I won! I won! I couldn’t believe it, really. I don’t know how many entries there were, but I was thrilled to get the email announcing I’d won. This was my entry for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo Contest #3 (I didn’t enter #2; its rules included that it had to be funny, and I’m generally best at humor when I’m being snarky, which didn’t feel right for a contest). I’m still amazed. The best part of the prize was a small collection of rocks from Lake Superior. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I love rocks. These will now be my special Writing Rocks.
The rules for this contest were to include a septolet as a magic spell, total word count 200-300. The Septolet is a poem consisting of seven lines containing fourteen words with a break in between the two parts. Both parts deal with the same thought and create a picture.
Jane pauses in the vestibule by the elevator outside the law firm doors. Beyond the window the sky looms gray over twenty-five stories of air filled with drizzle.
Another interview over. For better or worse.
No. For better, this time.
She examines the cuffs of her blouse, new-to-her from the thrift store, not frayed, nicely white. Her slacks bag a bit; she’s lost weight. She hopes nobody looked closely at her shoes. She showered right before coming here, in the college locker room after her fitness class, the shower being the only thing a college fitness class could possibly be useful for. Her core aches pleasantly. Her hair is clean and tidy; her makeup easily understated. Leftover Pell grant money and ten hours a week work-study don’t exactly take a girl to Sephora.
Her good-luck portfolio, holding paper copies of her résumé and her passport – a nice touch, along with her slender purse. This is not the look of a woman living in a tent. She hopes.
Homeless for not much longer, if she pulled this off. It felt like it went well, but then, it always feels like it went well. Every time for the last five years, it’s felt like it went well.
She composes her mind, focusing as she pulls a small cloth bag from her purse, and from that a generous pinch of chamomile buds. “I attract you, prosperity,” she whispers, sprinkling it in the soil of the potted polyscias outside the firm’s door. Into the dirt she tucks an aventurine crystal: “For good luck.” She closes her eyes and chants quietly, with force:
You need me.
“So mote it be,” she whispers, and calls the elevator.
I’m still thrilled and amazed that my entry actually won, especially after I read the other entries liked by the judges. They are wonderful, and you can read them here. Pure magic.
I have a beef with people who throw around “I’m so OCD” because they dislike the stapler being on the wrong side of the pencil cup. That is not what OCD is. OCD is an often crippling anxiety disorder that can make your life a living hell by way of intrusive, obsessive, terrifying thoughts that take over every single thing you try to do, every day of your life.
Example 1: As the result of a brutal attack, a woman now views the numbers 2 and 6, when adjacent, as a sign that something terrible is going to happen. If her total at the cash register comes to $8.26, she has to put something back or buy something else to get rid of the 26, while others in line shuffle their feet and mutter impatiently and she knows she’s inconveniencing them but she can’t help it, she has to get rid of that 26 or she’ll die. She always finagles a way not to leave the house, or even her bed on the 26th of the month and refuses to own a digital clock because somehow it’s always 26 minutes past the hour when she looks at it. She was fired from her job cleaning motel rooms because she could not even walk past, let alone clean, room 26 without hyperventilating and throwing up and management would not take her seriously enough to simply assign her a different block of rooms. She began crying uncontrollably in DMV when her new car was issued plates with a “626” and the clerk refused to simply skip that plate and issue her the next one, while letting her know she was being unreasonable and hysterical instead of being nice and humoring her, and had police remove her from the premises and cite her for disturbing the peace, but of course she can’t pay the citation because she just got fired from her fucking job and soon there will be a warrant for her arrest. Probably with a 26 in it somewhere, which will certainly kill her, because even though none of the other 26’s have killed her doesn’t mean this one won’t, and it will. She knows this.
Example 2: After losing her father, a high school student cannot walk down the “wrong” side of the street or sit in the “wrong” seat or her mother will die. She has to select the “right” item from the store display of identical items, always wear the “right” underwear with the “right” shirt, and needs her mother to check in throughout her daily movements to reassure her daughter that she wasn’t in an accident. If any of these rituals cannot be conducted, the girl is in agony, suffering crippling headaches and stomachaches, convinced with every moment that no matter how careful she has been, she has still inadvertently just managed to cause her mother’s death and equally convinced that even if she didn’t do it this time, she’ll surely do it next time, because you can’t watch everything, you can’t think of everything, and how long can anyone keep this up? What about all the things she could have done wrong that she didn’t even think of, because she was too busy choosing exactly the right Ibuprofen out of the bottle while trying not to throw up, and now she’s going to be late for first period again, that will be probably be detention, oh fuck it, just stay home sick again. But wait, they’ll haul my mom into court for me being a truant, and what if the stress makes her have a heart attack and kills her? Aaaand now I’m puking.
Now, picture those two scenarios, and knowing, with every fiber of your being, that the number 26 will kill you, or that not picking the right package of underwear off the rack will kill your mother, all while the rest of the world is telling you that you’re a nutcase, to just knock it off already, look, people are staring, no wonder nobody likes you. Imagine making your way through every single waking moment with the knowledge that disaster will fall at any moment, the constant pressure to make no mistakes because the resulting tragedy will be your fault, all while holding down a job and going to classes and doing homework and washing laundry and cooking dinner and taking medication and paying bills and trying to be social because the one thing you’re supposed to do beyond anything else in this life is just be goddamned normal, and maybe, just maybe, you could meet someone who gets you and wants to be a part of your life, all the while judging and weighing every single action because the tiniest mistake will summon doom, and ultimately knowing that you have no social life, no money, no success, because you’re batshit crazy and you can’t stop it.
That’s just one day. Now do that every day. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That is OCD. Not annoyance at an off-center picture on the wall. Please stop saying that.
These are real people, by the way. I personally know both of them.
I usually don’t care for Nicholas Cage, but he portrays OCD brilliantly in the movie “Matchstick Men,” which is worth the watch. It’s amazing that I would say that about a Nicholas Cage movie, but it was an amazing performance.
OK, so. Yes. This is supposed to be a book review. Turtles all the Way Down. Also a brilliant rendering of OCD. As he usually manages, John Green tackles a hard subject, kids dealing with the hard parts of life, and maybe they don’t do it entirely well but they do it entirely humanly, with grace and wisdom we don’t remember having at that age, but maybe we did. One of his characters, as you might suppose, has a pretty bad case of OCD, the real thing, and it is written realistically, with angst and compassion and a little bit of humor, too.
Turtles All the Way Down is every bit as good as you’d expect a John Green book to be, which is pretty damn good.
“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”
And once again, just so we’re clear: This is NOT OCD:
THIS is OCD:
Bookshelves: hot-off-the-press, coming-of-age, ya, mental-health-issues, popular-fiction, thank-you-for-getting-it-right, this-is-the-stuff-right-here
Jane unzips her tent, peering out. Her breath mists in front of her, and the ground crunches under the feet of another Tent City resident, picking between canvas and nylon. Hard frost, again. Not snow, true, but still too cold for living in a tent.
She shrugs into her coat and grabs the backpack she’d loaded the night before, shuddering her way to the bus stop six blocks away. This is the stage of winter that feels eternal. If spring hasn’t come by now, it never will.
Until she spots them, tiny, delicate, white heads peeking through the frost.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), include white flowers in your story.
“Why so down, Jane, I mean, it’s Christmas, you know the rule, you’re supposed to be happy on Christmas.”
Jane shrugs, head down. “I’d wanted to have a job by the end of the year, but here I am, still unemployed, still broke, still scrounging, still homeless and living in a tent and not getting my teeth fixed because who has a gazillion dollars for fillings when you can barely come up with a dollar for McDonald’s coffee?”
“You’re also still HERE, hon, still doing resumes and going on interviews, selling newspapers for pocket cash, going to school, spending Christmas helping here at the shelter because you still help people who have even less than you do.” A quick, sharp hug. “You’re tough and you’re still here and you’re a rock star, Jane.”
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction challenge and blog hop. This week’s cue was “star.” Fun sixes from other authors are at the link. Join us! It’s fun.
It’s typical for me to like the book vs the movie in inverse proportions — the more I love the book, the less I’ll like the movie. Sometimes it’s the other way around, as with Terms of Endearment, with the movie so fantastically wonderful and the book so fantastically atrocious. It happens sometimes.
I first saw the movie Chocolat years ago and loved it, and was pleasantly surprised when I loved the book as well, although there are some noticeable differences. The book is set in the 1990’s while the movie is post-war, perhaps to better capture the provincial feel of the setting. In the movie, Vianne’s nemesis was the mayor rather than the village priest, perhaps to soften what many in the reading audience felt was a shot at the Catholic church itself.
I can understand it, though. I once had a pastor similar to Reynaud, and in a similar situation. I sought advice and guidance with my own marriage, an abusive one, and found about as much comfort as Josephine got from her priest – you’re violating your vow of marriage, the solemnity of the marriage promise, a good wife is supposed to…blah blah fuckity blah. Excuse me? What about my husband’s vow of marriage, the solemnity of his marriage promise, how a good husband is supposed to behave? I felt betrayed, and when God betrays you, that’s serious. I fled that church and fled the marriage not long after, and have had nothing to do with organized religion since. I decided, as Vianne told the priest in the book, that I did not need an intermediary to connect with God/the Universe/the Divine/the Great Mother/the Force/whatever you want to call it. I have explored several different religious paths since then, stitched bits and pieces of many of them into my own warm heathen patchwork quilt, and have settled into a direct-line relationship with Whatever Name You Like for Your Invisible Man in the Sky that is far more spiritually aware than any relationship I’ve ever had with a brick-and-mortar church. And there you have it.
So I can see why some reviewers felt this book was attacking the entire Catholic Church. And maybe it kind of has that coming, if only for the contemptible offense of hiding pedophiles within its ranks. But the fictional Curé Reynaud is no more representative of the entire Catholic Church than that one shitty pastor I encountered was representative of all of Christianity, and smart, discerning people can figure that out. And there are two sides to that coin. Decades ago, when I was very young, working at a university library, I regularly helped the college’s priest with book and audio-visual (that’s how long ago this was; it was still called audio-visual) stuff. I adored Father Simon. He kept telling me I needed to get back to church, and I’d say, “But I’m not Catholic, Father,” and he’d say, “It doesn’t matter, God is God, I don’t care what church and God doesn’t care either,” and I actually did attend one time, at his little college chapel. That’s the one and only time I went to a Catholic ceremony and I felt out of place, not because of Father Simon who was wonderful as always, but because I’ve always felt a little squirmy in any church except the great outdoors, and when I told Father Simon that, he agreed that was all right too.
And I think that’s ultimately what Harris was writing about, by way of one power-drunk priest and another, utterly heathen sort of a fallen-woman character who gave the comfort and support the people needed and who better embodied the teachings of Christ than did the man of the cloth. The many different paths to God, if you will. And I still won’t go to church.
Anyway, this book is great stuff. Harris’ writing is lyrical, I felt I was right there in the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, I loved the townspeople I was supposed to love and did not love – actually felt sorry for, rather than hating — the ones I was not supposed to love. My only complaint is that Roux was not written nearly as delicious as Johnny Depp made him – but that would be hard to do without pictures.
“I’m here for my foreign language credit,” Rico says when it’s his turn.
“Rico,” another student says. “Isn’t your name Latino?”
“We came here when I was a baby. I ignored my parents’ Spanish so I could fit in. Americans speak English.”
“Does the backlash against DACA affect you?” the teacher asks.
Rico spreads his arms: ta-daaah. “Only wetback you know who doesn’t speak Spanish. Paperwork and fees always on time. No arrests. Support myself, no Medicaid, no welfare, no student aid. Pay taxes, health insurance, college tuition. They still want to deport me.” Arms drop. “Only in America.”
Every week, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the phrase “only in…” Great flashes from other writers are at the link. Join us!
“Humanity seems doomed to do more evil than good. The greatest ideal on earth is human love.”
That quote isn’t from Szpilman himself; it’s from the diary of Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who helped Szpilman, excerpts of which are included after the memoir itself. And I would agree with it. This book is about nothing less than humanity’s own consistent failure to live up to its own ideals.
This book really whapped me in the head, and not because of any spectacular writing. As a matter of fact, not far into the book I mused that the writing was a bit dispassionate, all things considered. I was okay with that, because the man was a musician, not a writer. It’s still competently written. And then I got it, that this was written in 1945 by a man who had just endured endless years of the most inhumane treatment, had lost his entire family to the world’s most infamous genocide, and I realized that I may have been reading stalwart detachment, but it also may have been an attempt to hold on to some dignity in the face of unutterable shock and loss.
One part of me thinks I have to stop reading books like this, that try to decimate what faith in humanity I have while also displaying the resilience of the human spirit, and another part thinks no, this stuff needs to stay in the front of our minds, to remind us to be vigilant. You only have to follow the news to know we haven’t fucking learned, and to suspect we probably never will. This is a deeply moving book that gets four very depressing stars and not five, only because I’m sure I cannot bear to ever read it again. It’s no surprise that Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor seems to sound even more melancholy now.
I mentioned a while back that I’d been writing, just not publishing, because I was entering a lot of events at the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo and judging was to be blind. Judging is in for Contest #1, led by Rough Writer Norah Colvin: When I grow up. Cast yourself back to six years of age, knowing what you do of life in the present; what would you want to be when you grow up and how would you go about achieving that goal? Tell us in 100 words, no more no less. It can be real or imaginary, serious or light-hearted. Extra points for comparing it to your childhood choice, if you remember it.
I wrote this piece over a month ago, but just last week, Dream Girl and I had a conversation. I was talking about all I want out of life, saying all I need is enough to meet our needs, and maybe a little extra for a treat once in a while, like a trip home or a road trip somewhere else once in a while, but what I want on a daily basis are health; a job that I like, that I’m good at, and that pays enough for us to live on; and good book and peace and quiet to read it in. She replied that I’ve really scaled back on the “all I want,” and she’s right. She can remember me saying I wanted to go back to school, I wanted to travel the world, I wanted a big house with a wraparound porch smack in the middle of wooded ten acres…oh, well. You get older, and things become less attainable. The odds of my fortunes changing so I can afford any of those things are slim and none. That’s just how it is. I’m all right with it.
WHEN I GROW UP
“I had a dream last night, Mommy.”
“It was me, only old like you. Talking to me.”
“I told me that I’m going to want to be something when I grow up. And I’m going to tell everybody, and they’ll say no. They’ll say get a job like in an office, so I can reti–reti–something. And insurance. Like that man was selling the other day?”
“Maybe. And old-me said I’m not ‘posed to listen to that. I’m supposed to do what I want. Because I’ll be happier.”
“You’re smarter than grownups?”
“That’s what old-me told me-me.”
I didn’t exactly incorporate what I wanted to be when I grew up. From when I was young, I wanted to entertain as others entertained me. I’d hear a song I liked and I wanted to sing it; I’d want to be able to act like so-and-so did in that movie I loved; I wanted to write something like Harriet the Spy or A Wrinkle in Time. Any masterful performance could inspire me. After I discovered the joy of making music, that morphed into a desire to be a session musician. My hero was sax man Bobby Keys, known mostly for his work with the Rolling Stones but who did so much more; I wanted to be just like him only without the heroin. (And if you like a rollicking autobiography, check his out: Every Night’s a Saturday Night. RIP, Bobby.) I let myself be talked out of it, though, by my blue-collar, practical, and absolutely well-meaning father, who advised me to let such foolishness be the stuff of dreams and secure my future with a “job I could retire from.” I still regret listening to him on that one.
My entry didn’t win, and that’s okay. I had fun just the same. It’s one thing to let your writing see the light of day; it’s a little bit harder to enter it where it will actually be judged on its merits. I’m glad I entered. The winning entries are wonderful; you can read them here.
And in case there’s a blank space with a link in it, it’s supposed to an embedded gif of Whoopi Goldberg warning Demi Moore that she’s in danger. They don’t always work; WordPress pisses me off sometimes.
So anyway. In danger is an exalted place to be, like being in a state of grace, being in love, being in a family way. It’s special to be in danger. Being in danger leads to metamorphosis: From being in danger, you walk through fire and come out the other side forever changed. Or maybe it’s just a plot device; you go from being in danger to being dead and the end of your journey becomes the reason for the protagonist’s journey. Either way, being in danger is serious stuff.
But nobody says they’re in danger in real life. We say we’re up shit creek, or we’re in an evacuation area, or we’re waiting for the ax to fall, or if my ex doesn’t quit stalking me I’m buying a gun and capping his ass, but we never say we’re in danger. At least, I’ve never heard a real person say it.
But, back to the book. I was quite disappointed in the first Harlan Coben book I read, The Stranger (ha ha, that rhymes with danger, and now my head is going to be replaying yooou-oooh, stranger danger from that Cure song for the rest of the day, thank you very much), which I got accidentally because my fingers hit the wrong button on my touch screen when I was trying to check out the same title by Albert Camus. Coben’s effort under that title was unsatisfactory (although I liked the Camus book; both are reviewed here) but other reviewers said it was a poor effort from an author they usually like, so I gave him another chance.
All of which is my roundabout way of saying that Don’t Let Go was worth the read, so Coben redeems himself. I’m sure he was quite worried about it, too.
Jane wipes her palms down her jeans, picks up the blue marker. Since when do grownups have to do class exercises on the board? The professor smiles encouragingly but she can feel all the eyes boring into her back, her sentences wandering uphill and downhill while every nuance of Spanish sentence structure goes out of her head. What is the word for “T-shirt?” She settles for “blouse.”
Back in her seat, her hands are still shaking as the man next to her…Rico?…leans in. “Grand performance. I’ve been noticing you. May I buy you a coffee after class?”
Every week at the Carrot Ranch Literary Community, Charli hosts the flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features a performance. Join us!