: A New Hope. (Odd to have to put the New Hope bit in now when I talk about the original movie.)

My random thoughts on the whole war:
Andrew over at Half-Blood Prince dot net was crushed at the book's end. Like many folks, he seems unable to fathom Dumbledore's death and the betrayal of Snape. (After reading more posts from Andrew even as I write this entry, he's made it clear that his first reactions were simply reactions - I don't want to imply that he was being critical of Rowling - he seems to be reacting like we all tend to do with the best written books: like it was all real and we're there, a part of the world. This connection is one of the things that make Rowling's books so good - and makes this book so real and devastating.)

Now, as a writer and a reader, I have a bit of an odd take on the whole thing. I literally can't see any other way for this book to have ended. The school had to be invaded -- Voldemort is a serious enemy and he absolutely loathes and despises Dumbledore. And Dumbledore wears his love and trust on his sleeve for a very distinct purpose: he knows that you can often reach people with that demonstration of perfect trust and love far more than with logic, or pleading or bribery or even fear.
And, honestly, I never expected poor Dumbledore to live through this book.

Having said that, there are ways that Rowling could possibly reverse some of this in the final book. I don't particularly expect her to do so -- she's treated this whole series very realistically and refused to sugar-coat anything just because it was a kid's book. There is room, however, to argue that Albus was asking Severus to kill him because he knew he was too weak to live. He could have been asking Severus to put him out of his misery and to carry on the battle directly to Voldemort . . . or more correctly, directly to Tom.

And, even in Severus Snape's name, Rowling keeps us guessing. Is Snape just "severe"? or is his name a compound word "sever us"? It seems a bit silly and over-academic to look at Snape's name so closely, but Rowling has well established that she plays with at least some of the characters' names.

I actually want to believe in Snape's betrayal. I don't really think he was ever fully on the side of Dumbledore. I'm not sure he had completely made his mind up from the beginning, though. I think he did a lot of equivocating and changing of his mind/heart before finally setting upon this path.

Ultimately, the last war ended - more or less - with the betrayal of the Potters by Peter the petty. Someone who was supposed to be a trusted friend to James. So it only makes sense that this war has its major betrayal, too. Now maybe Snape will be able to redeem himself like Anakin/Vader does . . . and maybe he won't.

I'm already focused on what will happen in the last book. Will Harry and the rest really forego school? (Oh and WHAT is Mrs. Weasley going to say about that???) Does giving up that final year mean that Harry won't become an Auror? Or will the practical experience he gains take the place of his final year of schooling? Or will Harry no longer be the boy who lived? There's always a chance that both Harry and Tom will die in this final book. After all, Harry is the boy who lived. Now that he'll be coming of age in just a few months after the close of the sixth book, can he also be the man who lives?

And perhaps the most interesting thing of all, to me anyway, is the theme of keeping oneself open to others. If you've had a really crummy or crappy life, the tendency is often to not trust other people, to only rely on yourself. This comes up in Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald-Mage trilogy time and time again. A rather abused/neglected young man tries to isolate himself from others, then, when he does finally fall in love, he loses that love within a few short months. Not ever wanting to feel that depth of pain again, he tries to shut everyone out. Likewise, in The California Voodoo Game, Griffin wants to shut everyone out and take out the bad guy on his own, without the help of others (who might get hurt). Miriam (??I think that's the wrong name) tells him at the end of the book that the real difference between Griffin and Bishop (the bad guy), is that the Bishop lets no one in. Griffin does and instead of making him weaker, it makes him much, much stronger than the Bishop.

Even though Lily and James opening up to Peter leads to their deaths, it's that connection and openness which lets Lily protect Harry and nearly kill Tom.

The connections and relationships we form do leave us open to terrible, terrible pain. But they also lift us to heights we could not reach alone.

And in case we forget that lesson in our shock and pain over Dumbledore's death (whether we expected it or not), Rowling reminds us again as Harry determines to finish off Tom Riddle. He is prepared to go out, alone, so that no one else gets hurt. But Hermione and Ron insist that they will be right there with him. And they remind Harry of other ties to the greater wizarding world -- they still have to (want to) attend Bill's wedding. Even though the book is dark and grim and foreboding . . . even as our world often feels today, life does go on. We fall in love, we snog, we tease each other, we love and we proclaim that love.

And eventually, that will wear Tom Riddle and all those like him, down to nothing.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:24 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 9, 2005

Journey: Today's destination

This is part six in a six part series. You can find part one here. And part two here. And part three here. You can find part four here. And part five here.
NEW: Read the whole series on one page (if you're so inclined).
This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.

- - - -
Instead of any kind of revelation, several things happened over the course of a few years. One, was joining a book discussion group at church (Kelly convinced me to join) and a comic book by J. M. DeMatteis called Seekers Into the Mystery started publication. Also, A was pestering me to define what I believed. And, The Matrix came out. It seemed everywhere I turned, something or someone was asking me to examine my ghost-faith, leave the land of the shades and my isolation and join the conversation and community.

All I knew at that time was that I was not a traditional Christian.

There were two comments made in particular that kept echoing in my head. During one of our book discussions, I began writing some of my questions and concerns about Christianity to Carrie (our book leader and also an ordained minister). At the time I was stymied, confused and even hurt by the folks who claimed to have a personal relationship, a give and take relationship, with God. And it just made me mad.

It wasn't until during one of our letter-writing sessions, Carrie simply said to me, "given your background, you'll probably never feel that way, that type of of connection. You're a seeker."

I should have been mad. I tend not to react well when people tell me I won't something, even if it's true and I know it.

Instead, Carrie's comments was very freeing.

A few weeks or months later, again in book discussion, Martha made some comment about God making mistakes and revising plans. (We were talking about the major shift between the Old and New Testaments.) As much as I tried to hide it at the time, I was pole-axed. I started reading some more on my own and started talking with Martha more and discovered that while my concepts of God are not really the norm, evidently they're not so far out of line with some theologians, either.

What I came to realize very, very slowly, was that despite our common language and use of shared symbols, our ultimate picture/conception of the Godhead is intensely personal for each one of us. Few of us probably have the same exact concept - and that's okay. And I found out that my concept, while not common, is not completely unorthodox, either.

My great, sudden epiphany was actually a slow and dawning realization that I was not ever going to have that epiphany of light where it all becomes so clear. Instead, I was going to be far more like Joan of Arcadia, constantly questioning and seeking "the" right path and constantly having to remind myself that "the" right path doesn't exist - it's about the journey we take and what we try and fail to accomplish and what we try and succeed.

- - - -

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six

I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning any religion or faith or generalizing about any of them. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:53 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 8, 2005

Journeying continues further

This is part five in a six part series. You can find part one here. And part two here. And part three here. And part four here.
NEW: Read the whole series on one page (if you're so inclined).
This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.

- - - -
For about 15 years, I had a ghost-faith. I believed in something completely undefined and I was content with that.

I met A in the spring of 1998. I had just ended the ten-year relationship (the one, in fact, that had begun just before Doug called my house and told my mother that I was gay). A mutual friend introduced A and I, positive that we were perfect for each other.

I'm a little slow in such matters, though, and it wasn't until the spring of 1999 that we started hanging out and by that fall, things were getting serious.

Actually, more than our relationship had gotten serious. I didn't know it yet, but I had developed cancer over the last two years. All I knew that fall was that I kept getting these stupid little fevers and couldn't seem to get enough sleep. My idiot doctor never even took a blood sample, just kept prescribing antibiotics. I had no health insurance despite teaching at the University of Notre Dame, I had my grandfather's decrepit Buick with well over 100,000 miles on it and it was rapidly falling apart. At the time I made well under $20,000 a year as an adjunct instructor at Notre Dame.

After feeling my temperature spike while teaching class - for the zillionth time it hit 104 - I gave up on my doctor and went to Medpoint.

Now, when the mostly retired Medpoint doctor insists on taking your blood and then calls your doctor and attempts to quietly yet forcefully chew him a new one (I was listening at the door), you know something's wrong. Two days later I was in the hospital getting five units of blood and two days after that, the first of twelve rounds of chemo for Hodgkin's disease (for those of you who remember the 70s movie, Brian's Song, about Brian Piccolo, that's what I had).

Despite what most folks seem to expect, I had no sudden conversion or revelation, not even during those first few days before we had any diagnosis or any real idea what was wrong, when I sat in the hospital bed after everyone had left and started trying to write my will, sure I would be dead in a matter of weeks.

There were no revelations then. I got better and left the hospital after that first round of chemo. And I went to church with A because it was obviously something important to her - and let me tell you that was the first time I ever stepped into a Protestant chruch for service and I was half afraid of a lightning strike from the blasphemy of just walking through the doors.

The church seemed nice enough. The minister, Martha, was interesting. But I was still leery of these Christians. They believed in some kind of super-person named God. They talked to God and thought they felt a comforting hand of God in their times of crisis.

And that was fine just as long as they left me out of it. I didn't feel God during my times of crisis - I felt my father. As far as I was concerned, if there was a God-being, that God had never bothered to check in with me and I had gotten tired of trying to check in with God a long, long time before.

The chemo went on, it never made me sick, I was feeling better and then the cancer was gone. I was still attending Southside with A because it was such an important part of her life . . . and Martha was intriguing. She wasn't at all like the annoying Monsignor Neu I'd listen to drone on and on about money and how shallow and ungrateful his whole congregation was.

Then the cancer came back and I was scheduled for a bone marrow transplant. Again, the threat that I might not live through this. Still no great revelation or conversion. Instead, I did things like go to chemo from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., go teach my two classes and then go back to the clinic to finish my chemo.
You might say that I'm a little stubborn.

After a fast and easy -- according to the doctors -- bone marrow transplant, I even drove home from Indianapolis upon release from the hospital. (A good three hour drive home.)

Still no miraculous conversion. Still a ghost-faith.

- - - -

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
More on how all of this affected my faith journey in the next section.
I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning any religion or faith or generalizing about any of them. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:59 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 7, 2005

Journeys Continue

This is part four in a six part series. You can find part one here. And part two here. And part three here.
NEW: Read the whole series on one page (if you're so inclined).
This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.

