Archive for April, 2015|Monthly archive page

Drivel

Day Nineteen: Don’t Stop the Rockin’

Today is a free writing day. Write at least four-hundred words, and once you start typing, don’t stop. No self-editing, no trash-talking, and no second guessing: just go. Bonus points if you tackle an idea you’ve been playing with but think is too silly to post about.

— — — — —
I skipped day 18’s writing prompt. I’m just not ready to tackle dialogue and crafting stories from whole cloth. I have this paralyzing fear of writing fiction. I’m certain that any story I can write has not only already been told better a hundred times before, but also that anyone who sees my fiction writing would first laugh themselves sick and then confiscate all my writing instruments to spare the world the agony. 
Drivel. That’s what my fiction work would be. I just know it. 
That’s why I skipped to tomorrow’s prompt. At least drivel is a reasonably expected result of a free-write assignment, right?
Some days I just have no confidence in my ability to write anything other than professional memoranda and contract provisions. Nothing that takes any creativity and thought. On these days, I think it’s better to leave my proverbial pen in the proverbial inkwell. But I know that’s a copout. I’m sure the prevailing view is that it’s better to write than not, even when I’m not confident in my skill.
That’s so hard. In a lot of ways, I’m a perfectionist about intellectual accomplishments. Especially writing. Mostly because I’ve endured a lot of criticism about my writing as an attorney. Or at least as a law student. 
I had such a hard time adjusting from the easy, comfortable yet lazy, writing style that got me through undergrad to the more formal and rigorous style required in law school. When I started law school I was unprepared for the level of scrutiny that profs brought to written work. I had skated a bit through high school and undergrad. I seemed able to complete the work and get good grades without much effort. The resulting laziness nearly killed me the first week of law school, when I discovered what real scholarship required. 
The first writing assignment almost made me cry. I understood the material and the instructions of the prof, but the exacting limitations on font size, margins, passive voice, word count and sentence length we’re unprecedented in my academic career. I felt caged, beleaguered and inadequate to the task. 
Thus began a decades-long struggle with my writing confidence. No matter how many trips to the campus writing center, or how many pleas for help to the one prof I was not afraid to speak to, I couldn’t seem to nail down the perfect balance of rule-following and rule-breaking. It didn’t help that different profs had different standards of measuring you against an ostensibly objective style guide. Contracts prof accepted, even expected, a comma riddled piece full of long sentences. But the Torts prof wanted short “pithy” sentences in a Spartan style. I never did fully grasp what pithy is in writing context. Every assignment was a new torture. 
After law school, in my first law job, it was worse, in a way. Though the grammar nazi supervision of Legal Writing was gone, the continual judgement from senior associates and partners, without any constructive guidance, made my confidence plummet further. 
Eventually, with a lot of self study and trial and error, my professional writing improved. With experience, I learned what was needed and how to achieve it. 
But I haven’t found the same equilibrium with fiction writing. I’m still in the low-confidence stage. I know that courage and practice are the only cure. It’s so hard, though. With writing for work, there are tangible rewards (and risks) to provide incentive for practice. Not so writing for fun. If something makes me uncomfortable or seems too hard without much return for the labor, I can just skip it. Like yesterday’s prompt. I don’t risk being fired or fined or throttled if I skip that thing. 
It’s so hard to motivate myself to confront the fear. So, in the way of all self-defeating patterns and self-fulfilling prophecies, my fiction writing is drivel because I’m too scared to write drivel for other people to ridicule. 

Phobic

Day Seventeen: Your Personality on the Page

Today’s Prompt: We all have anxieties, worries, and fears. What are you scared of? Address one of your worst fears.

— — — — —
Today’s twist was to write in a different style (not different voice) than my usual style. I can’t muster the energy to try that. Instead, I’ll attempt to make my post about fear less heavy and ominous than the topic portends. 
— — — — —
I’m sure that my cavalier use of the term ‘phobic’ will irritate any clinicians who might see this, because it’s likely an imprecise application of the term. But its broader vernacular usage is what I’m going for: the general condition of having at least one irrational fear. By that definition, I surely am phobic. I definitely have at least one irrational fear. 
Indeed, I have several. Dogs, falling from heights, tight spaces, spiders, public humiliation, and clowns top the list. 
I’m aware that these fears are not based in reality in most circumstances. I know that if I am cautious, dogs, spiders, tight spaces and high places don’t present a present danger to my safety. And occasions that present real risk for true public humiliation are, thankfully, rare. Intellectually, I get it and can bring some degree of control when confronting these fears. 
But that last one…not so much. 
Clowns are just not susceptible to rationalization and reasoned consideration. Sorry to the millions of performing artists in this genre, but I have no ability to appreciate your art and am incapable of refraining from lumping you all into the category of Hell’s Minions To Be Avoided At All Costs. 
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. Naming my irrationality diminishes none of its impacts on my psyche. That it has a shmancy. Latin-rooted, scientific label only bolsters my conviction that there is really something to dread about the creepy, gaudy-makeup-wearing, potentially murderous, demon spawn. After all, no one would go to the trouble of naming a thing that wasn’t real, right? Right? Yes. 

My fear of clowns started when I was very young, about 3 or 4, I think. I remember going to the circus with my family. It was a common prize for good grades in our school district. Tickets were included in the report card envelope. I’m sure that my older siblings had earned the treat and my mom decided to take me with them to see the show. The animals were fascinating, the trapeze and tightrope acts thrilling, and the spectacle of it all just enthralling. That is, until the clowns came out. 

From the first one in the ring, riding a ridiculously small tricycle and wearing alarmingly clashing, over-sized clothes and truly horrific makeup, I was frantic. Because I didn’t fully comprehend that it was a costume and makeup, my young brain could not make sense of the vision that clown, all of the clowns, represented. They seemed to me nothing at all like the clowns I had seen on TV. There was was nothing comical, to me, in their appearance. Rather, they seemed to be these other-worldly entities with horribly exaggerated faces and strange hair on bizarrely huge heads. The plastic, unreal clothing, shoes and accessories just made the impression worse and harder for my brain to reconcile these things with what I understood people to be. 

Clamoring onto my mother’s lap, clinging to her with a death-grip and screeching at the top of my piercing voice, I made it clear to everyone in that tent, likely to everyone in that town, that I was not a fan of these clowns. 

I don’t remember all that happened after that, but I remember my mother moving faster that day than ever in my life to get me out of there. 

From that moment, clowns have been on my “no thank you” list. We had a paper mâché clown piñata as part of our Christmas decorations for my entire childhood. Not once did I play with it, ask to put it out with the other things, or beg to have the candy out of it. I hated that thing so much. I would turn it (using my feet, are you crazy!? I’d never touch it!) to face the wall every chance I got. It drove my mom nuts! 

Someone gave me a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dummy doll for Christmas one year. It had a clown-like face and freaked me out so badly! But I was older by this point and expected to say thank you and take care of it as a prized gift. I stuffed the thing in a pillowcase and threw it as far into the cupboard above my closet as I could get it. Every year when my mom did spring cleaning, she’d drag that evil thing down and ask why he was up there all alone in the dark. She’d straighten his jacket and place him carefully on my bed with the other stuffed toys and tell me to treat him nice. Heck no! Before the day was out he was back in solitary. There was no way on earth that I was sleeping with that demon killer on the loose!

Every clown-based horror flick is, I’m convinced, a true-crime documentary. I just know that one of these days science will prove a causal link between childhood clown-exposure and all manner of dementia and psychopathy. 
Nope, to me, there is every reason to loathe and despise clowns and exactly zero reasons to like them or, heaven forbid, invite them (as guests or decoration) into your home. 
Ok, now I have to go schedule some electroshock therapy or something, to get rid of this epic case of the creeps that writing this post has given me. Sheesh!


Treasure hunting in the garage 

Day Sixteen: Third Time’s the Charm

Today’s Prompt: Imagine you had a job in which you had to sift through forgotten or lost belongings. Describe a day in which you come upon something peculiar, or tell a story about something interesting you find in a pile.

— — — — —

When I was a kid, I loved to climb into the loft over our garage and poke around in the boxes and cubbies stored up there. Of course, I was definitely not allowed to go up there and certainly not allowed to snoop my way through the trove of interesting things that could be found there. 

That didn’t stop me, though. 

The loft was, to my mischief-filled, pre-pubescent mind, a mysterious world of shadow and hidden relics. I was convinced, at eight years old, that there was a doorway to another world hidden behind a stack of crates in the back corner. I was sure that if I could master my fear of the dark and of spiders, I would one day wander into Neverland, or Narnia, or The Hundred Acre Wood. 

That never happened, much to my sorrow. But many a Saturday afternoon adventure happened in the dusty gloom of that loft. 

It required daring and agility to gain the attic. Rickety wooden steps stopped in a square landing about six feet above the threshold of the door into the garage from the laundry room in our house. But there was still a gap of several feet between the top of the landing and the edge of the loft floor. So you either had to bring a step stool up to the landing, or do a pull-up, to shimmy on your belly over the edge. I did both, but the pull-up most often, until I had a growth spurt and my strength to weight ratio betrayed me. 

Junk. Most of the contents of the loft fit that description. But I didn’t think so then. All of it was discovery, excitement and thrills. Interesting cases covered in dried, flaking leather, or pasteboard boxes printed with stripes or flowers or polka dots captured my imagination. Every cardboard packing box represented a chance to unearth treasure of unimagined dimension. 

I remember finding a red leather case with faded green velvet lining housing a full set of shiny, steel, precision drafting tools. These were a relic of my oldest brother’s one semester of architectural engineering at college. The tools had been my great uncle’s; he was a builder in West Texas in the first half of the twentieth century. My grandmother had lent them to my brother for school, but they ended up in the loft when he switched majors. I wanted so badly to keep and learn to use them, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. 

Another time, I came across a box full of chefs magazines and spent an entire afternoon looking through them, drooling over all the amazing pictures of fantastic dishes. The desserts were of most interest, of course. But the photography was so exquisite that even dishes showing things I knew I could never eat captivated me. Then, in a stunning discovery, I found myself reading a profile about my own father. In an internationally recognized magazine. My dad. I was so chuffed to see it, I ended up busting myself by running into the house with the issue in my hand, hollering about it to my mom. She grounded me for being in the loft without permission. But she kept the magazine in the house for a long time. I loved looking at it, because it gave me a glimpse into my dad’s world outside our family. 

Digging through the saved tidbits of days past can be nostalgic and emotional, even traumatic. But, with the right mix of child-like wonder, curiosity and daring, adventure can be found in every forgotten corner and dusty crate. 

A defining event

Writing 101 prompts and twists for days 14 & 15 (last Thursday and Friday) were not immediately inspiring for me. The first was to take a random word as inspiration and the twist was to write in the form of a letter. The second was to imagine a beloved event has been cancelled or taken over by evil forces, with the twist to pay close attention to my voice in word choice, tone and rhythm. I haven’t been able to come up with any ground shaking inspiration and I simply cannot write letters to no one. So I’ve combined the two challenges into one post and skipped the one twist. Here’s my day 14/15 post.

— — — — —

Seeing a random reference to “butch” and “conference” last week got me thinking about an event that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Two years ago, when I was in the first blush of being out of the closet to people “in real life” (IRL), people with whom I have in-person interaction, I went to a conference that really did change my life. There, for the first time ever, I was among people who looked like me, had similar experiences and knew how it felt to be always on the outside looking in. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t a minority by virtue of my gender presentation and identity.

Attending the Butch Voices conference in August of 2013 was a formative experience. Validating, freeing, uplifting, eye-opening, the BV13 conference was all of these and something more. I met in person folks who had been important to me (unbeknownst to them) in my coming out journey. A favorite blogger, several favorite Tweeters and a business contact, all of whom I’d had interaction with only online, became IRL acquaintances and, for some, real friends.

Discourse on all manner of gender and identity and sexuality related topics filled those few amazing days. I’d never before felt free to talk about some of those things with anyone before, and it was inspiring to hear people from every demographic share their views and experiences with everyone.

So moving was my time there that I have a hard time imagining that it will never happen again, or that some unsavory element could seize control of the event and turn it into a travesty of its former self. Even for the sake of a writing exercise, I hesitate to release the idea into the universe, lest it come true.

The event ceasing to be is more likely to happen from apathy and disorganization, than from takeover by opposition. As with any grassroots effort without broad-based underwriting and formal leadership, the focus and discipline of the individual organizers, as well as the enthusiasm and buy-in of attendees, can make or break the event. Also, broadcast communication early and often is a key element of success. 2013’s conference seemed to hit all those notes well. I am concerned that this year’s conference scheduled has not, as of Friday, been released. To have reached the end of April without a formal conference announcement and schedule for an event in August seems to me to be cutting it a bit fine, from a planning perspective. I’m hopeful that my nerves are unwarranted and the schedule will come out shortly.

But what if some nefarious element should intervene? Say, a homophobic, transphobic, hate group were to infiltrate the the organization, what would the BV15 conference be then?

First, assuming the conference is held at all, would the hate group element disrupt the planning efforts as well as the event itself? That seems likely. Delaying tactics, such as blocking votes on agenda, venue and services providers could easily set back planning to the point of paralysis. Then, if the event does get off the ground, how would the conference be changed?

My biggest fear is that the welcome and acceptance endemic to my experience at BV13 would be diminished. The magic of that event was in the miracle of validation gleaned from the automatic acceptance every attendee received upon arrival and throughout the event. Your self identification to any form of gender identity and expression was all that was required. No one questioned whether you were ‘XXX enough’ to claim that identity. No one argued with your self applied labels or pronouns. You were accepted as you presented yourself. That is an amazing and exceedingly rare circumstance for most people who attend that conference. What a shame, what a travesty it would be if anyone were to diminish that by instituting any rules or policies or practices that made any self identification in any way suspect.

I hope very much that this year’s conference does happen, that all who can benefit from a welcoming, validating, accepting, safe place to commune with and learn from our beautifully diverse community are able to attend and that no unsavory influence mars the uplifting harmony of this important event.

C’mon, BV15! I can hardly wait to find out what’s in store for this year!

Finding…me

Day Thirteen: Serially Found

On day four, you wrote a post about losing something. Today’s Prompt: write about finding something.

— — — — —
I’m not making this post the second in a series, as suggested in today’s Twist. When I wrote about loss, it was a very personal tribute to a beloved uncle. I won’t cheapen that by linking it to a story about finding some trivial possession or discovering some dry fact or some personal betrayal. So today’s post stands on its own.
— — — — —

I’ve lost and found a whole lot of things in my 46 years, both physical and intangible. Most of the lost objects are only misplaced and turn up on their own sooner or later. But some things–friends, family, love, commitment, interest, passion, all the essential and intangible things–take a lot of work to discover, recover, or find in the first instance.

That’s true of my discovery of my true identity. I think, really, that I knew myself very well when I was a little kid. But somewhere along the way, I lost sight of that essential truth amid a sea of external pressure and expectations. Through years, decades, of trying to be something and everything that everyone else wanted me to be, I accumulated a thick layer of social and emotional camouflage that hid me even from myself.

Finding my way back to myself was the work of years full of honest, even brutal, self examination and dedicated self improvement. Overcoming fear was the biggest hurdle. I was afraid of everything, to some degree. Fear of disappointing my family and friends, fear of rejection, fear of violence, fear of homelessness and poverty as a result of all the above, were my biggest concerns.

Ironically, it was an even more pressing and weighty fear that helped me get past the first level of inertia. I feared that I would live out the entirety of my existence without ever actually knowing myself. Ignorance of my own nature, of my own potential, and of my own capacity to love and be loved, seemed to me a fate much worse than my fear of losing home and career as a consequence of owning my true identity.

So, quite a few years ago now, I began a slow, sometimes painful, often secret journey of self discovery. I started with the simple, private admission that I was not living as my true self, that there was more of me than I acknowledged to the world at large. I was not certain the exact nature and dimension of my discontent. But I knew there was something not right and that only I had the power to make it right.

Many experiments in appearance, mannerisms, philosophies and lifestyle choices (no, not homosexuality; gay is not a choice, lifestyle or otherwise) ensued. Self improvement initiatives of every stripe were tried in fits and starts, most of which failed. But the deeply personal exercise of these activities was satisfying, even when some of them fell flat.

I committed to being better than I was before. On a micro scale, day by day, I worked on one aspect of my personality or spirit or (on the rare occasion) my body. I didn’t schedule the work. Rather, I took up each task as it occurred to me. One day I’d notice a weakness in my confidence and I’d concentrate for days on limiting hesitation and unnecessary apologies. Another time I found myself equivocating and hiding things in my answers to people who mattered to me, so I redoubled my dedication to truthfulness and transparency.

These betterment efforts all related to the overall objective of discovering my truth. These self improvement projects helped me strip away the layers of camouflage hiding my true self. With personal growth and emotional maturity came the courage to confront a lot of insecurities. Taking back my power from the fog of other people’s expectations and disappointments, I freed myself to name my own identity and live with authenticity in that identity.

Gender and sexuality are a big part of that truth, yes. But they aren’t everything. I found new dimensions of freedom, confidence, and comfort in my own skin that I hadn’t dreamed existed. When I stopped chasing the pat on the head and empty platitudes of everyone else and started valuing my own notions of right and good and real as they relate to my self and my life, whole new vistas of possibilities were revealed.

I think the most valuable thing I’ve found in my search for myself is a means to accept myself so that I can let others accept me too.

Of course, the journey and the search never end. That’s a very good thing. But at least I have discovered myself, chosen the path of authenticity, and am now living rather than merely existing.

No good deed…

Day Twelve: Dark Clouds on the (Virtual) Horizon

Today’s Prompt: Write a post inspired by a real-world conversation.

Today’s twist: include an element of foreshadowing in the beginning of your post.
— — — — —

Acting on the basis of only a fragment of overheard conversation is a very risky business. Just ask Severus Snape, Voldemort and James, Lilly & Harry Potter. That half-heard conversation (prophecy) and subsequent tattle telling resulted in horrific tragedy.

Thankfully, my own experience with this didn’t include murder as a consequence. But I learned a valuable lesson that I apply to this day: don’t listen to other people’s conversations and, for heaven’s sake, don’t be stupid enough to act on what you overhear.

Before I was the badass butch boss I am today, I was a lowly drudge in a sweatshop. Er…ok, maybe not, but it felt like it for a good long time.

My boss, when I was a staff attorney about 8 years ago, was a first class wench. She delighted in making my life miserable. Sneering comments about my weight and personal appearance, veiled threats of demotion or being passed over for choice assignments, and general nastiness were her tools of torture. She wielded her authority like a club and hurled unreasonable demands like bullets along with a fusillade of curse words and insults.

Everyone was wary of getting on her wrong side and tended to watch for signs of her ire so others could be warned to stay clear. It was a common thing for one of us to make rounds of the other attorneys’ offices to pass on a “watch your step, trouble is brewing ” tip. It was only right.

About the time I made my epic mistake, the boss had lately taken to picking on the newest staff attorney for no other reason than that I had given her a good recommendation after her job interview. The boss made the hiring decision, but because I’d said I liked this candidate over another, this person wore a target from day one. If I’d known that would happen, I wouldn’t have recommended anyone. I wouldn’t wish being on that boss’ s@&t list on anyone.

So my new colleague was the boss’ latest victim. I felt guilty for contributing to this misery, so I tried to keep an eye and ear out for potential trouble for her in particular, and let her know to watch out. That’s what I thought I was doing on the fateful day of my recollection.

Strolling through the main legal department office on my way back to my office from a meeting, I overheard the boss sniping to another staff attorney in a tone full of sneering derision. I knew it wasn’t directed at the person she was talking to; rather, they were both talking about a third person. The boss was saying “She didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me to my face she wasn’t going to be there. She sent an email two minutes before the meeting. I had to go in her place and had nothing prepared. I’m livid!”

Visions of career-ending shouting matches and burnt bridges flashed in my head. I knew my new coworker had gone to an unexpected appointment at her child’s school and was late getting back to the office. I also knew that she had been scheduled to meet with accounting that day to discuss how legal and accounting could improve coordination relative to customer contacts. She was supposed to present the results of the meeting to the legal team at our next staff meeting. I thought she’d put the meeting off to the following day. But, to my ears, it sounded like the boss took the meeting instead. And now my friend was in trouble because the boss had to step in.

I continued into my office and headed straight for the phone. I called my friend and told her to get back to the office and come up with a plan to salvage the boss’ temper. I told her what I’d heard, explained that I didn’t hear her name mentioned, but that it sounded to me like she was the subject of the rant and that it stemmed from the meeting with accounting. She panicked because she’d forgotten to postpone the meeting and agreed she’d better hurry back.

But instead of coming straight back and using the drive time to think out a reasoned approach, she rashly called the boss. In her panic, she lost her head and blurted out that *I*, calling me by name, had heard the boss talking about her mistake and she was sorry and would be back in the office in a few minutes.

Of course, it turns out the boss was griping about something and someone totally different. And, of course, until that call, the boss hadn’t even noticed that my coworker had left the office. So now, not only was my friend in trouble two times over (the meeting and her unnoticed absence), but I was in the fire for “lying” about the boss.

The boss had made a bee-line for my office immediately after hanging up on my colleague. I spent a very uncomfortable fifteen minutes getting my head ripped off for gossiping, causing stress to the boss and my coworkers by my lies, and for talking about things the boss had said “in confidence”. Never mind that she was talking loudly in a public common area. Never mind that it was a minor misunderstanding. Never mind that no one was actually harmed or even inconvenienced. No, I was a gossip and a troublemaker for vilifying the boss to my coworker.

No good deed goes unpunished, they say. That’s certainly how I felt at the time.

And, just to cap it off, when I collared my colleague about using my name, she burst into tears. She bawled like a toddler, stammering out an incoherent apology that edged up as an accusation that I had caused all the trouble myself. In her eyes, my failure to hear the whole story lead to all the misery. While I acknowledge that I didn’t have the whole story, it seems to me that had the object of the overheard rant actually been my friend, the fragment of conversation was enough to warn her about. If I hadn’t, what kind of ally would I have been then?

Damned, no matter what.

And, from that day to this, I have never again jumped to action without knowing I had complete facts.

Middle of the Block

Day Eleven: Size Matters (In Sentences)

Today’s Prompt: Where did you live when you were 12 years old?

Today’s twist: pay attention to your sentence lengths and use short, medium, and long sentences as you compose your response about the home you lived in when you were twelve.

— — — — —

Oof. This ones a bit rough and rambling. But I’m not going to edit. It was fun to write and is a glimpse into my awkward past.

— — — — —
I had a lovely childhood. Not perfect. No one has a perfect life. Sometimes, the imperfections add interest and character without destroying the beauty. That’s how I feel about where and how I grew up.

It was a big town for a sparsely populated state. As a kid, I thought we lived “in the city”. (Those quotation marks were present in my head whenever I considered our home town. I thought in quotes. Weird.) To me, it was a huge, exciting place full of amazing things. And I wanted to see them all.

From my perspective, being a “city girl” helped explain why I was so different from what I learned to believe the world expected all girls should be. I lived in a big city, so I had to be tough and ready for anything, not some frilly princess. My jeans and rough sneakers and ratty t-shirts were armor, they were my first layer of tough. I believed I would grow the tough inside to match my clothes, if I worked hard enough.

Never mind that I lived in a perfectly lovely, ranch-style house in the middle of the block on a bucolic street in a Beaver Clever town. There was little that I had to be tough against that didn’t live in my imagination. But that’s how I thought of myself, a tough city girl in a big city.

The reality, looking back with 34 years of life between me and 12 year old me, is very different. Not better or worse. Just different. I imagine I have a clearer sense of what reality was back then, because I have grown and matured since then. But, I’m not going to pass judgment on the quality of my 12 year old assessment of her then-reality. What I believed back then made sense for who I was then.

At 12 years old, I was the epitome of the grubby, awkward, tomboy so often depicted in movies and literature. It’s hard now to decide if I came by it organically or if I was heavily influenced by those media tropes. Whatever the origin, that was me. Even then, perhaps especially then, I was out of sync with my surroundings.

My house in the middle of the block was neat, with trimmed grass and big, shady trees in the front yard. It started off an oddly aqua colored clapboard house with a big screen porch. Then, at some time in my childhood that I can’t pinpoint, my parents had aluminum siding put on, turning it white with black shutters. They put in plexiglass windows on the porch, though left the corrugated fiberglass roof of the porch a jarring, mis-matched green.

Despite the odd porch, our house in the middle of the block was nice-looking and welcoming. It matched the other houses on the block, mostly. Each one had at least one small oddity about it. The brick Tudor-esque house across the street was tidy, but had foil on several windows, instead of curtains. The house to the right of ours was occupied by a wonderful elderly couple, yet had a speedboat parked in the driveway most of the year. The house to the left had the meanest dog in the world, even though it didn’t weigh 10 ponds. And the house at the top of the block was scary, as much because of the heavy traffic that flowed past it constantly on a busy thoroughfare, as because of the barren yard with twisting, exposed tree roots that seemed to magnetically attract balls and other toys that were brought too near.

Our block was split by an alley that ran behind our house, separating my side of the block from the other, where lived the boy who was my most frequent playmate. Only half a block, but a foreign world to my youthful eyes. I always felt a stranger in a new world when I rounded that corner on my bike. But I grew to love that street as much as my own, even though it wasn’t home.

The house directly across the alley from ours was basically a junk yard. There was such a huge mess of rusting metal and unidentifiable debris, I always marveled that the inhabitants could find their way to the alley to take out the trash.

At twelve years old I yearned constantly to explore that junkyard, but (a) I wasn’t allowed to speak to those people (some long forgotten feud that I never understood); and (b) I was terrified of their dog ripping my head off if I went in uninvited. So I’d hang out in the fort I built in my back yard and plot endless excursions to the junkyard that went unfulfilled. Daydreams of an awkward kid in a play fort.

You might think twelve is a little old for forts and such. But it was so much more than a play place. It was my own world. I didn’t actually build it. Nature did. But I made it my own with cool stuff scavenged from hither and yon on the block. A wooden cable spool was both chair and table. An old school desk was there for a while, until I nearly cut my finger off with the lid hinge (a story for another time). A secret cache for treasures, and toys and gizmos of every type made my fort the best, homiest place I knew.

It was just a hollow space formed by massive lilac bushes growing along the fence line, creating a pocket behind themselves at the far corner of the yard. But, to my pre-pubescent mind, it was a magnificent sanctuary.

At twelve, amid my awkwardness in my eminently normal family in our lovely square house in the middle of the block, I often craved solitude. My fort provided it. When the pressure of being too odd, too big, too loud, got to be too much, I’d head out to my fort where I could be myself without anyone looking at me funny. I would sit on my spool and read leaning back against the trunk of a tall elm tree growing through one of the lilac bushes. Or else I’d listen to the birds and be so still, willing them to come visit. They never did. Sometimes, I’d just go there to think. Always the fort was my own oasis.

When I couldn’t be out in my fort, I hung out in my room. It was less oasis and more chamber of opposites.

Our house in the middle of the block started off as a three bedroom house with an unfinished basement. My folks semi-finished the basement, forming bedrooms for my brothers and a rec room with the bulk of the space. Upstairs, after my sister left home, they took out the wall between their room and hers, making a large master bedroom. But everyone had a spot of their own.

Around about my eleventh birthday, maybe a little before, my parents made what would become a last-ditch effort to make me more of a girl. They remodeled my room, painting it dusty rose and cream, giving me a lace canopy bed and a fuzzy pink rug. It was everything I was not. But my parents worked so hard to give me something lovely, I couldn’t reject it. So, even though it was a place that I felt completely disconnected from, it was my own. I spent a lot of time in there. Study, play, quiet reading time were all my occupation in that prickly pink room. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was private.

The rest of our house was more comfortable to me. Lots of places to sit in a big, open living room. Shag carpet and long curtains made it quiet and pleasantly dark or light, as one desired. There was space enough for everyone, though we didn’t often test the limits of its capacity.

The dining room at the back of the house was an addition before we moved in and was constantly freezing in winter. But the tiny galley kitchen, though cramped, was the hub of life in our house. It served as intended, to prepare meals. But it was also the messaging center with phone and note space on the wall next to the stove. It showcased achievements in pictures and ribbons and report cards on the fridge. And if anything was ever missing, checking the kitchen catch-all drawer or the freezer (I said I was a weird kid), usually found it fastest.

Our house in the middle of the block was as never the height of fashion. It was furnished with big, heavy, western style wooden furniture in durable fabrics with busy prints that stood up to wear. The massive couch and swivel rockers invited you to sit and enjoy each other’s company, despite the busy fabric pattern. But whatever it looked like, the home was only a home because of our family.

We were a family that strove to project an image of middle class values and normalcy. Despite being the token interracial family in the neighborhood, I think we succeeded pretty well. We were busy, active and private. We had friends and acquaintances who visited occasionally, but we kept to ourselves, mostly. We checked in with each other, helped each other, argued and made up with each other. And at the center of it all was our square house in the middle of the block, where we lived and loved together as a family.

Love lived in that square house in the middle of the block. That’s what I remember most about where I lived at twelve years old.

Empanadas

Day Ten: Happy (Insert Special Occasion Here)!

Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory.

Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.

— — — — —
I’m cheating. Yesterday’s Writing 101 prompt was an exercise in point of view. I didn’t do it. It didn’t interest me enough to research what that truly means. So I’m skipping it and doing today’s instead. But maybe because this post is “in my own distinct voice”, this can count as both a point of view piece and a description of memory piece. Whaddya think?
— — — — —
I love empanadas. They’re tasty, conveniently hand-held, and just a tiny bit exotic (at least from my perspective in middle-of-nowhere America). Empanadas also remind me strongly of my childhood.

My Puerto Rican father brought these tasty treats to our distinctly non-Hispanic (until he married my mom and produced little brown babies) family. They were the food of his own youth and, being a chef, he put his own special twist on them, sometimes.

I remember learning to make them with him. A memory I treasure, as it was a rare event when he let me be in the kitchen while he cooked. Unlike my brothers, who were often pinch-hitters for his absent staff in his restaurants, my sister and I were not allowed to be anything other than guests when visiting him at work. So, when he cooked in our home kitchen, a much smaller facility, he kept everyone out, especially me.

I must have been eight or nine years old, because my brothers were grown, but my second brother hadn’t yet gotten married (which happened in August of my 9th year), when I got the chance to cook with my dad. In fact, I seem to recall him saying that it would be good practice for when he cooked for my brother’s wedding, now I think on it. Anyway, I was fairly young and still too short to safely reach the back of the stove-top. Yet he let me come in and watch.

After washing my hands and putting on one of his long, white chef’s aprons, dad looked at me very seriously from his huge, shiny brown eyes, and told me “Baby, this is no game! We’re here to cook. That’s business.” I remember thinking I was very grown up and was about to learn a big, adult secret. So I nodded with all the gravity my young soul could gather. “Good!” And he snapped his fingers and turned to the countertop.

From there, it was all fun, happy and, at the same time, diligent work. He showed me how to use a chef’s knife to dice, chop and julienne, though I got no hands-on experience that particular day. It was both fascinating and intimidating to watch his blade and hands dance across the cutting board. I remember watching intently, leaning so close, trying to memorize every stroke, that he had to stop and move me back a step for safety.

Then the dough. He would often say, when asked about his job, that he wasn’t a pastry chef and he didn’t bake. But he was more than merely proficient at making various types of dough-based foods. This part was fun and messy. Puffs of flour clouded the air as I used the squeaky metal sifter with a worn wooden handle painted red. I learned to break eggs with one hand and only dropped one shell into the bowl! We mixed first with our hands and then a fork. Dad avoided the mixer for this dough, he said, because it would get too stiff.

Flipping the cutting board over, he dusted it with flour and rolled out the dough. I used a butter knife and a ramekin to cut out the shells. That was fun, too. The dough was so soft in my hands as I moved them onto the baking sheet to rest that I just wanted to hold them. But, no, there was work to do.

It was time to make the filling. I got to help with this, too. My mom had taught me already how to seer hamburger, so I wasn’t afraid of the stove. I stood on a low step stool in front of the range and watched carefully as the finely diced onion and garlic sweated in a small circle of oil in the skillet. I knew not to stir them, but wait for the onion to turn clear and then the edges to turn golden brown. Then we added spices: “some coom-eeee-no, some Cayenne, some salt, just a bit”. Only the last three words, said in his unique accent, always sounded to my young ears, like “shoes to fit”. And Cumin was always pronounced with loooooong, drawn out vowels into a word only he could pull off. Indeed, I was well into my twenties before I knew which word he was actually pronouncing! But he knew and he loved to say it his own way.

After heating the spices, we quickly browned off the beef and drained the fat. Then, standing side-by-side at the counter, we used big table spoons to fill the dough circles with the fresh beef mix. I can still conjure the heady fragrance of the peppery spices and earthy beef and my dad’s aftershave. I can still see him smile at me every time I got the goop into the middle without dripping.

When the circles were full, we washed hands again and put some water in the ramekin I’d used earlier. Then, taking a fork in my right hand, dipping my left hand fingers into the water, I moistened the edge of one circle at a time, folding it in half over the beef mix and crimping with the fork. We worked in near silence, building a rhythm that made quick work of the prep.

Last came the frying. Dad didn’t let me do any of this, but I stood in the doorway watching. And listening; there’s nothing quite exactly the same as the sound of hot Crisco in a cast iron skillet. The hot, hissing sound that the moist dough makes as it hits the melted shortening is kind of frightening. But I loved watching my dad do this.

The kitchen was hot and his brown skin was shiny against his white t-shirt and apron. He squinted a little each time he put a new empanada into the oil, because the oil popped and sputtered. But he was at ease, focused on the task, yet comfortable talking to me about the process while he flipped each half-moon pie.

When the last one was added to the pile of golden pockets heaped on the draining rack, he turned off the stove, wiped his hands on a towel that he flipped onto his shoulder, and said “Ok, let’s clean up.” He had been cleaning as we went through all the steps. He explained to me that was a cardinal rule of his kitchen, so the work area would be safe at every step. Safe from hazards to us, but also safe for the food–avoiding spoiling and cross-contamination. So there wasn’t much to do, but it could NOT wait until later. “The job isn’t done until the kitchen is clean.”

I don’t remember him ever talking so much to me as he did that day. He was a quiet man, on the whole. He laughed and joked and talked, but not over-much. But he was talking directly to me that day. Kind of like he talked to other adults. I was so proud of that. Still am.

There was nothing particularly special or unusual about those empanadas. But they tasted like heaven that day. It’s that day in the kitchen with my dad that makes me think of empanadas as a special occasion food. And I still love eating them whenever I get the chance.

The Runner

Day Eight: Death to Adverbs

Today’s Prompt: Go to a local café, park, or public place and write a piece inspired by something you see. Get detailed: leave no nuance behind.

Today’s twist: write an adverb-free post. If you’d rather not write a new post, revisit and edit a previous one: excise your adverbs and replace them with strong, precise verbs.

— — — — —

I’m beginning to believe what my grandmother once said to me in fit of pique when I was 8 years old, that I’m just a “contrarian”. At least as it relates to strict rules of writing and grammar. Like this exercise, removing adverbs, showing not telling. How incredibly irritating. (Yes, that’s telling, not showing. I know. I get it. I don’t care.) Rules that seem to have no purpose other than to be a rule and have the effect of making my written voice stilted, embroidered with unnecessary detail and old-fashioned make me want to stab something.

I’ve worked rather hard to keep my written voice in line with my spoken voice. I want my writing to speak in ink or pixels as my lips and vocal chords do. That means that some of the rigid grammar rules get roughed up on occasion in my writing. But at least no one can reasonably draw the conclusion from my written word that I speak like a Victorian dictionary.

And, yes, I know the maxim that you must learn and master the rules before you have license to break them. B. S.

There is a place for formal, rule-following in writing. I’m careful to do so in my professional communications and reports, analyses and opinions. But when writing of life, especially my life, I don’t want people to focus on my grammar proficiency. I want folks to get my drift right away and come with me on the journey. For me, colloquial phrases, easy (if imperfect) grammar are the essential tools.

With that little temper tantrum over, however, I’ll give it a shot. I may not succeed in excising all adverbs, but I’ll try to show you something, rather than tell you about it.

— — — — —

I have to stop myself from chortling out loud every time I see him. But I can’t keep from silent giggles when no one can see. I don’t know him, don’t even know his name. But I watch for him every day, smiling every time he comes into view.

Face alight with energy and concentration, he runs as if stung by angry bees from his car to the front door of the office building every day. Yet his elated jounces shout to the world: “I’m not late, just happy!” A wild shock of sandy hair flips hither and yon on his forehead with every step. Briefcase and coffee mug held out from his body to avoid bumps and spills, he gambols, seemingly care-free, despite his speed. This awkward gait doesn’t make him clumsy. Indeed, I’ve often admired his balance over icy pavement, marveled at his arrival without a single drop spilled. Loose-jointed, rolling slightly from side to side, yet steady, he pelts across the parking lot as if treasure awaits him at his desk.

Those thirty seconds of observation every mid-morning bring me a tiny moment of levity and mystery. Why does he run? What is he thinking about with such energy? Would he mind that I think he’s hilarious in his morning commute?

A few minutes investigation would likely reveal his name, department and boss. I could find him and ask him. But that would spoil the mystery, steal the tiny moment of anonymous fun from my day. Instead, I’ll just keep wondering, filling in the blanks with my own wild speculation and enjoy the fun.

— — — — —

So, I was right. It’s full of adverbs. I think that’s what description is for me. I may never succeed at the type of fictional prose advocated by this rule of style. But I don’t think I’ll mourn that loss to deeply.

Phaser or Lightsaber?

Day Seven: Give and Take

Today’s Prompt: Write a post based on the contrast between two things — whether people, objects, emotions, places, or something else.

So, I thought I’d do something a little more lighthearted for today’s Writing 101 post. Compare and contrast essays have always seemed, to me, a little pointless and more difficult than strictly necessary. But I’ll give it a go.

I’m a big sci-fi geek and one of the oddballs that have a love and appreciation for both Star Wars and Star Trek. I see them as entirely separate and not really apples-to-apples material. But there are aspects of the two universes that have parallels, sufficient similarities, that might lend themselves to such an analysis. They both have aliens, space ships, technology and weapons, all of which might be compared and contrasted endlessly. In fact, that has happened many times over in books, magazines and in countless online forums and blogs and communities.

For lots of reasons, I think most of these are too hard for a short, light, musing post. Suffice to say that there’s too much danger of getting lost in the sands of Tatooine or in Vulcan’s desert Forge to try to compare the two universes and their major attributes.

Instead, I’m going to pick something relatively easy: handheld weapons. Specifically, let’s look at Phasers (Star Trek) and Lightsabers (Star Wars).

First, as a jumping off point, let’s assume that both weapons can exist, can function as expected and can be obtained in our physical universe. That’ll let us all enter into the exploration without fear of the sand-bag argument that “it can’t exist in our reality ” or that “the laws of physics won’t allow it to work that way”. Both arguments may be true (dammit Jim, I’m a lawyer, not a physicist), but we’re going to suspend that particular disbelief for the moment in favor of the assumed reality of these weapons.

Second, this isn’t a treatise or academic paper, so I’m not going to cite reference materials exactly or provide a bibliography or other listing of source materials. This is supposed to be fun, not work. If you want to dig through the Internet for the precise canon references, I’ll gladly read what you have to say in the comments. The most I’m going promise is that I’ll try to point you in the general direction of where you might find more information on a particular point, if you’re curious or think I’m off my rocker.

Finally, I’m going to assume that if you’ve read this far, you have at least a basic understanding of each of these fictional universes and know enough about each franchise to follow my references. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining who/what I’m talking about.

So, now that the preliminaries are out of the way and you’re free to choose, what’s it gonna be, Phaser or Lightsaber? Let’s take a closer look at them, shall we?

Phaser. From all observations in the TV and movie canon, Federation Phasers come in a variety of models, from pistol to rifle, even ship-mounted, but all have some basic characteristics in common. For one, they are referred to (at least in later movies, if not the TV series) as particle weapons, sometimes multi-phasic particle weapons, but appear to use coherent light energy. Perhaps the particles are photons, I don’t know, but in any event all Federation Phasers appear to deliver the weapon’s blow by means of a beam of light fired at the target, like a bullet.

Lightsaber. Light is also the means of delivery for the Lightsaber. Indeed, light is central to both its name and its function. However, rather than a projectile of light, the Lightsaber relies on a coherent beam of light generated from and affixed to a sword handle and wielded just like a traditional sword blade. All of the Star Wars movies and many of the vast number of Star Wars universe novels allude to the Lightsaber’s ability to cauterize the wound inflicted by the weapon, suggesting the blade of light also employs heat (or maybe that’s a waste product of the light). This attribute may make the Lightsaber a cleaner weapon in that respect than the Phaser, as I have no recollection of canonical reference to a Phaser cauterizing at kill setting. However, the Phaser’s stun setting doesn’t appear in TV or movie canon to leave a wound, so it may be a draw on the ‘clean’ factor.

Phaser. Speaking of settings, Federation Phasers appear in both the movies and TV shows to have adjustable energy outputs, giving them the ability to pack lethal and non-lethal potential in a single weapon. Also, the frequency and phase in which the weapon operates to deliver a blast are also adjustable, which comes in handy when your enemy has the ability to adapt to the energy of your weapon (*cough* Borg *cough*).

Lightsaber. The blade of light, however, does not appear to have that facility. Like table saws, Lightsabers are on or off, and when on they work as advertised. So those who wield them must have a great deal of respect for their power. However, since those who wield them, in the canon universe at least, also make them as a test of their knowledge and skill in the Force, it would stand to reason that any given Lightsaber’s maker would know better than most the potential lethality of the weapon.

Phaser. But lethality isn’t the only measure of a weapon’s utility. Defense, obviously, is also important. Versatility in its usefulness to both attack and defend are the Phaser’s hallmarks. Allowing close quarters and long-range precision gives the shooter many more options for dispute resolution and escape. However, beyond conventional defense and attack, movie and TV canon shows that the Phaser has an additional dimension of versatility. Phasers have been used to weld, drill, and, in a pinch, act as improvised explosives. These functions make it a feasible tool for peace-time as well as military operations.

Lightsaber. Let’s be honest, the Lightsaber is a niche weapon. Though non-Force-users may be able to use the weapon at a gross level (see Han Solo and the Tauntaun on Hoth, which was gross), to use a Lightsaber at its full potential, you have to have some Force proficiency. Given that ability, though, the Lightsaber’s utility as both offensive and defensive weapon is unmatched. A proficient swordsman can weave a cage of light around himself and another person to deflect all manner of incoming danger, or use it to precisely excise an offender’s weapon hand. But, because of the length of the blade and its lack of adjustable output, it is ill suited for the type of unconventional peace-time utility that the Phaser displays. Lightsabers are nevertheless useful for non-traditional defensive tasks, such as melting the blast doors on a Trade Union ship in which the Viceroy is attempting to kill you by poison gas, to provide a means of egress. Still, you aren’t likely to choose a Lightsaber first when looking for an energy-based addition to a toolkit for non-combat purposes.

Phaser. And what about the esoteric qualities of these weapons? The aesthetic appeal of the Phaser isn’t anything to write home about, in my opinion. It’s rather utilitarian in design and fairly uniform and mass-produced in appearance. Phasers do make a distinctive sound when fired and have the added benefit of being fairly easy to conceal, at least in the handheld variety. But, honestly, beyond the fact that’s it’s a “ray gun”, a Phaser just doesn’t have all that high of a “cool” factor.

Lightsaber. Not so the Jedi laser sword. It has cool in its DNA. From its iconic, inimitable sound, both upon ignition and in use, to its hand-made, one of a kind design, the Lightsaber is the ultimate in weapon chic. Whatever it may lack in the way of non-weapon utility, it more than makes up for in mystique and street cred.

From my point of view, it’s not a contest. If I had the choice to own a Phaser or Lightsaber of my very own, it’s got to be Lightsaber every time.

%d bloggers like this: