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The Sweet Smell of…..Rejection

Several weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a story contest announcement from Midtown Reader, our completely delightful local bookstore. The limit was 600 words, a short short story.

Many would enter; six would be chosen.

I entered. I was not chosen.

I’m not surprised, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little. I used to write for a living, and I wasn’t terrible at it.

Anyway. Here’s the story I wrote.

“My glass is empty,” Violet whispered, peering at the underside of her champagne flute, “again.”

I grinned at her as the sweat finally coalesced on my spine and began to travel in rivulets towards my waist. It was 10:00 in the morning but already sweltering, in the way that only New Orleans swelters. Violet and I were seated outdoors, taking full advantage of bottomless mimosas and double breakfast meats, planning the second day of our first adult vacation.

The waiter appeared with refills. I squinted up at him. “If you were us, would you go on a paddlewheel boat ride or to the Zoo?”

“Oh, definitely the Zoo. It’s just up the streetcar line from here.”

“Zoo it is!” Violet raised her glass. “Can we get drinks to go?”

“Of course you can, chere.”

“Cheers to you, sir!”

* * *

Thirty minutes later, we wandered through the Zoo entrance after downing our alarmingly large traveling drinks. I was sweating in earnest now.

“What was that?” Violet tilted her head. “Did you hear that?”

I listened, but didn’t hear anything un…. There.

“What the heck was that?” I asked, looking around. It was a guttural, primal sound, and it pierced the din of the zoo crowd like a spear. By the looks on the faces around me, other people heard it too. There it is again. It sounded almost, but not quite, like…

MOMMY IS THAT A LION?” A towheaded child whispered. “DID THE LION GET OUT OF ITS CAGE?”

Violet turned to me, her eyes and mouth perfect Os of surprise and delight, as the low bellowing roar once again snaked its way to our ears. “Do you think the lion got out? Is it menacing people right now? We have to find out! Let’s go!”

Violet and the kid managed to set off a whispering campaign that rippled through the sultry air. By the time the rumors had traveled 50 feet, there was definitely a lion loose in the zoo, it was hungry, and every sweaty tourist was on their way to find it.

Violet spotted something.

“Is that a bar? IN A ZOO?” She began giggling. “A bar and a lion? This is the best day of my life.”

Re-supplied with beer, we trailed the crowd in the direction of the noises, which seemed to be getting stronger and closer together, like contractions. I paused at a misting station, holding my beer out of the spray.

“What are you doing?” Violet asked.

“I figure if I cover myself in water, then I’m just wet, not sweaty. Right?”

“Yes? But come on! I think the lion is mad!”

“Should we maybe consider moving away from the noise that sounds like a threatened lion?”

“Uh…. Nope. Cheers!” We clinked plastic cups and strolled on.

We rounded a bend and saw the enclosure from which the strange sounds were emanating.

It was not the lion enclosure.

A mother, obviously upset, was hustling her small daughter away from the fence. She reached back to grab her husband, who was transfixed by whatever was going on in the pen. Several other parents were trying in vain to cover their children’s eyes.

I reached the fence and froze. It took me a moment to process what I was seeing, during which time the 600-pound Galapagos tortoise, with a final bellow, completed his sexual conquest of the female beneath him.

The ensuing silence was broken when Violet snorted, beer sloshing to the rim of her cup as she raised it high.

“CHEERS TO YOU, SIR!”

 

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Reading Materials: March 2017

12. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. I purchased this book in college and only now got around to reading it. It was a tough read, and not just because of the references to institutions and people who were current events in 1908 but are now British history. Chesterton wrote this account of how he came to embrace orthodox Christianity after years of trying to work out his own interpretation of faith. However, many of his statements continue to ring true in 2017, and I found myself nodding along to many of his arguments. I’m glad I read this book, even if I had to do it with a pen in hand and no distractions.

13. The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. (Library) I loved this book, about four siblings who have to grapple with money and its influence on relationships and people. It’s difficult to write a book with a large cast and make every character seem three-dimensional, but Sweeney succeeds. I also loved the sense of place in the book, which is set in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Westchester.

14. The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore. (Library) I forced myself to wait until the last page before I rushed to the internet to see how much of this book was fact, and how much was fiction. The novel tells the (embellished, but historical) story of the War of the Currents. For those who don’t know: at the dawn of the electric age, there were two competing electricity delivery systems – alternating current, favored by George Westinghouse, and direct current, favored by Thomas Edison. The two men fought in courts and in the press for years over whose system was better and safer. This book examines one facet of that fight, the battle over the light bulb patent, and is told from the point of view of Westinghouse’s lawyer, Paul Cravath, with a special guest appearance by Nikola Tesla. I learned a lot about the conflict I hadn’t known before, and enjoyed the author’s take on Westinghouse and Tesla. But Edison came across as a two-dimensional villain. You could practically hear his cartoon cackle. I really enjoyed the story and did find it suspenseful – despite knowing the end.

15. Little Nothing, Maria Silver. (Library) This was a frustrating read. It’s meant to be a dark fairy tale, and it’s very well-written, but…. even fairy tales have their own twisted logic. If you speak the forbidden word, the kingdom will fall. Only a person of pure heart can remove the talisman from its chamber. If you tell anyone the secret of your beauty, it will be taken from you. This book looks like a fairy tale, and smells like a fairy tale, but it does not have even fairy tale logic to hold it together. A couple has a baby who is born a dwarf. She is sent to a terrible doctor who tries to stretch her on a table… and she becomes a normal-sized woman with a wolf face. Why a wolf face? THERE IS NO WHY. Later, she becomes a wolf, for no apparent reason. And finally, she becomes a normal-sized person, with a different face, again without real explanation. There is no other magic in the novel. In fact, the writer goes to great lengths to describe non-magic systems that work like magic in the world of early-20th-century-Eastern Europe, like the clockworks of an old clock tower, or an efficient system for excavating tunnels, or the intricacies of indoor plumbing. And the character cannot remember any of her previous incarnations, so there’s no character development per se. The writing itself is lyrical and lovely, but the story leaves much to be desired.

16. The Infinite, Nicholas Mainieri. (Borrowed) This was our church book club selection, and we got to Skype (and drink!) with Mainieri at our meeting. I enjoyed the book, which was well-paced and thoughtful, but I enjoyed it more after hearing the author talk about the process of writing it, and about his adopted hometown of New Orleans. Set in Louisiana and Mexico, my initial impression was of a modern day Romeo-and-Juliet story. But the novel also makes insightful commentary on the drug trade, and the threads that run from cartel wars in Mexico to low-level street dealers in the U.S. As a bonus, the author devotes some ink to nutria (if you don’t know what nutria are, imagine Rodents of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride). Nutria are a non-native species to Louisiana, and there are parallels to be drawn between their plight and that of the heroine and her family, who are illegal immigrants. It was a good read, and I recommend it.

17. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. (Borrowed) This was supposed to be an innovative take on the standard issue slave narrative. In this book, the underground railroad is imagined as a real thing – with tracks and cars and tunnels and stations. However, this device does not do enough to distinguish it from other books about the slave era. Whitehead also has a tendency to use modern turns of phrase where they are out of historical context. Despite these linguistic choices, the story of the book was entertaining enough.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 13
Non-Fiction: 4

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Skillz: Picture Framing

We inherited most of the furniture and art in our house, which means that it’s all old and sentimental. Actually, that could be said of our house itself. Hm.

Anyhoo, we have a lot of framed art that is starting to show its age. Among these are four watercolors of the beach painted by Jacksonville artist Eula Bull. Her daughter was friends with my mom, and Ms. Bull gave my mother the watercolors in the late 1960s or early 1970s. They hung in the hall near my bedroom in my childhood home. When we moved them here, I hung them in our bedroom. They helped with the serene feel and watercolor palette I was hoping to cultivate. (<— That statement was 90% fancier than reality.)

The pictures were soothing, the frames were fine, but the mats were looking a little decrepit.

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At first I considered caving to the barrage of Framebridge ads and having the pieces re-framed in a quasi-professional manner. But a simple frame and mat was estimated to cost $70, times four, and I am not in the mood to pay $280 to change the mats on free watercolors.

Many, many Pinterest posts encourage a DIY enthusiast to “pick up frames at Goodwill” for re-purposing. But most of these projects turn the frame into something else – a tray, or a chalkboard thingy, or a photo display. I could not find a tutorial on re-using a picture frame….as a picture frame.

I decided to roll up my sleeves and take a crack at it. WITHOUT A PINTEREST TUTORIAL. I know.

Here’s my arsenal of re-framing tools:

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Self-healing mat & ruler, pliers, glass cleaner, razor knife, pencil, and tape.

First I unwound the hanging wire from one side of the frame, and laid it to the side.

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Next, I cut away the paper backing on the frame. Using a razor knife, I (carefully!) slashed the paper along the edges and pulled it away. This was the only part of the frame I did not re-use.

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This was underneath. It’s a layer of cardboard held in place by little metal teeth. I pulled the cardboard out next.

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Under that was a piece of mat board, the watercolor, and two more mat boards. I removed each layer.

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To get the glass out, I had to remove the little metal teeth with pliers. It turned out they were diamond-shaped pieces of metal that were wedged into the wood frame. I’m sure they have a fancy name, but I shall continue to call them teeth. I took out the teeth on the top and sides of the frame, and put them aside.

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I pulled the glass out and cleaned it. Then I got to work on the new mat.

I purchased a 32″ x 40″ piece of off-white mat board for $8.00. NATURALLY, the mats I needed were 16.5″ x 20.5″, which means instead of getting four mats out of one board, I could only get two. Grrrr.

Using the old mat as a template, I cut out my pieces. Then I measured the inside of the old inner (blue) mat to get the opening, which was 10.5″ x 14.5″. I marked the lines on the back of the new mat, using my fancy ruler and a pencil, then used the razor knife to slowly cut the mat board. Straight lines are stressful! It took me three passes to get through the mat board.

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Moment of truth: I put the old mat on top of the new one, to show how dingy it had gotten over the last 50 years. Bear in mind that the new mat is not white, but cream-colored! Yikes!

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With the new mat cut, it was time for re-assembly.

First the sparkly clean glass went in.

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Next, I taped the watercolor to the back of the new mat board and put that in.

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Then the cardboard, to make sure everything was secure.

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I couldn’t get a picture of the next step,  because it required two hands, but I re-inserted some of the metal teeth along the sides and top. Last, I re-strung the wire and hung it back on the wall.

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A watercolor with the original mat is on top; mine is on the bottom. So much fresher! And cleaner-looking!

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I re-matted a second picture the following day, and (no surprise here) the process took about half the time.

It will cost me $16.00 and a couple of hours to re-do all four, and I’ll have plenty of extra mat board to frame (or re-frame) other art. VICTORY IN OUR TIME.

 

 

 

 

 

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February highlights

February 1: I wrote an obituary for someone I didn’t know well. My previous obit-writing experience was limited to my father, but I felt I did a decent job.

February 3: We were having some carpentry done in the house, so I elected to shower at the gym after I worked out. While enjoying the unlimited hot water, I realized that if I consistently showered at the gym, I would save money on utilities and my shower would stay cleaner, longer. On the downside, people might see me naked – but when one has four children running around, the likelihood of that is never less than 15%.

February 4ish: We painted the upstairs hall, using the last of the five-gallon bucket of Sherwin Williams’ Steamed Milk (left over from the foyer). Conquering drywall patches, one room at a time!

February 18: I have used the Walmart grocery app three times. The first time was an exceedingly pleasant and convenient experience. The second time, one if my items was missing. The store was very nice about the omission and gave me the item with no hassle (except that I had to go back for it). The third time was a total bust. Fifteen minutes after my scheduled pickup time, the order was still “processing.” I continued to check over the next few hours, and then I received an e-mail that my order had been canceled without further explanation. I’ll give them one more chance before breaking up with them for good, but they’re on thin ice.

February 25: We completed a project! We were not fans of the fans on the front porch – they were remote-controlled, so naturally they didn’t work. The light kits were non-responsive, and the fans themselves would only operate on TORNADO. So we replaced all three with very simple fans that better fit the style of the house.

Before:

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After:

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Reading Materials: February 2017

8. My Story: 50 Years in the Shadow of the Near Great, R. A. Gray (Library)

R.A. Gray was Florida’s Secretary of State for over 30 years, from 1930 to 1961. In 1928, he and his wife, Grace, built the house in which we now live. He wrote at least three books, and I’ve decided to read them all this year (and obtain my own copies if I can find them!). My Story is a fairly straightforward account of Mr. Gray’s life from his birth in 1882 until 1958, when this book was published. His father was a poor Methodist minister, and Gray’s descriptions of his early life in rural north Florida remind me how very wild-wild-west this area was until well into the 20th century. There’s not much in the book about the house itself, but Gray’s life was very interesting, and his prose was highly readable. I did find a few photographs, interior and exterior, of our house in its original location:

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I tried to re-create this picture, but was somewhat thwarted by the proximity of the house to our neighbor’s fence, and the large number of trees and bushes in the way:

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You get the idea.

9. Prudence (The Custard Protocol #1), Gail Carringer. (Library loan) I picked this book up at the library because it looked intriguing – Plucky British aristocrats! Dirigibles! Tea! India! – but alas. As I read it, I felt I was missing some crucial background information on the characters, and a bit of research suggests I was. The author previously penned a five-book series called The Parasol Protectorate, and the main character of that series is the mother of the main character in this one. I found the writing to be decently good, but overly cute in places. For example, I did not need a description of every outfit worn by the characters, or constant reminders that such-and-such behavior is scandalous. We get it. It’s Victorian England. I think I would probably give the other series a try before reading further in this one.

10. The False Prince, Jennifer Nielsen. (Middle School book club) This book was outstanding. Not “outstanding for a middle school book” but a genuinely good read. Highly recommended.

11. An Abundance of Katherines, John Green. (borrowed) Another solidly good book from John Green, although the sheer number of footnotes was giving me David Foster Wallace tingles. No surprises here, just a thoughtful and well-told story.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 8
Non-Fiction: 3

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

I just took a minute to re-read my post from New Year’s Day last year, and it was sobering. I’d forgotten how utterly overwhelmed and drained I felt.

For me, 2016 was vastly superior to 2015. I realize that most of my friends on the internet disagree, but most of my friends didn’t have terribly hard things happen to them in 2015, either.

When my mom was diagnosed with her glioblastoma, we were told that the median life expectancy for someone with that type of tumor was 18-20 months. Today, New Year’s Day, marks 20 months. That means that every day after this – every single day – is a gift. She beat the average.

Cheers to that!

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We moved her in with us on December 20. Overall, it’s been great. She’s able to spend a lot of time with us, being part of a family again. Mom has lived alone since my father died in 2003, and I don’t think she’s particularly well-suited to isolation. She enjoys having the guest house all to herself, but she comes over to “the big house” for meals and to hang out in the evenings.

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Obviously, the biggest event of our year was buying a house. And oh, what a house. We have fallen completely in love with our pile of bricks and sticks, and spent much of the Christmas break dreaming and planning for the house’s future. In fact, Jason and I spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day painting the foyer. It was glorious.

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The kids were all with us for New Year’s Eve, and we decided as a group to stay home together. They requested a ball-themed menu so I made meatballs, pizza balls, and Oreo peppermint truffles. I am nothing if not obliging. We watched the Times Square ball drop during commercial breaks of the Lord of the Rings marathon, because of course that’s how we roll.

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I have high hopes for 2017. Now that the invisible structural side of the house is fixed (mostly! knock wood!), we can tackle the visible decorative side. Jason gave me a beautiful home-inspiration book for Christmas, the pages of which I have been licking for the past week.

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As for resolutions, I resolve to do all the normal stuff – take better care of myself, take better care of my family, read more non-fiction, be more grateful and more helpful and more generous. I also want to be more intentional about doing things that actually make me happy, not things that are supposed to make me happy.

You know, normal stuff.

May your 2017 be better than last year, no matter what kind of year you had.

 

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Reading Materials: December

I really enjoyed looking back at the books I read in 2016, so I thought I’d finish the year with another book roundup. Without further ado (and without spoilers!), here are the titles I’ve read since November 8:

  1. The Gardener, S.A. Bodeen. This was a book I read for the middle school book club in which Tyler and I participate. It was a compact, well-written adventure story with just enough of a sci-fi element to appeal to most middle schoolers.
  2. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett. I felt like this book bit off more than it could chew – a lot of characters, a lot of plot, a lot of different time periods. I had a hard time mustering the energy to engage with the whole cast. And, ultimately, I didn’t really like, or care about, any of them. I’ve felt this way about several books I read this year – they were well-written, but ultimately felt empty.
  3. Magical Thinking, Augusten Burroughs. I read this on the recommendation of a friend. First, Mr. Burroughs is a very sharp, funny storyteller. Second, Mr. Burroughs seems like kind of an asshole. I’m not sure when “being inappropriate,” in and of itself, became such a laudable trait. Saying something inappropriate is very funny when it’s occasionally deployed by someone who otherwise plays by society’s rules. It’s tedious when it’s your only trick.
  4. Glory Over Everything, Kathleen Grissom. So, if I’m in the car, I will use Siri to dictate texts. When I returned this book to the friend from whom I borrowed it, I let her know by a text. When I finally looked at it later, it made me laugh so hard I cried. It said, “I just dropped glory over everything in your mailbox.” Because Siri didn’t catch on that it was a book title, it looked like I had done something potentially obscene to my friend’s mailbox. Oops. ANYWAY, I enjoyed this book but didn’t love it. I felt the same way about this book’s prequel, The Kitchen House. Some of the conflicts were a little too contrived, and some of the “lucky breaks” seemed a little too lucky. And in this book, it seemed that just when you started to get a feel for a character, he or she would die. That was inconvenient.
  5. Ninety Miles to Havana, Enrique Flores-Galbis. This was another middle school book club book, and I felt it did a good job of exposing the 12-14-year-old set to a glimpse of post-Revolution Cuba without veering into the nitty-gritty or trying to make a big political statement. As a native Floridian, a story about Cuban refugees is always appealing, but this would be a good tale for any middle schooler looking for an introduction to this part of history.
  6. Dreams of Gods and Monsters, Laini Taylor. This was the best series I read all year, and I saved this particular book for Thanksgiving break….and then stayed up until 1:00 a.m. to finish it. It was outstanding. The author managed to create a whole world with light brushstrokes. There is not a lot of ink wasted on detailing the minutiae of the realm, and the relationships between various races of creatures, and all that. She gives you enough information to make the story believable, and then gets back to moving the story along.
  7. Panic, Sharon M. Draper. This was lent to me by the middle school librarian, to see what I thought of it. My first thought was, I can’t believe this is a book for middle school kids!! It deals with the abduction and brutal sexual assault of a teenage dancer, and it is difficult to read. If your middle schooler is exceptionally mature, he or she may be able to see past that to the beautiful parts of the book (the missing girl’s dance friends cope with her loss by….dancing). One thing that bothered me about this book is that the dialog is almost entirely in teen slang, and it already feels a little dated.
  8. The Martian, Andy Weir. This book grabbed me by the throat on page one and didn’t let go until the very end. The narrator, Mark Watley, is one of the best-executed characters I met all year. Immediately upon finishing the book, I made Jason read it. I don’t do that often.
  9. The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George. A friend let me borrow this book, and I selected it for my book club’s January meeting. On the one hand, I love books about books, and books about bookshops, so I really enjoyed those parts. On the other hand, I get very aggravated by Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and I felt like this book featured a particularly egregious example of the type, so I got very twitchy at those parts. Overall, I liked the book and look forward to talking about it with my book club.
  10. Dead to the World, Charlaine Harris. Like all the Sookie Stackhouse novels, this book was fun fluff. I find them adorable.

Happy Reading!

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