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Girl with horse.

Girl with horse.
I was like this girl. Long ago. On an Arkansas Ozark mountain, far, far away.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Uniqueness

How do you catch a unique bunny rabbit? You neek up on it. How do you catch a tame bunny rabbit? The tame way: You neek up on it!

My sixteen-year-old foster daughter is Autistic, and though she understands most of what people say, she has great difficulty getting her interior thoughts out into the exterior world in the form of speech.  She struggles to verbally connect with the society around her. She also constantly repeats what people say to her—this is a condition called echolalia.

Her big blue eyes are sharp: she sizes up a newly introduced person within minutes and--drawing quick conclusions about their personalities from looks, mannerisms, and the timbre of their voices--she gives her new acquaintance a shockingly accurate nickname. The names she gives are based on characters from TV shows or cartoons, and while the gender may not match up, the personality traits are always there. And she will seldom, thereafter, use your real name. I will forever be "Betty", from "The Rugrats", an obnoxious but well-meaning woman with twin girls. I prefer to think she calls me "Betty" not so much for being obnoxious, though I admit I can be like that, but because I now have "twin" sixteen-year-old girls, as my biological daughter is the same age.

My foster daughter nicknamed herself "Mowgli", after the orphan boy raised by a variety of animals in "The Jungle Book." This makes me think that perhaps she sees herself as lost in a confusing jungle, raised by creatures very unlike her, while bravely making the best of things no matter how hard life gets.

Mowgli is a very different little bunny. Nevertheless, one way in which she is most unique, to me, has nothing to do with her disabilities.  Even nicknaming people is not unheard of for people with Autism, as they like to assign personal meanings to the bewildering world around them.

No, one of the things most unique about Mowgli is she never seems to get lost. She's a two-legged GPS.  I, on the other hand, once lost my motorcycle in the ginormous parking lot at the Castleton Square Mall, the biggest shopping mall in Indianapolis, and had to search for about four hours before I found it. And I still get lost in the parking lot at the grocery store.

 I ask Mowgli all the time, "Where did we park?" She points and then leads the way to our car as unerringly as a compass needle points to magnetic North. 

She also knows where every McDonalds is located in the city of Anchorage. I swear. Ask her.

 "Would you point in the direction of the nearest McDonalds?" I ask. She stabs the air with authority. I turn around and drive in that direction, and sure enough, there's the golden arches. Amazing.

"Large caramel frappe, please," she tells me in her crisp, singsong voice.

How about you? What can you do that other people don't seem to do as well, or can't do at all?

Can you multiply factions in your head? Do wild animals come to you for help? Would you please leave a comment and tell me in what way you are unique?




Monday, September 19, 2011

Two Life Lessons I Learned the Summer I Was Twelve.

1) Don't ride your pony on the boardwalk
I grew up in the Ozark Mountains, back when that was a remote place to live, similar in some ways to how the Alaska bush country is now. The nearest neighbors to our tiny house were down a fair distance down a narrow dirt road: two miles in one direction, and four miles the other way.
When I was twelve, I rode my bareback pony to the nearest town called Morrow, which was ten miles away. We went at a gallop most of the way, and when I arrived, sticky horsehair clung to my tan legs. My long hair was so tangled, my fingers got stuck when I shoved it back. I threw my shoulders back and let my bare feet swing in time with my pony's strides. Ten miles was a long way to ride by myself!

The store had a marvelous boardwalk that ran the entire front it. I couldn't resist forcing my pony to climb up on it. Clompty-clomp. Back and forth. Hop off the boardwalk. Hop back on the boardwalk. Pete's hoof beats echoed with joyful magic--until Mr. Reed sprang out of his store and thumped my pony in the butt with a broom.

I stayed on Pete's back through his amazing circus pony sideways leap off the boardwalk into the middle of the street. A slow-moving car stopped short of running into us and honked, which didn't help Pete's mood. He charged into town yards, head tucked to his chest to evade the bit.

"Whoa Pete! Whoa!" He pinned his ears back and tore through grass and flowers, throwing hoof-shaped dirt clods behind him.

People yelled and shook fists at us, "Who are you! I'll call your mother!" Like I'd answer that while clinging for dear life to the back of a pissed-off pony. (Not that I'd answer at any other time, either.) It took a mile, stampeding back the way we'd come, for me to get Pete under control.

I never rode my pony on the boardwalk again, but did we ever return to town? Let's just say you can't trust a twelve-year-old girl and her pony to stay out of trouble.

2) Take care of your shoes, because your feet need them.

The summer I was twelve, I had no shoes at all. My mother, peeved at me for destroying the cheap canvas sneakers she always bought me, the only pair of shoes I owned, told me: "You can do without shoes this summer and learn to appreciate what my hard-earned money buys you!" 

This didn't seem fair. I was a country girl. I fed livestock, chased escaping pigs, rode my pony and went hunting. These activities can be hard on any kind of shoes, but three-dollar sneakers don't stand a chance.

Okay, so shoeless that summer, one day I chased a baby rabbit out into a small field that'd been brush hogged, which is how Arkansas farmers clear fields of weeds and bushes so grass can grow between the rocks.
When I was out in the middle of the field, I stopped to notice two things: the baby rabbit had disappeared and the bottoms of my feet were on fire. Dry and splintered brambles lay so thick on the ground no grass had managed to grow, to push up through the graveyard of briars. Some of the branch-sized stems were studded with barbs as big as my little finger. How I'd managed to run into the middle of this field of dead thorns without excruciating pain is a mystery to this day.
The only way out was the way I'd come in.
Thorns impaled the bottoms of my feet with every step. I had new revelations concerning the suffering of Jesus Christ and his crown of thorns.

I moaned, squealed, and wept as every step reaped thorns piercing and sticking to the soles of my feet. I stood on one foot and lifted the other high to remove a harvest of briars. I must have resembled a wading crane--that cried.

After I got out, I sat for a while on the edge of the field and cradled my screaming, bleeding feet. Then walked a mile back home on bleeding feet through the woods and down the gravel road.

I learned to take off my shoes while running through mud puddles or feeding farm animals in the rain. They lasted forever, that next pair of shoes, until my big toe ate its way out the dirty canvas tip. Even my thrifty mother could see I needed a new pair before the condition of them fatally embarrassed her.

Today, I will sometimes look in my closet and count the pairs of shoes in there. And every one cost more than three dollars.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Train to Adventureland

Thinking about what I wanted to make for desert, I remembered the pound cake I used to make often when I was a teenager. I do recall some of the ingredients: a handful of lard, which was the perfect proportion in my smaller, girl's hand. How could I measure it now with a woman's hand? The recipe called for a whole lot of eggs and sugar. The ingredients don't seem different from any other pound cake in existence, other than its antique measurements, but in my memories it was delicious beyond other cakes.

I am curious—was the cake genuinely that good, or does memory give the cake a seasoning that cannot be recreated? I wanted to call my mother for the ingredients; the cake must surely be in her special, handwritten collection of recipes. But she's off on a wonderful trip, so I cannot call her and ask.

My mother taught me how to cook. Not like a chef or a gourmet, but with a practicality common to the women of her era who grew up in Arkansas during the Depression, when food had to be filling and stretched to feed a large, hardworking family. She taught me how to boil, fry, bake, grate, and mash potatoes. How to scrub off garden dirt, peel and chop the vegetables we grew, and make them into a meal that kept body and soul together.

She taught me how to slaughter chickens, though I could not bring myself to twist their heads off like she did. It took a stronger stomach than mine to spin the chicken in a circle and snap my wrist so the head popped off and the body flopped a bloody, headless dance on the ground. Later in life, when I was a Little Rock police officer, I saw steaming fluids flow thick from a dead man onto the frozen ground. I did my job and didn't throw up, despite the awful coppery smell--but I never learned to be as tough as my mother killing chickens.

She showed me how to dunk the decapitated chicken in steaming hot water, yank it out, and pluck until my aching fingers were reddened and caked with stinking, wet feathers. This activity brought on discussions of the wicked carpetbaggers, who invaded the South after the War Between the States.

"When those evil carpet baggers, those fat deceivers, were caught by the townsfolk, they'd be tarred-and-feathered-just-like-this." We held our hands up in the air and shook them, laughing as the feathers stuck like glue. And so I learned Southern history while I plucked chickens. I didn't miss TV or want to play a game. The game was work, and it was fun.

I grew up in Northwest Arkansas, which may be a southern state, but the wet winter wind hacks you to the bone, like cutting a chicken with a wide-bladed cleaver into pieces for frying. The wet cold is worse than Anchorage's snowiest nights, which is where I live now.

When the wind howled and the trees cracked from shackles of ice, we made hot chocolate to warm us from cheap cocoa powder and milk, stirring and stirring so it didn't scorch on the bottom of the pan. We made chocolate and peanut butter fudge the same way, stirring with patience and a long handled spoon. My mom's always kept her patience in bushels and baskets full, while I don't possess half as much.

I called Mom long distance a couple of days after her eighty-second birthday this April, and she started talking about her childhood and parents.

"When I was a little, I didn't know there was a Great Depression, because I had everything I needed. My parents made mistakes, but I always knew they loved me. Even when I ran through mud puddles in my good Sunday shoes and dress, ruining them, and they got so mad, I knew my mama and father loved me. Back then," she explained, "most children, the lucky ones, had clothes and shoes they only wore on Sunday, which were carefully preserved until they were outgrown. But I was a careless girl, and ran through mud puddles again and again in my shiny black Baby Doll shoes despite Mama's yelling. My frustrated mother, your grandmother, picked a slim branch from a peach tree and had at my legs in a fury until my legs bled in a dozen places. I cried and promised 'I'll never do that again.' And then my Mama cried," my mother laughed in her old woman's raspy voice, "and promised 'I'll never to do that again'—because she'd picked a switch from a peach tree in her haste. Everyone knows a green peach switch cuts the skin. She didn't switch me, much, after that."

That awful punishment became Mom's fond memory of her mother's faithfully sworn word. Forgiveness was at the heart of my mother, in the same way stubbornness is at the heart of me. I got more from my father than my mother in that regard, but I'll not talk about him just now.

On Mother's Day, my mother called me and we resumed our chat.

"One night, I went out with my friends and we sang around a bonfire. This was before I dated your father, and it was a lot of fun." A chill breeze ghosted over my skin as I listened to her descriptions of the blazing fire in front, and the icy cold creeping up her back during an autumn evening spent with people who had old-fashioned names. People she'd never mentioned before.

"You used to sing with a women's group, the Sweet Adelines," I said. "How long did you do that?"

"Oh, a few months, but you don't want to hear about that."

I always got the same answer. I am fifty-one years old, and I still don't know much about my mother's short singing career. I think my father disapproved. Her parents raised her to be an obedient wife, so she quit what she loved and went back to raising babies and keeping house. That was the way of her generation. My mother seldom sang in my childhood, and I cannot remember the exact sound of her singing, only the haunting beauty of it.

Mom's memories turned to thoughts of her own mortality. She feared being helpless and forgetful. "I pray God will take me in my sleep," she told me.

"That's something we all wish," I said. "But with your comparatively good health, that can't be soon. You're eighty-two years old, and still independent--still mow your huge lawn and keep your house neat as a pin. You drive your old truck to church, the store, and doctor's appointments. Geriatric horses should hope to be so healthy."

She laughed again, but it held notes of sadness.

"Will you ever have horses again, do you think?"

"I don't know," I said, now sad myself. "Not if I stay in Alaska. Too much snow."

"I wish you lived close by."

"I would like see you, but I can't fly out right now," I said, instead of also wishing to live close by. Even if my family and I moved away from Alaska, I didn't want to live in Arkansas--crawling with snakes, and chiggers in the boiling hot summers. The knife-edged winters were no better.

"You should fly out this summer. I'll take you on a nature cruise out of Seward, where you can see whales and seals," I offered.

"My bones are too old for that long flight," said the woman who mowed an acre-sized lawn every week.

I resolved to save up enough to fly out this fall and see her. That is the time to visit, when the heat of summer has cooled and the leaves turn red, gold and yellow, more vibrant than autumn here.

After we hung up, I believe she decided a trip of her own would be the thing to make her feel better. Mom made plans to take the train to Adventureland, ordered a ticket, and packed her bags without telling anyone. When it was time, she waited all alone for it to come into the station. I'm sure it arrived just as she'd expected it, not a minute late--the train wouldn't dare do differently. She stood straight, climbed in, and though I wasn't there, I am sure she sat in her seat, folded her hands in her lap, and didn't look back.

Yes, I think Mom told God how she wanted to go. He listened and granted her prayers. She had a brain aneurism on a Saturday. She passed out, was found unconscious that evening, and the ambulance took her to the hospital. She never woke up, and died on Monday. My mother went soft, and my gratitude for her gentle passing resembles happiness, though I am truly sad.

I know Mom's having fun out there, on her great adventure, seeing old friends while trying new things. I miss her, though she probably hasn't missed me yet.

I wish I could remember how to make the pound cake of my childhood. But I can't call and ask her for recipes or advice, because there aren't any phones out there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Justice and Injustice.

I don't know how many of you have been involved in lawsuits, but the fact is, they seldom satisfy either side. I've been involved in a couple of civil suits, from a small claims court to a couple of larger civil court cases, all of which I won, if you want to call it "winning" when the judgement is in your favor but you still feel like you were a possom on the road and you've been run over by two pickup trucks and a semi-tractor trailer. I've never had to defend myself in court due to criminal charges, but I can well imagine how that might go if I were an innocent person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As this little video points out, Justice is more expensive than Injustice:
http://bit.ly/igDAPU

So, if something bad happens and you need to go to court--good luck.
I think we should go back to fighting duels with pistols at dawn. The misery is over faster and the results are about the same.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Some Evil Being is Retro-aging My Brain.

I have not been able to say or write anything right today. I'm hoping this blog comes out different, dang it! 

I've been talking and writing emails like a teenager all day. 

Email to another writer today: **I know ur going 2 hate my critique. So if u want me 2 help more tell me.**

Whoa...who got the paddle out on my behind recently? (No one who matters.)

Spoke to my daughter's teacher on the phone. I held it together for a semi-adult conversation, but as soon as I got off the phone: "Stupid teacher. A-number-one creeper."

Hubby, who is home sick with the flu and semi-delirious with fever gave me a sharp look.

"YOU used to be a teacher too, Vee. Why are you talking like that?"

For cryin' out loud. It's Wallace Nagell's fault. That fourteen year old loud mouthed "Little Person" is taking over my fifty-one year old body. I'm possessed. Now, why didn't that happen when I was writing about the 8,000 year old brilliant alien scientist king?  True, he was a predatory alien who ate humans, but damn...the great stuff I could have been spouting out. How tesseract tunnels work. The calculations necessary for warp drive engines to power galaxy-hopping starships would've made me a wealthy woman with the gratitude of the entire EARTH.

But NO, it's the four-foot-tall fourteen year old who's in the driver's seat and spouting his nonsense.

I sound crazy, don't I? (The other voices in my head say, if I'm crazy, at least the meds will be good.)

Okay, going to listen to "Hot Mess" by Cobra Starship again. That's Wallace's theme song. He's still at the wheel, the little hot mess. The "problem child, runnin' wild" in my head.

'Night all.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

I Read 8 Young Adult Novels in 10 Days (And this is what I learned.)

Cheryl Lynn gave me a gift certificate for Tidal Wave books in our writing group's Christmas gift exchange. (The perfect gift for me, thanks Cheryl!) In fact, the gift certificate was almost lost entirely as it nearly burned its way out of my pocket before I could make it to the bookstore.

Some of the books I bought were YA books. I also went to the library and checked out an armload of YA books with the help of my daughter Autumn and the fantastic children's section librarian, Jane. I've read several in the past, but felt I needed to read some more in this genre, particularly ones that have been very popular in recent years, as I am plotting out a Middle Grade or Young Adult book now. So I read 8 books popular with teens and tweens in the last 10 days.

Things I discovered by reading so many YA books all at once:

1) There must be sidekicks who are also kids in YA books. To be used as: *foils, *someone who represents
     the hero's "conscience", *the 'other half' of the actual protagonist's soul, *to do the bad things the hero
     can't do, etc.

2) Adult sidekicks are too weird to be useful.

3) There is less layering and far fewer subplots. (I already knew about the subplots.).

4) Things my writing group might chastise me for (in the spirit of good, helpful critique only) crop up in 
     amazing abundance in YA books. The number one thing that caught my eye, and which most of us would
     criticize in a manuscript: children who seem to be too wise, too witty, too knowledgeable, or too cynical
     for someone of that age group. The number two thing I see is...adverbs.

Any thoughts on that?