Worse Than a…

Root canal?

This came up yesterday on Facebook — my friend, the cool girl from way back, Kathryn Greenwood Andrews (who is also the author of the very cool blogs Prickly Girl and Punk Rock Garden) mentioned that she is being asked to choose volunteering for Field Day over preschool parent-teacher conferences and a root canal. “Amazingly, I’m sticking with the latter,” she remarks.

This reminded me of a conversation we’d had at work. I’m an auditor of sorts — I review drinking water programs. One of the programs we reviewed for the first time in their history told us later (after telling everyone else what they were in for) that it was like getting a root canal: intensely painful, but overall a healthy exercise.

My ever-wise boss (yes, she reads this blog) raised the question of whether a root canal still represented a truly horrible experience. This, of course, led to one of those conversations where everyone tried to one-up each other with pain and horror. The gal with the anal polyp/duct tape episode came close to winning, but we won’t go there.

I posed the question to Kathy and she came back with alternatives such as childbirth and amniocentesis. Her root canal is next week, so she can report back with her comparison next week.

Root canals are a good example because:

1) they’re more universal than childbirth and the more unusual afflictions like anal polyps
2) nearly everyone has to have one, at some point in their lives. Unless you live in the UK.
3) not only is it physically painful, there’s a certain terror in being trapped in that chair. For a really long time.
4) stuff around your face hurts more because the innervation is so fine
5) two words: oral dam

So, I don’t usually solicit comments here, but: are root canals the worst? if yes, why? if not, what is? (please be gentle with details…)

And the German Judge Gives It…

I realize my title is probably dating me.

There’s a whole couple of generations who don’t understand references to German judges. Or who think Mikhail Baryshnikov is just a cute guy on Sex and the City; they’re surprised to hear he’s a dancer and ask what kind. I swear to God I’ve had this actual conversation. I have witnesses. They didn’t understand about Political Asylum either, or why he might have claimed it.

The German judge, for those who didn’t watch the Olympics in the 70s and 80s refers to the international panel of judges scoring the various Olympic events. There was often a perception that the German judge was a) tougher and b) inclined to mark down competitors from the non-communist countries. For accuracy, we should really say the “East German judge,” but idioms aren’t about accuracy.

There’s been an interesting conversation on the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal writers loop the last day or so, about contest judges. I’ve written before about the RWA chapter contests, so I won’t reiterate here. But the way it works is you generally get scores from two or three judges. In many contests, if the point spread exceeds a certain margin, a discrepancy judge is called in and the lowest score is dropped. The idea is to account for reader preferences, which can really affect scores. For example, on a recent contest I entered, one judge gave me a perfect score of 100 (with comments that it was so splendid she couldn’t gush enough) and another judge awarded me a 54 (with a snarky comment that beastiality is not an appropriate subject for a romance.)

One got me; one didn’t.

In the real world, this would translate to a person who would buy my book and one who would burn it. Fair enough. The common wisdom is that these kind of splits result from having a “strong voice” — readers tend to love it or hate it. All of this is lead-up to using one of my favorite examples, from country music. (Yeah, you saw that one coming, right?)

I heard this story on NPR many, many moons ago, but it’s always stuck with me. They were discussing the perception that country music radio stations had become less, well, interesting. It turns out that there had been a huge study where “they” looked at what caused people to change the radio station — anathema for advertising, of course. They found that people changed the station, shockingly enough, when a song they hated came on. So, it seemed simple: don’t play the songs people hate. BUT, what the studies showed is that the songs people rated as most hated were also rated most loved by an equal number of people. Where people converged was on the songs that they neither loved nor hated. More importantly for radio, when a song played that a person neither loved nor hated, they were likely to let the radio station play on.

Thus country music programming went to playing music that the vast majority of people neither loved nor hated, playing innocuously in the background, exciting nothing untoward.

I’ve seen this play out in writing workshops, too. Half the class will love a particular scene and half will insist it ruins the piece and must be removed. The profound emotional reaction means the writer has hit on something, but it takes courage to accept that for every person who loves what you wrote, someone else will hate it.

And it’s tempting, especially in genre, where people hope to actually make money with their books, to write the thing that will sell to the most people, innocuous and exciting no untoward responses.

Then again, it can be a little satisfying, too, to throw a little bestiality in the way of the book-burners.

Are You My Checker?

Yesterday, the checker at the grocery store greeted us with a chirpy, “Happy Mothers Day!”

I didn’t say anything.

