Friday, July 21, 2017

The Nature of Friendship

Being a middle school teacher allows me to make observations about life that I don't think I'd see if I were doing something else. I've learned a lot about both life and myself through interacting with my students. One of the things that I've come to understand better through my students is the nature of friendship, and what it really takes to be a good friend. Because the truth is friends are a dime a dozen, but good friends, close friends, are not.

Middle school kids burn through friends the way wildfires burn through forests. To become friends at that age - or stop being friends - doesn't take much. Making a friend can be as simple as being in the same class and losing a friend is as simple no longer sharing any classes. Bonds are formed over a shared interest in a TV show, video game, or sport (rather than through trials and tribulations - that comes later, with high school and beyond). And it's okay to have superficial friendships like this when you're young. I think it's relatively unusual to make lifelong friends at this age because you'll change a lot between 13 and 23 or 33. In fact, you'll keep on changing until you finally learn to be comfortable with yourself. (For some of us that takes decades upon decades.) On a subconscious level, kids understand that there's always another person around the corner ready to be friends with you, and that's true for the most part. Think of how easily you made friends as a little kid, as a kindergartner or first grader. Friends came and went back then without much drama. But when a middle schooler loses a friend, they feel it immensely. They're generous with their tears and yelling and anger and sadness. But all of those things are short-lived because there is a new friend around the corner and it's often someone they'd never expected.

But invariably, a student will go through a difficult time in a friendship and they often turn to a teacher or counselor about it. And although they don't actually say it out loud, what they really want us to do is answer the question What makes a good friend? or Am I really a bad friend? What they don't realize is they're starting to understand what real friendship is, and more importantly, what it isn't. And so I've had a lot of opportunities to think about the nature of friendship myself, and I've only recently come to understand what makes a real friend, and it's simpler than you'd think. A real, good friend is someone who does only two things; One, they accept you for who you are. Two, they don't keep track. It's that simple.

I'm not a person who makes good friends easily, and I don't often make a good first impression - to do that would be to present a false version of myself. I've been accused of being rude, mean, aloof. The truth is that I'm all of those things more often than not. I don't see the point in saying Good Morning to everyone I walk by and I don't greet strangers in an elevator unless they say something first, and even then it's under duress. I don't engage in small talk with cashiers and waiters; I think it's pointless and stupid. I cuss a lot and I'll tell you the blunt truth whether you want to hear it or not. But I'm also fully capable of being nice and funny and caring, soft even. And the four or five good, close friends that I have know this about me. They know I have a fondness for the f-bomb. They know I'll tell the truth even if it's a little rude. They know I'll refuse to go to happy hour nine times out of ten simply because I don't want to, and they know I'm going to tell them to get out of my bubble and back the f up when necessary. But these people know this about me and they accept me for it. Notice I'm not saying that they know these things about me and just don't care, because some of them do. But they know these things about me and accept me despite them. Close friends accept you like a spouse should - for better or worse, in sickness and in health, in bitchy complaining rants and overly energetic drunkenness, when you're up and when you're down, when you're a jerk and when you're not. Friends don't always have to like you or love you, but they do have to always accept you for who you are. And that needs to go both ways. My friends accept me for who I really am and I accept them for who they really are. A good friendship requires this. If your friends can't accept you for who you are, then what's the point of the friendship? If you can't say the most vile, disgusting, awful thing to your close friends (not about them, mind you, but to them) with every confidence that they won't stop talking to you because of it, then why the hell are you friends with them? My close friends know the ugliest parts of my soul and still want to be my friend. Acceptance is key in a good friendship.

The other key factor in a good friendship is having a friend who doesn't keep score. There are a lot of people out there who simply delight in keeping score. I like to call them bean counters. These are people who think that everything must be equal in a friendship, or who believe their score should always be higher than yours. Let's say one of your good friends sends you a giant bouquet of balloons at work for your 30th birthday and caps the evening off with a surprise party. Awesome, good for you, I'm sure that was fun. But what happens when that friend also turns 30 and all you do is give them a funny card? A real friend isn't going to care about that. My close friends know that no matter what they do for my birthday, the most they'll get from me is a funny card and a hug - and let's be honest, the hug is iffy. It doesn't mean their birthday is less important to me or that their friendship is less important to me. It doesn't mean that I'm ungrateful for what they've done for me. It just means I'm not one of those over the top people. It also means I'm not a bean counter. I'm not thinking, "Oh God, they threw me an awesome party so I need to get them an extra awesome birthday gift so they don't think I'm an ungrateful jerk." Friendships like that are exhausting. If your friend is a bean counter and you want to remain good friends, then this forces you to be a bean counter too. It requires you to keep track of everything they do for you so that you can reciprocate evenly. And that's if your friend wants things to be even. But maybe they don't. Maybe they want things to be perpetually uneven, with them always coming out on top. These types of friends exist too and it's equally exhausting. Instead of you always keeping track, you know your friend is, because they let you know on a regular basis how awesome they are, constantly reminding you of the things they do for their friends as a show of superiority. But then you have to ask yourself why your friend does that. Do they do these nice things for you, a friend, to make you feel awesome? Or does your friend do these things for themselves, to make themselves feel good, so they know they're better than other people? Who wants a friend like that? It's not only obnoxious, but it's superficial. That is a superficial friendship, and not a true friendship. A true friend doesn't keep score. They do awesome things for you without thinking or caring about what they'll get from you in return. It means doing things for the sake of doing the nice thing.

So that's the advice I give to my students about friendship when they ask. A real friend accepts you for you, the good and the bad, and they don't keep score because life is not a game. If your friendship has these two things, then the rest becomes easy and natural, and you'll have the kind of experiences together that build a real friendship no matter how old you are.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ideas That Don't Go Anywhere II

A while ago, I posted a portion of a story that I couldn't make go anywhere, a story about a little girl in a boat who witnesses a plane crash. (Ideas That Don't Go Anywhere) That particular idea came from a strange dream I had, so it never really surprised me that I couldn't make it go somewhere. (Not that I've stopped trying. I still have hope for the little girl and her dog.) But I have plenty of other ideas that don't go anywhere. The story that follows didn't come from a dream. It's an idea that formed after I started watching all those reality shows about life in Alaska. I'm fascinated by these people that can live so close to the top of the world, so far away from what I consider normal life. Life in the Arctic Circle is hard, so hard that I'm not even sure it's considered living so much as just surviving. But from my interest in these people and their way of life came a story idea. And it's just that - an idea. It's another story that I can't make go anywhere - yet.

February 29
Three Trees, Alaska
6:30 PM, 10o F

Village Public Safety Officer Jim Burke glanced at the ringing phone on his desk. Actually, it was just winking one red eye at him, assaulting his eyes with its brightness; he'd disabled the actual ring a long time ago. In a place where one spent so much time in a still darkness, the shrill ring of a phone could jar your senses like fingernails on a chalkboard. Burke frowned at the red eye. The sun had only been down for a few hours, and already one of the drunken village idiots was making trouble. Every damn night this week. If it was Tsosie again, Burke was going to punch him in the nose. He was getting sick of this shit.
Places like Three Trees, which saddles the Arctic Circle, tend to attract what outsiders affectionately call "crazies"; the people who firmly believe in and use their Second Amendment rights as Americans while simultaneously shunning the actual institution of government and its laws. Everyone Burke had met in this final outpost before the wilderness of the Ray Mountains carried a weapon or had a stash of meth in their glove compartment. And some of them were crazy; he'd once had a man tell him his name was "Nobody Jenkins" and refused to say anything else. He could have called himself Zulu Queen of the Dwarves for all Burke cared, if only Mr. Jenkins hadn't been walking down the main road of town stark naked at the time. Twice Burke had come across a fugitive from the lower forty-eight who'd come to Alaska to disappear; one tried to run from him and Burke ended up having to rescue him from a fall through a thawing ice road. Once he'd pulled over a guy who had a trunk full of antique swords and daggers. It was sometimes a dangerous place, more so in the dead of winter when the sun was only up for two hours a day. There was something about the darkness that made some people go a little nuts. Not all that long ago a man had killed several members of his own village and attempted to hijack a mail plane in protest of an oil pipeline. Some people just couldn't handle the cold and the dark.
And that was why Three Trees needed someone like Burke to keep them safe. But he still hated winter.
Burke reached toward the blinking light with one hand and stubbed out a cigar with the other. "Burke... Yep... Yep... Yup.  Ayup." He replaced the receiver and sighed heavily. "Fuckin' Tsosie," he muttered and pulled open a drawer in his desk, staring longingly at a bottle of Jack Daniels he’d hidden at the bottom. He'd pulled it off of Randy Smith last month and, technically, it was evidence; hard liquor was prohibited in Three Trees. But, technically, he’d forgotten about Randy's female friend in his car who was not his wife, and so Randy had forgotten about his Jack Daniels, which he'd bought off of a smuggler for near a thousand dollars, Burke guessed. He was saving the bottle for his next quiet and lonely night in B.F.E., Alaska. Which he'd hoped would be tonight. He closed the drawer with a resigned sigh.
Burke left his desk and grabbed his belt from a coat rack. As he strapped on his pepper spray, baton, and TASER, he struggled with the buckle; it was getting a bit tight these days. Too many of Marie's pies. He grabbed his down parka, ignoring the Kevlar vest hanging next to it. It was bulky and uncomfortable, and just too much of a hindrance. Damn Marie. Besides, he told himself, he’d never once needed it. Not here. Three Trees, though remote – it was only accessible by land during the ice road months – turned out to be a lucky assignment for Burke. It was a village of about a hundred people who mostly kept to themselves. Aside from the occasional fugitive, Burke's job consisted of confiscating illegal alcohol or drugs, and breaking up fights caused by illegal alcohol or drugs. Mostly, people stayed inside by the fire. Mostly.
Stifling a yawn, Burke pulled a beanie over his balding head and stuffed himself into his parka. He pulled the hood up, cinching it tight, and zipped up. Next, he pulled on a pair of thick gloves and finished with the flip of a scarf his mother had knitted for him last Christmas. He left the comfort of the darkened police trailer, locked up standing in the near zero temperature, and hopped on his snowmobile. He steered himself toward Marie's at the other end of the main route through town, and thought about warm cherry pie.
* * *
On the other side of Three Trees, Marie Stevenson stood behind the bar of her restaurant, Marie's Place, "The best food in town because it's the only food in town." She leaned back against the counter with her hands in her apron pockets. On the other side of the bar, Frank Tsosie was flailing around like a drunken bull in a china shop. His girlfriend, Katarin, was crying hysterically, her black mascara streaming down her cheeks ala Tammy Faye Bakker. She was the only one near Frank now, trying to get him calmed down. The other patrons, three regulars who’d been laughing over chowder only moments before, were huddled at the other end of the bar, cuddling their beers like wusses. Instead of standing there while she called Burke, the three of them boys could’ve easily subdued Frank, stuck him in his truck with Katarin, and had them on their way home by now.
Behind her, Marie heard the clatter and clang of falling cookware ringing throughout the restaurant, quickly followed by Barry's swearing.
Frank suddenly turned toward the noise, whipping a large pistol from the depths of his parka, which he'd been sweating in since he arrived. He waved the business end of his gun toward the kitchen window and Marie's blood froze. "Goddammit Barry," she hissed at her younger brother. To Frank, she said gently, "Jesus, Frank, put the gun away. Take it easy. Just what's it that's got you all flared up? What can I do to help?" She was sincere; this wasn’t like Frank. He was usually harmless. She tried to keep her pulse under control. While this was not the first time Marie’d had a gun stuck in her face, it was the first time it’d been done by the unsteady hands of a drunkard.
Frank focused his dark, watery eyes on Marie. He stared at her from behind a full, black beard that was just beginning to get wild, and eyebrows that had never been tamed. Though he was only forty-five, his face was aged by a hard life, wrinkles pointing firmly down, even when he smiled. He swayed slightly in his snow boots, like there was a breeze rushing around him on the deck of an unsteady boat. He kept his gun pointed at Marie and laughed.
"You can't do shit," Frank shouted suddenly, his deep voice silencing Katarin's prattling, finally. "It's too late! It's all too late! The time has come!"
"The time has come for what," Barry shouted impatiently from the kitchen. “Crazy asshole,” he added under his breath, heedless of Frank’s gun.
"Shut up, Barry!" Marie clenched her jaw. Where the hell was Burke?
"It's Leap Day, guys! Don't you see! Don't you get it? The end of time has come! The end of time, man!"
"No one understands you, Frank!" Katarin had edged further away from Frank, scared by the sudden appearance of his gun and his violent outburst. "You're drunk! Put your gun away. Let's go home, please." Marie felt a little sorry for the girl, another native, but much younger than Frank. She could get much better, but for some reason she’d parked herself in this tiny village, away from all civilization and most decent men. The only kind of men hanging around a place as desolate and dark as Three Trees were the damaged ones.
“Why are you doing this Frank?” Katarin whined. “I don’t understand.”
"Oh, you're gonna understand it, sweetheart!" Frank turned on her unsteadily and stumbled toward her, a shaking arm pointing the gun at her. She cringed in on herself, covering her face with her hands, tried to be small, shrink herself into a tiny target. Marie gasped and took a step forward, horrified. What the hell was Frank playing at? Harmless drunk Frank Tsosie? Where the fuck is Burke?
"Frank," Katarin cried softly.  "Frank, please. What are you doing?"  Her big doe eyes were wide and frightened.
"Helloo! Village Safety Officer!" Burke announced his presence in a tone of carefully controlled cheerfulness as he pulled open the narrow door to Marie's, stepping inside the warmth of the restaurant. His heart racing, he had carefully observed the scene now before him through the trailer's windows before entering. He eyed it as one analyzes a fish bowl; the bright glass windows glaring against the starless darkness as he tried to figure out the best approach. Frank Tsosie, a native of Alaska who’d ended up in Three Trees following his discharge from the navy and suffered from PTSD, was usually pretty docile. He'd yell and rant and cry, sometimes throw up all over himself, but he'd never seen Frank become violent, or wave a gun around for crissakes. He didn't want to surprise Frank, but Burke saw no other way of getting into the building – the front door was the only means of ingress and egress aside from the door at the back of the kitchen, which was currently blocked with three feet of snow. He'd just have to go in and hope Frank didn't shoot him. Can't believe I didn't put on that damn vest, Burke chastised himself just before opening the door. Fucking Tsosie.
Marie's Place was a long and narrow trailer outfitted like an old 50’s diner. There was a bar with red stools spanning the width of the building, an open kitchen behind. This was broken briefly by a small glass display of freezer burned desserts and a swinging half door for Marie. Burke had just a split second of disappointment when he saw there were no fresh pies in the display. To the left and right of the entrance were five tiny booths each, all empty. Around the bar to the left was a tiny bathroom and the door to the kitchen.
Around to the right were Randy Smith, Thomas Dirk, and Kody Lee, huddled like babies against a window. Just in front of him, Frank had turned around, his gun wavering at him. Over Frank's shoulder, Katarin stared at the Village Safety Officer, begging for help with her eyes.
"Hey, Burkie!" Frank smiled, revealing a row of grime-caked teeth, one of his Dracula incisors missing.
"Hi, Frank," Burke said amiably, hoping his anxiety didn’t come pouring out of his fake smile. "What's going on?"
"I was just tryin' to explain–" Frank's sunken eyes unfocused for a moment as he tried to remember, and then seemed to come back to the present. "I was jus' tryin' to tell them about the Leap Day."
"Well you can tell them about Leap Day, Frank," Burke replied gently, slowly placing his hand behind him, wrapping his fingers around the stun gun as stealthily as possible. One quick zap outta do it, he thought; Frank wasn’t a big guy. Burke began working his way slowly toward Frank. He smiled at Marie, who looked petrified, and nodded to Barry, that fat idiot standing behind his sister with his mouth hanging open, his stupid fat head stuffed into a hairnet. "Who said you couldn't tell them about Leap Day?"
"Well they just wasn't listenin', Burkie. No one listens to me! They think I’m some kinda crazy idgit!" He whirled toward Katarin and the men behind her. All of them simultaneously flinched away, closing their eyes. “I ain’t no idgit!”
"Frank!" Burke shouted, edging closer. He was only three steps away now. "Talk to me, Frank. What were you trying to explain? Tell me about Leap Day." His hand felt sweaty around the stun gun and he prayed it wouldn’t slip right out of his hands.
Frank thought for a moment, his eyes going far away again, but then he shouted in frustration. "I can't remember, now! See what happens when no one listens to me!" He turned back around again, and this time Burke noticed that Frank's finger was on the trigger of his gun.
Burke struck like a snake, whipping out the stun gun as Frank turned away. He hit Frank in the ribs, right between the open zipper of his jacket. Frank screamed like a wounded yeti, but didn't go down. Instead, he swung back around with his free fist at Burke's head. Burke dropped the stun gun, both surprised and in pain. Frank leapt on him and began attacking him with his fists and screaming like an animal.
Burke fell backward onto the floor, his hands raised in defense while Frank pummeled him. "Goddammit, Frank!" Struggling to prevent any of Frank’s blows from striking home, he managed to get his feet under him and rose up against Frank's body, shoving him away with a punch to the nose. Burke steadied himself and stood only to face the barrel of Frank’s gun. He froze.
