An Interview with Catdust (#1 in a TMW Interview Series)

Normally, we TMWers are all about the solitary writing life.  But we’ve decided to try something new and collaborate a little.  Every Friday this month, we’re planning to share a series of special posts where we take turns interviewing each other about our literary and writing lives.  This week, Arrietty is interviewing Catdust.  (Aka, Catdust is this week’s victim, sacrifice, whatchamacallit…and I didn’t know how to spell that until just now.)

As I suspect is usual in these cases, I posed questions that I wanted answers to, but that I know I would struggle to answer if asked.  I hope you enjoy Catdust’s insightful responses.

The Interview

A: What’s your writing muse?  What animal, setting, object, or person inspires you in your writing or often becomes part of your work?
C: Most often, my muse(s) are the people I’m surrounded by, and occasionally events I attend. I’ve written pieces inspired by my family members (“‘’Coon”), college roommates (“How to Get the Guinea Pig”), middle schoolers I was teaching (“Required Statements”), and boyfriend (“Lilies in Water”).

Of course, though “The Wedding Ballad of Lottie and Paul” was based on a real wedding I attended, the evening didn’t end quite so dramatically.

A: What has been the hardest genre to write in?
C: Oddly enough, I’m going to go with “fiction,” broadly. I write a lot of it, but it never ceases being hard. Making dialogue sound natural, and trying to actually write the nuances of tone and gesture is can be a very frustrating endeavor.

Also, to be honest, I have little patience for writing descriptions of things, or places, or appearances – a rather essential aspect of most writing, I know. I’m an admirer of short, powerful descriptions, and live in holy fear of writing unnecessarily flowery or detailed passages, and have yet to master the happy medium to my own satisfaction.

A: If you could have a writing superpower, what would it be?
C: I would love the ability to recreate my witty and dramatic phrasing exactly as it sounded in my head when I was taking a shower (or otherwise unable to write). All inspiration seems to flee as soon as I touch a keyboard.

A: Who were three of your favorite childhood authors?  Why?

  • Gail Carson Levine. She wrote children’s and young adult fantasy novels. While I of course adored the magical settings, fairy tale trappings, and romance, I also appreciated the strong female leads that appeared in most of her books. I use that phrase, “strong female lead,” very unironically. It was their personalities that made them strong – their cleverness, their kindness, their bravery, their “moral fiber,” to use an old-fashioned expression. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, I consider her novel Ella Enchanted to be, well, one of the “most bestest” books ever.
  • E.L. Konigsburg. While much of my reading as a young lass rarely varied from the fantasy genre, E.L. Konigsburg could get me to stray off that beaten path. She didn’t write fantasy; she wrote realism, but her novels were fantastic studies of character. The Second Mrs. Giaconda might be the best of them.
  • Lloyd Alexander. Though most known (in some circles) for his Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander was quite a prolific author, writing several other series and numerous standalone novels. They can be light, humorous works, or deeper, darker stories, but each one has sparkling characters, unique settings, and involving plots. His Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen) is supremely underrated, in my opinion.

A: Have you ever read a book based on its cover?  If so, did the book live up to your expectations, or did you become a firm believer in the proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover?”
C: Sometime in my early childhood, I remember being chauffeured around the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, and seeing a cover which intrigued me. It was green, and brown, and gold, and there was a girl holding a sword and facing a grisly dragon – I was looking at the c. 2000 paperback edition of The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. Right up my alley, or at least, it would be several years later once I requested it from the library. It’s now one of my favorite books.

I like to think I’m a pretty good, if harsh, judge of covers – at least, I can’t think of any time my harsh judgement has steered me too terribly astray. Now, as for all the books that I might have liked, but misjudged, well, let’s not talk about those.

A: What are three pieces of advice you would give other writers based on your personal experience?
C: Don’t get too attached to your writing. Sure, sometimes you write something that you know is good, and other people think so too. But much of the time, people will tell you how much they loved some piddly piece of writing you did, while heaping no praise on that other work you thought was much better.

Don’t wait until the last few hours before a deadline to write something. You may occasionally produce something truly inspired, but more often than not the result will be mediocre and you will not be happy. Please note that I rarely listen to this advice.

Do embrace the potential of “word vomit.” Sometimes just writing something, anything, however horrible it is, is all you need to get those creative gears turning.

A: Is there a writing genre you’ve never tried but always wanted to?
C: Mystery. I admire a well-crafted, suspenseful story, but whenever I’ve brushed the edges of this genre, I’m never satisfied with the outcome – my prose sounds dumb and my clues too obvious. Thus, I’ve avoided writing a full-blown mystery or detective story.

