In Their Shoes (Flash Fiction)

Congress of Rough Writers January 27 Flash Fiction Challenge: In 99 words, no more and no less, write about a community outreach:

People saw the shoes. Many signed the petition, most just kept walking. But hundreds, thousands, saw.

 

In Westlake Square, more than 3,000 pairs of shoes, to make it real, how many people are without shelter in this city. How many kids’ shoes.

Jane Doe is here, too. She signed the petition. Mostly she’s here for the free hot dog and coke.

Demonstration over, the organizers give the shoes away to those who need them. Jane shakes her head no, thank you, she has shoes. She has a home too, so to speak. Unheated and illegal, but it’s shelter.

Photo: RealChange.org

 

Author note: This flash isn’t strictly fiction. It is based on the Real Change demonstration in May 2014, where they laid out 3,123 pairs of shoes in Westlake Square, Seattle, to make it visible how many people are without shelter in King County, Washington. It was part of a petition to make things happen to lower the One Night Count, an annual head count performed by volunteers to determine how many people are sleeping outside.

The count did not go down. In January 2015 was 3,772, and in 2016 it was 4,505.

I have previously ranted about our society’s neglect and cruelty to its own here.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (Book Review)

CryptonomiconCryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading this for the second time. It’s STILL probably the best historical, cryptanalytical, mathematical, technological, warfare, nerd-heaven, looking-for-buried-treasure tale ever. It’s a doorstop at 900+ pages so if that intimidates you, turn back now. If you love complex plots and intertwining timelines and a good long read to lose yourself in for days, this is the one. And…it’s got Alan Turing in it!

Can, or Can Not (Six Sentence Stories, Installment 2)

I don’t know if I can do it.



She’d been sitting here in the coffee house for fifteen minutes now, thinking she was just a little dizzy, all she needed was a cup of tea and she’d be fine. She’d drunk the tea, she’d sat quietly, but she didn’t feel better in the slightest. Everything still had that just-off-of-normal look, and her heart was still thumping right along.

If she could just make it out the door, up the elevator and back to her desk, she’d be safe, but here she sat, too frightened to move.

Why can’t I do this?


This is a Six Sentence Stories Installment, #2. The cue was “can.”

Click here for Installment 1.

Click here for Installment 3.

Click here for the link-up to read Six Sentence Stories from other writers.

A Boy and His Dog (Flash Fiction)

Congress of Rough Writers January 20 flash fiction challenge: In 99 words, no more and no less, write a story about a boy and his dog.

ciadefoto: Flickr/CC Attribution 4.0 License
Jane watches Troubles run around the dog park. A soft voice speaks. She hadn’t felt anyone sit down on her bench.

“I like your dog. I had a dog but he ran away.”

She glances at the boy beside her. “I like him too.”

“Where’d you get him?”

She doesn’t want to say she found him, abandoned along with the house she broke into and squats in. She inspects the boy surreptitiously: healthy, expensive clothes, could afford to feed Troubles better than she can. Sadness limns his face.

This boy needs this dog as much as she does. Almost.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Book Review)

Night FilmNight Film by Marisha Pessl
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Next time I’m stuck with nothing but a Marisha Pessl book to read, I’ll kill the hours by picking my toes instead.

“…the territory between two people who were once soul mates but were no longer was akin to…”

and

“I noticed the wicks were still smoldering orange, three orange pinpricks in the dark.”

and

“I swore I heard a man’s dull, prolonged moan.”

and

“…grabbed the black iron grating over the arched window and began to climb. ..hoisted himself higher, dangling there. ..”

By page 27, the way this writer italicizes everything for no apparent reason had become very annoying. For me putting up with that, the book owed me phenomenal.

It did not put out.

“ ..his shoulders were rising and falling, as if he was out of breath. “

Is that so I know what I need to pay attention to? I don’t need the help. I can read. And if I’m not bright enough to figure it out for myself, well, that’s what the denouement is for.

“A human shadow had just moved directly behind it, though, as if sensing we’d spotted it, it froze.”

Reading this is what I imagine it would be like to listen to a narrator read all 600 pages in a singsong tone. Is it for want of an editor who knows what italics are for? Or is it some artsy-fartsy thing I don’t get because I’m a philistine? Don’t care. Annoying as hell.

And purple prose? It doesn’t get much more purple than this. “[Men] melted and sweated and went weak in front of her like a bunch of idiot iced teas.” Just awful.

So while the story is badly over-written with its endless italics and clumsy metaphors, it manages to be under-written at the same time. There was a lot of potential for surrealistic creepiness but it never got there. There is no tension. We just traipse from here to there, find out this, find out that, oh, look, another clue conveniently lands in our laps so now we’ll go over here, but there is no sense of urgency. It could have been pruned of 200 pages and not lost a thing. By around page 350 I was weary of the whole tedious mess, but was stuck with nothing else to read, which is admittedly no one’s fault but mine. Long before I made it through the acid-trip-hexagon-coffin scene, which should have been wonderfully Kafkaesque but was merely another slog, I was anticipating those fucking italics even where there weren’t any, but at that point, I’ve got 100 pages left, might as well finish the thing and find out the unrealized premise behind it all. Right?

Wrong.

I’m around 60 pages into the denouement – seriously, another 25,000 words to tidy everything up and finish it off, that’s how tiresome this book is – and I’m still not sure I’ll finish it. I just don’t care.

Trippy (Six Sentence Stories, Installment 1)

The world lurches, the floor trying to escape from under her feet. The world seems to be melting around her, like that time she dropped acid in high school.


She gets a grip on the table’s edge and lowers herself back to her chair, reaches for her tea to see her hand trembling violently. Now she notices, through the whirling fog that seems to have descended over her mind, that her breath is short and her heart is pounding.

“Are you all right?” a voice asks.

Embarrassed, feeling herself flushing, she tosses back, “Fine, just took a little trip without leaving the farm.”

70023venus2009, Flickr/Creative Commons

This is the first installment in a series for Six Sentence Stories. The cue was “trip.” I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Click here for Installment 2.

#1000Speak: Forgiveness Sucks, So Let’s Try Something Different – Updated

Here I am again, awake. I have what may be the world’s worst insomnia. Tonight I’m not worrying about money or children or husbands, and it’s not noisy people. I was actually asleep, but a bad dream woke me up.

I moved to Seattle to take a job after no luck finding one in my home state of Nevada for a year. It should have been my dream job, stepping up to the big leagues of paralegal-dom after many years working for country, but good, lawyers. It should have been a whole new vista for me, an exciting new professional experience in an exciting new city in beautiful new country.

It was the job from hell. Seriously. In my 40 years in the work force, I could not imagine a more horrific experience. I suspect my boss was a true narcissist, and I’m dead certain she was emotionally and mentally abusive. In current nomenclature, I was bullied mercilessly. The three months I worked at that firm was the longest, most horrific time I can remember aside from one marriage I’ve worked hard to block from recall. It should be noted that the dynamics of an abusive intimate relationship and an abusive employment relationship are extremely similar. That job and that woman damaged me. I needed counseling to get past the worst of it.

I’m still damaged. What woke me up a little while ago was a dream that I was right back there, working for that harridan again. I woke gasping, with the electricity of a panic attack running through my veins.

Great.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve moved on with living my life, and I’ve accomplished a lot since then. I stayed in counseling for a year and unpacked a lot of things. I made the decision to return to school, excelling at that and enjoying it, and I have another job I more or less enjoy too. It doesn’t challenge me and the pay is middlin’, but I don’t bring any work stress home at night either, and that’s worth a lot. I am the only person in my office; I run the whole damn state for my company and for the most part, I like that solitude and independence just fine. If some jerk brings donuts into the office when I’m cutting out sugar, well, I have no one to blame but myself. To further my healing, I considered writing her a letter but opted instead for scathingly honest review on Glassdoor, and if it saves even one person from what I went through, I’m glad.

And yet, here I am dreaming about that horrid woman, and still losing sleep to her, three years down the road. What gives?

I was lying there, having burned one of my precious few anxiety pills and trying to read a bit of War and Peace in the hopes I could return to sleep, when I realized it.

Forgiveness.

And then: Why should I? That bitch hurt me. She’s hurt lots of people, that I know of; I was far from her first. Why does she deserve anything from me?

And the truth is, she doesn’t.

And I know the platitude, that forgiveness isn’t for the other person, it’s for you, and I kinda believe that, but then again, I don’t believe it at all. To forgive is to absolve the person of what they did, and I’m just not going to do that. She’s accountable, past and future, because I know she’s still doing it to others who were looking forward to a terrific position just as I was. When I was there I saw payroll records for three other legal assistants in the eight months before I arrived. Add me, that’s four in a year. She’s accountable. I might not be willing to confront her any more directly than an anonymous online employment review, probably because I loathe conflict with a flaming purple passion, but it’s what I can do.

No, what popped into my head from the depths of I-don’t-know-how-long-ago was another definition of forgiveness I heard once attributed to Oprah, I think it was, and I’m not a fan of Oprah, but I’m a fan of this definition, because it works:

Forgiveness is giving up the wish that things had been different.

And as I lie there still unable to go back to sleep but also unable to unscramble the letters on the pages of War and Peace, I realized that’s what I need to work with.

I am not making the buckets of money I did, briefly, at that firm. I do not have the nice house, and the nice new car and maybe a truck for the Tominator, and long weekend trips up to Vancouver and Whistler and a canoe for all the lakes around here. I do not have a 401(k) and killer health insurance. I do not have the prestige of high-end law firm experience in a posh downtown office tower. And that’s what I should have had. It’s what I’d worked for, for so long. It’s what I was offered when I left my family behind, left my home with my Mother’s Day rosebushes tended lovingly in the yard, and dragged the Tominator and Dream Girl and my stuff up here, and I should have it. I was robbed.

Yeah, I know. Shit happens and who said life was fair, suck it up buttercup. But underneath it, as superficial as it sounds, I am angry about that. Still. I moved up here for professional and financial advancement but here I am, scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, as I have for most of my life.

But on the other hand, as I struggle through many of my days, one of the first things I count when I’m reminding myself of all I have to be thankful for is that I no longer work for that Medusa. I may not have what I should have had, but I have enough, and I’m away from her, and I’m nowhere near anyone remotely like her, and that should be nothing but good.

I don’t have to absolve that woman of anything, but I can give up my wish that it had worked out. I can do something radical, even, and wish for something good tomorrow instead of in the past.

New entry on tomorrow’s to-do list. Make that today’s to-do list; cruising up on one a.m.

I’m going to try to get some sleep now. And even if I don’t, even if tomorrow – no, today – is another day I have to wade through in a sleep-deprived fugue state, I know one thing I can work on toward my own brand of forgiveness: I can wish forward instead of wishing behind.

It’s a start.

Update: Yesterday I was scrolling through job listings, thinking it might be time to go for an upgrade, and I see this Hagatha is advertising for a new victim paralegal. The ad doesn’t list the firm but I know her writing style, and the location is the same. Oh, God, all I can do is pray for the poor sacrificial virgin new hire. Another one. A therapist can make a career out of this woman’s employees.

33-1/3 – Gettin’ Into the 2016 Reading Challenge

I have 18 books on my reading challenge for 2016. Incredibly, I’m a third of the way done and we’re only barely halfway through January — and that’s with work and school. I believe it’s because I picked some pretty good ones.

Rather than one ridiculously long post, I’m going to break this up.

3. A book with more than 500 pages.

It was time to get around to this one:

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve seen this book described as a murder mystery, which is inaccurate. You know what’s coming, you just don’t know when or how. The mystery is in the aftermath, which is half the book and even more fraught with tension than the first half. The whole thing is a high-falutin’ study of human nature and our yearning for beauty – “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” – which hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks started contemplating it.

I really got into the characters, which is interesting given I didn’t like any of them. Well, maybe I liked the narrator a little bit, but only because he wasn’t really rich, just trying to look like he was, which is even more fake, so never mind, I don’t really like him after all. I’m having a hard time buying the concept of college kids who aren’t legally old enough to drink but still guzzle top-drawer Scotch from leaded crystal highball glasses and use chafing dishes and dress in custom-tailored suits and silk ties. But then, I’m not disgustingly wealthy and did not attend a hoity-toity private liberal arts college in New England, so maybe this is just me having no idea how the better half lives.

I saw a couple of reviews complaining that it’s a ripoff of Brideshead Revisited, but that didn’t bother me since I’ve never read Brideshead Revisited. I probably will now. I enjoyed Tartt’s writing style and I’ll probably read her other books just for that. While the story moves slowly, it does grab you, being richly told, with a lot of literary themes and classics references and a level of introspection that surprised me from such snooty, snotty kids. Perhaps self-absorbed can also be self-aware. There were some subplots that left me dissatisfied as they weren’t explored too deeply or resolved – Charles and Camilla? Henry and Camilla? Francis and Richard? Hello? What was up with all that? What happened? Why bring it up if you’re not going to finish it? And then there’s Julian, who may be the biggest mystery in the book. Or is that just another reflection of life itself, that we don’t always get to know the how or why or the way it ends up? In real life, a lot of things just fizzle out without going anywhere, but I’m used to having things tied up neatly with pretty bows when I read about them in books. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing the point. It may just be a paradox, that the Greek Clique’s very cohesion was what blew them apart.

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” It did leave me thinking after I’d finished it, which for me is the sign of a good book.

4. A book with bad reviews.

Because sometimes books piss people off by jabbing at the comfort zone, and that can be a good thing:

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Lolita was a foray into both the land of classic literature and the land of banned books. It is as difficult to review as it was to read. Nabokov was a genius with language in ways I can’t begin to understand, no doubt partly because he was trilingual (Russian, French, English) from childhood, no doubt partly due to his synesthesia. The literary references, word games, allegories and motifs are innumerable and I’m sure most of them went over my head. No, I probably don’t really get it, and I never will, because while the writing is gorgeous, the novel itself is too disturbing for me to read again.

The rich prose pulled me in, to fascinated horror as events unfolded. Our unreliable narrator seems perhaps not-so-unreliable: he paints a grim picture of himself throughout, acknowledging his own depravity, his compulsion and lurking and plotting, his madness, his crimes against the young Dolores Haze. At all times he fully admits he is a paedophile, vile and a danger to nymphets everywhere while at the same time professing his undying love. Part of Nabokov’s artistry lies in the reader’s understanding of Humbert’s love and Humbert’s suffering. The pinnacle of ecstasy is synonymous with the abyss of despair. The brilliance of this book is that I can come away feeling sympathy for a monster and not a little impatience with Lolita herself, which of course is completely bassackward, and all of it leaves me with that uncomfortable squirmy feeling in my stomach.

One lesson here is that maybe it doesn’t matter what you write about so much as how you write about it. This is one of the things art is for: to pull us out of our comfort zones, to view the world through another lens. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this book, but I do appreciate the experience of reading it.

6. A book that was published the year you were born.

HombreHombre by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Late to the party, as usual, but I love discovering a new favorite writer. Elmore Leonard has crossed my radar several times over the years but I’d never read anything by him until now. I will now be reading every other book he wrote. I don’t think I’ve seen dialogue done better.

I am intentionally not gushing, because I wish I could write like Elmore Leonard.

9. A book based on/turned into a television show.

Pretty Little Liars (Pretty Little Liars, #1)Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was part of my reading challenge as a book made into a TV show. I picked it because everything else I could find was either more goddamned vampire/zombie/werewolf crap, which we should be over by now, or else I’d already read it.

This one also happens to be YA. I’ve read some YA books that were excellent enough to break out of the genre and really impress me.

This is not one of those books.

Not only is this written for teenagers, it reads like it was written by a teenager. “He gestured at the police cars and random news vans…” They’re not random; they’re there because of the crime. It’s an irritating word misusage and teenagers are generally the culprits.

Still, a book written for teenagers, by a teenager, dealing with teenager issues, is not necessarily a bad thing. S.E. Hinton knocked that stuff out of the park; John Green more recently. But that’s not what we have here. The plot consists of various flashes of adolescent drama cobbled together as a vehicle for four spoiled rich brats to parade their endless Kate Spade pajama pants and Chanel lip gloss and Gucci sunglasses and blue fur-lined clogs bought in Iceland and APC skirts and John Fluevog cowboy boots. This label-dropping conspicuous consumption is diarrhea on virtually every page. In between hurriedly pushing their hair into fashionably messy ponytails and looking for their BlackBerrys, they do some actual teenage stuff, like make out with their sisters’ boyfriends and crash other people’s Porsches when they’re drunk and stay skinny by vomiting up their food and find out they like kissing other girls and shoplift at Tiffany and bang their English teachers in disgusting bar bathrooms. But mostly they flash their Paper Denim jeans and whine because they can’t take their yappy overbred dogs to school in their Prada handbags.

Ugh.

The constant mention of The Jenna Thing did not rope me into reading the next book to find out what it was. I know how to Google stuff. More spoiled rich white girls behaving badly.

I only finished the book in the hopes it would beat one night’s bout of insomnia, which still plagues me despite the soothing ways of Angela Carter and The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. It didn’t help. I suffered through the next day with a hangover fashioned of no sleep and the memory of this awful book.

Double ugh.

17. A popular author’s first book.

I’m qualifying this one, since Gaiman’s first published works were mini-series, graphic novels, comics, and television scripts. Also, his first published novel was a collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Stardust is his first published plain-old-novel novel, written solo.

StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book, a wonderful fairy tale, or should I say a Faerie tale? Deceptively simple, beautifully told in the prose only Gaiman can write, it has all the elements of the classic once-upon-a-time-in-a-land-far-far-away fable, with all of the different elements coming neatly together in a beautiful magic circle at the end.

18. A nonfiction book.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterInto Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have no idea why I’m so fascinated with Mt. Everest. I am not the slightest bit athletic, hate being cold, and am terrified of heights. When I read about the drugged, underwater feeling of hypoxia and knowing there was “7,000 feet of sky on either side” and that “I would pay for a single bungled step with my life,” I literally had a panic attack. I love nature and the outdoors, but at my age and with the sorry state of my knees, my idea of outdoor recreation is enjoying a few beers around the campfire, on terra firma, well away from Himalayan precipices and crevasses. Oh, and I like canoes, too.

I know Krakauer was criticized for his criticism of unskilled climbers and a wealthy socialite who added to the work of the Sherpas by bringing along a CD-rom player and a printer and an espresso maker, for chrissakes. I have to take his side of it. He did not stint on noting the contributions and failings of anyone, including himself, but to me it is obvious that less skilled and frivolous climbers increase the danger to everyone else. (Krakauer particularly pillories Ian Woodall, who deserves it as far as I can tell. I tried to find something from Woodall’s point of view and found a book, Everest: Free to Decide by Woodall and his girlfriend Cathy O’Dowd. It has a lukewarm rating and four, count ‘em, four, reviews on Amazon, none at all on Goodreads, and the closest library that has it is 800 miles away, so I’ll take Krakauer’s word for it, which is backed up by others. Anyhow, I can’t imagine how Woodall would defend lying about his experience and qualifications, among other things, and refusing to let others use his radio for a rescue effort when people were dying.) That aside, I have to agree that the commercialism of Everest is a bad thing, if for no other factor than the amount of garbage human beings leave behind themselves.

The upshot is I don’t think Krakauer did much blaming beyond citing Woodall’s refusal of his radio, which is pretty serious dickdom, and questioning guides who decided not to use supplemental oxygen, thus lessening their ability to make rational decisions and to assist their clients when needed the most. He related several different incidents and cited the contributing factors, generally altitude sickness and miscommunication, but not leaving out ego, inexperience, and mountain fever. These incidents in and of themselves might not have been disastrous, but taken with the intrinsic perils of such a climb served to create the perfect storm, almost as deadly as the storm that trapped so many climbers near the summit, hypoxiated, frostbitten, hypothermic, debilitated by altitude sickness, exhausted, weak, and lost.

Krakauer explained technical matters so I understood them, without being condescending. His insights into the personalities and desires of the men and women who seek to conquer Sagarmatha, “the goddess of the sky,” are sharp and perceptive. He spins a good yarn, full of terror and heroism.

The illustrations by Randy Rackliff are stark and striking but I would have enjoyed some photographs as well. I kept stopping to Google photos of the Khumbu Icefall and Hillary’s Step and the Balcony. The endpaper map helped a little but I would have liked a more detailed map of the route.

Except for putting it down to Google photos and maps, unputdownable.

Once Upon a Time (Flash Fiction)

Congress of Rough Writers January 19 flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) begin a story with “Once upon a time…”

09kszabo/DeviantArt, used under Creative Commons License.
Once upon a time…


Jane Doe flushes under the smiling, expectant gaze of this most attractive man. Imagine, someone asking her out to dinner! Here is proof that her efforts are worthwhile, a few dollars a month for the gym and access to a shower, her thrift store clothes carefully selected. Maybe she’s pulling it off well enough to fool a potential employer.

She entertains Cinderella’s daydream for a second, then shakes her head regretfully. He likes her now, but what happens when he finds out she squats in an abandoned house?  At least Cinderella had a proper home.

But I Trusted You by Ann Rule (Book Review)

But I Trusted You and Other True Cases (Crime Files, #14)But I Trusted You and Other True Cases by Ann Rule
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve always enjoyed Ann Rule’s true crime, but this one left me wanting. I feel bad saying that, too, because she recently passed away.

I don’t recall her other books taking the preachy note this one seems to, somehow implying that victims are irresponsible for putting themselves in harm’s way or trusting the wrong people or having lifestyles Rule doesn’t approve of. At one point I was disturbed when Rule seemed to imply a female victim may have inspired lust in her unknown attacker by being attractive and wearing only a bathing suit. I would think a woman with Rule’s law enforcement background would know that rape is a crime of violence and power, not lust, but I guess she bought into the unfortunately typical tendency to blame the victim. If you don’t sit in your campsite, on your long holiday weekend, wearing a bathing suit and looking pretty, you won’t be attacked. What the hell.

The writing is not as tight as in other books. At one point Rule writes about the possibility the victims may have been “killed and hidden in some mine whose existence had been known only to old-timers – now long dead…”, which means, I guess, that these long-dead old-timers must have done it? There was this kind of odd conjecture throughout. I don’t recall that in Rule’s other books.

Also, and this has been bugging me for a decade or more, why are all the cases in Rule’s books so old? The majority throughout the years date from the 1960’s and 1970’s, occasionally the 80’s. I would like to see some recent cases treated with Rule’s deft touch and gift for humanizing the stories, but with her passing that won’t happen now.

Perhaps I’m just irritable today.

Still, Rule’s knowledge of investigative techniques brings a lot to the table as investigations unfold, and her access to detectives and family members and their perspectives has always made Rule’s true crime superior. If you like true crime and don’t mind a little judgmentalness here and there, this book is decent to pass the time with.

RIP, Ann.

Side note: The story of the Spellbound intrigued me, and I found another book on that case, Dare I Call It Murder?: A Memoir of Violent Loss. Then I noticed that out of 17 written reviews, 4 of them are from the author, with five stars of course, and repeated links to buy the book as though I’m not smart enough to find it for myself. What a turnoff.