Saturday, May 31, 2014

#SaturdayScenes No. 5: Kodiak, Alaska

I've moved around a fair bit in my life.  I'm forty-three now, and, though I spent most of my childhood in a single location, I have now lived in fourteen places. They're clustered in certain parts of the world, but there's a fair spread.
map made at

I got to thinking about all these places in terms of scenes and settings. Right now, as I face moving into summer in North Carolina (I don't like heat so very much . .. I wilt), I'm nostalgic for Kodiak, Alaska and its lovely Pacific Northwest rain and fog.  So, for my #SaturdayScenes this week, please enjoy this poem, written by a much younger me, many miles ago.


A Clear Day in Kodiak, Alaska

On a day such as today
when the fog has lifted at last,
when a collective dream
of green mountains
materializes in our midst,
and I can see that the sky
had been blue all this time,
I fear I have dreamed this place.
I test each step for sureness,
digging my toes under warm black sand,
and walk slowly, keeping
my feet anchored, lest the sky
drag me into its undertow.
Without the integument of clouds,
the exposed horizon makes these mountains
a mirage brought on
by miles and miles of water
with an unquenchable thirst for land.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Who's to Blame?

Pick a bad thing that happened. Anything.

It could be something little, like falling in the supermarket and bashing your elbow. Or something big like the Elliot Rodger shooting.

Why is it that the question after any bad thing is always: Whose fault is this?

Is it society? parents? the media? movies? mental illness? poverty? nutrition? aliens? gamma radiation?
The finger-pointing and banner waving commences, then dies down. Until the next bad thing. Then it begins again. It gets really ugly.  It turns perfectly good and reasonable people into trolls. And if people were already trolls? Well, they get fed and become fatter, meaner, uglier trolls.

And I have to fight against my own urge to simply shut down and hide from the vitriol.

That's what a lot of us do. We disengage. We give in to the "almighty shrug" (an awesome phrase I read in this article about intersectionality), and thereby free ourselves of responsibility. There's nothing I can do, therefore I will do nothing.  Like Ned Flanders's Mom once said in a very good episode of the Simpsons, "We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas!"

I get it.

I'm tired, too. But, even if we somehow made it through the chicken-and-egg, house-that-Jack-built world of argument to actually find someone or thing that was definitively to blame, how would that help? How would that keep any particular bad thing from happening again?

Engagement is the only thing that will make a difference. You have to try something.

Maybe if we could all let go of ego just enough to say, "Hey, maybe this isn't about me." If we just stopped worrying about covering our own behinds and worried about leaving a situation better than we found it. 

So, I fall in the grocery store. Do I walk away quietly cursing? Do I sue the store? Or do I tell someone about the puddle and help make sure it gets mopped up so no one else falls? The choice is up to you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


“The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”

It's that time of year again. The merry merry mouth of May. The world is merry and bright and in love, and I'm the grumpy dwarf in Snow White's house. 

I'm tired. Epicly tired. Body-tired, soul-tired, brain-tired. Crazy tired. Stupid tired. 

Most jobs have a cyclical nature, I've observed. A busy season, a down season. My sister is an accountant, and when she was working for a CPA, tax season tried to kill her every year. My husband's work ebbs and flows according to what projects are on his plate in any given week. The difference in both of these cases, is that there is ebb as well as flow. 

Teaching doesn't have an ebb. Starting at the end of August and straight through to the middle of June, teachers are on. Every day is high pressure. We get to our "vacation" times and collapse gasping like fish who have been pulled from the water and left on the bank. 

This year was especially rough as a series of snow days removed all teacher work days from the calendar (teacher work days are days when teachers are paid to be at school working on the things that you can't do while supervising students: grading papers, analyzing assessment data, making lesson plans, gathering materials, cleaning your classroom, collaborating with your colleagues, etc.).  The tasks that I do on those days were not removed, however. I just had to find non-paid time to do them in. 

Over the years, I've gotten more and more efficient, capable of doing more in a sixty minute prep period than some manage across an entire workday. Unfortunately, this doesn't catch me a break. It doesn't mean that I suddenly have time to have tea with a colleague or take an actual lunch break during which I don't work. It just means that I bring less of my work home into the hours of the day the state is not paying me for. 

I know, I know. I get summer, right? That depends on what you mean by "get" and "summer." Non school days amount to ten weeks for students this summer in my school district. June 16-August 25. Teachers on the other hand finish work on June 25 and start again on August 18. Myself, I also work six extra days this summer on various kinds of planning and materials development sessions. So, about six weeks. For many teachers, it's even less. 

It's just barely enough to recover from the burnout factor enough to feel like you might be willing to try that again. If you have to work a summer job to make finances meet (as many of us do), or you are trying to fit some classes into your schedule so you can move up the salary schedule from "miserable pittance" to "mere pittance", then you don't benefit from the recuperative effects of the time. 

So, it's the time of year to fight your own burnout at school. 

For me, that means upping my caffeine consumption, making sure I get at least three hours of time outdoors in the sun each week, and reading escapist literature in my downtime (Spiderman Noir was excellent). So, pass the coffee and the comics, we've got a month yet to go!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

#Saturday Scenes No. 4

I love #SaturdayScenes ! +John Ward , plusser extraordinaire had this brain child, and I'm a happy participant.

The idea is that writers share a piece of their writing with you each Saturday. You can check them out en masse, by using the hashtag: #SaturdayScenes

This is the fourth week. If you want to see what I did on other weeks, you can find those posts here, here, and here.

This week I have the opening chapter of my superhero novel for you. Meet Linda Álvarez, one of the main characters in Going Through the Change (not yet published), a menopausal superhero novel.


Things Get Hairy for Linda

Linda Alvarez stood in front of the mirror, horrified. She’d just been to the beauty salon yesterday, but all those weird hairs were back, like they’d never been tweezed and waxed away. She had eyebrows like Frida Kahlo Por Díos, and practically five o’clock shadow. Thank God David had already left for work. She’d have time to take care of it before he got home.

David had been her rock through all this menopause garbage. He’d fetched blankets and brought her ice as she changed temperature four and five times an evening. He hadn’t complained about the extra money she was spending at the beauty shop or commented on the way her body seemed to be shifting around her, reshaping into something else entirely. Something much thicker around the middle than she had ever been before, Linda thought ruefully. She was lucky to have him, she knew.

Come to think of it, it wasn’t just the hair today. She looked really different. There was something different about her jawline and her favorite pink tee shirt hung oddly on her, like it was too tight in the shoulders all of a sudden and didn’t quite reach her waist. Had it shrunk in the wash? She hadn’t changed anything about the way she’d been washing it.

She grabbed the new bar of soap she’d picked up at the Farmer’s Market last weekend. She’d bought it from the daughter of her old neighbor. Her name was Cindy Loo, or maybe Lou. Something like that. She was Asian, so Linda wasn’t sure how her last name might be spelled.

Ms. Lou had moved into the old house after her mother died. Linda had been meaning to bring her a welcome package of some sort, but Cindy kept strange hours and Linda had not yet caught her at home.

Despite living down the street from the older Mrs. Lou all these years, and spending a fair amount of time visiting the old lady, Linda had only rarely seen the daughter. She had been using Cindy’s teas and lotions for years, though. Cindy’s mother had kept a booth for her in the local market and would hawk her daughter’s products, and fill the buyer’s ear with praise of her brilliant child.

Cindy worked the booth herself whenever she was in town. Linda wasn’t sure if she liked the younger Ms. Lou. She had a gruffness to her and didn’t seem to understand how to talk to customers. But she did like the things the woman made. Whether it was psychosomatic or not, those products worked. Her cramps went away, her blemishes cleared up, her mood lightened. Ms. Lou was a genius.

The new soap was called “Nu Yu.” It had a picture of a woman drawn in lines, out of calligraphy, on the wrapper. The woman’s legs were impossibly long and her stride was the length of the wrapper. Ms. Lou had said it would let the inner person shine through. Linda assumed that was just a New Age spin to sell to the hippies who came to the market, a play on the idea of inner beauty, something like that.

Whatever. Even if it had a silly name, the soap was just as wonderful as all of Ms. Lou’s other products. It smelled marvelous and made Linda’s skin tingle. She wondered what was in it that made her feel so alive when she used it. She unwrapped the new bar and reached into the now-steaming shower to set it in the soap dish atop the little remnant of the previous bar.

Linda peeled off her clothes with some difficulty. They seemed to cling to her tightly. She dropped the poor maligned pink shirt on the floor and stepped into the shower. She’d start by getting good and clean and exfoliated, then she’d figure out what to do about her crazy hormone hairs.

Her grandmother had suffered from the same problem, she knew. When she got too old to take care of it herself, Linda used to come by the assisted living place and wax her upper lip on Saturdays, so she would look her best for church on Sundays. Linda tried to remember how old her Abuelita had been when she started having the mustache problem, but she couldn’t remember. Probably Abuelita had suffered with it for a long time, and Linda only found out about it when she needed help to take care of it. Maybe she had only been forty-eight, too. Luckily, there were products for that.

Linda rolled her neck and let the warm water wash over her, grateful for the warmth and the white noise effect of the water beating against the tiled walls. It was easy to let her worries fade when she was in the shower. She stretched out her arms above her head and ran the new bar of soap over her arms and into the armpits—hairy again of course. Really hairy! Caracoles! She was sure she had shaved just yesterday.

She grabbed onto the ledge the tile wall made at the top for balance, surprised to find out she could reach it easily and grabbed the pink Daisy razor out of the little hanging basket just outside the tub area. If she was going to keep growing hair this quickly, maybe she’d need to check into some electrolysis or something. The peluquería was good with waxes and such, but she was going to need a more permanent solution. When she stood again, after shaving her legs, she knocked her head into the shower spigot. Weird. Maybe David had left it set lower than usual?

A few quick strokes and her pits felt smooth again. Linda rinsed out the razor, grimacing at the amount of dark hair that swirled around the drain between her feet. Even her feet looked strange to her today, more spread out. She thought that only happened in pregnancy. Or maybe it was time to see the eye doctor. She might have to upgrade from her simple readers to bifocals or something.

Turning her back against the warm stream of water, Linda ran the bar across her upper chest and shoulders. It felt so smooth and hard. So did her torso. Maybe her time on the treadmill was paying off. When she ran her hand up around her breasts, she gasped a little. She’d never been a busty woman, but her breasts seemed to have all but disappeared. Surely this wasn’t more cambio de vida. She’d never heard of anyone losing their breasts because of menopause. Maybe she should call the doctor and see if she could be seen this afternoon.

More tense now, Linda continued her washing. At least the soap felt good and moisturizing. It made nice creamy suds in her hands. There wasn’t any jiggle across her belly when she ran her soapy hand across it. Her belly hadn’t felt tight like that in a good fifteen years, not since the last baby, the one that had come by emergency C-section.

Then, Linda dipped her hands lower, to clean between her legs. Her eyes flew open. Something was definitely not right. It felt—it was just like—Linda looked down and screamed. There, resting against her thigh was, unmistakably, a penis.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reading Like a Writer: Orphan Train

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a good book. I really enjoyed reading it.  I want to say that up front because I'm going to pick on it for some problems it has. It's not a perfect book in my opinion, but it is a book I learned from reading. I'm trying to "read like a writer" this year . .. taking time to analyze why books work or don't work for me as a reader, to figure out exactly what the writer did that I can emulate or improve on.

This book was recommended to me by a writing group friend and I read it in paperback with my neighborhood reading group. It's historical fiction, a perfect choice for me right now as I am writing a historical fiction novel myself, parts of which are set in this same time period.

Historical fiction is a tricky beast, requiring that the writer is really well informed about the history involved and uses that information to create a believable narrative, but doesn't fall into just writing a treatise about the historical moment. When it's done well, you don't even realize how much you are learning about life in that era and circumstances. It feels natural.