I have a similar problem with romance and horror, but slightly less of a desire to write either.

A: What intimidates you when you’re preparing to write a new project?
C: Having to write “the middle.”

Let me explain: I know how I want the story to start, approximately, and I know how I want the story to end. To be honest, I often have the ending fully-formed. But, in order to get from the beginning to the ending, and to make that ending meaningful, you must slog through the middle, the details of how you got from Point A to Point B…and there’s all that description you have to write. It just takes such a long time to physically write…

…I’m not sure I would have lasted as a writer prior to the invention of the keyboard.

A: What are five books that have really influenced you as a writer?
C: “Influenced” may be too flattering of a word; it may be more like “inspired,” and may not be a good thing. Please also note that this is a slightly different list than “Books that have Influenced Me as a Person,” although there is some overlap.

  • 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. The first novel in a trilogy is fantastical in its plot, economical in its story beats, and walks that line of quirky yet realistic dialogue.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Absolutely some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read, and not because it’s super flowery or anything like that. Beagle’s command of strategically selected and placed adjectives results in exactly the sort of descriptions I wish I could write, and creates a story that, though other times amusing and other times strange, is ultimately heartrending.
  • Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. This one takes (even more) explaining. Each of Robin McKinley’s books has influenced my writing in some way. I can point to each one and say, oh, this one taught me this, and that one taught me that. And Spindle’s End is actually not my favorite of her books, by a long shot. However, McKinley does always have a tendency to write prose with a lot of parentheticals, meandering sidebars, punctuation-on-top-of-punctuations-and-hyphens-too, and seemingly random tangents for the sake of tangents. It’s less pronounced in her earlier works, but she is in rare form in this novel, which taught me that you can have that many parentheses and that much wandering prose and still be a popular, published author. Thus, I’m including this particular novel on the list to make the point that not all influences are good influences.
  • Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris. I think this might have been one of the first real novels I ever read. It’s a fairytale, a comedy, a romance, and introduced me to the idea of really messing with those ol’ fairytale tropes.
  • Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. This is a semi-autobiographical novel, not a fantasy story, and I draw upon its sense of comedy every time I write any humorous story about my own life or family.

A: If you could assume the writing voice of an author and write a sequel to a book or series, what book/series would you choose, and why?
C: I’m going to go with my gut reaction on this one, even though I know better. I would assume the writing voice of Dodie Smith and write a sequel to I Capture the Castle. It’s a nearly perfect book, structurally, and really needs no sequel. “It really does end precisely as it should,” I tell myself. And yet…the ending made me so sad. Not because anyone died or some overwrought drama occurred; it’s actually a more light, humorous book. But the truly human emotions present in that bitter, bittersweet final chapter make me want something more every time, even if it is against my better judgement.


Stay tuned for next week’s interview!

Header image: Created by Arrietty

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Kaylen followed Tom down two flights of stairs to an opening that emerged into an enormous space—a pub in a basement! The pub did not look like an earth-pub at all. It had the appearance of a bowling alley out of an 80’s film, the lanes set just beyond a series of brick arches that gave the pub a grand appearance, despite the lack of natural lighting.

A man wearing a crumpled baseball cap sat on a stool by the door, stacks of green prize tickets, strung together, in his hands—the sort of tickets that Kaylen remembered redeeming at Adventure Zone for turns on the space commander arcade game, as a child. Tom fumbled around in his pockets for a moment and then withdrew a string of his own tickets. “Evening, Chaucer,” Tom said. “Is my usual spot available?”

Chaucer took the tickets, examined them, and then tore off two of them and handed the rest back to Tom. He shook his head. “Not your normal spot. Darius is here, said you’d be arriving soon. Got you a booth –second one from the wall.” Chaucer waved towards the far wall.

“Oh,” said Tom, surprised. He motioned to Kaylen to follow. “Darius. He’s a friend of mine—actually, and also something of a renaissance man.”

The booth’s red leather seats had a dull luster to them, and the waxed, wooden table already had several rings of water on it next to an empty glass, indicating that Darius had been there for awhile, or else had been drinking quickly. With a mug of fizzy drink raised in one hand, he raised it and took a sip as Tom appeared. “Tom!” he said, with a note of melancholy in his voice. “The man I need to see right now. You’ve always seemed to understand me.” Darius stopped as he noticed Kaylen for the first time. “Who might this be?” he said, with a sly grin at Tom. “Brought a lady-friend to our chat, eh? You are a fox, my man.”

