My cat hates me and other sorrows

Depression for me is a cumulative thing. I don’t wake up one morning feeling more worthless, confused and lost than the day before. It’s a gradual tightening around my heart. A stuck door; constant noise from nearby water main project and tasks which must be attended to: Taxes, expired licenses, home maintenance issues … all those things postponed during the pandemic. Worst of all for me, a vaccine shot. I hate getting shots. No one can tell me they are just pinpricks.  I can feel that old needle pierce my skin and drill into soft flesh. And then afterwards, the redness, the bruising … Yes I am that patient all doctors love: The whiney cry baby.

But it doesn’t sound like they’re going to produce a vaccine in pill form anytime soon and so I will have to man up as they say.  Put on my big girl pants and go get the shot.  

Singing the ole Folsom Prison Blues

And to make matters worse, my cat has decided I am the worst human being on the planet.  He’s never been the friendliest of pusses but now he’s a complete pain in the patootie, especially as we must keep him inside the house at all times.  The Serial Biter, an apparently psychotic coyote, has been on the prowl in our neighborhood since last July.  Already two children, a jogger, a skateboarder and convenience store clerk have been attacked. Who knows how many kitties and small dogs have completely vanished. I say “a coyote” instead of a “couple of coyotes” because through DNA analysis they know it’s the work of one bad hombre.  (Well, bad to us but probably a legend in the coyote world)

The Serial Biter, perhaps. Gotta catch him/her first! From the SF Chronicle!

So far Serial Biter has outsmarted the animal control folks, who I’m sure, are fed up with the Wile e Coyote jokes at their expense. No word on what they plan to do:  round up all the coyotes, take their DNA and release the innocents?  And what about Serial Biter once they’ve identified him (or her)? No doubt some soft hearted animal lover will set up a GoFund Me to provide the poor critter with psychological help.  They certainly cannot – shudder – euthanize him.  Can you imagine the uproar?

Blind date leads to homicidal fantasies

I can’t say that “You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore was the uplifting uniquely American story I was hoping to read after Saul Bellow’s “A Silver Dish” but it was funny.  In fact, sometimes hysterical. 

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: 
Zoe Hendricks teaches history at a small midwestern college where she is considered an odd duck for sometimes bursting into song. Her eccentricities are blamed on the fact that she is from the liberal east coast and she is still … gasp … single.  Her students are midwesterners who “seemed to know very little about anything but they were good-natured about it.”  However, when she starts teaching critical thinking skills, they begin to perceive her as a threat and start to write negative reviews about her job performance. And so she needs to get away.

Zoe singing for her new students

She decides to visit a sister (Evan) who is a part-time food designer in Manhattan. Evan lives with a boyfriend she is considering marrying but he has a peculiar way of climbing into bed and watches “fuzzy football” because he is too cheap to pay for cable television.  Evan has a man picked out for her sister who is “nice, fun and just going through a divorce” and she plans to introduce them at her Halloween party that night.  (Having once been set up on a blind date to a Halloween party with a man going through a divorce, I yelled out: run for the your life!)

Although Zoe’s recent dates have led her to believe that all men really want is a “Heidi” (blonde, buxom, cheerful and unambitious), she agrees. The man (Earl) shows up “dressed as a naked woman, steel wool glued strategically to a body stocking and large rubber breasts prodding like hams.” Obviously a true romantic.

Heidi

Zoe, who’s recently undergone several “grams” to determine an unknown medical condition, can’t keep her eyes off the rubber boobs which seem to be constantly flopping about and mocking her.  (The title comes from a joke among breast cancer victims: The doctor says to his patient “You want a second opinion?  Okay, you’re ugly too.”) 

Zoe endures the date until realizing Earl actually has the hots for her sister.  Her tipping point comes after he asserts that female hormones are being “sprayed around and now men are screwing rocks!” Of course, she does what any normal woman in such a circumstance would do. She tries to shove him off the edge of a high-rise balcony.

I love the sardonic humor of Lorrie Moore’s writing. Here were just a few laugh out loud moments for me:

“Heidi did not do things like stand in front of the new IBM photocopier saying,”If this fucking Xerox machine breaks on me one more time, I’m going to slit my wrists.””

“I’m not married? Oh my God,” said Zoe, “I forgot to get married!”

“Do you suppose,” she babbled at the Xray technician, “that the rise in infertility among so many couples in this country is due to completely different species trying to reproduce.”

I’ve known many women undergoing breast cancer treatments (and scares) and dark sarcasm is often the way they cope … so this story rang true for me. Be honest: If you were on a blind date with someone like Earl, would you fantasize about shoving him off the edge of a balcony? I would!

What do you do about death …

I have finally returned to my attempt to read all one hundred of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. At the rate I’m going, it will probably take me the next one hundred years.

In his preface, John Updike, admits that his purpose was not to compile the best stories in the world, or even in the United States, but the best uniquely American stories. The definition of a uniquely American story is certainly a subject that could be debated ad nauseam. Americans are like people all over the world, are we not?  There are American farmers just as there are German farmers. Could it be our feet?  I have had people in other countries tell me they can always spot American tourists.  We’re the only bozos who wear tennis shoes nearly everywhere when they are clearly meant only to be worn on a tennis court. Pardonnez moi!

But of course, Updike was not referring to our shoes or our manner of farming. What do you think he defined as “a central strand in America’s collective story?” Yup, immigration. If you’re an American, the ancestors who brought you here often came with nothing thus their lives were “scramble and survival.” Some people maintained strong ties to old world traditions and some did not. How immigrants reacted to their new realities are in the stories told by their children and grandchildren.

Predicting Trumpism?

Saul Bellow was a writer primarily known for his connection to Chicago, a city I lived in for almost three years in my early twenties. Chi-town is a prototypical working class town/city.  Unlike the old money families on the East Coast, its millionaires are rough, generally unscrupulous men with ties to the mob.  This was particularly true during Bellow’s childhood. 

In 1979 he published a story called “The Silver Dish.” In this story Woody Selbst’s father believes abandoning and then betraying his family is the right thing to do because it makes his children (particularly his son) stronger.  He’s a con man, a liar and a grifter and yet people always seem willing to forgive him and even give him another chance. Like their neighbors, the Selbsts are recent immigrants for whom “money was a vital substance” and Christian charity came with a price, paid by the samaritan. Selbst is confused about everything in life; the hypocrisies of religion, the complications of romantic relationships, and in particular, why he can’t seem to condemn his father. Particularly on the last chance he has: his father’s deathbed. Indeed the story begins with the question “What do you do about death?” My reaction to this story was similar to my reaction to Updike’s own story “Gesturing”:  Beautifully written but deeply disconcerting.

There’s gotta be a more cheerful story in this collection!  Let’s see (from Updike’s intro) there’s “The Peach Stone:”  The burial of a child builds to a redemptive affirmation. I’ll pass on that one for now.

How about Edward Fenton’s “Burial in the Desert” I don’t even have to read the synopsis. No, no, no.

Then there’s Lorrie Moore’s: “You are Ugly Too”: …the heroine’s nearly consummated desire to push off the edge of a skyscraper, a man dressed in a marked-up body stocking, dressed as a woman.

That one might be cheerful.  What do you think?

Boy, dog and mackerel

My father claimed that he had no talents whatsoever. He was just an engineer. He made that claim as if having talent was a bad thing, which is odd considering the fact that his grandfather was a photographer of note in the Dakota Territory (late 1880s).  A fact I did not discover until after my father’s death. 

Unfortunately Great Grandpa Flaten died young and his widow married a judge.  A very practical, no-nonsense judge. Grief takes people in strange directions, or in my great grandmother’s case, toward comfort and solace. I suppose that’s when talent got a bad rep.

My grandmother as captured by her father

Although he claimed to have none of his grandfather’s talent, I remember a time when my father turned one of our bathrooms into a dark room. He covered the one window with black sheets of paper, laid out pans of solution on the vanity and used the shower curtain as a drying rack for his photos. He owned other cameras but a Brownie like this one was his favorite.

The following pictures were taken with the Brownie. They’re not in very good shape but I love the way he caught light and shadow.  

My brother and me

He also had a good sense of timing.

Look at the happiness on my brother’s face

Or here … a rapturous moment. Boy, dog and mackerel (at least I think it’s a mackerel).

And he had a way of predicting the future. This picture of me at age one … after taking a tumble down the stairs and banging my head … is exactly what I look like now decades later.

How did he do it? My wardrobe hasn’t even changed! Unfortunately the dark room was disassembled when he left us in Reno to get a PhD. Thereafter he seemed to lose interest.

More of grandmother … nice to think she was at one time happy!

I’m waiting on news of a friend which I fear has little chance of being good. But the Red Quill continues to grow. It’s now up to my knees. Time to order seeds. I need to see other signs of life rise from the ground.

What will you be planting this year? I’m thinking Shasta Daisies and ornamental grasses.

I Have To Believe In Something

tin hats

I just got off Skype.  I was talking to someone I love very much.  She is going through a difficult time in her life and I have been of very little help.  My heart knows.  My breathing knows. The clinch of my jaw knows. My mind races when I don’t talk to her for a few days, when she doesn’t answer the phone. It’s as if I’m walking alone at night and I’m in a strange city, empty streets, blank faces.  I’m lost in the city and the wind is cold, like the east coast or up north somewhere, and I feel worthless, alone. 

Earlier today I talked to Leland in Jordan.  He told me about sitting on a panel discussion in Cairo about child soldiers in the Central African Republic. He’d gotten 108 released from a training camp and as he addressed the people in the audience, he offhandedly…

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I Once Walked Barefoot

My dear friend Carol has just published a collection of short stories that range in setting from rural Texas to a small village in Kenya with themes that tackle the dangers of biotech’s effort to promise eternal youth, the callousness of modern medicine, the double standard women are forced to bear, and the insanity brought on by decades of global betrayal and mistrust.  Some are comically wrought while others read like a vision of a deeply dystopian world. Only, that world is here and now.

Carol grew up on the eclectic Gulf Coast of Texas, in a swampy mix of oil refineries and chemical plants which attracted cat-fishing and duck-hunting aficionados. When not sampling raw oysters and fried frogs’ legs, she trained hunting dogs with her close-knit family and travelled inland to ranch country to help her aunts churn butter while their husbands drank whiskey and branded steers.

A marriage gone wrong motivated young Carol, armed with a Zoology degree and experience researching bat echolocation, to venture to the even wilder west of Berkeley, California. There she learned to lock her doors, defend herself on mass transit and, moved on to investigating signal processing in seals and sea lions. When she tired of living on the beans and rice diet a researcher’s salary provides, she found work in the booming biotech industry.  Finally, she was able to fulfill another passion: travel and immersion into foreign cultures. The stories in I Once Walked Barefoot are a combination of childhood memories, her biotech experiences and life as a  fish-out-of-water far from Texas.

Carol on Red

Carol’s non-fiction publishing spans newspapers, humor zines, and tech journals. One of her adventure articles was reprinted in Trekking The West, a guide to horse treks in Western Australia. Creative credits include a Pushcart nomination for the short story Kozel, about a Russian psychiatrist from New York whose patient-centered practice tangles with the California “me” culture.

Reviews:

“These stories operate on a kind of dystopian fairytale/mythic logic and center around the female body/the male gaze; the environment; animals; and health. That they range from Texas to California to Africa adds welcome texture.”

Dawn Raffel, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney

“Sometimes whimsical, sometimes cosmic, Carol Teltschick’s stories are little gems: flashes of brilliance that momentarily illuminate the everyday and the extraordinary. I Once Walked Barefoot is an invitation to wonder and delight.”

Luke Whisnant, author of Down in the Flood

FUIs and the metamorphosis of the Red Quill

California is probably the only place on earth where anyone complaining about the rain is given the same treatment as an anti-masker. Boo! Hiss! Go Away. We love our rain. Particularly this year after sooo many wildfires. Unfortunately for us it also means the occasional thud against the picture window in our living room. If we’re lucky, the bird lives to chirp another day. If not, it’s a sad day.

My living room window … looking across the canyon

We attempted deter the chickadees by placing hawk stencils on the window. However, apparently the average bird is smart enough to tell a stencil from a real hawk. And so my husband came up with another brilliant idea – hang pieces of yarn. The only problem is, I do not knit and neither does he. But I do save ribbons and so I scotch taped them to the window. So far, it has greatly cut down the number of FUIs (Flying Under the Influence) deaths.

And … who knows … maybe I’ll start a new home decorating trend. What do you think?

As to what is causing the high numbers of FUIs, we blame these bright red berries currently growing wildly in the backyard.

I’ve been advised by folks who know bird behavior far better than me (in particular Jet Eliot) that eating these berries does not make a bird intoxicated. Heck … I may not know birds l but I do know a drunk when I see one (even if they can still fly … which I’ve been trying in vain to do since before I could walk.)

Of course, the birds could be getting the wrong idea from Captain Mouser here. Think I should turn him around?

Now onto the strange metamorphosis of the Red Quill plant you may remember from last fall. The one that popped out of the ground resembling a giant purple penis and then grew into this beauty.

Well, here it is now. Still beautiful but in a slightly different way.

I’m looking forward to what it does next. For me, the year has finally begun.

If you want reliable information about wildlife behavior (and some spectacular photography as well), check out Jet Eliot’s amazing blog.

The year in which we dare to hope

Sunday, January 3rd

I haven’t launched myself into 2021 yet. It’s like I’m standing on the edge of an Olympic-sized pool, wondering if I have the strength to make it to the other side, thinking perhaps of holding my breath the whole way and never having to come up for air. Once, I could have done it. Many, many years ago. Now it’s no longer an option. I’m just hoping the water isn’t too cold. I’m just hoping when I come up for air, the sky won’t be on fire.

Heaven by Connemoira

Competitive swimming is a lonely sport. Once you hit the water, you race yourself. Those who like to win will tell you they are aware of their competitors and driven by the need to beat them but, after I would hit the water, my only desire was to swim fast enough to hear my heart race in my ears. Driven by adrenaline, my arms became oars and my legs paddle-wheels. My body, then a machine, my mind was free to go elsewhere. I have my best thoughts underwater where, if you can hear the cheers, they are like muffled bubbles. Generally I would get to the other side with no idea how I did, disappointed I was back in the world where winning was everything.

Perhaps I’m afraid of that first slice into unknown waters. 2021 already means two postponed memorials to attend and now, it looks, sadly, like a third. This latest passing was a swimmer far more gifted at the sport than me. He’s standing on that mount now ready to take on his last medley. Go Danny. Remember the sacred mantra: Butter, Back, Breast and Free.

Danny Wissmar

Yes, it was sadly covid.

And so I tell myself: “When you first hit the water, ignore the initial jolt. Keep your head down; your arms rising from and falling beneath the surface; your legs beating out the rhythm … take as few breaths as possible and you will get to the other side of the pool.”

Shalee’s Christmas Story, The End

Part One here

The next morning I was barely able to lift my head from the pillow. I managed to call Macys only to be fired. I laid on the spare cot next to the wall heater, in and out of feverish delirium. Was it day or night? I never knew.   Some time during the next three days Joellen stopped checking on me which meant she’d also been stricken. The phone would ring and ring and ring until whoever was on the other end gave up. 

The night before Christmas, between the “ho, ho, ho” of jolly Christmas songs, we heard horror story after horror story over the radio, pleas from officials to stay off the roads. A historic ice storm was bearing down on the entire Kansas City area. 

I’d been raised in the high desert where storms rolling through are generally swift and any snow that fell to the ground rarely lasted once the sun came out. However, in the Midwest, ice storms are slow moving and encase everything in ice. Trees bend to the ground as though praying for mercy. Icicles hang like giant fangs from the eaves of all the houses and the winds howl, sometimes for days.

There was no mail delivery service in Greenwood. Just a tiny one-room post office in the center of town where you went to “call on” your mail. Thus we had no tree, no stockings, no presents. Just each other. And the Hong Kong Flu.

In the morning the ice covering our one window acted as a prism, sending the colors of the rainbow through the room as the winds outside whispered gently. Merry Christmas, the Ice Storm hath ended. Outside all was white save the Christmas lights flashing in our neighbors’ windows. The children took full advantage of the snow and ice covered streets, laughing as they mounted new sleds and raced each other down the hill. 

For the first time in days I’d woken with a growling stomach and not a headache. “I’m  hungry,” I said to Joellen as she stumbled out from the bedroom.

“Hot damn! So am I!” She said opening our sole kitchen cabinet. It was empty or so I thought. ”Look what I found!  A bran muffin mix and it only needs water. Good thing cause we bloody well don’t have anything else.” She turned on the water but nothing came out. “Whelp, no water either. The pipes are frozen.” Then she stepped out onto the tiny porch and ripped an icicle from the eaves. “I thought we weren’t supposed to drink melted ice,” I said as she melted the huge chunk of ice in a pot on the hotplate that served as our stove“Why the hell not?”

I had no idea why the hell not and so I just watched as she scrummaged through the cabinet. “And look … some hot cider mix! I do declare, we’re in for a real feast now.”

I can still remember the hot apple cider and bran muffins tasting better than any gourmet meal I’d ever had. Then we played our favorite records and danced around the room. My favorite Christmas ever.

Shalee’s Christmas Story (redux)

[Note to followers: The first time I tried to post this story, the text blocks got all screwed up. One of Santa’s naughty elves I think or perhaps it was the eggnog! At any rate HAPPY HOLIDAYS!]

The year the Hong Kong flu swept across America killing thousands of people and leaving others begging for death, I was a “Christmas Helper” assigned to the home goods department of a Macy’s in downtown Kansas City Missouri. If you’ve ever taken a seasonal job selling products that you know nothing about then  you’ll understand why I spent most of my time in the stock room. No one ever found anything in the stock room and so I could sit in there forever wondering why anyone would want a tangerine colored crockpot.

The store was located not far from the abandoned stockyards in an area where few businesses still survived but I was just a teenager with no resume. And so I’d quickly and without thinking taken a minimum wage job an hour by bus from Greenwood Missouri where I lived with a friend a few years older and much wiser than me.

Her name was Joellen and she was more than a friend.  She was the big sister I’d never had.  

Her life had been hard. Her father, an alcoholic, had committed suicide when she was fourteen and the man her mother soon remarried didn’t like children. Especially Joellen  who was probably smarter than him and not afraid to speak her mind. She survived by hiring herself out as a nanny in exchange for room and board. We were really lucky when she picked our family.

Joellen

 Not long after Joellen graduated from college  she married a man in the National Guard. She’d followed him on his first deployment to Missouri where, thinking they would be settled for a while, she’d enrolled in graduate school. However, he was redeployed, this time overseas, leaving her stuck in a town on the outskirts of Kansas City.

For a gal from Reno Nevada, this was akin to being stuck on Mars. Reno is an all-night, pay-to-play, everything goes town with a marque reading “Biggest Little City in the World.”  The sign outside of Greenwood Missouri read:

WELCOME TO GREENWOOD
✞ HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED✞

After high school, my first attempt to voyage out into the world had ended  in a Mennonite cornfield with one friend hospitalized, the other pregnant, and me with a fork stuck in my leg.  I’d returned home to Reno hardly the Prodigal Child. My parents were going through a divorce, all my friends were in college or getting married prematurely to boys I knew would never be men.  My chances to succeed seemed slim to none and then Joellen wrote: 

”Come live with me and get your act together.”

She had more faith in me than I did.

We soon became known in Greenwood (population 800) as “dem dam hippies.” I guess because we drove an old VW bug and lived in a three room shack with little insulation, leaky windows and a wall heater that barely kept the place warm. When the temps dropped below freezing, we pulled the VW into an attached lean-to, however, in order to keep the engine block from freezing, we had to run an extension cord out to a lamp underneath the hood. It didn’t always work.

Every morning I drove with Joellen to the campus of the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) then took a bus down to Macys. I can still remember the long hours I spent in that windowless building pretending I had any idea whatsoever about what I was doing. The only thing that made the job bearable was a cheerful black girl, not much older than me, who could talk customers into buying products off the shelves so she did not need to enter the dreaded stockroom.

 Five days before Christmas my body began to ache. The bars, barbecue joints, and Victorian boarding houses along the route back to the campus were decorated for the season with blinking lights and Santa Clauses but in my worsening condition they were as sinister as ghouls in a carnival funhouse. 

I remember seeing my reflection in the window on those dark, cold nights. Instead of eighteen I looked eighty (or as my mother would say like “death warmed over”)

I cried as I waited for Joellen outside her class. All around were murals Thomas Hart Benton had painted in his lean and feverish years, scenes of farm life that felt so cold and lifeless I decided he must have hated the Midwest. 

I tried to convince myself that a good night’s sleep was all I needed, but deep down I knew, it was the Hong Kong flu.