Wednesday, December 31, 2008

For Non Post-Related Questions / Comments

Another Year Done

So the year has come to an end. I don't feel any different. That's kind of an inside joke (meaning its only funny to me). When I was teenager and working at a pizza parlor (people actually ate at the restaurant in those days) I remember working a New Year's Eve with the owner's son. The previous year had been s - l - o - w, so we were understaffed. Of course we got hammered. Shortly after midnight I happened by the till, where Rich was running some calculations. He turned to me an announced, "We just set a store record by three hundred dollars. I don't feel any different, do you?" I laughed then. It still makes me smile to think of it.

That was three hundred and twenty-seven years ago. Or somewhere near abouts. So it seems sometimes.

Regarding New Year's Resolutions, I do not make them - except as a joke. I spend most of the year promising myself to improve at this or that, and promptly break those promises one after another. But some of the things I do get done.

This is the time to look back at a year and wonder just where in the hell it went and what in the hell did I get done? Well, let's see. I could go month-by-month, which how I want to, but I can't remember anything specific happening in several months.

I just wrote about an hour's worth of stuff and deleted it. It wasn't what I want to say. Not how I want to end this year. This is what I want to say:

My goal was to finish Swords of Fire: Book I and have an agent agree to represent me and my work. I thought I had achieved the first part in early June. I thought I was going to achieve the second until October, when the second agent I had contacted advised me to go to Evil Editor's ( blog and learn why my book was not ready. I did. And from that moment on I believe my life has begun to improve again.

I am not able to list everyone, and I expect I am leaving out others I could/should list, but my wish is for these people to have special blessings, if for no other reason than because they are good people. In spite of that, they helped me. I listed some of them on The Great Sea: Oh, Wow. Here is a more inclusive, but still incomplete, list:

Evil Editor -
FairyHedgeHog -
Writtenwyrdd -
Jennifer -
AC -
Whirlochre -
Kiersten -
BuffySquirrel -
Robin S -
Dave F -
McKoala -
Pacatrue -
Beth -
Sarah -
Freddie -
Steve -
Xenith -
Talpiana -
Chelsea -

For what it's worth, I want to say I love you people, despite our have not having actually met, nor ever likely to meet. If your name is not on this list and yet you have been part of this group, I am so sorry to have left you out.

I am like the Little Drummer Boy. I have no gift to give you - save that I care. And if ever I can, I will help you. Forever and always.

You all have a great and wonderful Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I Must Say, Jennifer, That Life Also Has A Mean Sense of Humor

Okay. You're in the Post Title, Jennifer, because I want to be sure you read this. I'm not certain you are still checking the comments on the earlier post.

The answer to your question has changed - only hours after I posted with great pleasure that I had no idea when the next meeting was. Remember how I wrote that, "Sometimes life is just so kind"? My writing is as big as my mouth.

On a whim, I checked my little used email address, the only one I had when I signed up for the Writers' Group at the library computer. A few months later Spouse insisted we go on-line at home and we got a new address. I sometimes go five or six days without checking the 'old' address, so why I checked it twice today I don't know. Just hunting for a reason to be miserable, I guess. Well, I've got one now.

There, staring me in the face was a single message.

It wasn't from Monster Job Search. I get lots of these, telling me about jobs requiring skills I've never heard of in places I can't afford to go to, such as Colorado, Michigan and Ohio. Why don't these websites pay attention when you say you don't want to apply more than fifty miles from home?

Neither was it from the Work At Home Opportunities. I get lots of these, too. All I have to do to work from home is pay other people. That wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I indicated on their website to go ahead and keep me appraised of new opportunities. It's always the same ten opportunities! They just rotate randomly.

No. It was from The Writers' Group, informing me that the next meeting will take place next Tuesday, in downtown St. Paul, at a sandwich and pizza shop, after dark! (7:00 p.m.) Right now, after that beautiful, and wonderful, and intelligent, uplifting, encouraging, helpful (add as many other positive adjectives as you can think) advice you gave me, do you know what I am feeling right now?

I may throw up.

I'm not even there and I'm terrified! What the h*ll's the matter with me?

When I saw the message I was nervous. When I opened it and read it, my heart sank. Why? Here's the list again:

Tuesday: no problem
St. Paul: problem. Big cities scare me. (I know it's not New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but it's still big to me. It's not a place for greenhorns.)
St. Paul: 2nd problem. It's nearly 50 miles from here. (Okay. This one isn't really fair. Everything's nearly 50 miles from here.)
Sandwich/Pizza Shop: annoyance. I get to sit and watch other people eat.
7:00 p.m.: problem. I usually go to bed between eight and nine. (I'm usually up before 4:00 a.m.)

So, what do I do now? Well, I guess I have to pretend I'm someone else. What would I say?

HardDrivingTaskmaster(HDT): What do you mean big cities scare you? What the h*ll's the matter with you?

TLB(timid little bevie): I asked that already.

HDT: A city's a city, dummy! What's wrong with St. Paul?

TLB: People get shot there.

HDT: You idiot! People get shot everywhere - including your little town.

TLB: Thanks for telling me.

HDT: Fifty miles? You knew that when you signed up! What did you sign up for if you think it's too far? Are you nuts or something?

TLB: Grandma says I am. (see earlier post today)

HDT: What's wrong with the restaurant? Don't you like to eat?

TLB: Love it. But I don't have any money. You know that.

HDT: That one, I'll give you. So, it's after dark. Big deal. You afraid of the dark or something?

TLB: No! Yes. Maybe. Sometimes. But its being in the city after dark. Don't you get it?

HDT: No. Why do you go to bed so early. Nobody else does.

TLB: I get up early.

HDT: Why? You don't have to.

TLB: It's my alone time.

HDT: You're always alone.

TLB: Well, yeah, but there's something about being alone early early in the morning when most everyone else is asleep. It's really neat in the summertime because the sun's up.

HDT: You're hopeless, Bevie. Get your a** up and go!

I think I'll pretend I'm somebody else.

Grandma: Bevie's nuts! Bevie's nuts!


Not Much Creative Writing Right Now

I did submit a piece to one of Evil Editor's ( exercises this past week. As FairyHedgeHog ( pointed out, it was naughty, and I normally don't do naughty.

While never overly graphic, there was a time when wrote a lot of naughty. I was young, and doing something naughty - but harmless - seemed like fun. Well, let me be honest. It was fun.

There have been many such 'phases' in my writing. Fantasy has been my strongest interest, but I also love to poke fun - at anything and everyone (including me). I find it risky, now, because it seems few people have the stomach to take being laughed at - even by friends. Publically, at least, it seems we are losing the ability as a people to laugh at ourselves, or tolerate others laughing at us.

What a pity I can't sentence everyone to go back in time and grow up in my family. It would not take long before everyone realized that being laughed at - by people who really love you - is annoying, but not terrible. You survive in the rich experience that these people care enough about you to let you know when you're being stupid.

You probably won't find this funny, but every time it gets brought up in one our family get-togethers, all present - me halfheartedly - laugh at this.

When I was in grade school, somewhere between six and eight years old (that would be seven, right?), we were up at Grandma's House in Willow River. It had been a wonderful day. Grandma had put out a bowl of mixed nuts. I kept sneaking into the dining room, cracking a handful open, and then rushing out of the house to eat them secretly. Cashews, almonds, walnuts and Brazils. I loved them all. Well, most of them. Well, I got caught and Grandma put the nuts away so I wouldn't ruin my lunch. But she promised me that she would put the nuts in a bag so that when I went home I could take them with me. Grandma was wonderful that way. She understood.

Well, I forgot about the bag of nuts. My family climbed into our Chevy station wagon, all eight of us (Ranlan was up at Moose Lake). Gayanne, Helvie and I had to sit in the back. Dad would lift the window portion up and we would ride the 86 miles home with our feet hanging over the gate. But before Dad even started the car here comes Grandma running out of the house. Now Grandma was about five feet two and 'portly'. She's carrying a brown paper bag. She is animated to the point of being comical. And do you know what she's screaming?

"Bevie's nuts! Bevie's nuts!"

Not only were Mickey and my sisters laughing hysterically, but Dad and Mother were, too. I started to cry, and that only made it more funny (to them). But I wasn't alone. Not this time. Grandma was there. She stood outside the driver's door and berated everyone in the car (except me). She blasted Dad, who wasn't even her son. Grandma understood. But only partly. After she gave me the bag and a kiss and returned to the house, I still had to endure 86 miles of "Bevie's nuts!"

But they loved me. I think they did, but what the hell do I know? I'm nuts.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Something Good Someplace Else

Writtenwyrdd has a YouTube link which I think is just great.

I'm listening to the Allman Brothers' Jessica right now.

The House of My Youth

Part 3 - Winters

The Old House was drafty. I think it had more holes in it than Albert Hall. (I don't know for certain how many holes Albert Hall has, but according to John Lennon I believe the answer to that question is 4,000.) This wasn't much of a problem from April through September, but come cold weather it was nasty. December through March were particular problem months.

Our first winter was particularly bad. We moved in during the Month of January. And then it got cold.

The previous owners, who were now our next door neighbors and the holders of the mortgage, had installed a hot water system to heat the house. How they managed to survive I don't know. But then I don't think they lived their long. I think they may have purchased the house for a place to live in while they built the fancy house next door. He was a cabinet maker and no doubt did a lot of the work himself. (Oh, by the way. Don't ever call a cabinet maker a carpenter. I made this mistake in front of the cabinet maker's son once and he went ballistic on me. Then he proudly explained that cabinet makers have to be accurate to within 1/32nd of an inch. Carpenters are only accurate to within half an inch. And now I suppose some carpenter is going to post a flaming comment. Well I didn't say it. The cabinet maker did.)

They way the heating system worked was this: 1) water was heated in the basement. 2) water was the pumped into copper piping which ran along the base of outside walls. 3) water returned to basement in order to be reheated. Well, that was the theory. In actuality, this is what happened: 1) water was heated in the basement. 2) water was pumped into copper tubing which ran along the base of outside walls. 3) there was only one exit point from the hot water heater, meaning the hot water being pumped had to remain hot while it traversed all of the house. 4) hot water became cold by the time it finished its run around the main floor. 5) hot water - now cold - froze some place between the main floor and the upstairs. 5) upstairs piping had frost on it. 6) children sleeping upstairs froze their little nubbins off. (Don't ask what a nubbin is.)

It didn't take long before the entire family was sleeping in the overlarge living room - with a coal burning stove providing heat. Sheets hung from the ceiling to provide a sense of privacy. Mickey slept the furthest from the stove, which was near the fireplace in order to access the chimney. Dad and Mother came next. Then Lynahr and Judayl, and finally, Gayanne, Helvie and Me. Ranlan was up in Moose Lake.

For several years this was how we heated the house. The stove would be moved to the dining room either the next year or the year after. This allowed the heat it generated to go up through the floor grating in the ceiling and heat Mickey's room - kind of. Lynahr and Judayl would sleep in the dining room while Gayanne, Helvie and I slept in the small room just off the dining area. Dad and Mother slept in the now unheated living room. We nailed a blanket over the doorway to keep the heat out. Another blanket (sheet) was nailed over the staircase entrance.

After Mickey left home he loaned our parents money and they bought three oil burning stoves. One was put in the living room. One was put in the dining room. And a very old and decrepit one was placed in the kitchen. Now we had heat. You could tell, too, because if you went outside and put your hand over some of the cracks you could feel it. It was kind of like having a warming house while outside playing.

The two furnaces in the living room and dining room were directly linked with copper tubing to a 250-gallon tank just outside the dining room window (talk about a view!). They took their fuel automatically as needed. The decrepit stove in the kitchen did not. This stove had to be fueled the old-fashioned way, which meant some poor slob had to go outside with a five-gallon bucket, fill it up at the 250-gallon tank, haul the bucket back inside and fill the stove's storage capacity. Guess who that poor slob was? From October through April I stunk - really stunk. Washing off the smell of fuel oil is not easy. My skin may have looked clean (and felt sore from all the scrubbing), but it had absorbed the smell, and like a walking sponge I carried it everywhere I went. No one wanted to be near me. Classmates constantly complained about "that gasoline smell". I was big enough that I didn't get picked on - physically. But I got called all kinds of names. Winter sucked!

A new storm front is blowing in now. I can hear the predicted winds have arrived. (Why is it the only time weather forecasters get it right is when they predict misery?) This house is nothing like The Old House. The Old House would be shaking like a rattle. It also felt like you'd left the windows open. This isn't bad, actually.

For some reason I still have fond memories of getting up in the cold, hugging my blanket tightly around me, rushing to the old coal burning stove with Helvie, draping our clothes all over it, waiting for them to get warm, and then getting dressed under the blankets. Once done, we would discard the blankets and freeze our effing a**es off.

The Old House. I actually miss it. Every few years I take a drive out that way to see the place. The root cellar is still there, but collapsing now. A couple of trees remain, but most were destroyed in the fire. Nothing else from my childhood remains - except the memories. At least I have those.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Dumped Post - A Real Turkey

This post was originally titled, So What Scares You.

If you are on a return visit (not many do that, so thank you), you just may be wondering about the post which used to occupy this space. You may also be wondering if it was ever here and that you either dreamed it or saw it someplace else.

Well, wonder no more. The post did exist and it is gone. It's blasted, although not completely out of existence. It has been relegated to the Archives where, in time, it will become lost forever with other other banished pieces of wit and thought.

It wasn't what I really wanted to say, and it wasn't written at all in the way I wanted to write it. Within minutes of posting it I was tempted to rush back to the computer and dump it. It was granted a short reprieve because I was under the weather on Sunday and didn't have the energy to move again. (I think this is how I came to write it in the first place.) Every year I forget which brand of turkey is the only one which doesn't make me sick. I don't know why it makes a difference, but it does.

There are two big brands around here: Butterball and Jennie-O. There are others, too, but those are the two I remember. When we have one, I get sick. When we have the other, I don't. And guess what? I don't know which is which. You would think that someone as supposedly smart as me would pay attention and learn. Write it down maybe? But no. Either Spouse or I remove the plastic casing which reveals the offending name and toss it into the garbage. So I don't know which brand we got this year. (I wonder if the fact that this year's bird was free. It may have been an old bird.)

Anyway, I was all right on Christmas Day, but I didn't eat much turkey. I stuffed myself on mashed potatoes. I love mashed potatoes. (But NOT with sour cream. That sucks. Sour cream makes makes me sick. And none of those awful onion flakes either. Just nice mashed potatoes made with milk. Lumps are acceptable.) I had a couple of sandwiches on Friday. No problem. Then came Saturday, Big Leftover Day. I was sick for twenty-four hours. Over it now. At first I thought the turkey really had gone bad, but Spouse was as chipper as ever. Well, chipper is not a usual word to describe Spouse. Let's use happy and pleasant.

I didn't get sick last year, but then last year we bought our turkey. Sitting here now, I'm thinking it's the Jennie-O I can eat and the Butterball that makes me sick. Or is it the other way around? No matter. I've got an entire year to figure it out.

Regarding the previous post, So What Scares You, I think I know the answer now. Reading my ramblings of culinary delights and misfortunes with the ensuing digestive consequences. Frightening!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

This is for anyone who wishes to post a question/comment to me, but not to a specific post of mine.

Of Dragons, Colors and Lao Tzu

Stephen is my friend. Perhaps the best friend I could ever have. Only my son is more important. (I have come to see Spouse as a positive extension of myself. What I am not, Spouse is, and so I am a better person for it.)

I have had lots of friends over the years. Well, maybe not lots. Okay. I haven't had many friends at all. But a lot of people have liked me. A few still do.

Right now I am listening to Friends, by Elton John. The song tugs at my heart. It always has. But since Stephen died it makes me cry.

"As friends together watch their childhood fly."

We did. It flew away from us, and we never enjoyed it as we should. We mucked it up. But that was what Stephen and I did. We mucked up. We were young, and foolish, and the things we wanted we knew we could not have. Certainly he never got his. I want mine, if only for the two of us.

Stephen was born an artist. A damn good one, too. But not everyone saw it so. He also spent a good portion of his life searching - like I did. I found what we were looking for first, but he wasn't too far behind. Only it did not solve all of his problems any more than it solved all of mine.

I remember when we were still in high school Stephen began reading Lao Tzu. He wanted to become a Taoist. In a way he did, but I don't think he ever gave himself completely to it. Stephen found himself in conflict between the Eastern Religion and the Western Goodies. He liked girls - even if they did intimidate him.

I remember when we were Seniors. It was our last spring in high school. Stephen had become the art teacher's favorite student. He was the most talented. Well, the art class was in charge of setting up the display cabinet just outside the school library. For the final display, the art teacher gave Stephen full charge. He could put whatever he wanted in it (providing it wasn't obscene).

Stephen was thrilled. He knew exactly what he was going to do. He was going to mix his newfound religion with art and present it to the school. Now I loved Stephen, and I hated to bear bad news to him, but our relationship was such that I could. Stephen could say anything to me - and he often did. And vice versa. So, I told him: Nobody in this school (besides me) is going to understand what you are doing. He wouldn't listen to me, and rightfully so, now that I consider it. Stephen had courage - sometimes. He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it. Mostly alone. He had me help a little, but my artistic talent is such that Stephen seldom let me do much. This was his display:

He had spent weeks creating a dragon fountain. It wasn't too big, probably only standing two feet tall. It was mostly lime green with various red and yellow coloring enhancements. The bowl could hold perhaps two or three gallons of water. Well, the bowl did not fit in the case unless it was on its side, so the fountain did not run. Behind all of this was a poster. Using his best calligraphy, Stephen had written a Taoist saying from his book on Lao Tzu. It was a contest, and it was to run until the final week of school. The challenge? Define what Lao Tzu was trying to say (I'm sorry, but I forget the passage). The winner would get the fountain as a prize. Since Stephen had been indoctrinating me with his readings, I could not participate. I was like his family.

I remember helping him pack up the dragon, the bowl and the poster, along with all the other odds and ends he had put into the case, and riding with him as he drove home. He was so depressed. No one had submitted anything. Not even as a joke, although plenty did make fun of it. Knowing how close we were, lots of students came up to me wanting to know what was wrong with him. I defended him with all I had, but I didn't stop the talk.

Things like that bothered Stephen. They bothered me, too. When I built a house for Independent Study Class, everyone made fun of it - including Stephen. He watched me as I put it in my back yard, poured gasoline on it and set it on fire. I didn't let him destroy his dragon fountain, though. Two years later he still had it, sitting proudly on the kitchen counter.

After I was married we didn't see each other for a long time. Then, after fifteen years, I got a telephone call. Stephen had tracked me down. It was Christmas. He had married and now had a daughter a little older than my son. We got together again and for the next five years a lot of things began to return to normal. Then, something went wrong and he was in the hospital again. While there, he suffered a head injury. They rushed him to surgery. They were not able to keep him. His wife called me in the middle of the night. I didn't answer because it was the middle of the night. By chance I had taken the next day off to do something. I listened to the message while Spouse was at work. I fell on the floor. I called Spouse, who rushed home.

It doesn't always hurt so much now. I'm listening to Friends again. I'm not crying - but my eyes are wet. I miss you, Stephen.

I hope the day will be a lighter highway
for friends are found on every road.

Can you ever think of any better way
for the lost and weary travelers to go

Making friends for the world to see
You let the people know you got what you need

With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything's all right

It seems to me a crime that we should age
These fragile times should never slip us by

A time you never can or shall erase
As friends together watch their childhood fly

Making friends for the world to see
You let the people know you got what you need

With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything's all right

Making friends for the world to see
You let the people know you got what you need

With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything's all right

Friday, December 26, 2008

So, Christmas is over, and everyone goes back to hating one another, treating one another like dirt and generally crushing the spirits of any who happen to get into their way. Right?

No. Not really. Do you know what I honestly believe? I believe only a few people actually change over the Christmas Holiday. I think most of us act the same all year. It's just that few people pay attention until this time of year. The people who helped me with advice on how to improve my writing did not do it because Christmas was coming. They did it because that is what they do. And they do it all year. The media likes to perpetuate the stereotype that people are only nice at Christmas - which means all the generosity and kindness is phoney. I say that's the lie. The truth is, people who are nice are nice all year. Kind people are kind all year. Helpful people help all year. Giving people give all year. The list goes on. (It also includes the crap behaviors, such lying, cheating, stealing and what have you.) We don't change for a day and then change back. Not really.

But how was your Christmas? I hope it was at least as much as you desired. Since I cannot hear your answer now, I will tell you how our day went.

Son has been excited about this Christmas for several weeks now. It's been fun to watch him squirm as time stood still for him. He said he wanted to hand out presents Christmas morning, or at least the first. Spouse and I agreed.

For us, Christmas begins on Christmas Eve. We watch my all-time favorite Christmas Movie: Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. When it originally was released in theatres I did not go see it. It sounded dumb. Then, a year or two later, I caught it on television and fell in love with it. Even as a teenager its haunting tone touched my heart. And I really liked the portrayal of 1800s London.

When the movie was over Son opened a small present. It was a book: The Cat Before Christmas. It was a silly parody of The Night Before Christmas. When he finished reading it aloud, I read The Night Before Christmas, The Christmas Letters and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Then we did something which has become a tradition for two years now: we watched logs burn in a fireplace on television. The entire concept is stupid, and yet we watch with great fascination. It's about thirty minutes long, and Christmas music plays. Then there is an announcement about the station and it starts over again, but with new music. We didn't stay up to midnight this year. Spouse was crabby and we shut down early.

I was the first to arise. I usually am. That was around four. Son got up a couple of hours later, and Spouse about a half hour after Son. We set up the video camera and filmed the reading of The Gospel according to Luke, just like in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Then the packages were handed out, beginning with a piece of artwork Son made this past week. He drew a Christmas Tree with presents. He gave hugs and kisses.

The presents were handed out, each to each. Regarding quantity, Spouse had the most this year. Normally, that honor goes to Son. But I didn't have a box the right size, so I divided my gift to Spouse into several packages. Everyone seemed happy with everything they got. Son bought me the third installment of the Eregon series: Brisinger. He actually had the most money to spend.

We had a light lunch and watched a movie Son bought for Spouse. We played some games, computer and table top. The free turkey (a local grocery store gave out free turkeys for customers who spent sixty dollars with them over the month of November) was ready at three and we ate while watching my second favorite Christmas Movie: We're No Angels, starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray.

There were more games and then another movie. After that the day was over and we shuttled off to bed.

I hope your day was good. I know not everyone got one, and if that includes you I am sorry. Maybe things will begin to improve for you now. I hope so.

Have a great day today! God bless you!

Thursday, December 25, 2008


This song is from my all-time favorite Christmas move: Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. Most musical versions have Scrooge's love sing after breaking up with him. I've never felt that worked. This version has her singing before. It makes the breakup all the more heartwrenching.

It's a happy song. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

May God bless you and keep you safe. May this be a day of comfort and joy.

Christmas Fun

Part of the fun of Christmas is decorating. Putting lights on the trees. Lights on the windows. Lights on the eaves. Lights in the yard. And then there are the bulbs and ornaments, garland, glittering icicles, stars, angels, fake snow, giant Santas, reindeer, Nativities and an unlimited supply of homemade things. It is fun to not only decorate, but to go look at what others have done.

We just got home from an eleven mile drive - and we never left town. Well, we did go to the neighboring town, but as the two meld so seamlessly it seems like one town. Anyway, we drove eleven miles, but we were never more than three miles from home. A waste of fuel? Yeah. I suppose. No wonder we're poor, huh? So what? I love seeing what other people have done.

There is one property, just over a mile from us, in which the entire property has been done up. Dozens of Christmas figures decorate the lawn, the house and fill even the back yard. It inspires a belief in magic which is hard to describe. Lights of every color adorn Santas, snowmen, a Nativity, candles, Disney Characters, stars and the house and fence. There are three or four others which are nearly as magnificent. A couple of places are dark this year which, in the past, had been done up well. I do not know if the darkness is due to tragedy or if the previous decorators just moved away.

Traveling about to look at lights is an annual tradition for me. I remember Daddy driving us a lot more than eleven miles just to get to the decorations. There was one area, I think it was some place in St. Paul, where the entire block was done up like a Disney Parade. It took almost an hour to view it because we had to get in line. And once in line, you were locked in place. This street had a lot of music and animation. I don't know exactly where it was, but I have never seen anything like it since. Just on YouTube. But not live.

There is a house not too far from us which we did not visit this year. I call it the Castle House, because it is monstrous. I'm certain it has to go for at least a million dollars (if one could sell a house in these times). Every line on the house has been outlined with lights, and since the house rests on the top of a hill overlooking a lake it can be seen from over a mile away. It's about ten miles from here, so we didn't go this year.

There is a security in seeing lights on other houses. Particularly so since we do not have lights on our house or in our yard. We have the tree, standing in a corner near our front window. A string of lights frames the window. Another frames the glass surrounding the front door. We have a Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, but they are not out this year. Tigger's cord shorted out a few years ago. I suspect Pooh's has, too. In any case, they are not out.

Electric lights, bulbs, garland and what have you have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas. The real meaning is God taking on human form to show us he really does understand what it is like to live on earth. So what that he probably wasn't born in December. That's not the point. That we include him in our celebrations is. It doesn't take much. He hears our thoughts better than we hear each others' voices. And I very much doubt he minds it that we decorate with lights and such. He probably is not offended that we play make-believe. After all, make-believe is a form of creation, and since we are in His image, it is only natural we imagine.

Christmas is a fun time, whether we include Jesus or not. We don't have to. That's the wonderful thing about God. He lets us play as we will. But if the thought should strike you this year, tell him thanks for the lights and presents and other things you enjoy about Christmas.

I hope you are having a wonderful Christmas. Don't get hung up and crabby when things don't go as planned. That's part of the magic of Christmas. If you can laugh at the muck ups now, they will be all the more fun to recall later. Enjoy.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Fat Old Santa By the Tree

Daddy loved Christmas - as an adult. As a child his Christmases were ordeals to be endured. You see, Daddy was born in 1922 - to a woman without a husband. He suffered mentally and physically for being a "bastard" until he grew large enough to defend himself against his uncles and any others who sought to hurt him. As a child, Daddy hated Christmas.

Things changed magically and wonderfully for him when his children reached the ages when they understood Christmas meant lights, and presents and food and fun and magic. I think Daddy got to live the youthful joy of Christmas as a full-grown man. He shared Christmas with his kids almost like he was a kid himself. We loved it. His laughter still echoes in my head. I'm glad it's there. I often draw upon it, like listening to a favorite song.

Like the rest of us, Daddy would visit The Tree unabashedly to see what presents might be there for him. And like the rest of us, he would try to guess the contents through weight, sound and an idea of the person who gave it. What was so frustrating was that he was so often right. We couldn't figure out how he did it. He would laugh like Jolly Old St. Nicholaus himself and declare he had the power to "see through the paper". Of course, we knew that wasn't true. Well, we kind of knew that. Okay. We thought it could be true.

He was defeated one year by my mother and Gayanne. It was the funniest thing I remember about him and his Christmas presents.

Daddy was a truck driver. For years upon years he drove a straight truck in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. (A 'straight truck' is a single unit vehicle, as opposed to a tractor-trailer.) It was difficult work because, as the driver, he was required to help load and unload the truck at each stop. No forklifts. This often meant backbreaking work. Literally backbreaking. Daddy suffered from severe back pain most of his life.

Every year Daddy would apply to become a 'road driver'. These were drivers who drove out of Minneapolis to other cities in the five-state area. (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the two Dakotas.) Road drivers didn't always have to help load and unload. (He ended his career driving a dedicated run to Chicago and back in which he no longer had to do any manual work.) Well, one year he was told he had made it! He would start driving over the road when business picked up again after the Christmas lay-off. (Every year it seemed my dad would be out of work from around Christmas until late winter.) He was happy. It was something to look forward to.

It was also something for which he needed a suitcase. Although driving over the road, he would still drive a day cab, not a sleeper. (Day cabs have no sleeping berth.) Although we couldn't afford it, Mother went to a luggage store and bought Daddy a fantastic soft-sided leather suitcase. It had a big interior with pockets all over the place to hold odds and ends. Daddy was going to love it! The problem was, Mother did not want him guessing the gift before he opened it. So she concocted this plan and had Gayanne implement it. The plan was this:

Gayanne had gift for sewing. She was better at it than anyone we knew - including Grandma. In fact, Gayanne designed and made the attendants' dresses at my wedding. I always felt Gayanne missed her calling in life. She could have been a fashion designer, or even been another Edith Head. It didn't happen.

Anyway. What Mother had Gayanne do was to make the new leather case stuffing for a life-sized Santa Claus. They weren't able to make him stand, but that was all right. They sat him down beside The Tree where he watched over the growing pile of presents. On his chest was a large tag which read: To Lloyd From Helen.

Everyone hung around the tree waiting for Daddy to come home. When he did we could hardly sit still until he came into the living room. When he came in he made the survey, but he didn't pay attention to Old Santa. He was grown up, so he tried to hide his disappointment in not finding anything new for him, but we could see it. I don't know who it was who burst first. It may have been me. Perhaps Helvie. But Daddy was directed to the Santa Claus. When he saw Santa was not just a decoration his eyes lit up and we could see his thoughts working feverishly to guess what was in there.

He got teased a lot in the final days before Christmas. Helvie and I were not allowed to tease. (We had big mouths.) When Christmas Day finally arrived, Santa was the final present to be opened. Daddy still had no idea. For the first time I could remember, Daddy didn't know! Christmas was a time of magic. I knew it! When he opened it, he was happy. You could always tell with Daddy. He kept that leather case to the day he died. I am glad he had some merry Christmases before he left. I am glad I was part of some of them.

You all have a Merry Christmas, too.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Today is House of My Youth day, but I kind of took a side rail yesterday to Christmas memories. Still, after so many years in the Old House I fancy I can come up with a related Christmas memory.

Most of our family Christmases took place in our living room. Then, in January, we would close that room off to conserve heat/fuel. I seem to recall having Christmas in the dining room one year, but I may be wrong. And there was at least one year when we did Christmas up at Grandma's in Willow River.

Our trees at the Old House were all monstrous. They were free, so we could afford any size we wanted. For a few years we had this awful topper. It looked like the end of a spear or something, with a big ball near the base filled with "angel hair", which made you itch. That was replaced by a five-pointed star. Plain, but no scratching required. Our electric lights were the big bulbs. D-size, I suppose. And they did not blink. I always wanted blinking lights. The wonderful thing about our lights was that if one bulb burned out, none would shine. This involved a process of determininig the offending bulb. Gayanne usually took charge of that.

Each year our parents would pick one of their children to dote on for Christmas. I remember when it was Judayl's turn. She wanted only blue lights. The rest of us moaned and groaned, and I believe there was more than one fight about it, but in the end it was Judayl's decision and, like the rest of us, Judayl wasn't going to be bullied into changing her mind. We had blue lights that year. I don't recall what all Judayl got that year. Heck, I can hardly remember what I got in any given year. What I remember more than the presents was how happy I was at Christmas.

Christmas was a big deal at school back then. There would be official gift exchanges, and Christmas programs depicting the Nativity. That's against the law now. Pity. I didn't know what the programs were about (back then), but I liked them. I liked the songs and the plays. I wanted to be picked for a part in the plays, but I never was. It was always the same kids every year - the popular ones. The ones who couldn't remember their parts when they were reading them. Morons. I knew all the parts by heart. But I was never picked. (I was a bit of a hellion, and teachers just didn't pick hellions for anything - except slapping.) I suppose it's right about taking the Nativity out of school, but it's still a shame. Those programs added so much. And let's be real: most of us kids didn't have a clue about the message. I didn't. Not then. I knew all of the lines, but I didn't know what it meant. That came later.

An example of how difficult I could be would be Christmas in second grade. Like all kids my age I was excited about Christmas. What a wonderful time! It was the only time of the year when grown ups let themselves believe in magic. Sure, it was all pretend. But that's the biggest part of fun - pretending!

Well, we had a Christmas tree in our classroom, and everyone was required to bring a gift. Gifts stereotypical for boys and girls had to be marked, "boy" or "girl". This is how it worked:

All of the presents were placed under the tree. Presents were grouped according to "girl", "boy" or "either". Numbers would be drawn to determine the order that students went up to select a gift. Mrs. Fickling, our teacher, stood close at hand to make sure no boy got stuck with a "girl" gift, and vice versa. (This meant she would sometimes take away the right of choice and direct a student to a particular present.)

Well, I was having a blast. This was fun! Too much fun for Mrs. Fickling. I wound up getting slapped. Not only that, but I was automatically placed last in line. I had been in the first twelve. This pissed me off! As far as I was concerned I had done no wrong. So what if I was a little loud? It was Christmas, for Christ's sake. (pun intended) Well, it wasn't fun anymore. My attitude was, to hell with it. So when my turn finally came, and there was just the one present left, I wouldn't go get it. Mrs. Fickling ordered me to. I said no. She came to my desk and ordered me again. I said no. Slap. Go get it! No! Slap. She grabbed my shoulder. She dragged me to the tree and put the present in my hand. I threw it. Slap. She dragged me back to my desk and put the present in front of me. (If you have read my earlier posts, then you will notice a pattern which took place with most of my grade school teachers. I got slapped a lot.) Then she went to the front of the class and gave the release to open presents.

I did not open mine. It sat unattended while I cried in my hands. Mrs. Fickling told me to open it, but I was willing to be slapped to death before I was going to do that. Some of my classmates, understanding this at some unspoken level, hurried and opened it for me. It was a giant candy cane, except it didn't have the curve part. It was also broken into a million-zillion pieces. I let my classmates eat it. I ate none of it. That was the price of pride and stupidity.

It's odd, though. I was involved in present exchanges at school from kindergarten through at least grade five, and maybe six. But I only remember one gift: a candy cane which I never tasted. I wonder why that is?

Christmas at the Old House was never like that. Mother (who was not above slapping any more than the teachers were) did not slap at Christmas. She just threw us out of the house and didn't let us back in for at least an hour. There are a lot of things I miss about being at the Old House. I think Christmas may top the list.

May your Christmas be a wonderful one this year. Oh, and don't get slapped.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Holiday Season Sidetrack

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog entries for a series of Christmas remembrances. (yeah)

Until the house burned down, every Christmas for me was a wonderful event. It began the day after Thanksgiving, when we would set up the tree and decorate it. Then it became a daily ritual to rise up in the morning, rush downstairs to the living room and see if anything new had arrived. The ritual would be repeated when returning from school in the afternoon. There was a little jealousy when someone else would have something new, but just watching the stack of beautifully wrapped boxes grow was mystifying. With two parents, seven children, four grand-parents, an aunt and sometimes others, it didn't take long for the pile to become magnificent.

Originally, mother, Mickey, Lynahr and Judayl would decorate the tree. Dad would put it in the stand and Mickey would wrap the electric lights. Those were incredibly hot. Why our trees didn't catch fire and burn I do not know. I even wondered about it at the time. The bulbs burned me.

Later, Gayanne took charge. This was even before Lynahr and Judayl left home. Helvie and I helped too. We strung the popcorn and cranberries on string. I still remember the pattern: three popcorn and one cranberry, over and over and over and over again. The average length of these homemade garlands was about six feet. We would make several to wrap around our twelve foot tree. (We had twelve foot ceilings. That made for fantastic trees.) Also, because we were small (comparably), Helvie and I got to go behind the tree to hang ornaments. The plastic ones, and those which Helvie and I made in school. I didn't much appreciate having to hang my handmade bulbs - made from real egg cartons and painted by me - in the back, but they were there.

No one was immune to the draw of the Christmas Tree and the goodies it guarded. Adults would pretend not to notice, but should a new present show up addressed to them, they were suddenly in a much better mood. Daddy wasn't bashful. He would blatantly search the pile, looking for anything with his name on it. That made Helvie and my laying in front of the tree on our bellies staring at the lights less embarassing.

The build up to Christmas was like a pressure cooker (I assume, having never been inside a pressure cooker). Helvie and I were nearly always the first to rise on Christmas morning, but not by much. I think our older siblings may acutally have been awake before us, but didn't dare risk being teased about 'rushing' downstairs. I think they lay in their beds awake listening for Helvie and me to make fools of ourselves first. Then they could do it without being noticed. I believe this because it never seemed like it took long for them to come down - fully dressed. At least Helvie and I were still in jammies. (I wore jammies back then. Haven't for a long time. I should get some. I wonder if bunny jammies come in my size?)

That all of the kids were up meant nothing. Christmas could not begin until Dad said so. And Dad would not say so until Mother told him everyone who was coming, had arrived. This often meant both Mother's parents and Dad's parents. No matter that they hated each other. It was Christmas. We can all hate each other later.

Dad doled out the presents. I was his helper. (Dad didn't care much for crawing under the tree.) He would take all of the easy to reach presents and hand them out one by one. Then he would call on me to crawl in and get the packages which had slid way to the back. Helvie could have helped, but Helvie didn't want to. I thought it was great. I got to hold my own presents, give them to Dad, and then have him give it right back to me as though it were a surprise.

Wrapping paper piled up like snow drifts. You needed waders to get through it. I always felt sorry for the adults, and my older siblings - when they got too old for toys. Mostly, adults and teenagers got crap presents like sweaters, and crud like that. Not like Helvie and me. We got stuff you could make some real noise with. Like the year Mother bought us twin Tommie Guns. I remember when we opened them. Everyone looked at Mother and said the same thing. "Are you out of your mind?" If she wasn't when she bought them, she certainly was by suppertime. Helvie and I were tossed outside and told not to come back unless we agree to put them away - forever.

The food was great, too.

Presents began some time after nine or ten and continued to noon. By then the turkey and roast were ready (food was cheaper back then). There was mashed potatoes, creamed corn, carrots, cranberry sauce (the thick kind with real berries, not the jelly stuff), olives (with the red stuff in the center that was fun to suck out), and a bunch of other stuff that no kid in their right mind would touch, but adults couldn't get enough of. Eggnog (I forget how to make it). And cider - unspiked. Dad took no alcohol during the Christmas Holiday Season. After about two or three hours of letting lunch settle there would be hot pumpkin pie with a mile of whipped cream on top. There was also this abominable tin of sh*t called mince pie, which sounded good but tasted like crap.

Usually, everyone spent the night. The Ghost would be quiet, respecting the family time. Such days. I wish I could hold them in my hands. I love the memories. I love the music.

Sometimes, I think a year is too long a time. You know?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

You Have to Concentrate, Daddy

As I have said before, my dad was not a stupid person. He had an I.Q. over 140. All of his children were blessed (?) with high I.Q.s, and two actually scored higher. (Guess who one was? grin) He read extensively about American and natural history. He understood a lot about a lot of things. His faults, as I recall them, were the demons from his youth which tormented him to his dying day, and his propensity to come to judgement too quickly. But overall, he was a fun dad.

Dad was a truck driver, from before I was born until he died on January 4, 1974. In the early years this meant he was home all winter, when the trucks didn't haul so often. In warm weather he would be gone three days out of four. But when he was home, he loved to play games with his children.

We played a lot of card games. Hearts and Spades were most common. Dad was good at cards, and he played to win at all times. (He was a fantastic cribbage player.) He gave no quarter. (We didn't play for money. grin) If he could, he would humiliate you. I still recall when, playing Hearts, Gayanne miscalculated and tried to 'shoot the moon'. Everyone thought she had done it. Except Dad. He had very quietly taken a single heart early on. When the points were counted and Gayanne realized that instead of giving everyone else 26 points she would get 25, everyone laughed. Gayanne was visibly crushed - which didn't happen often. Gayanne was probably the proudest of Dad's children and just refused to let anyone see they had bested her. Dad was not pleased she was crushed, but at the same time he told her to 'let that be a lesson to you'. He said that all the time. Even when there was no lesson to be learned. It was funny, actually. Except to Gayanne on that day.

Dad was also good at the television game shows which required knowledge. His favorite was Jeopardy, although he wasn't good in every category. Modern music? Art? Hollywood stars? Forget it. History. Bible (this one surprised me). Nature. Math. He nailed every one. We bought one of the home versions and the only hope of beating him was that he wouldn't get a category he knew.

There was another game which was popular in the 1960s which I don't think is on anymore. Concentration. I think it was hosted by Hugh Downs. Dad liked to watch it. Basically, it was the old Memory game. The premise was this:

(I remembered I once found Daddy's graduation picture on the internet. This is what he looked like when he was seventeen.)

A giant game board would be put on a wall. It had thirty squares on it: five across and six down (or the other way around). Contestants would take turns picking two numbers. Behind each number was a prize. If the prizes matched, the contestant would have that prize placed in their win bucket. (There were two Wild Cards, too, which created instant matches.) Then the squares would be turned to reveal a portion of a puzzle, which represented a well-known phrase. For example: Y + [picture of an oar] + [picture of campfire] + D. This would translate to, "You're Fired". The first person to correctly identify the puzzle's message would win the game - and their prizes. Whoopee.

We bought the home version of this game, too.

Now regarding memory, Dad was the best. If you made a mistake and revealed the location of a prize which had been seen before, Dad would pounce on it when his turn came. He could navigate a puzzle board better than anyone I knew. Unfortunately for Dad, puzzles mixed with pictures was foreign to his mind. He couldn't do it.

I still remember when Judayl and I were playing with him. I was acting as Master of Ceremonies and Judayl was competing against Dad. Judayl hardly matched anything. All she managed to do was show Dad where the prizes were so he could snatch them up. And he did. When two-thirds of the puzzle had been revealed Judayl knew what it was. Dad didn't. But it was Dad's turn. Judayl had to wait until Dad mucked up. And then she had to make a match in order to win. Dad made a match. Only eight spaces covered. Could he guess the picture? No. Another match. Now only six spaces covered. Could he guess the picture now? No. Judayl and I were laughing. Another match. No guess. More laughter. Another match. No clue. Frightful laughter. Only two squares left. He matched them. Now the entire puzzle was revealed. Could Dad reveal the puzzle now? No. Judayl and I fell off our chairs laughing. Dad was not happy. I don't think he ever played Concentration again. Had Gayanne been there I think she would have been pleased.

Dad drank and smoked himself to death. His demons ultimatly got the best of him. For that reason, some discredit his memory - including a couple of his children. Maybe they are right. I guess I have no right to say. But while I can acknowledge the things he did which were wrong, I can't forget the wonderful things he did right - such as play games with his children.

I love my dad. I love his memory. Long ago I made a request of God. When it comes my time to go to heaven (yeah, I believe God has forgiven me and will accept me into his home), can the first person I meet be Daddy? I miss him, and I wish I could have made him proud. I wish he could have met my son, his grandson. Some day I believe we will be together again, and perhaps we will play games again. If we do, I am almost certain Concentration will not be one of them.

Merry Christmas, Daddy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another Book Recommendation

For those of you who enjoy reading fantasy, such as I do, here is a nice book I have enjoyed reading several times. It is called The Well-Favaored Man, by Elizabeth Willey. It was published by TOR in 1993 under the title The Well-Favored Man: The Tale of the Sorcerer's Nephew. The jacket art was by Wayne Barlowe, and the jacket design was by Carol Russo.

Here is the jacket blurb:

Welcome to Argylle, where the ruling family - a brilliant, flighty, civilized, and occasionally dangerous clan of nearly-immortal warriors and magicians - are hoping for a few years of relative peace.

True, their father Gaston has vanished, leaving both throne and family while he pursues some unexplained errand. His absence has stretched into years. True as well that their powerful Uncle Dewar has also wandered off without leaving a forwarding address, and hasn't been heard from for a worrisome length of time. It's a bad habit of running off that this family's elders have.

But now young Prince Gwydion's been stuck with ruling the Dominion of Argylle, and with any luck, life can go back to being a satisfactory mixture of intrigue, gossip, and viniculter, periodically enlived by amateur theatricals and the odd quest or two.

Yet Gwydion is finding this arrangement uncomfortable. Strange things keep turning up. A plague of monsters appears out of nowhere, attempting to take up residence in the local barns and forests. These are trumped by the arrival of a ravenous Great Dragon - ancient, sorcerous, profoundly cunning - so big you can see it thirty miles away. Meanwhile, a mysterious youn woman has shown up, claiming to be Gwydion's long-lost - indeed, quite unsuspected - sister. And then there are the high-tech aliens, who say they just want to conduct a legal investigation.

It's enough, Gwydion thinks, to make a ruler want to find some nice long errand that'll take him away from his homeland for a spell....

The Well-Favored Man is courtly, complex, bloody-minded fantasy for those who love Roger Zelazny's Amber, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, and the fantasy adventure of Steven Brust.

Elizabeth Willey divides her time between Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California. The Well-Favored Man is her first novel.

The jacket's back cover lists three (3) reviews.

"Elizabeth Willy's first novel is that rare bird, an urbane fantasy. Her sorcerers choose their wines, lovers, and and words as carefully as they choose their spells, and her warriors speak as well as they fight. She adds to this an exciting and complex plot, an engrossing world, and some of the cleverest dragons in fantasy." - Delia Sherman, author of The Porcelain Dove

"Fast, literate, and wittily plotted, The Well-Favored Man is a feast of dragons, manticores, and elegant prose. Elizabeth Willey is a writer to watch for, to take seriously and to enjoy." - Michael Swanwick, Nebula-winning author of Stations of the Tide

"A splendid cast, well-considered magicking...Assured, different, superior." - Kirkus Reviews

I like it. Enough to read it more than once. It has several sub-plots (which I just love) and moves from one to another without significant transition. Each plot is part of a whole. I will confess to having trouble determining the books main plot during my first read. That is because the main plot is only hinted at early. I found nearly everything intriguing (except the younger sister, who was simply annoying). Like all good books, Well-Favored Man left me wanting more. Willey did write a sequel, but I have not been able to get a copy. It's titled, A Sorcerer and a Gentleman. I think it may actually be a prequel.

The resemblance to Roger Zelazny's, Chronicles of Amber, is there. I have not read Ellen Kushner or Steven Brust. And, like Amber, I personally had trouble visualizing the transition between realities. Not that I didn't like them. I just had trouble creating a picture in my mind.

But the book is good. If you can, you should get a copy. It is real in the sense that things did not all turn out as I wanted. But the plot endings all tied together and they all fit and made sense as regards character.

Can Everything Broken Be Fixed

This post was actually made after Another Book Recommendation. I just didn't want it to supercede The Well-Favored Man, by Elizabeth Willey. That's a good book.

Feeling a bit blue. Lonely, even. Which is odd because Judayl (my sister) called me this morning. It's been several months since we've spoken. She didn't know about my submitting Flames of Hatred / Pawns to another agent, nor about that agent referring me to Evil Editor, nor about the massive amount of critique I just got, or Critters, or Firestar, or the house, or anything.

Like always, when we do talk, we talked a long time. She was at work, so it wasn't so long as normal. I told her about my post, So Why Isn't it Funny. I told her how people from around the world have taken time to help me write better. She was glad about that. I said that is my job now. I don't get paid, but it's what I do. Judayl said I don't get paid - yet. Judayl is very insistent that I acknowledge the positive side of life regularly.

But, as I said, she was at work and couldn't talk so long as desire claimed. Maybe that's why I'm down. Talking to Judayl reminded me of - loneliness. In solitude, loneliness is a quiet hum. It's the white noise they pump into office space so employees aren't aware there are other people nearby. Loneliness in a crowd, however. There is only one thing I know which hurts worse - complete and utter rejection.

I lay down to take a nap. Sleep stayed away. Not interested in hanging out with the blues, I guess. I found myself remembering three teachers from my youth. Not sure what sparked the memories.

The first was Mrs. St. John. She was my third grade teacher. She accomplished something my previous teachers could not: she helped me believe in myself.

I like fun and I have always been able to see funny (I know you don't believe it, but it's true). That got me into trouble at least weekly in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. I got slapped (teachers slapped you in those days) more than everyone else put together. Why? Because I couldn't resist what was funny. Nobody gave straight lines better than a teacher. Had my glasses broke a couple of times.

Well, third grade began very much like the previous grades. I was in trouble all the time. Amazingly, I was still a "B" student. I don't think Mrs. St. John liked me. I know I wouldn't have. But that changed dramatically, and I think it had something to do with what happened when the class took a test.

Because (I know I'm not supposed to begin a sentence with 'because', but tough) I had been laughing and teasing, I was made to stand in the corner (I could do it in those days) while the class took the test. Then, while the class went out to recess, I was to take the test. Well, as far as I was concerned, that was bullsh*t. I hadn't done anything wrong. Not in my mind. So I refused.

I tore up the test sheet. Slap! New test sheet. I had no pencil. Slap! New pencil. Go sharpen it. I did. Right down to the eraser. Slap! New pencil. Teacher sharpened it. I broke the tip. Slap! Resharpened. I put it between my fingers and broke it. Slap! New pencil. More slaps. Just for the heck of it. Well, by now I realized I wasn't going to outlast her. So I took the test. I marked every answer wrong.

My mother was called in. More slaps. This time my mother shared in the distribution. While they discussed me before my face, I sat and glared at them both. I defied either of them to make me take that test for real. (I did take the test. Mother had amunition Mrs. St. John did not have. Mother had Dad.) I can still see Mrs. St. John's face looking at me while I glared.

The following week, while at recess, I saw Mrs. St. John walk away from the school grounds. She came back shortly before recess was over. She called me and had me go into the school with her. She handed me a tube of chapstick and showed me how I could put that on my lips, which were bleeding (I used to peel the broken skin off because the hanging pieces felt funny), and said if I did that, my lips would get better. She never slapped me again. In fact, she began tutoring me on math and english. When I moved on to fourth grade, she moved on, too, and became my fourth grade teacher. By the time I went to fifth grade I was a couple of years ahead of my classmates in math and english. I even walked to the school in the summertime (between third and fourth grades) to take daily lessons. I liked Mrs. St. John, and I never acted up in her class again.

Mrs. Kohner was different. She was my creative writing teacher when I was a Sophmore in high school. She told the class we could write anything we wanted, and even use profanity - providing the profanity made sense within the story. I was one of two Sophomores in the class. The rest were Juniors and Seniors. Quite intimidating, actually.

Mrs. Kohner would take assignments and then sit with students one-on-one to go over the work. I remember when it was my turn. As a Sophomore, I went last. She didn't actually have much to say about what I had written, or how I wrote. (I can't remember what it was about, but it was dull. The kind of thing a sophomore would think a teacher wanted to read.) Instead, she asked me a question which still rings in my head:

Is this really what you want to write about?


Then why write about it?

I don't know.

What do you want to write about?

Magic. Unicorns. Dragons.

Then write me a story about magic, unicorns and dragons. Work hard, because I am not going to accept this as your assignment. You have to redo last week's assignment and still complete this week's. Do you understand?

Yes, ma'am.

I became very good friends with Mrs. Kohner. I confided things to her I never told to anyone else. She never judged me. She just encouraged me to write. Mrs. Kohner was my friend.

The last teacher was Mrs. Gab. She was my Bookkeeping teacher when I was a Senior in high school. Bookkeeping is nothing like accounting. Bookkeeping is simple and easy. By the end of the first quarter I had determined I could get a "B" without even trying. Since I had only taken the class as a filler class that is what I did. I didn't care. Mrs. Gab did.

Mrs. Gab was very concerned over how each and every one of her students performed. She wanted everyone to not only succeed, but to be their best. I posed a problem for her. When she brought me in at mid-term to discuss grades, she was genuinely distressed that I was only getting a "B".

What's wrong with a "B"?

Nothing. But you should be getting an "A". You could be my top student. All you have to do is turn in the book assignments. I know you know the answers, but you have to complete the assignments.

I don't need to be the top student.

When I said that, Mrs. Gab broke down and cried. I couldn't believe it. She was crying because I wasn't going to be her top student. Well, I hate to see anyone cry. Especially when they're clearly as big a fool as I am. So I promised I would turn in the assignments. Actually, I did more. I went home that night and did ALL of the book assignments to the end of the year. When I turned them in the next day I assured her they were all perfect. She was happy as a clam. (Are clams happy?)

The last portion of the year was spent doing what Mrs. Gab called, The Practice Set. We were given a business to bookkeep for. We had to track payroll, payments, receipts and a bunch of other stuff. We had to write out receipts and keep copies. And it all had to be kept - in order - in a special Practice Set Pouch. Work was at the student's own speed. Once the Practice Set was finished, the rest of the year became study hall.

Five of us competed for the lead: Mike, Bonita, Cathy, Larry and me. As we left the rest of the class behind, we realized that everyone who used the adding machines (there was no such thing as a calculator) would lose at least a day. So we resolved never to use them. Cathy caved first. She had some problem she thought would be solved by using an adding machine. I shook my head. Cathy was out of the race. Bonita was next, which surprised me, as I figured Bonita was my top competition. Not any more. With three weeks left in school Larry gave in. Now it was just Mike and me. No one who had used the adding machines was near to us. Even Bonita was three days behind. Then, with ten days left, Mike tapped my shoulder. I turned to see his sheepish grin. He was going to the adding machines. I warned him not to do it, but he wouldn't listen. I finished my Practice Set two days later and spent the last week reading books.

I still remember the day Mrs. Gab handed back the Practice Sets so we could see our grades. She was so happy she practically glowed. She made sure she had everyone's attention, and then she made this announcement.

I had 150 students take Bookkeeping this year in grades ten through twelve. There was one perfect score. That went to Bevie James.

We made eye contact. She was so proud of me I had to smile.

I have never forgotten Mrs. Gab. Or Mrs. Kohner. Or Mrs. St. John. I know I was just another student, and I have no doubt they did as much or more for others. But I always believed they loved me. I felt like I was important to them, and I wanted to do well to make them happy. I think I did. But what would they think of me now?

Can what's broken be fixed and made good again? I hope so.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Price of Having a Cat

Firestar (we named our cat Firestar, after the main character in Warriors, by Erin Hunter) was thrust to the crossroads of importance this past weekend. He developed F.U.S. (Feline Urinary Syndrome) and became blocked this past Saturday. Of course this had to happen after the local vet closed. Spouse tried another nearby vet and arrived just as they were locking the door. The vet did let them in and did a cursory examination. She told us to wait 24-hours. If there was no improvement we would have to bring Firestar to the closest emergency pet hospital - St. Cloud - 38 miles away.

Well, Firestar was not better in the morning. To make matters worse, it was raining here and snowing in St. Cloud. That meant we got to drive through the transition. We put him into his carry case and headed out.

It turned out he wasn't completely blocked. He was leaking. And despite it all being confined to the towel we had placed in the case, we had to open windows to let the amonia smell out. This let the rain, then ice and then snow in. Goody.

By the time we arrived in St. Cloud the roads were indistinguishable from the adjoining sides. Fortunately, it was freeway almost the entire way. Unfortunately, even in Minnesota, where everyone should know better, there are morons who don't understand it's a poor (stupid) idea to try and drive 70-mph in a snowstorm mixed with ice and rain. We didn't find the ditch, but a few others did.

At the hospital we were greeted by a humorless young man who took Firestar's temperature and tested his breathing. Firestar was scared. I held him on the steel examination table and cooed affectionately to him. When the young man left, Spouse and Son went to the waiting area to watch television. I stayed with Firestar, letting him wander the little room in order to calm himself. He would sniff my hand, then walk to a corner, sniff, and then return to me. He did this over and over again. He wasn't cool with the dog barking in a nearby room.

After a while, spouse and I changed places. While I was watching M*A*S*H with Son, an elderly couple arrived with a Toy Poodle. I'm not keen on dogs which are smaller than my cat, but to be polite I was going to say something nice. But then Mr. Humorless came and asked if they were the couple bringing the dog which had to be put to sleep. They were. I said nothing. I've seen a few dogs and cats put down in my time. It's not fun.

I heard Spouse speaking with the doctor and Son and I went into the examination room to hear what the doctor was saying. Firestar would have to spend the night. He needed certain tests to find out this and that. He needed a catheter right away. Had we waited until Monday (to bring him to the regular vet) there was a strong possibility he would have died. Now he had a good chance. She left.

About fifteen or twenty minutes later a young woman came in with some forms showing the estimated charges to save Firestar's life. More than a dozen line items, nicely columnized and priced, filled the top page. Succeeding pages were for explanations. What I saw was the total at the bottom of the top page: $1,250.00. (I rounded it off. There were pennies involved.) I said nothing while the young woman explained each line item. Payment was due ahead of time. (There has been a rash of people abandoning their pets since the economy was flushed down the toilet.) Spouse was silent.

Now there are two things you need to know about Spouse: 1) Spouse is - as a good friend of ours once told me - "grounded in reality". Spouse is very practical and money aware (although no better at managing it than I); 2) It was Spouse's decision to get Firestar. I had chosen to get the previous cats: Baby Boy and B J Honeycat. After 14 years, BJ got diabetes and we had to have him put down (we couldn't afford the treatment). After 18 years Baby Boy had a stroke and was paralyzed. I couldn't bear to go through that again and resolved to not have a cat again. But one day Spouse came home with this buff orange cat and shoved it into my face - knowing I could not resist a kitten.

The young woman said she would leave and let us discuss what we would do. When the door closed I waited to hear what Spouse had to say. Spouse said nothing. I looked and saw the tears.

Does this mean you have decided to let him go, I asked.

It's a lot of money, Spouse wept.

Yes, it is.

Are you saying you're fine with it?

It's your call. I'll go with what you decide.

I went out to the waiting area where Son was still watching television. I told him it was going to cost more than $1,000 to help Firestar. The other option was to put him down. I asked what he wanted. He said he wished we could spend the money. I told him to go to the examination room and say so. Spouse hardly ever says no to son. (Sometimes that's a problem.)

So Firestar spent the night. New problem. Since this was an emergency clinic, they were only open when regular vet clinics were closed. This meant they would be closing early Monday morning. This meant we had to get back to bring Firestar home by 7 a.m. Monday. The forcast was that the storm would not quite be over then. I was in store for a lovely drive.

I was up and on my way around 6 a.m. It was ten degrees below zero. Thirty below wind chill. No rain now. Everything was ice. Glare ice. I crawled along like a turtle in sand while the crosswind tried to blow me off the road. But the crosswind didn't really bother me. Neither did the glare ice. My problem was with other drivers, who felt that all they had to do to navigate was build up enough speed. I drove in terror that one or more of them would lose control and smash into me. Some did lose control, but I was spared. God was watching over me.

I arrived at the clinic some time after seven. The doctor informed me that I now had a very angry cat. He was uncomfortable, hungry and pissed off - at her, and me. When I started for home, Firestar informed me with the angriest yowls I have ever heard a cat issue that he was not happy. He still had his catheter. After about a mile the rage mellowed to simple anger. For 38 miles I sat and listened to him tell me what he thought of me and my parentage. As we neared home I began telling him how many miles away we were. He went quiet. I could see him through the slits of his carry case. He was glowering at me.

When we got home and I brought the case into the house he went frantic. He wanted out - now! But the catheter was a problem. I knew if I let him out I would never get him in again without risking injury (to him and myself). So I left him in his cage while I called his regular vet. The hospital had faxed information ahead and they were waiting. I put Firestar back into the car and off we went. He was not happy with me.

The local vet people are wonderful. They're always happy and cheerful. When Baby Boy had to be put down they sent a wonderful sympathy card. They took him and told me he would stay with them until evening - to make sure all treatment was going well. Then we could bring him home. When I came back I brought Spouse and Son with me. Firestar now has new food to eat for the rest of his life. He also has medicine: pills and liquid. Whoopee.

I am the administrator of medicine. To give a cat medicine requires getting it to open its mouth and keep it open long enough to drop the pill to the throat, so it will be swallowed and not spit out. This involves putting one's finger into the side of the mouth. Those teeth are sharp, too. The pill was easy. It was the liquid that was nasty. That was done with a syringe. The same procedure, but Firestar isn't keen on having liquid dripped or squirted into his mouth. The teeth are sharp.

The liquid medicine will be completed tonight. The pills will go nearly to the end of the year. (May my fingers last.) I think he's going to be all right. He spent the first day at my side. Even after I gave him medicine he returned right off. He was just happy to be home again. I can tell he's feeling better because he's back to wandering off to sleep on his own. All told, around $1,300 spent - borrowed, actually. It went on a credit card.

Should a family who cannot pay the mortgage be borrowing money to save the life of a mongrel cat? I guess I look at it this way.

When we drove back home on Sunday, Spouse thanked me for not insisting we put Firestar down. I told Spouse it was like the father on We're No Angels (Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray - a great Christmas movie) when his wife asked him about some new bad news. "What does it matter? It's like a headache to a drowning man."

The money will be paid - in time. If we lose the house we were going to lose it anyway. Why should a cat die because I'm stupid? No. We save life when we can. I couldn't save BJ. What he had was incurable, and the monthy expenditure was beyond our means. There was nothing to be done for Baby Boy except let him leave in peace. If Firestar has a relapse - well, the credit card is maxed now. Let's just hope he stays okay.

The past few days have shown me that I didn't do it just for him. Having him cuddle next to me has been very comforting. Cats do forgive after all. Damn cat.