- - - -
For my entire senior year of high school, I'd been working up to tell Mom my biggest secret, something I'd been hiding from her for years. I had worked myself up to tell her that I wasn't Catholic any more.

By my freshman year of college, I still hadn't done it. And I was still stuck living at home. Before I could finally, finally tell her, someone called the house and told my mom that I was gay. Well, in some ways that made things easier for me -- she assumed I wasn't Catholic when I confirmed that I was gay.

I won't go into the whole saga here, but she did drag me off to a Catholic counselor that morning, making me skip my Tuesday classes. My mom had told the counselor that maybe Dad had "done something" to me (and presumably made me be gay) or that I was simply going through a phase. It was the second time in about as many years that Mom had asked that about Dad. But I still wasn't ready to deal with it in any way - even though about the time that I stopped believing in a God-being was about the time Dad had begun re-visiting my room at night.

I moved out of the house, Mom divorced Dad and later got the marriage anulled. And I stopped going to church.

I also stopped worrying about God one way or another. I admitted that the whole God-thing, the whole why-we-exist and what-happens-afterward thing was a great mystery that was totally beyond human understanding, so why try to understand it? All we needed to know was to try to be good and compassionate, to help others and to treat each other as we would want to be treated. Anything else was us humans putting our limiting constructions on something beyond comprehension. And most of those times we not only created an artificial construction, we created limits that weren't really there; rules that weren't true; and for some, a crutch which might ease our lives or it might snap under the pressure and leave us far more devastated than if we'd had no crutch at all.

From the time i was about 15 or 16 until I was about 30, I had a ghost-faith. I wasn't Catholic any more. I looked into several pagan religions, Wicca, Witta; I looked at Native American beliefs - particularly Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo beliefs. All of it, Christian, pagan, native, seemed so artificial and ultimately empty to me. I believed in being good, in doing good. If whatever or whoever ran things didn't think that was good enough, then I didn't really care what "he" did to me in whatever afterlife. It just wasn't worth it to me to try to live by impossible rules and regulations and then get caught out on some stupid technicality.

I had a ghost-faith. I believed in some nebulous something, but I didn't know how to define it and I didn't really want to.

- - - -

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
More on how all of this affected my faith journey in the next section.
I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning any religion or faith or generalizing about any of them. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:39 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 6, 2005

Journeying further still

This part three in a six part series. You can find part one here. And part two here.
NEW: Read the whole series on one page (if you're so inclined).
This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.

- - - -
During this time, somewhere between the ages of 11 and 14, I tried to do a lot of thinking about God and what I really believed. By the time I was eleven and had been to my first family funeral (my sweet great-grandmother), I had developed my own theology that was only loosely based on Catholicism. And, I was starting to realize that I heard a call to the priesthood.

This was obviously problematic. If I couldn't be a Cub Scout (they had the best uniforms -- Brownies' uniforms sucked), there was no way I was going to be able to bull my way into seminary and the priesthood. I tried to reconcile that call to being a nun. I re-read the life of St. Therese.
I wanted to be a priest. I felt called to it. And I wasn't able to shake that feeling of call.

By the time I was thirteen, things were pretty much falling apart for me.

I was quickly coming to grips with the fact that my father was an alcoholic and yet I was running desperately from the fact that he'd been raping me from the time I was four until we moved to Arlington. I was coming to grips with the fact that he would, in all liklihood, never go into recovery. At the same time, I was realizing that mom lived in her own little isolated reality and the church I had wanted to serve was human, fallible and didn't really want me to serve it in the way that I felt called. It felt like rejection all the way around.

How could I reconcile an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God with my life?

I couldn't. I was stuck.

If I wouldn't leave a person in my situation and God was so much better than me, then something was wrong with what I'd been taught. More than just the church was corrupt -- what I believed was corrupt, too. Faced with my life, I didn't see how God could be all powerful AND all loving.

Somehow, all we got as kids was "believe in God, love God and be good and you will be rewarded." Nevermind all those stories I'd read about saints whose only "reward" for their goodness was martyrdom by stoning or even crucifixion. God is all good, all knowing and all powerful. God will save us from bad things because we've been good enough to deserve to be saved from them, good enough to be rewarded.

I spent every night for about three months praying to God -- no, begging -- to a God who seemed to have condemned me no matter how hard I aspired to be the saint I thought he wanted me to be.

At the end of those three months I realized that I didn't, I couldn't believe in a God-being. I'd read most of the Old Testament, a lot of the New Testament, I'd read Edith Hamilton on the Greco-Romano gods, I'd even begun reading about Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultures as well. And in all of them, it seemed to me that most of these gods were just petulant children, personifications of those priests and holy people who wrote or told the stories.

I didn't know what I believed any more. I just knew that there was no hero-God who would rain hellfire down on yuppy, suburban Arlington and rescue me. I wasn't sure that I rejected the idea of God, but I did reject the idea of a being named God (or Yahweh or Jehovah or Adnoi or whatever).

