Musings and Mumblings

Creative writing

Winning Entry for Short Fiction – Houston Writers House — 05/14/2016

Winning Entry for Short Fiction – Houston Writers House

As a farewell to this column which I’ve been writing for three years, I thought it fitting that I’d include a publication that won a contest in November 2015. I want to thank everyone for reading my Musings and Mumblings blog and offering suggestions and comments after each submission. I originally began this blog as advance PR for my novel, and though I will keep writing until it’s published, I’ve found that blogging detracts from time that could be spent revising, rewriting and creating anew. It’s been a great learning experience for me, and even in the weeks where I’ve spilled my guts, I regret nothing.

So, enjoy this last prose piece, and I wish you, my dear readership, well, now and in the future.

Houston Writers House

ASF

An Organization to Help YOU Polish and Publish Your Manuscript

 

Beloved

I’m the one. Beloved. First born son, eagerly awaited. First born child of a Marine is a Legend, destined for greatness. Mom popped me out like a super size kernel of corn, while Dad, a giant of a man, caught me in his sweaty hands like a football, and cut a cord that reeled back inside. I was slippery, and his lips slid across my scalp before handing me back to Mom. She gently moved me toward her breast, but my mouth refused to open. One tit, as large as my eye, dribbled white liquid. And then another baby slid down the chute between her legs. He was small and silent, hands clenched, dark hair plastered to his head. “Twins?” Dad bellowed, holding the baby upside down as though it wasn’t meant to be. A woman stepped forward, turning him upside right, then painting his feet black.  A mirror of myself mewled like a cat. He was bundled tight in a blanket when he joined me in a small glass walled bed. For less than a second, we stared, startled, and then he hooked on to a tit and began in earnest to suck Mom dry. I howled hard, kicking my legs in short, angry bursts.

Bigger than my twin by a pound and older by two minutes, I burst with energy 24/7, and wore Mom out before I was a month old. My likeness, now called Matt, was unexpected, unplanned, the one who took everyone by surprise. He was ugly, too, stuffing little fingers often in his mouth while his lips would gum down. He’d copy everything I did.  If I cried, he’d join in. If I punched the air, his fists would flail. There wasn’t one thing he did on his own. Twins are supposed to be loving from birth on, best of friends. We were, and I wasn’t. I had a mind of my own. After all, I was destined for greatness. Ask any Marine.

We shared everything. Bed, stroller, blankets, toys, and Mom. Just not Dad. Dad belonged to me, and whenever he tried to cuddle Matt, my twin would barf on him. I don’t think I really loved Mom so much as I did her breast. Sometimes after getting my fill, I’d bury my face in its thick, warm flesh, and doze. When she’d try to pull me away, I’d latch on again, my tears intertwined with hers. Matt drank from her like a faucet, trying to make up for lost time, gain that extra pound, TKO. That’s how it was from then on. Two little babies fighting over two delicious tits. Only one, the Legend, would win. Seize the day. There can’t be two Legends in the same family. Ask any Marine.

August is a good time to welcome the world, before late blooming flowers give way to rot and ruin. In August, heat wilts everything and everyone as the long summer’s sun blazes in the garden, a green hose spewing water in a last ditch effort to renew and refresh. The sun sets fire to the earth until it ignites in angry voices at night, Mom crying, Dad stomping around. By the time September arrives, bees have drunk their last fill of pollen, and frost has moved from the lawn to inside our house, where Dad packs for deployment, his third in three years.

Tall grasses whisper down the hill where I now sit, the best view of the Chesapeake in all of Annapolis. Far off freighters come and go, on their way to Spain, Taiwan, maybe just Baltimore. There are trees to the left and trees to the right, and green grass cut in swirls. It’s life that hurts, not death. It’s worse if a dad is a soldier is a colonel. He has two families. You, and his men.  His men come first. Life is full of disappointments where loved ones go away and return when you’re a year older, forgetting what you wanted to tell him. At home, he’s never happy, always waiting for the next adventure. He tucks me in, says I’m the best, and by morning, he’s yelling “Man up, Alex! You deserved to be spanked. Legends don’t scribble on walls!” He’d throw me into the backyard pool, teaching me how to swim as I choked in desperation, and heaving in fear.  I wished he’d picked on Matt more. The weaker of us two.

You don’t feel death, no matter what way you depart. It’s those you leave behind who suffer. Grandparents and parents in the same house.  Matt and I were four the morning the gun went off. It was a game, not an accident, no matter what you hear. I’d been up since dawn, jumping on the bed, trying to jump my twin into wakefulness. Mom took pills, oblivious to chaos as it unfolded around her. Like me and Matt, the gun was a twin of the one Dad kept at Quantico.  He was out running, and when he returned, he’d leave for there. I didn’t know when I’d see him again.

I climbed on the table in his and Mom’s room, peering into the top of a metal box sitting wide open, a small key stuck in its lock. Mom moaned and muttered, “Alex, go back to bed,” her voice sounding as far away as Dad on his run. Minutes later, I pulled my twin from bed and cried, “Pew pew pew!” jerking the gun at him. He thought it a toy. With each jerk, he pretended to cower under the covers. After a series of clicks, he scolded, “Looks real.”