"I thought we was friends, Burkie," Frank said sadly, his free hand stemming the blood flowing from his nose. He pulled his hand away from his face, saw the blood and then put it back quickly. “I think you broke my nose,” he whined.
"We're friends, Frank," Burke said earnestly, raising his open palms in the universal sign of surrender. "I’m sorry about your nose,” he lied, “but I'm trying to keep everyone around here safe. It's pretty hard to do that when you're waving a gun—"
BANG!
Burke flinched, convinced he'd been shot in the instant after the gun went off. He thought about his ex-wife, his elderly mother, his little red tricycle from his childhood, the Kevlar vest back in his trailer, Marie’s cherry pie. I don't want to die, he thought. Then he heard the tinkling of shattered glass hitting the floor.
Burke refocused his attention. He saw that Frank had dropped his gun and had both hands in the air, the whites of his eyes large as he stared toward the kitchen. Behind Marie, Barry had both arms raised, his fat hands around a smoking revolver.  Directly behind Frank, one of the restaurant's windows had shattered and the frigid wind was whirling in around them.
"D-don't move, Frank," Barry shouted. "That was j-just a warning shot – next time I'll hit you in the gut. I swear!”
Recovering himself, Burke reached for Frank's arms and handcuffed his hands behind his back. He sighed heavily, trying to regain his composure; he'd almost crapped himself.
"Better put that gun down, Barry," Burke said. "I'll have to file a report and take the gun with me."
"What?" Barry protested petulantly. "But it's mine!"
Marie, who’d crouched behind the bar in the melee straightened. She turned around and snapped the gun out of her brother’s hands, laying it on the counter for Burke. If he hadn’t been so scared, he might have laughed at how easily Barry lost his gun to his sister.  
"Hey!"
"Shut the hell up, Barry! Jesus, you could have killed someone!" Marie shouted. "And it ain't like you don't have five more layin' around."
Burke was sure many of Barry's guns weren't registered, but he didn't really want any more paperwork tonight. "It's alright, Barry," he said, holding tight to Frank's arm. "You'll get it back. Eventually." He picked up the revolver, dumped the remaining bullets into a pocket of his coat and placed the gun in another, then bent to pick up Frank’s gun.
Behind Marie, Barry pouted. Marie snapped her fingers at him and Barry sulkily slid a pie through the window.
"Pie, Jim?" Marie asked. "It's cherry."
Burke smiled, momentarily distracted by the scent of the fresh pie. But then he looked at Frank, thought about the paperwork he’d have to do tonight, and about how tight his belt was. He sighed. "Not tonight, Marie, but thanks." To Randy, Thomas, and Kody, still huddled in a corner behind Katarin, he said, "I'll expect witness statements from all of you in the morning."
"What's gonna happen to Frank," Katarin asked, crying and shaking.
"I'll hold him in the trailer tonight. He'll sleep it off there and we'll talk about the consequences in the morning. In the meantime, why don't you have one of these brave gentlemen here drive you home, okay?" He turned away from her and hauled Frank to the door. As the two went outside into the cold wind, Burke got a whiff of something awful.
"That you, Tsosie?"
Frank smiled slightly. “That shot scared the shit out of me." He laughed.
Burke sighed. "Of course it did, Frank. I've got a towel you can sit on in the car. I might have an extra pair of pants back at the trailer for you too."
"Thanks, Burkie. You're a good friend."
"Try to remember that in the morning when I have to book you on public drunkenness, consuming illegal alcohol, and threatening people with a loaded gun."
"Huh?"
"Nothing, Frank." Burke surveyed the immediate area as he led Frank to his snowmobile, his nerves on edge. He hadn't had a night this exciting in a while. He wasn't sure his heart could handle it; he wasn't young anymore. As he swiveled his head around, he caught sight of something dark lying in the snow outside the window that Barry had shot out. He tried to ignore it, really wanted to, but the more he looked at the shape, the more it seemed to look like a pile of clothes - a human shaped pile of clothes.
"Sit down, Frank," Burke said, leaning Tsosie's rump into the snow. "I'll be right back."
Frank hiccupped and closed his eyes.
Burke walked slowly toward the dark mass, examining it carefully. He saw a splay of long dark hair beneath the hood of a parka lined with fur, and he felt his body break out in a cold sweat.
"Ma'am," Burke said tentatively, a sick pit opening up in his stomach. "Village Safety Officer. Ma'am, can you hear me? Are you alright?" When there was no response, Burke quickened his pace. He approached the woman, who lay curled up on her side, and touched her shoulder.
The woman rolled back to reveal two dark eyes, frozen open, and a neat round hole in the middle of her forehead.
Burke sucked in a gulp of burning cold air. "Holy shit.”
Marie was wiping down the counter as a means of calming her nerves when the front door opened and Burke reappeared with Frank. The other men had retreated to their booth, talking quietly about what would happen to Frank. Katarin was sitting near comatose in the next booth as she waited for a ride home, a steaming cup of coffee untouched in front of her.
"Change your mind about the pie, Jim?" Marie asked without surprise; Jim loved her pies.
Burke threw the handcuffed Frank onto his stomach in a booth so he wouldn't soil it with his emptied bowels. He turned to Marie with a frown and sat on one of the stools in front of her.
"Jeez, Jim," Marie said, "what's wrong? You look like you've seen a body or something." Marie started to laugh, but stopped when Burke pressed his lips together instead of joining in. Barry's head reappeared in the kitchen window and Katarin and the other men grew quiet, looking to Burke for an explanation.
"As a matter of fact, Marie, I have."
"What?" The blood drained from Marie’s face.
"It would seem," Burke explained, "that while Barry missed Frank with his bullet, he didn't miss a woman walking by outside. I just saw her laying in the snow with a bullethole in her forehead."
There was a sudden clatter behind Marie as Barry dropped a couple of dishes he'd been washing. "This some kind of joke or somethin’," he finally managed to shout.
"No, Barry, it isn't," Burke replied sternly. "I wouldn't joke about something like this."
"Well who is it," Randy shouted from his booth. "Who's dead, Burke?"
"Well, that's just it," he replied, rubbing the stubble on his chin. "I know every resident of Three Trees, make it a point to – and we haven't had anyone new in town in a few years. But, I swear, I have no idea who she is. I've never seen her before."
"Oh God," Katarin began crying again.

"Better bring me the phone, Marie," Burke said.  "And I'll take that pie now."
***
The problem with my little story here is that I've tried really hard to make it go somewhere because I actually really like the characters. I love Jim Burke. I want to know why he came to Alaska, why a man who hates winter and snow and ice would choose the isolation of Three Trees (not a real place, by the way). Why would someone purposely go to a place they hate? I'm not sure yet. I like Marie (and cherry pie) and her hapless brother Barry. But why do they choose to run a diner in a place so small and dark? Don't know that either. I even like poor drunk Frank Tsosie. What happened to him in the navy? Why does he have PTSD? ...? These are characters that I feel I can really develop, really create for a reader to enjoy as much as I do. My problem is that I don't have a story for them. There are too many questions that I can't answer.
Who's the woman outside the diner? What was she doing there? Don't know. I do have a few pieces of the plot, just nothing that I can string together (yet). For example, Barry didn't shoot her. She was placed outside the diner for Burke. But who put her there? Why? Was she really shot? (Probably not - I have the inklings of an idea there, but nothing worth sharing yet.)
Why is Frank going on about Leap Day? Is that going to play some part in the lore of Three Trees? (Of course Three Trees has a lore. It was founded by natives of Alaska many years ago. But what is the lore? Don't know.)
What is the story of Three Trees - the lore? It's named after three specific trees, but where are those trees and what makes them special? Not sure yet.
The idea for the story in Three Trees really came from the idea of isolation and how that can affect a person. People react differently to living in a place so isolated, a place only accessible by land during the warmer months (thank you Ice Road Truckers). A place where the sun only shines two hours a day for six months of the year. Have you ever thought about how important the sun and its light is to your daily life? What if it suddenly wasn't there? How would you mark time, mark the days? Could you? Some people can, but I'm not one of them.
For now the story has been shelved, but I'm still thinking about it. I'm still thinking about Burke and Tsosie, Marie and Barry. I want to know what happens next. And as soon as I figure that out, I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Evolution of a Reader: Part 1

Each year I have my students write their Autobiography as a Reader. I ask them to tell me their story as readers: What do they read? Why do they read it? What made them love reading? Even, what made them hate reading? Don't worry; I'm not offended by non-readers. I might pity them, but (relatively) silently. And, as is usual for me, whatever I make my students do, I also do. For this assignment it's partly because students are more willing to write something like this when they see I've done it too, perhaps because it shows them it isn't as hard as they might think. But it's also because I actually love my Autobiography as a Reader, which is a bit of a thank you letter to my parents, both readers themselves, who placed an importance on reading from a young age. That emphasis turned me into a reader, and I wouldn't trade my love of books or the joys they've given me for anything.

Both of my parents read to my sister and me at bedtime, but the choice of reading material was vastly different in each household. My mom read mostly Dr. Seuss and other similar stories. We loved listening to her try to pronounce tongue twisters and silly words, and we of course liked the drawings and made-up words. The Lorax and Fox in Socks are two of my favorites. Then, after a book, sometimes two, it was off to bed. This is, I think, a normal bedtime routine for many families.

My dad took a totally different approach to bedtime reading. He would often read to us from whatever he was reading. That meant that we did not read Dr. Seuss. Instead, we read from Agatha -Christie, Miss Marple being one of our favorites, or The Hobbit (the movie of which scarred my sister and me for life for no discernible reason - the old one, with Warwick Davis in the lead role). My dad read these stories to us with no consideration of age, so we were reading these stories at an age that was, certainly, much younger than the intended audience. Neither of us minded, however. And I found that it was often not the story I was listening to, but my dad's voice, because he has a real talent for reading aloud. He has a deep, melodious voice that always aligns with the author's intentions. When a character is shouting, my dad is shouting. When a character is whispering, my dad is whispering. When a character is angry, confused, elated - that's how my dad sounds. And it was these bedtime "stories" that turned me into a reader from a very early age. For the longest time, whenever I read a story, it was my dad's voice I heard in my head.

Similarly, it was these bedtime readings that determined what I enjoyed reading on my own. Both of my parents like a good mystery. Mom prefers Patterson and Cornwell, while Dad gravitates to Christie and Grafton. So as I began to choose my own books, I consistently chose mystery. And it wasn't until I started doing the Autobiography as a Reader assignment with my students that I realized I'd boxed myself in. I often speak to my students about stepping out of their comfort zone in reading and trying something new because they never know what joy they might find in a book they might never have otherwise considered...

Hypocrite alert! I realized that, despite my philosophy, I was telling my students to do something I wasn't willing to do! Aside from a brief children's literature kick started by a college class, wherein I burned through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series (which actually starts with The Magician's Nephew, and is a series I'd recommend to just about anyone, child or adult) and then the Harry Potter series (twice actually), mystery was my go-to book. I had no interest in a book that didn't include at least one dead body well into my adulthood. This assignment forced me to accept that one of those non-readers I pitied was myself! Of course I'm a reader, but in staying within my preferred genre, I was missing out on a whole host of experiences and amazing books, most notably (and surprisingly) non-fiction books, which I'd always assumed were about as interesting as my history textbooks. So I set out to take my own advice, and start reading things that I wouldn't normally go for. It's this decision that forced me to evolve as a reader and realize that there are some amazing books out there that affected me, not just as a reader, but as a person. They are presented below in no particular order.

The House Across the Cove by Barbara Hall and Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (young adult mysteries)

Don't fault me for beginning my list with two mysteries that I read as a kid, because as I was compiling this list, I realized that there are a LOT of books that changed me as a reader. The important lesson I learned from these books is that not only is it possible to become totally lost in a book, it's necessary. I think that, although I read a lot and basically lived in the local library as a kid, I'd never really understood what it felt like to live a book, to actually enter the world of a book, until I read these, both around 11 or 12.

The House Across the Cove makes the list because it's the first book I ever sat down and read in one sitting despite it being nearly 300 pages. I read it in about five hours without moving from a spot below my bedroom window. I inhaled this book, and as a young reader, that was so, so important to me. House had such an impact on me that I took great pains to track down a copy (it's out of print now) so I could re-read it as an adult. And it's so precious to me that it's one of the only young adult books of mine that didn't make it to the classroom library. (Find your own worn copy kiddos. This one is too important to me. Think of it as an adventure.) When I first got House, I'd never read something that I literally could not put down. And it's this title I refer to when talking to my reluctant readers about "finding that just right book" that will help them find something to love about reading. And other than Down a Dark Hall, it's one of the very few books that I actually remember from my childhood.

Down a Dark Hall had a similar effect on me. I didn't read it in one sitting, but I recall one specific occasion when I was in the sixth grade. It was silent reading time and I sat at my desk in Mrs. Blackwwood's classroom, reading the climax of the story. I was so totally enthralled, that when I came up for air, I realized I was alone. The entire class had gotten up and left for lunch and I didn't even notice. I didn't see them get up, didn't hear the talking and the shuffling and gathering of lunch boxes, didn't hear Mrs. Blackwood call my name - not a damn thing. I was gobsmacked. I couldn't understand how it was even possible to be that into a book. Only one other book in my lifetime has had that affect on me - American Gods by Neil Gaiman (author of another book I love and recommend, Neverwhere.) American Gods is my boyfriend's least favorite book, even though he's never read it, because he insists I completely ignored him any time it was in my hands. I didn't actually ignore him, mind you. I simply didn't notice him, wasn't even capable of it, the book is that good. (It's also one of the only books that I actually mourned over when I finished it.) And, ultimately, isn't that what we want out of a good book? To be so enthralled, so entertained, that the real world actually disappears and is replaced by the world the author has created for you? To live in that world?

The House Across the Cove
Down a Dark Hall
American Gods
Neverwhere

Stiff by Mary Roach (and everything else she's written) (non-fiction/research)

The first genre I attempted to tackle when I started taking my own advice was non-fiction. I'd notoriously avoided the genre my entire life. I told myself over and over again that I just didn't like it, which is a total lie because I'd refused to even try it for most of my life. And I avoided it for the same reason most of my students avoid it - I assume it'll bore me to death. I need mystery, intrigue, plot! That's fiction isn't it? Non-fiction is for history textbooks. Research is for nerds. 

Wrong! The truth is you can find excitement in many non-fiction books, and this is another strong case for finding that just right book. I'd attempted to read a few non-fiction books over the years, but they were mostly left unfinished (except for Edgar Allan by John Neufeld, but we'll get to that one another time). When I went to a Walden Books going-out-of-business sale, it wasn't me who picked this title up, but my boyfriend. He said, "You're going to love this book." And every time he's said that to me, he's been right, so I gave it a shot. And I loved it. Why? Because there is mystery and intrigue and excitement! This book in particular is about a subject that ties in with why I love mysteries and Dateline marathons - dead bodies. It's a book about the science of cadavers and how they've been historically used to teach us any number of things, from how to perform surgery to the effects of car crashes on humans to why victims of plane crashes are so often found without any clothes on. And as soon as I started Stiff, any worries of dry, boring scientific writing were quelled. Roach is funny and serious at the same time. She's enthusiastic about every topic she's researched, and that enthusiasm comes through in her writing. She's one of the most genuine non-fiction authors out there. If you don't believe me, or you don't have an interest in cadavers, then try Gulp or Packing for Mars, or Bonk. She won't disappoint you, no matter where your interests lie. The only book of hers I haven't inhaled is Spook, which tackles the topic of life after death from a research perspective, and that's only because I'm terrified of the subject - but it's still on my TBR list. Someday. Anyway, the point is, that you never know what you're going to enjoy in terms of genre until you give it the good college try. It was this book that turned me onto the non-fiction genre, and since then, I've read several non-fiction books, and not just those by Roach. I've discovered my interests are far more varied than I ever imagined. 


A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (yes, sis, you read that right) and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman (more non-fiction, both by physicists) 

Um, science? Please; I barely survived biology and chemistry, and not for lack of trying. For Pete's sake, I almost didn't pass Geosystems, which was basically science for dummies. And outer space? Are there aliens? How about Mulder and Scully, are they in it? No? Pfft. Not interested. That's what I used to think whenever someone suggested reading to learn something. Reading isn't for learning, it's for fun! Right? Well, as it turns out, it's for both. That's something that was hard for me to grasp before I actually became a teacher and realized I not only had to find a way to teach kids to both enjoy what they read, but also to enjoy learning from it. 

A Brief History of Time is as far out of my comfort zone as I've ever gone. Not only is it about science and physics, it's written by a physicist and it's full of theories and other terms I'd never heard of. I had to look up every third word in a dictionary to even begin to try to comprehend what I was reading. I read whole paragraphs, sometimes pages, three or four times before I got a grasp on the topic. This was not a book I read, but a book I survived. I considered dropping it several times because it was so difficult to read. So why didn't I? To impress a guy, of course. My boyfriend and I had just met, and he's far more educated, more intelligent than me. And although I'm far from stupid, I was worried about coming off as an idiot because we couldn't discuss many of the topics he's interested in. When he suggested I give the book a try and loaned me his own copy, I was determined to show him I could finish it, understand it, and even discuss the topics contained therein. So, although it took me several months, mission accomplished. What this book taught me is to never give up just because a book (or really, anything) is hard. Finishing this title is something I wear as a badge of honor. And if I'd never read it, I might never have read many other non-fiction titles about space that have both expanded me as a reader and lead me to another topic that I enjoy reading - and learning - about. 

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is not a science book, but a memoir, which is a genre that I was even less interested in than non-fiction, if that's possible. Why on Earth would I care to read about someone else's life? It has nothing to do with me, and I have nothing to gain from reading it. Oh, Dian, you're so silly! What actually convinced me to try this title is a road trip. While driving to Asheville, North Carolina, my boyfriend played an audio version of a different title by Feynman, his favorite physicist. I'd expected to be thoroughly bored and uninterested, and of course, it was the opposite. I learned that not all scientists are boring nerds, and Feynman actually led a really interesting life. I learned to appreciate romance, both fictional and in real life, as he talked about his first wife, whom he married knowing she would eventually die of tuberculosis. In listening to his story about being involved in solving the mystery of what caused the Challenger disaster, I realized that I'm actually really interested in space missions and how they come together, in the science of creating a vessel that will safely carry man into the void of space and then safely bring them home. I learned the value of real-life problem solving, and in teaching yourself to do something - like how to "guess" someone's lock combination - through sheer determination and never giving up. I also learned playing the bongos naked might not be an activity exclusive to Matthew Mcconaughey. Even physicists know how to have a good time outside of the lab.


Don't worry, I haven't finished telling you about the Great Books in Dian's Library. See Evolution of a Reader: Part 2 for more, which I'll write as soon as I put a book down long enough to do it.

And I would LOVE to hear about the books that have had an effect on you as a reader. Drop me a line in the comments below. I might even read some of them!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Because Cats

I recently read a column from my favorite funny guy Gene Weingarten about those fuzzy, cuddly, sharp little fluff balls otherwise known as cats. It's called "Here's what happened before God let cats loose upon the world" and the basic message is this: Cats are assholes. Now you might think that I, as one of the many cat ladies around the world, would take offense to Weingarten's characterization of cats as a species, but I don't. In fact, I agree. Cats are assholes, but I love them anyway. With human assholes, I at least generally understand them. I don't agree with what they say or do - they're assholes after all - but I can at least make sense of their actions. Cats? Not so much.

I've had cats and dogs as pets all my life (I've buried an embarrassing number of hamsters and fish as well), but my first real furbaby that I adopted as an adult was a stray cat I took in during college, Duck. She was a scrawny little Oreo colored thing, and I quickly turned her into a dry food addicted thirteen pound behemoth. I'd like to say that when I first took Duck in (when she was probably about a year old) that she was a perfect little cuddle ball who mewed and quietly lapped up milk and slept with me and charmed me with her little kitten love. But that would be a lie. She was always kind of a jerk. My friend Lauren can attest to this. We lived together for two years when I had Duck. In addition to destroying my pet deposit by pulling the carpet off of the stairs just because she could, she annoyed the both of us in a myriad of ways.

Any night I wasn't around, or if I went out of town, Duck would let Lauren fall asleep and then somewhere between midnight and 2 AM, just as Lauren was dancing off in la-la land with Channign Tatum, Duck would start to cry. She always made sure to do it in the stairwell, where the acoustics were best. What did she want? Nothing. She just wanted to sing Lauren her favorite version of "I Know You're Asleep, But This Is the Song of My People."

Another of Duck's favorite past times was hiding on the stairs and stalking your ankles. She would wait for Lauren to walk by and then reach out and swipe at her bare ankles. You might say, "Well she's a cat, she's just playing." No, Duck wanted blood. She never once swiped at a pant leg. She only swiped at you when your ankle was bare, for maximum blood. 

A lot of cats enjoy waking you up a few hours before their feeding time. Duck did this of course, but she was also very picky about how she ate. It wasn't enough to just put the food in her dish and walk away. You had to watch her eat. If I fed her and went back to bed, she'd cry until I got up because she wanted me to stare at her while she ate. Why? Who the hell knows? She's a cat. She also loved people food - sort of. Regardless of what was on my plate, Duck was convinced she needed to eat it, and I was constantly fending off her flying leaps at my dinner plate. However, when she finally got whatever it was, she'd stick her nose up in disdain without so much as licking it. (Unless it was a french fry; she loved french fries.)

All cats, as a rule, hate baths. Did this stop me from trying to give Duck a bath? Of course not. One day, I trapped her in the shower stall and aimed the water at her because she'd gotten especially filthy in the yard. Wouldn't you know where I found her five minutes after her bath was over? Taking a dirt bath in the middle of the road in front of the house.

On another occasion, I was sitting on the couch and talking on the phone. Duck sat next to me, cuddling against my leg and purring. I wasn't paying her enough attention, apparently, so how does she tell me? She latches on with all four sets of claws and bites me.

So basically, as Weingarten says, Duck used violence to show me a number of things. Claws and biting both meant, "Pet me", "I've had enough, stop petting me", "I love you", "I'm hungry", "This food is displeasing for no apparent reason", "It's time to wake up", "You're late", and "Hi. I missed you. Well, kind of."

You could argue that Duck was just a bad cat who liked drawing blood, and that mostly the rest of the cat species is a nice, cuddly group. But I've had a lot of pets and several cats, and that just ain't the truth. 

The cat I had growing up, Bootsy, once bit my grandmother because she was sitting in Bootsy's favorite chair. My sister's cat, Olive, just bit my other grandmother over Christmas, for no discernible reason. 

And although my two current furbabies, Catsiopoeia (Catsy) and Soma, are not violent, they continue to prove how frustratingly asshole-ish cats can be. 

Catsy has taught herself how my alarm clock works. She sets it off at 2 AM as a reminder that breakfast is only three hours away. If I'm late going to bed, she starts knocking things over, beginning with whatever is the most fragile. She's fond of knocking the remotes off the end table because she knows the battery compartment will break open and I'll spend the next 20 minutes under the couch trying to find the batteries. If knocking stuff over doesn't work, her last resort is to jump into my lap and act cuddly and affectionate. Just when my guard is down, she turns around and farts in my face. Really.

Soma is more direct. Not laying in the position she prefers? She bites your elbows. If that doesn't work, she bites your nose. If that doesn't work, she sits in the middle of the room and cries until you move. If you don't move, she doesn't stop crying. This will go on for as long as you feel like being stubborn, sometimes all night. When you finally do move and she curls up in your lap, she puts her claws out to secure her position, whether that be in the fabric of your clothes or your skin.

Since Soma and Catsy are still fairly young, they enjoy playing a lot. I've bought them a plethora of different toys; baubles, crinklies, catnip, battery powered mice, and squeakies. Their favorite toys? Q-tips, ice cubes, and twisty ties. Also, the rubber ends on all those door stoppers around the house? Missing. Every single one of them. It's the only "toy" they fight over. 

Cats are incredibly intelligent, every bit as intelligent as dogs. However, cats have no desire to please you, so there is no training them or teaching them or changing them. They want what the want when they want it and it is your duty as their human to see that they get what they want when they want it. Walked across your keyboard and deleted that ten page term paper? Should have been paying attention to me. Knocked over grandma's ashes and used them as kitty litter? I told you my litter box was dirty. What do you think all that crying at 3 a.m. was about? Turned off your alarm and you overslept? Should've fed me at four a.m. This is what happens when you don't listen. 

But all of these things are also the reason I love cats. They're confident creatures. They're never afraid of me. When I get too full of myself, they bring me down to earth by reminding me that I still have to clean the litter box by peeing on the bed. Cats don't need you; they never did and they never will. Who else is this world is so confident in who they are? No human, surely. Even Daisy Fuentes is self-conscious about her big ears. Cats are demanding, more demanding than any other pet you'll ever have, and never once in their lives are they apologetic. They're secure in who they are and you can either accept them for who they are...or not. It makes no difference to them. That's what makes them assholes, albeit cute little furry, fuzzy assholes with itty bitty pink noses and itty bitty kitty feet. 

I'd love to hear some of your kitty stories in the comments below!