Loretta Ross

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This should come as no shock…

…to anyone who knows me, but I HAVE SCREWED UP THE ANNOUCEMENT FOR MY FIRST BOOK SIGNING!

It is not, as I have been telling people, at the Barnes and Noble in Crown Center (in Kansas City). It is at the Barnes and Noble on Countryclub Plaza (but I got the Kansas City part right).

I was under the impression that they were two different names for the same place, but my big brother tells me that they are not. I suspect there is some connection between this sort of mistake and the fact that I get lost on a regular basis.

So, it will be at 3PM, Saturday, June 6, 2015 at the Barnes and Noble on Countryclub Plaza. And as a helpful reminder, check out these awesome bookmarks my brother Dan had made to advertise the event.Dan Bookmarks

My Book Has A Cover!

My book has a cover and I couldn’t be happier with it!  I just love how atmospheric this is, like there’s a storm brewing.  Thanks so much to Lisa Novak, the amazing artist responsible, for wrapping my words in such a beautiful, striking picture.

Death and the Redheaded Woman

Do You Know What This Is?

When I was very small, we used one of these for a couple of years.  Who knows what it is?  (I stole this picture from an Etsy shop listing, but the item has already sold so I’m hoping they don’t care.)

 

Thingie1

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.

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!

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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