Our grandparents sat on the screened porch, reading the paper, too far away to hear our chatter. “Baby Matty,” I teased, pretending some more, the gun a small airplane dropping bombs that exploded at my feet. Giggling, I held it between my legs and squeezed the trigger, using all my strength. A thug flew upwards toward the ceiling, imbedding itself like a black bug. Everything shuddered. “MOM!” Matt cried, backing away. It was Dad who came first, his boots thundering down the hallway, his voice tight with anger. “What the hell!” He flew towards Matt, shaking him the same way he had when he was born, while I dove for the bed, for safety, I suppose. The gun fired again without any help as Dad grabbed at me, missing my shirt but catching my last breath. Everything went black as I propelled downward, as hard thumps beat against my chest, until Dad, warm and wet, held me close, and Mom sobbed, one hand clinging to my hair.

Septembers’ gold, white and yellow Chrysanthemums light up the area above my forever bed when Matt and Mom come to visit on my birthday. Mom cries as Matt ties stupid children’s balloons to the headstone.  Matt and I are 14 now, him as tall as I would have been, dark eyes and curls most resembling Mom and Izzy. For those long nine months we spent sharing thumbs, hiding out, I had his back, whether or not he knew he had mine, twins forever. Like I said before, there can’t be two Legends in the same family. Ask any Marine.

 

 

The Gray Ceiling — 05/03/2016

The Gray Ceiling

Employers, take note.

As much as you want to deny it, there IS a gray ceiling in the job market, and it affects displaced workers age 55 and up. When you’re 60, my age, 55, seems so young. Which it is. My husband was first displaced from the job market at age 55. A commercial real estate developer, the real estate market pushed he and his partners over a cliff and that was the end of real estate developing as he knew it. Since then, he reinvented himself more times than I can remember. First, he became a stockbroker, an interest he had held as a teen, but in the real world of being one, hated the pressures of having to make quota every month. Next he worked for free for 3 years trying to build a refrigerated warehouse on the docks for the longshoremen. The deal was he’d receive equity in the warehouse as well as commission the day the longshoremen moved in. But, it wasn’t meant to be with a democratic governor. That governor, Glendenning, cared more about raising taxes than giving jobs to unions, or making our harbor a profitable place for perishable goods to be warehoused. From there, my husband has been a property manager, project manager, contractual project manager, construction foreman, construction manager, and most recently, semi retired. Having been a past veteran matters not. All his career, he has never received credit for working for America. I wonder how our young veterans are faring now?

In fact, since that day when he came home at 2:00 pm, defeated and deflated, 13 years ago, the rules in the commercial end of real estate development has changed 5 times. Every few years, the market flipflops, and rules change again. One main thing that has stayed constant, however, is the fact that many workers hit the grey ceiling long before being eligible for social security. If you’ve been in commercial industrial real estate most of your life, no will hire you for Walmart greeter, marketing manager, or even shelf stocker at Target. By picking one career over another, it’s as if you’re labeled as such for life. The hiring manager also will accuse you of not wanting to stay put in your new position should your former one reopen.

It seems I can’t stop writing about this tragedy in American history. But I’m glad to give voice to this long lasting dilemma. Upper management still employed treats the unemployed like a disease. Post interview calls go unanswered. Interviews are done via phone only. Head hunters bend over backwards to make a commission, only to be told by the company they’re working with that the hopeful candidate did not get the job because the company hired from within. Mostly, that’s a thinly veiled lie.

It happened to me too, at age 58. I look a lot younger than I am, so perhaps that bought me time. I did find another job after 8 months but 3 years later, I was laid off again. Recently, however, a woman I know hit the grey ceiling, and although she claims she has numerous degrees and certifications, she has not found another job in two years of trying. For a long time before she was laid off, she kept bragging about how her many degrees would save her from joblessness. How only I’d been screwed. I tried to let her down easy and say that although I lacked a college degree, I possessed extensive knowledge of MS Office and Blackbaud that she did not have, but she was in true denial. Two years after the fact, she has given up finding another job that pays over $10/hour, and includes the ever important benefits package.

Employers, I understand that our POTUS has done squat in nearly 8 years to promote our economy, so that many companies are running scared, or closing their doors forever. But, from where you sit and cannot see, or even fathom, it might happen to you, there are a plethora of extremely well qualified workers seeking jobs in almost all fields. Show compassion. More and more unemployed but qualified seniors are learning your tricks. Being among them, my husband and I have come to realize that jobs on websites, if not filled within a week, are not meant to be filled ever. They are either bogus positions, or such high pressure jobs that a chimp would not want to be hired.

Neither my husband or I want a benefits package but we do want jobs that pay enough to get us out of bed in the morning. I have 42 years’ experience in reception, social media (once called public relations), writing, editing, development, and secretarial, and all the interest I can garner is in demo marketing. Some companies advertise for receptionists but the duties they’ll be responsible for fit administrative assistant positions at a receptionist’s pay scale. I’ve earned as much as $19 an hour, so believe me when I say $10 an hour isn’t worth the gas used to drive to a job from Towson to Aberdeen!

I must admit that when my husband said Target turned him down as an overnight shelf stocker, I thought he was kidding. But when Walmart turned me down as a greeter, I understood. I was told I was not experienced enough in greeting, and my husband basically was too old.

A lot of friends my age have been forced to allow their college educated children to move home again. Or, are paying their bills. Another friend bought her grown son a health insurance plan he could live with.

