Southeast of Disorder


In the beginning, there was the word
September 30, 2008, 3:08 pm
Filed under: hurricane, Writing

I’ve decided that in-between fits of Ike-inspired cleaning, I’m going to relax by taking a page from Nina Katchadourian’s book, so to speak. Katchadourian is the mastermind behind the Sorted Books Project, which has captured my imagination quite completely. The concept entreats both halves of my brain to play. If there’s one thing I have a surfeit of — besides Ike’s detritus — it’s books, and this seems like a thoroughly engaging way to use them in ways other than they were intended to be used. (The best things in our lives always have more than one purpose.)

Here’s one of my favorites among Katchadourian’s creations. Read the book spines from top to bottom.

I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I think the books on my shelves (and my nightstand and my coffee table and my mantel and my bathroom counter and almost every other horizontal space in my house) will do the heavy lifting for me. Can you imagine what fun it would be to walk into someone’s home and find little “Easter eggs” like this scattered about?

I’m going to stack books strategically in various spots and see how long it takes someone to notice what’s up.



Living and Dying in Three-Quarter Time
September 23, 2008, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Dog, Galveston, hurricane

There are going to be some good, hardworking people who’ll never recover from Ike. You can recognize them on the street: They’re the ones with the hollow eyes of war survivors.

I just spoke to one while I was walking my dog outside the Holiday Inn in Seguin, Texas. She’s a single woman, middle-aged, and an evacuee from Gilchrist, a small town on the Bolivar Penninsula between Galveston Island and Port Arthur. Gilchrist wasn’t one of the Texas Riviera’s trendy beach communities. It was a country town populated by salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar working folks and farmers. The sum total of Gilchrist’s commercial development comprised a True Value hardware store, a couple of country-and-western bars and a handful of mom-and-pop diners, feed stores and groceries. Ike took almost everything, leaving only a few building shells standing.

Angie, my new friend, lost everything except her dog to Ike. Her house. Her car. Her clothes and furniture. Her job. It’s not like she had a lot to begin with, but she worked hard for what she did have, even after an auto accident last year severed the lower portion of her right leg. Surgeons reattached the leg, but it will never be normal. Through it all, Sophia Loren, Angie’s sweet Rottweiler-Blue Heeler mix, has been her steadfast companion.

Angie and Sophie were separated briefly after they were bussed to a San Antonio shelter when their aging van was washed away by Ike’s rising water. After Katrina and Rita, Texas law was changed to allow people to take their pets with them during mandatory evacuations. Sadly, legislators didn’t deal with what would become of the pets once evacuees reached shelters. A San Antonio animal welfare organization collected all the sheltered evacuees’ pets so they could be cared for properly, but the form the evacuees were required to sign gave the organization the right to place the animals in new homes if the evacuees didn’t reclaim them within 10 days.

When Angie’s head quit spinning, she read the fine print. She left the shelter, got a rental car through her auto insurance company, and headed for a motel that accepted pets. The expense, she said, is about to kill her, but she’ll manage as long as she has Sophie.

FEMA still has not approved Angie for temporary housing assistance. They need her to fax them proof she actually rented the now-destroyed “cabin” (her term) she occupied before Ike vented his fury all over the upper Texas Gulf Coast. She didn’t think to take utility bills with her when she left, and now she’s sure they’re scattered all over a narrow strip of land that’s still soggy nearly two weeks after a 15-foot wall of water wiped most life from its surface.

Someone from Texas Governor Rick Perry’s office called Angie’s room this morning, she said. They wanted to know what they could do to help. “I didn’t even know what to tell them,” she told me, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “Where was I supposed to start? I told them about my dog. I’m not giving up my dog.”

Sophie jumped up and licked my face. I wouldn’t give her up, either.



Right Brain vs. Left Brain
August 31, 2008, 8:43 am
Filed under: Writing | Tags: ,

Occasionally I take off on little Web-based excursions that are the virtual equivalents of unplanned car trips: I start on a Web page I’ve visited for some Really Important Reason, and before I realize what’s happened, I’m 100 miles down a wholly unrelated, winding road I didn’t even know existed. The reason I don’t turn around and head back for home and safety before I find myself standing beside an out-of-gas vehicle and praying for the largesse of kind strangers is that I’m fascinated with the before-undiscovered scenery. It speaks to me in new and exciting ways, and I’m a glutton for that sort of experience. I find it enormously difficult to “do the intelligent thing” and stick close to home lest I become hopelessly lost.