By the time I was supposed to be confirmed at sixteen, I knew I wasn't a Catholic anymore. I looked for away out of getting confirmed, but my mom had already asked my grandma to be my sponsor. I couldn't figure out a way to get out of it.

By the end of my senior year in high school, I'd quit teaching the three year olds Sunday School class. I finagled ways to go to a different Mass than the one my mom went to -- but we lived so close to the church, that I couldn't avoid going to the church completely. I would go, park my car and either sit in the car and read a book, or, if I was feeling particularly paranoid about her checking up on me (and she did check up on me), I would go inside and sit in the bathroom and read.

By this time I'd also read the books of Chaim Potok, a wonderful Jewish writer, and I wondered if the answers I sought were there. But, I couldn't really get over the whole not believing in Jesus as the Messiah thing.

When I went on college visits my senior year, I went to Texas Christian in Fort Worth - oddly enough a Christian Church Disciples of Christ school, just like the church I go to now. They were the only school who had the major that I really wanted - deaf education. We observed the pre-school the program ran and the director spoke to me - I was completely fascinated and determined this was what I wanted to do. Mom and I went to the college's open house and discovered that TCU required all students to take a theology or religion class - but that in true Disciples fashion, they had a wide variety of classes to choose from including one that talked about Christianity, Islam, Buddism and others. As Mom and I walked out of that session she looked at me and said, "You're going to take that comparative religions class, aren't you?" Not reading her very obvious cues correctly, I nodded, excited at the prospect. Her reply: "You're not going here."

I was the oldest and the first in my immediate family to go to college. I didn't know I could take out student loans. I didn't know that I could "emancipate" myself from my parents and get some government help for school. I didn't know that my parents had put literally nothing aside for my college education. I didn't think I could manage to work, support myself and pay for college. If I wanted a future, I was still at their mercy. I wasn't going to TCU -- and I missed out on probably becoming a Disciple way back then.

- - - -

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
More on how all of this affected my faith journey in the next section.
I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning all Catholics or even Catholicism in general. I've been to wonderful, faithful Catholic churches and I've been to piss-poor ones where you'd be hard-pressed to find any hint of God at all. I'm not generalizing about any one religion or faith. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:58 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

Journeying Further

This part two in a six part series. You can find part one here.
NEW: Read the whole series on one page (if you're so inclined).
This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.

- - - -
I should explain a little more. To Catholics, or at least as it was explained to me way back when, you had God - all perfect, all knowing, all good. Then you had Jesus, who it seemed to me had to be slightly tainted because he was human and therefore by definition not perfect and all knowing. These were the two highest ideals that no one could ever hope to fully be like. You might have your moments of goodness, but you couldn't really be like God or Jesus -- the positions were already filled, so to speak. So my insistence that I was a good kid only meant that for a human kid I might be kinda good.

But saints . . . well, anyone could be a saint. They were normal people who either lived exceedingly good lives or had some dramatic conversion.
I wanted to be a good person, like I was supposed to. Therefore, I would try to be a saint.

So, I had a bit of a problem with the rote prayers of Catholicism just assuming that I was a bad person, a sinner. No, I was working very hard to be a saint. I read a kids' book about St. Therese - the little flower - and spent a summer trying very hard to be kind and loving and beatific. When Dad tore down our swingset to use it for a little romantic swing-chair on our back deck and forbid us to use it anymore, I practiced giving compliments instead of getting mad. With all the tact of a seven year old, I said, "Wow Dad, that looks really great. Like a professional did it, not like you did it at all."

For some reason, this compliment did not go over as I had anticipated. This being a saint thing was beginning to look more difficult than I thought it would be.

I was still trying to attain sainthood when it came time to move yet again. I don't think I have ever - before or since - cried as hard or as often as when we moved away from Austin. We'd lived there for four or five years - the longest I'd lived anywhere up to that point and it was the community that I'd found there - people who loved me and cared about me - that I would miss most of all. From the Tapia "tribe" a few doors down, to my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Gillespie, to my allergist Dr. Exline, to the community at St. Therese's on the Hill, to my whole Balcones Woods neighborhood.

The problem was, I had more adult friends than kids. And those communities were starting to notice our family. My allergist told my mom to quit being so hard on me, to let me cut loose and sit in a chair backwards from time to time if I wanted to. And my third grade teacher, Miss Burciaga, called mom in for a conference that mom now insists she asked for - ostensibly about a mixup in my PE grade. But I can remember waiting in the hallway and listening to Miss Burciaga tell my mom how concerned she was that I hadn't made any friends. And then Miss Burciaga knowing me well enough to open the classroom door I'd been listening at. And chasing me outside to go play on the playground while the grown-ups talked about me.

Over the years, I've become convinced that my being noticed by the community is why we had to move. I think there was some concern that things were not perfectly fine at home.

We had no community in Arlington. My new school was "open concept" which meant 184 third graders (the number of students per grade hung from the ceiling above our area) were in one room which was only partially subdivided into classrooms and even other grade levels by five foot rolling bookcases and wardrobes. I was one among many. Despite being a full book ahead of the "high" language arts class and at the same spot as the "high" math group, I was placed in lower groups. Depressed, I did little schoolwork at all for a few weeks. I manged to get lost in the crowd.