What I’d like to see happen is age and experience trump youth. That was another untruth I was assured by the MD Department of Unemployment Insurance. I have nothing against recent college graduates but I do take exception when my past experience, whether I began working at age 19, or 40, automatically moves my resume to the bottom of the pile. As a published writer and owner of my own business, I can take rejection if it’s warranted. But the aging process is not a disease or failure to perform as necessary. That’s what I implore to current presidents, managers and owners of companies in America.

Give seniors a chance!image

On Tanning — 04/25/2016

On Tanning

(This is the first of articles on addictions)

I had an interesting experience last week when I traveled to Florida. I couldn’t get tan!

Girls with tans were a status thing where I grew up in northern Baltimore. Girls with tans were prettier, had blonder hair, and usually showed off their legs (tans). If you didn’t have a summer place downee ayshun, you had to devise a way to darken your skin. Otherwise, you’d be scorned and teased come fall.  Having grown up in the 60s there was only one time when I didn’t get tan, and that was when I used baby oil and held silver foil covered vinyl albums against my skin. Normal people got burned but I only marinated. After about 3 years of doing that, me and my friends lined up side by side on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, I went rogue and stopped using any kind of tanning oil. That’s when I got the perfect tan, which held true until last week.

photo (4)

My son always said I’d look like the leathery woman in the movie “What About Mary?” but I’ve proved him wrong. I am neither leathery or wrinkled. Good hormones helped with that. If anything, his skin is lily white like the Bronte sisters. He needs some color somehow, somewhere, and stop listening to those who never tilt their face to the sun at all. What about Vitamin D, necessary to bone health? Vitamin C used to keep away colds and flu. Growing a beard is nice, but owning some color underneath it should not negatively impact one’s skin at all.

Kids in the 60s had never heard of melanoma, and if they did, they continued their flagrant tanning methods. Full sun exposure, no sunglasses, no umbrellas, no sun hats. Most of all, no visits to the skin doctor. In fact, skin doctors were only visited for plastic surgery. Tanning beds. tanning in Florida in the summer, working as lifeguards, babysitting babies by a pool, riding horses in the sun, running in the sun, cycling in the sun. There are so many ways to get tan I can’t even list them all here.

Granted, my mom, who seldom had time to sit in the sun, was diagnosed in her 50s with cancer on the bridge of her nose. We found it fascinating because she wore glasses. But then the doctor agreed that it was a fluke, and cured her by digging into her skin repeatedly until the melanoma was gone. Plus, he said that her skin was not the cancer type because with her dark Irish complexion, her skin tone was more on the olive side resistent to sun’s deadly HV rays.

My first mole check also in my 50s was diagnosed by my primary who stood in the doorway of his office and from 5 feet away and declared my skin type not susceptible to cancer. I don’t know how he knew that the freckles on my legs were not actually moles, nor did it explain why one of them is in the exact shape of a spade (think deck of cards). But recently I saw a real skin doctor and she too verified that I am cancer free. Although, a former glass wearer myself, as a caveat, she told me to always put skin  block on the bridge of my nose.

I digress – Back to Florida. Luckily I’d been covering my face for a month in Banana Boat dark skin tanning lotion. But to sit eagle spread on very white sand a foot from the Gulf for two days and not tan from the waist down was downright insulting! Had the tanning Gods quit on me and affixed themselves to someone younger? Or had they thought I’d drunk my fill and should keep on using skin tanning lotion?

I fared no better sitting by the pool except from the waist up. There I am very dark and appealing (ha, ha, get it?  A Peeling?). Thank heavens for outdoor tennis in the sun. When you sweat, you tan faster. And, of course, skin tanning lotion works like a charm!

Why must I try to look brown when I’m not? It’s almost an inbred addiction as far as I’m concerned. In the 60s my friends and I would wonder how insulting that must have been to coloured people. 5-10 white girls frying ourselves to look exotic when real brown people were hated and ridiculed. But it didn’t stop our quest to outdo ourselves in the tanning arena.

Some of my wealthier classmates would travel to the beach for the summer, live off their parents and spent their days on the beach. Others would fly to France and tan there. I couldn’t compete. I was not one to use a tanning bed. They looked archaic and I’d seen too much proof of burnt skin to want to try it. When spray tans came out and I sported a broken foot in a hard cast, yes indeed, in my 40s, I paid homage to the fake Sun God and got two spray tans in one week. It was awesome! Where I worked, in a school, over one spring break, all the privileged kids went to Aruba, Bahamas, Florida, and even the Maldives, while I only spent $30 total for my tan.

As for me, i feel so much healthier when my skin wears an all over brown glow. I can be glamorous one night, and sun-kissed in a short skirt the next day. Skin flaws are hidden, and I feel trimmer. Every summer I must visit a beach 2-3 times for a day or two to refresh my paling skin. Don’t forget, too, that if you play enough tennis like me, your feet are the last to tan. You might even sport a dark area for the anklets you wear with your tennis shoes. But by September, when everyone else is growing pale, tennis, which extends to the end of October, is still going strong along with my dark skin until we move inside for the winter.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! — 04/17/2016

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

Owning your own business can be a lonely job. It’s not as easy as one would think, all dependent on what you offer and what sort of clientele you target. Sometimes it can be downright scary, going to strangers’ houses to sell your product. Remember those real estate agents thinking they were meeting clients, but instead the end of a gun? Just because I offer a service, that doesn’t make me unsusceptible to psychos here and there. Which is why, over the past 3 years I’ve been in business, I’ve stopped advertising on Craigslist. I prefer to network or rely on word of mouth.

