Insights and Inspirations

After a four-month absence from my work-in-progress, “Penelope’s Pot,” I started up again. This story,  set in 2036, is a retelling of the Odyssey, but with Penelope at the center of the action. Instead of a stay-at-home mom, my Penelope goes across a forbidding Waste Land in search of her presumed-dead husband.

Note to self: starting over is more painful than starting a creative project. Resolved: to stay connected daily with this story, even if on some days I can only manage a 15-minute check-in.

Why a daily check-in? I know from experience that any focus and attention will keep the creative fire stoked. Some days, I spend hours. Night before last, though, I could only manage 20 minutes. Doesn’t matter. I’m not in a 10-K race; my creative engine is built for the long haul. If I check in daily, my subconscious will continue working in the background, giving me images, clues and insights.

What are the benefits of a daily check-in?

  1. The joy of spontaneous insights and inspirations, which contribute to the story, and make it beautiful and interesting. These sparks usually happen when I’m walking the dog or waking up in the morning, or meditating. I remember them, write them down, and then let my subconscious find a way to use them. Some of them go into the “Spark”file —for later use in another place or another story.
  1. When I check in on my project, serendipities occur—happy coincidences that enrich the story. For instance, I’ve been stuck on one faction of characters in “Penelope’s Pot”: the Benders. Originally, I imagined them as Waste Land bandits, in the vein of “Mad Max” movies (a series forever imprinted on my cinematic imagination). But then an idealistic streak appeared: what if the Benders sincerely believe they have a higher purpose in this dystopic landscape—to save the world from further destruction?

I knew the Benders’ lair would set in the Wasteland. After the west coast of California is destroyed by an asteroid, most of the Southwest has been abandoned and is now home to all kinds of eccentrics, outcasts, and bad guys.

And because Hombre and I once spent time in Death Valley, I researched the area, and discovered there’s supposed to be an underground city in that area. So, what if…?

Then, a couple days ago, I read an article on Minecraft  and got another insight. If my story is set in 2036, the Benders, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, grew up learning to work together by playing Minecraft online. Their idealism, combined with their creative tinkering and shared solution-solving, could be a powerful force for my story.

This process of creative evolution keeps me in the game, and helps me stay playful and motivated. I’ve done the grunt work of outlining, and character studies, etc. That gave me the framework for the story, but it’s not too exciting to plod along on the plot line. I trust that the framework is embedded in my imagination, and therefore I’m free to stay open to inspiration and insight.

The Panamint Mountain range, near Death Valley, and according to legend, the site of an underground city

Boys in the Backyard

My family has a glut of boys. And those boys, being of the age when girls are repulsive to even contemplate — have friends who are — you guessed it — other boys! Here’s a shot of my nephews and their friends. Liam’s holding his birthday pinata, which was strung and brutally whacked in record time. The bull’s head dangled from the rope mid-yard. Maybe it’s still there.

Boys in the Backyard

 

 

 

At the Century Ballroom

Old brick building, steep wooden stairs, people of all ages and ilk spilling from ballroom or bar. At 8:30, the salsa lesson starts, led by a plump woman in black who divvies us into “Leads” and “Follows.” Leads on the outside ring; Follows the inner. Goes without saying the Follows are We the Ladies. Some of us done up to make our sex proud. Lovely to see Seattle women dress up. The men? Ah, a mixed bag. It’s like a Sock Hop meets Dancing With the Stars. The men are gawky, nervous, handsome, swarthy, pasty. They have firm handshakes; they offer tentative apologies in advance for stepping on toes. They are petrified of getting it wrong; they are graceful. Some are openly happy to be in a ballroom full of women. Some are too self-conscious to have fun. It’s a weird communal form of sexual democracy. Thank god, though, we only have to spend two minutes per partner before we obey teacher’s command to “Rotate!”

I count the minutes ’til the lesson is over. Then dancers take the floor and Hombre and I watch the beautiful and the slick. We bust a few steps, a few tunes and conclude that we suck at salsa. Why is such a simple step is so hard to get right? Hombre disappointed that all his hot yoga hasn’t translated into supple hip movements. Our friend shows us the steps during the dance, and we both stare at friend’s feet like dumb rabbits. ‘Feel the music,’ friend says. I feel it! Love the syncopation and intricacy of salsa. But the feeling doesn’t make it down to my feet. Or, rather, I keep throwing in an extra step or two.

I’d probably suck a lot less at salsa if I kept my mouth shut. I feel the need to shout over the music, to carry on a sporadic, half-heard conversation with my dance partner. The best dancers let their bodies speak.

Still, suck or no, it’s exhilarating to be in a crowd of dancers. The older men, the seasoned Leads, are economical and elegant in their movements. The men are there to dance, and they scan the ladies, looking for partners.The women are there to dance, too. Again, it’s that sexual democracy in action.

Afterwards, our friends and I say, Yes, yes, we’re going to take salsa lessons, we’ll be out there on the ballroom floor someday, swaying and twirling. We’ve told ourselves this before, but maybe this time, it’ll take.

Overheard at Julia’s

Hombre and I sit at a window table and behind me are two guys and a woman, all in their 30s. One guy holding forth – he has a resonant voice that intrudes upon our calm. He’s some kind of property management professional and he’s critiquing the performance of a woman he recently hired. He goes into great detail, and with great difficulty, I manage to tune him out. Finally, ten minutes later, he’s almost done. Last thing he says is that at least she brought some experience to the job. He shudders at the thought of having to train someone from scratch.

A short silence. The woman says, “She seems nice. (pause) Is she married?”

“No. Long-term boyfriend, though.”

Another short silence. Woman says, “You know what? How come she has a picture of her boyfriend on her desk and you don’t have a picture of me on yours?”

Awkward silence. Guy says, “Have you seen my desk? It’s overflowing.”

The woman goes on to joke that she’s going to give him a picture of her framed in a giant red heart. Later, as we leave, she’s talking about wedding favors and color schemes. He’s her fiance. He’s silent, spent.

What’s in a Name?

Kathryn, Rosie, Lisa and I are starting a band and since we’re going to play a gig next week, we have to find a name. For the past four days, we’ve been texting names back and forth. At first, little bubbles of text didn’t seem like a good way to brainstorm. If we were able to meet and shoot the bull, it might have taken less than four days to come up with a name. Also, it’s easy to misunderstand the mood or subtext behind another person’s words if you can’t see their face.

But since Kathryn lives in Portland and the rest of us are in Seattle, texting became an extended way of brainstorming. We had lulls, breaks for work, sleep, or life, and bursts of inspiration.

Do you know how hard it is to come up with a band name? All the good ones we came up with seem to be taken. Maybe it was hard for me because we haven’t played together that much, and we’re still putting songs together.

At first, I was just hoping we wouldn’t have a stupid name. I figured since Rosie and Kathryn started the band, they had more say in the final name. Also, since I’m a writer first, and a fiddle player second, my mind went to movies and books when searching for a cool band name. Genet (not just a great playwright, but also the name of a cute little South American and South African cat). Ripley: the name of one of my favorite movie heroines. Here are some other names I came up with: The Ghost Chiles, Rain City Runaways, My Past Life, Coming Soon, The Heart Is a Lonely Drummer, Hellacatz, Thunder Bliss, Surreal Housewives, Cheeky Angels, Rosie and the Metros.

Flinging names out like pasta on a kitchen wall. None of them stuck. Kathryn had ideas, Lisa offered a couple. They didn’t stick either. Then Rosie went to her creative well and started throwing out all these names, some of them great. We googled them and most of them were already taken by other bands.

Except for one. Somewhere in the recesses of her brain, Rosie found the name Mystic Oven. I admit, the name didn’t grab me at first. But Kathryn thought it was subtle, cool, something Frank Zappa would have come up with.

We’ll see. We’re Mystic Oven, kind of by default. I’m not crazy about the name, and I don’t know if Lisa is, either. That’s okay. Maybe it’ll grow on us. Or, maybe we’ll change it. One of the cool things about being in the band is I don’t have to control every aspect. Writing a novel is ten thousand times harder than playing fiddle in the Mystic Oven.

Fair Weather Fan?

I have a dirty secret: I’m a woman and I watch Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.” I’m fascinated by the team of experts explaining the games of the past week, with highlight footage of up-close-and-personal coach/player interaction. I don’t speak the lingo, so I feel like an anthropologist visiting a distant tribe.

Blame it on the Seahawks, in their current incarnation. They’ve hooked me into a sport I know little about. Football’s never been a big deal to me; I’ve never taken the time to understand it. If it weren’t for the Seahawks, I’d be ticking off a list of righteous reasons to despise the sport. Violence against women? Check. Violence to the future brainpower of those young players? Check. Greedy capitalistic owners gouging the fans? Check.

And yet: little by little, the Seahawks reeled me. I usually skim the sports section of the Seattle Times, so I noticed in 2010 that the team was replacing coach Holmgren with the laid-back silver fox, Pete Carroll. He’s a lot easier on the eyes than Holmgren, who always struck me as one bacon cheeseburger away from a heart attack. Then the Seahawks started a young quarterback who vaguely reminded me of one of my nephews. A smart, earnest, impossibly optimistic young guy. I remember the playoff game in December 2012. Hombre and I were driving home from skiing and we turned on the radio to hear the last ten minutes of the game. It was so exciting we pulled over on the westbound shoulder of I-90 to listen. The Seahawks lost, but QB Wilson was so pumped. He was telling fans to wait and see what the team was going to do in 2013.

Yeah, okay. I started paying attention. I remember a friend asking me in 2013 if I was a Seahawks fan. I said, “I am this year.”

Not a great fan, I admit. Football players are so armored and their faces are hidden. I don’t always know one player from the other (exceptions: #3 and #24), and I don’t know what their roles/positions are. Honestly, when I tune into a game, it takes a few minutes to figure out which team we are. I’m not going to shell out forty-plus bucks for a sweatshirt. I’m not going paint my face, or dye my hair blue and green.

When the Seahawks play badly (see, the first 54 minutes of the Packers/Seahawks playoff), I can’t bear to watch. I run around the house doing odd chores to work off my nervousness. If it’s a home game, I keep an ear cocked for the Twelves roaring and then run into the living room to watch the replay. Even when they’re comfortably ahead, I’m anxious for them. Yet when they’re playing brilliantly, I jump and shriek like a teenage cheerleader.

The Packers/Seahawk playoff two weeks ago was 54 minutes of agony and six minutes of ecstasy. The Packers were playing so well, and we couldn’t get moving. I figured we’d play badly the first half and kick ass in the third quarter. Which didn’t happen. Two minutes into the fourth quarter, I lost faith and went to the store. Safeway was practically empty and eerily quiet. On the way home, I told myself the playoff was only a game, god damn it. Stop feeling shitty! Get over it! Tomorrow’s another day, etcetera. Why the hell did I care so much?

As I parked in our driveway, some neighbor shot a gun or exploded a firework. A Packer fan, I figured. Game over. Sigh. Went inside with my groceries, and Hombre was watching the game. It was still on! You missed a great play, he said. We’re only five points behind.

What happened next was a series of impossible moves that left me in a daze and took three days to absorb. I watched replays of those last few minutes to figure out what the hell happened. Our improbable win was a moving testimony to crafty endurance. Coming from Albuquerque (hello, Isotopes?) I’m proud to live in a city that has a team with so much New-Age, old-fashioned grit and badassery.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. For days, I’ve been saturated to the gills with Seahawk talk, articles, stats, photos, gossip. I feel pretty serene about the outcome. I’ve decided that whichever team wins today, nothing can top the Seahawks’ back-from-the-dead moves in their playoff against the Packers. I may be a fair-weather fan, but I’ll always remember and be inspired by what the Seahawks did in those last six heart-stopping minutes.

Of course, I tell myself that now. We’ll see if I can hold on to that serenity once the game starts!

Big Wind

A Tree at St. Ed's

(photo of downed tree in St. Edward’s Park, Kenmore WA)

Sunday morning and I slowly wake to the sensation of being in a storm at sea. I’m in bed, not a boat, and not being tossed by waves. What haunts is the sound of wind moving through the evergreens that ring our property. The firs and cedars look to be three or four stories high and the gaps between them are filled in by scrappy alders, someday-queenly maples, and other upwardly-mobile deciduous trees. All along Catwhisker Road, you’ll find pockets of these combos—the year-round greens and their naked-in-winter comrades. Not to mention the fallen trunks, slowly rotting away. There’s a greenbelt behind our house, and it, too, is dense with the ever-living, the dormant, and the dead.

When the weather’s calm, I think of these big trees as our friends and sentinels. They give shade and shelter to untold numbers of birds, beetles and rodents. They’re solid and reassuring. If a drunk/texting teenager/upset woman/heart attack victim behind the wheel veered off Catwhisker Road and headed toward our house, the trees would put a firm stop to their trajectory. Which is good, because who wants to end up on the evening news with a video of a car’s rear end hanging out from what used to be our living room? (NOTE: this is on my internal list of Paranoid Possibilities which occasionally run through my head like background muzak.)

