October 30, 2012

The Swan and the Lake (For Halloween)



Carlton took one final glance at the fog-covered lake, screening his chest against the wind with one hand and tossing his partly-smoked Winston into the water with the other. The lake was dead. Not a fish, snake, or bird took refuge in it for as long as anyone could remember. Scientists had come, trying to discover the mystery of the barren lake, but they all left more bewildered than when they had arrived. They shook their heads and filed their reports away in vaults that would never be opened.

The old-timers of the nearby town knew the answer, and if the scientists had bothered to ask they would have fixed one steely eye on the querent and whispered, “It’s haunted.”

“Most likely by the ghosts of loose women,” Carlton said, a rare smile snaking it’s away across his gaunt face. “Penelope should feel right at home.”

Carlton shivered as he remembered her lithe dancer’s body turning shades of alabaster, fuchsia, and silvery-blue as she went limp in his bare hands; hands his father said were too delicate to ever do a real man’s work. Happy now, daddy?

 The wind picked up and Carlton cast an almost sympathetic glance towards the lake. “Good bye, Darling.” His lip began to tremble. He hadn’t always hated her. Love had turned to odiousness only yesterday, when he had returned from a trip to his father’s house a day early and had seen…

He shook his head, fingering the flask in his pocket that would soon erase the memory.

As he turned to go he was startled by a sound. Strange. The lake was usually as quiet as it was empty. He cocked an ear to listen. A wailing, high and sweet,whipping across the waters, ending in a crescendo. Most likely the wind, thought Carlton, though he had never heard a wind like that.

Suddenly, there was movement in the fog. With unbelieving eyes Carlton watched a small, white form emerge from the middle of the lake. It slithered, winding its way towards him, yet causing no ripples, until it rested at his feet.


“Is that a…?”Carlton blinked and looked again. Sure enough, perched at his feet was a beautiful white swan.

Where had it come from? He scanned the area, looking for a clue to its origin. The wind had subsided but Carlton felt cold down into his bones.

The swan stood, shaking water from its feet and Carlton heard the jingling of a collar around its neck. It was a pet. Of course! He laughed at his paranoia. What would his father say if he had seen him spook so easily? Carlton wiped the sweat from his brow and stooped
to give the bird a pat.

The wailing returned. He recognized it now: not a wailing but a song - a song from the ballet. It was the last thing he ever heard. Both his hand and his heart stopped cold as he read the lone word etched into the swan’s collar:

Penelope 

 

**
My submission for the Blogflash Halloween Event.






October 16, 2012

Growing up in the 70's (For Jimmy)

My nephew recently told me that he wished he could have been alive in the 70s to see what they were like. I had to pause for a moment as I was hurled through memory lane. I was a kid in the 70s. Maybe I could help him.

The first thing I remember is the simplicity of the decade. Plain clothes, straight hair, muted colors. We lived in a world of plaid and paisley but it wasn't blinding. Mustard yellow was a wardrobe staple.

We didn't spend our weekends at the Mall or the movie theatre. Going out to the Ihop was a treat. McDonalds was a luxury.
We spent our summers in the front yard running through sprinklers, zipping through neighborhoods on our bikes, or huddled under yards of sheets in makeshift forts. We had toys, but I had never seen a Toys R Us. My parents purchased my Christmas gifts at Kmart. I'm not sure where the other kids got their presents, but it must not have there because the K word, in the third grade, was a dirty word.

There were no vidoe games to keep us occupied. There was just one TV. We had three channels to choose from. Four if you were lucky and could get the clothes hanger your father installed as a makeshift antenna to work. My mother guarded our TV by day, and my stepfather took over at night. Occasionally, I was able to sneak in Mork and Mindy or Happy Days, but only because my mom found neither of those shows deplorable. She hated The Brady Bunch though, so I had to stay in the closet about that one until I came of age.

Homes were large and mostly one level. If you were lucky you got your own room. Most of the time I was unlucky, having to share a space with two sisters and several family pets. But once we lived in a four bedroom house and for two glorious years I had an entire room to myself. It was painted white and I dreamed of yellow fluttering curtains that my mom never got around to hanging up. I littered my room with Nancy Drew books and Slurpee cups from my weekly treks to 7/11. I put on shows for money to keep up my Slurpee habit. Bad singing mostly, but the kids in the neighborhood had few other options for entertainment and so they came to see me and my cousin perform. It was like Little Rascals without the really cool clubhouse.

Our living room was panelled to offset the green cabinets and yellow appliances of the kitchen. My mother would say that the panelling provided warmth. It also helped hide the drawings of my budding artist brother. The adults drank coffee together, brewed in our our house, discussing music and politics as they visited at speckled tables. And they played cards. Lots and lots of cards. The days of gathering on front porches and whittling had vanished but community, conversation, and neighbors were still very important. My mother opened up her house to everyone. This didn't sit well with me. There were six kids in our family and our house was always a mess. But my mother didn't care. She was as friendly as she was undomestic and the only people who seemed to notice were her own children who teased me about it the next day at school.


The adults of the 70s were the children of the 60s and they had come to this decade with the ideals of their youth, even if they were now saddled down by 'the man'. They talked about them too, oftentimes around children. We weren't as protected from words back then. We learned about wars and sex and who was doing what with who as our parents gossiped over chocolate fondue. But we also learned about freedom, sacrifice, and what it meant to be an individual. My mother was very open with me. She told me things that would make parents today gasp. She told me about a man she knew who shot children in the Vietnam War and never came out the same. She told me about the importance of a woman having control over her own body. And she told me that it was okay to love whoever I wanted, regardless of race or gender. Maybe that was too much to tell a child, but even then, I respected that she saw me as a person, not just a kid.

Speaking of protection, our generation was probably the least protected groups of children in current times. We didn't wear helmets when biking, and there were no bark chips on our playgrounds. In our day we played on hot, metallic monkey bars and if we were dumb enough to do an aerial flip and crack our heads on the pavement below, it served us right if we walked around drooling for the rest of our lives. I was too chicken to try most of the flips and so I (and chickens like me) stayed safe. But we watched with wonder as those kids, like my brave cousin, twirled around the bar three times, flew high into the air, and landed gracefully on their feet. There were no adults telling them to be careful. We had walked to the park. Alone. If it was during school hours you might have a playground attendant blow a whistle in your ear before she waddled away, but that was about as much attention as our stunts ever received.

We were the last generation to go to Drive-In movies and one of the first generations to witness the giant, naked breasts on the screens that surrounded us. My parents may have taken us to see The Fox and the Hound but we were gawking at the half-naked women running from a masked psychopath on the screen to our left. The movies of the 70s were a feast for those who love scifi, fantasy, horror, and boobs. And at seven years old, lying on a blanket on the hood of our my car with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, I had front row seats to a world formely privy only to adults.

We were an interesting generation, unprotected from the adult world yet somehow spared the fears of global annihilation that generations before and after knew. The Bay of Pigs and Vietnam were old news, and the threat of Russia was years away. All we had were long days of bell bottoms, great music, and Gilligan's Island reruns. Time stood still in this decade. At least when you are seven years old.

I got my first radio in 1977. It was shaped like a ladybug and when you pulled its wings out you could hear music. It picked up two channels but I can still remember the thrill of tuning in and hearing Top of the World playing for me alone  the very first time. With my radio came freedom. I was no longer at the mercy of my mother's Bee Gee's albums. I was introduced to a new world of music to explore (if I were patient enough to wait for the song to come on), and as I was listening, I was dreaming. I started writing my own songs. Really, really bad songs. My sister would mock me as I'd tell her, all fists and seriousness, to leave me alone because I was going to be a famous songwriter one day. Once, she even stole one of my songs to piss me off and claimed it was hers. I was sure that she would get famous for it and no one would recognize the creative genius behind it, but that never happened. It turns out a song entitled Boy Oh Boy Ardee, written by an overzealous eight-year-old, was not destined to pop the charts. We weren't the first generation to have been inspired by music, but the mellow sounds of Bread and The Eagles, and later the harder sounds of Zeppelin and punk and early metal bands, all changed the way we thought and felt forever. Maybe I'm turning into an 'old fogie', but as I look back now I can't think of many songs as powerful and enduring as Hotel California.

You can't stay locked in a world forever. The 70s, like childhood, was about simplicity. But adolescence was on the horizon and another decade was about to roll over. New music was being recorded. Malls were being erected. Kids were wearing things that cost more than their parents made. We grew tired of simplicity and patches on our knees. We wanted new.

I was watching The Facts of Life one day and thinking...if all I ever get in life is a real pair of Jordache Jeans, a really cool blazer, and hair like Blaire's, I will be happy. Please, God. Please let me have those things. Brooke Shields, who had made her fame by living on an island in The Blue Lagoon, was now telling us to buy Calvin Kleins. And if Brooke was pimping jeans, we had to have them. My cousin and I wrote Brook a letter begging for a free pair since all the other kids would have them and our thrift-store shopping parents certainly wouldn't get them for us. Brook never responded. We resorted to cutting out the labels of my older sister's clothes and sewing them onto our own. I'm not sure anyone really bought that we were wearing Gucci cutoff shorts, but the power was in the words plastered across our butts. They made us superheroes, at least in our own heads. We started classifying each other. Those who wore designer jeans. And those who did not.

The 80's arrived and I was a decade older, ready to embrace the next chapter of my life. The world became nosier as gadgets and gizmos invaded our homes. We were one of the first houses to get an Atari and a VHS player, but one of the last to get a microwave. We also got an additional TV which mom put in her bedroom. She now had two to lord over, but I became queen of the remote during those hours when she slept and I'd turn on something called music videos and sing along. Maybe I wouldn't write songs after all. Maybe I would produce music videos instead. They were the future of the industry. With more TVs and gadgets came the necessity for more money and moms started going off to work. There wasn't after school care for us, there were TV's and VHS players to keep us entertained until our parents returned. We were the first and only latchkey generation, raised on the wisdom of Meatballs and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We were free. Independent. And knew how to make our own macaroni and cheese.

More access to information also meant more news. We learned about the doom and gloom of a dissipating ozone and the real possibility of a global nuclear war. The 80s brought me into the real world and it was scary. So I did what every other kid of my generation did. I listened to loud, obnoxious music, ratted my hair out, and drowned out the world in the most gaudy pieces of fabric I could drape across my body. When the movie The Day After came out in 1983, depicting the horrors of humanity after a nuclear attack, I checked out of the real world and disappeared into the fantasy of the early 80s. If simplicity hadn't saved me, then excess might.

The 90s, of course, brought me back. While the 80s had taught me to Rock and Roll all night, the 90s reminded me of the frailty of human existence. The artists of this era sent out a wake up call, reminding my generation of the things we had tried to forget. Wearing hot pink and having hair that rivaled the height of the Space Needle was no longer in. The 90s meant you had to get real. I couldn't live in a pretend world anymore. The world was sticky and messy and at times rather unpleasant, but it was the world I lived in.

My nephew wanted to know what it was like to live in the 70s and I hope I told him. But that was my experience as a child. I knew nothing of what haunted the adults of that generation, those who had lived through wars and depressions and civil unrest. I only know that for me, it was a shelter before the storm. Maybe that's because i was a kid, and that's how it should be, in any era.


October 8, 2012

Husband Helps with Laundry


It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m walking around the house, trying to figure out how I’m going to complete everything on my weekend to-do list. I’ve been so busy with other projects lately that housework has taken a back seat - and it’s beginning to show. The dishes are dirty, the floors unswept, and the smells emanating from the garbage disposal have set off the carbon monoxide alarm. I have two choices: Clean or move.

I scan the living room and my eyes find my husband, lounging lazily in front of TV. He’s munching on Cheetos and cycling through a series of football games, completely unaware that our house is one mouse shy of being condemned. He has, I’ve discovered, a superpower: the complete inability to see filth.

“What’s wrong babe?” He asks. He may not notice a mess but he can always feel my disapproving eyes on him. Another superpower. When I don’t answer he extracts himself from the couch and plods towards me, offering me his bag of chips. “Anything I can do?” His gaze stays with me only for a second before sliding back to the game. Someone in a blue uniform catches a ball and my husband raises his arms in victory, launching several Cheetos in my direction.

I rarely ask my husband to help. After all, I’m the one who works from home. And since I don’t earn enough income to feed our plants, I try to make up for it by taking care of the house.  But even I know when I’m licked. “I’m overwhelmed,” I admit, hoping that fuzzy thing looking at me from the corner is my daughter’s doggie slipper. “There’s just too much to do.”

“The house looks fine,” he says.

“I’m not sure why I told you.” My lip starts to tremble. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“Come on babe,” he says. “It’s not that bad. I can help. Just let me know what you need.”

“You?”

“Yes, me.”

“What do you know how to do?” I ask dubiously. To this day the only evidence I’ve seen of his domesticity is that he lives in a house.

“I can do laundry,” he says confidently. “I used to do my own laundry, you know, before I got a wife.”

“Are you sure? Maybe you should dust the furniture."

“No. Laundry is perfect. Wash. Dry. Fold. Easy Peasy. And…” he says as he hustles up to the guest room where we store our dirty clothes, “I can do it all during commercial breaks.”

My husband is in the room and I hear the swish-swish of flying clothes. When he doesn’t emerge I call to him. “Need help gathering?”

“Don’t worry babe. I’m on it.”

My husband is a smart man. He wears khaki pants to work, crunches numbers, and manages people at his office. If he says he can handle the laundry, I have to believe him. I start on the dishes, wondering if we should just get a new set, when I see my husband trot down the stairs with a basket of clothes piled so high I can’t make out his face.

“I didn’t realize we had so many dirty clothes,” I say.

“There were four hampers in the guest room. I managed to fit them all into one stack.”

“You combined the clothes from the green hamper with the clothes from the red hamper?” I gasped. I had explained to him countless times that clothes in a green hamper were clean and clothes in a red hamper were dirty. Even if he hadn’t listened it should have been easy to figure out: Green - clothes were ready to GO. Red – the next STOP was the washing machine. “Now the clean and dirty clothes are mixed up.”

“Sorry babe,” my husband says, offering to do a sniff test. I tell him that it’s okay, we will just wash them all again, and I follow him down to our laundry room.  When we get there he turns on the machine, dumps in half a box of detergent, and starts adding the entire contents of the basket into the washer.

“First of all,” I say, yanking out the things that appear to be mine. “That’s too many clothes. It will break the machine. Secondly, you can’t wash them all together, in the same temperature.”

“Sure I can. Saves time and money.”

“But you didn’t sort the colors from the whites.”

“No need. I was them all in cold.”

“Do you really want to wash your socks and underwear in cold water?” I ask. “That’s not hygienic.”

“Marilyn vos Savant says that all clothes can be washed in cold water. The germ thing is made up by the gas company to get you to use more hot water.”

I groaned. Whenever he wants to win an argument he quotes Marilyn vos Savant. But I wasn’t buying this one and I googled it.

“Aha!” I say triumphantly. “Socks DO need to be washed in hot water. Otherwise you might get athlete’s foot. And who knows what you will get if you don’t wash your underwear in hot water?”

“You don’t say,” he says scratching his head. “I wonder why Marilyn said otherwise.”

The bell on the washing machine rings, letting us know the wash cycle is over. He removes the wet clothes, which have all turned the same shade of murky blue. I raise an ‘I told you so eyebrow’ and he shrugs.  “I don’t mind wearing clothes that are all the same color,” he reassures me, “easier to match.”

At least I saved mine, I think. And then a terrible thought occurs to me.

“Honey…what did you do with the clothes that were in the washing machine?” He didn’t have to say a word. A buzz from the dryer confirmed my deepest fears.

“You put my clothes into the dryer!?”

“Yep. You’re welcome.”

“Oh my God. You can’t do that”

“Why?”

“Because my clothes fit just right, but if they get hit by so much as a gust of wind on a warm day, they shrink.”

I opened the dryer and a load of clothing that could have fit my daughter’s Barbie Dolls tumbles out. I hold a skirt up to my body. In its current state it would either make me some extra money or get me put on probation. “I can’t wear these.”

“Why not? You’ll look hot.”

“We live in the Suburbs!” I say. If I went out in this I’d be banned from schoolyards, libraries, and The Home Depot. But maybe not Lowes.

“Suit yourself,” he says. “Anyways, laundry is done. Need help with anything else?”

I look at the pile of what had once been people-sized clothing and fight back the sigh that is welling up inside me. Maybe it’s not that bad. A few short years on Slimfast and I’ll be wearing them again. I kiss him on the cheek and hand him a new bag of chips. “No, honey,” I say. “I don’t think I need any more help today. Why don’t you go and watch your game?”

“Okay, baby. But only if you’re sure.” My husband takes the chips and disappears into his mancave, and somehow I manage to do everything on my list that day. I guess all I needed was a little extra motivation.

And maybe that's his real superpower after all.

October 5, 2012

How To Come Up With Story Ideas

Story ideas
You’re sitting there, staring at your computer, willing your fingers to type. There’s a story in your head somewhere, you just need to squeeze it out. Minute by minute, hour by hour, nothing comes. What some people call writer’s block, I call ‘inspirationally barren’, and when you’re a writer, nothing feels worse. So here are four ways I call upon inspiration when my imagination seems to have given up.

1. My Childhood




Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I now realize that I was fortunate enough to have an interesting childhood. My parents were dreamers, always moving from one town or city to the next, hoping for their big break. They traveled the carnival circuit, mined for gold, and for a short time lived in the suburbs holding down ‘respectable’ jobs. Subsequently, I was exposed to a variety of people and places that have crept, and often leapt, into my stories.
For those writers who complain that their childhood was boring and normal and nothing worth writing about, I say you haven’t looked hard enough. A run through the sprinkler on a hot summer’s day can be a nostalgic point of remembrance for the protagonist who knows she is dying. The PTA meetings your mother religiously attended may have been a front for a witch’s coven. The boy who ate the same peanut butter sandwich every day throughout Jr. High, may have really been an old man who discovered that the combination of peanuts and Wonder bread reversed the aging process. Reality? Probably not. But that’s not the point. Childhood is full of wonder and possibilities and when we think back on those experiences and examine them under the microscope of imagination, we have more stories to tell than we have years to live.

2. Public Transportation

Many of my writer friends say that they find inspiration in restaurants and coffee shops. They claim that people, when nestled within the secure confines of their tables and booths, will speak as freely and inanely as they do in their own homes. I agree. I’ve gotten lots of inspiration from food court eavesdropping. I once heard a woman saying that she wanted to dye her toddler daughter’s blonde hair a dark brown so that she could compete in The Little Miss Kardashian Pageant (horrifyingly, no joke). But while restaurants are good for people listening, I find public transportation the way to go for people watching.
If you’re lucky enough to find an unclaimed spot in the corner of a bus, subway, or train, you can witness human interaction at its most real. There you will find people of all walks of life, the young and the old, the suits and the slackers, the sexy and the sexless, sharing a few minutes together before moving on to their ‘real lives’. While you can hear snippets of conversation, it’s the body language that’s really fun. The look of uncertainty on a prim woman’s face as a leather-clad man plops down beside her. The way an old woman’s eyes mist up as she watches a young mother bouncing a toddler on her knee. The way a businessman looks out the window and then at his watch repeatedly as he taps his fingers against his briefcase. Fear. Love. Lust. Loss. It’s all there for you to interpret and restructure. A traveling human zoo. Next stop, inspiration town.

3. Friends and Family.

These are the people you know well: The ones you grew up with, the ones you hang out with, the ones you call at night for reassurance that you’re still pretty when your husband ogles the Dunkin Donuts girl. You know their mannerisms, their slang, their manner of dress, and their annoying habit of revealing the end of the movie while you are watching it. So why not write about them?
Friends and family are a great source of inspiration. You can learn more about the human condition by listening to those closest to you than you could by watching one-hundred hours of the evening news. What drives them? Compels them? Makes them yearn? You may know them but do you really know them? Find out why your best friend is always late to parties or why your brother compulsively collects souvenir spoons. The people of your inner circle represent the masses. Tell their story, or at least part of it.
A word of caution: Writing about people you know requires a degree of understanding and sensitivity. The goal isn’t to write a tell-all book of dirty secrets, but rather to reveal the depths that exist within the familiar.

4. The Unknown.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. As a writer I know that I can spend days, even weeks, locked in a room with just a cup of coffee and a laptop to keep me company. And nowadays, if I’m ever really in need of socialization, I can just pop onto Facebook or Twitter, gab with the gang for a few hours, and get back to work. It’s only when I’ve eaten the last of me Lucky Charms and head out to the grocery store, blinking back the sunlight like a mole-person, that I realize I haven’t done anything new or noteworthy in days. The point: If you are really stuck for ideas, you may be stuck in your life. When was the last time you took a new route to work? Met someone new? Where did you spend your last vacation? If your mind is as a blank as your sheet of paper, perhaps it’s time to shake things up.
An example: A few years ago I found out that my brother belonged to a group of individuals that protested “work”. Who would protest work, I wondered, and I immediately wanted to meet them. My brother took me by bus (see #2) to a section of town I had never seen before. Most of the houses were boarded up and looked like they had been condemned. We found our building, a dilapidated structure with an Anarchist flag flying from the window, and gave the ‘secret knock’ to gain entrance. A thin man ushered us into a large room where everyone was gathered around a table. The leader preached about the evils of work, rules, and government, while secretary took notes and kept minutes. We were then asked who could donate books for the annual book sale. Next, we were escorted into a room for ‘chorus practice’, where we chortled along to anti-employment tunes such as the classic: “Aint gonna work no more, no more, while we sipped from a flask of whiskey. The meeting was finally closed as a tin collection plate was passed around the room, and we all emptied our pockets of the change we had gotten by somehow not working. Needless to say, that one experience provided me with enough material to tell many stories. Since then I’ve been a staunch proponent of new experiences. Embrace new experiences. If we aren’t living life, then what makes us worthy of writing about it?

(Originally written for The Indie Exchange Oct 2012 by April Aasheim http://theindieexchange.com/how-to-get-ideas-for-stories/)