15 December 2005

Spider Chronicles: Final Installment



Alas! Jack the Spider Mama is no more. She departed our living room window during a violent storm in early November, washed away, I fear, by the pounding rain which was hitting that side of the house pretty much horizontally.

She did not, however, leave us without performing one final miracle.

Here is the story of her final days.

While it never really gets cold this far south of the M-DL* (the natives will tell you it does, the rest of us know better), we do get the occasional heavy frost. I had been watching Jack closely over the previous few days, because nighttime temperatures were dropping into frost territory (even though it was still 80 and 90 during the day - no joke - but that’s another story), and I thought she might be on her way out.

She seemed sluggish, lethargic and she had been hanging around her first miracle (the egg sack) and not rebuilding her web. I assumed the approaching cold and the fact that there weren’t so many bugs to eat anymore were responsible.

As evidence of this, one morning late in October we woke to find Jack forlornly sagging from the protective hover she had assumed over the egg sack (check out how her abdomen is drooping away from the window). She knew her time was coming, I assumed, so she was doing what came naturally to any mother: she was going to spend her last few days in this world doing whatever she could to protect her offspring. That’s what I’d do, anyway.

Oh dear, I thought as I went off to prepare Ms. Three-Years-Old, it won’t be long now.

I was wrong, of course.

What Jack was really doing was getting ready to form a second egg sack. I’m not joking. I came home from work on Halloween night and ... well, take a look.



Isn’t she amazing?!? I had no idea spiders could do this twice in one season (lifetime?). I thought the first one would have taken everything out of her. Apparently not – the second one is bigger than the first! Then again, maybe Jack was some kind of super spider.

We sure thought she was...

SIDENOTE: The day after Jack’s demise, we woke to a world cloaked in heavy mist. I went out on our deck to take the trash down and spotted webs perfectly dewed and begging to be captured in pixel form. These are not Jack’s webs, but those of her very shy cousin (who lived on the opposite side of the house from Jack and built a new web in a new location every day and who, no matter how slowly I approached, would always scamper out of range whenever I aimed the camera at her/him).




*Mason-Dixon Line

27 November 2005

NaNo Lessons

Wow. It’s over. I wrote ‘THE END’ in big capital letters at the bottom of page 169 today. Weird.

I think it was both easier and harder than the novel I wrote in March. Easier because I didn’t feel like I was the only crazy idiot doing it. I had the forums. I knew I wasn’t the only one suffering the 25-30K Doldrums. I had people cheering me on when it took me ALL DAMN DAY to write the 700 most miserable words of my life – the 700 words between me and 50K.

But it was harder in some ways, too. I actually felt pressured – which is ridiculous – to get to 50K by the 23rd - because that’s how long it took me in March. Stupid. I also felt guilty for being ahead of other people, which was weird. There was also a lot more going on this month: funerals, holidays and, oh yes, let’s not forget the fucking grant deadline that so very conveniently got moved to the middle of the month.

I learned an awful lot, though. Here’s a few of the lessons I’m taking away this time:

1) Outlines are useless. Well, not useless. But certain characters just exist to fuck with them. The fact that the characters almost always know exactly what they’re doing is very little comfort. In the end, I think I came to realize that outlines are just that – outlines. You may be able to force your characters to respect their borders, but other than that, it’s best to just let the details fall where they may.

2) Never give a character a name that starts with “L”. They are bound to become major trouble makers intent on hijacking your plot and adding bits and pieces of back story you neither need nor want – to say nothing of screwing with your outline left and right. (Lars, Leo – I’m talking to the two of you.)

3) With practice, you really CAN send your Inner Editor off to Hawaii for a month. She won’t die. She won’t even atrophy. She’ll just come back all slim and bronzed from her days on the beach. And raring to sink her gnashy teeth into whatever manuscript she's been banished from all month long. It's kinda great. Except that I wish she'd calm down, 'cuz I really just want to let it sit and not do anything at all to it for a month or so. (I'm appeasing her by letting her make notes about what we WILL do to it, come January.)

4) Writing Angry Letters to your characters is a great tool. I wrote DOZENS. Most of them I didn’t even post in the forums, because honestly, I was embarrassed to have written so many. But they were very therapeutic on many levels. First, cussing out uncooperative characters makes you feel a lot better about the problems you’re having with them. Second, I would very often discover things and/or work out said problems in the course of my rantings and ravings. Third and last, I think they helped keep the Inner Editor in Hawaii. She was appeased by having SOMETHING to edit, something that she could ‘make perfect’ before showing to the world.

All for now. I’m off to bed. To read something that somebody else wrote for a change!

28 October 2005

Plot Ninjas

Who knew? Who knew that plot ninjas could sneak up on you 5 days before NaNoWriMo starts and render your original, carefully planned story completely useless in less than 24 hours?

Not me. That's who.

See, I had the whole thing planned out: I wrote the original outline - in July, fershitsake - and very intentionally did not look at it until this week, because I knew that if I did, it would explode and I'd end up with 1,000 terribly interesting characters and 14 very complicated plot lines and the thing would never get written.

But I thought I'd be safe taking a peek this week to re-familiarize myself with the characters and the story. Maybe work out a few plot kinks - what could happen in a week?

A lot. That's what.

Like 1,000 terribly interesting characters and 14 very complicated plot lines... OK, I'm exagerating, but I did go from 2 characters and 1 plot line to 4 characters and three plot lines (each of the two new characters has their own agenda). It's all going to tie together very nicely at the end, but I don't have time to figure out the details.

So I'm ditching it.

Well, not ditching it. I'm incapable of actually throwing anything out, especially if I created it, but it is getting filed. In the filing cabinet. In the dark. Where it belongs for ruining my plan.

Now I have to proceed into the unknown. With No Plan. OK, a little plan. OK, OK! 2 vampires, 2 un-dead lovers, some attitude and No Plot. No Plot!!! Shit!!!!

16 October 2005

The End

I did it! I finally, finally did it – I reached ‘The End’.

For three months now, I’ve been trying – and failing – to get there. No, I haven’t read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. No! I haven’t finally mastered the art of eating a five-pound cheeseburger in a single two-hour sitting. And, no, of course not! Why would I even want to finish the novel?? Sheesh!

I’m talking about short stories. It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas. I had lots and lots of nice ideas, but none of them was willing to stick to the diet and stay around 5,000 words. See, every one I’ve started since I started ‘trying’ to write a Short Story has turned into a Damn Novel and had to be abandoned when I realized that ‘The End’ was nowhere in sight.

And then the vampire showed up. Followed by his girlfriend. And her psychopathic father.

OK, yeah, so none of them had any intention of keeping to the program either. As usual, they each in their turn started telling me their entire life history, which I was – naturally – compelled to cram into every available corner of the story.

But I beat them into submission. I tamed them . I trained them. I bloody begged them and finally, they listened to reason and gave up.

Here’s the secret weapon: I used my NaNoWriMo attitude on them. Uh, minus the word quota. And the deadline. In any case, it came down to this: if something wasn’t working, I said ‘Fuck it. I’ll fix it later.’ and moved on. A number of times, actually.

So, of course, the story’s a frikkin’ mess. It’s not so much a story as a sort of patchwork of half-written, loosely-related scenes that might possibly have a plot thread in common. If you look really close and understand Welsh. (The vampire, see, he’s from Wales. Don’t speak Welsh myself, so it’s been rough going.)

But it doesn’t matter. It’s written. From here on out, I’m not 'writing' anymore – I’m editing. Will that be better? No idea. Don’t care. Got to type the words ‘The End’. That'll do just great for now.

08 October 2005

October

Ah, Fall! The season of seasons! Crisp, cool air; clear, jewel-blue skies; gold, ruby and fire-orange leaves on trees.

Where are the hats?! Where are the mittens?!

Why am I still wearing SHORTS?!?!??

Welcome to October. October, that is, South of the M-DL: It’s 85 frikkin’ degrees. It’s humid. I still have to use the gorram air-conditioning in the gorram car so I don’t arrive at work smelling like a gorram construction worker who’s been out in gorram sun all gorram day.

FUCK. ME.

That’s how I fucking feel about that.

‘Cuz, see, it’s exactly THIS that drives me fucking crazy about this place. It’s soft. It’s warm. ALL the fucking time. I CAN’T TAKE IT.

Seriously – it gets down to 20 degrees and people Think They’re Going To Die. Shit, it gets down to 50 and they’re breakin’ out the frikkin’ parkas like the goddamn Arctic has Come To Town. It’s fuckin’ ridiculous.

I mean, c’MON! When I lived in Wyoming, I once walked the mile to work when it was 27 below. As in, 27 frikkin’ degrees BELOW ZERO.

Granted – not the smartest fucking thing I’ve ever done. Hurts, see. Air that cold, burns the FUCK out of your lungs. Feels like you smoked a pack of cigarettes inside of an hour, no shit.

But you know what I was thinking the whole time I was sucking air through the frozen snot in my nose?

It gets almost this warm on Mars! I could survive on Mars! In what I’m wearing! (OK, OK, yeah, and a pressure suit and some sort of breathing apparatus, but you get the idea.) Isn’t it just flat-out amazing that this fragile, hairless, vulnerable ‘sack of mostly water’ which is my body can be protected, insulated and rigged out in such a way that I could – potentially – survive in such extreme conditions?

I was reading a book about sailing today – gaff rig sailing, if you care, which apparently is some sort of outdated, half-abandoned, practiced-only-by-reactionary-nostalgists type of sail arrangement (research for the next book, donchaknow). Here’s a quote from it:

“...we are cushioned almost completely from the world in which we were designed to live.”

The author is trying to explain why anyone would bother learning to rig their sailboat in this backwards, technologically inferior and old-fashioned way. He’s trying to explain what it is that drives humans – some of us, anyway – to seek out challenges, push ourselves to our limits, dare the elements, brave the coldest, wildest, remotest and most dangerous places on this planet.

His answer, so far as I can tell, is this: because we were made to. And he’s right. Look at where people live: essentially, anywhere. The Arctic. The Sahara. Tibet. Mongolia. Siberia. Australia. Even, these days, Antarctica.

He’s saying, in other words, that humans evolved strung out on adrenaline and if the environment we live in doesn’t present us with opportunities to get a hit of it, we will seek them out on purpose to get some. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, why else would the husband hunt? He ain’t out there stalking Bambi ‘cause he’s hungry, trust me.

Which, of course, brings Me back to Me. Why else would this constant good weather make me miserable? Why else would I pine for ice and snow? Why else would the thought of another day spent in shorts be driving me Start, Raving MAD??

04 October 2005

Small Miracles

Small Miracle #1: Once again another grant deadline has passed and I have, despite all the odds against it, survived. This one was particularly heinous for a number of reasons. For one thing, one of us helper-types had the audacity to get married right smack dab in the middle of September (how dare she?!), which meant she wasn't there for the flurry of budget-prep and editing that preceeds Submission Day. It also meant that I worked twice as many hours as I actually get paid for for a couple of weeks. That part I don't mind all that much, since I get it back eventually, but for the moment I am Burnt Out.

The second thing that made it bad was that NIH - in its infinite frikkin' wisdom - says that if a grant deadline falls on a holiday or weekend, you have until the following business day to postmark your submission. In this case, that meant everybody had an extra weekend to work on their proposal. In my case, it meant another weekend chained to my computer. Joy.

Finally, we had four going out on the same day. That's not really all that many; I've heard of worse. Hell, I've seen worse. We even had one guy (he's a lab guy, and they're a pretty self-sufficient lot) take care of his all by himself - I mean he did all his own photocopying, binder-clipping, FedExing, everything. I could have kissed him.

Two of the others made the FedEx pick up in our building at 6:00PM, but the last one? Well, that was the killer. There were six subcontracts - SIX. The thing was colossal - we had to send it in a paper box. The body of the proposal and the Appendices BOTH required the use of large binder clips. And forget FedEx, we were still page-numbering at 6:00PM! It took six of us to actually finish it and get it out the door by 7:30PM - five women photocopying, double-checking, binder-clipping and - hovering in the background, I have to say somewhat uselessly - the PI (that's Principal Investigator for those of you who are uninitiated - pray you remain so...).

But it's done, it's finished and I don't have to think about it anymore. Until next time.

Small Miracle #2: I still make milk. It's been six months since she nursed and for the couple of months before she stopped, it was for all of ten seconds right before bed. In other words, there's been very little to provoke lactation for the last eight or nine months, and yet, I still make milk. Not a lot and it's not white anymore. It's more of a yellowish brown, like colostrum. I can't squirt it clear across the room anymore either. It just sort of wells out in tiny little beads that sit reluctantly on the end of my nipples and look around all groggy-like as if they're wondering why they're there.

But all the same, there's still milk and that's what amazes me. It's like my body is holding this capability in reserve. Just in case. Just in case that baby changes its mind, it'll be ready.

Small Miracle #3: You remember Jack, the big, bad spider in the window? Well, Jack ... is a girl. When her abdomen swelled up and got all glossy, I thought it was all the cicadas she'd been catching lately. But then she got me all worried, because she just sat there in the center of a deteriorating web for about three days. Normally, she rebuilds the web every day, so I thought she might be sick. (Are there spider doctors? I was ready to take her in.)

Well, we woke up yesterday morning and there was this magnificent egg sack up in the corner of the window. Check it out, it's the size of a ping-pong ball, fercrissake! And there was Jack, looking quite a bit smaller - since she was no longer pregnant - and moving very slowly like she was exhausted, as well she should be after creating her masterpiece. I'm just so proud! And to think, a few weeks ago, I was terrorized by her!

Unfortunately, the husband says he'll have to move the egg sack, because the babies will hatch soon and they'll be so small that they'll be able to fit throughthe cracks in the window. The three-year-old was well and truly crushed by this news.

"But I want to see the babies!" she wailed, looking at her father like he'd just cancelled Christmas.

Which I guess means she's not so afraid of creepy crawlies anymore either. Then again, I may have done my job too well. When the husband explained that we don't really want hundreds of little Jack's running around our house, she gazed at him agape with disbelief.

"Yes, we do!" she insisted.

Small miracles. Life's full of 'em.

23 September 2005

Spider Chronicles: First Installment

(WARNING: Contains graphic photos of arachnids in ....erm... positions.)

I am terrified of spiders - terrified. They make me scream like a girl – which is OK in some ways and not entirely unexpected, since I am a girl.

However, it’s not really the thing to do in front of the three-year-old. First of all, it seems to make the three-year-old scream too, and we get plenty of that already. Second of all, she really doesn’t need to be terrified of spiders. Logically, anyway. We are people. People are bigger than spiders. We can easily squish them. They are more scared of us that we are of them. (You know that line – your mother told you that one. I haven’t actually said it to my daughter yet, since I’m not convinced of it myself and I’m a terrible liar).

In any case, I don't particularly want to pass this terror – or whatever bit of it isn't genetically programmed - on to the tyke, so I've been working on it.

Working on it means that I try to tone the decibels down a notch or two when I do unexpectedly happen upon something a tad too leggy. It means I wash the spiders in the bathtub down the drain all by myself, rather than howling for the husband to come do it for me. I've even crushed one or two in a kleenex on my very own. I've gotten to the point where I can actually smile when we see one in its natural habitat where it belongs (i.e., not inside my house).

And then, like good mommy, I show it to my daughter.

"Look, honey," I say, forcing child-like wonder into my voice. "Look at the pretty spider!"

She comes close to peer at the grotesquery of legs and abdomens - from behind me, since I instinctively fling out a protective arm.

"Wow," she says, none too sure of this enterprise but wanting to please me nonetheless. "He's beautiful."

She nods, looking at me for reinforcement. I nod back, not entirely sure who’s reinforcing whom. We move on – quickly.

We are making progress, though. We are - when spiders started building webs on my windowsills this summer, I just sort of left them there.

OK, hello, Reality Check: they're on the windowsills outside. OUTSIDE. Which technically, puts them in their natural habitat and removes any right I might have had to rid the Earth of them. Reason #1 for leaving them in situ.

Reason #2: Sheer laziness. I'm not the world's greatest housekeeper. In fact, I may even be the world's worst housekeeper (but that's another story and will have to wait for another post).

Reason #3: I am NOT getting that close to them.

Seriously, the one that has set up shop in the living room window is like four inches long - I'm not kidding, here's a picture to prove it. He’s HUGE. He could bite my head clean off. I'm sure of it.

In other words, I’m not getting anywhere near the monster to remove it from the window. (C’mon, I'm short - barely over five feet tall. Even if I get up on a ladder, I’ll still have to wave a broom over my head at the thing. And what do you think will happen when I do that? Of course! It’s going to drop down the back of my neck and into my shirt and make me scream like a girl. [shudder] Think I’ll pass on that one.)

Anyways, the fact that they cannot be removed has engendered what I'm calling "enforced observation". They're there. They're sort of horridly fascinating. You can't help but watch them (if for no other reason than to make damn sure they haven't figured out a way through the glass).

The funny thing is, they've turned out to be rather interesting.

I couldn't quite believe it when I found myself climbing onto the counter to get a closer look at the ones in the window over the sink. There were two of them (didn’t get pictures, sorry) – long-legged, globular-bodied things that hung upside down and – I swear – kept their butts turned towards the sun all day like some kind of grotesque, inside-out sunflowers. Why would they do that??

Did you know that they can be clumsy? They can! I actually saw one drop a fly that it was wrapping up to eat. It was perched over it and sort of frantically wrapping because something else had been caught in its web. Maybe it was hurrying to finish and get to the other snack, I don’t know, but it actually dropped the fly. At that point it paused (whether from irritation or confusion, I couldn't tell) and then went to the other bug – and proceeded to hang under it, in case it dropped that one, too. So, apparently, they can learn from their mistakes!

Weird. Anyway, one of those got named Petra and found its way into my novel (a dark fantasy/horror/science-fiction/epic adventure - it fit right in!). OK, I was going to write a poem about it, but poetry is way too much work and I needed something sort of nasty and scary and creepy to go along with one of my villains (a sour old woman - it was actually her idea to name them. I'm not kidding, I had nothing to do with it!).

We named the great big yellow and white and black one in the living room window, too. In an attempt to make him seem a bit less frightening to my daughter, I got her to pick a name out. I think it worked. She named him Jack and said she wasn’t sure where his wife Jill was at the moment.

“Maybe at work,” she said, nodding confidently.

“Maybe,” I agreed, feeling a bit less terrified myself.

Now Jack is an entirely different sort of spider from Petra and her cousins. He’s big and he's bold, for one thing. I mean, look at those colors! Does he not scream ‘predator’? And while Petra’s legs were barely noticeable, Jack’s legs are splendid, articulated, yellow and BLACK - absolutely elegant. He's proud of his legs, I can tell: he caught something yesterday and afterwards I watched him as he – honest to god – cleaned them. I’m serious. He lifted each ‘foot’ to his ‘mouth’ (mandibles?) and sort of appeared to ‘lick’ them off (or whatever the mandible equivalent would be). After that, he swiped the length of each leg against another one like he was brushing off crumbs.

Compared to Petra, he’s a neat-freak! Take his housekeeping, for example: Petra’s web was this sticky-looking, unorganized mess (not unlike my living room, actually), while Jack’s is the classic, big, perfect spiral – never a spoke out of place. He even sits in the middle of it (and for some reason writes a long series of M’s or W’s above and below himself). Jack works hard on this web – I think he rebuilds it every morning. I’m a really bad sleeper and more mornings than I care to admit, I end up on the couch – just feet from Jack’s bug catcher. Well, starting about 4AM, he’s delicately traversing the spokes and attaching the crossbeams. He’s quite graceful – one rearmost leg swiping his ass (no doubt that’s not the technical term...) and the other pulling down the next spoke to attach the strand of silk. It’s amazing!

Today he caught a cicada (see illustrative photo). I’m sure that’s what it is. It's huge – bigger than his is. I showed it to the three-year-old and as she was in the act of recoiling in horror, I quickly explained how Jack has a different kind of mouth – like two straws that he had stuck into the bug so he could drink it. She stopped in her tracks and went closer to the window to look for them.

She looked at me sagely and said, "Maybe he's drinking orange juice."

I smiled. “Maybe,” I said. “Maybe.”

And maybe we’re getting somewhere. Maybe.

19 September 2005

Cussin'

(WARNING: Contains every word in the book. Feel free to advise me of any I forgot.)

People don’t cuss properly in The South.

Especially women. Women in The South hardly seem to cuss at all, as a matter of fact, and most of them look at me funny when I do.

Which is why I can’t cuss at the office (I work in a hospital, and they sorta frown on that anyway). The husband, on the other hand, gets to swear like a sailor all day. Which isn’t even remotely fair, since most of the guys he works with are pigs and they know some really good ones – in other words, I’m missing out. What it all boils down to is that I have no place to vent my potty-mouth - except here, I guess, which is why I’m just going to let it all out right now and hopefully get it over with.

Yeah, so, on to other places I can’t cuss.

Having cured myself of road rage (with music and NPR) I don’t cuss when I’m driving much anymore either. I mean, yeah, there’s the occasional jackass trucker who needs me to lay on the horn and give him the finger and, of course, you can’t avoid the inevitable dumb fuck with a phone glued to his/her ear who needs to be told where to shove the goddamn thing. But generally speaking, I just concentrate on not hitting the person in front of me and work on whatever I’m writing. (In my head, of course. I always have both hands on the wheel and I always signal and check my damn blind spot before I change lanes. Sheesh!)

So: I can’t cuss at work, I can’t cuss in the car and the husband won’t let me cuss at home. He has a valid argument there – he doesn’t want the three year old to pick anything up. Which she would. Which wouldn’t actually bother me. I mean, she’s going to pick it up anyway, she might as well learn it from me, yeah? And I don’t think the husband has a problem with her picking it up, necessarily. The problem is that she would learn the words and then it would take her some time – and trial and error – to learn how and when to use them properly.

Which brings us to the real problem about cussing in The South: They have different rules. The Rules, as I understand them, go something like this:

First of all, we don’t call ‘em cuss words. We call them ‘swear words’, which is how they will be referred to henceforth.

Where I come from, there are three groups - three gradations of badness - if you will. The first group, Group 1, are the really bad ones. These are the ones you won’t say in front of your mother even on pain of death. There’s really just the two of them – you know which ones they are. I don’t even have to tell you, do I? Except that I’m going to.

Ready? Here they are: ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’. I won’t say either one in front of my mother – not even if you torture me. Actually, since the shock value of ‘fuck’ is sort of wearing off, I did say that in front of my mother once or twice – and then she said it in front of me and I about had a heart attack. So I stopped saying it in front of her. And, of course, you couldn’t get me to say ‘cunt’ in front of my mother for anything at all. I’m blushing even thinking about it. Yikes!

Although none of them are quite on the level of ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’, I also wouldn’t use any sort of slang for ‘penis’ in front of my mother. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t say ‘penis’ in front of my mother, either. And as for ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ and all the others like them, forget it. I probably wouldn’t think those in front of my mother. Not without blushing.

That brings us to Group 2: the swear words that are OK in front of my mother, but only because I’m a grown-up now. These are words like ‘shit’, ‘damn’, ‘ass’, ‘goddamn’, ‘hell’, ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘crap’, etc. These are all perfectly OK in front of my mother. In fact, she uses them in front of me and neither one of us comes anywhere close to blushing. I don’t even think we notice they’re being used. As a matter of fact, ‘Goddamn’ was probably my maternal grandfather’s favorite word. I can still hear him say it. He was from Maine and had a really thick Maine accent, so phonetically, it came out something like this: [GWAWD-dam] and was usually used as an adjective (‘the goddamn thing’) rather than an expletive (as in, ‘Goddamn! I just stubbed my toe!’).

The last group, Group 3, are the words that even kids over a certain age can use in front of grown-ups. These would be innocuous expressions like ‘Jeez’ (instead of Jesus Christ), ‘shoot’ (instead of shit), ‘darn’ or – and no one says this where I come from – ‘dang’ (instead of damn). Now, I don’t want my three year old saying any of these things yet, but I think by the time she’s eight or ten, it’ll be OK (with me, I ain’t speaking for the husband on this one).

Now, I did catch myself telling her not to say ‘stupid’ the other day and thought I had another group of swear words to sort through. But then I realized that ‘stupid’ is different. ‘Stupid’ isn’t a swear word at all – it just isn’t nice. It’s a mean thing to call someone or something. It’s like ‘fat’ – it could hurt someone’s feelings. But that doesn’t make it a swear word.

So – those are the three groups: The couple you can’t say in front of mom; The bunch you can, but only if you’re a grown-up; and The bunch you can say when you’re a kid, as long as you’re authorized by a parent to do so. Makes sense, right? Well, it would... except that in The South, naturally, it doesn’t.

From what I can gather, in The South there are just two groups – and Group 1 contains pretty much everything.

For example, anything to do with religion is totally off limits. Honestly, before I was transported south of the M-D, I wouldn’t even have considered them swear words at all. BUT, if you use any of these here, you are instantly labeled a heathen and, if you continue to use them, you’ll probably get called (gasp!) a pagan behind your back. Hence, everything religion-related gets shuttled off to Group 1 faster than you can say ‘Christ on a raft’. So there goes ‘goddamn’ and ‘Jesus Christ’, as well as ‘damn’ and ‘hell’. (Although apparently, preachers in the middle of a sermon and people who just ‘talking religion’ in general are exempted from this rule for the duration of the service or conversation.)

By association, anything that is ultimately derived from any of the religion-related terms is also included in Group 1. So much for ‘heck’, ‘Jeez’, and ‘gosh’. I guess this is where we lose ‘damn’, too – and its lesser cousins ‘dang’, ‘darn’ and ‘drat’, which ostensibly, just aren’t sufficiently different from their progenitor. The theory, I assume, is that God knows what you really meant and you ain’t foolin’ him with the watered-down versions.

So far, so good. I can cope with this – it’s not hard to remember: just don’t mention anything religious and you’re fine.

Where it starts to get sticky – for me – is that most of the other words in my Group 2 are also in Group 1 in The South. So now we’ve lost ‘shit’, ‘ass’ and ‘crap’. ‘Shit’ and ‘ass’, I can understand. Those are still on the upper end of the spectrum as far as badness goes. But ‘crap’?? C’mon. It’s just ... crap!!

That leaves me with basically nothing to say and no where to say it. Which is a bitch. (Fuck!! Can’t say that one either!!)

12 September 2005

Life South of the M-DL*

I don’t belong here. I don’t fit it. I don’t even WANT to fit it. I’m actually am starting to feel like I did in fucking high school. Because there are a lot of similarities between me in high school and me in exile in The South.

High school was all about appearances – who had the best clothes, the best – and highest (hey, it was the 80’s) hair, the best car, the best boyfriend, on and on and fucking on. Ad. Fucking. Nauseum. Well, The South, is just like that. I can’t go to the fucking grocery store in sweat pants anymore, because no one else does and I get fucking stared at if I do. Most women here can’t go out of the house without make up on (thankfully, I’ll never cave to that one, too much fucking trouble). And they’re all so fucking polite – to my face – that it makes me ill.

OK, it’s not all bad. We have family here (his, not mine). That’s nice because it means free daycare and the occasional child-free night to ourselves. But his parents are divorced and there are politics and power struggles that I don’t get going on all the time (even though they ‘get along’), so sometimes, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

I also like the food in The South. Way too damn much, actually. I shouldn’t like it – it’s gross. I mean, everything has a pound of butter, a quart of bacon grease or four cups of sugar, or, more than likely, all three. It’s BAD for you. It’s a fucking heart attack waiting to happen. I LOVE it.

Take biscuits ‘n’ gravy, for example. Growing up in New England, I had never even heard of biscuits ‘n’ gravy before my first trip south of the M-DL. I was an instant addict. I ate it at every restaurant we came to. I can tell you the one – and only – restaurant in my home town that serves it (it’s a truck stop on the interstate, of course). I can even cook it – really well, as a matter of fact. I try not to, because you know what’s in it? Here’s the recipe: You take some sausage, which is nothing but ground up pieces-parts and fat, and you fry it. You save the grease – save it, can you believe that? – and add some flour, salt and pepper to it. You cook the flour for a minute then pour hot milk over it and cook it until it thickens (which, incidentally, is the same thing that’s going to happen to your arteries when this stuff hits ‘em). Then you split a biscuit open and slop this stuff on top and eat it. It’s fucking disgusting. I LOVE it.

The next best thing is ‘vegetables’. Vegetables below 36-degrees North include macaroni and cheese. For real. I’m not even kidding. You go into a Meat ‘n’ Three (this is a type of restaurant that serves some kind of meat and three ‘vegetables’) and they will, invariably, have mac ‘n’ cheese listed under vegetables, right along with black eyed peas, turnip greens and okra.

Other vegetables, the ones I would consider ‘actual’ vegetables, generally come in two varieties: they are either cooked all day – with bacon or a ham hock (whatever the fuck that is) – until they are unrecognizable and gray or they are breaded and deep-fried.

The all-day variety: Green beans where I come from are actually green. And crunchy. And don’t taste anything like bacon. In The South, they use a slow cooker or a crock pot and if they’re still green or you have to chew them or they taste like something other than bacon, they aren’t done.

The breaded variety: Corn on the cob. Did you know that you can deep-fry corn on the cob? I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know you could deep-fry pickles. (I also wasn’t sure that pickles were a vegetable, but I guess they are since they were cucumbers once. Whether they can still be considered a vegetable after being deep-fried is debatable.)

Exceptions: If they haven’t been cooked with bacon or deep-fried then vegetables are permitted to be served provided they are drowning in some form of sugar and butter. Like carrots. Carrots, even if you cook them all day, will still be orange. However, in The South, they manage to turn them slightly brown by coating them with a mixture of brown sugar and melted butter. (Goddammit, my mouth is watering!)

And then there are the casseroles. Broccoli rice casserole. Squash casserole – this one is made with yellow crookneck squash, not with the orange, pumpkin-like kind, and I have no idea what else they put in it. I don’t want to know, because then I’ll make it. And eat it. My all-time favorite, though, is the one they make for Thanksgiving and Christmas: sweet potato casserole. This is sweet potatoes mashed with butter and brown sugar (but if you’ve been paying attention, you already knew that). As if that weren’t sweet enough, it’s then placed in a pretty dish (which, I suppose, it what makes it a ‘casserole’) and topped with marshmallows. Marshmallows!! On a frikkin’ casserole! Who ever heard of that? But, it gets better, ‘cause you know what happens to it next? No, they don’t eat it yet. They put it into the oven – to melt and toast the marshmallows. Then they eat it. Toasted marshmallows!! And they call it a casserole!! What the fuck!! I LOVE it!

I don’t even want to get into pies, because I don’t really eat them (unless there’s chocolate involved). There’s pecan pie, of course, which would be OK if they’d pronounce it right (they stress the final syllable: [p’-CAHN], which is all wrong and just sounds fucking snobby, but they look at me funny when I say it right [PEE-can]). They also have something called ‘Chess pie’, which as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with the board game and everything to do with grotesquely large amounts of Karo syrup boiled down until it sort of ‘sets’. Fucking heart attack in a pie shell...

Oh, yes, and let’s not forget tea. What would The South be without fucking sweet-tea? It’s one word, by the way. At least, according to the intonation patterns of American English, it’s a compound noun like ‘black board’ (the thing the teacher writes on, not a ‘board that is black’, which has a different tone pattern). And they drink gobs of it – not just in the summer, you can get it year round in any restaurant south of the M-DL.

Which is fucking weird, but here’s the thing that really gets me about it: I can’t take the sugar, so I drink it without, i.e., unsweetened. Now, when I go to a restaurant, I have to order ‘unsweet tea’. UN-sweet – as if they have to take the ‘sweet’ out. For fuck’s sake, people, it wasn’t sweet to begin with!!!!

*M-DL = Mason-Dixon Line

10 September 2005

Motherhood, a.k.a. Utter Devotion


I had no idea, of course. No one does.

And no one can explain it to you beforehand. No one can warn you.

I read a lot of things about becoming a mother before I became one – and there is just one passage that has stuck in my head as the “most true” thing I read, the closest approximation in words of what it’s like to become a mother. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it goes something like this: having a child is signing an agreement to allow your heart to walk around outside your body for the rest of your life. That about sums it up. But it still won’t prepare you.

Nothing can – there is just a billion universes of difference between reading something like that, sniffling through the inevitable, empathetic tears and having your heart exit your body from between your legs and handed to you wrapped up in a towel.

Having experienced all of the above it’s fairly inexplicable that I didn’t instantly fall in love with my baby like a lot of women say they do. And maybe they do, I’m not doubting them, everyone’s different. My mother said she did with me (and a good thing too, 'cause I was a bit on the ‘challenging’ side, apparently). But with me, it didn’t feel like love, not at first. The best description I can come up with are the following two words: utter devotion.

Utter.

‘Utter’ is a powerful word. It’s one of those words that doesn’t get used much because it is so loaded, so charged, so very precise. If I tell you that I am ‘utterly in love’, ‘utterly satisfied’, ‘utterly happy’ – I leave you with no uncertainties as to how I feel, I leave you with no questions as to whether there is room for improvement. There is a sense of fullness, completeness. Have no doubt, it says, this is everything, all-there-is, I-need-no-more. ‘Nuff said, yeah?

Devotion.

This is where parents willingly die for their kids - except that there's more to it than that. Because it’s not just that I would die for her – of course, I would. Any parent would die for their child – without even thinking about it. But I would kill for her, too. And I do mean kill as in: cold-blooded, big-fat-gun-in-my-hand, you-so-much-as-threaten-her-and-I-will-waste-you-with-this-fucking-thing.

The curious thing about devotion, once I’d thought about good and long (it’s been three years now), is that it’s a double-edged sword.

On the one side, there’s something empowering about it: the part about knowing that I would do it. Knowing that if I actually owned a gun and had it in my hand and someone made a move on her life, I would shoot ‘em and I wouldn’t hesitate. I would take the safety off. I would pull the trigger. I would blow his (or perhaps her) brains out. Spill his lifeblood. Spew his guts out on the ground. Make him bleed, make him suffer, make him fear me. Don’t try me, says I. I am a mother and I am defending my child. That makes me a goddess, so back the fuck off. Or die. Your choice.

The other edge of the sword, though, is that faced with her suffering, I would do anything to end it. Anything. Things that would fill me with dread and guilt any other day. Things beneath me any other day. I would steal. I would lie. I would cheat. I would whore myself to put food in her mouth or a smile on her face. I would shred every bit of dignity and self-respect that I have, sacrifice myself in every way that there is to do it – gladly and with a smile in my heart (if not on my face).

So much for devotion.

All that makes me wonder if there is a difference between men and women in the way they love their children. Here’s why: when we go out to eat, my husband hovers over my daughter’s food (she’s a slow eater) and devours what’s left when she’s (finally) done. Meanwhile, I am saving bits of my food for her, just in case she eats everything and is still hungry. I catch myself doing this – I’m not even aware of it, it just happens like some kind of fucked up instinct.

It’s a small thing. It’s a silly thing. And knowing me, it’s totally a insignificant thing that I’ve turned into something of Great Importance. But it happens over and over. I find myself telling him to stop stealing her food, making him wait until I am satisfied that she doesn’t want any more before he descends upon it. To him, the issue is not wasting what we’ve paid for. To me the issue is stealing her food.

Not that he loves her any less. I’m sure he doesn’t. But it’s different for him in some way, I know it is. I wish I understood how.

03 September 2005

World Building/World Breaking

I have written most of a novel. I guess. Let's see, it's 340 pages and 170K+ words (yes, sorry, the boasting and bragging will now ceast and desist...). So, I suppose, technically, that counts. Lengthwise: it's a bonefide, gorram novel.

It will never be published.

I'm OK with that. Because what I finally figured out, just this past week (I've been working on this frikkin' thing since March, I'm a bit slow sometimes) is that what I've really been doing is two things. One, is world building and the other, is learning to write.

Learning to write - more than likely, I will never stop doing that. But the world building thing... another story.

Prior to starting this 'project', I spent nine months - nine friggin' months - doing what I thought was world building, in a very classical, orderly sense. I mean, I had categories fercrissake. You know: Geography; Social Structure; Religion; Physical Characteristics; Weather. It was all very, very sterile. It had no life of its own - until I started the story and began to see how people reacted to the world I had in my head.

Here's an example: I knew the 'magic' in my world would allow for some form of mind speech. I knew that. What I didn't know was what its limits were. It's like I couldn't decide what the restraints on the system should be - I couldn't make myself sit there and even think about it. It was too abstract and too arbitrary. How could I even make a decision about how mind speech would work if I didn't understand the consequences of that decision for the characters in the story? For me, it was like buying clothes for someone I've never met. How can I make a decision about whether to purchase hot pink or flat black if I don't know what their reaction is going to be?

And I would never have found the limits of mind speech on my world unless I had started the book. Because until I started writing the story, the decisions I made didn't matter. They had no repercussions - until I created characters that those decisions mattered to.

A lot of things have been like that in my world. The magical creatures I created. Exceptions to the mind speech rules. I discovered so many things as I wrote. What I finally figured out this week is that it's the discover that's more than half the damn fun!!

**************************************

I also discovered another kind of world building this week - or, maybe I should call it "world breaking". I have a short story in the works. It's a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi thing about a guy, a girl and her mutations. I thought I had a pretty good (read: realistic) idea of what would happen if the world got ripped off its hinges and there was no food, no water and no hope of help on the way.

Enter Hurricane Katrina. Enter levees failing in New Orleans. Enter the Feds with ... ahem, ENTER THE FEDS... YO!! ENTER ... oh wait a minute, that's right - we have to wait FOUR FUCKING DAYS first ...

I'm as pissed and horrified as everyone else over that, but I'm not here to rage at anyone (today). The mayor of New Orleans and that little boy said it best, anyway ('Get off your asses' and 'It's pitiful'), so what can I really add?

What I'm getting at is that I didn't know SHIT. I would never have guessed that the destruction of natural disaster could so quickly cause order to fall into armed gangs and anarchy. Nor that its effects would ripple out so fast. Ripple out to me.

I live FIVE HUNDRED MILES from the ruins of New Orleans, and yet, in my town: The price of gas went up 60 cents in two days. Stations cordoned off their pumps because they had run out. There are refugees at the hotel just down the street from my house. There are more shelters set up all over town. They are filling up. They have airlifted patients to the hospital where I work.

For the first time in my life I donated money to the American Red Cross. For the first time in my life I will donate blood. For the first time in my life I will donate diapers and wipes and canned fruit and water and whatever else they say they need.

I didn't do any of these things for 9/11. I don't know why, but I didn't. I was pregnant then - and only just (we couldn't even take the test until 9/13). And we lived in Wyoming, which seemed like it was a long way from anywhere.

Five hundred miles doesn't feel like a long way at all. In fact, it seems like only a few, very small steps between me and my family and the chaos of death, starvation, abandonment, hopelessness and despair. And as much as I hate to admit it, that is somehow more shocking and more terrifying to me than 9/11. I don't remember looting and rape aftetr 9/11. I don't remember people shooting at helicopters that were evacuating people from hosiptals. I don't remember 220,000 refugees heading North with nothing at all.

I remember shaking so hard my teeth were chattering and I couldn't stop them. I remember looking up for months afterwards every time I heard an airplane in the sky. I remember the president standing beside the smoking pile of rubble that was all that was left of the World Trade Center.

It may just be the stretch of time between now and then. Or it may be because 9/11 was done to us by a group of outsiders whom we can blame. The suffering in New Orleans, on the other hand, we have done to ourselves. Because it wasn't the storm or even the failed levees, but the lack of help arriving afterwards.

That's what makes it so sad and frightening a lesson for me and my silly story - it's so easy to slip into anarchy. So much easier than I would ever have thought.

It would seem that it requires so little: take a stable system, remove food, remove water, add heat, remove hope, stir, let stand.

31 August 2005

Life, the Universe and Everything

So - this here's serving as my personal web site for the time being. I used to be a whiz at HTML - like ten years ago when I was in college - and while HTML hasn't changed much, well, I have. Don't have the time and/or brain space to worry about the details of things like hand coding tables anymore (and every one of those web-page-creator software packages I ever used pissed me off because they stuck in a bunch of messy junk code), so setting up a "real" web site will have to wait until maybe the 3-yr-old is in school. (Ah, the things pregnancy will do to your brain...)

Anyway, I have a feeling I will come here to crank out my "thousand words a day" when I just don't have the courage to face a thousand words of fiction. Fiction hurts - sometimes it hurts good, other times: it just hurts.

I just feel like rambling today -- I don't want to have a destination for this. I'm tired of destinations. Well, more accurately, I'm tired of trying to find a destination for a particular story I'm working on. I think I'm getting tied up with wanting perfection -- which, as we all know, is a Big No-No when you're a writer. I mean, yes, perfection is a goal, but there is a time and a place for worrying about it and when you're just trying to get the fucker written - that ain't it.

Here's the quote I found on some random post on the NaNoWriMo boards:

"Make mistakes. Make great mistakes, make glorious mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong, too scared to do anything." --Neil Gaiman

I printed it out in the biggest font that would fit on a single page and posted it on the wall just above my monitor. Think it helps?? Well, most of the time it does. But today for some reason, I can't seem to look it square in the eyes... I know I should just open that file, hold down my CTRL key, pop the END key so that I go to the end of the story where I left off and just GO - with whatever the fuck pops into my head and NOT FUCKING WORRY ABOUT IT. The story will tell itself and anything that doesn't work, fit, or otherwise please me in the morning CAN BE FUCKING FIXED LATER.

But it's been a trying day.

My boss is a very nice, very intelligent Chinese man with about a thousand letters after his name and NOT ONE SINGLE OUNCE of tact. See, we - me and another girl who works for him (who also has about a thousand letters after her name, is Canadian and has loads of tact) - are, or maybe I should say WERE, planning a surprise bridal shower for another girl who works for him (who is from Maine, went to UNH like me and has more tact than the rest of us put together). We rather stupidly relied on the very nice Chinese man to come up with a creative - and tactful - excuse to get the bride-to-be into the room where the surprise party will be waiting for her.

We both know better. We do. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, we both assumed that the very nice Chinese man would be able - on his own - to come up with something plausible. At the very least, we were pretty sure he could come up with something that wasn't so alarming the bride-to-be would feel compelled to call me, at home, on a Sunday morning thinking she was about to lose her job and was going to get taken out behind the barn on Wednesday to be put out of her misery.

Now, it's not even like she's the worrying type, necessarily. But she's getting married in about three weeks. She has a THOUSAND things to think about and her nerves are frayed on the best of days.

Today was not the best of days.

Today ended up being all about damage control. Basically, I got nothing of substance done (i.e., no editing) because there were a THOUSAND emails flying back and forth between the damage contollers (me, the Canadian gal and the very nice Chinese man's very nice (and very tactful) wife (who, you guessed it, also has a thousand letters after her name)), the damage inflictor (that would be the very nice Chinese man) and the poor bride-to-be (I'm not sure this late in the evening: would she be the damage controlee??).

The biggest problem was that many of these emails involved me lying, which I do not do well. It makes me ill, physically. I don't bother lying to people face to face because I'm so bad at it, I might as well not even bother. Via email, it's possible, but just. And like I said, it makes me ill.

The poor bride-to-be went home early today because she "wasn't feeling well" - and who can blame her? I would have gone home early too, but was so busy typing little white emails, it was 3:00 before I knew it. Come to think of it, that's probably why I don't feel like writing tonight, since I've already written so much fucking fiction today: I guess my muse is feeling abused. Goddamnit!!