But when it’s windy, like this morning, the trees’ upper foliage amplifies the sound. The sentinel trees sway drunkenly and their trunks, which seem so solid, sometimes tilt at a worrisome angle. When it blows hard, I look around the property to see which tree seems most likely to surrender and crash to the ground. If one fell on our house while we were sleeping, would it crush us? (NOTE: this also is on my list of Paranoid Possibilities.)

The odds of this happening depend on how healthy the trees are. Apparently, an evergreen can look just fine on the outside but be rotting away on the inside, like Dorian Gray. Then a big wind comes along and topples it. Also, for such impressive upper-story growth, an evergreen has shallow roots. When the ground gets spongy with rain, the roots give way.

The wind has died and the skies are clearing. I’ll take Reba for a walk and see what debris has been scattered overnight. There’s always something—a gnarly tree limb frosted in moss, a bouquet of green needles, a carpet of rust-colored cedar needles. I walk the ring of evergreens and check out their trunks. They seem solid enough. I’ll take my chances and live with these beautiful monsters.

“Annie” or “Unbroken”?

Oakland on Christmas Day. Visiting my son, his wife and two boys. Family tradition sez we go to a movie on Christmas Day. (We’ve seen some very un-Christmas-y movies, like Oliver Stone’s “JFK”).

On our way to the theater, the adults were debating whether to see “Unbroken or “Into the Woods.” Nat, 10, spoke up. He had a say in what movies we saw, didn’t he? Adult silence. He made a pitch for “Annie.” More adult silence.

I sure didn’t want to see what looked like a saccharine, bombastic musical. Nat insisted it’d be a great, movie-going experience, but he couldn’t stir up enough excitement. I was trying to let him down gently, and to figure out another movie choice that we adults could tolerate. Then I realized: I was the grandma in this particular situation. Let son and his wife and her sister go see an adult movie. I’d go to “Annie,” and might not enjoy it, but it would be a chance to hang out with Nat and Gil. With no pressure from me, Hombre ditched the heavy movies and came along with us. Turns out he really liked Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan.

My writer-brain kept picking apart the “Annie” script – the actors deserved better. Especially Quvenzhané Wallis, who was down-to-earth, smart and compassionate as Annie. I liked the music, but wished they hadn’t auto-tuned it until it was all flat and bland. Mostly, it was long, and I kept glancing at Nat and Gil to see if they liked the movie.

They were mesmerized by the big screen. And that was the most enjoyable part of the movie for me. I remembered Nat and Gil’s dad when he was their age. He and his sister would come home from a movie and tell me the plot, blow by twisty blow. I marveled at their memory, their enthrallment with the story. And now, decades later, I enjoy Nat and Gil’s complete absorption in “Annie.”

When the movie ends, we wait in the lobby for the adults to emerge from “Unbroken.” My son, his wife and her sister look drained. Maybe I got the better deal on our Christmas Day movie.

Cat Whisker Road

CALEB

My husband and I have lived on this busy road for almost 15 years. It’s now a two-lane road funneling commuters from Snohomish, East Bothell and Eastern suburbs into Seattle. Maples line the street, forming an canopy of shade over the road. In the fall, when the leaves turn wine and red, orange and yellow, drivers stop, park their cars, and get out to take photos.

Cat Whisker Road is a residential street lined with homes and apartment complexes. The speed limit is 35 miles per hour, but drivers barrel along faster than that during rush hour. Children and seniors live on this street, not to mention dogs and cats. Last summer, the road was four lanes. A bicyclist walking his bike in a cross walk was fatally struck by a pickup. Caleb, the bicyclist, was 16 when he died. The truck driver didn’t see him in the cross walk until it was too late.

Since his death, Caleb’s family has kept fresh flowers, artificial orchid leis, live plants, stuffed animals and love notes at the accident site. Shortly after the memorial, an old bike spray-painted white — a ghost bike — appeared. It’s still chained it to a maple trunk near the memorial.

The City of Kenmore, after years of ignoring the crazy traffic and poorly maintained sidewalks, hurriedly redesigned the traffic lanes. At the base of the road, off of Bothell Way (a major thoroughfare), the four lanes remain, but now they quickly merge to two lanes well before the walkway and busy intersection. The City installed yellow lights on the crosswalk that flash when a pedestrian presses a button to cross. Still, it’s a gamble for someone on foot to cross Cat Whisker. For a long stretch, there are no stop signs, so it’s easy for a driver to pick up speed without thinking.

When I walk my dog past Caleb’s memorial, I check it out to see if new plants and flowers have been added. It’s winter now, and the plastic flowers have faded. Caleb’s photo, nestled among the flowers, has faded a little, too. He must’ve been a cool kid. He has an open, genial expression, with clear skin and eyes.

We are in such a hurry to get from one place to another. At the same time, we’re bored with driving, and distract ourselves with radio, breakfast, putting on makeup, texting, and phone calls. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for the young man whose truck plowed into Caleb. How does your own life change after you’ve accidentally taken someone else’s?

Ghost Bike

Ghost Bike

No-Toy-Land

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The only Bible story I cared for as a kid was the Nativity. Before there was grown-up Jesus, there was Baby Jesus and that baby, lying in a lowly manger, got some amazing presents. They weren’t the kind of things I’d have chosen for a kid. (By the way, what happened to those gifts? Obviously, a little baby can’t use what the Three Wise Men brought him. Did Mary and Joseph use the gold to buy a home in Nazareth? Did they re-gift the frankincense and myrhh?)

The Christmas story impressed me deeply, especially the part about the gifts. The ritual of adults giving presents to kids was a replay of giving homage to the miracle of birth. As a child, I never worried about my parents’ frantic shopping anxieties over the holidays. I had steadfast faith that they would deliver the goods, because that’s what adults were supposed to do.

One Christmas, I wanted a Betsy Wetsy doll and a toy oven. And lo, both of them appeared.

Betsy Wetsy’s charm was her ability to pee. She came with a tiny bottle, which you filled with water and stuck in her mouth. The water dribbled through her plastic innards and came out through a discreet hole in the doll’s labia-free genital area. Then you got the thrill of changing her teensy diapers. I didn’t understand Betsy Wetsy’s appeal until recently, when my 6-year-old niece entertained me with YouTube video cartoons of babies peeing in their bathwater. She laughed out loud at each video, and she must’ve shown me a dozen. Maybe, just as little boys are fixated on poop and farts, little girls have a subliminal fascination with pee.

The other toy I wanted and got was a miniature pink oven that came with wee boxes of cake mix and frosting. I woke up early the morning after Christmas and, while my parents slept, tore open all the tiny boxes of cake mix, made up the batter and stuck it in the toy oven. Since it’s sole source of heat was a light bulb, the glob didn’t cook well, or long enough, and the result was a half-baked mess. So I mixed up all the frosting and ate that from the bowl. When all the boxes of mix and frosting had been opened, I lost interest in the oven. The wanting trumped the having, as far as the oven was concerned. I’m sure it got banged up, scraped, streaked with crayons or whatever other substances we kids got hold of. The five of us were merciless with our toys. A dainty Victorian doll, meant to perch serenely on a shelf in a little girl’s room, wouldn’t stand a chance in our house. The Betsy Wetsy eventually lost her hair and head to several science experiments.

The golden years for getting toys are between the ages of four and eleven. That gives a kid eight full seasons of anticipation and excitement after each Thanksgiving. Eight years of perusing Sears and Monkey Ward catalogs. Eight years of raptly watching toy commercials on Saturday cartoon shows. Eight years of progressively more complex toys: baby dolls, fancy dolls, toy appliances, tricycles, games, puzzles, tinker toys, Lincoln logs, Legos and Erector sets, crafts, hula hoops, roller skates and the grand prize, a bike. Oh sure, you got sensible gifts from adults who don’t live with you day to day and hear your incessant clamoring for toys. Those adults, your grandparents and aunts, don’t know what you want and they don’t have the obvious common sense to ask your parents. Those adults give you sweaters and slippers and nightgowns. But in your golden years of gift-getting, those adults are the exception, not the rule.

Until one Christmas, when you cross the invisible line into an uneasy territory called No-Toy-Land. Suddenly it becomes unseemly of you to ask Santa for toys. Your parents give you that gentle “oh really?” frown. They spout platitudes about how it’s better to give than receive. From then on, ALL you get for Christmas is sweaters, slippers, nightgowns, and later, dresses and bath sets.

No-Toy-Land was the worst of two worlds: no more toys, but no real grown-up freedom, either. Instead, you’re still using your training wheels for adulthood.

Today, when I shop for Christmas presents for my young grandsons, nieces and nephews, I remember those golden years of living in ToyLand, and I get a vicarious joy from trying to get them what I think they want (Thanks, Amazon wish list!).