Church was no better. St. Maria Goretti's was, in retrospect, a very conservative and traditional Catholic church, particularly in comparison to the progressive and liberal St. Therese's in Austin. Stained glass, balcony, elaborate murals, oppulence abounding. High mass on Sunday mornings meant incense -- which promptly triggered my asthma and a sneezing attack and sent me outside for a while, muttering something about "you're not supposed to be allergic to God!"

The church was huge and we regularly sat in the upper balcony away from the yuppy fashion show on the main floor below. Had my sister stage-whispered in that very not-quiet way she had, "Is that God?" as the priest made the procession down the center aisle, no one would have laughed, least of all the priest. At St. Therese's in Austin, the priest practically couldn't stop giggling through the whole Mass and was looking for us when we left that day -- he had to meet the three year old who thought he was God.

We were noticed there.

We were lost in the crowd here at church in Arlington. In fact, the church shortly grew so large that a new parish was formed. There was no community at all. No church carnivals, no conversations with other parishioners before and after Mass. The kids in our CCD class (kinda like Sunday school)rarely banded together in school - we were rather lost in the sea of Southern Baptists and it was easier on us that way. Make it clear that you went to CCD on Wednesday night instead of Church and you were immediately targeting for "saving" and "real baptism."

- - - -

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
More on community and the like in the next post.
I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning all Catholics or even Catholicism in general. I've been to wonderful, faithful Catholic churches and I've been to piss-poor ones where you'd be hard-pressed to find any hint of God at all. I'm not generalizing about any one religion or faith. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:41 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 5, 2005

Journeys

This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.
NEW: Read the whole series on one page (if you're so inclined).

- - - -
I was born in Amarillo, Texas. As an infant, we moved to Houston, then another place in Houston. Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oklahoma City. Then we left the South and for what seemed like an interminably long year, we lived in Carmel, Indiana. We left Carmel in the middle of a small blizzard and moved to Austin, Texas. Then I started kindergarten. In third grade, we moved to Arlington -- between Dallas and Fort Worth.

I go through this litany of places because when people ask me where I'm from, I've never really known how to answer. I generally ask, "Do you want the long version or the short version?"
Likewise, even now, when people ask my faith or what I believe, I find it hard to answer without going through a litany of paths I've taken on my faith journey. For a long time I simply muttered, "I'm really not much of anything at all. And it was true. I had a kind of ghost-faith that I kept very very private.

First in the litany of faith paths, I was raised Catholic. My first concrete memories of "going to church" start somewhere around the age of six when I announced -- well bellowed amidst much crying, actually -- that I did NOT want to go to church, I was tired of going to church and I just wanted to stay home with Dad and why couldn't I just stay home with Dad? In retrospect, this may have had less to do with church itself and more to do with the escalating gender battle between mom and I. Frankly, I was tired of having my long, baby-fine, perfectly straight and totally static-y, flyaway hair combed with a fine-tooth plastic comb and bundled into braids or dog ears or a pony tail and then the utter indignity of having to wear one of those awful little girl dress/jumpers so popular in the 70s. Doing this five days a week for school was enough. The weekend was for jeans or shorts and only half-attempts at taming my fly-away hair. Mom was a bit taken aback by my vehemence, but she quickly agreed that I did not have to go to church until I was seven -- then I had to go. Since turning seven in November seemed like eons away yet - even though it was probably only a few short months - I happily agreed.

But after I turned seven. Every Sunday morning. Get up. Wear horrible clothes. Tame the terrible head. And then sit in silence with nothing to do other than the ritual of the mass itself. To those who know me, not surprisingly, I was bored stiff. I'd pick up the Missal and read the readings and the Gospel for the day. Then I'd read weeks ahead and weeks prior.

As Catholics, we didn't have Sunday School and we didn't study the Bible. We had CCD, which was generally just memorizing - and at least in my case, promptly forgetting - the Catholic catechism. When we were really young, we memorized prayers. I had an easy time with the Lord's Prayer, probably because we said it in church every week. I was so proud of myself for memorizing it so fast and with the cockiness of a little kid, I thought the second prayer, being shorter, would be a piece of cake. But the second prayer we had to memorize wasn't one we said every week in church and it didn't make much sense to me, either. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and . . . and . . . and . . . . What the heck did 'blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus' mean anyway?"

I don't know how other Catholic families handled a kid like me, but in the mid-70s at our house, you just memorized it. You didn't ask questions. And the fact that I not only wanted to know what "blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus" meant, but I also wanted to know why everyone seemed to assume that we were all sinners did not go over well, especially with my protestations that I was a good kid. That usually got a list of my shortcomings recited at me.

- - - -

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
More is on the way (for really - this is all written out in a notebook, and I am still working on the continuation of A Smile).

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:29 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 20, 2005

Hall of Presidents

Something during a Google search today got me to thinking about the trip I made to DisneyWorld when I was seven. (No, this isn't some long rambling post about a vacation - hang on, there's more to this.)

