When you least expect it

Today is the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death and I’m surprised to find myself feeling all nostalgic and melancholy. You’d think, after so much time has passed, that feelings of loss and grief would have faded. And, of course, they have. But there are still times — odd times, not necessarily the times you expect — when it all comes flooding back, as fresh and raw as if 20 years were just a blink.

Today is one of those times.

Here’s an old picture of my dad and mom (holding my son, who is now an adult) and me, squinting in the bright Arizona sunshine. Dad looks shorter by comparison than he should (I’m 5’8″ and he was 6′), as he’s standing in the grass and we’re on the sidewalk. Dad hated having his picture taken almost as much as I do and it was a rare event that someone managed to torture capture both of us at the same time (photo credit: my bossy older sister).

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So many memories and such excessive eye moisture I’m having today. My very stoic father would be rolling his eyes at me with an expression of affectionate but pained tolerance on his face. So would my mom and sisters, for that matter, if they ever read this. I’m telling you, it’s not easy being the sappy emotional one in a family of Scandinavians. Whatever. Might as well just wallow for a bit and get it over with.

I guess it doesn’t help that earlier in the week I asked my older sister to send me a copy of the eulogy the two of us wrote, and delivered at his memorial service, because I couldn’t find mine. Twelve typed pages of memories, so many things I’d forgotten saying. I had thought I might share some of it here, but it’s too personal. Too evocative. Too much an invasion of private grief.

But the day feels like it needs some sort of tribute, so I decided to share something else instead. My dad knew a lot of people. Quite a few of them were involved in politics, as political and civil rights issues were a passion of my dad’s. He never ran for office, preferring to remain behind the scenes in the role of teacher and advisor.

One of the people he knew was Pete Stark, a US Representative from California. We discovered, quite some time after dad died, that Mr. Stark made memorial remarks during session that became part of the Congressional Record. I’ve decided to share those remarks below, redacting dad’s name and some details– not in an attempt to protect his privacy, but mine.

Mr. Speaker, today I wish to pay tribute to an educator, activist, and my longtime personal friend, [xxx], who passed away recently in [xxx], MN, at the age of 68.

I was privileged to know [xxx] at a special time in our lives and in our Nation’s history. As a grass roots activist, Mr. [xxx] took special interest in civil rights issues and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In 1970, a group of 31 Americans, including [xxx] and myself, traveled to Paris with the People’s Commission of Inquiry to discuss solutions to the war. [xxx], along with our group, participated in a week of talks in France with North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese delegations and the American ambassador. During our stay he encouraged an open discussion in which he questioned, challenged and explored solutions to this problem of international scope.

[xxx] . . . dropp[ed] out [of high school] during his senior year to join the Navy. He was stationed in Bermuda for part of his tour and was chosen to run the admiral’s launch that took President Truman deep sea fishing. An avid sportsman, he played offense and defense and was captain of the Navy football team. He contracted rheumatic fever during his service and suffered from its effects for the rest of his life.

[xxx] finished his high school equivalency degree in the military. He went on to the University of Minnesota, the Wahpeton State School of Science, and graduated magna cum laude from Moorhead State University. He later earned a master’s degree and completed doctoral work at the University of Minnesota. During his early college career, he played AAA baseball with the Minot, ND, Mallards and pitched against such notables as Satchel Paige and Roger Maris.

As an English, drama and debate teacher at [xxx] High School for 30 years, [xxx] was a mentor to students in and out of the classroom. He led several debate teams to State championships, served on the faculty senate, and supported the American Field Service Program.

[xxx] will be remembered as an avid reader, a lover of language, and a remarkable individual whose ideas reached far and wide. His genuine enthusiasm for American politics prompted people of all ages to become interested in government and civil service. Because I experienced [xxx]’s vitality and wisdom firsthand, I’ve no doubt that this tireless role model made [xxx], MN, a richer place to live.

As friends and family reflect on his lifetime of achievement and scholarship, it is only fitting that we also pay tribute to this great man and good friend.

Quite a tribute to the legacy he left. Dad would have been touched and deeply honoured. But it’s just a small sampling of who my dad was, publicly, the things other people knew and admired him for. And why the world was a richer place for him having been in it. He was by far the most intelligent person I’ve ever known and among a handful of the wisest.

