Learn Not to Burn February 28, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
Fire Prevention Week used to scare the crap out of me.
Starting in first grade, there was one week in October set aside to remind me that everything in my life had the potential to burst into flames at any minute, and that if I failed to memorize and follow some very important instructions, I would die a horrible, painful death. If I was lucky.
Fire Prevention Week never prepared me for a house fire. Fire Prevention Week gave me a lifelong fear of burning to death in a fire.
Here are a few of the things
I remember that haunt me from Fire Prevention Week:
1. Stop, Drop, and Roll! If you are on fire, drop to the ground and roll around to put the flames out.
Let that sink in for a minute. IF YOU ARE ON FIRE… What possible good can come of putting the image of bursting into flames into the impressionable and imaginative mind of a first-grader? I grew up around fireplaces and wood stoves and a gas cooking range, so the odds of my clothing catching fire at some point were pretty good. I have to admit that. But that’s not what came to my mind. My five-year old brain didn’t go, “Oh, that’s good information to have if a spark jumps and ignites my nightie when I’m standing by the fire!” I pictured myself immolated by flames, enveloped in an orange fireball as my skin and hair turned to ash and floated away while my bones melted.
Curiously enough, I think of Fire Rule Number One every time I see someone catch fire on TV. I wonder to myself (okay, occasionally I wonder it out loud, too) why they don’t Stop, Drop, and Roll. Did a fireman not visit their classroom every year and hand out his terrifying Sparky coloring books? Guess not. I imagine it’s hard to think straight when you have flames licking at your eyebrows. It would throw me.
2. If you think there’s a fire outside of your room, feel the door before opening it. Don’t touch the doorknob because it might be hot!
This used to panic me to no end. We had doors on our rooms but we didn’t sleep with them shut at night. They were kept open to allow what little heat (from the white-hot wood stove) came upstairs to circulate, and also if we were sick during the night and needed Ma she could hear us.
I knew that if fire came rushing up those stairs, there was nothing between me and the angry tongues of hell that would consume me. If the smoke didn’t get me first, of course.
3. Keep low! Crawl on your hands and knees to stay below the smoke.
As if the fire wasn’t bad enough, the smoke can kill me too? What the FUCK?
Do you know what it does to a kid when you combine the idea that “smoke kills” with the occasional whiff of wood smoke wafting up the stairs (through my open door) from where Dad opened the stove to fill it?
You get a Poops that can’t sleep is what you get.
4. Plan an escape route! Every room should have two exits, and you should have practice fire drills with your family.
There was no way my Dad was having a freaking fire drill after working all day. He was going to eat his dinner, be grateful it was over, and go out to mow the lawn or cut wood. I tried to come up with a personal escape plan on my own, but if there was a fire on the other side of my bedroom door, I was hosed. I had two bedroom windows and both led to straight, steep, two-story drops to the ground below. I asked if we could get a fire escape ladder and was told not to worry about it.
Plan A was to go out the front door. Plan B was to go out my sister’s window to the porch roof where I would break both legs dropping to the ground.
Plan C was just praying the flames took me quickly.
When my parents remodeled and built a bathroom addition onto the back of the house, I now had an easier escape route and felt a little better. I still had to crawl onto a roof and drop to the ground, but I was taller by then and figured a sprained ankle was better than a fiery death.
The other thing I distinctly remember learning back in the day was how to recognize when you have a chimney fire. This is important information to have if you grow up in New England and heat with wood. I knew that if I heard a loud WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP sound coming from the area of the stove that I probably should call the fire department.
Okay, Sparky. Will do.
Fast forward a bunch of years and I’ve gone away to school, to the rarefied air of Newport, and away from the horrors and drudgery of heating with wood. I went from college to touring and while a bus crash was a distinct possibility, and I did once stay in a hotel that had a small fire, the idea of burning to death was pretty far from my thoughts most of the time.
I came off the road in ’94 (or something like that) and I got back into town a couple of weeks before Christmas. I was staying next door at Aunt Elaine’s house and living in the upstairs apartment, where I’d been crashing in between gigs.
She’d gone out to bible study or sewing club or something that night, so I was home alone in the big house, downstairs in the kitchen making a batch of cookies. I knew she’d want me to keep the airtight wood stove in the living room going, and because I really only knew how to make a hot fire even hotter, I stoked it up and got that baby cranking.
I should take a minute and ‘splain the difference between an Aunt Elaine fire and an Ernee fire. My dad was the keeper of the flames. Our stove at the house was anything but airtight or efficient, and it had two temperatures: one million degrees fahrenheit, or off. There was no middle ground. The stovepipe would glow cherry red and you know those little magnetic temperature gauges you stick on the stovepipe to tell the temperature? We not only kept them pinned at all times, we melted two of them. You know the fire was going good when it got so hot the thermometer slid down the pipe and landed with a metallic thunk on the stove top.
Aunt Elaine was of the notion that you could get a fire going by throwing some wet logs on top of a pile of magazines and put a match to it and it would be fine. I know this because as a “favor” to Dad she’d pop down during the day and “feed the fire.” I know I’m using a lot of quotations, but trust me, in lieu of a sarcasm font this will have to do.
From a ridiculously young age, Robin and I knew that you had to first, before anything else, open the damper. You stir up the coals and use the poker to move the half-burned logs around to let the air get in and fuel the fire before adding more wood. You add dry wood. Wet or green wood gives a cooler, smoky fire. Dry, seasoned wood gives a nice hot fire. Close the door, give it a minute or two to let the chimney draw, and then close the damper.
Aunt Elaine would ignore the damper, open the stove, fill it with a bunch of wood and close the door again and leave.
We could have smoked a side of pork in our kitchen. And while smoked ham is delicious, smoked clothing is not fun. Smoked coats and jackets, hats and mittens, curtains, rugs, chairs…everything made of fabric reeked.
Eventually Aunt Elaine stopped “helping” and kept her own fires in her own way.
Now, I hated the damned airtight stove she had in her living room. First of all, it was a behemoth of a thing and ugly as sin. It jutted way out into the room and did nothing to heat the living room with its ten-foot ceilings, yet you couldn’t sit in the chair next to it without melting.
Add to that the fact that she never ran it hot but constantly low and smoldering just annoyed the crap out of me.
So the night I was left alone with the wood stove, I got some nice dry wood. I opened the damper and stirred the coals until they glowed like Vulcan’s anus. I stacked on the dry wood, layering it so that air could circulate around the logs and let them catch before closing it up. I don’t ‘spect a Boy Scout could have done no better.
The house smelled like fresh cookies and it was as snug and warm as that old house has ever been.
I was taking a sheet of cookies out of the oven when my dad came in. “You know you got a hell of a chimney fire going in there?”
We went outside and looked and the top of the chimney looked like a friggin’ Roman candle. It was white-hot in the center and there were sparks shooting out of it.
Goddamn fire never made a peep. Not a sound.
Had Sparky the Fire Dog not put the fear of demon fire into my heart I might have thought it was pretty cool. Maybe even took a picture.
The other thing I learned from growing up in New England and heating with wood is that chimney fires are common and most folks generally don’t freak out about them. In fact, most old Yankees will tell you the worst part of a chimney fire is that the fire department will put it out by putting a truckload of water down your chimney and flood your living room.
Dad and I calmly went back in to investigate, and I’m sure at that point we were both more scared of incurring Aunt Elaine’s wrath if the fire department flooded her living room than we were of the fire.
We went up to the third floor and you could vaguely smell smoke but you couldn’t see it at all, so we went down to the second floor into my bedroom. On the wall beside my bed you could see a small, brown patch on the wallpaper. I’d seen the opening of Bonanza enough times to know that it meant there was fire on the other side of my wall.
Dad did too, so he took the trashcan from the bathroom, filled it with water, and splashed it on the brown spot. Then he told me to go call the fire department.
You see, he didn’t put out the fire. He put a hole in the wall that allowed air to get to the smoldering, super-hot fire that was burning on the other side.
Back in the days before building codes, you would build yourself a nice, brick chimney. You could put as many stoves or fireplaces on that bad boy you wanted, so there was no reason to hold back. And there was no need to waste space when it came to construction, either. Just put those 2 x 4’s right up next to the chimney when you frame the house.
What happens is over the course of a hundred years, the mortar between the bricks loosens and cracks with age, allowing heat to seep out of the chimney, especially around these things called “thimbles,” which are holes in the chimney where you would hook up a wood stove. If you’re not using them at present, you put a metal cap over them that is similar to a pie plate. The wooden boards that nestle snugly up against the chimney get really, really dry. When you constantly burn low, smoky fires, this stuff called creosote builds up inside the chimney. It’s very flammable.
So you get a hot fire going in the stove. The chimney gets superheated and the creosote stuck inside the chimney ignites. The fire, usually contained many feet below in the stove is now right inside the cracked, brick chimney and is super-heating the really, really dry timbers of the house frame. They start to smolder. They just need a bit of air and
You got a house fire.
Which is what we got.
Now, I didn’t manage to actually burn the house to the ground, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.
I didn’t have to stop, drop, or roll.
I didn’t have to stay low to avoid the thick, choking smoke.
I didn’t have to jump from a second story window.
I did have to stand in the snow in the driveway and watch firefighters from five towns calmly and efficiently douse the flames in a very big house while sparing the bulk of our family’s belongings from the smoke, water and fire.
Sparky the Fire Dog scared me shitless, because he left something out of his coloring books. Sparky was there to teach us how to avoid creating fires and what to do when confronted with any size or type of fire, and that’s where it ended. The nice firefighter with the big mustache who came in to hand out the books and encourage us to Learn Not to Burn came and went and I never gave him another thought.
Fire is still the boogeyman of my nightmares. But now, having seen the nice firefighter with the big mustache put on his big sooty coat and his shiny helmet and walk right into my house with a hose and make that fire his bitch, and knowing that there will always be men and women ready to do that at a moment’s notice, I sleep better. I’m less scared.
Of course it also helps that I can see the fire station from my front yard, and you should know I’m never moving.
And the Ceramic Panda Goes to… February 28, 2011Posted by J. in Genius, Other People's Genius.
Sorry for the dramatic buildup, there. I stayed up too late watching the Oscars. I probably shouldn’t have done it. I wanted to see Colin Firth accept his Oscar just so I could watch his mouth move, and if he’d lost the award to McLovin’ I might have done something Very Bad.
But he won, and he was just lovely.
And DAMN, is Poops tired this morning.
In addition to wanting to make sure Mr. Darcy took home some gold, I started knitting a baby sweater for my impending nephew who will, if he follows instructions, be arriving on the 9th via C-section. I was on the very last section of the second side front when the show ended and I really wanted to just finish it up so that I didn’t have to figure out where I was when I got up this morning.
So I flicked it over to Spike to catch the end of the Star Wars movie where Haydn Christiansen becomes Darth Vader and was knitting along furiously to the sounds of a lightsaber duel when I heard someone come downstairs.
I figured Larry had to pee, and when he didn’t come out of the bathroom right away, I just figured twosies and kept on knitting.
Then I heard Bug cough.
It’s not like my kids to get out of bed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Mary has a bladder like a camel and Emma just pisses the bed.
Then she coughed again. And again. And I realized that it wasn’t a cough but that sound you make at the end of puking to get the schmutz out of your throat. I tossed my knitting aside and ran in and she was hurling her guts up. I flushed for her and rubbed her back, held her hair, got her one of Papa’s clean t-shirts to sleep in, wiped her face and sent her back up with a bucket and a towel. Then I finished my last row, turned everything off, and followed her up.
I got into bed, and I waited.
Here’s one of those things they don’t tell you about being a parent. The lie they tell you is “once they sleep through the night everything will be fine.” The truth is that there is no such thing as sleeping through the night.
Yes, my kids all reached the point of not needing to wake up to feed between three and four months old. But then they go through a spell of waking up and wanting to play. Sometimes they’re sick, like last night. They have nightmares. They get leg cramps. And the first three months of their lives have trained you to sleep with one ear open. Like a soldier in combat, you never sleep deeply again. You hear every single noise they make. If they cough, you know it. If someone is out of bed, you are instantly out of bed too. Cries, sighs, rolling over: you hear it, you wake up, you identify the sound, classify it, and go back to sleep.
So I went to bed at 12:30 this morning, fell asleep sometime after two after my brain and body stayed on alert waiting to see if Bug would get sick again (she didn’t), slept very lightly, and woke with Dave at 7.
I wonder if when they are all grown and living elsewhere if I’ll be able to sleep deeply again or if sleeping like a rock is a thing of the past forever. Can that kind of conditioning be undone?
So this morning’s postings are most definitely coffee-fueled. It’s the first day of February vacation, both girls are home, and it’s raining out. Y’all should start a pool to see at what time today I completely lose my shit, and if you took “before she gets this post published,” you’d probably be on the right track.
So where was I? Oh, yes! I have some awards to hand out! First of all, a big thank you to everyone who suggested topic ideas for People’s Choice Monday. If you go up to the top of the page, right on the photo of Larry’s still unfinished Lopi anniversary sweater that serves as my header, you’ll see some wee tabs. PCM is People’s Choice Monday and I put the complete list of topics up and the dates on which I intend to speak on them. They’re in no specific order at all, and since some people suggested the same topics or more than one thing, I broke them up and…well, you get the idea. It doesn’t really matter, does it?
Get on with the prizes, woman! Much like the Oscars, I feel I’m running long and the audience is starting to switch channels, but doesn’t want to stray too long in case they miss the big awards, so the producers are signaling to me to pick up the pace. I promise not to “WOOOHOOO” like fucking Anne Hathaway kept doing. Why did no one shut her mike off? Fuck me, that was annoying. So was Franco’s squinting and smirking, but at least I wasn’t really “watching” so much as listening.
Sorry, I’m cutting into Jimmy Kimmel Live.
First, the runner-up award goes to the person whose name I have drawn randomly from a tupperware bowl. The winner of the Macrame Owl Sweepstakes is…
Thanks, Gary, for playing along! Gary’s insightful and probing questions have spawned a three-part series on Life in NH and an in-depth treatise on how my Catholic education has affected me.
Should be some riveting stuff. Be sure to stay tuned.
And the grand prize winner for the comment I enjoyed the most shouldn’t really surprise many people. Her comment spawned a couple of topics, but she gets the award for eloquence, verbiage, and making me laugh out loud. She writes: “Were you looking for serious topic ideas or ones that will inspire you to write witty repartee? Ones that will plunge the depths of your twisted psyche and summon both demons and angels from your restless id…or ones that’ll give you moist knickers? I think you should start with Motherhood and all the lies it entails. You could write volumes on it, I’m certain, but maybe you could do a short series on it. If not that, then write about tits. People always like to read about tits.”
For using the phrases “moist knickers,” “restless id,” and “people always like to read about tits,” the People’s Choice Ceramic Panda goes to…
Congratulations to the big winners and thanks again for playing along!
(Psst. Johnny, tell them what they’ve won.)
Since I refuse to part with my ceramic panda and Gary probably already has a macrame owl, I’m going to lie down and take a nap and ruminate on something just terrific for the both of you for. Something stunning. Something that just SCREAMS Poops.
Be afraid. Be very afraid…
WTF Friday 3.0: Things That Make You Go Hmmm… February 25, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
1 comment so far
I’m gonna sneak this one in under the wire.
Remember when I told you how cool the stats feature is on WordPress? Well, one of the things they keep track of for me is what terms people type into search engines to get to my site.
I get a lot of “wtf” bringing people in, and lately quite a few featuring the words “tattoo under boob” or other variations. But one just caught my eye that I have to share with you:
battery exploded in vagina
What the fuck?
Just let it sink in for a second. Now, I may swear like a sailor, but I’m quite certain I’ve never used that combination of words in my blog at any time. Well, until right now, that is. It’s not featured in any photos I’ve posted. I have no idea how the hell that particular string of words got a visitor to my blog. (But if you’re reading this with an exploded battery in your cooter…thanks for stopping by! Now head to the ER. Good Lord.)
My first thought was I’d uncovered a new (to me) fetish, in which case I’m beginning to feel like the Vasco da Gama of internet porn blogging.
My second thought was “marital aid” accident. I’d heard tell ’round the wharfs that small electronic appliances can and sometimes do overheat. (And if you’re reading this because you had a rabbit catch fire on you…welcome! Now head to the ER and try to pace yourself next time. Mother of Pearl Bailey.)
I wasn’t aware that batteries–and I mean the ordinary household alkaline variety–actually could explode. Do they? Can they? They leak if you leave them in a device (or, I would imagine, any bodily orifice) for a long time, but I’ve never seen one actually go KABOOM.
Do batteries explode if you toss them in a fire? It says right on the package not to dispose of them in a fire.
How hot does your vagina have to get to explode a battery?
See, now I’m tempted to type battery exploded in vagina into a couple of search engines just to answer my own questions.
WTF Friday Redux: Clearly, I Have Issues February 25, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
1 comment so far
Sistah tells me I could probably write a simple program that would pop up on my computer and remind me every day what day of the week we are on. One with a coffee cup, a cheery greeting, and some way to let me know that today is Thursday and not Friday. I assured her that such things were beyond my capabilities.
I posted WTF Friday a day early again. I wonder if anyone is starting to give thought to the state of my mental acuity.
I assure you, it’s not good.
But it gives me a chance before boarding the weekend slow ferry back around to Monday to remind you that I’ll be accepting topic ideas for my blog contest until well after you should be in bed Sunday night. Any topic is cool, you might win a sweet prize, you can enter as often as you like, and you may be immortalized in print for my tens of readers to enjoy.
If you haven’t entered already, what are you waiting for? The details of the contest are here.
Operators are standing by to take your call.
WTF Friday: Too Soon? February 22, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
1 comment so far
First of all, I should preface this post with the disclaimer that if Hacienda’s Mexican Restaurants isn’t going to use this as their corporate slogan, I may have to appropriate it for myself.
Ah, I do love me a margarita.
And I love me some tasteless jokes. If you make me laugh, groan, and cringe at the same time, I love you. I will follow you anywhere. Hacienda’s, I would stop in for a bite of your Mexican chain-restaurant food if only because I love love love how you thought outside of the box (and the boundaries of good taste) in your roadside advertising.
I will drink your Kool-Aid, and I’d like mine on the rocks with no salt. Thanks.
But that shit don’t fly in South Bend, Indiana. A public outcry made Hacienda’s take down the ad. And in South Bend a public outcry is one upset woman.
And I quote:
“Patricia Barbera-Brown of South Bend, who lives a few blocks away from one of the billboards, said she was so shocked when she initially read the message that she drove around the block. ‘I thought perhaps I had misread the sign,’ she recalls. ‘It brought back quite a few horrible images and memories, and the very notion that a local restaurant would trivialize such a worldwide tragedy to simply increase their sales of cocktails is outrageous to me, and it offended me to the core.’
“She sent an e-mail to Hacienda’s executive telling them the billboards weren’t ‘funny at all,’ calling them ‘extremely offensive and very irresponsible marketing.'”
My first thought was that I didn’t see it making fun of any specific cult but of the idea of cults themselves. Certainly Jonestown and the spiked fruit punch spawned the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” but in modern American slang, some 33 years after the fact, it means simply being too stupid to think for yourself so you do what everyone else does.
You know, like what people who join cults do. People who are missing something in their lives but aren’t sure what it is, so they go floundering about looking for whatever it is that feels right in that particular emptiness. I argue that what they’re probably missing is the common sense God gave a goat if they see their salvation in a wild-eyed madman like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, or Marshall Applewhite, but that’s neither here nor there. Long story short, the outsiders want to belong and cult leaders can give them that.
So the disenfranchised get a heady taste of belonging, of being one of a group, of fellowship coated in a thick layer of melted cheese and refried beans and figure, since that’s so tasty, they’ll swallow just about anything their messiah puts in front of them. And, like a Mexican dinner, they probably should have some inkling that it’s probably going to end badly, and yet, God bless ’em, they just don’t get it until it’s too fucking late.
Hacienda’s Mexican Restaurants is suggesting that they’re like a cult because they know you. They know your pain: that there’s an empty hole in you that only they can fill. What they’re offering is so good that if you come by just once you’ll be a regular customer for life. You’ll see the light. You’ll be powerless to resist. You’ll suckle at their enormous Mexican teats over and over again long past the point where you haven’t had a solid bowel movement in months. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, consider the bonus that their Kool-Aid is full of tequila and comes in a salt-rimmed glass and probably won’t kill you.
They’re like a cult that knows you have a need, and they want to satisfy you. And I think on some level we all know that eating at a local Mexican chain restaurant is going to end badly, but goddamn it, those chimichangas are irresistible.
Comedy is tragedy plus time. Thirty-three years is well past the statute of limitations on this particular one, I think.
Now, who wants to hear a Christa McAuliffe joke? Anyone?
Insomnia February 21, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
Back when I was younger and more impressionable, before I learned that being able to quote William Blake doesn’t mean you’re not just as full of shit as the next guy, a teacher whose opinions I generally respect shared with me the old adage “A writer writes.” It was in the context of how certain educational prizes at graduation are awarded, and mashed into the rest of the explanation of how the winner was chosen, the notion was put forth that it’s not the quality of one’s writing that makes one a writer, but the simple fact that a writer writes.
The way I understood the decision at the time was that it’s not enough that a person have a way with words. In fact, it’s not skill that defines a writer, nor is it producing work that is popular or well-critiqued, nor for that matter is it even having any readers at all. A writer is, simply put, one who lives to write. A writer can’t help but write, no matter how pedestrian his poetry or purple her prose. A real writer lives and breathes to put words on paper. A real writer is passionate, and that kind of writer deserves awards and should be encouraged.
Honestly, even at the time I bristled at the idea that quantity or consistency could trump raw talent and unparalleled imagination when it comes to giving out awards. Talk about applauding mediocrity. *spits derisively into dust*
Lest you think all this sounds like sour grapes, I’m not talking about me. I didn’t get the English department award when I graduated because I didn’t have the highest grades, and when that was explained to me, I really couldn’t argue with it. I loved all my English classes and I brought home good grades without putting in a whole lot of effort. The God’s honest truth is that I never cracked a book in high school if I could have helped it, and I’d be the first one to declare that my bare-minimum approach to education certainly shouldn’t be applauded. Graduating with an A average while doing the least amount of work possible was award enough, thanks.
It was some years later when high school was securely in my rear-view mirror that I learned the English award was going to a student based not necessarily on grades, or English proficiency, but because that student was a Real Writer. Not the best writer, mind you, but the best kind of writer. At graduation that particular year, the kind of writer who fills notebooks and fabric-bound journals with page after page of nothing terribly special was lauded for his passion and encouraged in his craft. The other kind of writer, the one capable of writing a college-level dissertation with great aplomb on medieval poetry or whatever other topic was assigned , was going home with fuck-all.
It hit home because I, too, fall squarely into the second category, and I guess after all these years I am still inclined to think of myself as not-a-real-writer. A writer to lesser degree. A would-be-writer. And I have realized that I’ve been hanging an awful lot of self-definition over the years based solely on the judgment of another person who, when it comes down to brass tacks, may or may not be full of shit.
I think deciding what criteria a person must meet to be considered a real writer should be up to the writer. To that end, while I may never win an award for being prolific, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as passionate about my craft, I am nevertheless finally going to declare that I am a writer.
I’m a lousy journal writer, for sure. Self-indulgent navel-gazing is not really my thing, and I flat out suck at it. One year, in my quest to earn the consistent writer merit badge and exorcise the you-must-write-every-day demon, as a New Year’s Resolution to myself, I bought one of those fancy bound diaries at the bookstore and said I would write in it every day. And I did. For one year, I kept a daily diary of my life, my hopes, my dreams, and my deepest thoughts. On December 31, 1995, I wrote my last entry, put the book in my hope chest and didn’t take it out again for years. I didn’t start fresh with a new, empty book and I never once felt the itch to keep going. I sat down and wrote something every single day because I said I would, but it never became a habit, and writing never came any easier. How could I be a real writer when there were days–months even–that I simply had nothing to say?
If the ability to commit thoughts to paper daily, even when completely uninspired makes one a Real Writer…well, then, I’m screwed.
I can go for long stretches without writing a single word and yet I still hold forth that I’m a writer. Sometimes it just takes awhile for the thoughts in my head to take shape and find their way to the page. It’s for shit-sure that I’m not the kind of writer that can sit down and just let the thoughts spew out onto the page with the intention of going back to clean it up and cull out dead wood and polish up the gems. I don’t write that way and I don’t care what Creative Writing for Dummies says, you simply cannot make me.
I decided to try NaNoWriMo for the first time this past November. For the uninitiated, that’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to start from scratch and write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. A writer writes, and NaNoWriMo is a place where you can earn your 50K merit badge. Having proven that I can’t be consistent and good at the same time with my journal writing debacle, I decided with some hesitation to see if I could give prolific and good a go.
I hemmed and hawed about trying it. I’ve got a novel or two in me somewhere, I can feel it. But I’ve got way more short stories and non-fiction musings kicking around in my head, so I figured I’d make my own rules and set a goal for myself of 50K words, or a bit more than 1600 words a day for 30 days on whatever strikes my fancy.
As it turns out, that is a shitload of words.
I finished the month with a total word count of 39,075, which, while not the full 50,000 I was shooting for, is still a pretty respectable total. It’s even more impressive when you take into account the fact that I didn’t just shit out the requisite number of words to make the count and then cull it down to a couple of thousand usable words. Every word I wrote was readable and in a final draft, editor-ready form. It’s the most prolific I’d ever been, but I still couldn’t write every day and I felt horribly rushed.
Part of my trouble with writing 1600 words a day is that no matter how hard as I try, I cannot simply spew out words and hope to whip them into some sort of shape once they’re outside of my head. It’s like when they’re still in there all safe and warm, the thoughts and ideas are working with me, sliding around in and out of all the wrinkles in my brain.
Once those words hit the page, however, they take on a life of their own. For reasons I’m unable to fathom, as soon as they’re transmitted from brain to keyboard to hard drive they no longer feel the need to work with me; they fight manipulation out here in the cold, harsh light of day. And because they fight me, whipping those unruly words into shape takes awhile. I realize my life would be easier if I’d just learn to vomit into the hard drive and sort it out later, but I just can’t seem to do it. I have to carefully deposit the loosely joined thoughts and set them down gently, then let them settle while I look around and try to find and fit in the pieces that shifted or fell off in transit. It’s delicate work and it can’t be rushed.
Truth be told, if it was up to me, I’d be happy with skipping the whole “writing it down” part of writing. It’s a lot of work, and sometimes I’ve got other stuff I’d like to be doing.
Alas, that is not an option. I’m not possessed of a passion to write. It’s more of a compulsion…no, that’s not right either. It’s like I get ideas in my head that need to get out, and if I don’t write them, the thoughts get all clogged up in my brain. If the ideas are taking too long to take shape or I get too many going at once, they start to back up and then all hell breaks loose. When that happens, they start gumming up and it causes a system-wide breakdown. Usually what relieves the cerebral congestion is to make myself find a few minutes here and there to actually put pen to paper as it were and drain the works. It’s sort of how I imagine Dumbledore’s pensieve works, but with written words instead of gray mist and a stone bowl. My way is less cumbersome.
God help me when the ideas in my brain spring to life faster than I can refine them and get them out. Thoughts that are ignored are irritating little buggers. And when they irritate my brains, things get ugly.
One of the ugly symptoms of cranial constipation is insomnia.
I’ve had periodic insomnia for years, and for those people who are constantly and relentlessly plagued by it, my heart goes out to you. I don’t know if it’s because it’s winter and my thoughts are just more dormant, but full-blown wide-fucking-awake insomnia hasn’t happened in quite a few months now, knock wood. A few nights here and there of bad sleep and less sleep, but not the kind of insomnia where I’m wide awake and typing like a stenographer on crack at four in the morning, only to fall asleep just as the alarm starts going off.
I’ve come to terms with insomnia as part of my own creative process. I conceive ideas first, let them ferment and age and ripen in my head, and then when I decant them they’re pretty much ready to consume. It’s a matter of finding balance and keeping up with the ideas as they ripen and hope that too many new ones don’t inexplicably sprout at the same time and make me lose too many nights of sleep due to brain bloat.
And if I haven’t said it in awhile, let me say it now: thank God for the Internet. I think if I’d been plagued with Deep Thoughts and Humorous Observations a hundred years ago, I’d have been an essayist and a short story writer, and it’s likely that I’d have submitted reams of work to the many numerous “readers’ periodicals” that flourished back in the day.
Today, I can be a Blogger and unleash my skewed perspective on literally tens of readers a week. I can post all the stories I want to any number of websites and gain all kinds of readers, and if I wanted to, I could publish an e-book tonight and have it for sale on Amazon. com within the week. Jesus, I love Modern Times.
I’m not a passionate writer and maybe never will be. I have to write, not because I love it so much that I can’t imagine not doing it, but because I really enjoy sleeping. I have accepted that part of my own personal creative process is knowing that sometimes there just are no new ideas popping up and taking root and quite frankly, I welcome the respite. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mojo, or that I have writer’s block, or that I’ve run out of things to say. It doesn’t even mean that I’m inconsistent. What it means is I have is my own unique creative rhythm. I heed it, and that is what makes me a writer.
That’s right, damn it: I am a WRITER.
You Could Win a Ceramic Panda February 21, 2011Posted by J. in FYI, Genius.
I’m in the mood to hold a blog contest.
I haven’t had one in ages, and I even though I don’t have anything to celebrate, bloggally speaking, I’m loving my new home here at WordPress and I feel like spreading the love.
I’m happy with my new digs! There’s just something about this layout and all the cool, fun stuff I can do here (and more easily in most cases) that makes blogging so much more fun that it used to be. One of the things I love is the built-in site stats and how I can see at a glance how many people are reading the blog and when.
I’m not one to get hung up on stats or anything, but if WordPress is going to provide them in such marvelous detail for free, the least I can do is check them out and see if I can glean any useful information from them. To that end, one of the things I’ve noticed, thanks to the delightfully easy-to-read daily bar graph, is that Wednesday through Friday are my biggest days for readership. My audience drops off over the weekend and then stays relatively low until Wednesday rolls around again. Obviously, it stands to reason that I’d get more hits on days that I have a new post, and I seem to only write new posts on theme days.
Here’s a little thing about Poops you may not know: there are things that are not necessarily understood in visual terms by most people that I, not being most people, understand in visual terms.
For example, in my head, I look at the week with Monday through Friday in a neat line, like a row of store fronts along a main street. The weekend is off to the side like a ferry, not attached to the rest of the week so much as it is just tethered there rather tenuously. It docks on the tail end of Friday, you get off and onto it and then it cruises slowly around to Monday where you get back on the “mainland” and make your way down the street.
Here’s where it gets weird. When you combine the way I see the week laid out like a street combined with the frequency of my blog posts, in my mind, Monday and Tuesday are like empty storefronts that are just standing in the way of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and the lack of balance on the “street” annoys me. It grates on me. I don’t care that Saturday and Sunday are less populous because they’re not built on solid ground. They float about in a meaningless sort of way. They get me from Friday back to Monday, but the emptiness at the start of the week is 0ff-putting to me.
I know it doesn’t make much sense. It’s like trying to explain why I hate prime numbers. I just do. They make me uneasy when I run across them. I don’t believe in numbers having any significance or special powers or anything, I just don’t like primes. I’m not fond of odd numbers, either, but if you can divide it by something it makes me feel better.
I also know that I don’t have what it takes to be a daily blogger at this point. I think to put something up every day requires an avalanche of brilliance that I just don’t have. But the way I see it, I only need to post on Monday to even out the rest of the week in a way that will soothe this particular quirk.
And this is where we come back ’round to the contest. If you’re still with me, congratulations! I should give you a prize just for tenacity.
I’ve decided that Monday is going to be People’s Choice Monday. You choose the topic for me to write about. Submit them here in the comments section. I will compile them into a list and randomly assign them a date, unless a topic fits in particularly well into a particular date for some reason. Then, I will enter all the participants names into a hat and draw for two prizes. The first prize will go to my favorite suggestion and the second will be randomly chosen from all the entries.
Here are the rules:
1. The contest begins as soon as this is posted until Sunday, February 27th at midnight, which gives you the better part of the week to get in on the fun. Any suggestions received after that time may be included in the topics list but won’t be entered into the drawing because I have to draw the line somewhere and I don’t know how long it will take me on Monday morning to compile the list and pick the winners. Best not to take any chances and leave it to the last minute.
2. You may enter as many times as you like. In fact, I encourage multiple entries. For every topic suggestion you’ll be entered into the drawing, so if you submit three ideas, your name will go in three times. I like to reward over-achievers.
3. No topic is off-limits, however you should bear in mind that I don’t use my blog to defend either my politics or my religion, so should your topic touch on either of those things, you may find me going wildly off-topic. Oh, and I’ve never read and have no intention of reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so any references to it or Dr. Who are going to also go wildly off topic because I don’t give a flying fuck about either of those things.
4. I LOVE topic ideas that are fully thought-out themes. I find Madhouse Wednesday difficult because they tend to be one or two word topics and while it leaves the playing field wide open as to what to write about, I prefer that you tell me more specifically what you want me to write about. You can ask me a question, or posit a scenario and tell me to write about it. If you want me to look at a picture and write a short story about it, I’m willing to give it a go. The sky is the limit, really.
That’s it for the deets, I think. The prize is going to be a little something made by Poops. I don’t know what exactly because I don’t have a winner yet. I figure I’ll pick the winners and let them choose from a lovely and questionably tasteful selection of prizes, like the showcase on the old Wheel of Fortune.
I don’t know about you, but I’m so excited I might not be able to sleep tonight.
WTF Friday: Someone Get Poops a Calendar February 18, 2011Posted by J. in FYI, Genius.
Did you know that today is Friday, or am I the only one whose days are so mind-numbingly boring that I have to look up what day it is on a regular basis?
I ask, because up until about lunchtime, I thought yesterday was Friday. Why did no one mention that WTF Friday was posted on Thursday?
Did no one else notice it was not, in fact, Friday at all?
Perhaps y’all were just too polite to mention my little gaffe.
Maybe that you figured I must have had a good reason for posting a day early.
Oh, my God, you didn’t think I’d taken to drunk posting, did you?
I know! You’re hip to the whole “my blog, my rules” dictatorship I got goin’ on up here in this thing and you were afraid I’d cut a bitch for steppin’ outta line.
Seriously. What the fuck kind of meaningless life do you have when you don’t even know what goddamn day of the week it is until nearly noontime?
I wonder if there’s a way to make my computer display the date and day of the week across the whole screen when I turn it on. It would be seriously cool (not to mention helpful) to be greeted by this first thing every day:
Then, at least if I mess up and post on the wrong day, you’ll know it’s not because I didn’t know what day it was. All you’ll have to say is, “Yes, Poops, we know. It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
WTF Friday: Some Has, And Some Don’t Has February 17, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
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My friend Greg stopped by Tuesday morning like he does on most Tuesday mornings. “Hey! It’s the bread man!” I crow happily, and put on my shoes and a jacket and follow him out into the cold.
In the back of his pickup truck is a large assortment of bread, English muffins, donuts, and rolls from the Country Kitchen bread outlet. If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of a bread outlet, it’s where the guys who deliver bread to your local grocery store take the stuff that they’ve pulled from store shelves for being too close to their sell-by date. The outlet store marks them down and sells them until they get right up to their sell-by, when they stack them on pallets and sell them to farmers to feed to their livestock. Greg raises chickens and pigs and a seven-dollar truckload of bread a week helps keep them fat and warm during the winter months and stretches his grain budget as well.
The upside for me is that he swings by the house and we go through and pick out an armload of bread that’s not too squished or too far past it’s sale date to stretch our food budget as well. This week I got two packages of Sunbeam English Muffins, two loaves of Canadian White bread, three boxes of donuts, and a store-brand whole grain white for the kids. The retail cost of those 9 items comes to just over 22 dollars, more than three times what Greg paid for the whole truckload.
I don’t feel bad about it at all. I have no problem with day-old baked goods. Especially mass-produced bread like Country Kitchen. Everyone knows that it’ll keep well past its suggested sell-by date (which is really just a suggestion, anyway) because it’s so full of preservatives, and if it gets a bit stale…well, stale bread is fine for toast. Or bread crumbs. Or homemade croutons.
I said in Wednesday’s post that I hoped my kids didn’t know we were poor and Bezzie had a wise observation: “I do gotta say though, I kinda hope my boys know we don’t have a lot of money. Makes them appreciate a fine meal when they get one!”
You know, Bezzie has a point, and I said as much to Greg as he was leaving. I expressed the idea that everyone should be poor–truly poor–at some time in his life. It’s humbling to choose your daily bread from the back of a pickup truck.
And while it’s true that you don’t have to have ever been broke to have the motivation to be generous, I believe that knowing what it’s like to be in a position to take help changes both the motivation to give and the attitude of the gift. It’s been my experience that it’s those who have little are the ones who are most likely to be mindful of those who have less.
I mention this because just this week, the TLC channel has been running commercials for its new show called “Outrageous Kid Parties.” It’s in the same spirit as “My Super Sweet 16” on MTV, but with little kids. The commercial shows a mother going buck-fucking-wild planning a princess party for her daughter who is turning six. During the commercial we learn that she’s spending FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS on this party.
You heard me.
I’m pretty used to the sensational over-the-topness of TLC’s programming, so I didn’t actually shout WHAT THE FUCK at the TV, but I sort of let the idea of spending 15 grand on a birthday party roll around in my brain. You know what I thought of?
Fifteen thousand dollars to make a six-year old feel like a princess for a day. You know what makes my six-year-old feel like a princess? Sitting on a stack of couch cushions wearing a plastic tiara from the dollar store and a towel pinned around her neck.
And what of that six-year-old who is getting the fantasy birthday of a lifetime? What’s going to happen when she turns 7? Or 8? How is mom going to top it next year? What if, God forbid, she can’t? I looked at those people and wondered if they gave a thought to the kids in their own community who would be going to bed hungry the night their little princess blew out her candles.
Now, for all I know these people volunteer at their local homeless shelter and donated a million dollars to charity last year. But the crazed look in the mother’s eyes and the way the dad asked “Am I broke yet?” with a resigned, half-assed sigh made me think that this isn’t their first foray into conspicuous consumption, and that their “no expense is too great” attitude only extends as far as their front door.
The upside to not being rich, as Bezzie pointed out, is that kids who are brought up with less find greater delight in what they do have. My kids’ taste buds are tantalized by hamburger gravy over potatoes, so come summer when I splurge on steak tips for the grill, it blows their little minds. And it doesn’t end at the dinner table, either. When they get a Christmas stocking full of dollar store toys, it’s truly a bounty fit for a princess. They think it’s AWESOME that the tooth fairy leaves a couple of one dollar scratch tickets under their pillow. When Tanta and Baboo take them to Boston to stay overnight in a hotel, it’s like Disney-freaking-world. My kids have never driven a battery-powered Escalade but they’ve driven the tractor, and what’s more important, they took it to the gardens where they helped plant and harvest the vegetables that will be distributed by the food pantry come Fall.
My kids are well-acquainted with the expression “You don’t need it,” and I suspect that as they mature, they’ll understand the unspoken subtext: “You have what you need; the rest is for someone else.”
No, we might not have any extra money, but we have just enough, and we always seem to find a little bit more to share with those that have less than we do.
There are some things money just can’t buy.
I’m Glad That’s Over February 16, 2011Posted by J. in Domesticity, Genius.
It is a point of fact that I’d be a much better cook if, at every meal, I didn’t have to deal with the soul-grinding task of cooking for my children. Granted I’m no Ina Garten, but I could be, friends, I could be. I know the basics of cookery and enough of the beyond-the-basics to really take flight in the kitchen if I put my mind to it. While there are foods that I loathe and would never willingly prepare or even allow into my home (I’m looking at you, broccoli), I have a fairly accepting palate and a broader range of likes than I do dislikes.
Would that I could say the same about my children.
One night, after listening to yet another litany of “I hate this…” and “Do I have to eat it all?” and “Ohhh, gross…” I got my mother on the phone.
“Ma,” says I, “I wish to apologize for my criticism of any meal you put before me as a kid. I was out of line. Even if what you were cooking wasn’t my favorite, I was ungrateful and rude and I’m sorry.”
She laughed like hell, and here’s why.
I suspect my mother knew all along that she was capable of putting better meals on the table, and would have except for three serious limitations that she had to work around. First, every member of the family has their own ideas of what’s tasty and what isn’t and you can’t please them all every day. Second, she knew what made a balanced meal and knew that we had to have those be healthy, so frozen pizza and cheese doodles five nights a week was out of the question, even if we could have afforded it. Which bring me to her third and biggest limitation: a very small grocery budget.
She managed, despite the constraints put on her, to provide at almost every meal, some meat, a starch, and a vegetable. The meat was inexpensive: chicken parts, chuck steak, hamburger, or pork chops; the vegetables were from a can and the starch was from a package unless it was some form of potato. We never ate instant potatoes, but Rice-a-Roni and its counterpart Noodle-Roni were on the table all the time. The only time we ate bread with a meal was when Ma’d throw a chuck steak under the broiler, and when the last bit of fat and gristle was devoured from the plate, Sister was allowed to soak up the blood with a slice of store-brand white bread and eat that as well.
There wasn’t a lot of it either, but there were still some nights (for me, pork chop or chicken-with-the-bone-in nights) the most praise one could muster is “I’m glad that’s over.” My father, who shared my dislike of Shake-n-Baked chicken parts, coined that particular bit of gastronomical punctuation. It never occurred to me that it was rude to echo his opinion, no matter how much I agreed, and why my mother didn’t move out earlier than she did remains a mystery. Kudos to her for not telling us all to go fuck ourselves and let us eat cold cereal until we developed rickets and scurvy. It would have served us right.
I never really grasped the idea that we ate like poor people, because I didn’t realize that other families ate better or that we were, in fact, poor at all. It’s not until we were much older that her menu choices started to make sense to us, and in a sad way at that. But it’s testimony to her that she didn’t throw it back in our faces that she’d be a better cook if she had better food to work with and if she had kids that wouldn’t turn their nose up at anything different.
She did sometimes try to branch out, poor thing, and I have to say that there were some Mommie Dearest moments at the dinner table because of it. I can recall sitting by myself at the dining room table after everyone else had finished and all the other plates had been cleared because I refused to eat the vegetable on my plate. I could swallow a forkful of nasty-ass canned peas pretty easily without chewing or tasting them, but I could not choke down the glazed carrots in front of me. I know I didn’t eat them and I remember my mother letting me go–thank God she didn’t save them for breakfast and try to make me eat them then–and how MAD she was that I wouldn’t eat them.
She was trying to do something different and I’m sure my stubborn refusal to even take one bite was more than her mother-nerves could take. I can still see the defeated look on her face to this day.
Because my dad wasn’t the most adventurous eater either, her more exotic culinary exploits were usually reserved for Thursday night. Dad worked until 8, so my mother’s sister Bunny and her husband came down the street to join us for supper and Ma would serve things she liked but Dad wouldn’t eat. Sister and I, I should point out, were never consulted about the menu and we pretty much hated Thursday nights.
Oh, and I know that in some families forgoing what is on the menu and just having a bowl of cereal or some toast instead is the last resort of parents who feel the need to get some nourishment into their child. In our house it was never an option. You see, dad ate toast for breakfast and the bread and peanut butter had to go the week. We ate cereal for breakfast and that box of cereal and the gallon of milk had to last the whole week as well. If you ate breakfast food at dinner, you wouldn’t have any breakfast come Friday, and there was no money until the eagle shat again to go to the store and just get some more.
Speaking of that, remember how cereal commercials when we were kids used the phrase “…part of a complete breakfast of toast, juice, milk, and cereal”? Not in our house. Cereal was breakfast. Period. You had milk on your cereal, but not in a cup beside it. Sister remembers how she’d wake up so thirsty she’d want to die, and all she wanted was a cup of milk in addition to what was on the cereal and Ma saying no. “You have milk on your cereal.” We never had orange juice, and we loved it so much. Toast was also breakfast, but you have a choice between toast or cereal…not both. And a piece of fruit? We weren’t Rockefellers, people.
Anyway, Thursday nights were when Ma could cut loose, with mixed results. On the one hand, American chop suey* was always a hit. On the other hand, she once unleashed La Choy chicken chow mein from the can on us. When it was good, it was very good, but when it was bad it was nauseating.
Ironically, now I’m grown and living in the same house where my mother had our evening meal on the table at 5:30 on the dot every night, and I find myself facing the same struggles she did, hampered by the same set of limitations. What goes around has come around. We have a cheap piece of meat: chicken parts and hamburger are staples in my house too, as are easy to prepare packaged side dishes and canned vegetables. And there are nights that Larry and I will finish eating, look at each other and declare, “I’m glad that’s over.”
I hope my kids don’t know that we’re poor.
Now, once a week we have casserole night at my mother’s house. If you’d have told us when we were kids that someday we’d be thrilled to the core to have Ma set a meal in front of us, we’d have told you to shut the front door. I chalk it up to a mother’s innate ability to forgive that she makes us our favorite meals. The menu doesn’t have a lot of variety, but what it lacks in inventiveness it makes up for in both deliciousness and volume. “What are we having?” we’ll ask her when she calls on Monday and she’ll tell us. Macaroni and cheese. American chop suey. Pot roast. Boiled dinner. Pork chops in gravy. Chicken fricassee. Meat loaf. Shepherd’s pie. Spaghetti with meat sauce. And we swoon with delight. We think about it all day long. Sister and I call each other and talk about it on the phone.
“Did Ma tell you what she’s making?”
“Macaroni and cheese, and Shake-n-Baked chicken-with-the-bone in.”
“Oh my God, I can’t wait. I can taste it right now.”
“I know. I might skip lunch so I have room for more at dinner.”
“I know, right?”
Not for nothing, but it’s pretty much the same food she gave us as kids and we know that. We’ve embraced that particular irony. Of course now she can afford better cuts of meat and higher quality ingredients, and she can afford to make a lot more of it as well. Then there’s the added bonus that we’re now grownups and our palates have expanded considerably, so she can follow a whim and make something like glazed carrots that won’t leave us gagging. We no longer sit there staring at the food on our plate under threat of sitting there until it’s gone. We eat until we can’t pack in one more bite, and then take some home for lunch the next day.
I wonder how it makes her feel to hear us say “Thank you for dinner, Ma. It was awesome” as we go out the door. Better, no doubt, than “I’m glad that’s over.”
Occasionally I whip up a meal that I know everyone will like because I know how it felt to face a plate full of food that made a bowl of Cheerios look inviting. But in truth, some of the meals I recall most vividly are the ones that I remember as being the best. Like French toast night. Is there anything better than breakfast for dinner? The best part of French toast for dinner was Dad cutting our toast on the diagonal saying it was “the French cut” and putting spoonfuls of his hot, sweet coffee into our milk to make coffee milk.
I want my kids to have some favorite meals to look back on fondly when they think of family dinners. I like to picture them someday calling each other the day before they come over for supper for some shared anticipatory salivation.
“What’s Ma making?”
“Ohhhh, I can’t wait. I’m going to eat until I feel sick.”
“Yeah, I always do.”
American Chop Suey
1. In a large skillet, saute together in a bit of oil one large onion and one large green pepper, diced. When they are softened, add a pound of hamburger and cook until brown. Drain off the fat and add 2 cans of stewed tomatoes with the juice. Cook over low heat.
2. Boil a pound of elbow macaroni in a big pot of salted water according to package directions. Drain, and pour into a big bowl.
3. Add the hamburger and tomato mixture and stir well. Serve hot. (Platinum version: double the ingredients, serve with grated parmesan cheese from the green can and some squishy white bread with butter.)
1. In a large skillet, brown a diced medium onion in a bit of oil or butter and cook until translucent. Add a pound of hamburger and cook it until it’s brown.
2. Make a roux: sprinkle 2 or 3 tablespoons of flour over the meat and cook it for about three minutes. If you use leaner meat, you’ll need less flour, and if you use very fatty meat you’ll need more. Go for a thick, pasty texture.
3. Add two cups of beef broth, beef stock, beef bouillon, or beefy onion soup prepared from a package and whisk it into the roux. As it cooks, it will thicken. If it gets too thick, add a bit more liquid. Add some milk for a creamier gravy.
4. Serve over mashed potatoes with the center hollowed out like little volcanoes.