Believe me, this is better than saying what I wanted to say. I have a bit of a reputation as having a smart mouth. My only defense is that people have no idea how much discretion I really exercise. So many things I never say out loud.

I wanted to tell her, “I’m not a mother.”

Which isn’t precisely true. I’m a stepmother. Kind of an after-the-fact one, since David and I aren’t legally or religiously married. But I’ve been part of my stepchildrens’ lives for 18 years, so I count it. They don’t count it and don’t acknowledge me on Mothers Day. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of them having to do with loyalty to their mother. I understand those reasons and don’t blame them. But yeah, I have a few issues with the day.

For the most part, I don’t mind. It means a great deal to me to celebrate my own mother. I wrote her my own little ode yesterday. But when the Safeway chick greets me with something like that, I shudder at the presumption and carelessness.

The decision to be a mother or not is a fraught thing. Some women are mothers without wanting to be. Some want to be and can’t. Some have children who die tragic deaths. Some women choose not to have children. It’s intensely personal, regardless of which category you fall into.

Even going the other direction, celebrating your own mother can be an emotional minefield. I have a friend whose mother died, much too young from cancer, a few years ago. Her mother died only a week before Mothers Day. She still grieves.

Yes, the checker was only trying to be chirpy and friendly. Which is why I didn’t snap at her. I couldn’t quite dredge up the smile and happy “thank you” she was looking for, but I did the best I could.

I think all of us are doing the best we can. It’s important to remember that a greeting card holiday does not make this a greeting card world. Sometimes instead of a sweet poem inside, there might be a well of pain. Perhaps it’s best not to assume.

Who’s the Lucky One?

The interwebs will be replete today, I’m sure, with odes to mom. I noticed they started yesterday. Since my mom is the best of them all, I realized I must do likewise.

Here’s a little piece I wrote (I feel like a piano player in a late-night bar) about my mom for that “My Mom’s a Hero” anthology. They didn’t take it, I think because what I celebrate about my mother is not what people traditionally think is worth celebrating. So, with the power of Blog, I’m publishing my own damn self, right here. With apologies to Alice Sebold, it’s called:

When my mother married for the third time, we joked that she and her new husband didn’t just bring emotional baggage to the relationship, but full luggage sets, complete with steamer trunks.
So it is when you marry at 65, adult children as your attendants. No father gives the bride away, unless his ghost hovers nearby. No impetuous lovers storm the ceremony to object, because those lovers had already become husbands and wives that passed on too soon.
No one would have picked out my mother, the middle of her three sisters, as a hero. She was the pretty one; the frivolous one, the others thought. She liked nice clothes and many boys. College meant little to her – a way to kill a year until her first wedding. Wearing the full gown and veil at 19, she held the arm of my Air Force Academy Officer father in dress blues, silver saber at his side. The row of bridesmaids frame her, fluffy in their early sixties netting. It’s easy to be a bit silly at that age. Heroism is not required.
But the years that followed grew more serious. Conflicts overseas summoned my father, his fighter plane screaming through tropical jungles while my mother waited at home. Like the first Hero, Aphrodite’s priestess secluded on her island, my mother waited for her husband’s visits. Like Leander swimming the Hellespont nightly to visit, my father would make his way across the seas to love her for a little while and leave again.
Until the day he left and didn’t return.
At 27, with a three-year-old child, a new widow can’t indulge in the dramatic gesture. The priestess became a legend by drowning herself in her grief. But, there is little romance in real life. Where Hero stood on the rocky shore, white gown snapping in the wind, and threw herself in to the sea that claimed her love, my mother packed up her bags and her child and made a new life.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like much. She had no choice but to go on as so many have to do. You pick up the pieces and continue to live, day after day. Eventually the grief recedes, the raging waves gradually falling away from the high tide mark.
My mother re-married a few years later. I played flower girl at her second wedding, sweaty bangs falling into my eyes. Now well into the seventies, this party rocked the clubhouse, my mother dancing to the groove in a long, pleated dress. She and my stepfather enjoyed thirty years together, rich with fun and travel. In the end, the disease that took him, slowly and cruelly, was a slow motion re-enactment of her first widowing. Where my father was gone in an instant, my stepfather died by degrees, over years. Leaving her as thoroughly widowed as before.
When my mother married for the third time, that’s when it hit me, her bravery.
“You’re so lucky,” my friend said. “Since my dad died, my mother will barely leave the house – and it’s been years! She won’t even consider dating, much less that she could be happy again.”
My twice-divorced cousin called my mom brave to marry again in a family email that made it clear that to her, brave meant “crazy.” Others called her lucky, as if finding love was a lottery she’d inexplicably won multiple times.
What no one seems to understand, what I finally realized, is that my mother’s great gift is her endless faith in life and love. She creates love and happiness for herself, her husbands and all her family.
At first, in the dark winter following my stepfather’s death, when asked if she would marry again, my mother returned the question, “who would have me?” Her record wasn’t stellar, she thought. But, never one to sit at home any more than she could have thrown herself into the sea, my mother began to rebuild her life.
A couple of Springs later, under a setting Tucson sun, I read a poem for my mother’s third wedding. Her new husband, a widower of a 35-year marriage, held her hand. His adult son stood as best man on his other side, while his adult daughter – just four months younger than I am – watched from the gathering with her young sons on her lap.
The golden light, the scent of lilies wound through the desert air, blessing us all as we witnessed the beginning of a new life for them both. For us, too: a new family created by their joining.
This ceremony was the smallest of the three. Each of my mother’s weddings scaled down in size and complexity, in counterpoint to the richness of her life. Though the emotional weight of the lives they’ve brought to this marriage may require a steamer trunk or two, my mother and her new husband have found a simplicity in this life after death.
I’ve come to see this as the true heroism. Not the grand gesture, throwing oneself into the ocean, or eroding away under the relentless tides of grief. What takes courage is going on. The valiant pluck a seed of happiness from the brine of loss and coax it back into life. The ones who can do that, like my mother, are the ones who bring joy to all of us.

Happy Mothers Day, mom — I love you!

Everything Old Is New Again

I started my affair with second-hand clothing when I was in high school.

My mother put me on an increased monthly allowance when I was sixteen. From that money I had to take care of my car, cover all expenses and buy all my clothes. This was intended to teach me financial responsibility. I also worked during the summers, but I was enough of a princess that my parents thought I should focus on studies during the school year and so I received a family scholarship.

My mother also taught me her shopping technique, which I use to this day: First go to the nicest stores, the boutiques, the designer shops, the Needless Mark-ups. Window shop to your heart’s content. Try everything on, even if it costs thousands of dollars. Find out what you really want. Then go to the discount stores and see if you can find something like it. Amazingly, I almost always could. Then, if there was something fancy and pricey you just HAD to HAVE — like Michelle’s much-dreamed-of Manolo Blahnik shoes — then you can splurge. One expensive accessory can make a whole outfit shine.

I went one step better and discovered the Goodwill stores. The Salvation Army stores. The vintage clothing stores. All of these bear fruit for the diligent shopper. The key again is to look for the basics, for the timeless pieces that form the foundation of your wardrobe. Then if you have to have, say the purple poet’s shirt with the 70s collar, pleated sleeves and over-sized cuffs (yes, I really had one!), then that can be a funky addition. While the Goodwill’s and Salvation Army’s require fortitude to find the jewel in the pile of kitty litter, the vintage stores require bravery and imagination.

Then I discovered consignment.

Sure, we all have been in consignment stores, where people either sell their clothing to the shop or have the shop sell it for them, less a percentage for the store. Some are better than others. I’m sharing my secret tips here:

1) Fnd the consignment stores the rich women patronize. The best consignment store I’ve ever been to was in West Palm Beach. They had GORGEOUS designer shoes with unscuffed labels on the soles. There was a Vera Wang gown that had been worn once. Many of the Glitterati Fashionistas wear something once and never again — who in that crowd wants to be seen in the same outfit twice? Whenever you’re on vacation, go to the ritzy part of town. You might not be able to afford to stay there, but you can sure as heck wander the streets. Find the consignment store. Plan to spend a few hours.

2) Know your seasons. In Colorado, the best strategy is to hit the ski town consignment stores at the end of the ski season. All those rich women with winter ski homes ditch clothes when they close up the vacation homes for the summer. After all, those are last season’s clothes now.

3) Visit the consignment stores near college campuses right after graduation. The college girls move out of the dorms and sorority houses; they have way more stuff than when they moved in: something has to go. Often it’s the fun and flirty stuff that mom won’t approve of — and will wonder how they could afford it. These are great places to find the trendy stuf. And for less than $10, you won’t care if it’s out of style in a few months.

4) Give back. Take your stuff to the local store and build up an account. Build up a friendship. My local gals know me and call me up when something from one of my favorite designers comes in. Nothing like having a mole where it counts!

5) Be proud of your second-hand clothes. This last week I had two readings and signings for an anthology I’m in: Going GreenTrue Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers. (Shameless Self-Promotion Alert!) In honor of our theme of unusual ways to recycle I wore all second-hand clothing to both events. People were frankly shocked that my very nice outfits were new only to me. It’s a good lesson. There are many ways to reuse. You can both save money and feel good about your contribution to the environment.

And look really cute, too. What more can you ask?

Alpha and Omega

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Today is for the beginning and the end.

I wasn’t able to post earlier today and maybe that was meant. My sojourn with Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird coincided with the search for our friend and wonderful poet, Craig Arnold.

The news has come in that he’s gone. I’ll let the letter from his partner, Rebecca, stand for any words I might add.

Our dear friends and family,

Though Craig himself has not been recovered, the amazing expert trackers of 1SRG have been able to make themselves and us certain of what has become of Craig. His trail indicates that after sustaining a leg injury, Craig fell from a very high and very dangerous cliff and there is virtually no possibility that Craig could have survived that fall. Chris will pursue what he can about getting specialists to go down into the place we know Craig is so we can bring him home, but it is very, very dangerous and we are not yet completely certain what that will require. The only relief in this news is that we do know exactly what befell Craig, and we can be fairly certain that it was very quick, and that he did not wait or wonder or suffer.

I cannot express again the profound gratitude I feel to everyone who has loved and honored Craig with their goodwill, their immense efforts and energy, and their overwhelming generosity. I believe that where he is, Craig knows.

There will be further occasion to celebrate Craig, and when I know more I will post it.

For my part, I love Craig beyond the telling of it and will always love him as immeasurably, as enduringly, as steadfastly and as unconditionally as I do now and have done these past six years. In leaving our family, Craig, in a manner absolutely characteristic of his own vast generosity and capacity to inspire, brought us all closer together than we perhaps have ever been. I feel his presence, loving and understanding and funny and deeply feeling, at all times. I hope you do, too.

With love,R.

A River of Garbage

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I recall this one particularly annoyed one of my classmates, long ago back in AP English at Overland High, lo these many years ago.

I wanted to ask him how many wedding ceremonies he hadn’t sat through, not to hear this kind of claptrap before. Leave the parents and cleave unto each other. Like the joint candle and blow out your own. I’ve always imagined Wallace Stevens sticking his tongue in his cheek for this one. If a man and a woman can be one, no reason you can’t throw a blackbird into the mix as well. Not unlike Steve Martin’s classic scene in The Jerk, leaving and taking the only thing he needs, gradually adding more and more useless items. After the initial assumption, it doesn’t really matter what else you add in.

Don’t change what all you’re piling on top; change the initial assumption.

There’s an idea out there that things don’t and can’t change. When people talk about efforts to address environmental issues and global climate change, there’s a thread running through the arguments that this is how things have always been. That change is impossible. What we don’t always have a good perspective on is how much things have already changed.

David sent me the letters below. The Game & Fish crew found these letters from 1932 when they cleaned out some old files. Hopefully you can read them — I made them as big as I could. You might have to use your screen zoom.

It’s shocking, isn’t it, that they’re arguing about dumping garbage in the Columbia? After all, they’re very careful to dump it from the bridge in the best spot, with the swiftest current. You laugh to read it.

And that’s a mark of change.

It’s something to think about, amidst the shouting, wailing and gnashing of teeth that things can’t change. Someday, someone like yourself might look back on the debates of today and be amused that there was ever a question.

Corporate Dodgeball

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

Never mind that one almost never gets to use “equipage” in a sentence anymore. What gets me is that people would loook at you funny for using the word equipage and then turn around and talk about leveraging something.

Can you tell I was on a conference call yesterday for my day job?

We were discussing a new area of work and several of the company graybeards were on the call. Not that any of these guys (or gals) actually has a gray beard, but you get my meaning. One of them made a wise observation on the state of the field and paused significantly after, to allow his meaning to sink in. And I thought: I knew that. Everyone on this call knows that. But he has the gray beard. I’m just someone who wonders why we never hear the word “equipage” anymore.

It’s a funny thing, being both a writer and a worker-bee. Not just a worker-bee, I suppose, but upwardly mobile, career-track, middle-management. I like my job. I love the people I work with. I appreciate that they show their appreciation of me by paying me well and giving me good benefits. But I can’t talk about leveraging something with a straight face.

Fortunately I don’t have to, since I’m on the phone and can roll my eyes as often as I want to.

In the end though, I feel like I’m still playing dodgeball. The gym is filled with kids, some loving it, some hating it, some pretending to love it, so the loving-it-kids will like them. The aggressive boys do best — hurling balls with vicious speed at any target. Exulting in taking someone out. Only when the timid kid, who spends all her time ducking, is left all alone to represent her team, do they notice her. The aggressive boys turn their attention to her. They are sidelined, but if she catches one ball, just one, they’ll sweep in and take over the field, returning the team to glory. They shout, encourage, exhort. They want the win. She wants the game to be over, so she can read more of her book before the next class.

I’m an asset to my company. I’m not the timid girl who’d rather be hiding in the bathroom, chosen for the team from the default pool of last picks. But sometimes I think the game will always go to the ones who thrive on the hard and fast throw, who love the flash of pain in an opponent’s eye, who relish the shuffling walk of the target to the sideline.

A friend of mine says life is a team sport. And I believe the sports players see it that way. I wonder if they ever see how the quiet members of their teams are dreaming of other worlds, seeing glass coaches and watching to see if the blackbirds are shadowing us.

Hope Is a Thing With Feathers

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It’s been officially a week now that Craig has been missing.

I only know this because I’ve been keeping track. Really nothing substantial in my life has changed. In many ways we feel odd, his friends, continuing with our lives. Finishing out the semester for his colleagues. Planning and publicizing our own book celebrations. The robins and crows continue their spring dance. The river swells with snowmelt. Craig wasn’t expected to be here anyway, so nothing has changed.

There’s really nothing TO do at this point, once we’ve let everyone know, applied the political pressure, donated to the search fund. I check the updates on the search, but it’s not like that changes anything. It doesn’t help find Craig.

Today’s update:

5/5 9:18am EST: Thanks to the money raised through The Fund to Find Craig Arnold, we have been able to engage the help of an independent search and rescue team (1SRG) who arrived at Kuchino-erabu yesterday afternoon. The local authorities brought the team up to speed, and they immediately began searching; they believe they have picked up Craig’s trail. They will be on the island until the 9th, looking, though obviously we all hope Craig will be found before then. However, the official search for Craig has been called off by the Japanese authorities. We need everyone’s help contacting their local congressional delegation and asking their assistance in encouraging the Fukuoka consulate to engage local US military/DOD assets on the ground in Japan. They have been thinking about it and we need them to move forward with that as quickly as possible.

I picture them there, like a scene from some Pacific theater WWII movie. The jungle vegetation, the Japanese villagers. Teams of searchers stand under canopies, studying maps laid across folding tables. But I am only an audience for this drama, despite my stake in the hero’s survival. I am not part of it.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of death and loss is how little changes, outside of our hearts. It seems that all the world should stop. Nothing does. You must eat, feed your cats, show up for your job, even enjoy the birds and the joy of writing. You forget for stretches of time that your friend is missing and that people on the other side of the world are finding his trail, exhausting themselves to find him.

So, I check the updates several times a day. As if this makes a difference.

I hope, thinking maybe it will.

3, 2, 1…

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

I’m starting the sequel to my novel today.

Okay, I started it once before, but it was a desultory false start. This time I just finished a full polish and revision of Obsidian and I’m hopeful it will sell soon. So I’ve gotten a running start and have all of the threads in my hands to continue weaving the story.

I feel hopeful, holding the seed in my hands.

Obsidian also began at this time of year, grown from the nugget of a dream. Actually, I’m still writing to that nugget since the storyline of Obsidian never made it to the scene I dreamed. At least, not the particular dream that got me started on that story.

I wish sometimes I knew more where I was going.

The romanceys make a big deal of asking whether you’re a “plotter” or a “pantster” — meaning do you plot out ahead of time or fly by the seat of your pants. Though I don’t like the term, I fall more into the pantster category. It doesn’t feel like flying, though, winging from one landing point to the next. Sometimes I suspect a plotter invented that term to describe the “other” kind of writer. It’s a term that conveys what they see as the precarious and dangerous undertaking of writing without a plan.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” That’s how it feels to me. I have an idea of where I’m going, which lake, what the water will be like, but I have to write the story to get to the other side. Sometimes I’m surprised where I end up. Sometimes I never make it to the other side, like happened with Obsidian.

In many ways it’s an act of trust. The cause is indecipherable. It can be frightening. And also glorious.

Holding my breath…