Loretta Ross

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There Was A Little Girl …

And maybe you’ve heard of her?  I don’t know where this came from (suppose I could Google it) but my mother used to quote it to me often enough that I always kept my hair out of my face lest I be mistaken for her:

There was a little girl/who had a little curl/ right in the middle of her forehead

And when she was good/she was very, very good

And when she was bad/ she was horrid.

I get accused of being nice a lot.  (“Why do strangers feel the need to tell me about their colonoscopies?” “It’s because you seem so nice.”) but the truth is, every once in a while I can be really, really mean.

I see a lot of people posting rules for writers.  I’m not a big believer in generic rules.  I kind of think writing is an area in which we all need to find our own way.  What I have are strictly rules for me, though if anyone else wants to adopt any of them, they are, of course, welcome to do so.  The thing is, I find inspiration in two types of writing — that which strikes me as really, really good, and that which strikes me as really, really bad.  This is a list of rules I made for myself from things that either amused or annoyed the hell out of me.

I apologize in advance if I’m insulting something that is near and dear to someone’s heart.

My Rules:

  • The Dancing Chicken Rule — Many years ago I had the extreme misfortune of seeing the movie Quest For Camelot.  Near the beginning there is a part where the main character, a small girl, suffers the tragic death of her father.  She expresses her grief in a slow, sad musical number that segues without breaks into a silly, slapstick bit with dancing chickens.  This was the inspiration for The Dancing Chicken Rule:  Do not careen wildly between comedy and tragedy.

  • The Insane Demigod Rule AND The Welcome Back From The Dead Handshake Rule— During the horrible fifth season of the previously enjoyable Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Hercules starts out devestated by the tragic death of his best friend, Iolaus.  Then he has a fling with a thoroughly unlikeable Irish demigod chick.  Then he has to fight a demon to save Iolaus’ soul (a story arc that violates The Dancing Chicken Rule, but that’s another matter).  Then he gets a dorky, substitute Iolaus from another dimension and tells him less-than-flattering stories about the real Iolaus.  Then he wanders off to judge a fashion show.  Finally, last episode of the season, he gets the real Iolaus back, greeting him with a welcome-back-from-the-dead handshake and telling him to calm down and stop scaring people.  What I get out of this mess is The Insane Demigod Rule:  Emotions should be appropriate and consistent (unless, of course, the character is supposed to be insane!) and The Welcome Back From The Dead Handshake Rule: The payoff has to be worth the journey.

(I could also liken a story with an emotionally unsatisfying resolution to sex without an orgasm, but somehow I think that’s an entirely separate blog post … )

  • The King of Corinth Rule — Another one inspired by Hercules.  In an early episode, Herc and Iolaus must save the spirit of an innocent young man from being condemned to Tartarus by forcing Sisyphus, the evil king of Corinth, to take his rightful place in the underworld.  Later we meet Jason of the Argonauts for the first time when he is the troubled king of Colchis.  Then, in The Wedding of Alcmene, Jason must give up the throne of Corinth in order to marry Hercules’ mother Alcmene, with whom he has been secretly having an affair since he brought her the news of her husband, Amphitryon’s, death in battle.  This would have been while she was pregnant with Hercules.  In later flashback episodes and in the short-lived spinoff, Young Hercules, we meet Jason again when he is the crown prince of, you guessed it, Corinth, which is being ruled by his father Aeson.  Oh, and this Jason is only a few years older than Hercules, whose mother he’s been having an affair with since before . . . Hercules . . . was born . . . .? Ergo, The King of Corinth Rule:  Continuity Counts, Dammit!

  • The Blue Monkey Rule — When Sir Arthur Evans discovered the ruins of the palace at Knossos, on the island of Crete, he devoted the rest of his life to studying it.  Perhaps unsuprisingly, he became enamored of the idea that this culture had been a utopia, a bright oasis of beauty, peace, culture and civilization in the darkness of the ancient world.  To a certain extent, there is some evidence to support this interpretation.  They did, after all, have flush toilets.  Sir Arthur, though, took this idea so much to heart that he tended to weight his interpretation of everything he found to favor the people of ancient Crete.  (Evidence of cannibalism?  Nonsense!  It was just a burial ritual to put children’s bones in cooking pots with edible crustaceans and NO I DON’T SEE ANY TOOTH MARKS!)  The most famous example of Evans’ fancies involves the reconstruction of a frescoe from fragments recovered on the floor below where it had been.  Sir Arthur’s reconstruction, using only a small percentage of original fragments and a lot of imagination, depicted a comely young man with his skin dyed blue gathering flowers in a garden.  A later researcher, noting stylistic similarities with another period fresco in Africa, reassembled the piece using a much higher percentage of original material.  In his version, the creature capering among the saffron flowers is a blue monkey.  The Blue Monkey Rule (applies mostly to historicals):  No place has ever been perfect.  Perfect places aren’t real.

  • The “Hi, Spock! Where have you been?” Rule — This rule was inspired by one of the pro Star Trek novels.  I’m not sure of the name now, it was either Deep Domain or From the Depths.  In any case, it was an attempt to ape the pro-environmental popularity of the fourth movie by involving Our Heroes with a world that had an endangered and strangely whale-like species living in the oceans. It was, and I say this with a certain amount of awe, probably the single worst piece of fiction I have ever read.  It begins with the premise that Spock, Captain Kirk’s bestest friend in the whole, wide universe, and Chekov, another good friend and valued member of his crew, have been kidnapped by eco-terrorists and disappeared while left on this world for a routine inspection-thingie.  Naturally, the good captain rushes in to save them . . . and promptly gets completely caught up in trying to salvage the troubled relationship between the world’s leader (villain?  heroine?  Who the hell knows? The author certainly doesn’t!) and her estranged father.  I could seriously write a book that’s longer than this book about what’s wrong with this book.  It not only breaks most of my rules (not the Dancing Chicken Rule — they’d drown) but it breaks rules set by older, wiser authors than myself.  (Remember — and this is REALLY ironic — [Anton] Chekhov’s Gun?  The eco-terrorists force [Pavel] Chekov to sign a confession to being something vaguely sinister, but he cleverly uses a false middle name on the document, which is never produced and never mentioned again.)  I’ll try to confine myself to my biggest complaint, however.  So, big premise, Spock and Chekov missing.  We see them in the hands of the eco-terrorists, in grave danger.  Then they disappear and are not mentioned again by anyone, for something like 90 pages!  They finally surface briefly as prisoners of the good/evil world leader chick, who threatens to torture them by simulated drowning until Spock tells her his alien biology makes him able to hold his breath for long periods, at which point she more or less says, “Oh . . . well . . . nevermind then . . . .”  Then, about halfway through the book, they miraculously and without explanation survive a shipwreck and get beamed back aboard the Enterprise, where Kirk greets them with a “Hi, Spock.  Where have you been?”  And it’s not an insoucient, “Dr. Livingston, I presume” understated bit of banter used to cover deep emotion, either.  It’s more of an absentminded, “oh, yeah.  We were looking for you.  Uh, tell me about it some other time.  Right now I’ve got this World Leader Chick and her father in a room together and I’ve got to go give them a Good Stiff Talking To!”  And the rest of the book is about them and their struggles with the Deep, Dark Secret that the oddly whale-like creatures are really sentient (which I take it they figured out by the oddly whale-like creatures flat refusing to read this book!)  So, this is the “Hi, Spock.  Where have you been?” Rule:  The main story should be introduced at the beginning and carried through to the end.

  • The Penelo-pee-pee Rule — I said above that the Star Trek book I was dissing was the worst piece of fiction I’ve ever read.  The worst piece of non-fiction was a supposed-true-haunting tale called Spindrift: Flotsam From a Psychic Sea.  In Spindrift, the author tells, in histrionic tones liberally sprinkled with casually-dropped fragments of French, of her time living in a “haunted” brownstone in New York City, where people and animals associated with the building kept dying mysteriously.  For example, there was at least one person who died mysteriously from terminal cancer, several extremely elderly residents who died mysteriously from being a hundred and six years old, and a stray dog they mysteriously found on the street in front of the house and mysteriously adopted that mysteriously died from being mysteriously infected with every canine disease known to veterinary science.  The really mysterious death, though, was the tragic demise of their own, dear little elderly and extremly infirm frou-frou dog, which also mysteriously died when they mysteriously took it to the vet and had it mysteriously put down!  In documenting this tragedy, the author noted that, when they went up the ramp to the vet, Penelope puddled.  When they came out, the puddle was still there, but Penelope was gone.  Was that all her life amounted to, the author agonized, dripping with pathos, “Penelo-pee-pee?” Shortly after the book went to print, the author herself mysteriously died.  Some reports claimed she committed suicide, but personally I think her muse strangled her in self defense.  The Penelo-pee-pee Rule:  Don’t.  Just don’t.

(Bit of irony here! I looked this book up on Amazon awhile back out of morbid curiousity and there was a single, rave review for it.  The ironic bit is that the reviewer’s name was “Lori Ross”.  That is what my family calls me but, I swear, it *wasn’t* me!)

A Couple of Weird Things at Walmart

I know what you’re thinking.  There are more than a couple of weird things at Walmart.  And I can’t argue that.  But what I wanted to tell you about were two weird things in particular.

I saw an article on Huffington Post this morning about a surveillance camera that captured a glass cake case lid moving on its own at a convenience store.  I wasn’t surprised.  While disbelievers will never accept it, I worked for years at a haunted fast food restaurant (really!) and things like that were fairly common.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Walmart is haunted, I did have a couple of experiences last year that I can’t explain.

The first one took place the end of last May.  The “fresh area,” including produce, does inventory once a month.  Ever since I started the morning people had done it first thing and been finished with it by the time I came in for my afternoon/evening shift, but in May the Powers That Be decided we’d been doing it wrong all these years and had to start taking inventory at night.

My boss (who normally comes to work at 4 or 5 in the morning!) had to come in to supervise and I had to learn to do inventory.  It’s a really easy process, but tedious, because you have to count *everything*.  Tom took the bulk produce and assigned me to count the “piddly little stuff” — all the packages of seasonings and salad add-ons and nuts and dried fruits and etc., of which there is a surprising amount.  By the time Tom finished his part, I was on the last shelf of the last display stand that had to be counted.

Let me describe this display stand for you, because it’s important if you’re to understand.  It was a four-sided stand.  Imagine if you had two really deep bookcases, stood them back-to-back and then put shelves on both ends.  The shelves on the ends had tabs that fit into metal strips running up the outsides of the deep cases to hold them.  The sides, backs, and shelves were all solid (nothing could fall through them) and there was no way anything could get hung up on the bottom of a shelf.

I was just getting ready to start counting the bottom shelf when Tom came over to see if I needed help.  The shelf was 6″ off the floor with another shelf about 10″ above it and it was crammed with salad accoutrements.  I was sitting on the floor and ducking down so I could see it and I had a rolling produce cart to my left with my handheld scanner on it.  Tom came up on my left side, standing just the other side of my cart, and started counting things on the left side of the shelf.  I started on the right end.

The first product on the right end was a fruit and nut salad topper in a glossy white and purple bag.  I pulled them all out and piled them on my cart, then put them back neatly as I counted.  There were just enough of them to make one row.  The item next to that was a nut-herb-and parmesan salad topper in a larger bag that was off-white and green with a matte finish.  There were a lot of these.  Again, I pulled them all out and put them back neatly as I counted.  When it got to the point where the shelf space was full, I still had some left, so I went to lay the next one sideways on top of the bags I’d just, seconds ago, put there.

There was a purple-and-white bag of the fruit and nut stuff already lying on top of them.

Besides Tom, the only people in the area were the deli girls, fifteen feet away behind a high counter.  No one saw anything but me and when I had a mild freakout and explained what happened all I got from any of them was the smile-and-edge-away-from-the-crazy-person look.  (I get that a lot.  I’m used to it.)

The other incident happened last fall, late September if I remember it right.  The produce department also includes floral.  In our store that means one three-tiered, octagonal display stand that’s set up in front of the pharmacy at the other end of the store.  The stand is made of pressed wood and has holes for the plastic buckets that flowers come in.  It holds seventeen buckets, twelve on the bottom level, four on the middle level, and one on top.

I’d noticed that it was starting to smell like a swamp, so I got seventeen clean buckets, filled them with fresh water and took them down there on a cart to change them all out.  My cart will hold twelve buckets on the top and I had five more on the bottom.  When I got to the display case, I noticed that two of the holes were empty.  I put buckets in them, moving the flowers around so everything was evenly distributed, and changed the other buckets out one-for-one (of course).  So, when I got back to the produce department, I should have had fifteen buckets, right?

I only had thirteen.  I never did figure out where the other two went.

Things I Learned Today

Normally, I’m a creature of habit.  You know?  Kind of the way a rock is a creature of habit.  Five days a week I drive twenty miles southeast to Warsaw, work my shift at Walmart, then drive home.  On my days off, if I can’t work it out so I don’t have to, I sometimes drive twelve miles northwest to Clinton to shop and run errands.  And that’s it.  I can follow this pattern for YEARS without variation and, in fact, I have.

So going somewhere other than Warsaw or Clinton is a big deal for me, even if it just means driving thirty miles north to Warrensburg or Sedalia.  Well, today, for the first time in probably more than a decade, I drove nearly ninety miles south, all the way down to the big city of Springfield, Missouri.  This is what I learned on my Big Adventure:

There is a chain of convenience stores named Kum and Go.  Also, they are sensitive about their name and apparently haunt Twitter, constantly on guard against anyone who would mock them, so that they can respond almost instantly.  I am sorry if my amusement insulted them but I doubt I will ever again be able to put a gas nozzle in the tank opening with an entirely straight face.

Highway 13, where it crosses I44, has been redesigned by a team of drunken double-crochet fiends.  Seriously.  Google “map of Springfield, Missouri” and then enlarge it enough to see the lane detail.  I’ll wait.

You see? I thought I was hallucinating (I giggled about the convenience store thing long enough that lack of oxygen was a possibility) or epically lost and wandering around England (again — it could happen!)  when I drove it, but the map confirms what I thought I saw.  The divided lanes of 13 cross each other (so that you’re driving on the LEFT side of the road going over the overpass), then re-cross each other, then join up into a single road on the other side, going through a combined total of eight intersections.  Even the green arrows on the lights are gollywonkers.  Going south they point to the eleven o’clock position, then straight, then the one o’clock position, then straight again.  I don’t know how they look going north because I took highway 65 back so I wouldn’t have to find out.

Is this normal, regular city drivers?  Or is it some kind of entrance exam you have to pass to get into the city?

If it’s designed as an entry exam to keep the bad drivers out, I’d like to point out that it also keeps the bad drivers who are already there in.  Like, for example the lady who almost backed into me as she was leaving a business that advertised cheap, easy car insurance.

Of course, there are also many nice people in Springfield, like the kind couple who gave me directions when I got lost in a Walmart parking lot the size of Benton County!

I also learned that their Walmart has long-Johns with dark chocolate frosting and Bavarian creme in the middle.  Our Walmart does not have these.  This is not fair!

The reason I went to Springfield was to have a new author photo taken (more about that in a day or two) and the couple who run About Faces Photography are lovely, but when someone tells you on the phone to “watch for the mailbox because our sign is easy to miss” you should ask them to be more specific, because EVERYBODY has mailboxes.

I’ve learned that a professional photo shoot is remarkably like a game of Twister and that my head really will only turn so far.  I suggested that the gentleman photographer take up photographing owls, as they would actually be *able* to strike the poses he kept asking for.

I’ve learned that if I’m going somewhere with a wide selection of available restaurants I should choose one in advance, lest I get overwhelmed with the choices and end up just hitting a fast food joint.  Yes, I’m that lame.

I discovered that my favorite used book store (and this really did surprise me) regularly hosts book signings by local authors.  I also learned that the author of one of my favorite children’s books (and still an all-time favorite) Wylly Folk St. John, wrote another children’s book I’d never heard of.  AND I scored a copy!

As I mentioned earlier, I took 65 to come back north, in order to miss the tangled skein of roadways at 13 and I44, and in the process I learned that I still suck at merging onto a busy highway.

I learned that there is a Foose, Missouri and that either there is an Urbana, Missouri or I wandered several hundred miles off course and detoured through Illinois.

And, finally, I found Nemo.  He’s just a few miles south of Pittsburgh.

Missouri.

I think.

Charlie

The first customer I attached a name to was a sweet-natured, white-haired gentleman in a Korean Veterans baseball cap.  It was probably only my second or third day working in the produce department, right next to the door, that I heard Cecil, our people greeter, address him as “Charlie”.  He responded with a big, warm smile and they stood and talked for several minutes before he went on to do his shopping.

Our Cecil, I should mention, is a lady and, oddly, not the only female named Cecil in this small town.  She is a singular character, well-loved by customers and coworkers alike.  Cecil and her family have lived here for years and she knows everyone in town and everything that happens.

The gentleman in the Korean Veterans cap came in almost every day.  For the next six years, I never failed to greet him with a cheerful, “hi, Charlie!” and he always responded with a big, warm smile and stopped to pass the time of day.

Then one day, a couple of years ago, he was chatting with Cecil as I sorted through some fruit displays nearby.    When he left to continue his shopping, Cecil wandered over to me and said, “he’s the nicest man!  You know, I always call him Charlie and he always answers me.”

This gave me pause.  “Isn’t that his name?” I asked.

“Oh, no.  His name’s Marvin.  I just always call him Charlie.  I don’t know why.”

This is the point for an emoticon.  This one:  o.0

“Cecil!” I said.  “For six years now I’ve been calling that man Charlie because you called him Charlie!  Why didn’t you ever tell me that wasn’t his real name?”

Cecil wasn’t bothered.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I just call him that.  It’s okay, though.  He always answers.”

The next time Marvin (as I now knew him to be) came in, I explained to him that I’d just learned I’d been calling him the wrong name and apologized.  “I thought that was your name because I heard Cecil use it.”

He just laughed.  “Yeah, she always calls me that.  I don’t know why.”

“Well, now that I know your real name,” I said, “I promise that I’ll call you by it.”

A couple of days later I saw him halfway across the department, looking at a produce display.

“Hi, Marvin!” I called out cheerfully.

… nothing …

I walked a little closer.  “Hi, Marvin!”

… still nothing …

I went right up next to him.  “Hey, Marvin!”

He wandered away.

I let him get halfway across the department.

“Hi, Charlie!”

He turned back to me with a big, friendly smile and a wave.

I’ve called him Charlie ever since.  It seems we’ve changed the poor man’s name.

This is a Real Thing

Spoonbill season, AKA “snagging season” opened this weekend.  Have you got yours yet?

 

SpoonbillDrawing by Timothy Knapp, NFWS

A Few Words About Poetry

This morning I had the pleasure of reading Alison Trotta’s new book of poetry, I Don’t Love You Pretty.  It was absolutely delightful and I enjoyed it very much.  I also enjoyed a conversation I had with Ali yesterday about “life-threatening poems” (her phone’s autocorrect was apparently feeling confrontational).  It got me thinking, though, about the Bad Poems I’ve encountered in my life and the people who saw fit to torture me with them.

Why is it, do you suppose, that for every truly horrible poem ever written, there’s someone (often NOT the poet) who feels the need to corner you and read it aloud to you?  It’s not as if reading it aloud is going to make it better.  Even good poetry can be mutilated by an injudicious reading.  At my father’s funeral, an over-emotive preacher managed to butcher Dylan Thomas’ “The Strong Are Saying Nothing”, for heaven’s sake!

When I was working fast food about a decade ago (a lifestyle that is, itself, a bad poem just waiting to happen), I had a co-worker whose relationship with her then-husband veered wildly between homicidal and saccharine.  When they were not trying to kill one another, he would write her long, torrid missives that they both euphemistically called “love poems”.  She would bring them to work and, not content to just read them aloud once, she would corner everyone on the shift individually, sniffling dramatically, demanding if that wasn’t “the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard”, and completely ignoring my attempts to drown myself in the dish sink.

A few years later, after I’d escaped the world of fast food, I found myself at an older sister’s house one Thanksgiving.  She’d been online once too often and had come across a pages and pages and pages long poem about the dangers of drug use, which, for some reason, she felt I vitally needed to hear.  I don’t know why.  Of all my relatives, I’m probably the least-likely to get involved in the world of crystal meth, and, in fact, I’ve never been addicted to anything at all except words.  I will say, though, that I was much more likely to seek the oblivion of a drugged stupor *after* being forced to listen to the thing than I was before.

Where “Loverboy’s” poems had no sort of form or rhythm or rhyme, this monstrosity was at least divided into lines and made an attempt at a rhyme scheme.  Unfortunately, it was the sort of rhyme scheme that fails to realize that words like “band” and “end” don’t.  The lines, too, were awkward lengths and showed no understanding of meter.  It was as if Justin Bieber and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz had a kid and he read Gwendolyn Brooks, e.e. cummings, and G.M. Hopkins without understanding them and then tried to write poetry.

I suppose these experiences weren’t entirely wasted, though.  I learned an important lesson about never sitting in the corner chair that you can’t easily escape from.  Also, I believe I’ve learned to recognize the warning signs of “I’ve Come To Inundate You With Bad Poetry” and, hopefully can avoid such encounters in the future.  In any case, I now have a water gun, and I know how to use it!

Saving the Pink Sparkly Slipper

My dream job is to be a writer.  My day job, as I may have mentioned, takes place at Walmart in Warsaw, Missouri, and involves stocking produce.  It’s not as dismal as it sounds.  The people are mostly nice and frequently entertaining. It’s always fun to people watch, and once in a while you can even find something to be proud of.  One accomplishment that I look back on fondly, years later, is the night that a co-worker and I Saved The Pink Sparkly Slipper.

This happened, as I said, several years ago — long enough ago that I can no longer remember exactly when these events took place nor recall the names of most of the people involved.  I do remember that it was a rainy evening, late in the spring, I think, or early in the fall.  I was working in the produce back room when an off-duty associate came in and asked me if I had a ladder she could use.  She was shopping with her middle-school-aged daughter and two of her daughter’s friends and one of the girls had lost her pink sparkly slipper on top of the “wet wall”.

The “wet wall” is the name of the big, open, refrigerated set of shelves that run the length of the produce department.  It’s called the “wet wall” because it contains misters to keep bulk vegetables moist.  Ours is about seven feet tall, some six feet deep and probably forty or fifty feet long. It is anchored to the floor by both electrical and plumbing connections and is completely immovable.  It backs up against the frozen food section, sitting back-to-back with a freezer unit that is just as long, just as deep and even taller.  Between the two lies a deep, narrow cleft.  The ends of the cleft are capped by smaller, but still massive, freezers and the space within is entirely inaccessible.

You can see where this is going.

You may be wondering, as I did, how the young lady managed to lose her she on top of this fixture.  I asked her that and she replied, quite reasonably, that she was just demonstrating how to kick a soccer ball.  Since I did have a ladder, at that point it seemed a minor problem.

The Pink Sparkly Slipper was not on top of the wet wall.  It wasn’t on top of the freezer unit and it wasn’t in the aisle on the other side.  The only place it could have gone was down in the metal canyon where it could not be reached.  Since climbing on either the wet wall or the freezer is strictly forbidden, there was no way to even see where it had landed.  It seemed the Pink Sparkly Slipper was gone for good.

The owner of the PSS took it hard.  One of the other girls lent her their shoes to console her and she went home weeping in the rain.

I felt terrible for her, and thought about it for the rest of that night and all through my shift the following day.  At that time there was an uncommonly tall young man named Matt who worked in our deli.  While helping one of the frozen foods associates fix a sign over one of the freezer end-caps, Matt discovered that, if he stood on a tall ladder and looked at just the right angle, he could actually see the Pink Sparkly Slipper.  He couldn’t come anywhere close to reaching it, but he could see it and we knew it was there.

After consulting with, well, just about everyone who was working or shopping that day, Matt and I hit upon a plan.  What we needed, we realized, was a fishing pole.

I had at my disposal a wooden mop handle, some lengths of wire, about the thickness of coat hanger wire, a rope we use to tie the freezer doors closed if there’s a power outage, a metal peg hook and duct tape.  (There is ALWAYS duct tape!)

I bent hooks into the ends of three lengths of wire and taped them together to form a grappling hook, then taped the grappling hook to one end of the rope.  The peg hook, I taped to the end of the mop handle, to act as a line guide, then I strung the rope through it and down the length of the handle, allowing me to push the rope out over the back of the wet wall and drop the grappling hook straight down.

In the last few minutes before the end of our shifts, Matt and I set up Operation Save The Pink Sparkly Slipper.  He put his ladder back at the end of the aisle, where he had a visual on the PSS.  Then he directed me in the placement of a second ladder, so that I was level with the target.  I dropped my grappling hook into the mechanical canyon and Matt guided me as I swung it down and towards the object of our rescue.

After all the preparation, it was ridiculously easy.  I caught the hook in the toe of the slipper on, probably, the second or third try and reeled it in.  We were outrageously pleased with ourselves and, going to the back of the store to clock out, we proceeded as if making a triumphal march, holding the PSS aloft and singing the theme to Rocky in that “da da DAH da” kind of way you do when you don’t actually know the words.  We turned the shoe over to management and they promised to give it to the off-duty associate so she could return it to its rightful owner.

Some time passed before I found out the whole of the story.

About a week before she found herself demonstrating soccer kicks in the produce department, the young lady in question had lost much more than a shoe.  Her beloved grandfather had suddenly passed away.  The Pink Sparkly Slippers were one of the last gifts he’d ever given her.

The Mystery of Cabin Island

Cabin Island

My first book is coming out in the winter of 2015.  For the publishing industry and the world at large it will be, I know, just another business day.  For me it will be the culmination of a life-long dream.  I’ve been doing a lot of looking back lately, at my admittedly strange life and how I reached this point; where I came from and where I hope to be going.  It’s been a long journey.  One thing I’ve been thinking about is, I’ve been trying to remember the first mystery I ever read.  I can’t say for certain now* but I think it quite likely that it was either

DesmondPG

or

Ghost Saturday Night

I do, however, remember vividly the first mystery to make a profound impression on me.  Mom bought it for me at the old Walmart store, when it was in Eastgate Shopping Center. I can still tell you where the book department was in the store and where the book was in the department.  If I close my eyes I can see it on the shelf.  The price sticker was a little, black circle in the upper right-hand corner with a gold border and the price ($1.95) in gold numbers.

I must have been six or seven — younger than eight, I know.  I started reading obnoxiously early and by the time I was eight or nine I was reading as many adult books as children’s (though I never did stop loving children’s books).  This book caught my attention immediately.  Already, “mystery” was a magic word for me, and this book had that magic word right there on the cover.  The Mystery of Cabin Island. The picture on the front showed two teenage boys (“big kids” like my own teenage siblings) hiding behind an evergreen, peering across a winter landscape at a snow-covered cabin.  Who were they? What were they doing?  What was in the cabin?  What was going on?  I wanted to know! The back cover said the Hardy Boys books were for “boys ages 8 to 13” and I was neither a boy nor in that age range, but Mom was always lenient when it came to books so she let me get it anyway.

So I got it.  And I read it and I loved it.  But the thing that was a real revelation for me was that it was part of a series. There were more books — LOTS more — with the same characters and settings and more mysteries.  I was in little kid book heaven.  With the closest (in age) of my siblings being nine years older than me, I was, for all intents and purposes, an only child.  We lived miles from any other children my age and much of my youth was spent largely in isolation.  My friends lived in the pages of books.  Characters in series could be best friends, because they came back to visit again and again.

For years I devoured every Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on, and from there I moved on to other series, both children’s books like the Rick Brant Series, the Ken Holt series, Trixie Belden, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (to name just a few) and adult books.  My parents both loved to read, too, and Mom always looked for books at yard sales and auctions.  Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were popular back then, with two to four (maybe five?) novels in each volume, and we wound up with boxes of books they put out for a special mystery-lover’s club.  Thus it was easy to progress from The Hardy Boys to Nero Wolf and Ellery Queen, Miss Marple, Campion, and Lord Peter Wimsey.

There’s a long article at Wikipedia about the history of the Hardy Boys if anyone’s interested.  Reading it was … actually, a bit depressing. I know they were far from perfect books, with simplistic plots and characters and a persistent problem with racist stereotypes (which were, honestly, more a comment on the time they were written than on the books themselves).  But they were also an important and beloved part of my childhood and of my education as a writer.  It was while reading about iceboats in The Mystery of Cabin Island that I determined to take information wherever I found it — something I still try to do.  (I’m pretty sure I was the first kid in my grade to know the word “sleuth”!)  And much of what I learned about character, plot, and story structure I can trace back to those books. If Joe finds an amulet under the floor boards of the old house in chapter three, there damn well better be an explanation for it by the final line of chapter twenty!

In 1987 the Powers That Be launched The Hardy Boys Casefiles — a dark, violent series that began by blowing Joe’s girlfriend Iola Morton up in a car bomb and saw the boys carrying guns and killing people.  At that point they lost any magic they still held for me and I haven’t looked at a new Hardy Boys book since.  But there will always remain, in my imagination’s memory, a place where I stand on Shore Road above Bayport and watch the distant lights of the Sleuth and the Napoli racing off through the darkness on some endless adventure.

 

*I have a very vague memory of a series of mysteries for beginning readers.  They were slender books in hardback with a keyhole on the cover and I believe they were about three or four children — siblings, maybe?  I cannot, for the life of me, remember enough to pin them down.  Do they sound familiar to anyone?

Marlin Perkins

MarlinPerkins

 

I have so much I should be doing right now — things to write, chores to do, errands to run.  So, naturally, I’ve been spending a lot of time online looking at pictures of cute animals.  There are a lot of posts about conservation in my Twitter feed and I remembered today that one of the pioneers of conservation was a fellow Missourian.  So, while I’m procrastinating about other things, I thought I’d write a little in honor of Marlin Perkins.

MarlinPerkins

If you were a child in America any time between 1963 and 1988, you almost have to remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  The half-hour nature program was syndicated during much of its run, but almost always aired on Sunday afternoon or evening.  St. Louis Zoo director Marlin Perkins hosted with his assistant, Jim Fowler, who remarkably never got killed, even once!  (“We’ll step back out of the way now while Jim separates the angry giant reptiles . . . “)*

Richard Marlin Perkins was born and raised in Carthage, Missouri and attended Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri.  He began college at the University of Missouri, but dropped out to take a job as a grounds laborer with the St. Louis Zoo.  After working his way up to the post of reptile curator by 1928, when he was just 23.  He went on to become director of the Buffalo Zoological Park in Buffalo, New York, and then moved to Chicago, Illinois as director of the Lincoln Park Zoo.  In 1962, however, he returned home to the St. Louis Zoo, this time as director.  It was a post he would hold for the rest of his life, actively until 1970 and afterwards as Director Emeritus.

Perkins was also the biologist for Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1960 Everest expedition in search of the Abominable Snowman.  He examined “Yeti” tracks and concluded that they were the footprints of smaller animals such as foxes that had melted together from the heat of the snow.

Through the medium of Wild Kingdom, Perkins and Fowler introduced America to the beauty, danger and fragility of the world’s wild animals.  They were among the first advocates for conservation, the environment, and the welfare of endangered species.  The program aired in forty countries around the world and on 200 stations in North America alone, garnering four Emmys and making an indelible impression on all of us little kids sitting in front of our televisions wishing we were the ones cuddling the baby tigers while Jim wrestled the water buffalo.**

Today, Perkins’ legacy continues in the form of the Wild Canid Center (aka the Tyson Wolf Sanctuary), which he and a group of fellow conservationists founded in 1971, and the Marlin Perkins Society at the St. Louis Zoo.

* I made up the stuff about the giant reptiles.
** Ditto the stuff about the water buffalo.  But I swear, that sort of thing was always happening to Jim!

Perkins’ biography at the St. Louis Zoo website.
Here’s a site on Wild Kingdom that includes bios and film clips.

 

Perkins Tiger

A Story I Never Intended To Tell

Earlier tonight I was talking about music with a friend on Twitter and she mentioned the song “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” by Air Supply.  It is a beautiful song, but it’s one I rarely listen to, as it brings back memories more bitter than sweet.  The incident that precipitated those memories is one that I’ve never really discussed with anyone.  What happened then, though, is relevant to what’s going on in the world today.  So I decided, nearly thirty years on, maybe it’s time to tell this story.

 

In order to understand what I’m going to tell you, you have to know that I was the quintessential awkward teenager.  I was fat, for one thing.  Boys I grew up with called me “Tubby” and “Lardo” and “Hurricane Hilda.” A chipped front tooth made me reluctant to open my mouth, and my clothes were all either homemade or hand-me-downs that were years out of fashion.  I was so shy when I entered high school that for the first two years I walked the halls with my eyes on the floor and never even dared speak to the girls I shared a lunch table with every day.

 

Eventually I got involved in clubs and school activities and began to open up.  By the start of my senior year I was a member of the drama club and had gotten small parts in a couple of plays.  It was just after the start of that school year that a new boy, whom I shall call Steve (not his name) transferred to our school.

 

Steve was everything I was not — charming, funny, witty and outgoing with an open, fun-loving personality that quickly made him one of the most popular boys in our class.  To my great surprise, we hit it off immediately.  We spent all our spare time together, talking about books and art and music. He was the first person I knew who had their own computer and he invited me to his house to see it and used it to make me pictures. He loved science and devoted hours trying to explain to me what he was studying and where he wanted to go with it.  He walked between classes with me and sat with me at lunch and in a crowd he always sought me out.

 

I fell in love.

 

By the time spring rolled around people had begun to assume we were a couple.  We were doing “Grease” for the spring musical that year and Steve and I both had parts — not opposite one another.  I don’t remember the characters’ names anymore (“Grease” is another bittersweet memory and a movie I will never watch again) but he was the head Pink Lady’s boyfriend and I (of course) was the fat chick.  After play practice ended, though, we would walk out into the dark parking lot together and sit for hours on the trunk of his car.  He’d point out the features of the night sky, individual stars and constellations and comets and satellites.  And he’d sing to me, his voice rising and falling on the soft spring night.  He liked to sing Air Supply.  “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All.”

 

One night, though, near the end of the year, he came out looking very serious and said that he needed to talk to me.  I thought he was going to ask me to the senior prom. Instead, he told me that he’d heard I had a crush on him.  He said he didn’t like me that way — that he didn’t know where I’d ever gotten the idea that he might.  Really, he just wanted to be friends.

 

To say that I was devastated sounds melodramatic and silly, but honestly I think that, if anything, it’s an understatement.  I was embarrassed and humiliated and I felt stupid and ashamed.  How could I have ever thought that someone like that would ever be attracted to someone like me?  It was, I decided, a mistake that I would not make again.  Years passed before I dared to let a man know I was interested in him and, in truth, though I’ve dated from time to time, to this day I’ve never been involved in a serious, committed relationship.

 

Steve and I avoided one another for the rest of the school year, but the following summer we found ourselves working the same summer job and a shadow of our old friendship reasserted itself.  It was at some point during the course of that summer that he shyly and reluctantly admitted to me that he was gay. A couple of years later he even asked me to marry him, so he’d have someone to father children with and to make it easier for him to hide his sexual orientation from the world.  I declined of course.  I thought he was joking, actually, and my refusal was harsher than it would have otherwise been.  It must have hurt his feelings, because he left shortly thereafter and I never saw or heard from him again.

 

Looking back through the lens that decades of experience have given me, I realize now that I was not stupid and I had nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.  Singing love songs to someone under the stars is romancing them, and my conclusions were entirely justified.  I understand now what he was doing.  He was caught in a world that considered people with his needs and desires aberrant — dirty and perverted.  And he was considering trying to deny his own nature, play the game, fit in and act like the “normal” heterosexual male that he was not.  I don’t fault him for that  — each in our own way, we were both lost teenagers trying to find our places in the world.  And as badly as his rejection hurt at the time, I’m terribly, terribly grateful that he did not continue the charade.  I can’t imagine anything good would have come of it, and I don’t believe that, at that time, I had the strength of character to survive what would have followed.

 

There are many reasons why I support gay rights, but this is the deepest and most personal.  Because I, an unremarkable straight person, have also been hurt by society’s inane prejudices.  My life would have been so much easier if Steve had felt comfortable, right from the beginning, simply being himself and admitting to the world who and what he was.  I know that the last thing that awkward, seventeen-year-old me needed was a make believe sweetheart.  But I could have really used a good friend.

 

Gay people are gay because they are. You cannot dictate desire nor legislate the needs of the soul.  As Emily Dickinson said, “The heart wants what it wants”. Yes, there are dark desires that must be quelled by laws — the desire of those who would damage children, for example, or take by force that which is not given freely.  But the desire of two consenting adults to love on another does no one any conceivable harm.  Trying to suppress that love not only damns the lovers, but sends ripples all throughout our society.  Those ripples have the potential to create an undertow capable of swamping us all.

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