Proof Positive of…something

The proof copy of “The Bump Under the Bed” came in the mail today, and between the eight hundred takes of my advertisement video and a sudden realization that the title of my picture book is off center, this is the closest I have to new content for today’s update:

My dad, ladies and gentleman.

Here’s something else to keep you coming back here on my update days: a follow-up to the previous entry (Once Upon a Time I was a Nursing Student) from my nursing practicum journal.

Last week, my patient had his leg chopped off by a man with a soldering iron.

This week, my patient slept.

A lot.

I’m getting that vague “nursing isn’t all glamor and heroics” vibe that has me shuddering and bunkering down with a pathophysiology book. By Mosby, if there isn’t more going on in my medication handbook than there is in my patient’s room. Arlo and I kill an hour by looking up the hundred and one medications our patients are on and snickering over some of the more amusing symptoms. Which strikes me as vaguely inappropriate, but I’ve done quite a bit worse that giggle over the word “impotence.” I’m really far too old for that to be funny, but then I’ll probably never really grow up.

I lurk around my patient’s door waiting for her to blink, or shift even, prepared to swoop in and take advantage of the consciousness presented me. But she proves very nearly as stubborn as Mr. I’m-Sleeping-I-Swear from two weeks ago, but with the added obstacle that she’s not faking it. Curse her, because she’s friendly when I talk to her, which makes badgering her about her current sexual activity something I actually have to use tact on.

She’s fortunate enough to fall asleep before I get to that particular question. I’ve never been very delicate in wording, and my personal strategies tend to run along the lines of “umm…so…uh….you used to be married, yeah? But you’re not anymore? So, uh, are you…um…sexually active?”

I’ve only gotten one “yes” so far, and I’m pretty sure my patient was quite gleefully waiting for me to ask.

Though I may not be full of tact, I’m full of sympathy, and the keen ability to sense when it’s time to throw in the towel. She’s tired, struggling to keep her eyes open, and tomorrow is another day to keep trying. I’ll be successful. I’m determined to, which accounts for more in my life than I can say.

6:30am the next day I peak my head in the door, just to check in on her. I have to look twice, because the kind, fifty- year-old black woman from yesterday has somehow turned into a large white man who badly needs to readjust his hospital gown.

I flick through the chart as though it will explain how Renown has mastered transmogrification, then remember that my patient was hopefully going to be transferred to telemetry ASAP to monitor her heart. I remember, because I’d been counting on transfer to be their normally punctual selves.

The word I think in my head is not nice, nor appropriate, for my clinical instructor to read.

It evens out in the end. Amputation guy, for taking as long as another clinical day, has earned me a day off. I take it, pretending to sulk because my patient has left with few of my questions answered.

I’m whistling “Springtime for Hitler” by time I hit the elevators.

What a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

The Sister is going to hate me for this one: “Helen Fields Goes First.” Found under the stories tab or by clicking here:

Helen Fields Goes First

An old writing exercise from college, which I’ve always kind of liked for no good reason. I can’t remember the exact instructions, but it fell along the lines of “write a character doing something unexpected” – but possibly with other limitations, though what those might have been aren’t likely to ever come back to me. Please bear in the mind that the only way I can write short stories is to cut out all the interesting bits, or to end them in poetically terrible places. And that’s all the warning you’ll get from me. Enjoy.

(Or don’t. Yes, I see you over there, frowning at me. Both of you, quite possibly; none of us were raised to like open-ended possi-tragedy.)

Once Upon a Time I was a Nursing Student

BEHOLD. An old journal entry from my semester in nursing school:


I’ve discovered two things about myself:

  1. Gore doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
  2. Ritz crackers and peanut butter do not constitute a filling lunch.

I stood at the anesthesiologist’s side, watching with interest as the doctor went at the leg with something that looked a heck of a lot like a soldering iron, a part of me still waiting for him to pull out a saw and start cleaving away. Logically I knew this to be a ridiculous assumption, but I’m still expecting something out of a revolutionary war movie, with bullet-biting soldiers waiting to have their gangrenous limbs taken off, no blue in site and doctors that have never heard of a sterile field.

Another moment of watching follows and I’m struck, inexplicably, by the thought that Ritz crackers are NOT enough for lunch. In the back of my head I start to visualize dinner, and I am only slightly horrified in a vague “I really shouldn’t be thinking this” sort of way at how easily I disassociate one from the other. I shouldn’t be hungry right now. But I can’t stop thinking that I am.

“So,” Dr. Stein says cheerfully, soldering off flesh as easily as though he were cutting through butter, “what is this here?” He points at the bone that I can see freely unattached to anything else in the leg. My answer is quick (“trochanter”) and wrong.

“Nope,” he says. The other surgeon clamps a suddenly spurting artery, already demanding a needle with thread attached to sew it off. “The trochanter is already gone. I removed it myself. This is actually the middle of the femur—it moved up with the removal of the head.”

I raise my eyebrows in surprise. I had no idea.

He goes on to question me on pressure ulcers, and I mostly fail to embarrass myself, though I’m struck dumb more times than I like. “I actually have no idea,” escapes my lips more times than I’m happy about.

Dr. Stein just smiles. “That’s fine.  That’s an honest answer.”  He goes on to explain, and even when he is not teaching the anesthesiologist – cheerful, short, and popping in a CD into the boom box in the background – explains what his job is. He and the nurse are my first experiences with the OR, and they’re both happy and willing to tell me things-that-I-do-not-know, which turns out to be a lot. Everyone in this room is incredibly helpful—I think they’re happy to have new blood around, and as equally happy about being able to teach. I didn’t expect them to talk to me, with this vague idea that I would be shoved into a corner and told not to touch anything. The nurse even tells me I can move around the room for a better angle, sets up a stool for me over the doctor’s shoulder, urges me twice to watch the sterile field (and I vow to myself, after the two close shaves, that she will not have to tell me a third time), and sets me up with the best spots. I tell them I’m a trained monkey, and with a few smirks in my direction, I’m told exactly what I can and cannot do.

There are a lot of people in this room—three surround the patient: the doctor (who says with a certain amount of groaning that he prefers cosmetic surgery to hacking off someone’s leg), another surgeon, and a third, younger man who spends most of his time handing the two surgeons clamps and supplies from the sterile supply table. Following this there are two nurses to make sure they have everything they need at all times, an anesthesiologist (whose job I have never truly realized is as life-and-death as the doctor’s until these four hours), and one nursing student who can’t believe she’s really seeing this.

I have seen the Operating Room innumerable times on shows and in movies, and the thought comes to me then that it is so much freaking cooler than on TV.

It’s more interesting, and it makes more sense. The doctor leaning over the patient, talking to the nurse over in the corner about her family, while the anesthesiologist watches the vitals, taking occasional notes and seeing how high he can turn up the volume on his iphone because who the hell brought this CD? There’s also less of the yelling and dramatic exclamations that TV doctors are prone to, with more joking and larger messes. I never thought about the fact that they don’t care about a mess of blood and flesh as long as it came from within the sterile field, and I can’t help but think it’s cool that arteries really do spurt suddenly. But the doctor’s only jerk out of reflex action when it occasionally hits their face mask, then calmly demand a clamp, ASAP please, and take care of it.

But it doesn’t really hit me that they’re amputating a man’s leg until the doctor’s got his hand on the bone, lifting it clear from the table as he passes it to the surgical assistant at the end, who in turn places it in a bin, and suddenly I’m struck by the thought that NO WAY THAT’S SOMEONE’S LEG AND HOLY CRAP THEY TOOK IT OFF.

“How’s the nursing student?” he calls over in my direction. “Still with us?”

“Oh yeah,” the anesthesiologist answers for me, looking at my face as I stare with eyes absolutely sparking with interest. “She’s just fine.”

I think they stop waiting for me to faint at that point.

In all, the surgery took four hours. I watched, stalking around the room, skirting the sterile field, as he separated the skin from the muscle he had left, first folding up the back thigh muscles then taking the front thigh muscles and flapping them up and sewing them into place. The skin was a puzzle piece, a little too large, and he took his time fitting it to the proper spot, cutting it down to size. It didn’t really strike me that stapling meant literal staples either, though I should have known better, until they were using the staple gun to keep it together (along with stitching as well). It made a sound remarkably like the sound my own stapler makes—a twanging ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunk.

It was essentially over then. I watched as they cleaned up, the primary surgeon stepping out as the rest took care of bandaging, cleaning the stump, taking him off anesthetics, and moving him to another bed.  I followed to after-surgery, only leaving as he started to wake up. I stayed long enough to have the nurse point me to the locker rooms, afraid that I would get lost within the bowels of the OR.

I had to step into the bathroom before I undressed. Because I had to know what I looked like. An OR nurse, maybe, or someone with more experience than me. In a surgical mask and gown, with blue scrubs and eyes that said she had seen something more interesting than you.

I laughed at the face in the mirror. Attack of the Lunch Lady, hair covered and mouth hidden, laughed back.

By 9 pm I was beat, ready to go to bed, and yammering at my parents into the phone. “Mom, mom! I got to watch the gnarliest surgery ever! An amputation.  And guess what?” I didn’t wait for her guess. “I’m not bothered by gore at all!

“Oh, honey,” she said. I could hear the wry smile in her voice. “I’m not surprised at all.”

And somehow, I like what that says about me.

The Use of Fact in Fiction

Stories rely on a writer’s ability to create a reality that is quickly and easily understood by an audience that hasn’t seen, let alone imagined, that reality themselves. The more convincing the reality, the more compelling the story, and the better the story does its job. When a credible reality forms the foundation of a story, that story more powerfully entertains (or – if you’re into that sort of thing – educates). As far as I’m concerned, fact always makes fiction better. And in the age of the internet, people expect accuracy.

You can sometimes assume a certain amount of forgiveness for the realities you create, depending on your genre. For example, the actually-quite-ridiculous tropes that make up fairytales (dress in a walnut, anyone?) are accepted as an established part of the storytelling. No one questions a talking animal in a Grimm’s fable. It would be like going to a musical and demanding to know why everyone breaks into songs that perfectly tie into their feelings and/or the overarching theme of the plot. Once a reader recognizes the threads of a traditional fairytale in the story they’re reading, they immediately become more indulgent of the author’s reality.

Scifi is another genre. As long as it’s not hard science fiction, you can play fast and loose with physical reality. Every third-grade student with a basic grasp of the solar system would laugh at Ray Bradbury’s 1950 depiction of Venus as a planet constantly besieged by rain and covered by fungus if he’d written it now, but “All Summer in a Day” is still a terribly accurate depiction of the cruelty of children. Just make sure your people are acting like people, and consistently follow your own rules. Venus is a rain-drenched world overgrown with plants? Fine, but it still better be by the end of it.

However, if a book’s reality is based in the real-world, real-world rules must apply. Never has the reader been more skeptical or more ready to defend his skepticism than in the age of wireless connections, smartphones, and Google search. With the advent of the internet, every reader has easy access to nearly infinite libraries, and a story must survive any immediate fact-checking to its basic reality when everyone, as they say, is a critic. A book is judged as much by the facts that exist within its covers as by its plot.

This is not a challenge that belongs solely to the cyberspace generations. H. G. Wells was a particular master of setting the fantastic upon the mundane. War of the Worlds, written in 1898 and based on the areas in which he lived and explored by bicycle, details an alien invasion in which, in his own words, “I completely wreck and sack Woking – killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways – then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feat of peculiar atrocity.” He didn’t simply write about an imaginary alien invasion. He wrote about an imaginary alien invasion that took place in a real time and place. Aliens were one of the few imaginary aspects of the piece.

(Fun fact: apparently Jules Verne, the father of science fiction and a contemporary of Wells, complained that Wells used scientifically implausible inventions, like time machines and spaceships not powered by coal or other late 19th century mechanisms for power. Still, though Wells’ devices may not have worked in the real-world, his ideas could be imagined in it. His use of mundane reality made the fantastic believable.)

William Golding did something similar in my favorite illustration of original sin ever, Lord of the Flies. According to the overly wordy introduction to my copy (said the blogger in her overly wordy essay on the use of fact in fiction), he presumably used the teachings of psychoanalysts, anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophical this, that, or the other (if it had an “ologist” at the end of it or a “p” at the start it made the list) and wrote a disturbingly plausible thought-experiment on what happens to humanity when you remove all civil constraints and leave sinful man to his own devices.

(In short: Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!)

Eesh. Good times, Bill. I once read William Golding explaining the too-optimistic end to his novel – an adult coming in deus ex machina style to save the boys from themselves – as nothing of the kind. The last image of the novel is the naval officer turning from the weeping main character to look at his cruiser, trim, civilized, and prepped for war. Man can never save man from himself. Without the psychological (and – dare I say – theological) understanding of the evil inbred in our nature, Lord of the Flies would have been a mere adventure story. Just one of thousands.

Animal Farm (subtitled “A fairy story”) is another favorite dystopian nightmare of mine. Written by George Orwell in 1945 – while Soviet Russia was still the great hero and ally of WWII – he used talking barn animals and a farm run by communist pigs to criticize the government hailing out of Moscow. A socialist himself, Orwell had narrowly escaped the communist manhunts in Spain, and he was dismayed at – as he put it – “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.” Still busy singing Stalin’s praises, companies in both Britain and American refuses to publish the satire, right up until the Cold War.

The pointed comparisons that Animal Farm made between socialist ideals and the reality of communist Russia were – and are – powerful. Read through many internet discussion boards and it becomes clear that Orwell is alive and well. Though one of the reigning adages on the internet is Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies (which maintains that every argument on an internet chat forum will inevitably lead to a comparison to Hitler or Nazism), the following could easily be added as a subset: that every political argument will also eventually invoke “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  The “fairy story” is over seventy years old, and still making people mad. That is the power of fact.

Of course, not all fiction is created equal (some of it is, one could argue, more equal than others), and not every story intends to make a point. Many are written primarily to entertain. But how well it entertains depends just as much on fact as the book that was written to teach. For $8.75 at the local bookstore, fantasies provide hours of some of the best escapism out there, and are even more firmly bound by rules than “real” fiction.

Harry Potter, for example, is a world based on magic and the clever bastardization of Latin words, yet it clearly resonates with people across countries, continents, and oceans. Why? Because it is founded, at a deeper level, on reality. There are trolls and giants and magical games on broomsticks, but there are also children going to school and studying for exams and trying to figure out what to do when faced with hard choices. Everyone understands the struggle to grow and move on and face forward. Create a reality that allows your reader to fully immerse in both story and characters, and a school fantasy of epic good vs. evil makes an author billions.

Even better, entertainment almost always accidentally teaches. Westerns owe much of their appeal to the guarantee that the good guy always win (and the bad guys are not only hatchet-faced but also have names like Scut and Fargus), but they’re also a great portrayal of the Old West. I’ve learned more from Louis L’amour than I ever expected to*. Romances too run about a dime a dozen, but the ones that are passed on from generation to generation have, at their heart, an understanding of human psychology, social constraints, and a depiction of history from a domestic perspective. Jane Austen survived the century, as did the Brontë sisters. Gone with the Wind lives on as both a romance and a look at life during and after the Civil War. It demonstrates the everyday struggles of the time period (and how that may have felt) in a way that no history book can ever quite capture.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is my young adult go-to example. Based on a very real event (the unsolved bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, where four teenage girls were killed during the civil rights period) the author neither preaches nor sermonizes. Instead, most of his story focuses on the Watson family and their hilarious everyday lives. Yet by the time the bombing occurs in the storyline, I’ve been sucked into the perspective of a young black boy in the 60s. “Although these names,” Christopher Paul Curtis writes in the epilogue of his novel, referring to the four young women killed, “may be nothing more than names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you.”  

Knowledge never limits; it enhances and broadens. As the world opens up, so do the stories. In many ways, that has always been the point of fiction. By no means do facts destroy imagination. Even in the scientific world, two scientists working from the same set of observable data may come up with completely different theories. Rather, facts provide opportunities to create believable realities. Stories based on an accurate understanding of either the world or – at the very least – the people in it can better hold up against the hordes of armchair scholars ready and willing to crush the hours you poured into spinning the weave of your world into so much forgettable pulp.

Pour truth into the undergirding of your story, and time may well let you pass unhindered. In 1993, when asked to write an introduction for To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee refused. “Mockingbird,” she wrote in a short foreword, “still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

*Bank a fire against a rock to project heat. Look back as you walk a trail so that you may better recognize it when you return. If you stare into a fire you won’t be able to see anything for a few crucial seconds between staring at the fire and firing your weapon at someone creeping up on you in the dark.

More from the Ash Heap of University

Tomorrow morning, some poet may, like Byron, wake to find himself famous—for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.

–Randall Jarrell

If you thought that last Monday’s update was bad, this week’s blog is even worse: I’ll be posting my free verse poetry from college.

*cue agonized screams*

My feelings on free verse are pretty uncomplicated: I hate it. It has very little understanding of grammar, none at all for structure, and relies heavily on the overuse of the indent key in Microsoft Word.

My dislike for free verse is possibly inborn – or maybe just ingrained. I was five years old when Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and Dad rolled his eyes at the dinner table and said “free verse” in a disgusted sort of voice. Mom followed that up with an annoyed “Maya Angelou” sort of sigh of her own.

However, my first real run-in with free verse happened when I was in fifth grade. The PTA at Lewis & Clark put on a school-wide contest for art, poetry, and writing, to be judged by some of their members. Because I’m enormously dedicated to my two watchers, I actually spent an afternoon digging through my old hope chest until I found my entry. Behold:

I received a participation award and written comments from three judges. One was a very kind note complimenting me on my use of descriptive words, the second was clearly written by someone who was tired of judging (A hastily scrawled, “Very well done!”), and the third contained the following:

“A bit of advice! Did you know you could write poems that don’t always have to rhyme? Read some of Arnold Adoff’s or Jane Yolen’s poetry and see – then go back w/ this idea of flying – and try it out and see if your ideas and words don’t come a little more freely to describe what you want!

“But great poem!”

(I love that “But great poem!” at the end. Oh crap, I forgot I’m supposed to pretend I like all the things I’m judging.)

The note annoyed me, not because she didn’t appreciate my style (that was her prerogative; I was proud of my poem, and nothing she said could take away the pleasure I’d had in writing it), but because I did know that poems don’t always have to rhyme. I’d written a structured poem because I liked structured poems. Rhyming is a kind of magic – fun to read out loud, easy to memorize, and a sort of a puzzle to write (can you fit your ideas into this neat little box?). It was frustrating that I couldn’t explain to this woman that I’d done so purposefully, and not because I was too stupid to know better.

Still, easy enough to brush aside; I thought her silly. One of those adults who looked down on children and the things they liked just because they were children. I shrugged and moved on.

But it seriously angered my father. He was mad for the same reasons I was annoyed (“Of course you know that poems don’t have to rhyme”) but also – now that I look back – probably because he was afraid that she had discouraged me from doing something I had a talent for. But he needn’t have worried. Moms are built-in #1 fans (she’s the reason I still have some of my old artwork and stories from Elementary school), and I’ll always keep that memory of Dad angry at some lady he’d never met, simply because she didn’t like my poem, locked away in my heart. Sometimes I take it out to look at it, and remember that my parents believed in me first.

Now that I’ve gotten older and have been forced into greater contact with free verse through college (though I’ve still never actually heard of Arnold Adoff or Jane Yolen), I’ve discovered that it’s not as bad as it once seemed. In fact, it can be a very clever way to say something concisely (which perhaps also contributed towards my innate dislike for it; like holding up garlic to a vampire. Write this short thing, Andrea. Well, I can try butAAUGH IT BURNSSS).

For example, back when I was still lurking on Deviantart (mostly for art, but sometimes they’d feature writing on the front page), I found a beautiful piece of free verse about a woman who finally consents to date her best friend – the only man to treat her kindly. When he laments over the wasted years (years she spent abused; if not by men, then by herself), she tells him she needed those years to learn that she could love, and be loved. They’d never have made it before then.

Anyways, it was more eloquent than that, but the point is there can be really great stories – especially stories that are as much felt as told – packed into free verse. It’s impressive when done well.

I just wish we wouldn’t call it poetry. Call it short prose, call it lyrical flash fiction (or nonfiction), I don’t care, but stop trying to compare apples with oranges. Sure they’re both fruit, but they grew on entirely different trees. Keeping your ideas short and tapped entirely into feeling takes one kind of skill, and molding an idea into a strict structure bound by rhyme takes another. Some people have an ear for it, others spend years honing it, but making your rhymes flow naturally within a rigid rhythm and verse structure is only restrictive to people who can’t do it.

Mind you, I probably wouldn’t mind sharing a genre type with the free verse folks if they’d just stop discrediting what I do. I took a couple of poetry classes in college, and the most common critique I had from my classmates was, “Well, it’s nice for kids.” And while I have to admit that I do write a lot of poetry for children (and not just because that’s still an acceptable market for rhyme; I also happen to like writing for kids), there’s the odd murder poem I’ve yet to post, a few lines written from my occasionally lonely heart, and at least one politically charged poem in my portfolio.

Oh man, am I off track. Let’s take a U-turn back to my original intention:

In college, all of the poems I presented in class rhymed, but we also had to turn in a workshop journal with a boatload of assignments from my poetry book. As it turns out, free verse takes about a tenth of the time that my usual style does – or at least the way I do it. I am, if nothing else, practical.

(Also, I apologize in advance for the stupid line breaks.)

ASSIGNMENT: What images obsess you?  What can you look at for hours and not get bored?  Contrast with an image you repress or fight.

ASSIGNMENT: Write a short poem that begins and ends with the same line.

ASSIGNMENT: Write an “I believe speech.”

Last few facts: free verse isn’t as modern as it seems. The history of the form actually goes back centuries before I was alive to complain about it. Old Testament psalms, anyone? Then in 1890 the poets Kahn and Laforgue first coined the phrase vers libre in French, though for my part I blame Walt Whitman, who received the credit for writing the first free verse poetry in English.** There’s also something to be said about a man named Richard Aldington, who claimed (a quarter of a century later) in the preface to a 1915 Imagist anthology, that free verse was a principle of liberty.

And we wonder why unstructured poetry comes across as so pretentious.

*Oh my lazy heart, I just realized I have an entire hope chest full of homework I can use for the blog. Next time, on The Story Folder: The cat is ill. The dog is glad.

**There’s some debate as to whether this is true, but poets become famous about half as many times as the continents drift, so any poet who becomes well known for their poetry instead of, say, murdering their wives***, is celebrated for anything they did with the form, whether or not they were first.

***William Burroughs, Louis Althusser, Gu Cheng, and Conrad Aiken to name a few. A risky trade, apparently.

…and some more!

The Woman of Wax

In the hour of waning moonlight,
When in wiles the darkness purrs,
Winding down the paths of shadow,
Wending in the woods of firs,
While in cusp of midnight hushing,
When no longer waking lures,
In the woods of watching dark
The well in murmurs stirs.

Wisps of dreams, forgotten wishes,
Slipped with coin and bric-a-bracs
Long ago into the well
By maids with hair of winsome flax,
Rises in the witching hour
From the depths of inky glass,
Deep within the whispers swell
Softly, of the woman of wax.

A tale in woven ways of telling
In a time when woods were home,
In those days a castle rampart
Soared with flags within the dome
Of a sky winged blue in warming,
When the woods were soft with brome,
Before the maid was taken, wantoned,
And the tower swallowed in gloam.

Whispered over well in sunlight,
Dropping wish in whimsy stream,
The girl upon the dawn of woman
Swept in whims of true love dream.
Yet in the darkest heart of castle
Lord felt all was to his deem,
Wedded her in wilds of forest –
Wrested from her skirted seams.

Weighted with the flow’ring maiden
The spindle of the wishing well
Hung with more than rope and bucket,
Wreathed the neck of milky belle.
Her feet of waxy stillness pointed
To the glass of mirror tell,
Broke the wood of weighted spindle;
Followed where her wishes fell.

They found her slipped beneath the pool,
A waxy face in cooling deep.
Pulled her from the wishing water;
Clasped her waking eyes in sleep.
Her face was perfect, willed in form
Of waxen lips and eyes that weep
With nothing more than well-sprung water
Wending with a wish to keep.

The seasons turn as weeks wear fast
Until at last the moon’s white rays
Wither in the wasting winter,
Weaving clouds to weary gray.
The duke was hunting with a party
Set to win the winding play,
Too far he went, too deep in wood
And vanished in the waning day.

When at last the streams awoke,
Spring laughing at dark winter’s end,
Then at last they found the body
Washed in icy river bend.
They say he fell beneath the water,
Trapped below, in frozen penned,
But for prints upon his feet
As fingers pulling down would rend.

In the dark of witching hour,
When in depths of inky glass,
Deep within the well will ripple
Woman’s face of winsome wax.

I’m actually quite fond of this one, but it needs a serious overhaul before I post it for real. I have this idea for an envelope around the main ghost story, involving a young man who wanders into the wood despite the warnings from the local villagers (hey look, that “w” thing is catching). I’ve actually written a few enormously confusing verses for the idea, which I will allow you to read here:

Whistling broke the wearing darkness,
Lightly treading step and soon
A young man, whittling, deft of fingers,
Walking through the watching gloom.
The village, come upon at twilight
Set against the woods of hewn
Warned the youth no longer forward
With the threat of wasting moon.

The young man laughed upon the telling
Savored what the village warned
Of the girl who slept in water,
Of her waxen face forlorned.
He set and turned with whirling surge
His confidence in youth so borne,
His quick and handsome face to set,
His willful courage: wasted, mourned.

Yet slowly as the whiling time
Led him deeper in the wood
The dark crept watchful up the neck
Of wayfare’s feet the prickling could
Of eyes with cautious sense he swept
His gaze to see what witness stood
To hear his whistling further hush
As hands in whittling would.

He saw her when the welt of moon
Slipped behind the welling clouds…

Etc. etc. etc.

You can tell I was getting lazy with my rhythm – I sort of threw sentence structure overboard to try and work in both the alliteration and the rhyme. My only excuse is that I wrote this a couple of years ago (one of the fun things about reading my old material is realizing that I’ve actually gotten better over time). If I ever want this to work, I’d need to revamp half the lines just to make them cohesive.

But, at the very least, it makes for a deceptively long blog post. In other news, I’ve been trying to finish an illustration project for my brother-in-law. Which is an absolute time-eater, let me tell you. While I can draw, I actually find that I don’t often want to. Though it’s deeply satisfying to have an end product I’m proud of, the process isn’t fun for me – mostly because I so rarely manage an end product that I’m proud of. Sorry, Slick.

Anyways, to finish this off, here’s a horse with a gas mask:

Just what you needed more of in your life.


Have some old junk

Why I Failed Math

I sat and stared with glassy eyes,
My mouth was slightly parted,
Drool gathered on my lip,
My organs dropped, down-hearted.
I shook my head, then shook it twice,
Pinched my arm unguarded,
Already asleep, I knew–
And class had barely started.

I chewed my pen then scratched my ear
And fought to pay attention.
I’ll need this for the test, I know,
Which makes it worth retention.
I sat up straight, uncrossed my legs,
A soldier straight with tension,
And tried to then convince myself
That class was worth the mention.

Minutes in, abrupt, I blink,
And realize I’ve drifted,
Subconscious just as bored as I,
So through my memory sifted.
But naught was there to interest me
So back my focus shifted,
To faraway, to lands unseen,
My mind and spirit lifted.

I never meant to post this, but this is what happens when you promise a soon-to-be blog post days ago and never get around to writing it. I wrote this bit of nonsense in college, during one of my nursing courses if I remember correctly. But that’s a story for another time.

(Also, I never failed math, the title was just easier than “Why I Failed Nursing Statistics and A Course on Proper Needle Safety Techniques.” Which, for the record, I didn’t fail either. So I guess to be truly accurate: “An Explanation in Rhyme Which Discloses, in Part, How I Realized that Nursing Was a Reckless Career Choice for Both Me and Any Future Patients Counting on my Care.”)

I’m not planning to officially put this under my poetry tab. I like it well enough as a placeholder, and we’ll leave it at that.

Thank You, Memoir Writing Course

Here’s to my professor of memoir writing (and also, incidentally, poetry, even though she didn’t like rhyming), for providing me with material even when I’m on vacation. I don’t have the assignment details anymore, but this was clearly some sort of exercise on description.

There are corners in my grandmother’s basement that have never seen light.

Before we moved to Thailand, we lived in Gram’s house for three months, but the family had been going there for years and it was already our second home.  I loved her house because it smelled like her, of her practical lotion and cooking, a smell that had soaked into the very base of the house.  But there is something that most adults have forgotten, that almost every kid knows from the bottom of their soul.

There are things that live in the basement furnace room.

The furnace banged whenever it came on, like someone had kicked something into place, and always when I was least expecting it.  It scrummed when it got going, a heavier grating noise than the mechanical thrum of working machinery, pulsing in volume that vibrated up the large metal box and into the ceiling.  That was the only part of the furnace room that hummed with it, because the rest was cold, smooth cement.  The furnace room always felt incomplete, as though it had been gutted and never finished.  You could feel the dark weight of the ground it was carved out of, held back by bomb-shelter quality walls.  It felt like Communist-era housing, comfortless and without amenities.

The rest of the house was carpeted, so whenever we (there was always a pack of three to nine of us, depending on how well the separate family units had coordinated their travel plans) played in the basement, my feet were always bare.  The cold washed through my toes until it made it up to my ankles, pulling heat from the soles of my feet.  But we went into the furnace room anyways, because of the ping pong table.

The ping-pong table was a wonderful thing, green and smoothed with age.  The net was always falling crooked so that games were rife with try-pulling-that-side-straight-this-time-breaks.  The entire table leaned, kind of with the slant of the floor, but mostly on crooked legs.  We’d push and pull at the table, scraping it in loud, low-pitched shrieks until we found the perfect dip in the floor to make it stop moving.  For some reason it always needed fixing.

The back wall of the furnace room had an old 50’s era refrigerator and an enormous freezer, filled with packs of meat and frozen vegetables.  I could smell the frozen water coating the back of the freezer, a stale, biting scent.  Both appliances were an old-looking cream color, and they too hummed without sending out vibrations into the floor.  They collected dust, cobwebs, and ping pong balls.  When we ran low on ping pongs, someone would have to reach their hand into the black corners, feeling the sweep of thick cobwebs over their hands and, depending on how deep into the narrow spaces we had to search, up our arms.  I was often called on duty for the deep reaches because my arms were the skinniest.  I hated that feeling, like fingers ghosting on my arm (or the absolutely dead-certain sense that a spider was about to leap onto my skin), and I’d pull my arm out as soon as I found the ping pong we needed, occasionally with another in my hand.

Next to the freezer was the blackest part of the house, a door-less pantry that swallowed even the fluorescent light above the ping pong table.  It was a dangerous place, large enough to hold something that could breathe, filled with old wooden shelves stacked with a hundred other things I never stopped to look at whenever I was unfortunate enough to have to go back there for a lost ping pong ball.

It was there, when the lights were off for a game of Deer in the Thicket, that my cousin hid in plain sight, crouched on top of the freezer as my brother stared into the tar-like pitch.  I can imagine him, grinning into the dark, as the furnace room breathed heavy and soft around him.

But it isn’t until you’re climbing the stairs back up to the kitchen – sunshine just spilling onto the top two stairs – the basement a dark, unknown, brooding something behind you, that you really being to suspect that you were right all along. That the only reason you can’t hear it for certain is because the sound of your own feet masks the sound of something following you. I ran those stairs every time, lights off, everyone else already upstairs, without looking back.

Because if I was right, looking backwards would only slow me down.

Wax Long and Throw the Bull

I’ve always wanted a platform from which I could share my unsolicited opinion. Now that I have one I find that I’m not sure what to say. Goodness knows I’ll come up with something – I’ve always had a knack for filling empty space.

Actually, this is what made me so successful in school. Multiple choice questions made me want to weep because I could think of several different ways to argue that the answer could be a, b, or c, depending on the motivation of the teacher who wrote the question in the first place. Unfortunately, I didn’t study quite enough to know my information down cold, so I’d end up second-guessing myself and later discovering that I should have gone with my gut. I can hear my sister yelling at me from across a couple of states that you should always go with your gut on multiple choice questions, but experience has taught me otherwise; every time I chose to un-second guess myself, it turned out the second guess was correct and I’d end up gnashing my teeth over my answers later, annoyed that I had gone with the wrong gut feeling.

But give me an essay question and I’m golden. I could answer a question I didn’t know the actual answer to and end up with full points. I did this by pulling out every piece of information on a subject I knew, and wording it in such a way that the teacher would assume that I’d known the correct answer all along and just padded it with extra information. It used to make my sister burning mad when I trotted out this skill. She’s a science writer by nature, which means that she studies hard and answers questions in succinct, simple sentences. The fact that I could not know an answer but convince someone that I did annoyed her – and made her laugh too, more grudgingly than admiringly, I think – to no end. At the end of the day she had the better grades, but I was just half a step behind her with less effort.

Of course, when I finally did have to take a couple of labs for my biology minor in college, my TAs destroyed my papers. I absolutely loathe science writing because it doesn’t allow me to say anything with the remotest bit of color. I would explain the methods that I used to obtain my results like I was writing an English paper, and I’d get back comments on comments written in red ink telling me to say it straight. Unfortunately, they had discovered that I didn’t have enough to say to fill ten pages. Fortunately, no one else ever did.

Point in fact, the science paper version of this little story should go: Andrea likes essay questions better than multiple choice questions. This is because she knows how to throw the bull.

So, uh, fair warning. I can make a short story very long. You’ll undoubtedly discover that soon enough.