Before the gathering of customers, I set rules for myself. No talking about clients by name to another client by name. Keep promises, and if you find you veer off course during a job, be honest about it. Never leave a canine client alone when you’ve promised to be there for it. Never post photos of the clients’ house or pet on Facebook without their permission, or while you are on the job. You could attract unwanted visitors to that home, and put yourself, as well, in danger.

Being a dog care provider, I meet all sorts of friendly, caring dog owners, who have rescued their pets or bought them from breeders. I’m learning lots in this business, and have established friendships with most of my clients. We are like minded in wanting to give their dogs the best of care and compassion. But there is a downside to wagging tails, and it’s bad, and sad. Not all clients who own dogs make good pet owners. In fact, not all pet owners should own pets. Look at the amount of animals turned over to Baltimore’s SPCA each year – 3,000! That doesn’t include how many dogs, cats, horses, pigs and goats are deposited at the Baltimore County Humane Society dot com, Defenders of Animal Rights, BARCS and a myriad of other shelters in the state of Maryland. Some of my own neighbors bought dogs because everyone else seemed to have dogs. Like their SUV, summer in Rehoboth, and Spring Break in Aruba, a dog is sometimes only a status symbol. But with 3-4 children, the poor animal becomes the last family member attended to. They eat suspect dog foods, scraps from the table, and more snacks than food. But I also should not criticize or act superior to the client. What they do with their pet, excluding abuse, is their business.

Sometimes annual inoculations are skipped because it’s more important to save money for a plasma TV than keep their dog updated at the vet. Or, if the pet gets injured, too bad. The dog and/or cat “lives” outside in all sorts of weather, sometimes with just a front porch for protection from the elements. And, when the family goes away, a neighborhood kid shows up to feed it in as little time as possible. Hugging or petting? No time for that simple act of kindness. In these cases, the real dogs are the owners.

The first client I ever sat for owned two cats and a dog. The client told me he’d be back in 4 days. His dog was riddled with knots and mites in his ears. He was also starved for affection. I was told to keep him in a crate, even when I was home, but I couldn’t. For the first hour, the poor little thing peered at me from behind his fur matted face, shaking like a leaf. Once I picked him up and cuddled, it was instant love for the two of us. I never found a need to crate him again. In fact, if we weren’t out walking, I’d take him in my car for rides.

His cats, who were fed canned food, and let in and out, related with me fine. The more friendly cat brought me a mouse as a gift. The house was limited by a sofa and coffee table only, and the back yard, which terrified the Llasa, was filled with a large Harley. My bed, which I never slept in, was a sheetless mattress on the upstairs floor. No blanket, no spread, though promised, were not delivered. That room also housed the kitty litter box which hadn’t been emptied in days. The room reeked. The other piece of furniture was the owners’ bed where I wasn’t allowed. I knew in advance there’d be no TV, but I did have access to Netflix, as promised.

The owner called over the weekend to say he’d extended his trip four more days. I had a new client starting in four days. I was truly aghast that I’d be stuck at this home by an inconsiderate client. Yes, I could have taken the dog to a boarding kennel, but I liked the little guy and he was so needy, that I stayed through the extra days, and went to my next job without a break. I figured, extra days, extra money. But when the owner returned home, he refused to pay for the cats, saying they were self sufficient. Who had opened cans of food for them? Brought them in from the cold? The client was adamant, and too new to the business, I’d been trusting and gullible. I was therefore gypped $70. It was a hard lesson, but often that’s how I’ve learned things.

Over the 3 years that I’ve been in business, I’ve acquired an ability to read people by their affectations, what they are truly like, and when to run the other way. Once, I got a request for me to stay 4 days with a dying pet. I turned it down. I’m an overnight pet sitter, and refuse to do let ins/let outs if the owners are away overnight. Too much bad could come of that. What if your house is robbed or burned down? The robbers could either steal your pet or kill it. Yes, sometimes dogs are stolen and sold to dog fighting rings. Overall, though, an overnight let in/let out makes me susceptible to a lawsuit with accusations of neglect.

When I began my business, my rates were $20/night, in order for me to establish myself. Since then, I’ve raised my fees and given leeway to owners with elusive cats. Some possible clients who find me on Next Door Neighbor are definitely looking for a “deal” on fees, and when they aren’t lower than they’d hoped, cease to hire me. By setting the rates that I have, I compare them to a popular boarding kennel in the area, and the cost of living in Maryland. I read about a young man in NYC who makes $113,000 a year walking dogs. But also a dog trainer, he is able to handle up to 8 large breed dogs every hour of the day. My dog walker friends in Maryland charge $10-15 per one hour walk because Baltimoreans will not pay much more. In VA, dog walkers charge up to $30 per walk, but with the proximity to D.C., they can afford higher fees for their pets.

The hardest part of my job is finding room for everyone on my calendar. Last year I had only 4 days off from June thru August. I was booked for the summer by early March. This year, I’m booked for the summer by early April. But Fall and Christmas holidays are also a busy time for me. This year I worked most of December, New Year’s, and all of January. I didn’t get home until February 4. That was a long run, but dog sitters, or at least I, don’t pick when I want to work. It’s when I’m needed most.

