Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving 2014

I  just took a little  jaunt down the memory lane of Thanksgivings past here on Reticulated Writer. I started doing NaBloPoMo in 2011, so that's how far back the Thanksgiving posts go. If I weren't doing this crazy "blog post a day" thing, I certainly wouldn't make an effort to crank out a Thanksgiving blog post after a long day of cooking, cleaning, eating, playing games, watching Netflix in a stupor, and cleaning up dog pee taking care of a new puppy.

I'm glad I started doing it though, because I enjoyed looking back and remembering what made each of those Thanksgivings special. Last year I was working on my new house, trying to get it ready to move into. I was painting and packing and hauling until I dropped every day, but I took off Thanksgiving to spend the day with kids and friends. I had hoped to get into my new house by Thanksgiving, but it was a couple of weeks later before that happened.

The year before that was a difficult year, a year of betrayals. It hurt for a minute, but I just invited new friends to dinner and started making new traditions. Funny how much even a traditional holiday can change in only two short years. I never forget betrayal, but one thing I've worked on unpacking this past year is knowing what's my business and what is not. Other people have to live with their actions, but I don't have to let them camp out in my head. A lesson to give thanks for.

In 2012, I butchered turkeys. Turns out that was a one-time Thanksgiving event, but one I'm still glad I participated in. I have to admit, it's much easier and causes less mess to buy the turkey at Kroger a few days before. It doesn't give me much to write about though.

Today we celebrated our first Thanksgiving in my new house. I'm still working out the kinks, but it went pretty well. I need to buy a big dining room table with 3 or 4 leaves, but a new dishwasher, a gas fireplace, and some storm windows come before that. Owning a new old house means I never run out of things I need or want to buy.

Finally, this is Doc's first year with me. Poor little guy. He got thrown headfirst into his new family yesterday. He's doing OK though. He cried a lot last night and this morning unless I was holding him, but he's settling in. One guest or another held him most of the afternoon, except while we ate, but he's spent the evening on the floor next to the couch where I'm sitting. I hope he sleeps tonight, because I am exhausted. 

As the night winds down, I've got the turkey carcass on a slow simmer in the roaster so I can extend the holiday into winter with some turkey soup. The dishes are mostly washed -- thanks to an assembly line of guests. The refrigerator is filled with leftovers. And even the dogs enjoyed the trimmings off the bird. Plans were made for Christmas dinner, but I'm not looking that far ahead tonight.

Here's wishing you a happy and contented Thanksgiving. However you spent the day, I hope you found something to be grateful for. I am grateful for a holiday that's only about gratitude. Yeah, I know a lot of people have made it about shopping for Christmas, but I've never done that. I'll pay more just to keep the holiday of thanksgiving pure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


After a long day of helping my co-teacher's sophomores rehearse the skit they wrote for their performance tonight, grading papers, teaching classes, rehearsing some more, eating pizza, selling baked goods, clapping and snapping for the freshmen and sophomore writers, cleaning up, going to an afterparty at a downtown artist's loft, drinking Chardonnay, eating good dark local chocolate ... OK just a taste of smooth expensive tequila .... OK, maybe one more taste because that's so smooth, Susan Tedeschi singing "Angel from Montgomery" leads to Van Morrison and then Charlie Parker, and finally it's after 1:00 am and I'm so glad I only live a few blocks away, because I'm so fucking tired .... and fuck me, I still have to write tonight.

I open a bag of lime and black pepper chips, because fuck my diet, it was blown with the pizza I ate with my students at 6:00 this evening. What the fuck am I going to write about tonight on Dating Tuesday when the fact is I don't even date? I dunno .... I'll take this Facebook quiz while I procrastinate. What song should be my sex anthem? I answer honestly; I always do. The quiz answers:

We'll let this song and video speak for itself. Go ahead, watch it.

Yup. Borderline porn. Right? This ridiculously sexy song via one of the sexiest women to ever make music does a great job putting your loins into perspective. The song itself is hot, it'll make you blush. But its not TOO hot. "Justify My Love" is all about being sexy for the right reasons, and being confident in your abilities. So while you may be more adventurous (and public) than most, you're also a class act in the end. And what's sexier than that?

I dunno. Maybe there's something to these quizzes. Madonna and I were born within three weeks of each other. And when it comes to dating here's where I stand: I'm the best woman I've ever been. Ever. I can justify that. I don't want to be alone, but at this point in my life, anybody who comes close had better be able to justify my love. Otherwise, I'll just wait for the next adventure.