Even though these impromptu treasure hunts sometimes get in the way of legitimate work, very seldom are they complete wastes of time (at least in my mind, which family and friends increasingly seem to think I’ve misplaced). Today, for example, I followed a link from Holly Lisle’s plot-building mini-course to StoryToolz.com, which led me to romance novelist Stephanie Tyler’s blog, which led me to a right-brain-vs.-left-brain test on the website of the Australian newspaper Herald Sun.

Here’s the test:

Right brain vs. left brain

Right brain vs. left brain

Now, answer this question: Does the woman’s figure appear to rotate clockwise or counterclockwise? According to the Herald Sun, most people see the figure rotating counterclockwise. (I assume that’s to the left in the Southern Hemisphere, as it is in the Northern Hemisphere, although I could be wrong.) Those people’s left brains are dominant, meaning they tend to be logical, detail-oriented, math-and-science types. Scientists also have determined most of them are right-handed. The folks who see her spinning clockwise generally are ruled by their right brains, the side which primarily is the seat of emotions, philosophy, symbolism and risk-taking. (The Herald Sun‘s website has interesting lists of right-brain and left-brain characteristics; see the “right-brain-vs.-left-brain test” link, above).

Many fiction writers and visual artists are right-brain types. Even though I’ve been writing fiction since childhood, I’ve always considered myself a left-brainer, and I do find numerous left-brain characteristics within my essential self. However, no matter how long I concentrate on that darn spinning woman, I can’t make her rotate counterclockwise (although the Herald Sun insists some people can make her switch directions).

Here’s another interesting right-brain-vs.-left-brain exercise.

Here are my results:


You Are 25% Left Brained, 75% Right Brained


The left side of your brain controls verbal ability, attention to detail, and reasoning.

Left brained people are good at communication and persuading others.

If you’re left brained, you are likely good at math and logic.

Your left brain prefers dogs, reading, and quiet.

The right side of your brain is all about creativity and flexibility.

Daring and intuitive, right brained people see the world in their unique way.

If you’re right brained, you likely have a talent for creative writing and art.

Your right brain prefers day dreaming, philosophy, and sports.

I don’t know why the results surprised me, but they did.

In which direction do you see the woman spinning? What did your results on the second right-brain-vs.-left-brain test say about you? Do the results jive or clash with what you’ve always thought about yourself? For very different reasons, both sides of my brain would be interested to know how other people reacted.



The Insanity Defense
April 2, 2008, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Writing | Tags: , ,

Aspiring fiction authors can be classified in any number of ways, but among the most prominent categories seem to be “uncannily brilliant,” “deeply devoted to substance abuse,” and “just plain nuts.” The jury is divided about which camp I fall into, but at last poll the Twelve Angry Critics leaned heavily toward acquittal by virtue of insanity.Frankly, after much rumination, I’ve decided an insanity defense is the only plausible one for We Who Are Determined to Embarrass Ourselves Repeatedly by Committing Tripe to Paper. There’s plenty of evidence, after all at least in my case. What else but insanity could explain the devolution of an otherwise relatively normal, reasonably intelligent, fairly articulate person into a raving lunatic who engages in lengthy conversations with imaginary friends?

No one warned me about this unnerving possibility when I signed on to write fiction. Shouldn’t there be a clause in my contract somewhere? I’d like to see a label like the ones pharmaceutical companies are required to include with medications: “WARNING: Possible side effects of the writing life may include spreading hips, estrangement from family and friends, deteriorating eyesight, insomnia, abbreviated attention span, inability to abandon lost causes, crabbiness, extended periods of depression punctuated by brief euphoria, loss of interest in the real world, self-doubt, a tendency to woolgather at odd moments, and talking to people who don’t exist.”

It’s that last one that plays most decisively into the insanity defense. (Wouldn’t we all be ecstatic if spreading hips did?)

I finally succumbed to the realization I was lost in a fiction fog when I began talking to characters. By “talking,” I don’t mean the occasional rhetorical “Hmm…. What would you do if…?” I mean literally carrying on protracted give-and-take conversations. Actually, arguments might be a better term.

These fanciful forays into which I seem to depart more frequently as time passes both amuse and appall people of the grown-up variety. Even my dog becomes concerned or perhaps I’m mistaking his pawing and whining for something it is not. He simply may be jealous that none of the entities with whom I communicate so elaborately is him. Oddly, children don’t seem to mind at all.

After 15 years, my significant other has learned just to ignore me. The crazy babbling and fixed stares no longer cause him to reach for the phone number of the nice men with white coats and butterfly nets. (Of course, this is the same man who frequently finds his life in jeopardy when he bursts into my writing space to tell me some horrendous, funny-only-to-men joke just as I’m about to craft the quintessential bit of dialog that will save the day, so his judgment is questionable, at best.)

But I digress (which ought to be another of those fully disclosed possible side effects). About those character interactions: Lately I’ve begun to feel like a temperamental director dealing with a herd of malcontents and unrepentant hams.

“Augh! Cut! Cut!”

“What? What did we do?”

“That’s a good question. Exactly what is it you thought you were doing there?”

“Improvising.”

“Improvising? You do realize there’s a script, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s all wrong right here. Nobody behaves like that. It’s bogus.”

“Bogus?” I shake my head wearily. “See this is part of the problem: You’re from the 18th century; that word’s not in your vocabulary. Who gave you permission to take off on your own little tangent?”

Just about then, another character usually joins the fray. “You know, if I were the hero, I’d….”

“You’re not the hero!” I hiss, whirling on him. “If you’d spend as much time developing your own role as you do analyzing his, we’d all be the better for it.”

Depending on the character, at this point he’ll either sulk meaning I have to expend valuable mental energy soothing his wounded feelings or dive into a particularly vile tirade denouncing my writing ability. The latter does nothing to improve my relationship with a cast already seriously doubting my fitness to be their leader.

Every once in a while, I find someone from a completely different project costuming himself or herself in the current project’s wardrobe and stealthily sneaking onto the set.

“You there! The Merry Man in the back. Aren’t you supposed to be on Stage 4 plotting with the rest of the gang in Last Train to Comanche Wells?”

“Uh… well, yeah,” he’ll answer, nervously shuffling his dusty, worn cowboy boots, “but… well, to tell you the truth, ma’am, they’re about to bore me to death over there. And it’s confusing very confusing.”

“Incompetents and amateurs!” I explode. “Who’s in charge on Stage 4? I want him nuked!”

“Nuked?” (Misplaced Cowboy Guy only thought he was confused before.)

“Oh fer cryin’ out loud…. Ask one of the Rigelians to explain it to you.”

About the time I begin chastising the hero from Chaste Through the Snow because he won’t stop pressing the heroine’s heaving bosom to his manly chest while for the umpteenth time uttering “Your eyes are like limpid sapphire pools” as she faints at the prospect of consummating their forbidden lust, I find myself consumed by heaving sobs of despair. It’s precisely at that moment the gaggle of slightly flighty but endearing, hard-as-nails southern belles escapes the pages of The Bougainvillea Ladies’ Luncheon Club and rushes to console me.

“Get away from me! I don’t want chocolate! Well, I do, but not right now.”

“Let me freshen your iced tea, sugah.”

“Hon, what you need is a good roll in the sack with that hunk from Chaste.”

“You know, my mother always told me….”

“Augh! Just gimme the damn chocolate and go back to fanning yourselves on the verandah, will ya? WHY CAN’T ANY OF YOU BEHAVE?!”

Half of them mutter “Ingrate!” under their breaths, and the others cluck knowingly and whisper, “This time the hero lives, but the writer is about to perish by her own hand.”

“I can hear you, you know!” Bunch of know-it-all buttinskis. (I’m not above an occasional under-the-breath mutter myself.)

Perhaps insanity is a virtue after all. A rubber room is looking more appealing all the time.



Bush whacked?
February 15, 2008, 6:20 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , ,

Former President George H. W. Bush has announced he will endorse the presidential candidacy of Arizona Sen. John McCain. That’s interesting, considering what his son did to McCain when McCain opposed the younger Bush’s presidential bid. Apparently the political rivals have decided to bury the hatchet somewhere other than in each other.

Still, something tells me McCain is not eagerly anticipating an endorsement from the current prez (known among late columnist Molly Ivins’ fans as “Shrub”). When I heard about Bush 41’s McCain endorsement, the first thing that popped into my head was a rather humorous image of McCain on the phone with Bush 43, insisting “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!

I also find it amusing that the Bush political machine — which during Shrub’s candidacies couldn’t do enough to court the farthest-right faction of the far right — suddenly finds former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee too far right to suit it. McCain may be for “family values,” but he’s no raving religious lunatic. Of course, Huckabee doesn’t seem like such a bad guy, either, but anyone who publicly says the U.S. Constitution should cleave more closely to Biblical law deserves to be watched.



Call Me Bwana
February 2, 2008, 8:49 pm
Filed under: Dog | Tags: , , , , ,

jlpstick.jpg“Don’t even think about it!”

Even before the words were out of my mouth, ears pasted themselves to neck and Dog was under the sofa, all staccato fur and scurrying claws. To this day, I haven’t figured out how he dragged that gnu under there with him, but I can tell you gnus shouldn’t be under sofas. They dislike confining, dark spaces almost as much as they dislike being wrestled to the ground by their throats. Not that Dog cared. He had captured the gnu fair and square, and he was keeping it.

“All right. I bow before the prowess of the great hunter,” I admitted as I flopped on the floor, prepared to haul Dog, the gnu and whatever else was under the furniture out by force if necessary. “The gnu is yours. Now please bring it out from under the couch.”

Two glittering eyes peered from the dark slit between the sofa and the floor. “Wildebeest,” he said.

“Wildebeest?”

“It’s a wildebeest,” he answered. “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it.”

“Whatever. Just bring it out from under the couch.”

Dog inched his way out of the wilderness den without any sort of ungulate mammal in tow and shook himself vigorously.

“Wildegnu,” I reminded him sternly, pointing toward the bowels of the jungle. He cocked his head and observed me quizzically. “It’s a compromise,” I explained.

“Hey, I’m all about compromise — but it’s a wildebeest,” he insisted. “And it’s staying where it is.”

At great risk to my personal safety, I took a deep breath, reached into the Great Unknown, tentatively felt around until my hand brushed damp fur, and drew forth a lifeless body. Bits of popcorn and corn chips and great masses of Chihuahua fur clung to the battered corpse. “Jeez. You’ve shed a whole ‘nother dog this winter. Ew.”

Dog sniffed the carcass cautiously, then made a move to snatch it in his teeth and disappear again.

“Nope. Sorry,” I told him, whipping it out of reach just before the jaws of death clamped shut on the poor creature’s head. “The wildegnu is not going back under the couch.”

Two diminutive forepaws perched on my knee as Dog’s eyes narrowed disdainfully. Little tan brows added a dimension of malevolence to the expression on his dark face. “Oh, so that’s the way you want to play it, eh? Well, the next time you’re beset by a herd of wildebeests, don’t come crying to me.”

“Are we expecting bands of rogue wildebeests to rampage through the neighborhood soon?”

“You can’t be too careful,” he warned. “They’re treacherous. Just when you least expect it, they’ll sneak up behind you and stampede.”

I had trouble imagining a herd of any sort of hoofed animals sneaking up behind me on a hardwood floor, but I filed the warning for future reference.

“If you want to get technical,” I said, plucking bits of assorted refuse from the limp creature’s tangled fur, “it’s a stuffed squirrel.”

That did it. Dog began pacing agitatedly back and forth between me and the sofa, shaking his little head dejectedly. “All I do for this family, and all you can do is dis my accomplishments,” he whined. It was a strident whine, but it was a whine nonetheless. “You think it’s easy being the chief of security around here? You think I don’t get hoarse sounding the alarm at all hours of the day and night? You think I don’t make sacrifices to ensure you aren’t carried off by gypsies? And all I ask in return is just a little bit of praise for a job well done. Can you do that? No.”

He was winding himself up pretty tightly with record speed. “Just once I’d like to hear a bit of gratitude. ‘My, what a brave fellow you are! You laugh in the face of death with such savoir faire.’ ‘My hero! You saved me from certain doom!’ Do I get any of that? I didn’t have to give up a life of adventure to live in the suburbs and baby-sit you people, you know. I could have been the best in the business, but nooooo. I gave up a life of fame and fortune to slave away protecting a bunch of stingy ingrates who would have been somebody’s lunch by now if not for me….”

I shook the squirrel at him, pinching a spot near the tip of its tail. It let out an alarmed squeak and Dog leapt at it, fangs bared. I tossed it across the room vaguely in the direction of his bed and he ran to subdue it, growling ferociously. It took him a moment to get started because the hardwood floor didn’t provide much purchase for tiny claws, but once on the move he was like a small, hairy bolt of lightning.

The wildegnu barely had skidded to a stop against the bed’s ramparts before Dog pounced on it and gave it a vigorous shake. Satisfied with the kill, he trotted back across the distance and deposited the corpse before me with a great deal of pride in accomplishment.

“There. It’s dead now.”

“My hero!”

He squinted one eye in an annoyed frown. “No need to get snarky.” Just to be sure I got the message, he nipped at my knee. The maneuver wasn’t entirely effective as a scare tactic, because his teeth bounced off denim-covered kneecap harmlessly.

“You’d better save those razor-sharp fangs,” I told him, bending over to plant a kiss on the top of his head. “You never know when you’ll need them again to fend off a herd of marauding suburban wildebeests.”

His tongue planted a quick kiss on the tip of my nose. “You’re welcome,” he said.

“So what else have you concealed under there?” I asked, reaching into the Great Unknown again. I snagged another lump of fur and drew it forth. It was a rabbit. One of its ears was missing, and polyester stuffing oozed from the wound.

“So that’s where Bunny’s been!” The hole on the window seat left by his mysterious disappearance from the guest room had perplexed me for at least two weeks. There was no telling where the amputated appendage was, but at least I could give the majority of Bunny’s remains a decent burial. I resolved to say a few solemn words over him before ceremoniously depositing him in the trash.

“You can have that one,” Dog said, his tone unmistakably indifferent. “It wasn’t much of a challenge. Who knew badgers were such wimps?”

“That one, too,” he allowed as I dug out a porcine gray cat with leather ears. “The only reason to hunt lions is for the chase. They aren’t very tasty.”

“Such a discerning palate for wild game really is wasted around here, isn’t it?” I asked.

Dog ignored the sarcasm and sighed. “You know, it really is. But I deal.”

Next to emerge from the heart of darkness was a rawhide Chewgar. Before I saw him move, Dog had it in his teeth and was on top of the sofa determinedly poking it between the arm and one of the seat cushions. He scooted a throw pillow over the site with his nose, and just to make sure I couldn’t retrieve the prize, he planted himself firmly atop the grave and glared at me.

“OK — that doesn’t belong there,” I told him, dragging myself up from the floor and reaching for the pillow upon which he was ensconced. “Hand it over.”

“Surely you jest. You hide your valuables in the sofa.”

“If you mean the loose change I’m forever digging out of there, that’s more of an escape attempt on its part than an intentional incarceration on mine,” I explained.

“Back off, sister,” he warned, baring his teeth just in case I attempted to ignore him.

I flipped pillow, Dog and an unexpected cloud of dust in one swift move as my hand dove into the pit and captured the Chewgar.

“Hey! Give it back!” He bounced off the sofa and began energetically springing into the air to reclaim the trophy. “You can’t just steal someone’s dinosaur bone!”

“Dignity, thy name is Chihuahua,” I observed with a grin as I held the artifact just beyond his reach.

That stopped him. He ceased bouncing and sat with an embarrassed harrumph.

“All right, keep it then,” he said presently, popping to his feet and trotting away with a dismissive toss of his head. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you when that T. Rex’s mate comes looking for the missing father of her children.”



Super Bowl XLII: There’s a Flag on the Play Already

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Adrian Ross thought he had put together the perfect team for Super Bowl XLII, but on Jan. 23 the Glendale City Council ejected the quarterback.

Ross, a former linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, planned to raise funds for his Maddbackers Foundation by hosting a series of parties leading up to the big game at Glendale’s Cardinals Stadium. The foundation mentors children at football and literacy camps.

In order to attract celebrities and NFL players — people who clearly have spare change and often help the underprivileged — Ross accepted Pink Cabaret’s offer to host the events and donate 25 percent of its profits to the foundation. The girls at the usually “textile-free” establishment even agreed to cover up so Ross could get a special-event liquor license for the parties.

Perfect! Scantily clad women, booze and charitable giving. End zone, here we come!

That’s when the city council threw a flag on the play.

State regulations ban alcohol at nude dance clubs, but they allow it to be served at topless clubs. Even with Pink Cabaret’s promise there would be no “wardrobe malfunctions,” the council unanimously rejected the liquor-license application.

The decision was based on what was best for the event, according to Mayor Elaine Scruggs, who called Ross’ application “a twist of logic.” Covering the dancers would have hampered the rushing game, since the skins team was what lured fans to the club in the first place, she said.

One of the council members termed the liquor-license request a personal foul.

“It’s distasteful to us, or at least to me personally,” Councilwoman Joyce Clark said.

The mayor said “The charitable good works … can be done without a liquor license,” according to AZCentral.com.

Attorney John Weston, who represented Pink Cabaret before the council, said the refs made a bad call.

“Who could be opposed to something for kids?” he asked.

The council didn’t penalize other teams with similar playbooks, granting special-event liquor licenses to a number of squads including a Catholic church.