Saturday, April 30, 2016

Z Is For Zagreb: The Ex Axe and Other Mementos At the Museum Of Broken Relationships #AtoZChallenge

   
File:Museum of Broken Relationships - Ex-axe.jpg
"An ex-axe", exhibit in the Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia. Photo by Robert Nyman

   

      I wish that the title of my final #AtoZChallenge post was the title of a fiction piece. It's perfect. But the Museum Of Broken Relationships (which grew out of a traveling exhibit) exists, and is housed in a very real place - Kulmer Palace, in the Upper Town area of Zagreb, Croatia.
     Items in the display include an axe used to chop up a girlfriend's furniture after she fell in love with someone else, jewelry, underwear, and assorted broken things associated with broken hearts.
     You can donate your own heartbreak collection, if you wish. There are links at the museum's Home Page.
     If you live in the USA, you might consider donating your mementos - and the stories behind them - to Los Angeles’s new Museum of Broken Relationships.
     I wonder if it will have a celebrity or reality TV wing?

    

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Y Is For Yu Yi and Yarling Over That Yobbery #AtoZChallenge

     Yarling - howling or wailing
     Yerk - to bind
     Yestereen - yesterday evening
     Yobbery - hooliganism

     Y is also for Yu Yi, part of my favorite YouTube find this month: The Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows.  There should be a word for that feeling a writer gets when they see a title or a phrase for which they would eagerly sell their soul or firstborn child to claim as their own. That's what I felt when I saw the title of this series. If anyone could create such a word, it would be John Koenig. After all, he created these:  

Yu Yi: The Desire to Feel Intensely Again



 

Kenopsia: The Eeriness of Places Left Behind


Dès Vu: The Awareness That This Will Become A Memory

 

I love this channel: the words, the images, the narration - everything about it. It actually helped to pinpoint many emotions that I've felt, but couldn't really identify and certainly didn't think that anyone else shared. I hope that you enjoy these clips as much as I do.
 

X Is for Xtoloc Cenote #storysettings #AtoZChallenge

     Cenotes, or sacred wells, are found on the Yucatan peninsula and were central to Mayan worship. The Yucatán peninsula is primarily limestone and has few above ground streams, so cenotes provide access to underground river systems and aquifers.  Ancient Maya sacrificed objects (and possibly human beings) into the cenote as offerings to the Maya rain god Chaac, as well as using the water for purification rites. There are many cenotes scattered across the peninsula; one of the most important, Xtoloc, is at Chichén Itzá.
     Modern day excavation and exploration began in 1904. Items which would normally deteriorate (like wood and textiles) had been well preserved in the cold, dark water. Also found were weapons, statuettes, pottery, tools, jewelry as well as animal and human remains. Certain stones, shells and items not indigenous to the area were also found in quantity, indicating that people had probably traveled from distant areas to worship at the cenote.
     I'm sharing a clip from a National Geographic show on Chichén Itzá which shows underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda descending into the depths via a rope and pulley system to explore the cenote. I couldn't help thinking what a great setting this would be for a novel or movie!


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

W Is For "Water In the Sky" #FlashFiction #AtoZChallenge

Photo by Ahmedherz via Wikimedia Commons

   
"Water does not stay in the sky forever" - Kalenjin (Kenyan) proverb about despair

     Word that the fighters were coming wormed its way through the village, by whispers and undulating hands, in hurried trips to the well to fill jerrycans and the braying of donkeys jerked from their sunlit dozing.  Amanisa, heavily pregnant and already the mother of two, made her preparations: one cup, one plate, a rolled up palm sleeping mat. One small pouch of dried meat and another of fruit. Two jerrycans, filled to the brim. One old, matted and slightly lame donkey who swiveled his ears continually as though searching for a signal from a distant rescue station.
     Go to the camp over the border her husband had written. One day I will be able to find you there. They must trust me before I will be allowed out of their sight and I can flee. Be strong.
     It was good to have word, but it would have been better to have money as well. Amanisa had questioned the messenger, a sulky teenager whose bare feet were cracked and split and whose eyes swept the horizon.
     "No money? None? It could be forgiven if you were tempted to spend a little. Perhaps you were hungry?" She gave him the option to save face, jiggling her tiny daughter on her hip in an attempt to remind him of her own need. Perhaps he would hand over some of what she knew her husband must have sent.
     The boy spat into the dust. "No Mam. No. There was nothing, only the writing. I came a long way to give it to you. I was hoping that maybe... he trailed off and then boldly met her eyes. "I should have something for my troubles."
     Amanisa laughed, a harsh barking noise that might have been mistaken for a jackal in the night. She motioned toward the meagre contents of their hut. "You may carry off whatever treasure you find after we leave tonight. But make sure that I am gone before you enter. Mukulaal mininkeeda joogta miciyo libaax bay leedahay...a cat in her house has the teeth of a lion."

     They traveled under the gelid moon and tried to sleep during the broiling desert afternoons. Her guide set out for water on the third day, and never returned. The donkey died on the fifth day. Had there been another man with them, he might have butchered  the animal, but Amanisa had neither the knowledge nor the inclination. The children, who had driven her nearly mad with sobbing and complaining the first few days, had lapsed into a stunned and starving silence. God will provide she told herself  even if it is death. 
     On the seventh evening she sighted a bundle along the path. Hoping that it was a load abandoned by some overburdened family, she hurried toward it on bleeding feet, the children strapped to her back and side already shivering enough to make their mother's body tremble as well. The heap was a blanket, and peeling back a corner revealed a woman's contorted face with blotched skin and fissured lips. A puff of warm fetid air escaped and then vanished into the chilled desert.
     Amanisa sat down and considered carefully. A glowing smudge in the distance signaled a possible end - the UN camp. One days walk? Two? There was a weak groan from the ground and answering mewls from the burden on her shoulders. She allowed herself one sob.
     Once she had placed the children under the blanket - the body's febrile heat quieted them almost instantly - she poured a little water into the old woman's mouth and tucked the goatskin with the remainder into a gnarled hand. Perhaps a supply truck would find them on its way to deliver goods. If not, then she would send help once she got to her destination. Surely the NGO people would go to find them. With any luck they would all be taken to a clinic or hospital. White sheets. Cool, clean water. Food. A bed free of sand.
     These are the things that she dreamed of, setting off again into the desert, lighter and heavier, toward the darkness, toward the light.




 
     
     

    







    
   

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V Is For Vacation: A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge





     Last week I watched the neighbors pack for vacation. It was done neatly and quickly; luggage stowed, bicycles secured on a trailer, two smiling children buckled in and handed the electronics which will keep them quietly occupied in their air-conditioned SUV for days, if necessary. They will have myriad choices for lunch. No one will have to hunker down along the side of the road for an embarrassing and highly illegal pee. They will arrive refreshed and and check into a suite with appliances, WiFi, a Playstation and free HBO. Their dog will enjoy extra time at home with the nanny, who comes three times a day to measure out his custom-blended dog food and follow him around his yard as he delicately chooses a place to do his doggy business.

     Our family took a vacation every year. And every year, at the end of that vacation, my parents swore that this would be the last time we went ANYWHERE. Ever. Time heals all wounds, or maybe it was just that my parents' brains would blot out the trauma because July would roll around, reservations were made, the battered suitcases were dragged from the basement furnace room, gallons of suntan lotion were lined up in the bathroom, Dad tinkered with the car for weeks, and the dog eyed everyone suspiciously and occasionally refused to eat. Going to the beach! We're going to the beach!

     Kurt (he was a German Shepherd - of course he had to have a German name) was taken to the kennel the night before. Mom never would say kennel - it was 'camp'. I've never been sure but I believe that the euphemism was for her benefit, not Kurt's, although he did have an extensive knowledge of English.
     "Time to go to camp," she would say, and offer him a dog cookie. Ecstatic at the jingle of car keys, he would hop up and down until we opened the car door, when he would leap into the back seat and immediately snot all over the car windows that had just been cleaned.
     Dad and I got the job of dropping him off, Dad because Mom couldn't stand to be the one who sent him to his fate, me because like the dog I was just happy to be going somewhere in the car without Mom. She was not a fan of loud music while driving (It's distracting! You might not hear a police siren! You'll go deaf!) while Dad enjoyed everything from Your Cheating Heart to Light My Fire at top volume.
     Everyone was happy until we arrived at Waggin Tails. Kurt enjoyed exiting the car and smelling all of those delightful doggy postcards left in the lot, until we got inside the door. A cacophony of barking began, a river of canine distress assaulted our ears and Kurt immediately realized the depth of our betrayal. He yelped, he struggled, his claws scrabbled for a purchase on the concrete as he was half-led, half-dragged away by our neighbor who worked there. He knows her, he'll be fine, she'll take good care of him. One day I would know exactly how he felt as I was led off to sleepaway church camp.

     I always threw up the day we left for vacation. It was a given; the only variable was when and how much.  One time I had a bowl of strawberry Frankenberry cereal and left a pink trail of vomit down the front sidewalk.
     "You're disgusting. I hate you. You ruin everything." This from my sister Lynn, who was three years older and vastly superior to me in every way. She'd already mastered the art of making it to the bathroom.  In fact, she'd get there ahead of time and line up the necessary items for her comfort - washcloth, toothbrush, chewing gum - while I was still in the primitive stage of wishing the nausea would go away, praying for it to go away (please God, I'll never eat again I swear) and then chucking wherever I happened to be. I was, indeed, disgusting. And I hated her equally.

     The first trips were made in a 60s Pontiac Fairlane. Two doors, no air conditioning, and a "hump" on the backseat floor which provided an armistice line. We had assigned seats - mine was on the left, behind the driver's seat, because Dad needed more leg room and I was the smallest. The runt of the litter always suffers. If I attempted to stretch my legs over the hump, I was beaten back - or kicked, or pinched - by my sibling, who jealously guarded every square inch of her side. We bickered and sniped until the warning "If we have to stop this car...", at which point we continued silently with scribbled notes, ugly faces, and hand signals. One year Mom discovered Dramamine, which was ostensibly to avert car sickness but was more probably to dope us into lethargically staring out the window.

    Lunch was sandwiches and tepid tea from a Thermos.  Back then the single "fast food" option was McDonalds; they only had burgers, didn't do "special orders", and I refused to eat anything that had vegetables or condiments on it.
    "Oh for God's sake, look, I took everything off. Just eat it." But the bun was infiltrated with ketchup and pickle juice, she's missed some onion bits, and if I looked closely I could discern a fragment of something green pressed into the meat. I took a tentative nibble and gagged.
    "You ruin everything," Lynn hissed.
    But I was learning the art of deflection.
    "She didn't share her candy."
    Parental alert.
    "Candy? What candy? Where did you get it? Did you buy it? How did you buy it?" Our diets, and cash flow, were strictly controlled. No one was to have unauthorized goodies.
    Like a good girl, Lynn had polished off her lunch while mine still sat oozily in its wrapper, mocking me and my finicky ways.
    "Sunday school money!" I announced, sanctimonious snitch that I was.
    Ha. Now she was going to catch it. With the added bonus of burning in Hell.
    And that's why, on future trips, we ended up eating sandwiches along the highway and having to tiptoe into the litter-filled scrub to pee.

    Historic Zaberers! Home of the Zaberized Cocktail!  I didn't know what the place was exactly, but I wanted to go there. Welcome To Zaberville! The explanation "not a place for children" took it from appealing to desperately desirable. I imagined that it was an exotic destination, with rides and wild animals as well as whatever a cocktail might be. (The late Ed Zaberer operated the giant fine-dining establishment in Wildwood for 35 years. It's gone now, along with a host of places that I planned on visiting as an adult but never quite managed.)  The sign also meant that we were close to the motels. Streets were soon lined with low-slung concrete buildings, painted cotton candy colors and with names that evoked far away locales, pirates, and glorious ocean motifs. We greeted the familiar neon names and read them off - the Gaslight! the Buccaneer! the Thunderbird Inn! I took note of which ones had the biggest pools, sliding boards, and plastic palm trees. (Palm trees mattered very much to me.) Later I would pester my parents to stay at one or the other. But our family was predictable, if nothing else. We stayed at the Friendship 7 year after year (a name which disappointed me at the time) because it was clean and, above all else, familiar.

     We unpacked the car and toted a month's worth of supplies to our room of one week. I invariably fell and bled at least once, because I insisted on wearing flipflops but never could walk in them properly. Many parents would have let their kids go barefoot, but we were not bare feet people. One might step on glass, walk where someone had spit, stub a toe and rip a nail off. We weren't even allowed to walk on the motel floors in bare feet - you could get warts, athlete's foot, or ringworm. This meant certain acrobatics if you had to get from your bed to the bathroom and someone had (accidentally or intentionally) moved or kicked your footwear out of reach.


     Dad took us to the pool while Mom set up shop and had a lie down. When we were young, it was fun; we all played together. Then Lynn got older and was supposed to "watch" me but all she wanted to do was lie on a chaise and get a tan.
     "I'll be a dolphin!" I would squeak. I always wanted to be an animal, as being a human often seemed boring and pointless. Sometimes she would humor me (usually when there were no other kids), other times she would ignore me. Then I'd be forced to throw water on her or snap her bathing suit top, she'd hold me under water, I'd fight and then cry, and we'd go back to our corners and sulk until dinner.

     Lynn had bad eyesight, and was forbidden to take her glasses on the beach lest they get lost, broken, or scratched by the sand. This meant that I had the upper hand for once. "That cute lifeguard is staring at you!" I would say. She'd squint desperately in the general direction I was pointing. I got some satisfaction from the idea that she thought she was missing a really "gorgeous guy" admiring her. Even better was silently slipping away and leaving her frantically trying to figure out her way back to the family beach towels.

     Every year I got a little better at surviving the ocean. I learned to dive under waves, bodysurf, and swim out of rip currents. How to curl into a ball and safely roll up the beach when my feet got knocked out from under me. When and where to collect the best shells. One summer I spent most of my time walking hunched over along the shoreline, collecting shark's teeth.
    "You look like an orangutan," Mom observed.

     Once I found a five dollar bill floating in the surf. I spent an hour on the boardwalk that evening, deciding how to spend it. Lynn suggested a necklace, fudge, a snowglobe with palm trees. I chose a coconut carved to look like a shrunken head.
     "You put that thing somewhere in your room where I don't have to look at it," was the only comment.
     It sat on my dresser until I went to college, at which point it disappeared.

     So Zaberers is gone, the Pontiac is gone, the Friendship 7 is now condos. Wildwood has changed, but many of the old motels are still there. The boardwalk still has its amusement piers, Douglass fudge, and tram cars (Watch the tram cars, please. Watch..www...watch the tram cars, please.)  My sister and I are both mothers - and best friends. And we took our kids to the beach.

     My son cut his foot on a shell and had to be carried, crying, over the hot sand to wash his foot at the street shower, then carried back to the beach towels. It's a long walk. My niece and nephew fought viciously over who would ride in the stroller and who would push it. We loaded ourselves like pack mules with chairs, coolers, rafts, sand toys, diaper bags, blankets and towels, walked to the beach, and then listened to them all fight over toys, kick sand on everything and complain of boredom after 15 minutes. One would stand at the water's edge and cry from fear. The other would plunge in and happily try and drown herself.  They didn't like sand, struggled like greased pigs while we tried to daub every spot of flesh with suntan lotion, and left stinking piles of shells in drawers and suitcases. They ordered food and then threw away at least half. They had to pee but didn't want to use public restrooms. My son would go to the arcade, ostensibly to play video games, and end up gambling with a bunch of old ladies. And winning. We are never going anywhere again. Ever.

     When they got older, two of them sneaked out of the room in the middle of the night; seeing a police car they ran. One tried to climb over a fence and gashed his leg badly enough that an ambulance had to be called. (The middle-of-the-night knock on the door that every parent dreads.) OK. This is it. We are NEVER going anywhere again. Ever. I'm serious.

     Looking at my toddler granddaughter, I realize that soon I will be doing it all over again. Because 
"We are NEVER going anywhere again. Ever." is family code for "We'll be doing it again next year. Same time, same place. And we will have a good time, or die trying."
 
     Oh... what about my neighbors, you ask?
     Hell, they've never even been to the beach.
     I pity them.
   

     

   

Monday, April 25, 2016

U Is For Unfinished #AtoZChallenge

    Previously written for a prompt (revise a boring opening).

      Sara limped down the steps of the brownstone, holding the rail with one hand while wrestling a bulging tote into submission with the other.  Cars honked and slalomed along the flooded street, coating sidewalks and passersby with an unspeakable icing.  She wished, not for the first time, for an additional set of hands to cover her ears.
     Four hands. My client list would double. Sara grinned and briefly entertained the idea of returning to his apartment and waiting out the weather.  But she had to get home.
     Rabe waved from the attendant's booth as she headed for her car.  A loud screech announced the opening of the fly specked service window.
     "Hey babe, if you're sellin' I'm buyin'!"
     Sara flipped him off with practiced ease and swung her bag forward to search for her keys.  Half of a scarlet bra was dangling cheerfully from the hastily zippered front compartment. There was a time when she would have felt humiliated, but that was $100,000 ago. The Push Up Killer Extreme Size 36D sailed in an impeccable arc through the window and into Rabe's ample lap.  He solemnly placed it on his head.
     "Thanks honey. You be safe tonite. Hear me?"
     A random note of kindness in the cacophony of life.
     She gave him a thumbs up as she slung her bag in the back dented Buick, made sure that her left buttock was situated over the partially exposed spring (otherwise, she'd be a fascinating story at some gynecologist's cocktail party) and fastened her seatbelt.  One deep breath stifled her sudden urge to cry. Another deep breath cleansed some of the anxiety from her mind. No time to indulge in histrionics, as her husband dearly loved to point out.
     Time. She had to be home in time.

     Snaking through the clogged expressway (a misnomer if there ever was one) gave her time to think. It wasn't humanly possible to cram everything that had to be done into the time allotted. She could round up a few people to help, the few who still owed her favors, but that would create an additional set of problems. A defeated sigh morphed into a tremendous belch, promptly steaming up the windshield.
     Jessie would die laughing.  There was a thought.

     She hit the call button on her steering wheel, the one high-end option that still worked. “Call…” She faltered. Did she really want to do this?
     The last call to Jessie had ended in a vicious quarrel over something that had happened years ago.  That seemed to be a hallmark of all close relationships;  you nitpicked over some imagined slight, then proceeded to drag up and rehash every single thing that each of you had done to one other over a lifetime.  Even if you apologized, it still came back to haunt you. The trash might be gone, but the smell seemed to linger forever.
     Still, Jessie was the one person who might be equipped to deal with this particular clean-up job.

     

      Her finger hovered over the button.

Your turn! Did she call Jessie? What was the "clean-up" job? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
  
    
    
    
     

Saturday, April 23, 2016

T Is For Teixobactin: The Dirt On Dirt's New Gift To Man #AtoZChallenge

Methicillin- resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
Dirt is a battlefield. It contains a wealth of life, much of it engaged in a constant battle to exist. Microorganisms which dwell in the soil around us often secrete antimicrobial compounds; one of these has finally provided us with hope in the fight against current drug-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.

The first classes of antibiotics were the sulfonamides (1935) and the penicillins (1941). The last class introduced were the lipopeptides (2003). As you no doubt already know, efficacy of many antibiotics has been compromised by over-prescribing, the unrestricted sale over-the-counter in many countries, and their prolific use in the agricultural community. Drug-resistant infections are on the rise, as are the number of deaths from agents such as MRSA and MDR-TB (multi-drug resistant tuberculosis).

Enter Kim Lewis and her team at Northeastern University in Boston. Because 99% of  microbes are impossible to culture in labs, they had to find a way to isolate microbes on the bugs' home turf in order to test their potential for life-saving compounds that we might add to our drug arsenal.

Lewis' team created and patented something called the iChip (now licensed to NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals) which allows testing of organisms in the soil. After screening some 10,000 bacteria samples, they discovered a new bacteria, Eleftheria terrae, which secretes a compound called Teixobactin . Teixobactin is exciting because in mammal cell and mouse tests, Teixobactin managed to kill many of the "superbugs" which have bedeviled medicine of late including MRSA, C. Difficile and drug resistant strains of TB.

The bad news is that it may take anywhere from 5-10 years for human trials to be fully completed and Teixobactin to hit the market. And while Teixobactin is also being cautiously touted as "resistant to resistance", history has unfortunately proven that bacteria are fiendishly clever when it comes to surviving. Therefore we will need to continue digging in the dirt for new classes of antibiotics - and thanks to the iChip, we now have a better way to do so.


Lewis K, et. al. Nature (January 22, 2015) "A New Antibiotic Kills Pathogens Without Detectable Resistance "

Mohan G, LA Times (January 7, 2015) "New Antibiotic Teixobactin Kills Drug-Resistant Superbugs, Study Says  Retrieved February 13, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

S Is For Slang - #AtoZChallenge

Photo (via Wikimedia Commons) by Ed Yourdon from New York City, USA
Keeping up with slang is a never-ending struggle for parents, teachers, and writers. Young people (teenagers in particular) have always been adept at coming up with new words and catchphrases to communicate (and often to circumvent authority). Social media allows slang to develop and spread faster than it ever has before. Many of the words and acronyms below have been in use for quite some time, while a few arrived in 2015 and are already "lame" - so don't "hate on me" when you see/hear "fleek" which is sooooo last year. Unless you live in a rural community like mine, in which case these are all still "da bomb". Yasssss.

BTW, "cool" will always be cool.
 
How many of these do you know? Are there any that you would like to add?

143
420
ASL (and I don't mean the acronym for American sign language)
Bae (also the Danish word for poo. SMH) 
Banking
Bye Felicia
Clutch
Creeper
Dab
Dank
Dox
Extra
Finna
Fleek
FOMO
Fraped
Groutfit
Grunk
Hangry
Hunty
IG
IHML
Jawn
Kik me
Lit 
LML
Mad
Netflix & Chill 

Ratchet

Ship (Authors, you should know this one. It started as a writing term, especially among the                   fanfiction crowd) 
Sket
Snatched
Sparked


Thirsty
Thot
Throw shade
Tina
Tope 
Wanksta
Woe
Zip ghost 

My related post: The Most Dangerous Apps That Your Teen Might Be Using - What They Are and How They Work

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Q Is For Questions You Should Ask - and Answer - Yourself #AtoZChallenge

What would I do if I knew I couldn't possibly fail?
Fear of failure holds us all back. Make your list, and then choose something within the realm of the possible. Maybe you can't be President, but you can run for a spot on the school board. Too old to be an astronaut? Check into a skydiving experience. Want to change careers? Maybe there's a volunteer or intern position open in a new field so that you can get your feet wet, get a feel for whether or not it's what you want to do.

What is my single greatest fear today? What actions can I take to mitigate that fear?
Have a plan. And a back-up plan for that. Afraid of losing your job? Start networking, pulling together references, scoping out new opportunities. Afraid your manuscript will be rejected? It happens. Have a list of other places to submit. Jump on social media and commiserate with other writers. Be mentally prepared to edit or re-write entire sections of your work if you feel that it needs it. Cuddle with your dog. Just do something other than sitting around wringing your hands and dwelling on it.  Ask yourself - what's the absolute worst that could happen - and then figure out ahead of time what you will do about it.

What is one thing that I can change about myself in the next week that will bring me closer to my goals?
Bite-size is the right size. It's great to set a lofty goal - be a millionaire in ten years, lose 50 pounds, de-clutter and organize the entire house, write a novel, open a shop. But if you constantly stare at the big goal, day after day, it may begin to look too farfetched, costly, unattainable. Paralysis sets in, and that's fatal. If you don't have one major life goal, choose something each week to work on anyway.  Even if it's just eat more veggies, pack lunch everyday to save some cash, or smile at the cashier who seems harried and exhausted.

Do I like me? If not, why not?
We all have internal conversations. We all carry an image of ourselves inside of us, and often times they don't match the outside. And if you don't like you, then you may be overly reliant on other people liking you. That's not a good thing, as you probably know. Entire books have been written about it, so I'll leave you with just this one thought.

You wouldn't treat your best friends like crap. You wouldn't call them stupid, or fat, or lazy, or ugly. You wouldn't beat them up physically or mentally.  You might give them a good honest talking-to once in a while. You might even suggest ways in which they solve a problem.  YOU are your closest friend. Strive to like yourself. And if there are things that you don't like about yourself, start changing them. Your character is not set in stone. Your thought patterns are far more malleable than you know. Do your best, even though your best will change from day to day and week to week.

Is this worth reading?
Life is too short to waste time trying to finish a bad book - or blog!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P Is For Postmortem Photography #AtoZChallenge



 


     I was at a family member's viewing when a man approached me, camera at the ready, and asked if he could take a picture of the deceased, who had been a friend of his when they were teenagers. Horrified, I stammered "no thank you, please don't" and excused myself to speak with someone else. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the aforementioned photographer sneaking toward the coffin. I went over and tapped the funeral director on the arm. "Sir, could you please stop that guy from taking pictures of the body?" My voice was shaking. The director immediately hustled over to the would-be photographer and whispered in his ear. The man nodded, wandered over to an upholstered bench, sat down and began to clean his glasses. Somehow, I knew that he was going to try it again, and sure enough, a few minutes later he was creeping toward the byre with his camera curled in his fist. At this point I was prepared to just run up and punch him in the face, decorum be damned. But the funeral director was on the ball and was already ushering the man out the front door, one hand firmly clamped on the offender's elbow.
     This was my first encounter with "postmortem photography".
     The invention of the dagguereotype in 1839 allowed those who couldn't afford a painted portrait to have a lasting image of family and loved ones. Death in Victorian times was an ever-present reality, especially since infant and child mortality was incredibly high. A photograph of the deceased might be the single lasting visual memento; the body, posed with living members, the only "family group" photo that would ever exist. It wasn't considered macabre, or even unusual. Prints might be sent out to family and friends unable to attend the funeral rites.
     Dr. Stanley B. Burns, a New York City opthamologist, established something called The Burns Archive in 1977. The archive is a trove of photos and information on the darker side of medicine including anatomical and medical oddities, post-mortem photography, and photographs of death, disease, disaster, and war. Dr. Burns authored Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography In America , a comprehensive and exhaustively researched collection of post-mortem photography.
     Post-mortem photography served a purpose at one time. In today's era of digital cameras, cellphones with photographic ability - heck, even my toddler granddaughter's LeapPad toy can take pictures - I didn't think that anyone would ever dream of taking pictures of dead people.
     I am always willing to keep an open mind, approach any topic, and change my opinion. During a discussion with friends, someone brought up situations that I hadn't considered. What about the parents of a child who was stillborn? They would have no other option if they wanted an image of their beloved child. Is it really so awful to take a photograph at life's end, to complete the circle? Should we take our cue from earlier generations and move back toward making death an accepted and natural part of life? Is postmortem photography creepy, sad, or another way to hold on to departed loved ones for just a little while longer?
    

Monday, April 18, 2016

O Is For OpenBCI: An Open Source Brain-Computer Interface Platform For the Masses #AtoZChallenge

Ultracortex (Mark IV) EEG Headset Kit

Available for pre-order (expected ship date: A


     It's here: an open-source brain-computer interface, along with at least two products (the Ultracortex, a 3-D printed electroencephalogram EEG headset and the Ganglion, a circuit board) which will allow you to control mechanical devices or computers with brainwaves.
     The prototype for the Open BCI concept was funded by DARPA and conceived and built by Joel Murphy and Conor Russomanno. In 2014 they launched a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and developed the Ultracortex (which has electrodes that record your body's electrical signals) and the Ganglion (which tramsmits those signals to your computer).
     Both products are reasonably priced (the Ultracortex between $300-$400, the Ganglion board kit for $100) The hardware and software are open-source, so that you can 3D print your own headset as well as tweak, modify and hack to your heart's content.

     Combining OpenBCI with something called the Human-Human Interface allowed hackers to control the arm muscles of others - even thousands of miles away. (I immediately thought of that old bullying game why are you hitting yourself?)
 
     A street artist called TemptOne was diagnosed with ALS in 2003. ALS is an incurable, progressively paralyzing disease; the artist had given up hope that he would be able to continue his art. Enter the modern-day superheroes: a collective of hacktivists at the Not Impossible Labs who created Eyewriter, an open source wearable eye tracker which "traced TemptOne's eye movements and projected them onto the side of a building. The Eyewriter couldn’t have been more effective, but Tempt would eventually lose all motor control of even his eyes, so the team at Not Impossible accepted it as a challenge and developed a next generation device using a BCI called the BrainWriter.
It uses OpenBCI’s Arduino platform and the open source 3D printed “spider claw” headset." *

     It's pretty easy to see both the "good" and "bad" potential uses of this new technology. The future is here, and it's both exciting and scary.

     But ain't it cool?


*Pate, Josh (2014-09-16). "Brainwriter Helps Graffiti Artist Suffering from ALS to Draw Using Openbci"
. Neurogadget. Retrieved 2016-03-28.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

N Is For "By Any Other Name": Flash Fiction #AtoZChallenge

     My first name is Tino, meaning unlucky or stained. I arrived feet first and the child of an unwed mother, so I suppose that the label fit. The village elders bestow the first name of every child born within the slums; the mother is left to balance (or undo) that choice with a middle name. Mine is Sadiki, which means "believe".
     "Believe what?" I would ask, when I was old enough to be curious about my name. Moma would always smile and provide me with a different answer each time.
     "Believe that there will be food to eat tonight" as she salvaged discarded vegetables from behind the market.
     "Believe that it will rain tomorrow" as the sun beat down mercilessly on our corrugated tin roof.
     "Believe that your Fa will be home one day" as we stood watching the dilapidated jitney disgorge its human cargo and rumble away into the shimmering distance.

     "What is my father's name?" I would ask, of any and all.
     "Lout." "Fool." "Stupid." "Worthless." And they would laugh. Did they mean me, or him? I gathered these hurts and nursed them, carefully. In the back of our dwelling was a skin; matted, worn, scented by earth and my own unwashed body. Moma would threaten to throw it in the stinking canal, but I would scream and bang my head on the floor until blood filled my mouth and she would relent. The skin was magical. When I wrapped myself in it I was strong and hidden from the world.

     On my sixteenth birthday Moma gave me a book which had belonged to my father. On the flyleaf were the letters CONRI. Inside were pictures of scrawled animals, no better than I could draw, as well as men with beards who wore furs, and gold, and wielding swords as long as I was tall. "Is this Fa's name?" I asked, pointing to the inscription. Moma grunted. "A foreign name. Yes. It means 'King Of Wolves'. Where he came from, it snows. He loved snow more than us."
     That night he visited me in a dream. "Call a cat a goat and try to milk him. See what happens for your troubles."
  
     The first child taken was Ifsa, a chubby bully with lank hair and protruding teeth. He was found with his throat torn out, his body already drawing flies in the watery dawn. After that it was the cheating crone from the market, then the village rent collector. People huddled beside fires at night despite the sweltering temperatures. Moma hung herbs and drew lines in the dust around our doorway.
     "To keep the killing spirits away," she mumbled, ashamed of her inability to produce a better weapon.
     "We are safe," I replied, fingering my fur and caressing my secret knowledge.
     "Little fool. Believe what you wish, but stay in just the same."
     And yet I went out, just the same.

     At first I begged; a little bread from here, a little corn from there. "To keep the wolf from the door," I would say, and the man or woman would shudder. As time went on, something became apparent; whoever gave something to me came by no misfortune from the savage beast which stalked our community.  I was quick with my hands, and so I patched wind-torn walls and makeshift cooking pots. I was strong and fast, and could catch a young buffalo by grabbing his horns, twisting his head and throwing him to the ground. I found that a steady gaze would always make a coward drop his eyes, and so I was called upon to pass judgement on the accused. "The wolf will come for you!" I would cry when the market seller placed a finger on the scale to cheat a customer.
     And come he would.

     There were murmurings of magic, but magic is an anfractuous thing, a tumbling of whispers, reason, legends and faith. If luck is a force, than like any force it is the reaction of interaction. Cry wolf, a wolf in sheep's clothing, werewolf, a king of the wolves. I ask you, which of these do you believe?

     I will walk to the hanging place tomorrow, wrapped in my father's skin. Unlucky, Believe, Son Of the King Of Wolves - choose any of my names, and therein lies the reason.



    

     

    

    



    

Friday, April 15, 2016

M Is For Museum Of Endangered Sounds #AtoZChallenge

Photo of Tamagotchi courtesy Tomasz Sienicki


How many of you can recall the unique sounds of a dot matrix printer, a Tamagotchi, or the mother-of-all-earworms, the Tetris tune?

As technology changes and advances, the sounds of an age slowly disappear. Fortunately a fellow by the name of Brendan Chilcutt has set to work preserving some of those sounds from the not-so-distant past in the Museum Of Endangered Sounds (SaveTheSounds) 

Stop by and listen to the soothing notes of a Macintosh startup or the energetic clattering of a Telex. Introduce your kids to those treasured memories from your past. Enlist a co-worker in a game of "guess the sound". Play several sounds at once and create a musical composition.

Enjoy! 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

L Is For Lighter Than Air: Aeros and Its Dragons In the Sky #AtoZChallenge

aeroscraft.com

Sky Dragon - watch the video!
Air freighter prototype Dragon Dream outside of her lair. She was damaged when part of the hanger collapsed.

Say the words "blimp" or "airship" and three things typically come to mind: the Hindenburg disaster, advertising dirigibles (like the Goodyear blimps) or steampunk. 

When I was growing up, a Goodyear blimp visited our local airport every summer. Its engines had a distinctive thrum, and since we lived quite near the airstrip, she was very low going over the house and cast an enormous shadow. It was thrilling beyond belief.

So I was ecstatic when I learned that a company called Aeros Worldwide was still actively building airships for advertising, tourism, and surveillance (Sky Dragon can carry close to a ton of radar, electronics and other equipment). They also designed and built Dragon Dream as a massive cargo-lifter, able to transport large quantities of material over the globe. Sadly, part of the roof on her WW2-era hanger collapsed and damaged her.

Worldwide Aeros Corp is an American manufacturer of airships based in Montebello, California. It was founded in 1992 by the current CEO and Chief Engineer, Igor Pasternak, who came to America from Ukraine and is following his dream of designing and building airships.

 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

K Is For Kleptomania, or My Short Career As A Petty Thief and Burglar - A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge

  


     It began with a pack of Fruit Stripe gum. You know, the stuff advertised by a rainbow colored zebra. I didn't particularly like it, especially since I tended to cram several sticks of gum in my mouth at one time, and when you mixed lemon  with whatever the red was supposed to be, it tasted like a mouthful of rotten fruit. It was lying, abandoned, on a shelf in the toy section of the grocery store. I picked it up, with every intention of returning it to its rightful home at the checkout. But it went into my pocket. As we stood in line at the cash registers, I considered how to get the contraband from my pocket to the rack without being seen. Openly pulling it out would cause all sorts of embarrassing questions, like "Why must you touch everything you see? Why didn't you give it to me? Why are you wearing your sister's favorite shorts? How many times do you have to be told to stay with me in the store? Remember the time you got lost?" So I left the gum in my pocket and stood silently, waiting for a security guard to clamp a beefy hand on my shoulder and lead me away through that mysterious swinging door in the back of the store. We made it home without being accosted by a SWAT team, and I dutifully ate my ill-gotten goods, but it tasted far worse than usual. Even the zebra on the package didn't look his usual jovial self.
     A few weeks later we all went to the mall. There was a fountain in the center of the building, and since I didn't care for furniture shopping (and Mom probably didn't want to be mortified once again as I placed a doily on my head and announced loudly "Look, I'm a nun"), I was allowed to sit by the fountain and wait for them.
    "Don't fall in" was the only admonition. So I sat and waited, watching the people go by and wishing that I had some money for a soft pretzel. Dangling my hand in the water. (She didn't, after all, say don't stick hands/feet/any part of your body in the water. Just don't fall in.) Saw that there were coins in the bottom of the basin.
    People threw money in the fountain to make a wish. Well, I was just wishing that I had some money. The circle was complete. I stealthily dabbled my fingers in the water (look, everybody, just an innocent girl feeling the water, nothing to see here, move along) and then snagged a nickel and put it in my pocket.
    Greed is the downfall of many a criminal. I spotted Mom and Dad at the far end of the Penney's wing, moving at their usual the-house-is-on-fire pace. So I reached behind me and attempted to trawl an entire handful of change.
    Of course I fell in.
    If you look closely, you can still see the imprint from my dad's death grip on my arm as I was unceremoniously dragged from the scene. (OK, that might be the "slightly fictionalized part of the story.)
    That might have been my last foray into the seedy underbelly of criminal behavior, but wait! There's more!
    Sometimes we babysat the boy next door. Eric was two years my junior, which put me in the position of being the slightly cool, somewhat knowledgable icon.  When we played Tarzan, he had to be Cheetah the chimp, and when we played Speed Racer, I got to be the title character and he had to be Spitle. After we ran out of imaginary games and were banned from anything with wheels, we had time on our hands to conjure trouble.
    "I wish we had some candy." (I was obsessed with sweets in my early years.)
    "I still have a bunch of Easter candy left over," Eric volunteered.
    That wasn't particularly helpful, since it was inside of his house and no one was home to beg.  But then the creative part of my neural network sent the rational part of my brain out to lunch and telegraphed try the door.
     "Let's try the door," my mouth dutifully repeated. It was locked.
     Pick the lock.
     "Remember how Agent 99 helped Maxwell Smart by using a bobby pin to open the door? I bet I can do that too."
     I plucked the pin from my bangs and wiggled it around in the lock, figuring that there was no chance in hell that it would open. You may already know that hell giveth the young and the stupid many, many chances. There was a click. I turned the knob.
     Unfortunately, the door led to the basement. All of that work, only to be thwarted!
     Try the window.
     If only my brain worked half as well during test time.
     The window was unlocked; I quickly boosted myself through, tucked and rolled over the sink and onto the floor, grabbed the first  thing I saw in the Easter Basket (it was blue Peeps) and, not being brilliant enough to simply exit through the door, made another knee-banging, elbow-scraping trip over the kitchen counter, through the window, and onto the concrete porch. Looking back, I was NOT Agent 99 but the twin sister of poor bumbling Max.
     Eric didn't like blue Peeps (which is why they were left-over) and so I was forced to furtively eat them all, crouched at the end of the yard with my back toward my own house.
     "I don't feel so good," I said to Eric, who was looking at me in a sort of horror.
     I can't help you said my brain.
     Mom was hollering out the window for us. As we approached, she was ready to hand us cups of lemonade. (Our kitchen window operated as a sort of drive-thru in the summer, since I was usually too filthy to be running in and out of the house.) I tried to give her an obsequious smile. Her own smile froze into a rictus of alarm and suspicion.
    "WHAT have you been eating?"
    Unaware that my mouth and teeth were stained neon blue, I resorted to the answer on the lowest end of the stupidality scale: "Nothing."
    "Bulls*8t! Get in here NOW."
    Mom was not a cursing woman; if she let one fly, it meant I had a good shot at either a whipping or the gallows.  I was considering my options and wondering just how much information I needed to give when Eric poured forth the entire story.
    I won't torment you, dear reader, with the details of my confession, my hearing before dear old Dad, my second humiliating confession at the neighbor's, or my punishment. I was not grounded for a year, but it seemed like it. It didn't take six months before I could sit down again, but it might have been at least a day. (See, parents fictionalize too!)  It certainly put an abrupt end to my criminal career forever.
     Thanks, Mom and Dad. I owe you.
    

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

J Is For Just Because, Or Where My Answer Falls On the Stupidality Index. A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge


   
     How shall I lie to thee? Let me count the ways...
     My parents had daytime occupations, but they moonlighted as law enforcement officers, a covert surveillance team, and as prison guards. Mom, in particular, would have made an excellent CIA officer. She had the routines down cold. Good cop/bad cop - "Well, your father is certainly going to be upset if he finds out. So why don't you just tell me who broke that record and maybe I can talk to him about it." Pretending to have information - "I already know someone used the phone without permission. And your sister wasn't home. So..." The stool pigeon - "The dog hasn't taken his eyes off you. What were you eating?" Threat of torture - "I hope whoever ate the box of laxative gum won't have to go to the hospital to have their stomach pumped." (It was me.) The Hole - "I guess you'll just have to stay in your room all day while the rest of us go swimming." (The latter soon fell out of use, since a law-abiding member of the family would have to stay behind and "watch" me.)
     Sis was much smarter than me, but when she did commit some major trespass, she lived by the criminal code - deny, deny, deny, and when presented by the evidence, clam up. She took her punishment in silence. I, on the other hand, either admitted it (with a fair amount of blubbering), tried to pin it on someone else, or offered one of three answers: nothing, just because, or I don't know.
     The stupidality scale goes like this: one is something relatively harmless and the evidence is present. Chocolate all over my face, for example; "What were you eating?" "Nothing." Ten is a possibly catastrophic event. "What possessed you to start a fire in the backyard?" "I don't KNOW." Often I really didn't know. 'Possessed' may have been the operative word.  (Today it would be defined as 'poor impulse control/unable to foresee consequences of actions' and I'd end up with some diagnosis or other.)
     "Just because" falls somewhere in the middle. I like to think that it heralded my budding scientific bent. What happens if you pull a hair from your head and stick it in the car's cigarette lighter? (It sizzles in a most satisfactory way but creates one hell of a stink. Then you have to frantically open the car door, fan it away, and concoct a story about an asphalt truck that passed by just seconds before Dad got back to the car.) What happens when you randomly mix stuff from your chemistry set? (Again with the stink.) What happens when you push the little button on the inside knob of the bathroom door and then slam it closed from the outside? Why, it locks and stays locked! Nobody can use the bathroom until Dad gets home. And of course, everyone suddenly has to pee.  Imagine that!
     Coca Cola, vulcanized rubber and Teflon were all the result of accidents and observation. I haven't made any brilliant contributions to the world, but the clock hasn't run out on me yet. Just the other day I was caulking the bathroom and I spelled my name out on the side of the tub. Knowing that it would look silly. Knowing that I'd have to scrape it off. Why?
     Just because.
     Who knows, with a little practice it might become a new art form.
     
    

Monday, April 11, 2016

I Is For Iodine, One Of Many Tinctures From Hell - A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge

 

      It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.  Jumping on the bed, jumping off the roof, doing a cartwheel straight into a wood rail fence, pounding a strip of "caps" (remember those little gunpowder filled strips?) - with a hammer, all seemingly great ideas until I lost layers of skin or split something open. Then came the quick calculation of whether it was worth going home for treatment. Was it oozing blood, or streaming? Was it something that I could hide? Did anyone see and run off to report it to the adults? Could I come up with a plausible excuse (I tripped on my shoelace) as opposed to revealing that I was trying to see if I could fit my entire head into the mailbox?
     I'd been warned many times about the dangers of infection. You could have your whole arm turn black and fall off. You could contract lockjaw and die a terrible death - starving, raving and foaming at the mouth. (In my mind I had created a horrifying amalgamation of tetanus and rabies.) The alternative was to be doctored with something from the medicine cabinet.
     The current crop of kiddies are soft little crybabies. They get a scratch and are slathered with a soothing antibiotic ointment and a bandage with an adorable cartoon character. We older folks walked 10 miles to school, uphill (both ways) in the snow, barefoot; and when we bled, we were painted with iodine, merthiolate, or mercurochrome.
     Merthiolate burned like hell. Ever get hot sauce on a hangnail or paper cut? Yeah. Now imagine someone liberally daubing that finger from a bottle of ghost pepper sauce for a minute. Then telling you to "stop crying and blow on it". So you stood there, frantically blowing on whatever unfortunate body part you'd traumatized, spraying spit everywhere and getting dizzy from the effort. After about - oh, ten minutes - you were able to function as a normal human being again. Of course, both merthiolate and mercurochrome dyed your skin a reddish-brown color, which lasted for days. One summer I walked around with so many red splats I looked like I'd been blown out of a foxhole during the war.
     Mercurochrome, evil cousin of merthiolate, supposedly didn't hurt as much. Poppycock. It also left telltale red stains. The only good thing was that a healthy application could make an injury look a lot worse than it was, which could be used to garner pity from grandparents and an excuse from gym.
     At some point iodine appeared in our bathroom. Satan must have dropped it off. It was wicked, wicked stuff; it felt like liquid fire being poured into the wound, and dyed your skin the color of pee. Apparently a watered down version of iodine is not so bad, but the product sold in the 1960s had an alcohol base which gave the tincture its bite.
     Finally, when I was around ten years old, a miracle appeared.  Bactine. Actually, Bactine was developed by Bayer in 1947 and first used in 1950. It is an antiseptic. It also contains Lidocaine, a PAIN RELIEVER! Why did so many children have to suffer with iodine and the tortuous M twins?
     I can only think of two reasons: the "pain build character" philosophy, or the "if it hurts, it must be doing you some good" idea. I could offer a third possibility from my parents: "Maybe if it hurts enough, you won't be stupid enough to __fill in the blank_____ again". The flaw in that line of reasoning is that I never repeated a single stupid act. There were hundreds of others to choose from.
      The FDA banned and stopped the sale of both Merthiolate and Mercurochrome in the 1990s. Seems they contain stuff called thimerosal and merbromin, also known as mercury.  Perhaps members of the older generation are brain damaged as a result of childhood first aid practices- the current political scene certainly makes a case for it.  Hospitals still use iodine; my brother-in-law recently had foot surgery, and they painted him with it. He had a reaction and developed a horrible, itchy rash under his boot.
     Evil stuff, I tell you. Evil stuff.

Friday, April 8, 2016

H Is For Humanities - A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge

     I signed up for the high school Humanities course to balance out my certain near-failure of AP Chemistry. It was taught by Mr. J. Bourse, known among the student population as either Chrome Dome or "Johnny". His distinguishing feature, as you may have guessed, was a nearly bald head across which he pasted a few very long strands of hair. As the day wore on, those hairs would start falling across his face and he would flick them back with one hand while holding a book or paper and pacing the room.
     "Uck, why doesn't he just shave them off."
     "We should get him a rug."
     "Yeah, out of dog hair."
     "You'd think Miss Piggy would do something." Miss Piggy was the derogatory name for the typing teacher; she was tall and bony and a fanatical collector of anything porcine. Both Mr. Bourse and Miss Kraft were known to be middle-aged, never married and weird as hell. Someone had created them as a "couple", pining away for each other but too inept or embarrassed to do anything about it. The girls practically wrote screenplays about the two; secret trysts in the faculty room where they stood and stared at each other through the smoke (back in those days, adults smoked everywhere - the door would open to the teachers' lounge and wisps of smoke and burnt coffee would float down the hall) or exchanging books with secret love messages scrawled in the margins.
     I was always trying to fit in, so I offered an idea one day.
     "Shut up, Fang. That's stupid. Where'd ya get that, watching the Guiding Light with your mother?"
     Fang was the newest monicker bestowed upon me, slightly better than Toothpick and far better than Undershirt Girl. (Forty years later, I am now correcting those "fang" teeth - see B Is For Braces.) I used to fantasize about beating some of those kids to death with a rock or a brick. Or drowning them during swim class.
     For the subject of my first paper, I chose Moby Dick. It was titled something like Moby Dick: Existentialism, Nihilism, and Death In A Literary Classic. I threw in existentialism because it sounded good with the other two, not because my ninth grade self was in any way able to connect it to the other two. But I had a long history of successfully bullshitting my way through English courses, and I assumed that high school would be no different. (Chemistry, on the other hand, was a no bullshit zone by its very nature, hence my assumption that I'd probably be on thin ice.)
     One by one we filed up to Mr. Bourse's desk and presented our titles. Everyone else got a cursory nod and a check. I strode up and handed him my notepad. Instead of the anticipated check and dismissal, he leaned back in his chair.
     "Miss Singletary, while I admire the intended scope of your thesis, the length is set at 20-30 typewritten pages. I'm not sure that you could do justice to yours in under...say...a thousand pages." He kept his voice low but I could sense the class turning their antennae in our direction. Vanessa and Tina had their heads together, whispering, and a wet kissing noise erupted from someone in the rear. Muffled snorts and snickers followed. Mr. Bourse leaned forward and, of course, that cursed greasy wisp fell across his nose. He plastered it back.
     "Stay for a moment after class and we'll see if we can't streamline this just a bit."
     Oh dear god, I'd have to stay after. Maybe if I grabbed my books and scuttled out right at the bell, he'd forget. I could hand something else in tomorrow.
     He did not, of course, forget. I had my bookbag slung over my shoulder and my feet out from under the desk when the bell rang. "Miss Singletary, a moment please."
     "Miss Fang, may I have this dance?" someone hissed. "Yoohoo, Miss S, come closer..."
     I hated Mr. Bourse at that moment with the white-hot rage of the criminally insane. Stupid little man.
     "Miss Singletary."
     Yes, Mr. Douchebag.
     "We'll be covering nihilism and existentialism during second semester. May I suggest that you tackle those subjects after I've offered a more comprehensive background? I think that you might be able to make a case for death either as a symbolic element or as the real-life basis of Ahab's story." (I'm paraphrasing here.)
     "OK." It came out more as an irritated grunt. I just wanted to get the hell out there before the next class came in.
     I suppose that he thought I was angry at his suggestion. "Look, this is an honors class, and so I always confer with students' previous English and Composition teachers. I've read some of your papers from Mrs. Zwally's class. They're pretty evenly split between rubbish and very good. There's no in-between. That tells me that you are capable of some really fine work but only if you are so inclined. Frankly, I get a lot of students who do just enough to slide by. They pad their papers, make things up, restate the same idea a dozen different ways hoping that I won't notice. Don't be one of them. You're better than that. And here, I don't usually do this but I think I have a book or two that you might find of interest." He reached behind him and withdrew two books from the shelves. Death, Society and Human Experience. The American Way Of Death. Oh, he's a ghoul.
     "Ummm, OK. Thanks. I've got to get to the gym, so..."
     "Of course. I'll just amend your title and check you off the list."
     I practically ran from the room and just missed colliding with my arch-nemesis, Vanessa, who was leaning up against the lockers outside. Her eyes flicked to the books in my hand.
     "Be sure and check the margins," she smirked, and theatrically flicked a strand of hair out of her face.
     Had we been alone, I might have grabbed those shiny Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific scented locks and smashed her head against the lockers. Bent her blood-red fingernails back, one by one, until she screamed and apologized. Instead I just walked away. But those talons of hers reminded me of something.
     I'd noticed that Mr. Bourse's fingernails were bitten to the quick.

     Eventually I faded from the bullying spotlight, at least for a time. Jason Wolfe's father lost his mind and shot up their basement (he claimed the Viet Cong were down there). Andrea Marioni's second cousin got pregnant at 16 and was sent to live with her grandparents in Florida. Mike Rusin got expelled for selling drugs (someone snitched because he was actually emptying Benadryl capsules, filling them with flour and selling them as speed - a lesson to never cheat your clientele). During the second semester of that year, some distant relative of mine that I'd never heard of, let alone met, passed away.
     My mom thought that it might be a good idea to go to the viewing. "Since you didn't know Great Somebody Or Other Twice Removed On Your Father's Side, it won't be so bad. Eventually you'll have to go to somebody's viewing that you DO know, and then you'll have an idea what to expect."
     Let's see. Looking at a dead body in a coffin, with a bunch of people that I don't know, plus the possibility of refreshments, versus junior church choir rehearsal that evening.
     I'll take the dead body behind door number one, Monty.

     It was raining that evening. I had on my "good" dress and wedge heels, in which I swayed like a drunken giraffe. As we pulled in front of the funeral home, a man ran out, opened the car door, and stuck his elbow out at me.
     "Ma'am?"
     I felt like a celebrity, stepping out of the car, escorted by a man holding an umbrella over my head. Once inside the elaborate front door, my cavalier escort turned around and dashed back out to the curb to await the next car.
     The place smelled of furniture polish, flowers and general dampness. Judging by the architecture, the place dated back to the 1800s at least. I vaguely recalled a scene from a movie that featured a lot of dead Confederate soldiers lined up in the living room of a mansion. The thought of maggots popped into my head. Mom's potpie dinner began to churn in my stomach.  Where was everyone else? Where was Dad? What if he'd had an accident, or a heart attack while parking the car, and we'd gotten the time wrong and I was all alone in a House Of the Dead? (Future Thesis: Innate Paranoia Is the Root Of All Good Horror Fiction). I felt a presence behind me, and then a hand on my shoulder that made me nearly fall off those damned shoes.
     "I'm...oh." We looked at each other.
     Mr. Bourse, dressed in a black suit, his face slightly red, took a step back, then offered me his hand.
     "Miss...errr...Lisa." He cleared his throat. Thank heaven the dreaded hair stayed in place. "I'm sorry to have startled you."
     My throat had that nasty tightening sensation, the one that signals a blubbering spell in the offing.
     "I was...my Dad is...I'm here for a funeral and I feel weird." Actually, I felt like puking as well.
     "That's understandable. It's a difficult time for you, I know."
     I blurted it out. "I've never seen a body, and I'm scared."
     He took my hand and squeezed it. "You'll be fine, I think. You can always take a seat in the back - there's no rule that you have to go anywhere near the viewing area if you don't want to. But it's been my experience that folks who refuse to face that particular fear end up trying to deal with it forever. And if there's one other thing I've learned in life, it's that the living do the hurting, not the dead." 
     Now I saw the little gold nametag pinned to his lapel. Breyers Funeral Home, John Bourse. So my teacher was moonlighting as an undertaker. The persecution possibilities were endless. This little gem of information could be my buy-in to the school cool club. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I felt disgust. What a piece of crap I am.
     The door opened and my Dad arrived, accompanied by my Uncle in a cloud of mist and pipe smoke. Mr. Bourse gently pointed out the "Smoke Stop" in the corner and proceeded to take their coats. The men in my family are all large and intimidating, with square jaws and lush heads of hair. Mr. Bourse appeared gnome-like next to them. My mind went back to the day I'd stood beside his desk, listening to the hateful whispers and derisive sounds coming from those smug, pimply-faced brats. Surely "Chrome Dome" knew exactly what they were saying, whispering, insinuating. Every day he made the choice to show up for work, to patiently try and teach, maybe even inspire at least one or two of us. It must have been like trying to teach circus tricks to a bunch of jackasses. Evenings he made the choice to show up for work, to greet the bereaved, take their coats, shake sweaty hands and say just the right thing.
     I wondered if he'd always bitten his nails, or if it was a habit he'd started in school - just like I'd begun to pick and rip at my cuticles until they bled.
     I don't remember a lot of what we covered in Humanities, although I got an A+. Much of my time in high school was spent counting the days until I could get out of there. Adulthood was supposed to be the magical doorway through which you stepped and left petty name-calling and ostracizing behind. But it's there, on the other side, sometimes on an even grander scale.
     I still bite my cuticles.
     Mr. Bourse was right - it's the living who make you bleed.
    
     
    
    

    
     

Thursday, April 7, 2016

G Is For Garbage - A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge

  
     Garbage takes on a whole new meaning when you're poor. In fact, garbage practically disappears because you've re-used, re-purposed, gnawed and consumed just about everything that has crossed your path. Hipsters now Dumpster dive for fun and profit, or to make a point about rampant consumerism. But poverty is no joke, and it has a way of warping you so that even a sudden rise in fortune isn't enough to pry the grasping claws of that inner Bag Lady loose.
     I'm the proud recipient of a frugality hat trick. My grandparents lived through the Depression and my parents were raised during war time; I managed to wreck my college career, land a part-time job selling frozen meat over the phone, rent a rundown mobile home and become owner of an abandoned cat (who eventually abandoned me in disgust and moved in with the slightly-better-off family up the street). So I have zero compunction about looking through donation piles to enhance my wardrobe, vacuuming up free samples at the supermarket, or checking the sofa cushions for change at the bookstore.
      When I was a kid, one thrifty relative (I won't say who since he/she isn't dead yet) taught us to check the return slots on gum machines and public phones for change, as well as to prowl under the stadium seats during sporting events in search of dropped money or objects of value. (We were too young at the time to bother looking up, in case you wondering.) We never found much cash but there were other treasures; sweatshirts, a dog collar which I traded for a really cool pen, and a pocket knife which was eventually confiscated by my parents. I also collected soda can pop-tops and strung them into a chain to decorate my room.
     Actually, kids have no preconceived notions of "garbage". Anything is fair game; they'll eat dog food, a cupcake in the trash can, a stick of gum on the street. "But the wrapper's still on!" Bottle caps and cigarette butts are intriguing playthings. (I grew up in a safe country; my husband and his friends famously dragged home an unexploded WW2 bomblet in the UK.)
     My mom's friend Nancy became a widow early on. She offered Mom some of her deceased husband's clothes, which were "relatively new". After that, Dad would periodically appear in the morning, dressed very nattily. "Look honey, I'm wearing my dead man's pants today!"
     I didn't have any dead girl clothes but I did have something far worse - hand-me-downs. You may think that you're familiar with 1970s fashion, but did you know that some trends were so hideous that they died after a few months? Imagine having to wear them THREE YEARS LATER. The terrycloth jumpsuit. Yes, terrycloth, as in washcloth material. The knickers, which should have remained in the 1800s. The macrame, suitable for hanging plants but not Junior High attire. I wore them all, and was beaten up for it. The only kid worse off may have been Kathy K, who's mother knitted her a sweater from the family dog's hair. She tried to pass it off as angora until someone (there's always that one person) produced a picture of Bandit and held it up next to her.
      Old habits die hard. I'm writing this while wearing my son's cast-off sweatpants from 20 years ago. My coffee mug advertises a prostate health drug - a freebie from a senior health bazaar. I use Vaseline for my skin, eyebrows, and to grease those noisy door hinges. I use teabags at least twice. I could lie and say that I'm concerned for the environment and trying to reduce my "footprint". But really, I'm constantly planning for the day when everything might disappear and I'll be forced to live on little or nothing. Those Doomsday Preppers have got nothing on me.
    
      

F Is For Frinkiac: Or, Where's My Elephant? - #AtoZChallenge

One of my favorite episodes featured Bart's radio contest prize - Stampey.

Frinkiac is the time-suck that no one should be without. Even if you don't love everything about the Simpsons, there's probably a quote that pretty much sums up at least one fragment of your life. Now you can match the quote to the screenshot!

Frinkiac

When I was Bart's age, I didn't want an elephant, I wanted a pony. Desperately. I would just DIE if I didn't get one. The split rail fence in the yard, along with a blanket and jump rope, provided the riding experience I'd need. Feeding him? Why, I'd just walk him around and let him graze in neighborhood yards. People would pay ME for the convenience of not having to mow. Clean up the poop? Of course I would. I already had to use a shovel behind Mr. 80lb, Eats-Everything-And-Sh*ts-Out-Twice-As-Much Dog. 

Sadly, my parents were pretty much immune to bribes, pathetic begging and veiled threats. ("I'll run away!" "Not with my good suitcase, you won't. You want to run away, you'll use a paper grocery bag.")

Now I am all grown up. (Really.) I still want a pony. But having passed Basic Mathematics and Economics 101, it has come to my attention that I would have to get a second job (maybe even a third) to support an equine family member. So I have settled for riding lessons, renting trail horses by the hour, and groveling at the feet of those who actually own horses and are charitable enough to let me hang around. 

I rode an elephant once, at a zoo expo, and it was a lot of fun. If any of you happens to own an elephant, let me know.  I'll walk him and clean up poop in exchange for riding time...