This was back in the day, when you were issued a booklet of coupons and you had to budget the different letter coupons so you could go on the rides you really wanted to go on. For example, I think Space Mountain was an E ride and I hoarded my final E coupon for hours until we neared the famed roller coaster ride.

One of the "rides" that I really wanted to see was the Hall of Presidents. I know, I know. Dude, I've already said it: I'm a geek. I thought that seeing robots was cool and I desperately wanted to see Abraham Lincoln speak. I got a thrill just thinking about watching a lanky robot stand and utter something from the famed liberator. The rest of the family thought their coupons were far better spent on things like the Teacup ride and that cloying Small World ride. (That my sister, who'd begged to go on it. . . what? oh yeah. No rambling. Okay.)

Finally, I pestered Mom enough about this ride that she handed me the map and helped me figure out exactly where the Hall of Presidents was in relation to where we were. Since no one else wanted to go with me, Mom decided that at 7 I was big enough to walk through the huge amusement park alone and go see the show. We were to meet up again at some ride I've long since forgotten after the show was over. Now, Mom was pretty over-protective most of the time and I'm not really sure why she thought that a little kid would be perfectly safe heading across the park alone. I guess because it was Disney World and what harm could come to a kid at Disney World? Or maybe she was just exhausted from my constant updates about how much longer until the next Hall of Presidents show. To quote the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial, "The world may never know."

So, I'm both thrilled and terrified to be heading across the park alone. I mean, this is a rite of passage here: I've got to officially be a big kid if I can navigate my way across this park and see a show by myself. But I've also heard plenty of Stranger Danger commercials and seen enough posters to know that kidnappers can appear anywhere and you have to be really aware of your surroundings. I was mentally trying to look everywhere at once and to try to figure out what Hong Kong Phooey moves I could do if attacked. Hey, it was the 70s, everyone was paranoid.

Finally, I arrive in front of the show's little building and I'm just so excited. I can't believe it. I'm going to hear Lincoln free the slaves. This is the coolest thing ever. I'm practically gibbering to myself in excitement. We'd been taught only that Lincoln had freed the slaves and that he was a great hero -- no one had bothered to mention to a bunch of little kids that the whole thing, that the whole civil war, in fact, was more complicated than that. Lincoln was a hero for freeing the oppressed.

I slide into the big theatre and make my way to a seat kind of in the back of the theatre, but not all the way in the back. I want to be close enough to see my hero. I keep checking my watch, with the little bee's eyes that move back and forth with each second that ticks away. How much longer now? When is it going to start?

Before it does, I hear a couple of people sit down in the row right behind me. I slump down in my theatre seat. Are they going to kidnap me? I'm here all alone and there's no adults I know nearby at all. I risk a glance over my shoulder.

Oh no! They're black.

I slump even further into my seat.

And then my brain kicks into overdrive.

"Now wait a minute," my brain says to me. "Why are you here, exactly?"

"I want to see Lincoln."

"You want to see Lincoln do what?" my brain keeps prodding.

Oh. Oh yeah. What the hell is wrong with me?

I look back over my shoulder again. It's a young couple. Maybe in their twenties - it's hard for a seven-year-old to gauge the age of adults, after all. Yeah, they're black. And young. And in love. They nudge each other and give me a smile.

You know, that was a really simple thing on their part. They could have ignored this terrified white kid, afraid that any nice action they made would have repercussions for them. Being young people, they could have tried to tease me or make me smile with a funny face. But they just gave me a little smile.

I smiled back.

I relaxed. I sat upright in my seat. I was here to see my hero free the slaves. Blacks weren't any different than whites. There was no reason to be afraid of them; they were nice people.

When the show was over and I stood up, the young couple was already gone. I don't think I even heard them leave. I do remember being a lot more confident as I wound my way back through the park to the rendevous point and waited for my family. I didn't tell anyone about the young couple or how scared I'd been. I was embarassed that I'd been scared at all.

I grew up in Texas during the 70s. I read Dr. Seuss books; I watched Free to Be You and Me, Sesame Street and Electric Company. I didn't know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, but I wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement. Of course, I was born too late - the civil rights movement was over. (I thought it was, anyway.) My Dad used the n-word. The Klan.

And somehow, that one smile solidified my whole outlook to all people. A pretty simple thing, a smile.

. . . to be continued

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:18 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 8, 2005

All We Need Is Some Ice Cream And a Hug

Hmm, I've been shooting to update this blog every other day -- I've never been great at the old creative writing adage to write every day. I'm much more of a binge writer, and I guess that's starting to bleed over into this new enterprise despite my best intentions. Well, phooey.

That said, I'd much rather update when I actually have something to say instead of updating like a madman and giving myself mono.

Now, pull up a chair, Gentle Reader, and settle in by the soft, cool wash of your monitor and relax just a moment.

I loved looking at old board games as a kid. I liked comparing the brand new Sorry box to my mom's old Park N Shop box. They were the same size and shape -- the boards were still the same size and shape despite the 20 or so years in between their printings. Very little had (at that time) changed in how we played board games.

I even had some of dad's old "bookshelf games" (these eventually became D&D style games). He had one about making money and a second about spies. I never played dad's games -- they looked far too complicated to my eight-year-old's eyes. I mean, you had to read a whole fifty page badly mimeographed booklet just to be able to play the basic game! And even if I could get through all of the intricate details, I'd never be able to explain it to my little sister who was only four at the time. I mean, there's wasn't even a board to this game!

But he had other games, too. He had the coolest Parcheesi set I've ever seen. It was so cool. The box was made to look at bit like it was fabric instead of just cardboard. It had some fancy gold flocking that, while still there and looking nice enough, was a bit faded and a bit worn, but still held its texture. Lifting the lid, you just knew that this game was something special. First, there was this smell that wafted out of the box. A smell of age, mystery and, I suppose, of old cardboard, too. It was most like the smell of a really old, but not musty book and it carried the same sense of awe to me every time I opened the box.

After I opened up the box, I pulled out the game board which was the same faded gold textured cardboard as the box. Just a single word, Parcheesi written in gold leaf, decorated the board, dead centered. And, just below the board was another clue to just how special this game was: the white quilted paper cushion gently laid atop the game pieces. Even after opening up the box and removing the board, you still couldn't see the game, really. It almost looked like a box of really special chocolates with that white quilted paper resting there.

After lifting the paper, you could see each individual piece for the game -- not jumbled together in some little cardboard box, but each piece had its own place die-cut into the cardboard. The pawns for the game were all wood -- not plastic like the Sorry pawns. It even came with a little "cup" to put the dice in when rolling. Of course, it was the same green-gold textured cardboard. It all matched and just pulling the game out was a magical time for me.

Yeah, I know. I really was that much of a geek. Didn't really care about the game itself, but oh, the magic of pulling it all out and getting it set up. And just thinking about how old it was (in my eight-year-old's mind the game was at least fifty years old) just gave me the shivers.

It was one of my favorite board games even though I didn't really like playing Parcheesi and I didn't take it out to play very often. I wanted to keep that old game forever. I could see me pulling it out of the cabinet and setting up the game on the kitchen table, playing with my kids and just hoping that it had as much magic for them as it did for me.

I haven't gone looking on eBay to replace the one my mom sold over my strenuous protests. I'm never sure that I'll really find one with that same level of magic to it. And I still haven't gotten to a spot where I can adopt my children like I've always wanted to do. But chances are, when I do finally bring my children home, we'll find something else that has that magic in it. It's probably some old thing I already have lying around the house and have almost taken to the church rummage sale a thousand times.

Wish I knew what it was.
Wish I knew when I can finally adopt. Are my kids even born yet? If they are, what's happening in their lives right now? I hope they're happy right now. If something happens that means they'll be up for adoption in the next couple of years, that means something unhappy is going to happen. I wish i could stop that pain before it ever happens. I'll have to content myself with trying to help them work through it and helping them learn to be happy again . . . .

Wow. This went places I never imagined it would go. Writing's like that sometimes.

Peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:32 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 6, 1994

Ladder in the Lake

*** Please Note: This is simply a *fast* re-write of this story, which I originally wrote in the early to mid 90s and then re-vamped in a completely different way for the second chapter of my second novel. This version is not great writing. I just wanted to put the story out there so that I could write a post which relates to this story. ***

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

David simply stared at the other boys as they argued and smacked each other and grinned through it all - even through the black eye Kyle gave Mikey while they were debating Wii versus Playstation 3 vs. Xbox 360. (Yeah, it was like that. Stupid strap on the Wii controller broke, smacked Mikey in the eye, proving that Mikey was right: the Wii was shoddily conceived even if a nice concept.)

He slid open the back door of the cabin and wandered outside. The others would follow soon. David was far more interested in the dock and the lake than in who could beat who in Madden '07. He'd known Kyle and Mikey and the rest his whole life, but he still didn't think any of them thought of him as a friend. They just kind of knew each other. Really, it was their folks who assumed they were all best friends. That made sure David was invited to all the events. The other boys, they could really care less ... except that if David wasn't there, they'd have to find someone else to pick on.

He walked past the firepit where Kyle's dad was cursing as he wrestled logs into place. Past the tents set up so the adults could have the cabin in peace tonight. Down the path to the dock, keeping his eyes on the water instead of the path, the trees. Eye on the prize, not the path to get there.

And sitting with his legs dangling off the edge of the pier, he sat to watch as the wind played with the calm glassy surface of the water. To watch the light play across the small waves. To feel the wind on his face and watch the waterbugs flying across the surface of their world, effortless and alone, dancing to a music only they could feel.

He missed the call to dinner again that evening. As he did almost every time he camped with the guys.

He lasted on the pier only a few minutes before shucking out of the t-shirt and jeans and diving into the water, the warm blue-greens of the lake surrounding him, holding him. Breaking the plane of the underwater world, treading water to gather his bearings, and then flipping to his back to float. Watching the stars pop in and out of the clouds, a late hawk flapping back to its nest. He picked out Orion, Cygnus the swan, Ursa Major and Minor.