I dare you to watch this video and not want .... something. Oh, Madonna, you are a sexy, sexy beast.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A story of kindness

My good friend The Hot Italian read my tarot cards for me Sunday. I was asking her about a difficult decision I vagueblogged about last week. I'm not going to write about my reading, because parts of it were kind of hard to hear, but one thing the cards said is that people might be noticing that my sunny exterior has slipped and my hard-won cynicism is shining through instead. I'm going to admit, writing about dating and feminist issues and even vaginas can make me a little testy. I might even slip into a sarcastic tone at times.

Tonight is not one of those nights though. Tonight is a warm, fuzzy story night. My apologies to those of you who are my Facebook friends and read a shortened version of this today on my Facebook page.

My story starts last December. I was painting 12-foot-tall walls and ceilings every day until my muscles gave out, and I could no longer lift the 8-foot ladder to move it even a foot. I would quit, go home, and pack a bunch of boxes to move over the next day when I went to paint. Winter hit hard with temperatures near zero and snow storms every other day. I was paying utilities at two houses, and I had a deadline for moving out of my old house. I was working my ass off 7 days a week, and I had no time for shit to go wrong -- even though plenty did.

In particular I needed my van to run and run well, so of course that was the time I blew a hole in my exhaust system. My 11-year-old van sounded like a jet engine, lost its get-up-and-go, and was using three times as much gas as usual. My regular mechanic found the problem for me, but he couldn't fix it. He told me I'd have to find a muffler shop that does welding, and to be careful because most of them would love to rip me off if they could. He said to have any shop I went to call him if they wanted to sell me an entire new exhaust system, and he'd set them straight.

I was exhausted every day from getting this big old house ready and moving in the bitter winter. So I put it off for several days. Finally the noise got so bad I couldn't listen to the radio without turning it up really loud, so one day on my way to paint, I stopped in at the muffler shop that's less than half a block away, just on the other side of the gate.

I told the owner I was moving into the neighborhood and explained what was going on. He said to bring it in the next day. I left it there while I painted, and when I went back he showed me the bad length of pipe they'd taken out. He charged me $75 for the repair, and said he hoped he could be my neighborhood mechanic.

It seemed important to him that I find him trustworthy. I suspect that's because some people wouldn't, and not just because he owns a muffler shop. He speaks with a strong accent that is possibly Middle Eastern. He's a Muslim, or so his artwork and the prayer rug next to his desk would suggest. I just wanted my van fixed for a reasonable price though, and he did that. I don't care where he was born or what religion he practices.

Fast forward 10 months, and I'm finally throwing a housewarming party. The only problem is parking. I live on a gated cobblestone street with parking on one side. If the neighbor a couple of houses down is taking up his usual 5 or 6 spaces, I sometimes can't find a close place to park my own van, much less 25-30 of my friends' cars. So I walked down the street and asked the owner of the muffler shop if I could borrow his parking lot for the night. He remembered me even after 10 months, and he said, sure, as long as it was after they had closed. Problem solved. The lot was full most of the night, and my friends got to park closer than they would have on the street. They may not have known it, but I'm sure my neighbors were happier too.

After the party I kept thinking I needed to bake something and run it over there to thank him. But I'm a writer. I procrastinate. As I write this, you've been in bed sleeping, or doing what you do there, for hours, and I'm not. If I could get paid for what I do best, I'd either get a job taking tests or procrastinating -- if I ever applied. Weeks went by, and all I did was think about baking that thank you gift.

Then last week I heard another hole in my exhaust system. My van again got loud, doggy and started sucking gas. I'd just had it into my regular mechanic to replace a tire mount and the battery, which cost several hundred dollars. Of course one more thing had to go wrong.

So Saturday I baked some pumpkin muffins (because what else would you bake to take to a muffler shop?), piled them on a paper plate and walked to the muffler shop. The owner was standing outside with a customer, but he came right over to me. I handed him the muffins, and he said, "Please! You don't have to do this. I was glad to help you ... ."

I brushed that off, and told him I needed to bring my van in for another patch. He said to bring it in Monday any time. As I walked away, he was already peeling the plastic wrap off the muffins and showing them to the guys in the shop.

I drove my van there after school today about 3:30. I handed him the keys, and he said it would be done by 5:00. I really hoped I wouldn't go back only to have him tell me I needed an entire new exhaust system. Like most women, I've been burned a few times, so even with a couple of good experiences in the bag, I can't fully trust. I hoped it would cost $75 like last time, and I'd be good for another year.

I walked back over at 5:00, and waited for about 10 minutes in the waiting area. I wish I'd taken a photo, because there was a whole bag of white bread nailed to the wall. I watched Denzel Washington stick something up the ass of some guy who was tied to a car and then blow him up on the ubiquitous little TV while I waited. I kept looking at that bread, thinking I'd ask the owner about it when he came in.

When he finally did come in, he apologized for not seeing me there when I arrived. I started to tell him it was OK and to ask why he had a bag of white bread nailed to his wall, but he handed me my keys, said "Don't worry about it," and rushed back out the door.

I followed him with my hand in my purse, digging out my wallet. "How much do I owe you?" I said, following him to the garage door with its big sign that warns customers not to enter.

"Nothing today," he said, and he kept walking.

"Thank you," I called after him, and he just waved his hand back at me and didn't turn around.

I'm going to admit, I teared up as I walked over to my van. Something about people doing nice things when they don't have to always gets to me. It's these small acts of kindness that keep hope alive, cynicism at bay.

I started my van, and it sounded like it should. It was fixed, just like that. And it didn't cost me anything.

So today, in this month when we give thanks and list on our Facebook walls those things for which we are grateful, I'm feeling thankful for the kindness of someone who is a relative stranger, who touched my cynical heart and softened it for a bit. We probably have little in common except the desire for good will between neighbors, but today that feels like a powerful thing. If only I had a magic spell that would make it grow and spread ... but I think that's not how life works most of the time. We have just these small opportunities, and it's up to us to take them, and appreciate them, and spread the sweet magic they bring to our lives.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A reading list for cold winter nights

I realized something odd as I contemplated what I might say here tonight. I don't think I've ever written a book review or even recommended a book, even though a lot of people ask me what I like to read. I think the closest thing to a book recommendation I've written was for the vagina coloring book.

I confess I've never been a particularly big fan of short stories in the past, but I've been teaching short stories and flash fiction to my students this semester, so I found myself drawn to several excellent books of short stories. Since the holidays are upon us, and some of you might have time to read a book or two during your winter vacations or on days you're snowed in, here are a few of my recommendations for new short fiction collections.

First, because the queen of all things fiction belongs at the top of every list, I must recommend Margaret Atwood's latest book, Stone Mattresses. Atwood just turned 75, and she's at the top of her game. If you haven't read her before, I recommend you go on a binge and read all of her books. She's written over 35, including speculative fiction, short stories, poetry, children's stories, and a decent book on writing. She's Canadian, so her punctuation drives me nuts sometimes, and I found a disappointing typo in the first story, but that's nitpicking. I couldn't put this book down, and I even forced my creative writing classes to read sections of it.

I have to share one instance of coincidence that happened while I was reading this book. One of the stories is about a not-so-distant future society in which a militant group decides all old people should die and stop using precious resources. They force all the workers out of a nursing home, leaving the residents to fend for themselves, and then ..... well, you'll just have to read the book. We all know that could never happen though, right? Of course not. And yet, just after I read that horrifying story, I heard a true story on NPR about a custodian and a cook who stayed and took care of residents of an assisted living home in California after the owners abandoned it. Maybe Atwood's future isn't so far-fetched after all. It's a sobering thought for us Baby Boomers.

The second book I want to recommend excited my friend The Professor so much he was posting passages on Facebook. The book, by Wells Tower (is that the coolest name ever?), is titled Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I checked it out from the library and loved it so much I had to buy a copy. I also insisted on reading my favorite passages to my students, my co-teacher, Elvira, and anybody else who would listen. Here are a couple of passages from the book:

“The bell on the cat's collar roused her. He'd brought her something: a baby pigeon stolen from its nest, mauled and draped on Jacey's pillowcase. The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute." -- "Wild America”
And this one:

"Not long after the affair had run its course, Bob and his wife were driving to town when Vicky looked up and saw the phantom outline of a woman's footprint on the windshield over the glove box. She slipped her sandal off, saw that the print did not match her own, and told Bob that he was no longer welcome in their home.” -- "The Brown Coast"

This book is Wells Tower's first collection of short stories. I'm looking forward to book number two, whatever that may be.

Finally, my third recommendation, also a first for the author, is Karen Russell's collection titled St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. These are some of the most imaginative, magical stories I've read in a long time. The title story is about little girls who were born to werewolf parents and then taken to be raised at a Jesuit school for girls. 

As the other two books on this short list did, Russell's little book of 10 short stories made me feel like a preschooler writing nonsense on the walls with a crayon. Surely we shouldn't both be called writers. Short fiction is not only difficult to write well, it's often difficult to read -- highly literary and often so character-based the story is nonexistent. Not true of any of these books, although Tower's book might come closest to that genre of short fiction. All three of these books  kept me riveted, wanting more.

I'm not going to tell you any more about them though. Just read them. Let me know what you think.

(David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars, also has a new book of short stories titled, Problems with People: Stories. I'm only about halfway through it, so I'm reluctant to recommend it. I've enjoyed the stories I've read, and I expect to like the rest of the book. Do they excite me as much as the stories in the 3 books above? Not really, but so far they've been a solid read. If you love short fiction, you might as well check the book out.)