Thanks for all the Fish

Allow the pictures and flattery to hypnotize you into thinking this blog post is NOT boring. You’re going deeper…

Dear readers, followers, and random people who stumble upon this page,

Hello, again, and thank you.*  Why am I thanking you?  Why, because you’ve been helpful, of course.  Let me explain.

Yes, I know I’ve been absent for a while.  Some of you are probably wondering where I’ve been, or even who I am, since you may have forgotten you followed me in the first place.  So here’s an update of sorts on life in general.

Gulp, indeed.

Gulp, indeed.

Much like this blog, I’m behind on everything.  I have “To do” lists in six different places, including my bathroom mirror (thanks to Tommia’s Tablet for that idea and making my fingers itch for my guitar).  The system is working, but more than ever I’m aware of how little time I have in a day.  It seems incredible that fifteen years ago I found time for hiking, flute practice, homework, video games, chasing rabbits around a yard, writing, household chores, and reading all in one day.  I never estimated in the time cost of daily house maintenance, bill paying, work (and the fatigue that comes with), and basic hygiene until I was an adult.  I’m grateful lately if I manage to get to the dishes and comment on blog posts.  I’m still wondering if I’m sick or if this kind of fatigue is (gulp) growing up.

Despite my seeming inability to get anything done, I volunteered myself to beta-read another writer’s fantasy novel.  I’m honored that they’ve entrusted me with their passion and hope I’m living up to the challenge of giving them an honest critique that focuses on their strengths and helps them improve any weaknesses.  They have beautiful prose, an engaging story, well thought world rules, and intriguing characters, so for the most part it’s fun!  I feel confident that their story has great potential and can succeed in the market once it’s been fully polished.  It’s exciting to be one of the people with an opportunity to read it before that happens.

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There’s a bonus to beta-reading I hadn’t expected, though, in how I approach and view my writing.  Rilla Writer has an excellent piece on how beta-reading can help us improve and see the snafus in our own work, and it’s part of a larger set of articles on how writing fan-fiction can improve writing skills.  Beta-reading has helped me see the positives in my writing while simultaneously helping my inner editor focus on what’s really important, and that it’s not the end of the world to have to go back and fix something.

I also learned something else about my writing process from Nanowrimo, where the lovely 4amWriter was gracious enough to keep me company (pssst…she also writes some useful posts on overcoming writing block and the dreaded inner editor that have been useful as well).  It’s true (too true) that I often write long-winded passages of explanation, and that particular fact drives me crazy and often stops me from writing.  Yet if I let that part of myself do the writing when I’m not sure what the exact words of dialogue are, I can see what I want to express and how to reach that point with greater clarity.  I’ve come to see my “telling” vice as a way to create a detailed outline, and to get to the point of what I want to say faster than staring at my computer screen hoping meaningful dialogue and action will spill out of me.  I’m starting to see my first drafts as fleshy outlines, and I’m finally okay with the fact that this is how my process works.  Having these two experiences means that I’m ready to face Camp Nanowrimo with less dread, and that I can tell my inner editor to be silent (for now).

TOHPuZN

No more of this timid bunny stuff. Although, he is adorable.

I’m facing the “adult life is scary” terrors head on for the first time in years.  Not just with lists, mind you, but with verifiable action.  Maybe I am tired, but a recent vacation has helped me focus on what really matters.  I recently got a retirement plan in place, and I’m submitting to a health physical for life insurance tomorrow.  I cannot express what a relief it is to feel as if I am doing something to secure my chance of a future (or Mr. Wonderful’s in a less than desirable scenario) where I won’t have to work until I die.

Some of my nearest and dearest are also buying houses.  I’m excited for them, but I’m a bit envious, because I’ve been putting off saving for one until I’ve reduced my student loan debt further.  The tie-up of a recent story (hurray for archeology and character building!) by jmmcdowell solidified my longing and resolve to start saving, and a sudden urge to dig out my chalk pastels and rekindle my past led to obtaining a newspaper and wistfully eyeing the market, which was when I realized while staring at an ad (and a bit of internet research): I qualify for those home-owning programs.  All this time I thought I had to be, well, poorer.

I am a bit nervous.  With this spate of life changes, I also went to the doctor.  They called me a week and a half ago in one of those “Call us back, now,” fashions, but I haven’t been able to get ahold of them since.  I suspect that means one of my tests came back and that all is not rosy on the health front.  On the other hand, everything I was tested for is treatable/fixable, and it’s nice to know that maybe this “tired” junk isn’t what getting older is supposed to feel like.  Hopefully I’ll be able to contact them tomorrow and see what the ruckus is about.  Let’s hope that whatever is going on doesn’t kill my ability to obtain life insurance.

It's a book cover.  With a scary needle...that inspires me to get a flu shot so that I can avoid more scary needles.

It’s a book cover. With a scary needle…that inspires me to get a flu shot so that I can avoid more scary needles.

Well, at least I’m sure that I’m not the victim of a flu epidemic.  Thanks to Carrie Rubin at The Write Transition who tipped the balance with a timely Facebook posting after my parents chronic reminders and being sick of being sick failed to inspire me, I did get a flu shot this year, so while my coworkers call off work and stumble about desecrating trash cans, I’ve been symptom free.  By the way, have you read The Seneca Scourge yet?

Then there’s life in general.  A special thanks to Goldfish, who is truly a Fish of Gold, for reminding me that it’s never too late to think about other careers or moving, even if I am stubborn and afraid of change.  I believe you can surmount the worst, Goldfish.  Oh, and it’s your fault that my chalk pastels and sketch books are coming out.  You post so many pretty pictures and descriptions of art that my pessimistic jerk-brain can’t come up with excuses fast enough.  Thanks for all the fish, without the so long part.  You know what I mean.

You light up my world, in your uh, water bulb.

You light up my world, in your uh, water bulb.

I blame all of you.  You know, in a thankful, you’re all awesome sort of way.

 

*There are more of you, of course, and I’m sorry if I missed you or didn’t manage to squeeze you in.  Some of you are really prolific and it’s hard to keep track!  You’ll get your day soon, I promise.

At Least I Like Green

I am back, with a new look.  It’s not a look I particularly care for, but the header picture was the only picture I had on short notice and I didn’t want to use the default.  The picture is not my style, and it has nothing to do with the blog, but I suppose it’s calming in a fuzzy sort of way.  Be so kind as to bare with me, and I promise that I will do my best to change my grainy old i-touch photo eventually.  Hopefully, eventually will be sooner rather than later, but since procrastination is perfectionism’s best friend, and I seem to be easily distracted lately, I’ll do everyone the decency of not making a promise I’d probably break.

Also, I don’t seem to have a decent camera on hand.  I’m not really sure how that happened, especially in this digital day and age, but that appears to be how it is for now.

At least all of those blossoms and leaves gave me an excuse to make my blog green.  I like green.  The best perk of all, though, and the reason for the change over in the first place, is that the teeny tiny white print, especially on a black background, has been bothering me since the day I first got a blog.  If I do my readers the disservice of boring them, at least I can try not to give them eyestrain.

See?  I did it all for you!  We’re a long way from the end product, though, so feel free to add any input or advice you may have in the comment sections as I fiddle around with my blog theme.

It’s That Time!

It’s that time!  By that time, I mean NaNoWriMo time, of course.  After all, I announced my intention to take part when I started my blog last November.

I should be writing by now, as it’s 20 minutes past midnight here.  I was supposed to have my dishes done, eaten something, and taken a shower by now.  I was also supposed to be dressed in my writing costume, candle lit, and tea by my side (I recently developed a writing ritual to cue my mind into the fact that it’s time to write).  Instead I am writing a blog post for the first time in months.  Procrastination is a wonderful thing isn’t it?

The good news is I signed up a few days ago and I have some steadfast, wonderful writing buddies.  There’s Mr. Wonderful, who has been outlining his novel for well over a year, but who hasn’t written a word, so I’ve roped him in with me so he can get a start.  I might be procrastinating because a part of me doesn’t want to start until he gets home from work.  There are some wonderful people I’ve been introduced to by the threads, and a couple of my lovely fellow bloggers.  If any of the rest of you are playing and want another writing buddy, feel free to find me by looking me up by the same name I use here.

Now, a completely meaningful tangent (I promise):

Pre-kindergarten, I used to envy my siblings.  You see, my siblings got to go to school, and one of the best things about school, besides the fact that theirs’ made them a birthday cookie every year, was that it was the mystical far away place that taught children to read and write.  I had somehow, even at this young age, and probably due to my mother’s influence, picked up on the idea that words were some of the most important, beautiful things ever, and that knowing them would lead to big, special things.  Many children draw, but I used an incredible amount of scrap paper scribbling straight lines of cursive e’s and pretending that I was writing stories.

When I was six, my teacher told us all to write an essay on what we were going to be when we grew up.  I sat, petrified by the concept of the monumental task of deciding what I was going to be when I grew up.  Something about how the task was presented led me to believe that whatever I decided now, I would be stuck with forever.  What if I chose the wrong thing?  I watched all of my other classmates blissfully announcing that they were going to be firemen, or police officers, or ballerinas, and got more and more anxious.  Finally my teacher stopped in front of me and asked what I wanted to be, and suddenly it hit me, “I’m going to be a writer!” I blurted out.

A few short hours later, in the grocery store, my mother asked me how the day went, and I told her that I’d decided what I wanted to be when I was big.  I repeated my earlier declaration.

“…but you can’t be a writer,” my sister interjected, “I’m going to be a writer, and I decided first.”

“You can both be writers,” my mother told us when I became visibly crestfallen, probably thinking that one of us would probably change our minds at some point and it would be a non-issue anyway.

I think she underestimated our tenacity and passion, but she was right about one thing: this year my sister and I are Nanowrimo buddies.  I wish her the best of luck and wonderful discoveries and fortitude.  Most of all, I wish her joy in her story, because being lucky enough to read some of her earlier works, I know she has what it takes.