Let the lake's small ripples lap at his sides and wash over his face.

And then came the noise of the other boys. Kyle's dad acting as lifeguard, not realizing that David was already in the water. The other boys did, of course, which was why they all cannonballed as close to him as possible. But he'd heard them coming and dove under the water just before their ever-explosive entrances.

This was all an old story and David was grateful when the call to dinner finally came. Burgers grilled on the bonfire, hotdogs, marshmallows and smores. And then came story time. The man with the hook who attacked the couple making out in their car. Fuzzy foot. (I want my fuzzy foot back.) The "I Gotcha Where I Wantcha and Now I'm Gonna Eatcha" monkey story. Variations on Amityville Horror, Blair Witch, Halloween, Freddy Krueger. Nothing that the boys hadn't told and heard and watched a million times before.

And then the moment David hated the most. His turn. They hated his stories and it always took the prodding of the Moms present to remind the others "that David always tells such fascinating stories, let him tell one."

The moms and David were the only ones who liked his stories. The Dads always wandered off for a brewski or two. The boys rolled their eyes and kicked their feet and threw stuff into the fire.

But David dutifully told the story anyway.

"I will tell you a very old story. The Coyote is a trickster. Since the Indians came from the underworlds into this one, it has always been the same with him. It snowed early in the morning soon after the Navajo came into this world, and a man was going out to hunt. The prints of the Coyote tracks were clear in the snow. He began to follow the Coyote tracks. They led to a place where all the plants were living and green, and in their center was a pond. The Coyote tracks led right to the pond. There, barely sticking out above the water, was the top of a ladder. The hunter stepped onto the ladder and climbed down into the water. At the bottom, he stepped out onto land. Above, in the land where the hunter lived, there was snow and it was winter, but in the land beneath the pond it was summer, and everything was green and growing. In the east he saw white buildings and people. They were beautiful people, Coyote People. He stayed and ate with them and stayed overnight.

"That evening, the Coyote People assembled around the fire and taught the hunter the Coyoteway. They showed him the songs, the dances, the prayersticks, the rituals, the prayers, everything he needed to heal the Coyote sickness. They read him everything and he wrote it all on the pages of his mind. Then he walked back to the ladder and climbed back through the water and back up to this earth."

Then of course, came the usual long silence. And then the mothers wanting to know where he learned all of these things, and the mothers smacking their sons on the backs of their heads and asking the questions designed to most alienate David from the rest of the boys - "Why don't you LEARN things instead of watching that crap on television?" And the ever popular, "Why can't you be more like David?"

So he wasn't surprised when he was pelted with melty marshmallows as soon as the adults began drifting off to the cabin for the night. Mikey's Dad was tending the fire (sort of ... he was actually just tossing some sand around the edges and drinking Old Mikwaukee).

So as soon as the marshmallow pelting turned into a free-for-all, David went back to the pier.

Despite the clouds that had moved in and there was now a low rumble of thunder in the distance, David shucked shirt and shoes and dove in, swim trunks still faintly damp from before dinner. He would just rinse the marshmallows off him. The water was cool and the wind chilled his bare back. He treaded water for a second to get his bearings after an initial burst of speed. Pushed his bangs back over his head away from his face and watched the mist by the far shore move in closer. A wall of rain would meet him if he really did try to swim across the lake.

David put his face back in the water and began swimming quickly. It wasn't long before was finding it harder and harder to bring his head all the way out of the water for each breath. The waves were rocking him off his path, knocking him away from where he thought he was. He began treading water again and got a mouthful of water for his efforts. He gagged and began swimming faster towards the far shore which was now closer than the pier. He'd lost track of time. His arms felt like they were made out of lead and he wished that he had grabbed a yellow wimp jacket. Or that he'd known this was not just a little rainshower, but a full-blown storm.

He paused and treaded water. Part of a tree floated past. He fought to keep his head above the rising waves. A flash of light in the distance and another low rumble, closer, louder. No more stars, no Orion to guide him.

He was under water again. He groped for a piece of the tree he'd seen floating by, but it tore right through his fingers. He couldn't figure out how he'd gotten underwater again. He began kicking for all he was worth, trying not to breathe in half the lake. Finally, his arms broke the surface and he gasped for the air, bobbed under, and popped back up again. He managed to hold onto a new log.

And then he saw it. Just a few more feet away.

The ladder.

His arms didn't slice so cleanly through the water now. His breath came in gulps, sucking in almost as much water as air. The rain pelted him, each individual drop stinging his tired face when he'd pause and look up. His arms felt like lead weights. The lake began pulling him down, and he fought with his cramping body to drag himself forward.

To the ladder.

The lake was dark. Peaceful. Quiet.

The ladder. He had to make it to the ladder.

The lake was peaceful now, the waves rocking him to sleep, drifting with him. No longer fighting.

Rumbling thunder, rolling through the night air like a freight train at the railyard.

the ladder

Potato Creek State Park Photo
Click for the larger picture (~50kb)

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:53 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble