Monday, February 23, 2015

Food as a Weapon or Why I'm an Unlikely Thriller Writer

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I’ve been thinking. My cousin's daughter has been blogging about her bread recipe. She describes it as producing soft, fluffy, aromatic bread. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But, me? I like substantial bread. The more nuts and seeds, the better. Does it have heft? If I hurl it at an intruder, will it make an impression? Concussion?
As a writer of murder mysteries, I find myself thinking about these things.
While I’m eating tender, juicy, perfectly grilled pork tenderloin, I think about how using a little too much Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning could make a guy gasp for breath and clutch his throat, giving me time to whack him over the head with a roll of frozen cookie dough.
How quickly would a person die, choking on a boiled egg? Okay. So it might be hard to get someone to let you force a boiled egg into their throat and you’d still have to do something to block their nose.
Maybe a peanut – it could get lodged in their trachea. Deprive them of air from both the mouth and the nose with one little nut.
Stab him with a steak bone? A frozen carrot? It could work.
Blunt force trauma from proper application of any frozen food, right? Well, maybe not peas.
I don’t think I’m unusual in this. Agatha Christie must have contemplated the different kinds of poisons on a regular basis. Can’t you just see the wheels turning? At breakfast. “A three-minute egg, dear. And toast.” And strychnine (which she would pronounce stric-neen), or a dash of arsenic, antimony, ad nauseum.
Maybe I'm more chemistry challenged than she. But it seems to me that, lacking those more difficult-to-come-by chemicals, one could, if properly thought out, do a villain in with whatever came to hand.
Frozen peas? You could scatter them on the floor, the baddie would then slip and fall hitting his or her head on the brick fireplace. If you get to them before they thaw, they should be pretty easy to sweep up. The peas, that is. The villain and the blood on the brick fireplace probably not so easily disposed of.
Slit someone’s throat with the sharp edge of peanut brittle? The lowly peanut again. But honestly a pecan praline would just not be hard enough.
Then there are foods that are too good to be used as weapons. I can’t imagine wasting dark chocolate or a nice wedge of cheesecake. And everyone is safe around me if I am armed with a cappuccino. Unless they get between me and it.
You see? Food as a weapon is not so fetched.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Eaglecrest High School Speech Tournament -- An essay

So, what is one to do on a snowy Saturday? I don’t know about ‘one,’ but I know what I did yesterday. I was a volunteer judge at a high school speech tournament – The Eaglecrest Raptor Rumble.
Eaglecrest High School is on the far side (meaning away from the mountains) of Centennial, Colorado. I’ve been to Centennial before. My husband likes a woodcraft shop down there and my father’s ophthalmic neurologist’s office is there. Say that twice, fast – the ophthalmic-etc.-part not woodcraft.
Our region was under the weather gun with promises of the biggest snow storm in three years. They were predicting five to ten inches, maybe more. Rain turning to snow Friday night, then snow Saturday through Monday.
I’d never been to the east side of the city of Centennial. I started to say town, but with a population of more than 100,000 and me being from Oklahoma, that qualifies as a city.
I got lost twice. Once going to and again coming from. Saturday morning the highways were wet and a little snow-packed in places, but generally fine. I had never judged at a speech tournament before and it was many years ago that I competed in them.
So, by the time I drove the twenty-five-plus miles on iffy highways through unfamiliar territory on my way to do something I’d never done before in the midst of people I did not know, I needed a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll.
Actually there were two people there I knew. Bob O’Daniel and Cortney Green, both of whom are practically family by way of my daughter Grace. And it was reassuring to see them.
I had planned to stay until noon, and considering the weather, I stuck with that plan.
That means I only judged two events.
The first was Extemporaneous Speaking, my personal favorite back in the day. In this event, each competitor draws a question involving either a national or international issue. They have 30 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech.
In the old days we would come with a box full of file cards bearing various and sundry bits of information, quotes, research sources, and concepts. Man, today I’d just bring my tablet and Google away.
The competitors came into the room one at a time and give their speeches. There is no audience -- only the speaker and the judge. The judge has been admonished not to judge the speaker based on whether or not you agree with them. The judge is not to discuss the speech or speaking style with the student. The judge writes comments on the ballot sheet, hopefully including at least three statements of what they did well and three pieces of constructive criticism.
Of the five young people I judged, one was outstanding, two were very good, and one only slightly less so.
The fifth was a young man who was great. He was immaculately dressed and presented himself with great élan. He spoke clearly and confidently. He cited sources for his information and presented a good argument for his answer to a question. However, he only tangentially connected his speech to the question he drew. It appeared he had prepared his speech before coming to the competition and did not let the question he drew dissuade him from his chosen course.
He’ll make a fine lawyer, or politician, or TV preacher. But I ranked him dead last. In fact, the officials requested that I not give him such a low score because it was 15 points below their lowest allowable score.
The other event I judged was Poetry Interpretation. All five of these competitors obviously understand that poetry is a performance art. It was hard to rank them, but we weren’t allowed to have ties. They each chose very different poems to perform.
Only one chose a rhymed poem which, to my mind, gave her a handicap. One which she did not completely overcome. Rhymed poetry is so hard to read without falling into the sing-song trap. The rhyme is too easily given more importance than the story.
The poem was The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. If you do not know it, it is a romantic ballad with the traditional star-crossed lovers. The young woman dies to save her lover who in turn dies attempting to avenge her death. A situation I find more poignant than Romeo and Juliet where the young people end up dying because he failed to get the memo.
In The Highwayman love concurs all. The ghosts of the lovers continue to meet.
And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor . . . .

If done right, the performer can even avoid melodrama.
Those high school age people participating in the tournament are the future of our nation, our culture, our species. And they promise a bright future indeed.

There were no baggie pants, no dirty jeans, no fuzzy house slippers. Come to think of it, there were no flip flops either, but that could have been because of the weather. Best of all, there were no slovenly thinkers.
P.S. Bob taught me how to use my phone as a stop watch. I suppose I'll have to learn how to use its GPS app, too.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Open Mic Night at The Mercury Cafe

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   Last night at Open Mic Night at The Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver!
   One night a month they invite people to read flash fiction. There is a featured reader and the rest of the evening they open up to anyone who wants to read their work. You sign up when you arrive and read in the order of the signup.
   I used to write poetry and do readings both in performance and open mic settings. But that was many years ago. Many years ago. I always enjoyed reading for an audience, so when my daughter asked if I wanted to go with her to The Mercury Cafe for their flash fiction reading, I . . .
(Okay, here is where my writer self kicks in. Did I "jump at the chance" or "embraced the opportunity" or "eagerly accept?")
    . . . I asked when and where. I'd never heard of The Mercury Cafe. Then, armed with that information, I called my husband to see if he could hold the fort (cliches are my life) while I went into Denver for the evening.
   All those many years ago, one of the first things my then-to-be husband did with me was go to poetry readings and take pictures. To be honest, I think he was relieved that he would have to stay home with my dad.

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   This is the room where we read. This picture was obviously taken in the daytime. The readings started at 7:30, well after dark. The stage was reasonably well-lit, but the rest of the room was pretty dark.
   The curtains behind the stage are not blue. They're red. Like I said, I'd never been there before so naturally I wore red. I'm sure I blended into the background beautifully. With my brilliant white hair, I probably looked like a talking head.
   I've read from a stage many times, but never to a darkened room. I've always been able to see the audience. I like seeing the audience. I read to people not to the dark. The picture at the top of this blog post was pretty much like what I was seeing as I read. A bright spotlight, a microphone, and darkness. As a sci-fi writer and reader you'd think vast, empty darkness would suit me just fine. But what interests me about outer space are people in outer space. 
   And then, and then. The emcee announced that the theme for the evening was The Weird. Hmmm. I brought "Dammit Jason" to read. It's from a blog post back in October of last year. You can read it here. Not my idea of weird. Still, if few people in the audience are familiar with the rural South, it could seem weird. And The Mercury Cafe is in Denver, Colorado -- not rural or Southern. Plus most of the  audience are somehow connected to university life, either as professors or students, so . . . .
   So I read it into the darkness, in the face of that spotlight. And they laughed and applauded. It was good. And I'm going to do it again.
   But I won't wear red.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Neil Gaiman Book Signing

   It was a dark and stormy night. That would have been the perfect beginning for a Neil-Gaiman-book-signing sort of day. But it wasn’t. February 6 dawned clear and beautiful with the promise of mid-60s for a high temperature, a good twenty degrees above the average for a February day on the Front Range.
   For those of you who have not read Neil Gaiman let me suggest Stardust, a fairy tale for adults. It has a hero, evil nobles, ghosts, pirates, witches, and a fallen star. And humor. (The 2007 movie of the same name has Robert De Niro as the pirate Captain Shakespeare. And his immortal line “I'm taking the girl to my cabin, and mark my words anyone who disturbs me for the next few hours will get the same treatment.)
   American Gods, another of my favorites, will give you things to think about long after you finish the book.
   But to quote Arlo Guthrie “That’s not what I come here to talk about.”
   Being a new émigré to Colorado and having acquired early on a strong aversion to traveling I-25 to or from the Denver area, I was not looking forward to the two-hour drive on said highway to Ft. Collins. My daughter, who inspired me to make the trip, is an avid Gaiman reader and fan. After all, he has written episodes for the Doctor Who television series. (Matt Smith is her Doctor.)
   Everything was in place. Four books waited for me at The Old Firehouse Book Store. Including Gaiman’s recently released Trigger Warning, a collection of short fiction and poetry which was a required purchase to get into the book signing. Since I am currently attempting to write saleable short fiction and I admire Gaiman’s work, the requirement was painless.
   And being me, one book was not enough. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish also waited for me. To be more precise, for my grandchildren – Martha, John Riley, and Silas respectively.
   The bookstore doors were scheduled to open at 4 p.m. We arrived at 3:45 and found a line winding around the store, down the alley, and around the block. It was not an orderly, single file line. It bulged here and there to three or four or six or ten people wide. Young people, old people, tattooed and pierced people. All carrying books. (We had been told he would sign the books we bought from the bookstore plus three brought from home. Grace didn’t buy a new book but we counted the two she brought from home as mine. I think a lot of people did likewise.)
   From the end of the line I called the bookstore to confirm that my pre-purchased books were there and that he would sign them in spite of the number of people waiting in line. What I was hoping was that those people who had bought multiple books would get special privilege and go to the front of the line. She assured me that he would sign books until the very last one, no matter how long it took and they had my books waiting for me.
   My Dad’s cousin lives in Ft. Collins and we’d been saying since we moved to Colorado that we’d come up and see her. I couldn’t go to Ft. Collins and not visit, so I called her. She asked us to come over after we got our books signed. I explained the situation. The line behind us had lengthened considerably after our arrival. I wasn’t about to lose my place in line.
   So Helen and Charlie came and stood in line and visited with me for a while. The young man (He didn’t like American Gods that much.) behind us in line asked me how they would find me among all those people. I pointed to my white hair. There were people in line with more brightly colored hair than mine, but not that many of us white-haired people. Besides I’d told her which corner we were on.
   Colorado’s sun is fierce. As long as it shines you will always be comfortable. So I had left my warm cape in the car. Did I mention that we had difficulty finding a parking place and had to park several blocks away? Helen and Charlie left and the sun set. And the temperature began to drop.
   It got cold. I had very carefully chosen my clothes. Black slacks, black knee-high stockings, my Washington, D.C. open-toed shoes (that’s a whole ‘nother story) a sleeveless black blouse, a forest green over shirt with the sleeves fashionably rolled to just below the elbow, and a thin black scarf shot through with brightly colored metallic threads.
   I got cold. My back hurt. My knees hurt. But I would not leave my place in line.
The people around us were worth standing in line to visit. The young man behind me was a junior in high school. Some of his friends had skipped class to get in line early. Smart kids. His parents were also somewhere in the line well behind us. They dutifully brought him food and drink.
   Half of one couple – she was a molecular biologist and he a chemistry teacher – went to their car to recharge their cell phones while she stood in line. They were from a town up near the Wyoming border and had had trouble finding a parking place, too. He came back with a partially charged phone and a $75 parking ticket.
   At one point we found ourselves waiting in front of a local winery. Unfortunately, Ft. Collins is narrow-minded about drinking wine while standing on the sidewalk. The folks in Louisiana definitely have the right attitude about public drinking. And it doesn’t get nearly so cold there.
   Grace went in search of provisions and brought me hot coffee. It felt so good just to hold it. And, in keeping with Gaiman’s penchant for fantasy, I imagined climbing into that paper cup, immersing myself in warm, wonderful coffee.
   I didn’t know Ft. Collins had that many people. But I am glad to report that the people there read. They also have a wonderful sense of humor. Quite a few Friday-night-out-people asked what was going on. One of the guys in line (probably 40-years-old or older) cheerfully answered that Justin Bieber was inside.
   I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, by the time we got into the warm bookstore, I had consumed hot coffee, hot cocoa, and hot tea. Oh, yes and a slice of garlic bread from a pizza place we eventually stood in front of.
   At 11:35 p.m. I was standing in front of Neil Gaiman and he was signing my four books. By then, my sleeves were rolled down as far as they would go and I had that sparkly scarf wrapped around my head and neck.

   He signed Grace’s books AND her laptop.

   He was cheerful and friendly and asked how I was after standing in line so long. And him having been signing things since 4 p.m. (Including at least one pair of red roller skates that I’d seen two hours earlier.) He still had as many more of us with books to sign. They said there were around 2000 people who had purchased books, from as far away as South Dakota.

   His discomfort must surely have been greater than mine. I was through and he was not. This is a price of success that I never imagined. 
   I wonder if he’s like me and just wanted to tell a few good stories.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Scene without a Story -- fiction

“You ever see a calf born?”
She took a deep breath. “Never saw anything born.” And she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She thought births involved lots of blood and pain. Neither high on her bucket list.
 “Should I get out with you? Or would you rather I wait in the truck?”
 “Suit yourself. I’ll set my galoshes out in case you decide to come in. Those shoes won’t do you much good in the barn.”
She winced. Her good shoes. One heel already broken.
“Won’t it bother the mother to have strange people there?” she asked.
“I doubt it.” He climbed out of the truck. “If you’re quiet, she won’t pay much attention.”
She did not wait well. Not for seating in restaurants. Not on line for movies. She wore a slinky little black dress, its daringly low neckline now hidden under Jack’s rough canvas barn coat. Which also covered her expensive jasmine scent with his smell of sweat and hay and heaven-knew-what-else. She’d planned on dinner and dancing with Drew, not delivering a calf on a farm in the middle of nowhere with Jack.
A cold wind rocked the truck. The barn or the truck? At least the barn would be warm.  She hoped,
Jack was right. His rubber boots were better than gimping in on one high-heeled shoe.
A man wearing a coat like the one she wore, led a large, black and white cow into the brightly lit barn.
“This is Trey. He’s the boss.” Jack inclined his head toward her. “This is Gina. She’s riding shotgun with me tonight.”
“Hey, ma’am.” Trey looked her up and down. “I’ll fix you a clean place to sit.”
Jack nodded toward the cow. “Get her into the chute first, so I can examine her.”
The cow walked into a metal contraption. Trey pushed a lever causing it to close firmly against the cow.
“She doesn’t mind being restrained?” she asked.
“She’s used to it.”
Jack washed the cow’s rear end with soap and water, then his hands. He was drying his hands when Trey brought a clean white bucket and tipped it upside down for her to sit on.
The cow didn’t seem interested in what any of them were doing, not even Jack. He pulled on a plastic glove long enough to reach his shoulder. He rubbed some kind of clear oil or lotion on his gloved hand and arm and curled the cow’s tail up over her back. He then put his hand into her backside.
Oh, my God. What was he doing?
The cow shifted back and forth on her back feet then stood still and seemed to tense up.
“It’s breech,” Jack said. “I’ll try to turn it.”
She didn’t know how long he worked trying to turn the calf. Probably not as long as it seemed – the whole time up to his shoulder inside the cow, sweat beading on his forehead. The cow, stoic, quiet.
She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. The clean white bucket sat forgotten. “Doesn’t that hurt?” she asked.
“Doesn’t seem to hurt her, but I can tell you it’s not comfortable for me. The contractions . . .”
Finally he withdrew his arm from the cow and peeled off the glove. “Calf’s alive. Too big, though. We need to do a c-section.”
The cow washing and hand washing started again. This time on the cow’s side.
Gina needed a cigarette.
Back at the truck, she retrieved a cigarette and her lighter from her purse. With the wind, she couldn’t get the cigarette lit. It would be easy if Jack would let her smoke in his truck. She decided she’d rather see what he was doing anyway. Maybe she wanted to see a newborn. Even a calf. She put the cigarette back in her purse.
 As she hurried into the barn, Jack lifted the calf out of the cow by its back feet. It was so big. How could a cow carry something so big inside her?
Covered in a thick, pale membrane, the calf hung limp from Jack’s hands. He lay it on a bed of hay.
“Trey, hand her one of those gunny sacks.”
“Is it dead?” she asked. Her chest so tight it hurt. She’d been afraid of what a birth might involve, but she’d never imagined this. This was horrible. She’d never touched anything dead before.
Jack tore the tissue away from the calf’s face and cleared its nose and mouth of mucous. The baby lay unmoving.
“Amniotic bag,” he explained. “It’s a heifer. Trey’ll show you what to do while I finish with momma.”
“A heifer? Is that good?” she asked.
Trey laughed. “On a dairy farm, girl’s are always good.” He scrubbed the baby with the coarse bags. “Like this to get her started.”
As big as it was, the calf felt small under Gina’s hands. Its warm body covered with soft, wet, black and white hair. She thought it would smell bad, like manure and urine, but it didn’t. And there wasn’t a lot of blood.
“Breathe, baby, breathe,” she whispered.
The creature sputtered and struggled. It cried out. The cow, though she’d seemed disinterested throughout the process, mooed back. The feeling in Gina’s chest transformed from shrinking in horror to the swell of wonder and pride. Her face was going to be sore, she was smiling so hard.
Jack finished with the cow and let her out of the chute.
The three of them watched without a word as the cow licked her calf all over. The new baby got her rear end up and wagged her tail like she knew she’d done something amazing. Then she fell in a heap. After several failed attempts, she stood, wobbling on tip toe. So lightly touching the ground she looked like she might float away.
“She’s beautiful.” With the rough fabric of Jack’s barn coat, Gina brushed away tears.
“And healthy,” Jack said wiping off his instruments.

“Want a beer?” Trey asked.