Best of luck to the rest of you, too!

Getting Into a Kitchen is Easy, It’s the Getting Out That’s Hard

It was 7:30 AM when I got the phone call.  I was barely conscious, having laid down a few scant minutes before.  I’d stayed up all night watching television with one of my roommates and then, long after the light seeped through the blinds, communing with Safran, who had first appeared to me a couple of weeks before.  I was completely obsessed with her already.

To be honest, I didn’t really want a job at all, but going jobless is a luxury only the rich can afford, or those with rich, helpful family members.  I am, and have, neither.  At that point I’d spent four years of my life cleaning hotel rooms, three months prepping and dishwashing at my university’s food service before I was forced to discard the job because there was no work in the summer and what work could be had was only part-time, two and a half years being a front desk clerk (“Guest Services” is a job-title that should be viewed with extreme suspicion), and an awkward five months at fast food when I couldn’t stand being a desk clerk anymore, and hey, they were paying $9/hr.  Of the jobs, I was too meticulous to be efficient enough to clean 20-45 rooms a day in eight hours, food service was the only one I remembered fondly, and fast food would have been acceptable despite some of it’s obvious and not so obvious drawbacks if the married owner hadn’t kept making passes at me.  The concept of further customer service filled me with dread, and I wanted only to hide in the back room of somewhere, anywhere that I didn’t have to cope with strangers who looked at me as if they’d just discovered a louse, or men who asked me if I’d tuck them in.  My last two jobs had given me daily panic attacks; the idea of finding a new daily nightmare was terrifying.  I’d begged a month of freedom “to work on my novel” from Mr. Wonderful after finishing my bachelor’s degree, but that was all I dared.

Dishwashing, Safran urged, you have to know something about kitchens and cooking.  At least you could observe the people, pick something up.  Why not?  So I filled out an application.  I could hide in the back of a restaurant and everything would be…

Sane.  Logical.  Safe.  Kitchens are none of those things, of course, but I didn’t know that at the time.

I picked up the phone, and listened foggily as the Chef explained that he’d like me to come in for an interview.  I wasn’t lucid; I could almost hear the doubt in the man’s voice as I stumbled in my effort to find coherent speech.

I had to scoop up some wrinkled, already worn clothes off the floor for my interview.  The slacks and blouse I’d bought for interviews would probably discount any idea that I was willing to do a dirty, wet job, but it hadn’t occurred to me to do laundry the night before; no where else I’d put in an application had called me back yet.  “I’m applying to be a dishwasher; I shouldn’t look too nice, right?” I asked Mr. Wonderful dubiously.  “Yeah, sure.”  He rolled over and went back to bed, not exactly the most reassuring response.

I sat in the kitchen’s office for a half hour, feeling apprehensive as I contemplated a post card pinned to the wall of a female model’s thong-clad derriere.  I think this is a bad idea, I told Safran, quite possibly the worst I’ve ever had.

She laughed.  You have to pay the bills, she reminded me, and I grit my teeth at her, give it a chance.

Maybe they won’t hire me.  I mean, I haven’t showered, slept, and I’m wearing clothes that are so crinkly they’ve obviously been laying on my floor for over a week.  I’m so tired I can’t string a sentence together.

Safran and I continued to argue.  She wanted this badly.  I wanted to run out the door, far away from the indication of potential sexual harassment that was taunting me.  I contemplated getting up and walking out the door, and then the Chef walked back in.  My escape plan was foiled, blast!

“Is this only a summer job for you?” he asked, and “Do you have any other jobs you’re considering?”  No, and well, okay Barne’s and Noble obviously wasn’t calling me back to sort books in a back room, and I wasn’t interested in driving to another city every day, especially in the eight months of the year when the weather would make this less than desirable, to dye t-shirts even if it would pay almost twice what this job was offering.  When I’d handed in my application at the t-shirt dyeing place, the atmosphere had been cold, concrete, and thankless.  I’d had to sign a statement saying that I understood that the job might cause permanent lung damage if I was even offered the job in the first place.  Yuck.

My answers to those two questions were apparently all that was required.  There was nothing rigorous about this interview.  I wondered why he’d even bothered to see me in person in the first place.

“Can you start today?”  I looked blearily at my application, handed in the day before.  It did say that I could start today; if I said otherwise now one answer would be in conflict with the other.

“Sure.”

Now I had less than a half hour to run back to my house, find my paperwork, and return with proof that I was a valid human being and tax paying citizen before breakfast went into full swing and the Chef had no time for me (kitchen hiring tip: never call on the Chef during busy hours; it’s a sure way to count yourself out of the hiring pool).  That was easier said than done, but at last, after reading all the manuals and signing all the forms, I stumbled home at noon and attempted to grab three hours of sleep.

On Thursday, June 14, 2007, I was blissfully unaware of what I’d just gotten myself into, but I was about to find out.