While possible clients act insulted when I turn them down, it’s because either the animal has biting issues, or because my living arrangements for a weekend, week or month are dirty, in the basement, or there is nowhere to park my car. Sleep in a basement? No use of a kitchen? No Internet or TV?

All possible clients are interviewed the same time they interview me. I meet their pets, and their pets meet me. Being a one person business, some clients schedule their vacations around my availability. I tried to hire a coworker, but she quit after double booking me. That put me in an embarrassing customer relations predicament. Now I refer clients I can’t accommodate to other area dog sitters who take my overflow. It’s a better arrangement because I would not recommend them if they failed to live up to my standards. Another house where I dogsat for a month, while interviewing the client I was promised internet service that didn’t happen, and the heat didn’t work in the kitchenette. Plus, my bad, I undercharged. This year, I charged a flat rate for a month. My daily rates are too low for me to consider being away from my own family for that long without making a profit.

To me, honesty is everything. I find it difficult to believe how often people aren’t. Dog owners are entrusting their most valuable possessions to me – their beloved pets. But, sometimes the owners fail to mention that their dog bites, or goes manic during thunderstorms, or suffers from seizures. I don’t make promises I don’t keep. But if a dog dies on my watch from a pre-existing medical condition for which I wasn’t informed, it would tear out my heart to have a pet die on my watch. Selling myself to said dog owners must include honesty from both ends to make this business opportunity work. If I say I’ll be home for their pets every night, then I’m home every night. I allow myself to be out up to 3 hours a day, but that’s it. I don’t hold another job while dog sitting, and I don’t have parties in my client’s house. In addition to spending the night with pets, I try to make the home look as lived in as possible from the outside. I change lights, bring in mail, newspapers, and park my car in their driveway. While I do not do housework, I do change kitty litter, take out recycling, and if a pet vomits, clean it up. I’m capable of administering pills, insulin, and basic first aid. I walk dogs, either twice a day, or four. But I’m not a trained vet and cannot resuscitate a chronically ill dog. Nor should I be expected to.

Sometimes I’ll get a strange email from an Arab, Chinese or even American who wants to interview me at a house that doesn’t exist, or asks me to give them my bank account number so they can pay me for a gig that will never occur. Self-employed business owners have to be careful. I prefer to be contacted via email, but calls are fine too. However an interview must be conducted before I agree to any job. An invoice is then sent to the client before the job begins. They must sign and return one copy.

Other strange requests from pet owners came from a young girl to care for two dogs, five show cats, and her mother. No thanks. Another client asked for care for an Alzheimer’s patient, no dog mentioned. A Korean family wanted me to watch their Gucci dog plus teach their daughter English. A really desperate young woman wanted me to care for unhousebroken puppies in an apartment house during Christmas.

But back to advertising. Craigslist is sketchy, even for selling things. For a while I posted on care.com, paying $12 for a background check, but I was never contacted. According to care.com, dog care providers could supposedly make as much as $60 an hour, while child care providers were limited to $10 an hour. Dogs are worth more than children! Yet, I think the site was half scam, half real.

I am my own advocate for my services by being forward and offering people with dogs a business card, or speaking to people at parties, tennis games, lacrosse games, and grocery stores. Friends of friends of friends have spread the word. I also have visited real estate agents, since they know who is new to town, and hung some at vet’s offices. I also created a FB page for my business and once I got 23 hits, FB recommended me to followers seeking dog care. Facebook is a good promoter, as is our neighborhood online newsletter, reaching 1978 houses.

And then there is the business of saying no. Having been an administrative assistant for 16 years, I always said yes. No task was unsurmountable. But sometimes sitting for many clients means no time for myself, my own dogs, and my husband. So I have to refuse some dates before the burn out factor hits.

I love dogs, cats, and sitting for them. In the past 3 year, I’ve sat for Bichons, a Maltese, Pit Bulls, all friendly, a Coon Hound, rescued, Llasas, a Westie, Labs, Jack Russells, an Akita, mutts, Golden Retrievers, rescued Cairns, a well trained Boykin, 2 Schnauzers who were forced to share one crate for up to 11 hours a day, a water spaniel, King Charles, and many Labradoodles and Goldendoodles. As for cats, Maine Coon Cats, weighing in at 40 lbs. have been the most exotic. Rodent phobic, I don’t care for them, snakes, or birds. I know nothing about horses, either.

Sitting for pets isn’t really a job. I call it a passion. No longer trapped behind a desk, I get to take walks midday without watching a clock. As my own boss, I’m hard on myself, but if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have return clients. The real reason behind starting I Sleep with Dogs, is because, though I’ve owned 7 dogs in my adult life, my outpouring of love for the many dogs I couldn’t own myself, has not been filled. Like some grandparents relate to grandchildren, they don’t mind caring for them, but can always hand them back. I can go to my home after a gig, love up my own pups, but know that there will be another time for me to see the Jack Russell, Akita, Cairn, or Llasa I liked so much during my last stay at their house.

On vacation – be back next week — 04/11/2016
On Reading and Research — 04/04/2016

On Reading and Research

Oh, the wonder of books!  I don’t just read a book, I savor it. There’s so much information I find hidden between the lines. Wasn’t it Dr. Seuss who said “Oh the places you will go!”?Before technology I managed to blitz through 2 books a week. With the distractions of writing a weekly blog, writing a book, and life in general, I’ve become a slow reader. My list of “wanna reads” grows ever longer. Certain books I’ve read up to 10 times – “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Catch 22”, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, and “Generation Kill.” And then for kicks on the side, I write book reviews. Dr. Seuss, how right you were about the wonder of books.
My own novel is centered partly around a former Iraqi vet. The first book I read to get my bearings about the Marines and how to portray an officer, was called “A Random Soldier: In His Own Words.”  It was a true story. I was at the beach, and needed a beach book. To get some exercise, I walked into town to a used bookstore and picked up an autographed copy by Terri Clifton and her son. I immediately knew that Terri’s son was dead. Somehow I assumed it would be an easy beach read. However, it took me a full year to finish it. The middle of the book was filled with family photographs of Chad at various stages in his life, as well as him in uniform as a Marine boot. A boot is what a new recruit is called before he graduates boot camp. He kept a diary often quoting from mythology, history and songwriters as to how their writings matched his own beliefs. I learned so much reading this book, mainly about the history of the Marines, and military slang. But my longevity in completing the book was due to my fear of the inevitable –  Chad’s time served in Iraq, and his ensuing death. This kid was literally born to die a Marine. Holed up in another hotel room in Scotland, I cried my eyes out at the end because of Chad’s stoicism at what he believed about death and how unafraid he was of dying. He died at the age of 19, not old enough to vote, or order a beer in a bar.  Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to be such a waste as so many young lives have been lost, and for what? America, through Obama’s ineptness at utilizing our armed forces, has lots its battle against terror.
“Generation Kill” came in hand for research about the beginning of the Iraqi war. I also bought the DVDs on Amazon. This book was written by a Rolling Stone journalist who embedded himself with the unit for a year. Slowly, ideas for writing a novel came together. A soldier returning home from war. PTSD? Denial of PTSD?  So I interviewed a 24 year old Marine LT whom I will call Quint, who had wanted to become a lifer, but after 4 years in, chose to pursue a different path. He’d been in war in Iraq in the Al Anbar province – a hotbed of insurgent violence –  during the worst time – 2006-2009 – when IEDs were being used at an alarming rate, taking out entire convoys, or crippling Marines forever. Traumatic orthopedic surgeons from the U. S. volunteered to go,to Iraq to gain expertise in the worst orthopedic war injuries in history. This young Marine had watched a close buddy of his burn to death in the backseat of a Humvee where the powers that be chose to install child resistant locks on backseat doors. He himself returned stateside injury-free. Or, had he? Sometimes PTSD manifests itself while soldiers are still on the battlefield, and sometimes the soldier is successful in hiding his feelings, until one day, he seemingly explodes for no reason.
Having hailed from the mountains that grace Lake Glacier in northern Montana, this Marine grew up shooting elk and deer, meat which was used to feed his family. In Montana high schools, there are more recruiting offices than college guidance counselors. Despite pacifist parents, Quint never considered college, but always thought about joining the military. He scored high on a test his senior year offered as traditionally to students as SATs are in other states. Then, during Boot Camp, he again scored high in rifle range shooting. Inwardly proud, he opted to become a sniper.  But to his mother, it made her frantic with worry that he’d be put on the front line and killed within months.
This Marine was stationed at Fort Pendleton in CA and trained at 29 Palms, a faux Iraqi village created in the Mojave Desert, using actors as Iraqi insurgents and villagers. His mother was unable to drive to CA to see him off because while he received orders to go to Iraq in June, it was another month before he actually boarded the plane to start his first 7 month deployment. Quint took to deployments with ease having spent parts of his childhood camping with his father and playing war games at night in the mountains of White Fish where he lived most of his life. During battles in Iraq, he wore a camera on his helmet, and once returned from a mission,to call his mom in real time to tell her about it. Unnerved by this nearly instantaneous information, his mother refused to watch the video.  With her heart in her throat, she endured her only son’s active service by fundraising to send packages to the troops, singling out one soldier with a personal note and food, socks, disposable razor blades, underwear, and snuff.
Given that commitment in the Marines is 6 years, Quint was able to speed up the process for each deployment served and reduced his six enlisted years to four. He then spent another four years as a reservist, so the years 2006-2014 were spent as a corpsman, but he was only active duty until 2010. He was formally discharged in 2012. Back then, Marines on their way out were being encouraged to re-up. Not only that, but re-enlistment came with a monetary reward. Upwards of $60,000 was offered to each soldier to reenlist. But Quint felt that the moral quality of new recruits was lacking. Having been a member of Charley Company, the oldest and most famous company in the Marines, he felt that his time spent serving America had been better than what most companies endured because of the unity of fellow soldiers. He and one Marine, in particular, a fellow sniper, became so close that they could read each other’s minds and perform as highly skilled snipers without speaking one word. He felt safe when on missions with these soldiers, but the new recruits coming in were so young they didn’t, and couldn’t, understand the meaning of life enough to cherish it. Many were estranged from their families and were homeless.  Quint didn’t trust them like he had other members of Charley Company. In his time abroad, a dumbing down of the military had seemed to have occurred. In addition, it was rumored that former gang members who wanted to kill kill kill for the fun of it were joining up.
While not a national hero, Quint has pins/awards from his service to America. He was deemed a Rifle Expert and Rifle Sharpshooter.  Other medals include Medals for National Defense, a War On Terrorism Service Medal, Iraq Campaign, Ad Altair, which has something to do with the religion classes he took before enlisting.  Lots of colorful pins, and more ribbons and medals, plus numerous challenge coins. Challenge coins are made of real gold and can be painted on one side or both. They are literally works of art, meticulously painted with quotes painted on one or both sides. (I was given one to complete my novel by a Ret. Rear Admiral.) When Quint originally signed up, he couldn’t think beyond enlistment, but this time, a lot older and wiser, he opted for college, and paid for it with government bonds from the Marines. No matter how ironic it sounds, Quint’s long time goal is to build better bombs for warfare.
More research. Through our inept Veteran’s Administration, it’s been a long time coming for soldiers from the Vietnam experience to now to have their emotional injuries recognized with a confirmed diagnosis: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Getting treatment owed them by the Veterans Administration is a shameful mess. Patients have to wait years for an appointment. Suicide is the best option, sometimes 3 a day in various parts of the U.S. Our brave volunteer veterans suffer in silence from invisible aches and pains, headaches, sleeplessness, fear, no appetite, spurts of extreme anger, and obsessive thoughts that they numb with alcohol. One thing is certain – they’re killers now, and find that the adrenalin that kept them “up” in the battlefield, has drained them of mental and physical energy since leaving that arena.
In a book by British writer Joanna Trollope, I read about a British vet whose family misses him terribly but whose wife, his second, hopes he will retire soon so they can lead a normal life. Even though she knew the military was what he was about, she feels very alone without him and wants to return to work even though her responsibility of being a mother to three children comes first. The book is called simply “The Soldier’s Wife.” In America, being a soldier is the next to last lowest paid job other than police. For those whose husbands come home injured, wives face almost overwhelming emotional stress at how to support their husbands – sometimes having to go out and get jobs to offset medical bills, but mostly to offer support for those who’ve lost limbs, sight, hearing, and memory loss. According to a “New Yorker” article I read, in trial therapies of wounded soldiers, counselors found Ecstasy worked better than anything prescribed or unprescribed, for desperate, stressed out, suicidal veterans. Guinea pigs. Not only has the VA failed to get them their deserved benefits, but they’ve become Guinea pigs through private therapists who strive to be the first in finding a resolution to these men’s despair.
Continued research on my novel to create a “real” soldier kept Netflix busy as I sat transfixed, taking notes on “Generation Kill,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Restropo”, “Full Metal Jacket”, “Jarhead,” “Good Morning Vietnam,”, “Battle for Haditha,”, “Band of Brothers”, “Black Hawk Down,” and “Platoon.” I also purchased through Amazon used and new war movies not available through Netflix, such as “Combat Diary”, “The Making of a Seal”, “West Point”, “Saving Private Ryan,” and then, at the movies, “Uncommon Valor,”
Have you ever read a book where you felt as close to the characters as though they were your own family? Writers must like their characters in the process of developing them. Even if I wrote about someone like Ted Bundy, in some perverted way he’d have had to turn me on to get every nuance about him across to the reader. It’s when you get bored with your characters that your writings are shoved in a drawer. This is why I enjoy research. Without it, as a writer, I’d be a liar. In this past summer’s beach read, “We Were Liars”, the main character duped me to the end. I never caught on to the plot until the last few pages, and I consider it one of the best books I’ve read of late.
My favorite kind of book to read is about dysfunctional families, and the one in my own book does not disappoint. Not so much a Pat Conroy “my father beat me for his sins” kind, but more introspective and observant of people’s nuances, facial expressions, and how they carry themselves at home and in public. “We Were Liars” is a tongue in cheek title for that book, and like my stories, with their spiking pyramids, true life events interwoven in fiction, and sudden endings, this book resonated with me so long that I wished I’d written it myself.
Take “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarity. An Aussie by birth, her books are wildly popular in Australia and England. As a manic tennis player, I could immediately understand Alice’s addiction to sports, to the high that exercise lends one that can last all day. So for me…er, Alice, to take a dive off her spin cycle and end up with not only a concussion but amnesia, I easily  pictured myself in the same boat. Amnesia, written about in a humorous way, is funny. I can’t blame my forgetfulness on amnesia or dementia, or Alzheimer’s, but I certainly do forget a lot of things. This book includes a pivotal pyramid, starting in the midst of Alice’s crisis, move forward through her present life, then into her recent past, and at the very end, utilizing her history to bring the story to a close.
Another book about another Alice, “Still Alice” by Lisa Genovese, is an excellent but sad story about a Harvard professor who is struck by early onset Alzheimer’s in her early 50s. Lisa’s book on Alzheimer’s is very well researched so that you can quote the plot if you’re ever at an Alzheimer’s convention.
 ” Inside the O’Brien’s”, again written by Lisa Genovese, is about a police beat officer in Boston who develops strange symptoms while working. Th2014-07-27 19.20.54e first three chapters focus entirely on him, his pride in his job, his family, and friendships among his fellow tightly knit band of officers. Lisa Genovese is well known for writing about the impact of disease on families, and she nails it every time.
Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite authors, also writes about diseases, incorporating them into plot via characters, usually of young adult age. Although as an adult I am a big fan, her books are catalogued in the YA sections of libraries. She touches on heart disease, cancer, Asperger’s Syndrome, and life support, among a wide range of medically related topics.
More than 12 books have been written by Elizabeth Berg, who held a career as a cancer nurse before turning to writing full time. My favorite of her books is “Range of Motion,” where an icicle falls from a city high rise and hits a young husband and father in the head, thereby plunging him into several months’ coma. The possibility of this occurring to anyone is about 100 to 1, and yet it did happen in real life. Both Picoult and Berg use real incidents from the news to turn them into “what if” fiction.
I plunged myself into the Civil War with “Never Home” by Laird Hunt, but was disappointed. To me, it was just a story, nothing special. Trick ending, done before. Read the most recent Lolly Winston, “Happiness Sold Separately.” She isn’t a Donna Tartt, but Lolly Winston allows tired eyes to absorb her stories simply and refreshingly. Speaking of Donna Tartt, all her books are too long. I wanted to remove the snake charmer from “The Little Friend” because it really wasn’t needed in the story, more of a diversion than not. Most people stopped there and threw the book away. “The Secret History” was the most boring book I’ve read besides Moby Dick. And, “The Goldfinch” was just not plausible. To live with a father in the middle of nowhere and have just one friend, whose drug abuse borders on addiction. Enough, already Donna! She tends to focus on drug abuse as often as Conroy was addicted, no pun intended, to stories of child abuse.
And then there are the books I still want to start, but haven’t.  “The Beautiful Forevers”, already about 150 pages in. “Same Kind of Different As Me,” about 15 pages in.  “Sparta” about a soldier returned from war – it’s like reading my already crafted novel with the same first three chapters. How overwhelmed the young vet is, how every surprise sound startles, how easy it is to reach for the faucet, how cold water can actually get. I also have a half read copy of “The New Yorker” in my possession, and 2 Vanity Fairs that sit on my bedside table, untouched.
Oh, the places I will go! As long as there are books in libraries, online and for sale, I’ll do my best to read, whether for research, or just plain fun. I encourage you to do so too. I’d also love to hear about what you’re reading and what were your favorites and why. I can keep them secret, or include them in this blog.

 

Novels and Other Evils — 03/28/2016

Novels and Other Evils

Okay, so it’s been a week since I entered a contest with my novel, and in that time, I’ve gone back and edited it again, adding a second narrator because the former single narrator could not possibly tell the whole story on his own. I mean, he’s a great observer of people and their actions, but as the protagonist, I thought the antagonist deserved to tell his side of the story.
This new addition to my entry will either make or break me, or maybe I won’t win either way, and I’m living a dream that wasn’t meant to end well. Rejection is my middle name.
This is the poison I ingest every time I write a story. No matter the length, I get all knotted up inside and though I’ve said I write with passion, it doesn’t guarantee other writers don’t use the same trick. I follow my gut, and my gut never lies, but still…The thing is, I don’t expect to be famous or want to be. I won’t become a millionaire like JK Rowling, or even a household word like the late great Pat Conroy. I write for the pure enjoyment of telling a story to see what any one person thinks. I actually had a job interview 4 years ago where the person conducting the interview was a “fan” of my book, Truth Is, published in 1999. I was touched, having never once considered anyone would be a fan of anything I’d produced.
After I entered the contest last week, I took two days off before re-entering the book. I recently read an article about how much writers obsess over the first chapter, thinking it makes the novel, when in fact, while reading other writer’s books, sometimes they don’t catch me until chapter 3. One book took me 2 attempts to get beyond chapter one, and another book I’ve been reading for 6 months, on but mostly off because it’s so grisly and information loaded, there’s only so much I can take in one sitting. Thank goodness I own the book, otherwise the library or friend would have reclaimed it by now.
I just thought that I’d mention that in any given day, I don’t sit at my computer devising plots and writing nonstop. Inspiration comes to me only at night, usually from 10 pm on. It’s now 1:42 am, and though I’ve had a full day of activity, I have stopped editing my book to write this blog.
I truly believe for me that being glued to my laptop nonstop is unhealthy. I heard that Anne Quinlan and Marian Keyes are morning writers. I could not be a morning writer because I play tennis most mornings, or have medical appointments. Although when I first began this novel I wrote every single night for 4 years, that too was unhealthy, and looking back, quite insane, considering I wrote the original version in 6 weeks flat. I’m now enjoying (hah) 5 years of editing.
A good friend of mine recently self published. She wrote a children’s book, and the story was cute, but the illustrations were amazing. Her book, written using Create Space through Amazon, is featured on their website and is called, “The Very Bad Circus.” She was smart in that she didn’t fool around with contests and driving herself crazy with querying agents, publishers or editing companies. For her thesis in earning a Masters in Social Media, she used publishing her novel as the topic, and kept her costs down by ordering only 30 copies of her book. I’m not being sarcastic. She simply approached publication like a business, determined to get her story out to young kids no matter what. I wish I had her verve, but because my book is geared towards young adults and is much longer, with NO illustrations, I have to work a little harder. Which, right now, at 1:57 am, means I’m running on empty. Nighty-night.2014-07-11 00.00.50
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