The historical parts of Orphan Train are really well done. Right from the beginning, when we meet Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian (the main character is known by three different names at different phases of her life--I'll call her Niamh here since that's the name her mother gave her), Kline blends information about her life and the setting with narrative that draws you to the character emotionally.

"Maisie was eighteen months old, but her weight was like a bundle of rags. Only a few weeks after she was born, Mam came down with a fever and could no longer feed her, so we made do with warm sweetened water, slow-cooked oats, milk when we could afford it. All of us were thin. Food was scarce; days went by when we had little more than rubbery potatoes in weak broth. Mam wasn't much of a cook even in the best of health, and some days she didn't bother to try. More than once, until I learned to cook, we ate potatoes raw from the bin."
This is one jam-packed paragraph, giving you the details of the kind of poverty this family was living in (Food was scarce), the nature of the mother's problems (weakened by illness, probably depressed, too), the kind of child the main character is (responsible, old beyond her years), even the implication that they are Irish immigrants (Maisie, Mam).  The details are given emotional impact by being specific to the characters in the story. It's a common enough story: children in poverty doing the best they can. But Kline makes it specific, gives you someone to root for and care about right away. Much more effective than telling us about how many people were similarly suffering.

The fact that the historical parts of the narrative were so well done might have something to do with why I didn't enjoy the contemporary setting as much. Mollie is an interesting enough character, but the two story lines felt largely unconnected, even after the teenager and the now-elderly Niamh were sharing space on a single page. The parallels between their lives were obvious: both orphaned, raised by strangers, hated by some for their ethnicity, strong-minded, intelligent.

Every time Mollie came back into the book, though, I felt like I'd been pulled out of the narrative and handed a side story with little connection. The novel actually begins with two Molly chapters, where we meet the girl and see how she got in trouble. Molly gets assigned community service for trying to steal a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre from the library.

I get that the author needed Mollie to be in trouble, since community service is what brings her into contact with the now-elderly Niamh. I also understand that she didn't want the trouble to be too heinous, nothing that would make us as readers distrust her good heart. Still, I found it implausible that Molly would be assigned community service for the crime as described. More than likely, she would have been forced to return the book and been banned from the library.

That point aside, Molly arrives and meets her new employer. At the end of the scene, Vivian points out that they are both orphaned and says, "Now--when do you want to begin?" Presumably she's talking about the work of sorting her attic stuff, but then the next chapter flashes to 1929.

It's six more chapters before we see Molly again, thirty-two pages that cover Niamh's journey from losing her family to her first placement in a foster home. Honestly, when I read the line:
"Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that 'cleaning out the attic' means taking things out, fretting over them for a minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack." 

I went: Molly? Who the heck is Molly? I flipped back through the pages and then remembered the frame from the beginning. Once I remembered the frame, I tried to figure out how much of this story Molly was actually hearing versus how much was supposed to be the older woman's memory. I couldn't tell. Niamh's chapters don't feel like they are being told to someone; they feel like time travel.

That pattern continued. A couple of brief chapters of Molly, followed by a longer slice of the other woman's life. Each time, I felt jarred out of the true narrative of the historical story.

So, I wondering about the author's reasons for this way of storytelling. Was the intention to break up the horror of Niamh's life by telling us about something else for a little while? Giving us a break, like a comedy moment in the middle of a hard drama? Was it about highlighting parallels and contrasts between Niamh's and Molly's lives? Either of those sound viable, so why didn't they work for me as a reader? I don't know! Anyone have a theory?

My current theory is that I am jarred by the change in narrative voice. When Niamh is telling her own story, she always seems strong and brave and true. No matter what horrible things are happening around her, I feel her strength. When she's on the page in Molly's point of view, she's a shell of herself. Molly does see her as strong and admirable, but in the same way that she sees dead historical figures as strong and admirable, like whatever she's good for has already happened. That may be accurate to a young person's point of view, but I don't feel their personal connection in the way it seems like I should.

Maybe it's just me, though. I know other readers haven't felt that way.

So, what have I learned?

  • Balancing more than one POV is tricky
  • Historical fiction is becoming a favorite genre of mine (both to read and write)
  • I'm not entirely happy about that second one, because research takes a lot of time

Saturday, May 17, 2014

#SaturdayScenes No.3

It's the new sensation that's sweeping the nation: #Saturday Scenes !

Each Saturday, writers you know (or should know!) are posting scenes from their various works for your free enjoyment. Kudos to +John Ward for the idea and impetus. You can find us all on Google+ under the hastag #SaturdayScenes Some of us are also posting on Facebook and Twitter.

The first week I shared a scene from Cold Spring, a historical fiction novel I'm writing, set in the early twentieth century.

Last week, I presented a scene from my other WIP an untitled superhero novel.

This week, I'm showing you a scene from His Other Mother, a women's fiction novel I'm shopping around for publication right now. The main character, Sherry Morgan, struggles with infertility and schizophrenia. This chapter is the psychotic episode that begins her active phase: The Kidnapping. Hope you enjoy it!


Chapter Three
Sherry: Claiming Alex

Sherry had been watching them for a few minutes now. The baby had to be about a month old. He was all wide blue eyes and chubby cheeks, riding in his car seat in his mother's grocery cart, not yet big enough to sit up in the built-in seat. Whenever his mother came into view, his face relaxed, and every time she stepped out of view, picking up some broccoli, squeezing an orange, his brow furrowed and he shook his little arms and legs in silent distress. Oh, how he loved her.

And she didn't even see it, that mother. Didn't know her luck. Didn't stop to coo over her sweet one or let him smell the oranges. She just piled groceries into her cart silently.

Sherry followed them throughout the whole store, aisle by aisle, picking things off the shelves that she didn't even want or need. From time to time the baby would meet her eye. It felt like the world stopped--no, like it contracted, everything else was gone except the connection between them. Sherry found herself hating the mother, who could so casually push this little miracle around the store and not even notice him. If that were her baby, she would talk to him as she shopped, showing him the things she chose, letting him touch them. She would pause to kiss his toes. Or even better, she would carry him against her body, swaddled in a patterned cloth sling. She would be able to feel the warmth of his body against hers, and smell his milk-sweet breath every time she glanced downward.

She followed them through the checkout, hardly noticing the clerk who rang up her groceries in the lane next to theirs, and then followed them out to their car. It turned out she had parked just across from them. They had a beat-up green Honda, with a dented door on one side. It contrasted poorly with Sherry's brand new VW bug, sunshine yellow, freshly washed and spotless. Sherry loaded her groceries and stood by her car, pretending to text someone on her cell phone to make it seem less strange that she was just standing there in the middle of the parking lot.

The mother had left the baby in the grocery cart while she loaded up her trunk, still silently. Then she placed him in the car, gave him her keys to play with and walked away to return her grocery cart, leaving the door open. Sherry was watching the baby through the open door, his little brow furrowed and his agitation beginning to shake his car seat. She could see the large key ring catching the light as he shook it. Watching the baby, she didn't see the accident. But she looked when she heard the metallic crunch and saw the grocery cart skid before falling clattering to the pavement.

The mother was on the ground, the grocery cart she had been pushing dented and thrown some distance from her. A young man was yelling for help. People were running to the woman from all around the parking lot. Suddenly there were so many people. Where did they come from?

Without really thinking, Sherry went to the Honda. She reached in to the baby, offering one finger. He grabbed it. In that one moment, she made her decision. She took the keys from the baby's hand and jingled them at him, smiling. She put one finger to his impossibly soft lips and said, "Hush now, sweet boy. Mama's here." She pressed the release button between his legs—he had the less expensive version of the car seat Sherry had bought for her sister-in-law at her shower last month—and lifted the seat, baby and all, letting him rock gently and cooing to him as she carried him to her car and buckled him in. She even thought to grab the diaper bag.

The baby fussed in her back seat and she twisted around awkwardly to stroke his cheek around his backward-facing car seat. “It's okay, Alex,” she said softly, “we'll go home now.” She pulled out of her parking place carefully, driving around the back of the store to avoid all the commotion in front.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Joy of Unselfish Selfishness

I'm a mom and a teacher and a wife, three roles that can make it difficult to find "me time." I was also raised with a particularly strong work ethic, one that makes it hard for me to relax sometimes. I feel like you have to earn the right to play by checking off everything on the list. And we know how realistic that is when it's a mom's list.  Most of the stuff on it is cyclical and cannot ever actually be completed. So, if the list is never all checked off, then I never get to that clean space where I feel like I can play.

It can be really difficult to get to the selfish moment you've promised yourself sometimes.

But sometimes the universe lines up right. You do something because it's really what you want to do:  make a cake, play a game, see a film, take a walk.  You invite someone to do it with you, because they are really the person you want to do that with. And, afterwards, your someone thanks you . . . like you've given them a gift in making them do what you wanted to do.  Selfishness was a virtue.

It makes me wonder. There's a theory that happiness is what makes a person beautiful. So, if I am taking care of me and making myself happy, then that makes me inherently more attractive to others. In that sense, a bit of selfishness is arguably good.

In my above scenario, the friend I invited feels the magnetism of my happiness in what I've selected for us to do, and that's why she enjoys it, apart from any inherent enjoyment of the activity itself.

It makes me feel like I should be selfish more often.

No, don't get me wrong, I'm no Ayn Rand, thinking that if we all just watch out for ourselves that somehow it will all work out. In fact, I'm a big believer in the Greater Good and our collective obligation to see to it. I also know that there are those in this world who would take advantage of those of us who feel that way. In fact, the entire teaching profession relies on it. Because teachers are motivated by a desire to help, they put up with things that, in other professions, would lead to mass walk outs.

Takers (whether they are individuals or systems) rely on givers continuing to give.  So, how do us givers protect ourselves without changing who we are? It seems as if a person moves into thinking that selfishness is good, the pendulum swings way to one side, and she becomes self-serving and opportunistic, losing sight completely of her role in any kind of Big Picture.

I don't think we have to stop giving. But, I do think we have to learn to look at the world a little more skeptically, to ask ourselves why we are being asked to do something. Is it because we are the person best suited to the job? Because we have talent or skill or training that others don't and it would be easier for us to accomplish the task? Or is it just that we are giving by nature, and a taker has noticed that we will do it for them?

It's a weird mind game I play with myself, protecting me from me. Not letting me give away every moment of the day, but keeping some for myself for whatever use I want. Because I love my children and my students, and children are self-centered until they learn a sense of perspective, I can give too much of myself.

If I do that too often, there's a toll on my spirit. I get cranky, irritable, easy to upset. That's no good for anyone.

Like everything, it's about balance. Balancing selfishness that allows you to rejuvenate and replenish yourself, with selflessness that allows you to give to others and make a meaningful life. I'm not there yet, but I think I'm starting to understand. Taking care of me is taking care of the people I love, too, being the best me I can be for them. If I'm being selfish because of my love for others, then arguably, that's unselfish, too. And that, my friends, is joy.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

#SaturdayScenes No.2:

My google-friend +John Ward presented an interesting idea recently. He's asking writers to share a scene we've written each Saturday and label it with the hashtag #SaturdayScenes.

Last week I shared a scene from Cold Spring, a historical fiction novel I'm writing, set in the early twentieth century.

This week, I'll present a scene from my other WIP (work in progress).  This novel doesn't have a title yet. It's the sequel to my superhero novel (not yet published, but being considered by a publisher) titled Going Through the Change. Both novels feature a group of menopausal women who develop superpowers thanks to the machinations of a mad scientist.

I know! It doesn't have much in common with my other novel, but I write in two really distinct genres and really enjoy both.

This scene introduces you to Linda/Leonel.  You can meet Patricia, another of my super-women, in a short story published here, at FreedomFiction. I hope you enjoy it!
Linda Álvarez was getting bored. She had arrived early that morning ready for action, only to be sent to the medical devision for an array of tests. She accepted that and cooperated with the medical team. After all, part of what she wanted from her association with the Department was answers about what exactly Dr. Liu had done to her. After all these months she didn’t even know if her transformation into a man was permanent. The doctors took all their samples and readings and seemed quite excited about getting to work on the analysis. So, they had sent Linda to the gym to meet her trainer. 

The gym had been abuzz with activity when she walked in, but it went silent in a wave as she crossed the floor to the desk at the far wall. She kept walking and tried to ignore the silence and focused attention, but she felt her cheeks growing warm. The Director had warned her that her recruitment had garnered a lot of attention in-house and that the other agents would be anxious to see what she could do. Even at the Department, where they specialized in the unusual, where their cases weren’t just classified, but often, unclassifiable, a man with such incredible strength was a person of interest. Linda was grateful that the Director had agreed to keep the rest of her story quiet. It would be far worse if they all knew that she had only recently become a man. 

She arrived at the desk and presented her badge to the young woman working there. She beamed at Linda and winked. “Just a second, Mr. Álvarez.” Mister. That still took some getting used to, even after all these months. Inside, she still felt like Linda Álvarez, wife to David, mother and grandmother. Like she had spent all these months trying to convince her daughter, this change was not a choice she made, it was just something she was learning to adjust to. It was like that old joke about immigration: I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me. Straightening out the mess that a sudden gender change made with all Linda’s official records was something else the Director was taking care of for her. This ID card and the driver’s license the Department had arranged for made her  new life as Leonel Álvarez very official and somehow more real. 

Linda straightened as a tall, muscular man crossed the gym, obviously heading her direction. He was a very handsome man, and walked with a swagger that suggested that he was well aware of his appearance and accustomed to the attention it garnered. He also looked little familiar, though she wasn’t sure where she might have seen him. “Álvarez!” His voice was loud and confident, his tone warm and welcoming. “So glad you decided to take the Director up on his offer.” 

He extended a hand to shake Linda’s and she reminded herself to return the grip firmly, but not so firmly as to break his fingers. She must have done well, because the man seemed pleased. 

“Mike Lester. I’ll be your trainer.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed the palms into each other in a gesture of enthusiasm. “Let’s see what you can do.”

He led her to a corner of the gym with a variety of free weights lifting equipment. “Your paperwork says that you’re quite strong. What do you bench?”

Linda was confused for a moment, then realized what he was asking. She framed her answer carefully, making sure she didn’t sound disrespectful. “I don’t know, sir. I’ve never lifted weights.” 

Mr. Lester snapped his head up to look at her. Disbelief was clear in his expression. He stood back up from where he had been looking at the weights on the ground, apparently selecting some to work with. He had a large disk in his hands. 

“I bench 5 reps of 315, clean,” he said. 

Linda could tell by his tone that she was supposed to be impressed by this phrase, though it meant little to her. From her tone-up sessions at Curves, she knew that reps meant how many times you did something, but she did quite understand the number or what made it clean. 

In the long tradition of new students everywhere, she kept her ignorance to herself and nodded to the teacher. He nodded back and said, “Let’s start with finding out what you can comfortably hold.” He held the disk out to Linda. It looked big and heavy, so she widened her stance a little in preparation, then took it. It didn’t feel like much, almost as if he had handed her a textbook. 

“Hold it from beneath, like this.” He moved her hands into the desired position, so she was holding it in front of her like a breakfast tray. “I’m going to stack additional weights atop this one. Let me know when you start having difficulty holding it.” Linda nodded again. Mr. Lester crossed the few steps to the weight pile several more times and returned. When Linda was holding six disks, he paused. “Doing okay there, Álvarez?”

She was growing a little bored, but other than that she was fine. “Yes, sir.” She wished she knew if it was correct to call him sir. The trainer was younger than Linda was, but he was in a position of authority. She guessed she’d stick with formality unless he correct her. 

Mr. Lester did not look entirely pleased by that response. He went seeking more of the broad, black disks and stacked them into her arms. When she was holding ten, he stood looking around and Linda saw that was all the weights of that size available in the room. 

When a camera flash went off, Linda realized that they had attracted the attention of all the weight-lifters in the room.  The guy who took the picture, an attractive African American man with mischievous eyes, grinned and gave Linda a thumbs-up signal. She smiled back at him, wishing she had tied back her hair. A strand was tickling her nose. She shifted the weight onto her left arm so that she could pull the hair back, then resettled it into both her arms. 

A complete silence took over the room, followed by lots of whispering chatter. “Did you see that? With one arm? One thousand pounds! Who is this guy?”  

Mr. Lester made a note in a small device he was carrying, then gestured for Linda to follow him, without looking at her or the on-lookers. “You can leave the stack, here.” He gestured at a metal rack. Linda slid the disks onto the shelf. The stack wobbled and the top two weights fell. Lunging, she caught them, one in each hand, and placed them gently beside the larger stack. Dusting her hands on the back of her pants, she hurried to follow Mr. Lester across the gym, blushing again at the sounds of conversation building behind her. She didn’t linger to hear what judgments were made. 

She caught up with Mr. Lester in the opposite corner of the gymnasium, where a variety of fighting dummies were stored. She couldn’t tell if the trainer was upset with her or just focused on the task at hand, but she wanted this training session to go well, and, so far, she thought it wasn’t. Trying to break the ice, she asked him, “You look familiar to me, sir. Have we met?” 

He looked pleased to have been recognized. “Not officially. But I was part of the retrieval and clean-up team at the college campus.” 

Linda didn’t remember everything about that day very clearly, but she thought she remembered this man convincing her to let go of Jessica so they could address her wounds. She mentally redressed the man in a dark blue jumpsuit like the men in the team had been wearing. Yeah. That was him. “Thank you for your help with Jessica’s care. She has healed well.” 

“So, I’ve heard. The Department is excited to get someone with her skills. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s hot.” 

Linda was taken aback. For a moment she said nothing. She wasn’t expecting to talk about Jessica’s physical attractiveness. Then she realized that Lester was asking if she and Jessica were a couple. “I know, right?” she responded, trying to seem casual. “My girl has to beat them off with a stick.” She didn’t like the idea of this man eyeing Jessica while she was still vulnerable from the divorce and her recovery from her burns. There was the air of a wolf about him. It wouldn’t hurt to let him believe that Jessica was more than just her friend. 

It also delayed the whole conversation about David. After spending more than twenty years with David, it was so strange to suddenly have her relationship with him become a point of contention, with some people arguing that they shouldn’t have the right to be together. Linda had always supported the right of those who love each other to marry, regardless of gender. It was strange to become the center of that fight instead of just an ally, but, for her, nothing had changed. She wasn’t interested in testing Lester’s politics today. 

She was interested in seeing if he could or would tell her more about what happened to Helen, though, and the search for Dr. Liu. So far, the information flow was very one-way. Linda had told the director and the doctor’s everything she knew. But there seemed to be some contention about how much she should be told in return. She was having trouble getting used to the idea of “clearance” and didn’t really have a good sense of who was supposed to know what yet. Mostly, she just tried to keep her mouth shut.  She didn’t know how much Mike Lester knew about what had gone down there, but it was worth a try.  

She kept her question vague, as if she didn’t know the names of the other people involved. “I hear that they took the fire-lady someplace. Did they get anything out of her to help with the search for the crazy doctor?” Linda didn’t say it aloud, but she had been plagued with bad dreams about that day. She was especially worried about the part she had played in Jessica’s injuries and, even though it had been in defense, she regretted the force she had applied to Helen. She should have been able to solve that problem in some other way. Throwing a sixty-something year old woman into a brick wall was just wrong. She’d been praying that the woman had survived her injuries. 

“Last I heard, she was still asleep,” Lester said. He didn’t sound especially concerned about it. Linda guessed it wouldn’t be that big a deal from his perspective. She had been hurt while trying to kill people, after all. Even if she had been manipulated by Dr. Liu, too, she wasn’t an innocent. 

“A coma then?” The man nodded. At least she wasn’t dead. People came back from comas. One of her cousins had come back after nearly a year. He was as normal now as he had ever been. Linda tried to scrub at some of the guilt on her soul with that brush. It helped a little. “So, what’s next?”

“Heavy bag. This one is fitted with a sensor to get a sense of the force you bring to bear in a punch. Here. Put these on.” He handed Linda a set of fingerless gloves with leather padding over the fist. She slid her hands in and flexed them. She thought she might enjoy this part. It would feel good to work out some of her bad feelings in an honest sweat. “You ready?”

“Yes, sir.” 

“Mike, please. No need to be so formal.” His smile was certainly winning. Linda felt a little tingle of response in her pants and told herself to focus. She’d be working with a lot of handsome men here at the Department, after all. 

“I’m ready, Mike.” 

For the next few minutes, she followed Mike’s directions and jabbed at the punching bag gently from several different angles and with several different kinds of thrusts. When she seemed to have the motions down, he said, “Alrighty then, let’s see what you can do, Killer.”

The word jarred her. Killer? It’s just a word, she told herself. Just something guys say to pump each other up. Focus. So, focus she did. 

Her next punch threw the heavy bag through the cinderblock gymnasium wall and out the other side, wedging it in a soda machine in an alcove across from the gym. Sparks flew out of the crumpled machine, now visible through the gaping hole in the gymnasium wall. 

Linda cringed. “I’m so sorry, Mike. I know a guy who can fix this.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Insecure Writer's Support Group: May

Hello, my name is Samantha Bryant and I'm a writer.

This is my first posting in the Insecure Writer's Support Group. It feels like there should be a ritual beginning, like AA, so I stole theirs. It was either that or put myself up for the virgin auction like this is a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

I'm more comfortable with confession.

Still, it's quite an admission, isn't it? You tell people you are a writer and you get quite a range of reactions.  Some are admiring or jealous. Some seem to think it's a sign of mental illness. The worst part for me is when I have to admit that I don't have a published book yet and someone's face falls, or worse yet, becomes pitying.

It's true. My books are not published yet. Two are finished and two are in progress though. So, don't feel sorry for me. Whether or not I ever manage to be paid for these labors of love, I am rich in the knowledge that I created them.

Writers write. I'm writing. Therefore I am a writer. 

The Insecure Writer's Support Group is a monthly blog hop to lend support to a growing community of writers. I encourage you to go to Alex Cavanaugh's excellent blog and join in.

Passion, According to Jane and Charlotte

Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte are both giants in classic literature. As students, most of us have been asked to read one or both of their works. When I read them the first time as an adolescent, I read them in quick succession  . . .and I loved both.

While their views on life and love, as reflected in their novels, couldn't be more different, they both wrote books that resonate with me. They were both smart women living unconventional lives. Yet, I recently learned (at a book talk at my library), Charlotte didn't like Jane.

In a letter, Charlotte wrote of Jane:
 "She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood….”

It's a criticism I've heard leveled at Jane before . . .that her work lacks passion. And, if, like Charlotte Bronte, you think passion is something outward and visible, dramatic and noisy, then I can see why you might come to that conclusion. After all, no one in Jane Austen's world ever burnt the house down because passion had driven her crazy.

But, for me, Jane's characters vibrate with passion. True, they keep it under their hats, or bonnets as the case may be, but they feel things very deeply.  In fact, the restraint of her characters makes it all the more powerful when that restraint breaks. When Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility admits to the depth of her long-hidden feelings, it's truly moving, in part because it was so long held back.

That's not to say that Charlotte's characters don't also resonate with me. Jane Eyre, for example, was in many ways a model of restraint herself. But in her case, it is not so much outward propriety that constrains her. Instead, it is her internal battle. Jane refuses to become Rochester's mistress not because she doesn't love him, but because her own moral code declared it wrong. The battles she had to fight with mostly with herself.

In real life, I have felt like both of these characters. I have felt the impact of both visions of passion and love in my life. I have fought myself and others. I think the philosophy underlying the stories may be more than the same than the authors would have realized.

I wonder what the authors would have thought of each other, had they met. We see Charlotte's view of Jane's work, but Jane never got to return the favor, having died just as Charlotte came into the world. Would the genteel woman of Bath have looked down on her country cousin from the Yorkshire moors? Or would she have found that the passionate heart that beat in that chest was a twin to her own?

Now, *that* would be one interesting tea party. I hope they invite Oscar Wilde. He'd love the catty undertone, and the cucumber sandwiches.

Monday, May 5, 2014

From A-Z: A Reflection

So, if you've been reading my blog in April, you already know that I posted A LOT. I'm usually more of a once a week blogger, but I decided to participate in the A to Z blogging challenge. I liked the idea of creating a thematic alphabet (mine was evocative words) and the whole social networking bonanza surrounding it seemed like it might be good for me.

And it was! Part of the intended deal is for all us participants to read each other. So, I looked at least five blogs per day.  That in itself was an education in how diverse blogs and bloggers are. I saw many design choices I admired and read many interesting things on topics I might never have sought out otherwise.  Fascinating.

I found some new people to follow. A few you might want to check out are: Marlene Moss of On Writing and Riding; Chad A. Clark of The Baked Scribe; Holli Moncrieff of A Life Less Ordinary; Colin D Smith's self-titled blog; and Chris of The Pedestrian Writer.

Of course, as someone who hopes to eventually give up her day job and make it as a writer, I was also interested in building my networks. And I did. My twitter following grew substantially. I gained some direct followers of my blog, too. I'm hopeful that some of the people I made contact with will stay in my life and I will hear from them long after this exercise has ended.

So here's a round-up of all the posts I did for this challenge. I'm proud of all of these posts and  I'm very proud of some of these posts. It was good for me as a writer to explore the myriad of topics brought up by these evocative words. As E.M. Forster said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

A: Ambivalence
B: Benefit
C: Compromise
D: Drama
E: Elegance
F: Frenetic
G: Gross
H: Haunted
I: Individualism or My Inner John Wayne
J: Juxtapose
K: Kleptomanic
L: Languid
M: Mendacity
N: Negligent
O: Obsequious
P: Pulp
Q: Querulous
R: Rapacious
S: Seder
T: Tegucigalpa
U: Utopia
V: Villain
W: Wendigo
X: Xenophobia
Y: Yield
Z: Zealot

Saturday, May 3, 2014

#SaturdayScenes: Elopement Day

My google-friend +John Ward presented an interesting idea recently. He's asking writers to share a scene we've written each Saturday and label it with the hashtag #SaturdayScenes.

I'm always looking for ways to get my work out there to readers while I continue to hack my way through the publishing jungle, so I'm jumping on this bandwagon quick.  (It's a good band: they can do both ska and funk, and there's an amazing trumpet player; the wagon isn't bad either).

So without further ado: a scene from one of my current works-in-progress. The book is tentatively titled Cold Spring and I hope to have a complete draft finished by the end of this summer. It's a piece of historical fiction, set in the early nineteenth century in a small town in Kentucky and focusing on the relationship between two sisters who take two very different paths in life.

This scene is roughly one third of the way into the story and focuses on the younger sister, Freda. I hope you enjoy it!

At last the chosen day arrived. Freda rose very early, dressing in the cold of her bedroom one last time. She put on a new white and pale blue dress her sister had worn for her own wedding and re-made for her to wear as she wed Simon. The judge-uncle was on call and the pair was due to meet him in his offices at eight o’clock. Simon’s sister and brother-in-law would serve as witnesses. 

There was no mirror in the room for her to check her appearance in, but she knew that the dress fit her well and made her almost pretty. When she had tried it on at Lena’s house, she had turned in front of the long standing mirror in the bedroom, admiring the flow of the material around her slender hips.  The style was, perhaps, old-fashioned. Lena, after all, was hardly a woman of fashion, and, truth be told, neither was Freda herself. The design was Lena’s own, not copied from a magazine or made from a store-bought pattern. It was designed to flatter her sister’s body, while still preserving her modesty and freedom of movement. Freda could feel the love and support as well as the expense of the material. It was a rich gift indeed. 

The shoes were delicate boots, purchased as a gift for her by Simon’s mother.  Lena left them in the suitcase, donning her regular brown working shoes for the walk from the house and down the lane to where Simon was meeting her in his father’s store cart. She didn’t wish to spoil them with the clay from the farmyard. She touched the small cameo broach she had affixed to her camisole. She didn’t wear it in view because it was somewhat shabby and didn’t fit the look of her dress, but she was proud to have this small memento of her mother with her on her special day.  It was both her “something old” and “something blue.” Lena had pressed it into her hand on the dress-fitting day. 

“I wish I had something finer to give you, but this is all I have. It was Mother’s.” Emotion had filled Lena’s voice and Freda had thrown her arms around her sister in gratitude. Shows of emotion were rare from her sister and she knew better than to comment, but Lena seemed appreciative of the hug. She squeezed her sister’s hands and whispered, “You are lovely. Simon is a very fortunate man.”

So it was with a heart full of hope for the future that Freda crept down the attic stairs and into the living room of the only home she had ever known.  She hardly glanced at the room in her hurry to get to the door.  She was not a sentimental person and there was little here to inspire nostalgia on her part.  She cared only for where her life might go from here and she was giddy with excitement. 

She might have walked out the door and never even seen her father sitting in front of the fireplace if his chair hadn’t squeaked. She always wondered afterward if he squeaked his chair on purpose or if he had intended to let her walk out the door and out of his life without comment. The creak of the wood slats of the chair caught her attention and she whirled around and saw him there. 

He was not in his usual chair, the soft one stained by years of tobacco use and spilled drinks. He was sitting in the hard-backed chair their mother had favored. Usually that chair sat empty. Freda could remember the ire she had raised in her father by sitting in it one evening.  There were few signs of mother around the house. Her few belongings had been packed away in the days after her death, and Gustav Wurth did not display any photographs, finding them off-putting. He said he didn’t like their eyes looking out at him from the walls. It made him feel watched. 

So, the chair was the one thing that represented the woman who had married Gustav and birthed and raised his children. Gustav often turned his chair toward the empty chair at night as if there were someone in it to talk to.  Those were bad nights, usually. Nights on which he drank too much and began to rant at the wrongs of his household, his children, this country and the world. Often his rantings were in German, which made them easier for his children to ignore. There was no one left living in the house who understood more than a few words of German. 

The fact that her father was sitting in her mother’s chair raised the hairs on the back of Freda’s neck. She couldn’t have said what she thought was going to happen, but the scene felt ominous.  His face was black with dark emotions swirling.  She couldn’t tell if he were angry or hurt or jealous, but she could feel the violent energy emanating from him like heat lightning streaking across the space between them. She sought to calm him. “Good morning, Papa,” she said, smiling as if she were pleased to see him. “Have you come to wish me luck?” 

The idea that her father was there to wish her well was beyond the scope of possibility, but Freda was hoping to escape unabused. She’d give him the chance to take the high road and hoped he might comply. He couldn’t stop her now. Simon was just around the bend of the road with the cart that would drive her to her new life as his wife.  She was moments from her freedom. She could afford largess.  A glimmer of hope sparked in her heart that her father would let go his stubbornness and continue their relationship, that her marriage did not have to mean she’d never see her father again. 

Wordless still, Gustav Wurth reached behind him to the fireplace front. Freda was puzzled. What could he be doing? She withdrew in horror when she saw the gun he brought back to his lap.  Was he planning to shoot her? “Papa!” she cried. “What are you doing?”

He looked at her, beseechingly. His eyes were full of unshed tears and she pitied him.  “Put down the gun, Papa. There’s no need for it now.” Her voice was kind and soft, full of all the love she harbored for him despite the years of indifference and abuse, full of the desire to earn his esteem and love in return. 

“He is waiting for you?” he asked. He spoke quietly.  Somehow that was more frightening than his yelling would have been.  She nodded, clasping her hands at her waist like one hand could lend strength to the other. “And you intend to leave me for him?” She nodded again, tears rising to her eyes. He had left her no other recourse.  He was the one who made her choose. Simon would never have asked her to abandon her father if he had left the smallest room for her happiness. 

“I hope, daughter, that you can live with your decision,” he said, his voice grave. He picked up the gun from across his knees and turned it on himself. Before Freda could say a word, he had aimed it at his own throat and pulled the trigger. 

Freda blinked, disbelieving. Her throat was completely dry and she felt frozen. There was no sound. It was as if she had gone deaf. Then, she heard the dripping as blood dripped from her father’s cheek and ear. She dared to look. The left side of his face was a mass of blood and gore. Heat flowed back into her body and suddenly she could move again. She ran to the kitchen and grabbed clean rags. She pressed them into the wound, crying out and screaming. She had no idea what she was screaming, what words, if any, cleared her throat. 

Her father stayed slumped in the chair, shockingly still, the rifle at his feet where it had fallen. His eyes darted around the room and his chest rose and fall in hitching breaths. He was alive! She pressed against the wound with her body, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding.  Her mind whirled, trying to figure out what she could do. She had to get help, but if she let go her hold, he would bleed to death. 
Suddenly, the front door flung open. Simon was there in the doorway, his face and hair wild with fear. Relief flooded her.  “Freda!” he yelled, not seeing her in the still-darkness of the room. “Freda! Are you all right? I heard a gun!”

Finding her voice, she responded. “It’s Father.”

His hand on his chest in what she would later remember as an almost theatrical gesture of concern, Simon rushed to her side.  Taking in the scene quickly, he asked, “What’s happened?”

“He shot himself, Simon. We’ve got to save him!” Freda fought a wave of nausea, feeling the pulsing of her father’s wound under her hand. The rags were becoming soaked and wet in her grip. 

A resolution grew on Simon’s face.  In a flash, Freda saw the strength in him and was shocked to find it reminded her of her father.  He turned her face towards him, “I’ll fetch the doctor. You can do this. Keep pressure on the wound.”

As quickly as he had flown into the room, he was gone. Slowly, Freda became aware of her surroundings again. She felt the pain in her hands from applying pressure with all her strength. Looking down, she saw the splatters and smears of fresh red blood on her white gown. She heard the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. She smelled the acrid smoky smell of the gun still lying at their feet. She tasted blood and had no idea if it was her own or her father’s. She heard the wet, elastic sound of her father’s mouth opening and closing and the quiet moaning sounds he made. “Shhhh! Papa, don’t try to speak. Simon has gone for the doctor.” Her voice shook, but had a steadiness to it all the same. She thought to herself, “You can do this, Freda Elena. You are strong. You are strong. You are strong.”

The minutes stretched out endlessly. Freda shifted her body to the other side of her father’s head, pulling his head against her stomach. The gesture was a tender one, and Freda began to cry in earnest, sobs wracking her body. 

Then, Simon was back, the doctor flying through the door behind him, a hand on his hat as if what mattered was keeping the hat upon his head. He pushed a protesting Freda away from the patient, instructing Simon to get the woman out of the way. It took her a few seconds to comprehend that it was okay to let go, that the doctor would treat him now. She collapsed onto the sofa where Simon had led her, exhausted. 

Simon was a flurry of movement, running back and forth between holding her on the sofa, trying to offer her reassurance,  and fetching whatever the doctor asked for.  The stove had not yet been stoked for the day and there was no hot water. He had to get her to explain how the ancient machine worked. She did so, mechanically, her voice seeming to come from some distance away. 

Freda felt cold, though she knew it had been a temperate morning.  She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Now that Simon was here, she could let go and her mind felt cloudy and distant. Her eyes didn’t seem to want to focus.  A feeling of unreality took her over and she wondered if this were a nightmare. She earnestly hoped she might wake soon and start the day over again. 

The sounds of medical activity continued behind her. Her father had been moved to the floor and a lamp brought to light the area. Freda felt as if there had been a jump forward in time. She had no idea when the changes to the scene had taken place. Her mind was a muddle of horror and confusion.  Part of her wished the man dead, and part of her was frozen by guilt that she had caused him to take this rash action. 

She turned away from her father and the doctor, looking instead at the sunlight on the other side of the door, which had been left hanging open to let in more light. Her suitcase lay next to the door, the cardboard splattered with red dots. The light outside was a rosy pink, a joyful color. It would have been a beautiful day for a wedding.