 

On a related reading note, both of these blog posts contain gems of truth about the restaurant industry, including some of the reasons why we may simultaneously hate and love our jobs:

10 Things You Learn at a Food Service Job

Hard Work Pays Off

Just Swallow Already

I am sitting at my computer as I write this and sipping plum sake.  I should be eating something, and I know this, but the phrase I should be eating is something I’ve been saying a lot lately, and it is still surprising to me how difficult it is to get up and make myself food, or even to convince myself I want food, and furthermore, that chewing and swallowing isn’t some sort of exceptional burden.  The anticipation of making food and then having to eat it seems more akin these days to someone telling me I’m a traitor to my country and therefore tomorrow I’m going to be broken on the wheel, eventually to be dragged behind a horse until dead (I hope it’s an exceptionally fine horse, sleek coat, fine carriage, that sort of thing), than it can be equated to the expectation of pleasant taste bud tingles.  Food is a necessity, but a burden, and an unpleasant one at that.  Chewing and swallowing is surprisingly difficult.  In my job these days, I know that food is exceptional if I actually want to eat it, if I can force it down it is probably sellable, and if I can’t bring myself to do more than taste it out of a sense of duty, someone else might like it but it probably wasn’t worth the effort.

So I went, sighing, to my little bookshelf covered in stuff I can eat, and found that Mr. Wonderful had left a bottle of plum sake sitting there, and both because I have had the sort of week that left me questioning whether or not hell exists and if I was already there, and because I seem to be out of my standard supply of protein drinks and bars that I’m consuming in increasingly expensive quantities in an attempt to stabilize and regain my muscles and gain weight, I grabbed the sake instead.

This thread probably sounds a bit strange, because hey, most of you probably idolize food and wish you loved it a little less.  It’s probably unimaginable to most people that anyone could forget to eat, or have issues eating.  You may be thinking I wish I had that problem, but I’m here to tell you that really, you don’t.  You might wish that you exercised more or ate in moderation, or even that you could lose a little or lot of weight, but in this wish of yours you’re probably bouncy and full of energy, and you have all your hair, and you’re not sick much of the time.  Your mind has enough calories whirring through it to focus on writing a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a 3,000 words per day goal count on your latest novel, and your neurons are well myelinated, and that is a beautiful thing.  You might envy the skinny girl or guy walking down the street, but the fact is that this skinny girl envies you (and loves those blog posts all of you write about food, especially the ones with pictures and tantalizing descriptions—keep ‘em coming).  This skinny girl wishes she had enough padding left to keep from bruising her tailbone every time she sits down to write a chapter and the mental state to do so, and enough flesh to protect her other bones from poking through her skin and getting irritated when they come in contact with other things for more than a few minutes.

I shouldn’t have a book character that lives and breathes food, because I don’t even know what that means anymore.  I used to love food, and I’m not entirely sure how this happened.

There is a silver lining, though, in that I can finally button the pants I wore five years ago without them falling down around my ankles.  Thank you protein drinks and bars for making this moment possible, and thank you sake for not making this post about my week.  No one needs to hear that, again, most of all me.

Long-Winded

I have a confession to make.  I’m long-winded, as in, verbose.

What?  You noticed that already?  I don’t know how…

It’s always been this way.  I don’t remember a single teacher in elementary through high school saying, “Now kids, make sure your story/essay is less than a page.”  Instead they always said, “Make sure it’s at least a page”, with the specification that the font, if typed, couldn’t be larger than 12 pt. and by the way, tab is definitely not a space key.  For other kids, writing was a chore; I woke up an extra hour before school and tossed off four pages of something that fit the requirements.

In fifth grade my teacher told us to write a fantasy story of at least five pages due in three weeks, and I started my first novel. Strangely, my teacher thought it was fine when I announced this plan, and as a result I handwrote my first 56 pages in approximately a week or less (although I never finished), and had about a hundred when I turned it in.  As a freshman, my teacher demanded that we rewrite the ending to Romeo and Juliet, in any style we held dear at a minimal 2 pages.  I handed in 20 pages of poetic verse and received no objections.  In all this time, it never occurred to me that being brief and concise might be something to strive for.

My college professors made it quite clear that there was a cap on space, because they had no desire to increase the hours spent grading, but alas, most of those requirements were for papers, not essays or fiction.  I wrote them, dutifully, and perhaps prior planning for paragraph layout and citations kept me in the proper page length naturally, but I still never learned to be brief, not when it came to anything “fiction”.

Many people blanch at novels; I shudder at the thought of even trying to write a short story.  It’s hard enough to keep that first novel between 80,000 and 120,000 words.  At last word count, I was at about 51,000 words, and from my outline estimate, I’m only a little over a third of the way through.

My comments are long, my blog posts are long, my stories, and usually my poems, are long.  Only a few days ago, after typing a comment and hitting the post button, I recoiled in horror at its length.  I know the people behind the blogs I follow, no matter how kind they’ve been about it, do not need to wake up to an essay in their comment section, just as I know that my followers have other blogs to read and posts of their own to write.

This is the point where public promises come in, because clearly my efforts to contain my wordiness privately aren’t working.  I’ve been trying for at least a year now, and I’d bet no one could tell that I was trying.

