Category Archives: bloggity blogging

Writing exercise, or something like it

Given as long as it’s been since I’ve made a blog post, this feels a little like when I was in elementary school, and would return to class after a long summer. It was almost tradition for a teacher to assign a “what I did over summer vacation” assignment, much to all of our dismay. The teacher would suggest picking one activity or incident that happened over the three month span rather than try to talk about all summer, as if we, as eight and nine year olds, had done so many exciting things it was difficult to choose just one to write about, rather than the fact that the majority of us just learned at what time and what channel we could find every rerun of our favorite shows from six in the morning to midnight.

Even as a child, I understood the exercise. It was, of course, to get us back into the habit of writing after such a long break, to jog our imaginations– and what better way to do that than to talk about something we liked? Focusing on the self is one of the easiest ways to get back to writing, given you need no other opinion or experience but your own. And so that’s what we’ll be doing here.

As a grown up, I don’t have much in the way of summer vacations anymore, outside the part where I don’t have to drive kids to school and monitor tedious homework in the evenings. I still go to work, still have to shop and cook and pay bills. This summer, though, was chock full of strange and stressful things, as well as interesting and fun. My kids are at an age where they’re both self-entertaining, and also hilarious to talk to. We had storms that did major damage to our city, a death in the family, and even a surprise surgery on yours truly. I’ve never been fond of talking dramatics in my own life, though, so, instead of my appendectomy, I’m going to tell you about my chicken.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you’ve probably gleaned that I love animals. As a child, I was the one who went looking for cats in peoples’ houses and had to be restrained from running right up to strangers’ dogs on the street. I went to zoo camp and still tell people the story of feeding a giraffe out of my hand. When I got older, I had to have outside influences prevent me from collecting pets– I’ve often told my husband he’s the only thing standing between me and being a crazy cat lady.

When I was writing my first novel, one of the main characters had chickens. There is a specific paragraph describing how gently he handles his chickens, and a later scene where he and his son are cleaning up their coop and preparing for winter. Given my love of research, I did some on chickens just for these passages, and fell in love with the idea of having my own flock.

At the time, we lived in a townhome, with an 5×8 slab of concrete for a backyard, and an HOA that had been known to come over with a tape measure to make sure your trees were the right height. A year and a half ago, we bought a house with, frankly, too damned big of a yard. This meant, however, I could finally get my beloved chickens.

We bought a coop kit off the internet, and some 12 week old hens from an acquaintance at work. It was everything I dreamed of, except: the chickens didn’t really like us. They scattered and ran when we came out, and wouldn’t let us pick them up. If you’ve ever known an animal person, this is devastating: all you want is to cuddle all the animals of the world!

The following spring, we decided to buy chicks to hand-raise. We got four, one for each of us: four little balls of puffy feathers, cuter than even the cutest kitten by a long shot.

One of them, Springtrap (named by my son), developed a condition called “pasty butt” which is basically exactly what it sounds like. It also requires that the keeper monitor the chicken’s backside, and keep it clean so the poo doesn’t cake together and block the vent, thus killing the chick.

I’m nothing if not obsessive, particularly when it comes to the health of my pets (though, you know, with my kids I’m a big fan of “if you’re not bleeding, you’re going to school”). I checked on her throughout the day, wiping her butt when needed, drying and warming her to keep her from catching cold. She was our runt, our littlest chicken for the duration of their tiniest phase. Despite “my” chicken being a different one named Lady Mary, I became attached to Spring through these treatments, and was proud that she not only survived this hiccup, but grew into a lovely large chicken with the feathered feet of her breed.

Recently, she started acting strange. She spent all day in a nest box and made growling, trilling sounds when approached. The internet informed me: she was broody. Because we have no rooster, as they are not allowed in the city, she would have no babies. She had to be broken.

A note on chickens: they are not like cats. They possess a tiny, lizard brain that makes them both forgetful, and constantly convinced that the next second is their doom. While they can be convinced to be cuddly, it almost seems as though it’s under duress. Every day is their last. I’m obviously just hiding an axe somewhere to come after them when they least expect it.

According to advice, we put Spring in a metal dog crate up on blocks of wood to “air out” her nethers. I felt terrifically sad for her, and would take her out in the afternoons, after the other chickens had laid eggs and I could close the coop. I thought I was doing her a favor. She acted as though I were the cause of all her anguish, and started taking to chasing me when I came out into the yard, pecking at my feet when I fed them, and, on two occasions, bit my arm hard enough to draw blood.

She earned the name “Bitch Chicken.”

The chicken seemed unbreakable. Every morning, I’d haul her out of the coop and put her in the crate, where she’d huddle right back down and give me angry glares anytime she saw me. In the afternoons, I’d shut up the coop and let her out, and she’d mostly behave like the others but, at night, when the coop was reopened, she made a beline for it, threw herself in a nest box and hissed at anyone who came near.

I thought for sure she would be broody forever. I’m not above hyperbole, ever, but she definitely seemed as though none of our efforts would prevail. I started sneaking in when it was dark and putting her on the roosting bar so she would forget where the nest was. In one dramatic and ill-conceived plan, we filled the kitchen sink with cool water and dunked her backside and chest in. The entire room got wet, including me. She kept chasing me through the yard while my husband cackled from the doorway.

And then, she stopped. One morning, I opened the coop and she was the first out the door. She spent all day scratching and pecking and wandering, and then seemed protest going to bed that night. She was cured. The chicken gods had finally smiled on us.

So that is what I did with my summer vacation. Oh, I wrote, too, a book that apparently has decided it’s never going to end, or will actually be three books, I haven’t decided. I’m hoping to finish it by 2030.


On doubt

I want to talk about doubt.

Last summer, we had to put one of our cats down. Otis was about 18 years old, and had been suffering from a thyroid disorder for a number of years, a disorder that left him just a few pounds in weight, dull-eyed and prone to peeing everywhere.

We loved Otis.

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Shortly before my birthday, we took Otis to the shelter where we’d adopted him 15 years before so they could help us put him to rest peacefully. We were taken into a room to spend his last few minutes with him before we had to let him go into the back for the injections with a volunteer who told us she would hold him the entire time. We cried like babies.

Doubt set in. It was no question that Otis had been ill for a long time, and was likely to continue to suffer if we kept him alive. He couldn’t control his bladder, and we couldn’t leave him alone for more than a few hours at a time without him peeing on everything in the house.

But, I thought, what if the people at the shelter took him into the exam room and decided we were too hasty? What if they didn’t give him the injections, and instead had decided to remove him from our custody and find him a better owner?

I started looking on the shelter website daily, searching through the “older cats” section for his scruffy face. I imagined the bio they would write: Handsome senior cat removed from a home that didn’t see good years left. Lots of love to give. I imagined finding him and rushing to the shelter to claim him back and them declaring me an unfit pet owner. I might have gone so far as to imagine a pet version of CPS coming and removing our other two cats and our dog.

It’s crazy. I’m aware. But even a year later, I still have this inkling of a fear that Otis is still out there, and I’m a horrible person.

Doubt is a hard thing to shake. I do believe it’s a beneficial feeling, and certainly, day to day, it probably keeps us from any number of disasters and missteps. Doubt, though, can trip you up and send you sprawling in the dirt if you allow it to accompany you for too long.

I like to think I don’t spend too much time doubting myself (outside obsessive cat kidnapping thoughts, naturally). There are moments when a second look or hesitation is necessary, but I tend to be maybe stupidly confident in a few areas, including my writing.

This is not a luck of the draw; I am not a naturally confident person. In fact, it could be argued that I have rather low self-esteem and tend to be self-crippling, denying myself even easy success because I’m quite sure I don’t deserve it.

How, then, do I manage to get out of bed at all, let alone sit and type and send out work and face an inbox full of rejection?

Effort. Sheer effort. It’s always struck me as funny that people think I’m naturally bubbly, cheerful, and outgoing. Effort, my friends. I wake up most mornings to some fashion of career rejection, either by low sales, silent agents, or canned rejections in my email. There are certainly days I’d rather curl up in a ball and give it all the hell up.

Effort. It’s always amazed me that people think anyone successful, or confident, lacks any doubt. It’s like it’s a superpower: DOUBTLESS GIRL, ABLE TO SMASH THROUGH FEAR AND ANXIETY IN A SINGLE SLASHING MOTION OF HER HAND AND BACK AGAIN (there’s a reason I don’t write catch phrases). There is no such thing as a person who does not doubt themselves, one time or another. Doubt is like a mosquito: it is there, and the more you scratch it, the more it itches.

I doubt myself a lot. I certainly doubted my cat’s death, my culpability in the whole thing. I doubt my worth often – what truly confident person worries their cat is resold?

Doubt is not a personality trait that is ingrained in us from birth. Doubt is not a birth mark, doubt is not a state of being. Doubt is transitory, and it is defeatable.

I don’t have any advice, though, on HOW to defeat it. My friend and I tend to throw around a phrase: Fake it till you make it. It means smile even when you want to scowl, it means getting up when you want to lay on the ground, it means believing you’re doing the right thing even when you think you aren’t. You fake it, and, when you fake it long enough, you, most times, start to believe it.

This doesn’t always work, of course. I have dark times, I have moments of desperately wanting to give up – on writing, on my career aspirations, on even getting up and washing my hair. Doubt crawls in when I let it. Doubt always looks for the opening.

I’ve managed. I will manage again. If you want to, you can manage just as well, too.


On Reality vs. Realism

One of my favorite stories to tell about my childhood is about the night a cow ended up on our lawn.

I did not grow up in a rural area – I’m a city girl, and the closest I’ve ever really gotten to nature was the yearly overnight at the Girl Scout camp in elementary school, where I rode a horse named Snowflake. I’ve never been interested in country life: I need places that are open late and grocery stores minutes away. I’m spoiled. We don’t have cows.

Except one night when I was thirteen. It wasn’t really late, about 8:30, but the house was shut-down, all of us in bed reading. When the doorbell rang, my father jumped from bed and I followed from down the hall – we lived in the city, but it’s a pretty safe city. Excitement could easily come from a doorbell after dark.

On our porch was a man in his late thirties, breathless and holding a rope. “There’s a cow on your lawn,” he informed my father, who stared at him, stupefied. The man gestured in the direction of the bushes that lined the edge of our property; I squeezed up next to my father to look.

A cow. I am no expert, so I have no idea what kind, or if it was a large cow, impressive for anything besides being a cow on a city lawn. But, at any rate, it was a cow, on our lawn, that had never seen anything larger than the neighbor’s golden retriever.

“We saw it on the road,” the guy reported. “We followed it up here.” Out on the street behind him were two cars, with several other men standing beside them. These were not cowboys in the least: they wore jeans, but they all had the giddy look of people who were embarking on a random adventure.

My dad looked between the cow and the man. He grew up on a farm, knew from cows, but the whole thing was so out of place, so utterly out of context, he was speechless.

“Can you call Animal Control?” the man suggested, and my father nodded.

I listened in on the call. “A cow.” Pause. “Yes, a cow.” He rattled off our address and there was another pause. “A cow. On the lawn.”

Ultimately, the cow moved on. The majority of our neighbors were unaware of its presence as the cowboys in sedans followed it along our block, back in the direction from whence it had come. The next morning, I examined the lawn for any evidence of the cow visit the night before and found nothing; it was disappointing, in a way, until I realized I would always have this fantastic story to tell, about the cow on my lawn.

There is, of course, a ridiculousness that makes it sound like I’m full of it. Telling the tale of a squirrel launching out of the fireplace and my cat chasing it around the house sounds far more authentic: more people have experienced a wayward squirrel in their chimney, a cat who believes it is a greater hunter than, perhaps, it is. 

The point of the story, of course, is in the telling. A story that sounds untrue will jar you right out of it, out of a conversation, out of a novel. A cow on a lawn in metro Denver? I don’t downplay the best details: there were four men, two cars, all of them completely out of place with a rope that was clearly for tying a trunk closed when moving a bookcase or bicycle. The cow seemed utterly uninterested in the lot of us. My father was dumbfounded.

I love to tell this story because, coming from me, it’s weirdly plausible. Why would I lie about a cow on my lawn? Who cares where the cow came from, why she was roaming our neighborhood? THERE WAS A COW ON MY LAWN.

Realism in fiction is often strangled to death. There seems to be a fine line, in the eyes of critics, between representing life accurately and representing life in fiction. I’ve been surprised more than a few times to hear complaints about some of my favorite books not being “real enough.” 

What is real enough? No one’s life gets broken up by laugh tracks and act breaks. Something dramatics happens and… everything keeps going. A bomb is dropped, and you still have to feed the cat, do the laundry. Characters rarely go to the bathroom, fart, burp, shave their legs.

There is a difference between reality and realism. It’s in the depiction. In my story about the cow, there are elements left out because… it matters little to the telling of the story. No one cares that animal control never showed up or that we never did find out where the cow went off to, what happened to the intrepid Tuesday night cowboys. The story loses wind when I report my parents live a mile as the crow flies from a still-functional farm acting as a museum.

I worry when I hear people criticize dialogue as unbelievable, of situations being too dramatic. While there is a line that can be crossed, it rarely actually is. Reality is not the same as realism. Reality is our world, with its fits and starts, its long, boring interludes, its clogged toilets and cows that come and go. Realism gives the human emotion and condition without the lagging, half-hearted arguments over who forgot to buy coffee. 

Who doesn’t want a cow on their city lawn? Who doesn’t enjoy a dramatic end to a chapter and a start to the next where the heroes awake with the tension of the day before that ended so much earlier? Reality, it is said, is boring, and that is no truer than in fiction. Realism outlines reality in a sharper line, gives it boldness and shape, gives a viewer or reader a place to explore their perceptions and opinions. 

I miss the cow sometimes. I want to give her an ending, though I know hers was, ultimately, too realistically boring. In the telling, my hand shapes your view of her. I have always hoped to do the cow justice.

 


On how to decorate in an egalitarian household

Last week I bought a house.

No, really. I (and, I suppose, the husband) bought a house, on Thursday. I suppose it would be more accurate to say we bought 30% of a house, which, I think, means we own the bedroom, part of the hallway, and at least half of the staircase. Given that I’ve never owned more than a car, and a large number of Benihana mugs, I’m going to say that’s pretty impressive.

It was our ambition to own a house by the age of 36. We started poking at the idea this summer and, this fall, started reading a few house listings here and there, checking out neighborhoods we liked, looking into the price ranges we could afford.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that, naturally, the most we could afford was a place with a door. Most of a door. The NOTION of a door.

We’ve lived in the same house for 7 years now. My parents bought it as a sort of investment property: i.e. investment in us not paying some random stranger rent for a house entirely too small for 4 people. The house, as it is, has served us well, but it is not our ideal. Being a spoiled only child, and my parents having absolutely no intention of dying in the next few years, they offered to help out.

It totally looked like we could afford a whole door.

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No shit! A real door!

In the end, we found a lovely house, newly remodeled, in the neighborhood I’d spent my first ten years and to which I’d always vowed to return (the neighborhood, not my childhood though, at this rate, I’m going to say that would not be a poor idea, either). We put a bid on the house December 27th. Haggling commenced, and a contract was drafted New Year’s Eve. Inspection was January 9th, and we closed on January 30th. 

We do things fast in this family. The husband and I were dating a mere year before we moved in together, another year before we got married. I was knocked up before our first anniversary. Waiting is not our forte.

Owning a house seems like a massively grown-up thing to do. This is difficult, because the husband and I have a combined maturity age of 25 on our best days. On our worst, it’s also 25, but I account for something like only 6 of those years. I am completely untrustworthy. I like glitter too much.

Given the husband did the majority of the loan handling, and freaking out about said loan handling, our combined maturity age has been somewhere around 32, where I behave like a seven year old. I love packing, but I also love planning and plotting. I also have several large collections, including, but not limited to, the aforementioned Benihana cups, 80s Happy Meal toys, and knee socks. I am, in essence, an elementary school student with a broad vocabulary of curse words. 

As the husband’s maturity age is currently hovering in the very adult category of mid-twenties, he is hoping for an Adult House. I have repeated to him that owning a house does not change my personality. I planted my skeleton flamingos in the front yard the day we closed. I have plans for the arrangement of my Russian premiere nesting dolls. I named our house The Silver Devastation on Foursquare.

Yesterday found us with a hammer and nails for mounting artwork. I pointed at my favorite tile in our bathroom, a piece we bought in Taos years ago, of a skeleton on the john, reading a newspaper. I have a large collection of Day of the Dead artwork, in the range of “cute” to “outright tacky.”

The husband shifted uneasily. “Are you sure you want that in the upstairs bathroom? What about the kids’?”

I huffed. “You can’t shunt everything I like to the basement!” *cue foot stomp*

We bought a lovely, hand-woven rug. We bought a couch, and curtains. We put up shelves. Today, I carried around my tea cups from the 70s, emblazoned with stoned-looking animals. It hasn’t come to pass that my husband has broken my cherished items “on accident” to save himself from their presence, but I’m keeping an eye on him.

He will never lay hands on my glitter “ho” sign.