Crawling Under the Porch

M. K. Waller

 

 

  • by M. K. Waller

Last week, Fran Paino described how family obligations can keep a writer from writing. My post describes an experience that happened several years ago. It’s similar to Fran’s–and at the same time, very different. 

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In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron  introduces the  Artist’s Date–a weekly solo “adventure to feed the soul and allow for continued creativity.” In other words, artists–including writers–need to play. At a writers’ retreat in Alpine, Texas, author Karleen Koen led students through a whole week of play. Returning home, I vowed to incorporate the Artist’s Date into my writing life.

It wouldn’t be difficult. Central Texas affords plenty of places to play: Longhorn Cavern State Park at Burnet, lavender fieldsin the Hill Country,  the Elizabet Ney Museum, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and the Japanese Garden at Zilker Park, in Austin are only a few.

But having just had a week-long Artist’s Date, I chose to start with a Writing Date instead.

“Lady Macbeth,” the Elizabet Ney Museum, by Ingrid Fisch, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Via Wikipedia.

Here’s how it went:

I woke at a reasonable hour and dressed to leave for my coffee shop/office.

Downstairs, doling out cat food, I realized I’d seen no cats. That was troubling. William usually slept late, but Ernest was an early riser. He often climbed onto my pillow and swatted my face, making me an early riser, too.

So I called, ran upstairs, searched, called some more. William, draped across his pagoda, opened his eyes and blinked but offered no help.

I ran downstairs, called, searched, dropped to my knees and peered under furniture. I ran back upstairs. Etc.

Finally dropping in the right place, I found Ernest under the bed, sitting in that compact way cats have, with all his feet nearly tucked in. His eyes were not warm and welcoming. When I tried to pull him out, he wriggled loose and ran into the hall and thence into the guest room and under that bed–a sure sign of a sick cat.

He reminded me of a get-well card I once sent to a great-aunt. On the front was a drawing of an orange tabby with a bored, Morris-like expression on his face, and the words, “Feeling poorly? Do as I do.” Inside it said, “Crawl under the porch.”

Ernest didn’t have a porch so he crawled under the next best thing.

I put batteries in the flashlight and girded my loins. Negotiating the guest room is not for the faint of heart. The bed is built low to the ground, and there’s stuff in there.

Again on my hands and knees, and practically standing on my head, I located Ernest lying in a corner near the wall. I stretched out on the carpet, reached as far as possible, and scratched his ears. He didn’t protest, but the look in his big green eyes said I’d better not make any sudden moves.

I didn’t.

Ernest is mostly muscle. Talons tip his twenty toes. He has a mouthful of teeth.

Barry Goldwater. PD. Via Wikipedia.

Like Barry Goldwater, he believes extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

I believe in keeping my all blood on the inside of my skin.

But I also believe extremism in the pursuit of getting sick children to the doctor is a necessary evil.

And I had a pretty good idea of what had occurred.

Ernest suffers from what might be termed a sluggish constitution, aggravated by his habit of swallowing objects that aren’t food, like bits of string, thread, ribbon. We don’t leave it lying around, but he finds it anyway. The vet says cats are drawn to elongated things. Something about mouse tails, I guess.

The first time he hid under the bed, two years before, I had to authorize X-rays, ultrasound, and a simple procedure he really, really didn’t like. We refer to it as the $400 enema. Swallowing string can cause serious problems for a cat. So I had to get him some help before a minor problem became major.

I found his jingly collar, the one he refused to wear, lay down again, and jingled at him. He gnawed on the collar and purred. Then he flopped over onto his back so I could rub his belly.

After a couple of minutes the dust bunnies keeping Ernest company attacked. I began sneeze. Ernest doesn’t care for sneezing–it scares him–so I went back downstairs and sneezed till my throat was raw. Then I coughed. And coughed. And coughed. I couldn’t find cough drops or unexpired cough medicine, so I poured out the dregs of some extremely aged Jim Beam (my mother had bought it to baptize her Christmas applesauce cakes thirty years before), and added the only sweetener we had, David’s hummingbird sugar.

While I was resting, sipping medicine from a spoon, Ernest waltzed down the stairs. He sashayed past me and headed to the kitchen. I heard crunching. Then he sashayed back.

Sneak that I am, I lured him into my lap, applied a full nelson, stuffed him into the waiting crate, lugged him to the car, and hauled him to the vet. He protested. When two big dogs in the waiting room charged up to his crate to pant hello, he shut up.

First stop was the scale: seventeen pounds. No surprise. My back muscles were already crying for the massage therapist.

Then the vet poked and prodded and determined Ernest had indeed ingested something he shouldn’t have, probably something the shape of a mouse tail.

I had three choices: take him home, give him meds, and watch him for twenty-four hours; leave him there for meds and the procedure he really, really didn’t like and pick him up at five p.m.; or be referred elsewhere for X-rays, because our vet’s office was in process of being moved down the street and his X-ray machine was in pieces.

He said choice #1 would have been fine for his cat, but I chose #2. If I left Ernest there, I knew he would come home unclogged. If I took him home, he would run under the bed and I’d never see him again. I hated to leave him, but it was, after all, his fault.

Anyway, at five p.m., David and I retrieved Ernest and a tube of Laxatone for maintenance. Ernest recovered and, after a time, forgave me. Everything returned to normal, till the next time he ate thread.

And that is the story of what I did the day I didn’t write.

I’m still trying to decide if it qualifies as an Artist’s Date.

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Note–and this is how I understood the veterinarian’s explanation, not to be taken as medical advice: Some foreign objects will biodegrade in a cat’s GI tract. String, thread, ribbon, and things of that type, even if they’re biodegradable, sometimes catch in the back of a cat’s mouth when he swallows. As food travels through the GI tract, the thread straightens out and becomes taut and can cut the cat’s intestines, necessitating surgery (if the problem is diagnosed in time). Laxatives can worsen the condition. A visit to a veterinarian is desirable.

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Images
Field of lavender by David Bartus via Morguefile
Mouse by sibya via Pixabay
Ernest by owner

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M. K. Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/

The Writing Life – For the Sandwich Generation

 

by Fran Paino

I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning. Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.

Not   So   Fast—

The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?” I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.

The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.

Welcome to life in the sandwich generation.

Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age. She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.

On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.

And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!

The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats she knows the 24-month-old is not allowed to eat.

The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.

The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air.

This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.

The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.

At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.

I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge.

Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.

I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.

As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”

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The original version of this, “Supermarket Nightmare,” appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.

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Read more about Fran Paino at her website.

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Images via Pixabay:
Sandwich by mp1746
Kittens by Jan-Mallander
Candy bars by Alexas_Fotos
Interruption by geralt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It Begins with One Step – A Book Review of WILD by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

by Renee Kimball

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…”

― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cheryl Strayed” by Moxie68 under CC BY-SA 4.0

Bravery. Courage. Confronting yourself, owning your failings and exposing your sins to the world, no excuses given and none allowed. Unearth black secrets, stand tall, forgive yourself, and find the strength to go forward. All of these are within the hard inner nugget of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the book for all womenboth young and old; it is a talisman tale that will make a profound difference in how you see your life’s purpose. It is a punch in the gut, a kick in the rear, a message to confront your raw self and face what you see. It is not for the faint of heart.

Wild on its own is a remarkable achievement, but it is much more than a story; it is a lesson plan for life. Overcoming self-doubt, the past, the present, lack of talent, self-worth and a host of other things are laid bare in language that flows and connects. It forces the reader to think deeply, to look at their own life, to examine their flaws in the mirror, be honest with their actions, and then to find a way to self-forgiveness and to push onward to something better.

What drives a person to literally walk their unhappiness and self-hatred away? Loss, grief, disappointment, adultery, addiction, and guilt are only a fewmany more are in the mix for Cheryl Strayed.

She began her journey of 1100 miles alonethe Mojave Desert lay on Strayed’s right and the driest desert of California on the left. It was summerthe hottest time of the year. On her back stood her “Monster,” a pack towering above her upright body and weighing almost half her body weight. To position the pack on her back, she was forced to lie down and wiggle her body into straps, then maneuver herself into a sitting position while struggling to stand. Sometimes she was lucky and could lean against a rock to hoist her self up, but not always. Then, she began to walkall day, until she was physically forced to stop.

“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”

Strayed’s trek was not a Victorian stroll in a garden; it was brutal. She fell, faced a bear and snakes and real thirst. There was always an uncertaintyon the edge of not knowing what could or would come around the bend.

She was exposed literally and figuratively. Her body racked with pain from her ill-fitting hiking boots, and her back from the constant press of the metal frame resting unceasingly on her back and shoulders. From the slipping and sliding of her feet inside her  boots she lost all but two toenails, pulling them off herself when them became too loose.

“Ritter Range” by Steve Dunleavy from Lake Tahoe, NV, United States is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite physical discomfort, she wrestled with unrelenting inner demons, a self-inflicted purge stretching on within with every new day.

She always had a choice of course: she could turn around, she could quit at the next stop available and go back homebut she persevered for three long months. The memory of her abusive childhood, her father a brutal drunk; a mother trying to mend the dysfunction under extreme financial hardships and then, the sudden loss of her mother; the destruction of her remaining family; the dissolution of her marriage, a result of indiscriminate and compulsive sexual encounters with strangers; her short escapes with heroin, and her loss of self-respect: Strayed’s thoughts percolated in a black and toxic sludge behind her eyesunrelenting punishment with no place to hide. Her saving gracethoughts of her mother’s steadfast patience and lovenow, out of reach forever. 

Fear begets fear. power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

Cheryl Strayed is a hero of a new breed, a woman who is totally alone confronting issues of her life on her terms to full self-healing. Strayed’s issues, sadly, are familiar to women everywherethe overcoming of monumental loss of self and the dawning comprehension that you can face whatever is thrown at you and survive.

Strayed is an excellent writer. She knew she wanted to be a writer at six years of age. Despite the monumental difficulties of her life, Strayed succeeded beyond her expectations and it is a testament to her strength. Strayed is a warrior. All women can learn from her honesty.

Sometimes we come around to things the long way, despite our stops and starts, and surprise even ourselveswe survive. You will never regret reading Strayed’s storyyou may even glimpse a small part of yourself in the pages.

Read it, believe it, and live a long and full life; you can be a warrior too.

“Pacific Crest Trail,” Public Domain

I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

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Related 

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York.: Vintage Books, 2013.

Sachs, Amy. 20 Cheryl Strayed Quotes To Inspire You When You’re Feeling Lost.

Arreola, Cristina. 11 Cheryl Strayed Quotes from “Wild” That Will Inspire Your Own Live-Changing Journey.

CHERYL STRAYED: Best-Selling Author and Co-Host of Dear Sugar Radio

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Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.

Sometimes You Need A Break—

Helen Currie Foster

 

 

Posted by Helen Currie Foster

 

—from news, winter, deadlines, calamities. Two books did the trick for me this February, one old, one new: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018) and Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom (1960).

First, Kingsolver, so inventive, alternates chapters between two protagonists in two centuries, one woman (contemporary), one man (1870 or so, during Grant’s administration). They occupy the same unsound house built in Vineland, New Jersey, a utopian venture built by the charismatic Captain Landis.

We first meet Willa, an unemployed writer whose magazine has evaporated; her PhD husband Iano has lost tenure and his pension when his last college cratered and now is lucky to have snagged a one-year contract as an adjunct at an unenviable college in now impoverished Vineland. They live in a falling-down house, trying to support Iano’s abrasive dying father, their “successful” Harvard MBA Zeke who’s saddled with over $100,000 in student debt while working gratis at a Boston startup, and Tig, their dreadlocked iconoclastic daughter, just returned from Cuba, where (she says) everyone is poor but has good healthcare and knows they must keep ancient cars repaired. Willa’s family is “unsheltered” in many ways: despite all their struggle to fulfill the American dream they grew up with—that hard academic work would lead to financial security—they face uncertain income, family struggles, and a collapsing 155 year old house. Tig preaches a different doctrine, battering her parents with the news that their American dream no longer exists. In chapter one Willa learns that the house which keeps them together, on which she must pay the mortgage, is too unsound to repair, and that her son Zeke’s partner has just committed suicide, leaving him with a weeks-old infant.

Segue to chapter two, where we meet our male protagonist Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic young Harvard-trained botanist. Thatcher has just learned that the Vineland house where his young wife insists she must live, with her little sister and her ferocious aunt, was improperly constructed, is structurally unsound, and requires unexpected repairs which Thatcher cannot afford but is expected to undertake. As the new science teacher at the Vineland high school where he proposes to teach the thrilling theory of evolution, Thatcher encounters implacable hostility from the principal and from Vineland’s all-dominating and deeply corrupt founder, Captain Landis.

As disasters mount for Willa’s family she desperately searches for evidence that her house merits a grant for historic preservation funds.

As Thatcher faces rejection by his principal, which may cost him his job, he meets his mysterious next-door neighbor, Mary Treat, a self-trained botanist and empirical scientist. At their first encounter she’s engrossed in an experiment: timing a Venus flytrap as it slowly ingests the tip of her own finger. Thatcher is enthralled.

For Willa and Thatcher, the house is unsound. Supposedly utopian Vineland, corrupt and ignorant. Thatcher’s marriage, built on sand. Willa’s family, disintegrating into poverty. The imagined good life for which Willa and Iano worked, for which Thatcher studied? Unattainable.

And yet these vivid and believable characters persist. As Tig pushes Willa toward a new way to live outside an outdated dream, as Mary Treat inspires Thatcher to recapture his life amid redwoods and deserts, the two protagonists push into new territory—unsheltered by the old, looking for the new.

Kingsolver’s hugely contemporary novel satisfies deeply. Her strong science background, never pedantic, conveys the heady excitement of young botanists struggling against those refusing to accept empirical science (a social split we still face), while her creation of a family caught in the collapse of traditional American social ladders, trying to survive in the perilous gig economy, resonates with today’s headlines. Kingsolver erects signposts pointing at least one route to hope: the courage to relinquish old shibboleths that no longer support, but strangle, creative growth. Attention must be paid: survival requires strenuous creativity. Darwin rewritten?

Unsheltered offered me one break. Trustee from the Toolroom, Nevil Shute’s 24th and last novel (1960), provided another. Trustee, one of the top fiction bestsellers of 1960, introduces Keith Stewart, a pale, pudgy, mild-mannered Glaswegian, who lives with his shop-clerk wife Katie in the undistinguished London suburb called West Ealing (Shute’s birthplace). In his basement toolroom Keith makes actual working models—little steam engines, tiny clocks, pocket-sized turbines that run on a dropper-ful of gasoline. He publishes instructions for these models in the “Miniature Mechanic,” a magazine popular with amateur engineers worldwide. Keith’s considerable fan mail (including anxious questions about how to wind an armature) puts him in touch with admirers worldwide. He makes little money but loves his work.

He and his wife have no children. His sister brings her ten-year old Janice to stay with Keith and Katie while the sister and her navy officer husband sail their boat across the world, intending to land in Vancouver and start a business. They, and their boat, disappear. Keith learns he is Janice’s trustee. He learns Janice’s sole potential asset is a bag of diamonds possibly stashed on the boat. Keith has never left England, and cannot afford airfare to Vancouver. Nevertheless, he sets out to fulfill his duties as trustee, learning to stand watch on a sailboat in the mid-Pacific, to set a course, to—well, no spoilers. The tale becomes an irresistible seafaring yarn. Yes, it feels dated, taking us back to post-WWII Britain, still poor and austere, and the brash contrast of post-war entrepreneurial America.

Shute himself worked as an aircraft engineer in the thirties, first with de Havilland and then Vickers (his biography is titled Sliderule). He then moved to Australia. Like Kingsolver’s characters, Shute himself sought a new world with new lessons. But his Keith Stewart takes a different tack; he can’t abandon ship, because, after all, he’s a trustee. You too might like watching how Keith Stewart serves.

This Monday morning I’m back from the Pacific, back in the now-infamous Austin traffic, back staring at thousands of cars stopped dead on Bee Cave Road. Maybe I need to think about lessons from Tig and Keith Stewart. About…new ways to live?

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Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice Greer MacDonald mystery series.