Disturbing fact of the week: it could have been far worse.

I hereby promise to write shorter blog posts, comprising no more than 600 words.  We’ll call those posts bite-sized.  I’ll get to tackling my comma obsession, other punctuation issues, and convoluted sentence structures sometime in the near future, I hope.

You’re welcome.

Home Sweet Park

When I was seven, and the boxes were piling up in the house, and the movers came to load them up and take them away, my mother told me I would love my new home because it was right next to a huge park, and there would be so many exciting things to do there.  Perhaps because my father worked for the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, which meant that my entire life to date had consisted of living in settlements that couldn’t even deserve the word “town”, and that therefore the hour’s drive to the closest thing that was a town for church, groceries, a medical check up or whatever other necessities occasionally ended in the treat of a playground, I envisioned miles of flat, lush green grass covered in playground equipment.  A ferris wheel, in particular, would have been nice.  I’d gone to a county fair or two and seen the ferris wheels and had always wanted to go on one with the “big kids”, but I’d been too little.

Swings, and slides, and teeter-totters…oh, my!

I have no idea how long it took to get from point A (my old home) to point B (my new home), but at some point we passed through some sort of gate where we were handed a bunch of maps and some fliers about not feeding the animals, and how taking anything out of whatever place we supposedly were was against federal law, and oh, by the way, do not approach the wildlife.  We got one piece of paper that alarmed my childish mind a great deal, for it was bright caution yellow all over, and, as if the color itself weren’t enough it also yelled “CAUTION!” at me in big, black letters at the top.  Underneath it had a picture of one of the big, shaggy, horned brown things we kept passing and above its horns was an illustration of a man who had clearly been tossed into the air, and though I had no idea what gravity was at the time, I was pretty sure the cartoon man would be coming back down to earth soon.  I’d been watching those mysterious beasts and was also sure, from all their huffing and puffing and the way they kept ripping up clumps of turf with their hooves that I didn’t want to be close to them at all.

“Most people call them buffalo,” my glowing mother informed me, “but they’re actually not buffalo at all; they’re bison.  Bison bison.  That’s their scientific name,” and then, as the bison ambled along the road and obstructed traffic, she slid open the van door and started snapping pictures over my lap.  I could have poked the closest bison in the eye.

Alas, I don’t have any of my mother’s photos. I was reduced to borrowing from Wikipedia (again), because I’m never sure which photos are acceptable for free use. Bison can run into you at 30 mph with a crushing 2,000 pounds of force and, in their free range days were listed as the 2nd most dangerous mammal in North America (or so Wikipedia (sigh…) reminds me). The questionable bits I saw in its fur were probably actually just clods of turf.

“Mom,” I pleaded, thinking of the yellow flier, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”  I held my breath for the next five minutes as my mother went shutter-crazy, and told the bison repeatedly how magnificent they were.

“It has poop in its hair, Mom,” I said, “See there’s one rolling around in some now.  Please close the door.  What if it gets mad?”

Finally my mother acquiesced.  She did not say “Party pooper,” although I think she should have; it would have been excellent fodder for my blog now.  She stopped because she needed to save the rest of her film for other things, like elk, big horned sheep, moose, grizzlies, and black bears.  An entire roll of film would be saved for birds, of course.  Perhaps she would take a snapshot of the occasional geyser.  Maybe.  My mother has probably expressed her desire to work in a zoo at least a few hundred times in my lifespan.  Geological formations, mud pots and waterfalls, living at the edge of a volcano with the potential for an explosion 1,000 times the size of Mt. Saint Helen’s, and boiling pools tinted by bacteria that are capable of living in temperatures unthinkable to humans are all wonderful, but they are apparently a wee bit less thrilling to my mother than animals, insects, and fauna.  Which is to say that despite the animal love, my mother wouldn’t have minded being an ecologist, archeologist, entomologist, botanist, or well, any number of other science related occupations, either.

“It’s so beautiful,” my mother sighed, and I looked at the dilapidated forest and wondered what ailed her.  There were huge bald patches everywhere, and while a few very small trees were struggling from the ravaged ground, most of the larger trunks were tipped over, or broken.  The standing trees were missing chunks of branches and needles; quite a few of them were one-sided, as if a giant had come by with an axe and lopped them in half.  Large blackened trunks stabbed upward, tapering at the tip: death’s fingers grasping from below.

Maybe the giant was this fellow. Perhaps that’s why Captain America’s accosting him.

My father explained that there had been a terrible fire here a few years ago, and that it had wiped out much of the forest.  The trees would grow back…eventually, and the forest would be green again.  “Oh,” I said, thinking of the wildfires I knew little about except for the terror I felt every time I saw “Bambi” scrambling away from the flames.  My best real life knowledge was watching my father leave in a hideous green vehicle with government markings on it, dressed in a bright yellow suit, and I knew that fires must happen quickly because he always left the house a half hour or so after arriving or getting the phone call.  He had a certain purpose, a change in gait, at those times, so that even before he or my mother said anything, I usually knew where he was going.