“Passenger,” said Tom, brushing off whatever awkwardness might be occasioned by this comment and sitting down opposite Darius. “This is Kaylen. Kaylen, Darius is one of the main designers of the self-driving taxis we were observing earlier.” Kaylen sat down.

“Taxis?” said Darius. “More like self-driving catastrophes.” He gave Kaylen, who wore a puzzled expression, a sideways glance. “You’re new here. You have a fresh pair of eyes. Tell me—what do you think about them? I just need some honest feedback.” He looked at Kaylen with an intensity that startled her. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Its…an interesting idea,” she stammered.

“An interesting idea!” Darius repeated, spreading his arms wide. “But that’s not what you really think—you think it’s annoyed how slowly they work, and how silly and impractical they look next to real taxis!”

“Well,” said Kaylen, trying to think of something hopeful, “Yeah. But this is just the first iteration, right? The technology will improve right and get better?”

Darius nodded, as if expecting this answer. He looked down at the sparkly foam sitting at the top of his drink. “You’re an idealist, I can tell. That’s what I thought, too, when I got here—let’s improve the place! The point of purgatory, however, I’m sure Tom here has already filled you in on.”

“Something about…purification,” said Kaylen, looking at Tom. Tom nodded in agreement.

“That’s more or less it,” said Darius. “But what does purification mean? How do you teach someone patience? You give them something that causes normal people impatience, so they can practice patience. So, I have a theory about purgatory–”

“Just a theory!” broke in Tom. “Don’t think of this as gospel.”

Darius paused, and then nodded. “Yes, it is a theory, but it’s this: purgatory is designed to be irritating: it has long lines, annoying waits, uncomfortable weather year-round, and…” Darius paused and looked down at his drink again before continuing, “gin fizzes that never quite rise to the level of a buzz until you’ve drunk two dozen of them and are about to burst.”

“Anyway,” continued Darius. “I thought to myself, I can improve this place! I’ll engineer a self-driving car that coordinates with all the other self-driving cars in order to optimize traffic, so that taxi drivers can simply relax and the traffic will be so smooth that we won’t see this state of perpetual gridlock. That was my dream.” A wistful look came into Darius’s eyes. “That I could leave my mark on purgatory so that one day travelers would pass through. But you know what? For each annoyance that inventors have conquered over the centuries, dozens of new annoyances have sprung up to take their place. Our latest iteration was supposed to achieve level 12 self-driving automation—the highest level—but instead we have simply engineered a quivering WRECK of a machine, so that now…I need another gin fizz!” This last part of his monologue Darius directed at a passing waiter.

The conversation lulled. Little did Kaylen realize during this moment that less than 15 minutes later, she would be on the run from Tom, through this world she had just arrived in, feeling more alive than she had in all her life, despite the fact that she was now dead.

“I’d like a gin fizz, too!” said Kaylen.

To be continued…

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

The pub was tucked away down a brick alley of Byzantine proportions. The walls of the buildings on either side swung upwards, and an arch stretched over the entrance to the alley with large, block letters reading: “Public houses of the 12th Ward.” Tom led the way at a brisk pace, Kaylen following him.

Kaylen’s demeanor appeared placid, but internally it was as if an orchestra was practicing for a concert, each section practicing its own bits, so that the resulting cacophony made it impossible for a listener to concentrate on any one melody.

What is happening? Thought Kaylen. She reviewed some possibilities in her head:

1. she had been kidnapped and her memory erased. She had only ever known of this happening in movies such as The Bourne Identity, but certainly it was possible; this could be a trafficking plot, and the story so outlandish as to coerce her into going along

2. she was dreaming. Unlikely – she had pinched herself several times to try and wake up; she also had tried slapping herself in the face, but the only thing this accomplished was to cause Tom to cock his head back at her and give her a quizzical glance

3. she was dead. But this could not be the case – death could not be so colorful

4. she was dead but had been reincarnated; this presented itself as an interesting possibility, but it seemed like a fairly unlikely option; and anyway, if she had been reincarnated, hadn’t someone forgotten to wipe her memory? Because if her memory had been wiped, she would not have been able to remember…

Henry. She needed to find out if he was here. Or had come through. If this is purgatory, she thought. He might be here.

Listen to yourself! You sound insane! She thought.

