Now you've got the chance
You might as well just dance
Go skies and thrones and wings
And poetry and things.
--Neil Halstead

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

French Lessons

Hair: Personal adornment or personal
curtain? Eleanor is partial to what I
call the "Cousin It" look.
Eleanor, my eldest child, is a high school freshman in her first semester of French I. Learning a foreign language is challenging for the shy, because teachers insist on making you practice, which requires you to actually speak out loud in class. (I know, right? As any true book nerd could tell you, the whole purpose of learning a foreign language is so that you can correctly pronounce foreign words in your head when the characters in that book you're reading use them.)

So, French is a struggle for her, not academically but socially, and she is a little bit intimidated by this whole talking thing. I empathize with her completely--I took four years of high school French, followed by two years of college French, stayed with a French family for a week my junior year of high school and spent six weeks studying in Paris in college...and I was still intimidated by the thought of actually applying that knowledge by talking to real people.

So I told her the story of the shining moment I learned to really speak French, fluently and with confidence.

It was 1992, and I was studying abroad in Paris in my final summer in college. Overachiever that I was, that would put me at the ripe old age of 20.
Le sigh. Eleanor is closer to 20 than I am. So are Bruce and Betty.
Actually, so is Bob Cat. Damn. I need wine.

Anyway, I mostly hung out with two girls named Rachel and Leslie. The three of us were independent and adventurous, but of the three of us, I was the only one who spoke French.

We were encouraged to explore the city;
however, we were strictly forbidden to
go to Pigalle, the shady red-light district
of Paris. I swear, us getting off the Metro
at the one place in Paris we were forbidden
to get off the Metro was a complete
accident, but the fact that we stopped for
photos before getting back on probably
speaks volumes and may explain the
anecdote that follows.
We decided one weekend to take a trip to Mont St. Michel, on the northern coast of France. Mont St. Michel is a monastery perched on a picturesquely remote island. So, being the designated French speaker, I was in charge of purchasing our train tickets.

Me: We would like 3 tickets to Mont St. Michel.

Train Ticket Guy: There's a train that leaves at midnight, stops at Caen, and then arrives at Mont St. Michel.

Me: Is that midnight Friday or midnight Saturday?

Train Ticket Guy: Midnight Friday.

Me: Perfect!

So, we three young ladies in our backpacks show up at midnight Saturday, which is of course, the time after 11:59 PM on Friday night. You may be able to see where this is going, in which case you're ahead of us.

A train actually arrives at midnight, quelling my last lingering fears about how that conversation with the Train Ticket Guy went. We make it to Caen and look for our connection. It is not until 2 p.m.


As it turns out, every night at midnight there is a train from Paris to Caen. But the immediate connection to Mont St. Michel only happens on weekdays, i.e., right after the 11:59 PM that happens on Thursday. Thankfully, no one was too mad at me, realizing that it was pure madness for any civilized country to schedule a train departure for midnight. Had any parent or responsible adult known our predicament, they would have suggested a hostel or hotel; however, as mentioned, we were young, independent, and adventurous and felt that that would be a poor use of money that could otherwise go to wine.

Speaking of peeing in the park, this is one
of my favorite statues (at Fontainbleu).
I love the dogs' expressions. Diana the
Huntress is all power and energy and
doing the Queen of the Hunt thing, while
the dogs are like, Meh, I gotta go.
So we decided to spend the night in the train station, obviously. You meet all kinds of people at a deserted train station after midnight; fortunately, none of them killed us. We met a young couple going to "meet the parents." There was a large, loud, drunk group of creepy guys who kept trying to hit on us. That was amusing for a while, but eventually we went back to the waiting room and slept on the train station floor. If I told you this was the only public waiting area I slept in on this particular trip, I'd be a liar. It wasn't the cleanest, either.

You don't exactly sleep in, when you're sleeping in a train station, so we got up at 6 and wandered around Caen. This happened to be the day of the local celebration honoring the Normandy invasion in World War II (it was June 6). The thing I remember most from Caen was at the festival, when a young mom suddenly stopped, pulled down her 2-year-old's pants, and swung him in the air so he could pee in the park.

Anyway, some hot cocoa and sightseeing later, we got back on the train and finally made it to Pomtorson, the town closest to Mont St. Michel, at which point, as the designated French speaker, it was my job to call the hostel and ask them to come pick us up. And it was the hostel's job to tell me that we were too far out of town and they weren't going to and we couldn't make them and we might as well just stay in town.

It was at this moment that six years of French finally paid off. I was tired. I had slept in a train station, gotten lost in a strange town I hadn't intended to visit. I had a very bad cold. I had had enough. So I let the desk clerk have it. I argued, vehemently, eloquently, rapidly, occasionally profanely, and above all fluently in French for an entire five-minute phone card. It was the culmination of my French education, which almost made up for the fact that I lost.

It probably goes without saying that we did not give up at this point. We did manage to find lodging in town, and had pizza at a restaurant that sold pizza with fried eggs on it, although none of us ordered that (the limits of our adventurousness didn't go quite that far).

In the morning, we walked to the depot to rent bicycles to ride to Mont St. Michel, a distance of some 7 km or so. Unfortunately, the bike rental place wasn't going to open for another 5 hours. So, naturally, we hitchhiked. After walking a couple of kilometers, we got picked up by an empty tour bus and the driver lectured us about the dangers of hitchhiking all the way to Mont St. Michel.
Mont St. Michel. For some reason, other people had no problem reaching it in much less dramatic ways, as evidenced by the fact that we ran into one of the other people from our group there. Also, as evidenced by the fact that Sunday mass was super crowded, and it is probably safe to assume that none of those people had to hitchhike on an empty tour bus.
In hindsight, I was like the worst tour guide EVER.

So, as much as I might hope that Eleanor gets over her shyness and becomes fluent in French...I have to say, I hope she becomes fluent in a more traditional manner, by speaking in the safe, well-lit, climate controlled classroom environment and that she never, ever takes a train leaving at midnight.

Me, on the left at Chateau de Azay-le-Rideau.
Ah, 1989!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Domovoi in the Oven

I read an amazing book last weekend, The Bear and the Nightengale, by Katherine Arden. And I mean 'amazing' not in the sense of 'really great' or 'awesome sauce,' as we use it today, but in the original, medieval sense"overwhelm or confound with sudden surprise or wonder." 

The surprise and wonder come from the fairy tale story, with its beautiful setting and magical creatures. The best of fairy tales, and this is one, evoke those feelings.

The confounding and dreamlike confusion comes from being thrust into the completely foreign world of medieval Russia, in the far north, at a time when Christianity was new and the same people went to church on Sunday and left crumbs for household spirits.
Reading the book feels like you're sitting around the fire with Vasilisa, the herione, listening to her nurse's fabulous tales of the Winter King, being amazed while the winter wind howls outside. Under Arden's telling, you can feel the winter wind and the struggle to survive, where the lives of the whole community lie on the knife's edge between survival and starvation. 

There are many things to love about this book. One is the very human complexity of the relationships. The wicked step-mother is no caricatured Disney villain. She is ripped from relative luxury in the Kremlin and sent to marry an older man in the wild and freezing north and her 'madness' comes, in an odd sort of way, from the best of intentions. Her daughter, Vasilisa's step-sister, is beautiful but kind, in a way that fairy tale step-sisters seldom are, and she loves both her mother and Vasilisa sincerely. In general, each member of the extended family is trying, in their own way, to do what is best and to take care of each other--but, as in real life, intentions and actions get horribly muddled. It is a complex, nuanced characterization of family. The plot is well crafted and suspenseful as well.

But the true protagonist of the novel, and the reason it amazed me so, was the landscape. In an interview with Krista Tippett of On Being, Irish philosopher John O'Donohue, speaking of his own landscape of Western Ireland, said, "landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape — landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time."

That is the the amazing part of The Bear and the Nightengale, the part that draws you in. The setting, the characters, the plot: all of these are shaped by and interact with the landscape. The people exist in a way that requires them to have transactions with the landscape, to negotiate the materials of safety and life, to watch it closely to see whether it is giving or taking away life. Thus, it is not surprising that the people believe in more concrete manifestations of the landscape, like the domovoi (household guardian) who lives in the oven and, for an offering of crumbs, will help with the mending and housework and guard the door. (The domovoi was my favorite of the supernatural creatures...I totally want one, but I don't think our oven is big enough. Maybe they come in a modern teacup size? I'm with the step-mother on the bannik issue--guardian or not, having a spirit watching you take a bath would be a little creepy.)

The domovoi. Vladimir Chernikov
See what I mean? It would be awesome to have a domovoi. He could help with the dishes, make sure I didn't burn anything, and he could totally play with the cat and keep Bob from breaking stuff all the time. Although, maybe we already have a domovoi and that's why Bob breaks stuff at night, because he was chasing the domovoi. Maybe it isn't Bob stealing all the bread, it's just a hungry domovoi. Now I want to get a nightvision camera in my kitchen.

Per Mr. O'Donohue, "it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you." 

Rusalka, found here.
Wouldn't she make an awesome friend? She's
a great swimming coach, has a sweet comb,
and will mostly try not to eat people,
if you ask nicely and hang out sometimes. 
This sense of "real and watchful reverence" pervades the characters of Pyotr Vladimirovich's household, most of all in his daughter Vasilisa. As a child, she befriends a rusalka, a sort of succubus-like figure who entices and drowns young men, a friendship made of promises and gifts--in other words, a relationship. These spirits, these manifestations of the landscape, become her friends, alive and interdependent. It is a strange and beautiful thing to read about--in short, amazing.

The Bear and the Nightengale is an excellent tale that surpasses the standard of the genre by creating complex, nuanced characters and puts them in a landscape that has truly come to life. The culture of this period of history was fascinating and mostly unknown to me before I read it (pro tip: there's a glossary, which I didn't find until the end of the book and which would've been helpful sooner). I highly recommend it, particularly here in Texas when a hint of arctic air is most welcome.

For fun, here's a poem I wrote on topic a year or so ago. It is said that the rusalka was once a jilted lover, which explains her vengeance upon young men.


My eyes once were full of stars,
  My heart hooked to the rising moon,
Before he cast me into the river
  With his rough farmer’s hands,
Eyes dead like winter.

Red hair twined among the reeds
   While his face faded above
And the cold water claimed me.
   Madness here, beneath the river;
Time slithers in the silt.

Dark thoughts nibble at my toes.
   All I can remember is my hate.
I am waiting     waiting      waiting,
   Swirling vengeance in the current:
When you come to fish.

Come on, wade in:      closer.      There:
    Red hair twined among your ankles,
Pulling you in, dragging you to my bed.
   Men keep fishing, and I’ll keep catching--
Until one of them is him.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Strangeness of Safety

Mother was on the phone yesterday, talking to a cousin who was calling to check on us from California, and she told him essentially that we were worried for our Houston and San Antonio family and friends, but sad for the Corpus Christi area because that was our second home.

Me and Snoopy, a lovable mutt who liked chasing cars a bit too zealously, at Bird Island (by Padre Island) in 1979.
Technically, that's true for her, but not quite for me. For me, Corpus Christi was my first home; we moved there from when I was an infant and my memories of Houston come from when we returned in 1981. It's that part of the state that gives me the warm feeling of home whenever I pass through it--when I reach that point where the land flattens out  and the fields of summer wheat and cotton fan outwards in perfect strips of bronze or green toward the coast, the gulls circle overhead, and you can feel the salt hanging in the air. That, to me, is home. It was there that we rode out Hurricane Allen, as I recounted in April.

Me in the summer wheat on our property outside Sinton, 30 miles west of Corpus Christi.
Of course, my time in South Texas was longer than Mother's because I came back every summer (and for shorter visits in college and after) to visit my father, who continued to live in the area after Mother and I moved back to Houston. It is also more recent, because the kids and I visited Port Aransas and Mustang Island just last month, their first trip to the beaches where I grew up.

Betty on the beach in Port Aransas, July 2017
For several years, Dad lived in our old house outside Sinton. Dad worked first as a welder at his shop in Corpus Christ's north side, near the refineries, welding everything from water tanks to custom bolts to the above-ground pool at our old house in Corpus. My poem about spending days in the shop watching him work appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Illya's Honey.

Later, he got a job as a carpenter for Villers Seafood Company, which operated a fleet of shrimp boats out of Aransas Pass in the summers (and Ft. Meyer's Beach, FL in the winters). I became familiar with the docks in Aransas Pass, the VillCo boats chugging in and out, Dad's tiny tool shop, the sluices where the shrimp boats emptied the catch out of their holds for rinsing. I wrote about the Brown Bag #2, Dad's favorite watering hole, on my friend Susan Rooke's blog last September.
Dad on the docks where he worked.
Usually once a summer we went to Rockport, the next town up the coast from Aransas Pass, for a special dinner at the legendary Charlotte Plummer's Seafare, although by the last few years of his life, Dad had gotten extremely picky about his seafood (after years of getting it fresh off the boat) and just cooked it himself. I remember the beach shops in Rockport, painted brightly, using pocket money to buy sea shells, then feeling fancy, sitting down to eat at Charlotte Plummer's, picture windows and cloth napkins, iced tea and fried seafood.

I remember, too, crossing to Port Aransas on the ferry, hoping for dolphins. One time we got there early and I saw on the deserted beach thousands of living sand dollars, green and fuzzy, scattered on the beach, so many it was overwhelming.

I remember, too, helping my dad build a pair of houses in Aransas Pass. On wall-raising day, his shrimper friends no-showed (not unexpected; it was a Saturday, when most shrimpers are hung over) and he and I raised the walls ourselves, just the two of us. He pulled his van under the house, which was just stilts and a slatted floor, then hoisted the first wall onto the roof of the van. I climbed up the van and onto the 2x4's, balancing carefully, trying not to look down through the slats). He pushed the wall up and I (a 19-year-old English major with no upper body strength) had to balance, 12' off the ground, holding the wall in place while he anchored it to the base of the structure.

Of course, many of you who've never been to South Texas now know these places, too--Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, Rockport, Aransas Pass--from watching the news this week of Hurricane Harvey, which took aim at them all (punched them in the nose, to paraphrase Rockport's mayor), shredding the coastal towns with violent wind, rain, and storm surge.

After moving to Houston, Mom and I went through Hurricane Alicia, and my friends and I waded through drowned intersections and peered over into the drainage ditches. As an adult, I experienced Rita and Ike. I've been in Austin now for eight years, and it still feels strange to see a hurricane coming for Texas. I have a deep need to react, to prepare. My mental checklist gets activated and it makes me a little anxious, like the primitive part of my brain, the instinct that knows hurricanes and how you prepare for them, is at war with the rational part that knows a hurricane in Austin is really mostly just wind and rain, that we live on a hilltop in a sturdy house, that this one isn't my battle to fight. It's hard, though, because the presence of a hurricane makes me restless and itchy to do something, even when there's nothing to do.

"I need to gas up the car!" screams the primitive brain. "Okay, fine," soothes the rational brain with a hint of exasperation. "You'll need gas next week anyway. We'll get gas."

"Grocery store!" whines the primitive brain. "Sigh. Okay, but we're just shopping for Monday and Tuesday dinner here. NO STOCKPILING NON-PERISHABLE ITEMS," retorts the rational brain sternly. The primitive part sneaks a few staples into the cart.

"Secure the back yard," pleads the primitive brain. "Really?" the rational brain snickers, "For what? But, whatever. Pick up the wind chimes and the hammock and go inside, dammit!" The primitive part stacks the chairs neatly under the patio and tucks the potted plants against the wall and, mysteriously, curls up the garden hose and tucks it behind a bush.

So we stayed inside (minus a Saturday lunchtime fried chicken run, which felt absolutely scandalous to the primitive brain, which was still irrationally worried about unboarded windows) and watched the news and felt helpless, worried about the people we love and the places we've called home. I've Googled locations, but of course the odds are low that I'll find a post-Harvey picture of Bird Island, or the summer wheat fields outside Sinton, or the Brown Bag, or the docks, or the house at A-1 Hill Road.

I hope they're all still there, or will be again. I hope that the many other people who love those places and call them home are alive and safe and that they will return someday and make the Gulf Coast once again the place that lives in my memories, in my heart. In the meantime, I'll be here, strangely safe, the primitive part of me irrationally amazed that I have electricity, that our fence is up and our patio cover securely attached and the continuous (yet mostly gentle) rainfall is running safely downhill to Brushy Creek.

Love and blessings to all of you on the coast, and those in Houston whose ordeal is just beginning.

A poem from my newest poetry project:

Aransas summers spent dawdling suntanned on Villers' docks,
watching Dad nurse shrimp boats, welding and fiberglass,
binding barnacled hulls to secure rough men for rough work:
machinery buzz, seagull holler sounds; dead fish salt smells.

Rockport, a rare treat, more refined: crisp lawns, painted shops,
white houses, solid St. Augustine: manicured, mannered charm.

While the Gulf silently nibbled at bulkheads, feigning tameness.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Soda: It's Not Just for Decorating

So yesterday I started the day in a burst of productivity. I swept, dusted, and steamed the floors in the entire house. I even stopped procrastinating and put the rug grippers I'd gotten from Amazon a month ago onto the slippery rug in the entry way. It took a couple of hours, but the house was gleaming. Even Eleanor's room, which generally requires a rake, shovel, and wheelbarrow to traverse safely, was clean and organized. 

After Mother and I went to the Georgetown Library, I braved the grocery store, so that I could be done with errands. I came home with half a dozen reusable tote bags full of groceries, plus a 12-pack of Sangria soda to celebrate the end of summer. (The kids find it amusing that HEB sells a booze-flavored non-alcoholic drink. Although it is essentially carbonated fruit punch, they feel slightly rebellious when drinking it.) 

Now, it's Texas, it's summer, and it's 4:00 p.m. It feels like Satan's sauna. I can practically feel my produce wilting, my milk curdling, and my chicken sprouting salmonella in the trunk.
And no matter how hard I try to convince myself that, really, it's okay to make multiple trips into the house--it is not okay to make multiple trips out of the house. I sling all six bags over my left shoulder, grab the Sangria soda in my right hand and lurch, rather unsteadily, up the hill to the front door, which, at least, I've left unlocked for myself. 

I step up into the hallway. With my left foot in the air, the half dozen grocery bags give a little lurch. I put my foot down in a hurry and my weight shifts to the left. My right shoe goes up, but not far enough, and gets caught under the rug. The rug that I have just affixed rug grippers to, so that it doesn't move. Despite the 69 one-star Amazon reviews, it actually doesn't move.
If you're wondering, they work.
Entirely too well.
So, I'm precariously balanced, leaning, lurching and my foot is now caught under a persistently gripped rug. There's only one way this is going.
Down. It's going down.
Except, this cat is going to land gracefully on its feet.
Fortunately, the Sangria sodas broke my fall. I'll let you think about that one for a minute.

Sangria sodas. 

Broke my fall.

Remember back in the 80s, there was that comedian, Gallagher, whose shtick was that at some point in his show, he'd hit a watermelon with a sledgehammer and everybody in the first three rows got drenched in watermelon bits? It was pretty much like that. 

Because of the six bags in my left hand, my entire weight fell on my right hand. The soda carton slowed my fall and probably kept me from breaking my wrist, but the resulting impact created a lovely fuchsia splatter. All over my clothes. Pooling on the floor. Under the rug with its still-firmly-attached rug grippers. Three feet up every wall and the front door.

On the outside of the front door.
The soda eruption was so intense it violated the laws of physics
by spraying both the inside and outside of the same door.
So, after unpacking and then wiping down every grocery item and grocery bag, putting my clothes in the washer, taking a shower, washing the walls and door, and remopping the floors everywhere I walked doing those things, I asked Mother if the rug was washable, and it turns out she was pretty meh about the rug. Just trying to take off the rug grippers made the backing disintegrate. So it went into the trash, brand new rug grippers and all. Thus fully negating much of the morning's accomplishments.

And then we had a good laugh. For one thing, nothing else in any grocery else broke or shattered. Not even Betty's drinkable yogurt or the salsa. Not even the nectarines got bruised, and you can bruise a nectarine by picking it up, purchasing it, or even staring harshly at it.

Beyond that, though, I felt blessed. Weird, right? No, I feel blessed a lot, on an almost daily basis. For those of you who didn't spend much time with me six years ago, I slipped in the bathroom and fell, twisting my knee. I didn't have the resources to deal with it, so the knee injury chased the tail of an Achilles injury and after three years or so, I could barely walk. I couldn't stand more than a minute without wanting to collapse. I had to haul myself to my feet, then I'd stand there, holding on to something stable until I felt I could walk. My maximum shopping trip was two stores. I walked down stairs sideways, crablike, and hauled myself up them with the rail. A friend told me not too long ago that he'd felt guilty for inviting me to go out with them because I was clearly in so much pain. 

Since I finally (through a generous, and quality-of-life saving, gift from Mother) went through the (agonizingly, worse than a c-section painful) Airrosti therapy process and then continued building strength on my own, I can do many things I couldn't do, but I don't take any of them for granted. When I stood up and gave a presentation for an hour a couple of years ago, some staff came up afterwards and asked if I was okay because I looked a little flushed. And I had been thinking, "WOW! I just stood up! For an hour! THIS IS AWESOME!" I took the kids to SIX stores this tax-free weekend and then we went swimming. Every time I get in the car, I remember that a few years ago I had to use my hands to lift my legs into the car. And, when I fell yesterday, I got up. On my own. On the first try. Rather easily. And, yeah, I'm a little stiff--but I can move. Even though it's been a few years now since I finished Airrosti, every day something happens to remind me how far I've come and how blessed I truly am. Yesterday, oddly enough, it was pulverizing three cans of soda and walking away.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jeeves, Search the Rolodex!

As I may have mentioned (I can't remember), my memory is not the greatest. Not because of anything particularly concerning, like blunt force trauma from a falling piano or targeted brain cell attacks from an irradiated porcupine, but mainly because my brain just doesn't work right. There is definitely the attention span problem (also know as the "crack addled squirrel in my brain"), but there is also a memory processing error.

If something actually makes it past short-term memory, it's there forever. Unfortunately, much like sex, many more bits of information get launched in the direction of my brain than ever complete the journey, if you know what I mean. Kind of like wearing a brain condom. It's particularly bad with names, but also books, movie plots, entire conversations, and something like 90% of junior high (which is probably not a bad thing--I have the general impression that it sucked). One reason I resisted Facebook for so long is the awkwardness of making small talk with people who remember more about me than I do.
Childhood BFF: "Remember that epic time we hung out all day long, and went to the mall, and spent the night, and threw produce at the band director's car, and ran screaming down Beamer wearing bikinis and shaving cream?"
In some ways, it's like the rest of the world comes installed with the latest iPhone while I'm still using a Rolodex. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, during my 17 years with my current employer, I've worked in every department but budget and IT (if the State ever puts me in charge of either money or computers, we can be confident that it is a sign of some sort of apocalypse, probably involving goats in pajamas), and I've worked on the kind of projects that have introduced me to a lot of people. On a daily basis, people wave and say, "Hi, Diana," and I have to smile and wave while my brain frantically whispers to my little brain butler to spin through the Rolodex.

If you're wondering, the Rolodex is not organized alphabetically, because I can't remember your name. It's organized by where I met you. Obviously, this is significantly less reliable. Sometimes, I never make it past the smile-and-wave, and then, hours later, the Rolodex comes to a sudden stop and I go, "OH! You work in the SSLC Division....<pause>...Your name is Freda!" Which is not usually helpful, particularly if I'm talking to someone else at the time.

It made workgroup meetings a bit like
"Groundhog Day," except that whether or not
Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, I was
never, ever, ever going to remember her name
until the last 10 minutes of the meeting and
it was always going to be a complete surprise.
There was a six-month workgroup this spring where EVERY SINGLE MEETING I would look at this one particular woman for the entire two hours, frantically trying to remember who she was. And then, usually about ten minutes before the end of the meeting, my brain would go: "Sunset Project! You're the DSHS lady! You're Carolyn! I liked you!" I am reasonably sure I never said any of that out loud, inasmuch as they kept inviting me to the meetings, but the remarkable thing was, I never figured it out any sooner in the meeting, even by the sixth time.

Let's say a normal person gets on the elevator. There's one other person there, and, because they have a Smartphone Brain, they know who she is. The other person says, "Hi, Norma! It's Marsha's last day today. We're all meeting downstairs for lunch." And because the normal person knows who Marsha is, she goes, "Cool, Sally! Have fun!" They probably even make small talk the rest of the trip downstairs. I wouldn't know.

Here's what happened to me.
Person on elevator: Hi, Diana! It's Marsha's last day today. We're all meeting downstairs for lunch."
Me: <awkward pause> That's...good?
Followed by five floors of silence and a hasty exit by the other person.

Meanwhile in my brain, I've set my imaginary butler Jeeves to spinning the Rolodex.
Maybe THAT'S my problem! I have a cat brain butler! While I'm desperately
trying to make small talk with people I should know, Jeeves is licking his butt
or playing with laser pointers or chasing the crack-addled squirrel!

What I am NOT saying to the nice person on the elevator:

Who's Marsha? Is Marsha the lady who walked by a minute ago who looks familiar and says "hi" to me all the time, or is she someone else? Who *is* the lady who says "hi" all the time anyway, if she isn't Marsha? Do I know her from somewhere, or does she just look familiar because we use the same restroom, or is she just really friendly? Did I work with Marsha and you on some project? Also, who are you? The Rolodex says you're an attorney. Have worked on something together? Why do you know who I am and why do you think I know Marsha?

And then, thankfully, the elevator arrives at the first floor. I still don't know who the attorney is, or Marsha, but I hope she has a nice retirement.

So enjoy your super speedy indexed Contacts app brain, and its marvelous ability to pull up names, birthdates, spouses' names, and the entirety of sixth grade. I'll be over here dangling a fish on a string to get Jeeves to bring me that absolutely brilliant idea I had in that meeting on Friday and forgot to write down.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Last week, the book was in the mail. Actually, several books were in the mail, which seemed a little wasteful, but is what happens when you redeem a Half Price Books gift card online. This particular gift card was a birthday present from last year. I'll give those of you who know my birthday a minute to do the math (or check Facebook). Yep. I had an 11-month-old unredeemed birthday present.

Presumably what the IT department at Half Price Books
looks like, given that every website known to man
has been accepting gift cards since the Internet Stone Age,
or approximately 2008. 
How does that happen, you ask? A really sad case of stubbornness paired with a teensy weensy little attention span. I didn't want to go to a physical Half Price Books because you never know what you're going to find, which can be lovely and spontaneous, but I had a list I wanted to plow through. So I went to their website and it said that they were in the process of reconfiguring checkout so that one could pay with a gift card. Being stubborn about the precise list of books I wanted, I figured I'd wait. So I put the gift card in a drawer and checked in on the website every month or two until, finally, there was a gift card option, and then my gift card didn't have the right kind of magnetic strip and I had to go exchange it for a different one at a retail store. A less determined stubborn person would have attempted to use the gift card at the physical store, but this was a mission.
A fair representation of my brain, only the squirrel is
significantly more focused. I usually tell people I have
the attention span of a crack-addled squirrel. 
I got the new gift card, went home, put the gift card back in the drawer and got distracted for another few months. But, eventually, I remembered I had a working gift card, and the website was accepting gift cards, and, with all of the planetary forces now in proper alignment, I went onto the Half Price Books website and ordered an almost completely different set of books because I couldn't find the original list. Being Half Price Books, each individual book was shipped from a different store, so our mailbox proceeded to regurgitate books every day for a week. It was fun, while it lasted, and made the joy of the gift card linger for a full 11 months.

The first book to arrive was a book I'd checked out of the Round Rock Library a couple of years ago and had been wanting to reread, the fabulously hilarious Blonde Bombshell, by Tom Holt, and I'm happy to say that it was as funny today as it was two years ago, if not more so. If you've never read his many books, Holt is fascinated with the multiverse, time travel, and all those sci-fi conventions, except that rather than visualizing earnest time lords or heroes righting the wrongs of history, he accepts that we as human beings have a pretty much limitless ability to screw things up and finds the humor in that.

The bombshell in question is (of course) an actual bombshell, a sentient weapon of mass destruction sent by a planet of dogs to destroy Earth. The cast of characters include a brilliant drunk of a Russian scientist, a couple of undercover dogs having a hard time acting human, several Creatures of Pure Text, Barbie, several dead octopuses, and an extremely pissed off unicorn. The unicorn, who appears in the most incongruous of places, glares angrily at the protagonists, and speaks the single command: "Report!"

I highly recommend Tom Holt and his many books. Here's one of the passages I can share without giving away plot. Remember, the aliens come from a planet ruled by dogs. The name "Earth" becomes a little lost in translation and comes out "Dirt." Same thing, really.
"Sign here, please," the man was saying.
Sign. He'd heard the expression several times over the last few days. Apparently, it was what Dirters did to confirm their identity. He hadn't paid much attention, and he realised, rather awkwardly, that he wasn't quite sure how it was done. A brief search of his cultural database came up blank; lots of instances of when signing was necessary, but no actual how-to instructions. That wasn't good, because it was bound to be one of those species-specific things that you either know or you don't. Figuring it out from first principles wouldn't be easy. 
"Um," he said. "Do I have to?"
The man looked at him. "Yes, sir."
"Can't I just--" He remembered another phrase he'd heard. "Can't I just charge it to the room?"
"Yes sir, of course."
"I'll do that, then."
"Certainly, sir. Just sign here."
On the other hand, how different could it be? Ostar or Dirter, some things are always the same, because there's no other way of doing them. Eat with your mouth. Walk with your feet. Establish your identity with a readily dispensed sample of your unique scent and DNA, just like they do it on the Homeworld.
"Where do I sign?"
The man handed him a piece of printed paper. "Right here, sir."
"Fine," he said, and unzipped his fly.  
That, friends, is the sort of craziness that is normal in a Tom Holt book. Now, in addition to having no discernible attention span, I also do not have the best memory for books and movies. I immerse myself in them, but then I can forget the whole plot, usually within a few months. Books that I love, Harry Potter, Anne McCaffrey's Pern books (sexy dragons!), the Shannara books, Jenny Lawson's memoirs, Dave Barry's comic novels, and Tom Holt's zany brainy romps: I buy them so I can re-read and re-discover them, over and over. I'm happy to say that Blonde Bombshell was as funny this weekend as it was two years ago. Now that it has a home on my bookshelf, I'm sure I'll enjoy it again in another two years.

However, that's not all. The angry unicorn said to "Report!" after all, and it's always a good idea to obey angry unicorns. It's been a couple of weeks since my last post, what with kids and work and trips from one end of the state to the other (well, okay, from Dallas to Corpus, so maybe more like from one upper middle part of the state to a lower middle part of the state, but you get the idea). So here's a bonus, a zany not-so-brainy short story I've been working on. Enjoy!

Earth Girls Actually Aren't That Easy

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Hotel Room is an Edge Lord

So, this week, I'm meeting the Feds in Dallas. Despite the fact that people (okay, just JFK) have gotten shot doing this, despite the fact that I've managed to go almost 18 years without meeting Our Federal Partners*, here I am, a state govvie in a hotel surrounded by federal buildings, a mere seven blocks from The Grassy Knoll (Pro Tip: if you search for 'grassy knoll,' in Google Maps, it pulls up Dealy Plaza. Evidently a lot of people do this, not just slightly nervous state employees with a tendency to panic when surrounded by tall buildings.)

I was already a bit anxious about this trip before even checking in, for several reasons:

  1. The aforementioned anxiety about tall buildings.
  2. An unfailing habit of getting lost in downtown areas (Yes, I got lost this time. That is why it is an unfailing habit and not just a tendency. Diction matters, y'all!)
  3. Anxiety about being in a two-day meeting (I have the attention span of a crack-addled squirrel. Meetings are painful. I have to constantly will myself to concentrate, and it's exhausting. I'm always afraid I'm going to drift off and at the end of the meeting someone will say, "Dammit, Diana, you committed us to a 92% cost reduction and a relocation to Waco!", although if you read two posts ago, you'll know that a U-Haul to Waco is currently only $99.).
  4. Anxiety about the Feds, how fancy and serious they must be and whether, when I go through security, they will stop me and put me in jail for being 'just not quite right.' (Of course they can tell that sort of thing at screening--they're Trained Federal Observers!)
Feds. This is what I imagine
tomorrow's security check
will look like. Which would be
kinda okay because Will Smith
is fine.
Me. I don't think the Feds
would appreciate my shirt,
because Toby is clearly not happy
with his elected officials.

The good thing about the hotel is that one side of it is across from a grassy knoll (no, not that one...evidently, Dallas has a thing for grassy knolls, which is weird, because you'd think they'd want to forget about them), so at least I am not completely surrounded by tall buildings, just 75% surrounded.

The design of the hotel, though, is like a hipster and a business person had several rounds of craft beer culminating in a one night stand in a warehouse the night before the design meeting. (Life Lesson: Excessive amounts of craft beer lead to poor life decisions, millennials!) Without further ado, may I introduce you to Room 319:

The ceiling. It is probably supposed to look artistically stained and raw and concrete-y, but (1) that is a closer look than I ever want to have of my sprinkler pipes because now I'll be worried about fires, and (2) I've lived in enough cheap apartments to wonder what leaked and whether the ceiling will start falling in on me in my sleep.
So we have Urban Brick, plus, Unfinished Building Concrete, plus Ikea Particle Board all next to each other, in some sort of Sad Wallcoverings Ugliness Competition. Clearly, Unfinished Builiding Concrete was the first prize winner. I am really troubled by the two neon orange dots on the bottom. Are they there because that was the real unfinished building concrete and they are being super committed to authenticity, like the Christian Bales of interior design? Or did some decorator carefully go into each room and paint random dots on the concrete to make it look authentic? Did they still have self-respect the next day?
Okay, this. Seriously, WTF, hipster business people, WTF? So there's this weird little area behind the desks, sofa, and TV and in front of the window. There's a little ledge formed by the furniture. Why? Is this a corral for your toddler? Or Pomeranian? Do the housekeeping staff have cockroach races in there during the day? You have to pull back the curtains to see it, so you could hide stuff there. Like, if you committed a murder, you could totally store a body there and close the curtains and it might take several guests before anyone noticed. Although, Dallas is warm in the summer.
The shower has a window with a pull-up shade, just in case you are so extremely supportive of the federal government that you want to provide free entertainment to the federal employees across the parking lot. Also, there is this weird window ledge. It's not under the shower head, so it's not a shower bench. Just a window seat that happens to be located in the shower. I guess if you have too many people in your hotel room and everybody's getting squashed and you've already put the trouble makers behind the curtain with the dead body, you can always tell people to sit in the shower.
Here we have a pleather headboard topped by a print of map colors. Because you shouldn't have to choose between being kinky and coloring in your My Little Pony coloring book. Okay, never mind. You should totally have to choose.
And then there's this. It appears that there may be a slide connecting the fourth floor to the third floor. Either that or housekeeping is kinda lazy about moving trash bags down from the upper stories. Part of me is like, okay, maybe I should go up to the fourth floor and see if it has a sign ("You must be THIS tall to ride.") but part of me is concerned that when I get to the bottom the maids are going to be like, "What are you doing in our trash chute?"
So, here I am, in a hotel that is clearly aware that it is, as my children would say, an Edge Lord (we think they mean 'really cool, edgy' by this, but we could be wrong and they could actually be part of some feudal society based on edginess), waiting to be detained by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, which would at least stop me from losing focus and committing us to move to Waco. And the meeting hasn't even started yet!

*My last encounter with a Fed was in 2001 at a conference in Kerrville. There was a banquet. Before the banquet, several of us visited the bar (and by 'visited,' I mean more of an 'extended stay' situation), including our Federal lawyer and his wife. Our table found the banquet incredibly hilarious, probably significantly more hilarious than it actually was. The awesome thing was, our boss was furious but she didn't do more than come over and whisper at us to tone it down because we were at a table with a Federal lawyer, which is an instant pardon, everybody knows that.