Beautiful wasn’t the word I would have used.  Nevertheless, fire, in this sort of ecosystem, is actually necessary. Without it many trees and plant species would not be able to flourish, as the heat of fire is generally required for the sprouting of seeds and the clearing of excess debris/growth that might discourage new fauna. In 1988, this fire burned almost 800,000 acres, with 150,000 acres burnt in ONE day. Fighting the fire was the equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, and local school children had to wear masks and stay indoors. The media terrified the nation with the idea that park officials were negligently allowing one of our greatest natural resources to be destroyed by flame.
P.S. Taken by a NPS employee, Jim Peaco. I’m led to believe this constitutes free use. If not, well, feel free to correct me.

The air, even inside the van, frequently smelt like rotten eggs.  “That,” my sister told me with the knowledge of an older sibling, “is actually sulfur.  You know it’s safe sulfur because poison sulfur has no smell and it would kill you.”  I thought about poisonous sulfur the rest of the drive, and held my breath intermittently for the rest of the trip.

Finally, after much driving, staring at scenery and wildlife, and stopping to look at waterfalls and wander a boardwalk or two, we drove through another gate, quickly followed by a very large arch, and stopped at the bottom of a hill with a spread of grass and a few conveniently located picnic tables.

“Well, we’re here!” my mother announced, “What do you think?”

“Where’s the park?”  I asked.

“You’re in it,” she said.

“It’s so small!” I imagined she was referring to the patch of grass we were picnicking on.  “You said it would be big.”

“Well, it includes all of that, too,” she waved her hand toward the arch, “and there, and there.”  She pointed a few more directions, and I started to get the general idea.  “We drove through it for hours this afternoon.”

This is the arch I keep talking about. It marks the north entrance to the first National Park in the world: Yellowstone. The inscription at top reads “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

“But…where are all the slides and stuff?”  I demanded, and she had to explain, of course.

Thus concludes the story of how I learned that there are different types of parks, and not all of them involve swings.  I got over my shock and disappointment with ease, and I believe, because packs of enthralled Californians like to tell me so, that I am “sooooo lucky.”

Despite the misunderstanding…they’re right.  So, today, Dad, I’d like to say thank you, for such an opportunity and walking through fire for us.  I know Mom was thrilled.  Happy Father’s Day!

Up In Smoke, Part 1: Excuses, How it Began, and, Um, I Quit, I Think…

I never thought that I would be a smoker, even though every male in my family generations previous to mine smoked or still do.  I loathed the habit when I was young, was held siege by the fear of what the people I loved were doing to themselves.  My uncles and father started smoking around the age of ten, stealing cigarettes, I’m told, from their aunt, but up until my early to mid twenties, I was still revolted by the practice.  Few were happier than I when my father finally gave up the practice after fifty years.

I thought I would lose him to his addiction and its deleterious effects.  I told my friends that he sounded like Darth Vader, which was true enough; I always knew to hide whatever book I was secretly reading instead of doing my school work when I heard his labored, whistling breaths accumulating in frequency as he passed through the rooms of the house towards mine.

I knew that quitting smoking was difficult, sometimes, it seemed insurmountably, because after attitudes towards smoking began to shift, and we’d begun boycotting more than a few restaurants because they had switched to smoke free environments, and friends and coworkers began making comments, my father would occasionally buckle to social pressure and try to quit again.  I can’t count the number of those attempts; the efforts were often accompanied by medication, literature, tips and techniques for trying to abandon the practice, but still, they remained largely unsuccessful.  I had been married for two weeks when my mother told me that he had finally quit the month previous.  It had taken her a week or two to notice that she no longer had to clean his ashtray, perhaps longer to actually ask him about it and confirm.  There was an unwritten rule in our family by that point: don’t harass the smoker, don’t add to the stress, don’t nag him about the practice or make him feel worse when he already feels lousy about it to begin with.

Now I’ve read in numerous places that an addiction to cigarettes is harder to quit than cocaine, heroine, even methamphetamines, or any illicit substance for that matter.  I won’t bother going into the why: certainly it’s more accessible, the places one can do it are more available, and the situations one can be in while high on nicotine are practically infinite, at least in comparison to other social or work situations.  I’ve seen the smokers shivering outside on doorsteps, huddling in corners to keep out of the wind, and being nagged and harassed by the nonsmokers who pass by.  No one likes a smoker anymore, or so it would seem.  Yet people still smoke, in large numbers, even in a country where everyday one is deluged with materials informing them of at least some of smoking’s ill effects: cancer risks, increased to the umpteenth, especially of the sinus, mouth, throat, lung, stomach, and intestinal variety; cosmetic effects such as wrinkles, sagging, yellowed teeth and fingers; emphysema, asthma, and other breathing difficulties; birth defects; financial drain in the cost of cigarettes, increased health care and insurance costs, decreased home and car values; and the social drain from bad breath, clothes and hair that stinks, and the risks to professional, romantic, and familial perceptions.  Did I mention numbness, a sodden gray feeling, depression?

Yes, we still smoke.  That’s what addiction is.  It doesn’t matter that it’s -20 F outside, -40 F with wind chill, or that there’s a blizzard, or that six people, glaring, walked by because they caught a whiff of our second hand and asked us if we know those “things” cause cancer.  We know.  It’s not that those things don’t bother us, or that we’re all suffering from sort of death wish, or that we enjoy being treated like a plague on humanity.  We’re not even deluded enough to think that those negative things won’t happen to us.

It’s not easy to explain addiction to someone who’s never experienced it, and an addiction to one substance isn’t even the same as being addicted to another.  Cigarettes are not only addicting, they’re a habit, forged after every meal, every cup of coffee, a bonding experience with similarly fueled friends or coworkers, an excuse to go outside, to take a break, to think, to kill frustration or stress as they accumulate.  Smoking isn’t just a physical addiction, with withdrawals that are unpleasant enough all on their own, but a mental and emotional one.

I was 24 when I picked up my first cigarette, not exactly your average smoking statistic.  My reason was foolish. I’d always been a “good” girl, never done drugs or been promiscuous, barely had a few drinks.  To be honest, I’d only been drunk two or three times, and that at home, in the comfort of a small, select group of friends.  I never partied; I got good grades, didn’t swear, used proper grammar, refused to speak of anything “impolite”, paid my bills, held down a job, stayed away from debt, tried to be helpful, loving, accepting, and all of those things one is “supposed” to do if they are going to be a useful, productive member of society.  Oh, I was a rule oriented, Miss Goody Two Shoes.  My classmates would have said “prude”.  I bought into whatever an authority figure told me was appropriate, “right” behavior, and acted accordingly.

I was told I was nice, polite, so very well-behaved, professional, clean, etc.  Gradually I realized that such a list came with a set of assumptions, sometimes worded, sometimes not, depending on the person delivering the opinion.  I learned that the overarching perception was that such a person could not have fun, or understand the trials and tribulations of anyone who had made a mistake, that I was considered likely to react negatively to anything less than perfection.  Such assumptions would have been far from the truth, for even then I was a long way from perfect, and I’d made the sort of mistakes that when told usually are more likely to result in fearful withdrawal than an expression of commonality or empathy.

“Do you do anything?  Drink?  Smoke?” one of my more blunt coworkers demanded of me one evening while we were out on break.   I shrugged and mumbled something vague along the lines of “I do stuff.  Sometimes.”

I’d gotten tired, it seemed, of being careful and prudent and defending myself for good behavior, because stung by the disdainful words of someone who had a felony conviction for drug distribution, and in the company of two other convicted felons, I somehow thought it was a great idea to go home and demand that my husband buy a pack of cigarettes so that we could do something stupid for once.

Of course, I didn’t mean to make a habit out of it, and for several months I was a sporadic once a week or two kind of smoker.  In those several months I discovered that cigarettes killed the pathological emotional mood swings and reduced the stomach and joint aches of a condition I didn’t know existed as of yet, and didn’t have the slightest inkling that I had.

Then summer came, and with it the hail that blocked the storm drains by my little downstairs apartment, and I found myself staring at a broken door and standing knee deep in water while my furniture and belongings floated past me.  The losses weren’t as great as they initially appeared to be, but the stress of the realization that such a thing could happen to me, and relocating and moving three times in the space of a month led to a significant increase in cigarette consumption.  At the same time I switched jobs within the company I work for, and voila, I was a line cook.  The best way to get a break, if one is a cook, is apparently to ask for a cigarette, otherwise one is generally out of luck.  Besides, cooking can be frustrating and harried work.

I’d like to say that I was deluded and that picking up cigarettes didn’t result in a dramatic uptick of offers to hang out, be friends, or extra social situations, but that would be a lie.  I do think that it isn’t so much that one has to smoke or drink, or engage in behaviors that are less on the up and up, as they need to be human and approachable.  Smoking isn’t cool, and I’ve never been under the impression that it has made me so, but picking up a device, an obvious character flaw, has strangely made me more approachable, or at least lifted reservations people had about being friends with someone they feared couldn’t let loose at all, or who they thought might judge them for letting loose themselves.

Now I want to quit.  I have to stop.  Cigarettes may not control me, per say, but I’ve let them hold the reigns, and I’ve abused them to the detriment of many of the things I used to care about.  There’s not enough breathing capacity left to play the flute, or sing in tune, or even finish the phrase of a song, in tune or not.  I write a paragraph and need a cigarette, only to get distracted and move on.  I no longer remember to eat, or drink water; my body’s simplest, most basic and necessary drives, and the cravings that spur a normal human being to take care of such normal functions, are all translated into the desire for a cigarette.  I never used to take breaks at other jobs, now I take them, at least in my opinion, with remarkable excess.  I’m quite certain I’d have at least another hour, if not two or three, in the day to do things I actually care about if I put the cigarettes away for good.  I could probably finish the first draft of my novel in six months if I simply spent the time I spend smoking on writing.

Besides, all of the “benefits” of smoking, the effects smokers enjoy, fade away within the first few months of the habit.  Smoking becomes a regulatory device, a habit to keep the brain chemicals firing at normal levels.  I think, eventually, that it makes everything feel flat and gray.  All emotions are less pronounced, including joy, or enthusiasm.  The emotions die back or are subverted into the cravings for a cigarette.  Cigarettes don’t kill frustration or sadness anymore, they don’t even make a dent.  It wouldn’t matter if they did, because being hooked on anything, needing it to get through day to day life, doesn’t seem like living in a real sense at all, especially when the substance, not living, is the only way to feel.

Yes, I’m tired of this.  Three hours ago, after a week of trying to wean my consumption to a level where the side effects might be less painful, I finished the last cigarette in the pack.  Quitting is going to be unpleasant, but unless I smoke until the day I die (not an option), I’ll have to experience the withdrawal one way or another, and I might as well get it over with.  In the meantime, dear readers, you’ll probably have to suffer through a few blog posts about my efforts to quit, but I promise that I’ll eventually regain my concentration and be capable of writing short stories and poems again.

Poor Excuses for Why I Haven’t Been Blogging

Hello.  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I mean, it’s been a month or so since I posted, and I really ought to fix that.  I’d like to say that I’ve spent my hiatus profitably, churning out chapter after chapter with the efficiency of a printing press, or that at the very least, I wrote a poem or short story or two, but that would be a lie, and we all know what happens to liars, don’t we?

I imagine this condition results in enlarged nostrils, and as such is not recommended. Of course, there are other ways to grow an exceptionally long nose. If you’re a klepto princess who spited some hard working soldiers, for instance, you should be wary of people in disguise offering you pears. Or was it an apple?

Okay.  The truth is I tried to write a few poems, and I spent a lot of time trying to come up with short story ideas.  These efforts were largely unsuccessful.  I even have a few partial and completed blog posts resting on my computer, but I either was unable to finish them or found them too offensive/whiny/depressing for publication.

I might be a wee bit afraid of controversy. You’d think anonymity would free me from this fear, especially since controversy is a great way to attract readers, but it doesn’t. I’m settling for inserting large amounts of pointless pictures instead. I hear people love pictures.

So what have I been doing?  I’m sure my readers want a blow by blow of every tedious aspect of my life in the last month, so I’ll let you in on the joys of my coveted existence.

No, shockingly this image isn't of me. You should be jealous anyway.

I’ve been sick a lot, probably because restaurants, the places that ideally should not have sick people running around infecting the rest of the population, seem to be overrun with them.  There’s never enough labor to go around in a restaurant, and someone usually has something.  Or several somethings.  Or several someones have somethings.  No one’s going home, and no one’s going to work for anyone else, and we’re all tired and run down and catch everything from each other, let it mutate, and then pass it back to the people who infected us.  Also, despite all of the perfectly normal, wonderful customers out there, there’s always someone like this:

Customers like this encourage substance abuse, and alcohol and cigarettes depress your immune system, folks.

As a friendly aside, I recommend that if you’re prone to catching every bug you come into contact with that you avoid restaurants during cold and flu season.  Likewise, if you are sick, maybe you should stay home and have chicken noodle soup or something instead of infecting the rest of us, yeah?  If you’re an entomologist, you shouldn’t be able to catch a bug in a restaurant, anyway; if you can, please call the health department.  ‘Nuff said.

While I was reclining on my couch, feeling thoroughly unmotivated, I thought I’d catch up on some video games.  If a bizarre obsession with saving virtual characters from scrapes made me a “good” person, I’d be an angel by now.

Virtual me: defender of justice!

In the meantime, my house cleaning went from poor to preposterous.  The instant I felt better, I was compelled to clean.  One can only eat so many dishes off of paper plates.

Then my car broke down, and I discovered that it had two leaks in the engine, so I had to have it towed to the dealership so it could be fixed.  I know, dear reader, that you’re probably thinking that having it taken anywhere else would probably be cheaper, but the last time I let someone else work on my car, the consequences were nearly catastrophic.

If I hadn’t taken it in when I did, this would have been the end result. Explosions are fun in the movie theatre, but not when you’re sitting in the vehicle in question.

Mmm…fire.  Sorry, what?  Right.  I was telling you, um, stuff.  The day I got my car back, I made the brilliant nutritional choice of having nachos for dinner.  Normally microwaves leave the middle a little undercooked, but my microwave, after making weird whiny sounds for the last month, thought that catching the middle of my nachos on fire was a great idea.  I decided to take that as a sign, so yesterday I bought a new one, and that led to more housecleaning.

It’s really hard to write when one’s house ought to be declared a national disaster area.  Do you think I could use my poor housekeeping as a deduction on my taxes?  No?  Oh, okay, then.

The positive news is that none of these things were really as horrible as they sound and they’re all taken care of now.  Also, I’m going on vacation in less than a month, and I get to see my parents and my grandparents!  Ah, life.  It’s really not so bad, even if I could be more productive.  Maybe while I’m on vacation?