“Can we back up?” she said abruptly, tapping Tom on the shoulder. He turned around, stepping to the side of the alley to allow other pedestrians to pass. In the alley on both sides were pubs and stores of various shapes and with signs that hung from quaint boards with names such as “The Ugly Duckling,” “Gin & Whitaker,” and a repair shop called “Jameson & Sons.”

“Why yes! You have questions I assume? I will answer all the questions you may have –once we get to the pub. I am so thirsty!” Tom turned and continued walking before pointing at a sign reading “Jameson & Sons.” “Never go there, by the way,” he said. “It’s a tourist trap. Should be obvious, but it isn’t; was established last year, but they’re claiming to be a family-owned store. Gives people a fallacious sense of shopping at a place that’s established. The thing is, for there to be both a Jameson and a son working at the same store, they would have first of all both passed away around the same time, and then have to have found each other once the second one arrived.”

“You don’t think there’s a Mrs. Jameson and they just started a family?” said Kaylen, playing along idly with the conversation.

Tom furrowed his brow with a confused expression. “But…nobody has kids here or gets married…it’s not possible.”

Now Kaylen was the one with the surprised look on her face. “What do you MEAN, no one can have kids?”

Tom had an embarrassed look on his face. “I’ll explain when you’re older,” he said.

“I’m 26!” said Kaylen, crossing her arms.

“…In earth years, yes,” said Tom. “In purgatory years, you’re not even one!”

“But here’s the pub,” said Tom, as he disappeared into a door that led downward down a flight of steps. The sign next to the door was small and tacked up with a brace of nails. It read, “No admittance except by invitation.”

To be continued…

Dear Chef

Dear Chef,

This note is one I think I’ve been composing drafts of in my heart for years.  I’ve expressed it in pieces before, in hugs and smiles and words of thanks, but never in a whole.  And I know that the best of you, the ones who are dearest to me, don’t require or request this note or any payment, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write this, for you deserve this and more.

Too often, your work goes unappreciated or underappreciated.  You are frequently the one who misses the special times before and after—and even during—a meal or a celebration because you are hard at work making it a success.  You are like the best of commanders: the first to come and the last to leave.  Sometimes you let us lend a hand with the prepping, place setting, or the washing up.  But usually you silently do the majority of the work while we are distracted or after we leave.  You are generous and humble and so hard to thank.  If I want to help afterwards, I often have to be sneaky and wash dishes when you leave for a minute or when your back is turned.

You may be a stranger whom I never meet who cheers me on my way.  I may never see your face.  You may not find joy in your job, but I hope you know our gratitude at times and can see the way you bless others.  More often, you are my mother, grandmothers, and even siblings, father, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.  My impulse would be to say that your meals are the dearest without a doubt (and they are), but I realize there’s another kind of specialness I cherish when the work of strangers means we can all share the meal together without leaving anyone behind in the kitchen cooking before and cleaning after.  I don’t think I’ve realized before how grateful I am, or should be, to those who make these moments and memories possible.

While the food made at home with love has a sweetness all its own, the people are the crown of every occasion, and often they are you, the one whose labor brings others together around a table and helps the smiles, joy, good food, and laughter all come together.

When something burns, when the menu doesn’t go according to plan, when you worry there won’t be enough or the right kinds of food, when you make a mistake in a recipe, when you are scrubbing hardened rice from a dish, when you are cleaning up after everyone has left, please know how much I love you, how much you mean to us, and how grateful I am for the sacrifices you make.

Even though I sometimes forget to express it openly, I appreciate you and what you do.  You are a blessing.  This is for you.  Thank you.

‘Coon

Dad still insists – and will likely insist until his dyin’ day – that his old huntin’ dogs Andy and CC, were perfectly sane, model examples of squirrel dogs – or would have been if not for being “hot-nosed,” “high-strung,” or some other colloquialism. Never mind Dad once had to literally dig Andy out of a hole where he had wedged himself in and was slowly suffocating trying to reach a possum that was somewhere at the other end. CC was equally as unhelpfully tenacious; she once bit my brother Adam’s (ex) girlfriend’s dog on the rear end and refused to let go, forcin’ Adam to pry her jaws open. Both dogs had an adversarial relationship with Adam, Andy especially. In addition to jumpin’ out of the truck on Adam’s watch and gettin’ lost for more than a week, Andy also had the annoying habit of swimming laps across the fishin’ pond and disturbin’ the water every time Adam was out there tryin’ to catch something.

But they were Dad’s dogs and he was fond of them, and, I must admit, he could usually persuade them to find a squirrel. A single squirrel, that was usually found not by any craft or cunnin’, but by accidentally trippin’ over it.

And then there was this one time that it was Adam’s last Christmas break of his college career. This would have been a wistful event under any circumstance, but was made even more so because he was about to take a job more than a thousand miles away. So, for his sake, I decided to forgo a nice relaxin’ day surrounded by my holiday loot, and instead volunteered to go squirrel huntin’ with my him and my dad. Dad arose at some unspecified 0-dark-thirty hour, I flung myself out of bed at seven, Adam lurched down the hallway at seven-thirty, and we set off for the Bottom at eight, dogs in tow.

“The Bottom” is what everybody back home calls the acres and acres and acres of woods just south of here, through which San Miguel creek runs, which the locals, includin’ myself, pronounce “Sammy Gil.” These hills and the bottom-lands in between are divided between various folks’ barbed-wire fences and “Posted” signs. As we got to the border of our own tract, Adam jumped out and opened a gate, and we drove into our land. We dismounted at the Old House Place, named so because my great-grandparents lived there back before their house burnt down. Their yellow daffodils still bloom under the big magnolia tree.

We let Andy and C.C. jump down from the back of the truck and take off runnin’, while Adam and Dad adjusted their guns. I never carried a gun myself, havin’ no fondness for loud explosions and a demonstration of Newton’s Third Law of Motion right next to my ear. Instead, my job was to be the “vine-shaker.” I would find a vine hangin’ from the tree, shake it, and hope that a squirrel up in there would move, be seen, and thus be shot. Yes, a dead squirrel did once fall in my hair.

But on this particular trip, we had no such luck. Andy and CC didn’t cooperate with our commands to branch out into the woods and sniff out squirrels like they were supposed to. Instead, they ran straight down the road, frolickin’ about, enjoying the fine January weather. Eventually, we managed to lose ‘em, and so Dad, Adam and myself found a nice log and sat down.

I was drawin’ flowers in the dirt, Dad was gazin’ at the ground, and Adam was starin’ off into the distance when we heard it: a nondescript, respectable bark from Andy, coupled with CC’s high-pitched, frantic “EEEYEP! AYEEEE AYEEEEP!”

We took off. Dad barreled his way through whatever underbrush, branches and almost-trees that stood in his way, while Adam and I had to circle ‘round saplin’s and trip over roots. Eventually, we found the dogs starin’ up a big pine tree.

“Oh, I love big ol’ pine trees,” Dad said with sarcastic enthusiasm – these trees have furry-looking leaf silhouettes and dark bark that squirrels can easily hide in. However, Andy and CC hadn’t made up their minds. They barked at the pine, then barked at the oak, and finally sniffed up an entirely different tree, and none of us humans could locate any creature of any sort up any tree. We departed the vicinity, with Dad askin’ the dogs what was wrong with them.

He continued to ask them that through a series of other failed tree-ings. Discouraged, and about to go home, Dad noted to his human children: “Well, it’s a purty day.”

“I had fun!” I offered.

Adam, on the other hand, had a different philosophy. “I came to the woods to kill somethin’,” he growled.

My brother you, see, is a lover of nature. He loves making friends with lizards and fillin’ feeders for birds and adoptin’ stray cats, and also meanderin’ through our ancestral woods, shootin’ authorized fauna and dinin’ on his quarry. So, he was a tad disappointed by the barrenness of the day.

Until the dogs started barking. Really barking. In retrospect, we should have know that such frantic bays could lead to little good, but we took off through the woods till we stumbled on the dogs havin’ conniptions at the base of a huge, barren oak.

“I see it,” Adam said.

“Where?”

“Well, I can only see the tail.”

I found a vine, and on Adam’s signal, started shakin’ it. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

You see, Dad’s nickname for Adam is “Lead-Slinger.” He shoots early, he shots often, and he shoots accurately. If you eat any of the squirrels he brings back, be prepared to spit out a lot of lead.

“There it is!” Adam cried

Boom!

“There’s another one!”

Boom!

“There’s two of them!”

Boom! Boom!

Like Wile E. Coyote transfixed by a fallin’ anvil, I saw two large shapes fallin’ down at me from the tree. But, being smarter than that particular coyote, I took off runnin’. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that wasn’t no squirrel fallin’.

Bump. Bump.

“Adam, boy, those’re ‘coons!” Dad exclaimed, holding up what was indeed a pair of coon cadavers.

“For goodness sake, Adam!” I admonished.

“Poor ‘coons, Adam shootin’ at ‘em,” Dad said.

“I didn’t know it was a ‘coon!” Adam protested, “All I could see was the tail!”

“Poor ‘coon,” Dad repeated.

The dogs likewise decided that it was Adam’s fault they had decided to corner a pair of coons, and wagged their tails judgmentally.

Well, waste not, want not. Adam had set off in the mornin’ on a quest to find lunch, and was determined to find said lunch no matter what unusual form it took. So, he brought the ‘coons home, skinned ‘em, seasoned ‘em, and barbecued e’m.

It was not the best meat I’ve ever tasted, but it is one of the best stories I’ll ever tell.

What Doesn’t Kill You…

I braced myself for the weight of the bar. I’d been doing bench press for a while–if you’ve never bench pressed before, here’s a basic fact sheet:

  • It’s an exercise that people (mostly men) do in order to have big chests in order to impress other people (mostly men).
  • It makes it easier to participate in conversations where someone might ask, “How much can you bench?” (translation: what is the maximum weight that you have ever brought to your chest and then pushed towards the sky) “Well, my 1-rep max in college was 170.” (translation: the most I’ve ever done is 170 pounds)
  • “Bench press” involves lying flat on a bench, grasping a bar over your chest, lowering it to your chest, and then pressing the weight back up (I’m not describing this in order to be condescending; this description is for all the sheltered nerds like me who grew up never going to a gym and never learning this essential life skill)

The jargon of weightlifters starts making a lot of sense after a while, which is fortunate and unfortunate. Because familiarity with the jargon and basic movement is not the same as skill.

Back to the story about me bracing myself for the weight of the bar. When I bench press, I line up my ring fingers with the smooth bands that wrap around the bar in 2 places: this ensures that the weight is evenly balanced on both sides of me. With my feet firmly planted and chest inflated like a lobster (they have big chests, right?), I lifted the bar from the rack above my nose and, arms still locked, moved the bar into position. The ideal position for me is above the “big” part of my chest. Then, it’s a matter of drawing the bar down to my chest until the bar touches; and then explosively contracting the chest and arms to push the weight back up.

At some point during this particular session, I overloaded myself. I attempted to press the weight back up from my chest, and my body gave out. It was an uncomfortable feeling as the weight dropped automatically back to my chest and lay there, pinning me to the bench. Normally, more serious weightlifters would have a workout buddy to “spot” them (keep an eye on them throughout the set to assist in case they lose control of the weight), but I didn’t have a spotter.

I carefully tilted the bar to one side until the weights of that side rested on the ground, then pried myself out from under the bar, and re-racked the weight. No injuries, and a valuable lesson learned!

I thought of motivational slogans, which I had always thought and now KNEW to be rubbish: “We are always stronger than we know.”

Well, sometimes, we aren’t stronger than we know. Sometimes, we decide to lift too much weight, collapse under the weight, and either have to pry ourselves out of the situation or yell at a friend to come help us.

Don’t buy the hype. And, if you do want to lift heavy weights, find a workout buddy.

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Full Story Here

Tom blew his car horn as a squat, cube-shaped car switched lanes in front of him. “Self-driving HOOEY!” he muttered.

“You have self-driving cars?” said Kaylen. “We are just now getting that sort of technology in America. That is so cool!”

“Cool?” repeated Tom. “Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. Take a look, though!” Tom pointed to the car that had just cut in front of him.

The car had four wheels but otherwise looked alien to Kaylen’s eyes, unlike any automobile she had ever seen. It was a box-shaped car with vertical windows on all sides, akin to a gondola, and the wheels were small and appeared to be able to go in any direction, similar to the wheels of a dolly. Despite this modern design, the car seemed to trundle along in a very uncertain fashion. It moved a foot into Tom’s lane and then stopped and readjusted. On the top of the car was a reflective orb suspended like a bell from a small frame, and above this belfry was an antenna that pointed upward. The car continued moving very cautiously forward, stopping abruptly as a sheet of paper blew across the roadway.

Tom honked again. “These self-driving cars are so flighty. It’s amazing that they move at all. They are so sensitive to interruptions, that they can barely move above 5 miles per hour.”

“Well, new technology always has hiccups when it’s first introduced,” noted Kaylen.

“Spoken like someone who has witnessed the unveiling of many new technologies!” said Tom brightly. “You should have seen the first prototype of these cars. They were the opposite of now. They were forever bursting with energy, so they would routinely be bumping into cars in front of them. Just a sort of persistent tap in the rear as we were moving forward in stop-and-go traffic. Very annoying. So the manufacturer of the car reprogrammed them to be safer. Now, the cars of petrified of moving at all!”

Kaylen listened to all this, absorbing the sight of the timid car. It completed its lane change and seemed to settle down somewhat, having for the moment reached an equilibrium. “I’m sure they will work out the glitches before too long.”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Everyone is chattering about innovation, but innovation here always seem to hit some snags.”

“The point of purgatory,” continued Tom, “As you may have read in certain religious texts, is purification, or expiation. It’s not the fire of hell—it’s the fire of purification. And what better way to expiate and make someone suffer…than by making them sit in traffic.” Tom said this last part as his cab slowed to a complete stop. To the right, a giant billboard displayed a map of the traffic circles, with each circle colored brightly in either yellow or red colors. As Kaylen watched the billboard, the outer circle’s color turned from yellow to red.

“Hmm. Want to get a bite to eat?” said Tom. “There’s a pub not far from here that has exquisite Caribbean-inspired street tacos.”

Kaylen looked at the tightly interlocked cars all around them. “But, how will we get there?”

“Come with me!” said Tom, putting his car in park and opening his door to get out. “This jam will take at least an hour to sort out. We have the time.”

To be continued…

The Writer’s Quandary

This poem sums up what forms my writer’s block most of the time when I’m creating stories and poems.  I hesitate because I worry my work isn’t novel, special, or worthwhile.  Instead of pushing my limits, I am paralyzed by the idea that someone else can write my thoughts better than me, tell my stories more creatively.  Or even worse—has already penned and published my idea that I imagine is so unique.

“The Writer’s Quandary”

Have all the poems been written?

Has every story been told?

Are all the metaphors spoken,

And are all the similes old?

 

Can I add to mankind’s canon?

Can I make a new connection?

Or am I merely an echo,

A well-traveled intersection?

 

Am I even the first to have

Thought this, wondering what remains?

I doubt it, yet I continue:

For many great songs have refrains.

 

And perhaps I can add a gem

Of value through the work I do,

Whether repeating a truth once

More or sharing something that’s new.


In this age of ever-multiplying information, is there anything left to be added?  I’ll argue that no matter what, we can always keep asking questions and searching for answers, which is what I love to do…And perhaps that pursuit is not limited to research papers and essays, like I so often assume.  Asking questions and finding answers is one avenue where creative writing, from stories to plays to poems, can also expand our knowledge and our understanding of the world and each other.

Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay from Canva.com

An Introspective Analysis of My Relationship with Pens and Journals

I was on one of those mental rabbit trails where you suddenly look up and have no idea how you got here.  The track behind me veiled in the mist of forgetfulness, I found myself in a clearing contemplating why I don’t like using pens.  Uh-huh.  Pretty fascinating, right?

Believe it or not, I managed to turn this random thought process into an introspective analysis of myself.  But perhaps that isn’t too surprising to those who know me well.  As I started to inspect my dislike for pens, I noted that I don’t mind using them for things I plan to throw away, like sticky notes and to-do lists.  I also realized that I don’t like using beautiful notebooks or journals for anything permanent either.  I never feel anything I write is worthy of them.

One elegant red and gold journal exhibits faint signs of use on its first two pages where I wrote something down in pencil, deemed it unworthy, and erased it.  That’s about the closest I’ve ever gotten to using my favorites of the many notebooks people have given me over the years.  I can use most of the pretty (but not gorgeous) notebooks without qualms, but the special ones are just too special.  I don’t want to ruin them or fill them with something that I will want to throw away in five years.  Childhood experience in such matters has scarred me a little, I think.  And talk about a high bar, one pale blue journal with gold stars scattered on it says in gold letters on the cover “My Bright Ideas.”  Even someone without my authorly commitment issues would probably find that a bit intimidating.

Once I made the connection between pens and notebooks, I looked around the mental clearing and began to notice other patterns around me that all point to a hesitation to commit when writing.  I don’t want anyone else reading what I might write in these journals, and I can’t just delete or revise the content like I can in a computer document.  In fact, I’m even a bit scared of what my future self will think of what I write.  Have you ever read a childhood journal and thought, Why did I write this, or My handwriting was terrible (or worse, My handwriting was better when I was eight)?  Finally, if the content is on the border between awful and sentimentally valuable, you must decide if it’s really worth keeping that notebook as you try to downsize your stuff.  Why set myself up for hard decisions like that?

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, let me stop you right there.  I do not intend to set any grandiose personal goals.  While I’m fond of making lists and setting goals, New Year’s resolutions have never appealed to me, so don’t even think about it.*  I’m going to start small because, as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a bit scared of committing to something in writing that I can’t erase or edit.  But I also know the value of pushing my limits and learning from all the mistakes that come with simply trying, so I want to push my limits at least a little.  After all, isn’t that what Thousand Mile Walk is all about?  We didn’t call our blog Writing Epitome or make any claims that everything we post will be gold standard.  “Writing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey” is our motto, and I should remember that more.

As I headed out from that mist-veiled clearing to explore new rabbit trails, and as I return to the clearing to write this introspection, I have decided to write in pen at least some of the time for things that matter and consider using my beautiful journals if I can come up with a convincing plan for how I can create content that will be at least moderately timeless.

I resolve to be a braver, bolder writer.  At least a little bit. 🙂


*(Side note: Why wait till a new year to start your new project?  If it’s that worthwhile, why not start right now?)

Photo credit: by Jaymantri from Canva.com

Remembering Rockwell—Snapshots of the Ordinary

I wish Norman Rockwell had been there.  Scenes like those were the stuff that inspired him, I think.  The little moments in life.  Something so ordinary it resonated with audiences and became extraordinary.  Rockwell had an eye for those moments.  He captured the humor, the sweetness, the tenderness.  Then he, or a Saturday Evening Post editor, enhanced the image with a simple but fitting caption.

I wish I were artistic or had my camera when those moments happened.  Instead, all I can do is snapshot the scenes in my mind, trying to imprint every detail for later recall.  I realize now that I have a mental scrapbook of moments like these.  And while it can be a delight to peruse them, I wish I could free them from those solitary pages to share with others.  But like dreams, these pictures and their emotions can rarely be brought to light without losing the meaning that I feel so keenly.  A glimmering quality is lost in translation.  Words can’t capture the entirety of what I try to communicate.  I doubt even the best writers communicate a thought or a picture as perfectly as they want—at least not often.

If people gave up because they knew perfection were impossible, though, where would we be?  Only by trying will we improve, so here I am.  Spilling my thoughts and stretching out the moments until I make the jump.  Here I go.

Getting Acquainted

“Look, Elaine.”  My sister and I had just slid into her car after a brief shopping expedition.  I was pointing across the parking lot.

“I wish I had my camera and could capture moments like these,” I commented wistfully, as my sister looked too.  “Isn’t that sweet?”

What had caught my attention was a uniformed police officer.  Standing at a corner of the sidewalk, he was approaching a woman who was walking her German shepherd mix dog, and by his body language, I could tell he was asking if he could pet the dog.  The woman agreed, and the officer bent down and tentatively reached out to introduce himself to the canine, who appeared to be a bit uncertain about the acquaintanceship.  It was a moment of vulnerability for both.  An ordinary scene that I had never seen before.  The dog obliged and let his head be petted as my sister and I drove away.

Here was a little moment in time where a police officer was an ordinary guy who liked dogs.  I wish I could have shared that occurrence with others as vividly as I experienced it.

A silly, optimistic part of me imagines that this Rockwell scene could change people’s perspectives and combat their prejudices.  But the moment these scenes become publicity, they tend to lose their credibility.  I think that was part of the appeal of the moment.  The people didn’t know they were being watched, which made the scene that much more touching.

Rainy Day Melancholy

I was eating a meal with some friends when something beyond the cafeteria window caught my eye.

“That’s so sad, isn’t it?” I commented, pointing out what I had just noticed to my friends, who turned to see for themselves.

“It’s the picture of finals week,” I continued.

“Yeah, that is pretty sad,” one of my friends agreed.

Trudging past the window was a dripping college student.  A bedraggled black umbrella drooped from his hand, almost unidentifiable.  It looked more like a kite than an umbrella, its tines bent and fabric torn into triangle-shaped scraps.  The student gazed at his umbrella with an attitude that seemed to mimic the mournful appearance of the umbrella.

I felt so sad for him when I saw his expression as he contemplated his ruined umbrella.  I hoped that his day improved and that what I saw in passing didn’t summarize how his finals were going.  Despite my sympathy, though, I admit there was something comical in the scene.  What I saw was the weird juxtaposition that Rockwell would capture, where a scene walked the tightrope between sorrow and humor, where perhaps one person took something a little too seriously when others wouldn’t.  It was just an umbrella, after all.  But I think I understand.