Friday, August 18, 2017

Stuck in the Moment

         I am in between projects right now. My latest novel is with Publish Pros and I haven’t yet begun another major venture. Blogging seems to ease my constant urge to write, but I have felt a bit stuck, to tell the truth . . . aw, but such is life.
 When I sat down to write a creative piece today, I considered my current creative malaise and began. I made up the name for a character, decided she also would be “stuck”, and began writing. I had no idea what the result would be, but here it is.


Betsy Jean Cobblestone was stuck. It was rare that she be stuck in any sense of the word for as her surname suggested, she had been on a rocky road to somewhere all of her life. Always moving. Most often she managed to move forward, but, on occasion, she had stumbled, fallen, or had been forced to retrace her steps in order to set things straight. That’s how life had been for her – a bumpy road. And though she had contributed to the discomforts and uncertainties of her existence, committing one jarring mistake after another, other folks, to Betsy Jean’s way of thinking, had jerked her around as well. More than a few sordid souls had seen fit to make her suffer. Yet no matter who had delivered a jab to the belly or a kick in the ass, Betsy Jean had dusted off the dirt and forged ahead. That’s how she had arrived at this place – a widow for more than ten years, with an estranged daughter, a prodigal son, and not one friend in the world. She was quite absolutely alone and stuck.
When she was born some seventy-eight years prior she never would have imagined that all of a sudden she would feel trapped, one aching heart caught in a snare of her own making. She had had dreams just as everyone else, she assumed. I’ll be married to the perfect man, have flawless children, and adoring grandchildren. I’ll have a career of my own, stacks of friends, and pet after pet after pet. She had . . . to a point. Jack, her husband had been far from perfect, but she had loved him still despite his shortcomings and idiosyncrasies: an aversion to hard work, an affection for sweet Mary Jane, and flatulence that could take one’s breath away. Her daughter, Kate, had married at seventeen and had moved to Timbuktu, or somewhere as ambiguously distant, in order to churn out some children of her own, Betsy Jean supposed. She heard from Kate once a year - a ridiculous greeting card had arrived on, of all days, Valentine’s Day, every single year . . . even this one.  As for Will, her son . . . God only knew where he was. Betsy Jean feared it was a homeless encampment somewhere, but perhaps she was wrong. He’s the CEO of his own startup, of course. She shook her head at her thinking. What a ridiculous thought. She had no blooming idea.
Betsy Jean’s day was half over. She had drunk her coffee, made her bed, showered, pottied, and brushed her teeth. She had twisted her hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, pulled on an old sweater over loose slacks and sat, an unopened book in her hand, staring at the television screen, as black as night. The longer she sat, the heavier she felt, unable to lift a finger. Yet she breathed on and as she did, her mind took her to a picture show . . . memory after memory peppering through until the display stopped flat, just like that. She gazed slowly around the room as though expecting someone to look back at her. No one did, of course. Well, what did you expect, Betsy Jean Cobblestone? Here you are, stuck, with one toe touching quicksand. Maybe you got what you asked for, old lady, and, well, perhaps not. But here you are, and if there is to be tomorrow get on up and start moving. Whether anyone gives a hoot simply isn’t the issue. Not a soul in the world is going to do it for you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Growing up Stupid

I spent a great deal of my childhood living in Kentucky and Texas. I was a military brat moving quite often without a say of my own, but I learned to adapt. I was able to make friends and cope with strange, new environments, but being shy and introverted didn’t make those endeavors easy. I began to watch though and I began to listen. I read, and I read more. I wrote in a tiny, pink diary that had a lock and key, and in time, scrawled lines in spiral notebooks that I hid in a pile under a blanket in the closet.
I have to believe that observing from a distance and listening in on myriad conversations or discussions of others, combined well with all that reading and writing. I became a thinker with a lust for knowledge and, thank goodness, a mind of my own.
 At moments, though I need to put in words what I am thinking. That is when I am drawn to the keyboard; it becomes imperative to “speak out” the best way I can – by writing. Today is one of those times. And why? The bigotry and violence that have been at the forefront of the news recently disturb me to the core. I choose the verb disturb carefully because it puts a silencer on a maelstrom of emotions colliding inside me.
I am reminded of the movie Forrest Gump, for some reason, perhaps because of the bullying and unfounded hatred he often endured. A couple of lines have been playing over and over in my head. On the bus to school, young, little Jenny asks Forrest, “Are you stupid or something?” His reply is perfect. “Mama says ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’” He had a good Mama. And she made a good point. So, I’m writing today about Darla, a girl who grew up stupid.


            It wasn’t Darla’s fault really – the fact that she grew up stupid. She was born, just like her brothers and one sister in the back, upstairs bedroom of Grandma’s two-story, gabled farmhouse. She was the last of five . . . five children who did not get very far. Their papa took off to God only knew where when their mama told him she was in the family way . . . again, this time with what turned out to be Darla, and their mama took up waitressing in town once Darla saw daylight, just to make ends meet. It was not a pretty picture.
The whole brood moved into Grandma’s on Christmas Eve 1955, with everything they owned jammed into three suitcases and four cardboard boxes. The worst snowstorm in a century blew in the night they arrived and for fourteen days Grandma refereed scuffles while Mama wiped sniffles. When they finally managed to wrestle the front door open after two weeks of breathing stale, infected air, the boys sported three black eyes, a broken nose, a sprained ankle, and the two girls had cases of influenza so bad it was a wonder baby Darla survived. But she did . . . to grow up stupid . . . just like her siblings.
The boys departed school, not a minute too soon to their way of thinking, just after sixth grade in order to tend Grandma’s farm. Three tow-headed rascals, eleven, twelve, and thirteen saw it as a way out. Not one of them could tolerate any teacher and left their last classroom reading at a third-grade level, and that suited them fine.
“Who needs to read?” Jesse asserted for all of them. “Can’t plow with a book. ‘Sides, Grandpa never read a lick himself.”
It was a truth. Grandpa’s grandsons had inherited his aversion to schooling though that didn’t matter anymore. He was long gone.
 “Grandpa went on up to heaven, I reckon,” Grandma told Darla when she was old enough to hear the story, “because he didn’t have the gumption to keep plowing his paltry fifty-five acres.”
Grandpa had acquired the land, Darla learned, through no fault of his own. Old Will Buckenridge had gambled the parcel away back in the early thirties when moonshine whiskey had taken away all the poor boy’s senses. It was too bad for Will but something of a windfall for Grandpa who up until he was handed the deed had not had a pot to piss in.
“Hot damn,” he had blurted to Grandma when he had shown her the rumpled title certificate. Then he had swooped her into his arms and carried her over the threshold as though she were a blushing bride.
“Grandpa didn’t take to farming much,” Grandma told Darla and her sister, Scarlett, who was fourteen and ready for marriage to Jimmy somebody. Their first baby, Scarlett said, was already in the breadbasket.
“I’m planning on an even dozen of those little whippersnappers,” Scarlett proclaimed, patting her plumping belly.
When Scarlett finally exited the farm with Jimmy, Darla was left to her own devices, which consisted of not much. She baked the odd batch of cookies or swept Grandma’s kitchen with a straw broom that made the dust bloom up into angry swirls before it settled back to where it had been in the first place. She shooed a litter of feral cats away time after time and stood at the back door of the house for long minutes, her feet bare and her mind empty. Darla hated school as much as her brothers had, so she feigned illnesses, or drove off with Abel Winfield in his rusted, Ford pickup out to the flats where they had sweaty sex on a scratchy blanket in the sun. Abel wasn’t much to look at, but he had a nice smile - only one front tooth missing. And one eye wandered from time to time. Darla had a hard time following.
They were a couple but they had friends too, other dropouts who cruised the country roads looking for trouble . . . vandalizing businesses in the dead of night, scrawling obscenities on signposts and the side of the First Baptist Church, edge of town. Someone had the idea to burn a cross or two there, as well as farther down the road where a line of tiny shacks lined the cemetery. When the crosses roared into flame they sent burning embers into the dark sky. Darla remembered but she forgot as well . . . the smell of singed hair, a dog’s howl in the darkness, a man’s deep curse, and a bellowing cry from an infant not far away.
It’s the way it was for Darla . . . a familiar existence, a normal way of being, living a life that was going nowhere. Darla didn’t give a rat’s ass about that either. She was incapable of even considering. She was oblivious to the fact that it had happened . . . she had grown up stupid.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Choice

            Below is a short character sketch I began yesterday and have wrapped up today. Maybe I’ll put this character in a future novel.

Ali Jo Collins blew up to three hundred pounds by the time she was eighteen. She didn’t plan on that happening, having been a skinny, little wisp as a child, but somewhere along the line, it did. And when she finally took notice, she gave up trying . . . trying to follow the rules, trying to resist all temptation, or trying to please others. The exact moment of her decision lay hidden in the cortex of her brain, cemented in grey matter that wouldn’t let go of the secret. Even she wondered at times what in the hell had happened to make her abandon all conscious effort. Who are you, Ali Jo Collins? She asked because she no longer knew.
She would latch her chubby fingers together like a lattice of fat sausages and stare at herself in the mirror. Her face was a globe, globules of fat having flattened out her features so that her mouth was a misshapen aperture and her nose a bulging mound slightly above it. Her nostrils appeared to have been widened out like soft putty onto wide cheeks that puffed pink beneath eyes that were slits. They were hidden in folds of skin tissue that clearly had slip-slided from what once must have been a normal place. The rest of her body followed suit, an avalanche of plump flesh that gravitated in soft rolls from her breasts, past her stomach and thighs all the way down to her feet, both of which were stuffed into wide, flannel slippers with the toes cut out for a little breathing room.  
Only at night when she finally slept was there an inkling of hope that she would remember the details of what had brought her to this place. In her dreams she was bombarded with images: a roller coaster with no end in sight, high in the sky, a toy boat bobbing haphazardly down a foot-wide spillway, an enormous swimming pool clogged with green moss, and a sky that swirled with dark, ominous, nimbostratus clouds. But there was something else that strode into her consciousness night after night before it slinked evasively away. It was a shadowy image, a man perhaps . . . a man, indeed, whose hands had wandered over her young body like a healer. Only he wasn’t.
Ali awoke to her own cries just past midnight when the house was dead silent and she was as alone as she ever had been. And she remembered. She had been twelve. The man had been who? Her uncle. Jolly Uncle Alvin who had lavished her, and her sister Hannah, too, with gift after gift after gift. They were small things at first: chocolate covered cherries or packets of fig bars wrapped in bright cellophane. In time, Hannah must have dropped out of favor for Uncle Alvin gave only to Ali Jo: a Barbie, a bikini, and a shiny, silver bangle. And when he presented her with a necklace with a delicate, gold chain from which a tiny diamond heart held on for dear life, he demanded a hug.
It began then. She remembered some . . . she remembered more, and then she remembered it all, and as she did her body shook with sadness, real and acute, and with shame that should have been swept under a carpet so she could no longer see because it was not hers. She realized that night, four days after her eighteenth birthday that she had bundled her emotions inside since the year she was twelve, a tight knot of fear and despair taking precedence and stealing any hope of her remaining a child. Now, at the cusp of her nineteenth year, she finally understood what she had begun thinking when she was only twelve, just thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and on. I will do what I need to do to make him go away. It had been a choice, perhaps not conscious, but pointed nonetheless. And it had worked. In short order, as the pounds glommed on to every inch of Ali Jo Collins, good, old, happy-go-lucky Uncle Alvin set his sights elsewhere and she wallowed into a new realm of freedom.
And now, finally, she could choose again. With the same, self-determination that had brought her to this place, she would take care of business. She knew what she had to do.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Writing – Just Another Essential Need To Survive

         Sometimes, actually often, the need to write is so intense, I feel a bit anxious. It is not an uneasy, negative feeling but rather, on the contrary, is essentially a positive drive that urges me to sit down at that computer and “pound” the keys. At times I write to express a point of view about an issue - political, social, or otherwise - or simply to create “story” from my imagination. On occasion, a memory of a person, time, experience, or place is the impetus that pulls me to the keyboard. And sometimes I start with just one word: blue, justice, tomatoes, love, beaches, babies, yellow, sex, daisies, death, Safeway, Walmart, Mary, Billy, or Joe. It doesn’t matter. One word from a random list (or thought) can get me going and frequently I am surprised by the outcome.
            Perhaps I am writing about writing today because I recently have completed my fifth book (fourth novel). It is with the publisher at this moment and I know, that within the next few weeks, loose ends will need to be knotted together so that a real book will be available for (hopefully) eager hands. In the meantime, the old mind is writing still, creating sentences and paragraphs as I walk my dogs, churning up a plot for my next long project, and toying with the notion of composing a poem or two, that, for me, is quite a difficult task. (I am in awe of exemplary poets.)
In terms of writing in general, though, I have to admit that ideas come easily for me because I always am observing: colors, shades, voices, faces, movements, sounds, attitudes, interactions, reactions, and more. (So, watch out!) Watching is a non-stop activity. I’m even looking in my dreams as bizarre as that may seem. Everywhere I turn, I see something worth recording, so my mind, I like to think, is a file cabinet filled with observations that will be available for perusal when I need them for my next piece of writing.
I would assume everyone understands that the basic needs for a human being to survive and thrive are oxygen, water, food, shelter, and sleep. To flourish further, however, I would think most of us appreciate mental stimulation that comes from thinking, creating, believing, exercising, problem-solving, and socializing. I feel much more alive when I am doing one of the important activities above but, for me, creativity tops the list. It is part of who I am. It fulfills me. And it makes me happy.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Amazing Grace

            As most people who know me already are aware, my son, Alex, passed away on May 24, 2013, after a long struggle with job-related brain cancer (an oligoastrocytoma). Today, as I was doing a bit of cleaning in my office, I came across a manila envelope filled with cards sent to me in 2005 from friends and well-wishers along with information about brain tumors, a bio of Alex’s neurosurgeon at UC Davis, and the following two items that were written by Alex before his first surgery (and there were three) on March 4, 2005. I believe these two pieces speak to his courage, his sense of humor, and his need to put others first. Although it is now 2017, from time to time I make amazing new discoveries that touch my heart. I wanted to share.

First is a little letter he wrote though I’m not certain it was delivered to anyone:

I just wanted to take a moment to say how much I appreciate all your support. You know, when you find out the voice in your head is actually a little more than a voice it tends to change your perspective on things quite a bit. When you find out that the voice is actually some guy named Chet who is subleasing space in your cranium, it tends to piss you off.
After cooling off though you start to realize how lucky you are in so many ways. I always felt like I had a good grasp on reality and didn’t take things for granted anyway. Nonetheless, I started to realize that for all of Chet’s inherent fucked-up-ness, he has given me both a lesson and a gift. So I have re-evaluated some of my favorite things.
            Comet – Still #1, sorry
NEW FAVORITE MOVIE LINE – Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop – “It’s not a tumor.”
NEW FAVORITE WORD, that you bet your ass, I am going to try and use in a game of Scrabble, tumultuous. In a sentence: There is going to be a very tumultuous event when Big Al gets to sit down face to face with Chet.
            Metallica song – Crash Course in Brain Surgery
            Tumor jokes – A guy walks into a neurologist’s office and after a few tests the neurologist comes out and says to the guy, “Geez you gotta big tumor. Geez you got a big tumor.” You know, because of the echo.
Note: Comet was Alex’s dog, a Pit Bull, Ridgeback mix, and Chet was what he named his tumor.

Second is a note. When Alex had his first surgery he prepared a basket of “goodies” for those of us waiting for the surgery (almost seven hours) to be over. I saved the note he wrote and enclosed in it:

Thanks so much. I couldn’t ask for a better support team. Here is a little
something to help bide the time and hopefully keep the kids entertained
because I know they are entertaining you. P. S. You all showing up really
pisses Chet off, but Big Al thinks it rocks! I’ll see you all momentarily “sans”
this freeloading shit bag in my head.

Below is an excerpt that relates to the basket and Alex’s note. It is taken from Tumor Me, The Story Of My Firefighter, the memoir I wrote:

In a few days, Alex and I went back to North Highlands and stayed at Alex’s house to be nearer the UC Davis Medical Center. He had a number of appointments: for blood work, for another MRI, and for that ever-so-important pre-op meeting where we signed papers that essentially stated that if Alex died during surgery, I would make decisions on his behalf. The pre-op was conducted by a physician’s assistant who did an excellent job of gathering pertinent medical history information, of explaining procedures that would occur prior to the surgery in layman’s terms so that we could understand, in assuring Alex that he had the best surgeon in the state, and in keeping me calm so that I didn’t jump out of my skin because if I could have done so I might have run away, as far as I could go to get away from this nightmare.
After our meeting, we went shopping.
“Shopping?” one might ask.
Yes, we went shopping. We went to Pier One Imports, a grocery store, and a toy store. Why? We went because Alex insisted. He wanted to prepare a huge basket filled with puzzles, coloring books, drawing paper, crayons, playing cards, dominos, granola bars, gum, pens, pencils, pretzels, licorice, and God only knows what else. Heaven forbid that anyone might be bored during the surgery.
“It’s going to be a long surgery,” he said. “I want to make sure people have stuff to do and some food to eat.”
This was Alex. He was facing a major craniotomy; rather than focusing on himself, however, he was taking care of everyone else. I was not going to say no to anything Alex wanted at this point, so I helped him prepare the basket that literally overflowed with its bounty and dutifully carried it into the waiting room after he had been sent up for the surgery.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, however.

            So there! If anyone has read this far into this blog, thank you. The pain of losing someone you love so deeply never goes away . . . ever. Sharing helps.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Telling It Like It Is

This one has been burning inside for quite some time. Today I gave myself permission to write it.

The fog finally burned away and with the azure sky, cloudless and fresh, came a sense of relief, for she was free of the burden of uncertainty. She understood completely that he wanted nothing more to do with her. And while in years past her heart would have been wrenched until it ached, now it did not. It beat on, a perpetual steadiness that offered proof that she would not die from this either.
For weeks she had cried, not always openly and never in the presence of another person, for she would have appeared weak, she thought, or vulnerable to the onslaught of another unknown misfortune for which she was woefully unprepared. It was a paradox really, to know she had been susceptible to being hurt because she was strong, her courage and tenacity to withstand hardships engrained and secure.
So on this day with the gift of sudden enlightenment as to the certain severance of the relationship with him, she spoke directly to herself as she would a child. It’s not you, honey. It’s him. His decision is in his hands and how you react is in yours. It is not in your power to control another individual. It was a truth. She would not snivel in despair and she would not cloud her mind with speculation; she simply would be. And why? It was because she was old now and perhaps in his eyes not worthy of the commitment of precious time. He surely had others in his life, those who had commandeered his loyalty and perhaps that was not a reprehensible thought. She always had wanted him to be happy. She truly hoped he was.