I can’t even begin to find words for what he meant to me personally and why there will always be days, like today, when the void he left seems immeasurable. Other than the obvious ones: I miss you, Dad.

 

 

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Filed under deep thoughts

Yet another incident of critters in the fireplace, dammit

How to rescue a tree frog you discover jumping around and climbing the inside of your glass fireplace doors at midnight and driving the cat insane, in just 10 Easy — oh, who am I kidding — in 30 Not-So-Easy Steps:

1. Spend 10 minutes debating whether the frog is capable of getting out on its own. Remember the squirrel that died in there on top of the damper a couple years ago and how awful it smelled. Also, death flies. Resign yourself to performing sooty acts of heroism at midnight.

2. Put the cat in the bathroom. This is important, as the cat is faster than you are and she has been stalking that stupid frog for 20 minutes. She really wants that frog.

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3. Retrieve the cat [see above re: faster], who now knows what you’re up to. Put her in the bathroom, again.

4. Decide you don’t particularly want to touch the frog. Get a paper towel.

5. Realize a dry paper towel will stick to the frog and you will have to touch the stupid creature to pry off bits of paper towel upon release.

6. Go back into kitchen and return with a damp paper towel.

7. Reassure the cat that NOTHING IS HAPPENING OUT HERE CALM DOWN.

8. Try to find the stupid fucking frog, which has now disappeared.

9. Find the flashlight. Hope it works.

10. Spend five minutes cursing the now absent frog, wondering how it is even possible for a frog to climb a two-story house and get past the supposedly critter-proof chimney cap and survive the drop and still have enough energy to torment the cat and then be wily enough to HIDE FROM YOU WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO SAVE ITS STUPID LIFE HERE GODDAMMIT.

11. Take a deep breath and back away to reassess frog/fireplace logistics and have a sip, okay maybe a couple big gulps, of wine.

12. Reassure the cat once again that THERE’S NOTHING INTERESTING HAPPENING OUT HERE ISN’T THE BATHROOM LOVELY AT THIS TIME OF NIGHT OH JUST BE QUIET PROBABLY THE NEIGHBOURS CAN HEAR YOU.

13. Open the glass fireplace doors even wider and stick your head inside because you are now determined to save this frog like it is the only frog left in your entire ecosystem and the fate of the known world hangs in the balance. Plus, DEATH FLIES.

14. Realize the frog is quietly crouched three inches from your face on the front edge of the door frame staring at you like WHAT THE HELL EVEN IS YOUR PROBLEM WHEN IT’S BEING SO FUCKING COOPERATIVE SITTING THERE PATIENTLY WAITING FOR YOU.

15. Gently pick up the frog and wrap the damp paper towel lovingly over its filthy little ash-covered body.

16. DO NOT DROP THE FROG.

17. Try to ignore how it feels like you’re holding an eviscerated still-beating heart as the frog thumps against your palm and loosely curled fingers and tries valiantly to escape.

18. CHRIST DO NOT SQUISH THE FROG.

19. Head to the back door and freeze with your hand on the knob when you abruptly realize you can’t put the frog on the deck because there’s a BIG ASS SCARY SPIDER THAT HAS BUILT A MASSIVE WEB RIGHT THERE NEXT TO THE DOOR FROM WHENCE IT HAS BEEN TERRORIZING YOU FOR THE PAST WEEK. FUCK. THAT. WAS. CLOSE.

20. Mutter increasingly vile curse words under your breath as your heart rate returns to somewhat normal and you once again reassure the cat that THIS WILL BE OVER ANY MINUTE NOW JUST HANG ON DAMMIT STOP STRIPPING THE FINISH OFF THE DOOR.

21. Carry your throbbing bundle-o-frog to the front door and open it and gently DO NOT FLING THE FROG RECKLESSLY INTO THE NIGHT YOU MONSTER gently place it on the front step and tell it to go now and live free and TRY NOT TO GET EATEN and maybe USE BETTER JUDGMENT next time when confronted with a chimney because you’ve just gone to GREAT LENGTHS to save its stupid life PLEASE AND THANK YOU and hope no one is out there walking their dog who might witness you having a one-sided conversation with a goddamned frog on your front stoop in pajamas at midnight and decide to stage an intervention.

22. Nonchalantly, like you didn’t see that curtain twitch in the window next door and you do this ALL THE TIME YOU’RE A WRITER DAMMIT YOU MAKE STUFF UP FOR A LIVING WHAT DID THEY EXPECT ANYWAY, go back inside and close and lock the front door.

23. Close the glass fireplace doors.

24. Open the bathroom door and STAND THE HELL BACK. [Note: it is important to do steps 22 thru 24 in this precise order.]

25. Dispose of all frog related evidence and wash your hands. Thoroughly.

26. Place an apologetic offering of kitty treats on the hearth, which will be totally ignored due to lack of movement and also a heartbeat. Cats are barbarians.

27. Refill your wine glass and offer up a sardonic toast to the Frog Gods and their DEATH FLIES BRETHREN. Imbibe freely.

28. Pretend to be impervious to the cat glaring and sulking and withholding all signs of affection for . . . looks at clock . . . well, for however long it takes.

29. Take a picture of the cat, still stalking that stupid damned frog at noon the next day.

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30. Write a blog post about it, because of course.

 

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Filed under just for fun

Time for yet another summer hiatus

How did it get to be the end of June already? Or maybe a better question is how did so many days pass in succession, as they do, without me noticing? Good grief, the year is half over!

Yes, I have been writing. And thinking, and taking notes, which is an important part of my writing process.

I’ve also been doing a lot of reading. Plowing through novels in my TBR pileup, of course, as well as reading a bit of non-fiction and catching up on bookmarked articles and blog posts in my RSS feed. There are days I feel as if I’ve read the entire internet. Which I guess helps explain how time has passed without me taking note of it.

Either that or someone has indeed invented time travel and it has all gone horribly wrong, speeding us involuntarily along past potential moments of productivity so not only does no one get anything done, none of us have clear memories of the time lost.

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What’s that? It’s just me?

Yes, well, I suspected as much. Clearly, I need to hit the reset button on my work habits and be more mindful of how I waste spend time.

I’ve been told there’s a writing thing in July — and April, apparently — called Camp NaNo. An extension of the more popular and well-known NaNoWriMo in November. Their website proclaims:

“Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual writer’s retreat, designed for maximum flexibility and creativity.”

I’m not planning to participate officially. Mostly because I’m contrary and really bad at following along and obeying rules. But I’m a member of a small group of writers over on The Book of Faces and someone there proposed we have our own informal “retreat” in July, stating our goals in a similar fashion and cheering each other on. So I’ll be doing that.

My goal is to finish the revision of the story I drafted in April. I really hope it won’t take the entire month, since most of the heavy thinking is done and now I just need to write the rest of the words. Then again, the way time is passing, in three days it will be Thanksgiving and 15 minutes after that, Christmas. Unless my A/C breaks down, then roughly a dozen years will pass before summer is over.

Anyone else have big plans or goals for July? Deadlines? Vacation? Long stretches of indolent wave-gazing at the beach?

I’ll be over here trying not to read the entire internet every day, doing my best not to read anyone else’s words at all. Not even the one-word-at-a-time lure of WWF with my youngest sister. *sigh* In fact, other than email and semi-regular goal check-in and whip cracking with fellow writers, my plan is to be internet-free for July.

Ignoring the internet like . . . well, like a cat with a mouse on its head. Probably you can imagine how long that lasted.

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Wish me luck. And determination. I’m going to need all the help I can get.

 

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Filed under goals, writing

When the end is not the end

In my last post, I said I was worried that people hated the ending of the A to Z story [link to beginning] posted here on my blog. If you’ve been reading the comments, you know some of us have been discussing the issue. I’ve also been discussing it privately with a few people.

Truth is, regardless of what anyone else thought, I hated that ending. Just took me a while to realize I did. And why. Here’s part of one comment I made:

“I’m honestly feeling very undecided about the whole VR thing right now. The classic Hero’s Journey begins in the normal world, adventure ensues, and ends by returning to the normal world with the character somehow changed. This story didn’t do that. It finished in a world the reader didn’t know existed. There’s a difference between a plot twist and a betrayal of story premise. After a lot of thinking, I realize the latter is what I did here.”

So, due to the power of editing, that ending no longer exists. Didn’t happen. That entire “Z” post — POOF! Gone from the book. The story does not end that way and does not happen in a VR game. Never did. It was a figment of your imagination. Or mine. Whatever.

You make mistakes, you fix them.

Not that I have anything against VR games or stories about them — I still think that’s a cool concept — but that’s not what this story is. This is a story set entirely in a world where there are dragons and magic. Period.

Interestingly enough, once I made that decision, new stories and new adventures in this world started to tumble around in my brain. In fact, even while I’m refining and fleshing out Zoey and Anton’s story, I’m having to pause occasionally to take notes about the next story pushing its way up into my consciousness. It’s pretty exciting.

But for those of you who LOVED the original ending, no problem. You can still believe that was how it ended. Just, um, maybe don’t ever read the final version I’ll be publishing. Or only read up to the last chapter or two. You’ll be fine.

As for me, lesson learned.

This is the real reason you shouldn’t write fiction, in real time, on your blog. Not because you’re worried about what people might think of your rough unedited writing. Not because people might think your unvetted ideas are ridiculous or that you’re being unprofessional and taking stupid risks. And certainly not because it makes you feel uncertain and vulnerable and afraid– those are good things for a writer to feel.

No, the real reason you shouldn’t do this is because most readers don’t realize just how drastic the editing process can be. Frankly, they shouldn’t have to. Readers get vested in a story and its characters, and that’s good. You want that to happen. Sure, you can go back and change minor details, add a few things here and there. But change the entire ending? That’s a problem.

Once you tell a story, it’s damn near impossible to convince someone it didn’t happen that way.

With that in mind, I’m going to delete most of the “Z” post over here. Not the entire thing, as I don’t want to also delete the comments, but most of the text. Believe it or not, I’m still getting new blog followers every day [hello and welcome!] and it occurs to me it might be a good idea to limit the damage to those few who have already read the story with the crappy regrettable ending. So, I’ll be doing that.

Never fear, I’m hard at work on the final version. I’ve written most of the new ending and I think it’s a vast improvement. I hope you all will agree.

Also, I have an online appointment with a cover artist in a couple weeks. She is amazingly talented and I’m excited about working with her. Except . . . we all know how well I do with anything related to arts and crafts. Probably I should hurry up and finish the story before then. In case she decides to reduce me to ashes.

 

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Filed under Anton and Zoey, reader opinion, writing

A to Z Challenge: Reflections

A-to-Z Reflection [2016]The people behind the A to Z Challenge are asking participants to post their reflections on the month-long effort. What worked and what didn’t, what you liked, whether you’d do it again.

This was my first experience with this challenge. It might well be my last. That is not a reflection on the challenge itself or the way it was organized or whether it was worthwhile. All those things were great. It’s a reflection on the type of challenge I opted to tackle.

If you’re reading this, probably you know I decided to write a piece of fiction, a complete story, during this challenge. Yes, I am well aware of what a bad idea this was, and also experienced enough to know better. I had my reasons.

Someone asked in the comments about my process during the month. I replied that there was no process– it was sheer panic. That’s absolute truth.

I know a good deal about plot and story structure and pacing and character arcs and motivation and scene/sequel and genre expectations and . . . a thousand other things that make for good story. During this challenge, it felt like I took all those things and rather gleefully threw them out the window and just went at it. And left a huge mess to be cleaned up (working on it).

I’d write a post and get to the end and think, “Now what?” Or more accurately, “What were you even thinking here?”

When I wrote the first scene on the beach and there were bats flying in the dusky sky, I was pretty sure there was a cave. I mean, clearly, bats live in caves. But I had no idea when I mentioned those bats that there was also a dragon in the cave. And when I wrote the next scene in the dark of the cave, when I realized there was a dragon, I didn’t know anything about the dragon other than there was one. And it was much later when I realized they weren’t bats after all.

None of that was planned.

When I introduced the ermine character, I called him “Ermie” because I HATE naming characters. I wrote,

“He’s an ermine. Claims to be a royal prince of some country with a name we can’t pronounce, so we call him Ermie.”

I purposely made it ambiguous about whether it was the country or the ermine that had an unpronounceable name. And two weeks later, when Prince died and I realized what I’d written, I was stunned. Some things defy explanation. So I added a small tribute of my own toward the end of the letter V post and hoped it was subtle:

Her thoughts were interrupted when they arrived back at the cliff, where everyone greeted them with cheers and relief. Even Ermie was there, dashing rather frantically back and forth along the cliff edge, getting splashed by an occasional wave. He seemed to be watching Bubbie, now a mere speck on the horizon.

“Is he . . . turning purple around the edges?” Zoey asked.

Ferraro glanced at the ermine. “Only happens when he gets wet. You should see him when it rains.”

Sam diverted Zoey’s attention then, giving her a big hug. The girl was beside herself with excitement now that she knew Zoey was safe.

Most of the “magic” in the story wasn’t planned either. It came about because I’d written myself into a tight spot and in retrospect needed something to make sense. It was like writing an outline in reverse.

And when I wrote the scene where Ferraro tells Zoey to leave, I sat here shaking my head over how stupid that was. I mean, I’m telling a story solely from her point of view and I just ejected her from the story. It was insane. Who does this?

My daughter was reading along and would text me after reading each installment during her commute home from work. After that scene, she said:

DD: NO!!
DD: I do NOT approve!!

Me: What?

DD: You know what!!!!
DD: I suppose this is one way to tell that your story is having the desired effect on readers

Me: I’m delighted that you care about these made-up people!

DD: Sam better stand up to Mr Meanie-head

Me: Maybe Mr Meanie-head had his reasons…

DD: Like what?

Me: I have no idea.

And I honestly had no idea. I then had to come up with something that would not only explain his reaction, but that would not make him look like a total jerk and would also convince Zoey to stay.

Geez. Talk about pressure.

The entire story was full of situations like that where I just wrote my way into it and hoped for the best, trusted that I could make sense of it later. There was no way to go back and edit things after the fact or delete stuff that didn’t make sense or foreshadow anything.

As nightmarish as all that was, it wasn’t the truly scary part. The worst part was that I had no idea what came next. Several people commented on the cliffhanger aspect of the posts, said they couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Yeah, I was right there with you, wanting to know.

I did know, almost from the beginning, how it was going to end. I knew the “twist” ending, which was the premise for the story. And that helped. Except when I worried that people were going to hate it. I’m still worried that people hated it.

I almost always finished writing a scene with no idea of where things were going from there. No idea of how I’d resolve some ridiculous new problem I’d just created on the fly. I didn’t know from one day to the next whether I could salvage things or I’d have to just give up and say, “Sorry, everyone. I screwed up and can’t see how to fix it. There’s no more story.” It was terrifying and exhilarating, telling a story in real time, in public.

I have to say, this is perhaps not the best way to write a story.

Please note: No one over at A to Z suggested this was a good way to write fiction. That not-so-bright idea is all on me.

In terms of the A to Z Challenge, I can’t say I regret taking part. It was exhausting and terrifying and relentless. Never have I looked forward to Sundays with quite so much desperation. The writing wasn’t even the time-consuming part. It was the editing and polishing needed before posting. The constant focus and thinking: now what?

There were times the need to use an alphabetical prompt word was helpful. It added things to the story that might not otherwise have been there. Like the Chinese junk for J. And there were times it was truly inconvenient. Some of the letters were just difficult, especially since I was writing a story and the word had to fit in.

At times, it seemed like the month would never end, that I’d run out of story ideas long before the 30th. But toward the end, I discovered the opposite problem. There was too much story left and not enough time to do it justice. So, for those of you interested in reading the final version once I finish, don’t be surprised if the last half is significantly . . . expanded. And yes, there will be more dragon.

Looking back at the month, the effort served a purpose and was a great incentive for me at a time when I sorely needed it. I’m grateful for that. I am so damn glad I did it. Would I do it again? Too soon to say. Ask me again next year.

But strictly as a strategy for writing fiction? No. I can’t say using the A to Z Challenge is the best approach for writing a novel. Don’t do that. Unless, you know, you’re hopelessly stuck and doubting your abilities and on the verge of giving up on writing entirely. In that case, I highly recommend it.

 

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Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun