Saturday, February 25, 2012

There's Always Time for Sex

Although I haven't written a post in over a month, I have thought about this blog quite a bit. I've also thought about finishing the second novel in the Wizard and Spy series, though I must confess, I've thought about that less.

I feel guilty because I have had readers email and ask me when the next volume is coming out. I've had requests for author interviews. And I have done nothing!

Imagine a very loud sigh here.

What does this have to do with sex? Well, I've always felt that we find time for those things that are important to us. No mother  ever fails to find time to feed her child.

If you ask the person you're dating, "Do you want to have sex?" they aren't very likely to say, "Oh, I'd love to have sex with you but I just am too busy."

Maybe there is an age when people get like that and I just haven't reached it yet.

So, what have I been doing instead of writing the next book of Wizard and Spy? Well, I've been writing. I have a contract for a non-fiction book, an invited conference paper and a project proposal for one of the coolest technical designs I have seen in years - the fact that I wrote it doubling the coolness factor.

What does it say about me that I set aside my novel to write a non-fiction book? That I'm motivated by money?

Why don't I get up at 5 a.m. and write? Well, because it's 5 a.m. for God's sake!

I have a really good friend who helped me put this in perspective. His comment was, "So the hell what? You're not on a deadline for this other book. You're writing it because you want to write it, right? If you don't feel in the mood for it after a long day at work, then do it when you do feel like it. It's not like someone is paying you to do it."

I was going to suggest that makes writing sound even more like sex - but I didn't. He's not that good of a friend.

Monday, January 16, 2012

More Adventures in Publishing Land

If you read much on self-publishing, you can be forgiven for coming away with the belief that all publishers are evil, money-grubbing anachronisms. I might have felt a bit of that myself at one time, though tempered by the fact that I was neither starving in an attic nor writing the great American novel.
The attic I was not starving in (photo from Ben Husmann, Chicago)

I wrote three novels in my spare time while trapped in hotel rooms and airports on business in several points east of nowhere. It seemed a lot less trouble to self-publish rather than navigate the labyrinth of agents, ten thousand query letters and a 98% rejection rate. I published Wizard and Spy: The Ex-Apprentices and it required very little effort. A few people bought it and they said nice things. Some went so far as to write me suggestions on what the characters should do in the next book. I learned a lot from self-publishing and it was fun and easy to do.

Here is the problem and why I am now working with a commercial publisher - I am the worst marketer in the history of marketers. I write software and provide technical consulting. I update my blog weekly, am on twitter a few times a week. Because I have a day job that I like and pays me, I have no real incentive to do marketing stuff I don't like so I can make money on my book.

In case you are wondering (otherwise, why would you be reading this blog), here are some differences between self-publishing and commercial publishers, in no particular order:

  1. Do-it-all versus help. In self-publishing, I paid an editor, did all the formatting myself and I paid the graphic designer who did the cover. With my new contract, the publisher has an editor, who so far is a gem, and a staff who will handle the layout and cover. My new book requires photos which are being handled by the publisher in everything from scheduling the photo shoot to paying the photographer to model releases.
  2. Deadline! As a self-publisher, I could do my book around other things in my life. This is no doubt why Volume 2: of the Wizard and Spy series has been 90% done for months. Life intrudes. With my new book, I signed a contract to have it done by mid-July.
  3. Editing with a commercial eye. I had a great editor for my first book, but her main task was making sure the book read well and no typos slipped through. My current editor is focused on what will sell in the market. This is exactly why some people hate commercial publishers, but I am actually very interested in my editor's ideas. The publisher has a vested interest in seeing my book be a commercial success so they are perhaps more brutally honest than someone who is being paid by me as an editor, but that's okay, I appreciate it. 
  4. The marketing will be done by someone else with more money. They have a catalog that will include my book, sales staff that work with bookstores and a marketing budget for ads. I don't have any of that. 
Yes, instead of getting 80% (or whatever, I don't even know) of sales on Amazon and Smashwords, I'll get 10% . That is only a good deal if I can sell eight times as many books as I can on my own. I think I will. Only time will tell.

I'll let you know how it turns out this fall. In the meantime, I have a deadline to meet so I have to run.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Self-publishing vs commercial publishing

In one of the craziest most random events of life, I ended up with a commercial publisher for my next book. No, it is not the second volume in the Wizard and Spy series, which is truly sad because that book is 90% or so done.

Quite the opposite, the contract is for a non-fiction book. It happened like this:

A friend of mine just had his fourth book come out and was having lunch with the publisher. He happened to mention that he had a friend who was writing a book, and might they be interested in talking with her. Mr. Publisher said they might and sent me an email to the same effect. I wrote back, told him briefly what the book was about and Ms. Book Editor sends me a mountain of stuff to fill out.

Paperwork - creative commons license
I think I'm pretty well-educated.  I have college degrees - multiple. I've already self-published one book on on Amazon and Smashwords and in print on CreateSpace . I am not, however, an English major. (I don't know if that would have helped.) I didn't even know what some of this stuff was they were asking for - a book synopsis, book proposal, book description and table of contents - which are four different things.  Then there is an author biography and the first three chapters.

A stack of papers  - well, actually pdf files - goes off to Ms. B.E. and a few days later I get an email saying how they just think I'm cuter than a bug's ear, would love to work with me and would I consider changing A, B and C in my book.

If you self-publish, of course, no one tells you that. All of my friends told me, 
"It's your book! Stand your ground!"

All of my friends had no idea what they were talking about. Ms. B. Editor had great ideas and I made the changes right away. So, now I have an actual contract and a deadline to have the book done - something else you don't have when you self-publish.

I KNOW this is not how publishing works in real-life. You don't email the first company that comes to mind and they email you right back and say,
"Damn straight we'd like to publish your book. Thank you for thinking of us."

I'll write more about the process as I go along, but right now I have to go because I have a deadline. How crazy is that?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Random Thoughts in the Day of an Organization Woman

This used to be my life ... a random page from a journal of my peon days ... it's definitely nice to have moved up in the hierarchy ....

What the hell? I went to three restrooms on two different floors and every one of them was out of sanitary supplies. If this was something men needed you had better believe they wouldn't always be out. Yet, when you go into the restrooms in any gas station or quickie mart you always can find condoms in the machines. They're never sold out of those. What does this mean, that the average man or woman has sex less often than once a month?

Today I was going into the elevator as our division vice-president was coming out. He gave me a quick look like, "I think I am supposed to pretend to know you."

I did meet him during my orientation week where they take you around to meet all of the top brass so they can act like they care that you're there. I've never spoken to him since.

I really need to learn to keep my mouth shut more. I think that is the biggest key to success in this organization. I am very well-qualified for my job and no one has ever complained about me. On the contrary, people write my boss and say what a great job I do on a pretty regular basis. I've been asked to address a few industry meetings as an expert in my field. Still, I am regarded a little suspiciously as having a bad attitude. Sometimes I can't control myself. A manager wanted to call a meeting of six people from three different departments so they could talk about having a meeting. I thought only in Dilbert did people have a meeting to discuss a pre-meeting. I asked why they didn't just have the meeting and get it over with and everyone looked at me as if I had suggested building a nuclear reactor out of discarded chewing gum wrappers.

We have not had enough people promoted in my area during the time I have been here to really have figured out what the determining factor is in getting promoted. I suspect that it is sucking up.

Like most organizations this size, there are many people who are hired as contractors. I am one of the lucky ones to be a full-time employee with benefits, 401 k and all the rest. While contractors come and go at whim full-time employees are difficult to dislodge with anything short of a sledgehammer and a subpoena.

From my reading of other blogs, it seems that there are certain pathological types that are endemic to large organizations. I thought it was only here but then I read blogs describing someone and I would think to myself,
"That's Joe the Parrot! How can he work there, too?"


"They have a Mary the Psycho, too!"

I'll have to write about those next time, since it's late and I have to get up and go to work in the morning.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sylvie's Story

I started my own National Novel Writing Month and three days into it, I decided I did not like the way it was going. Since I already broke "the rules" by not doing it in November I didn't see any reason why I couldn't start over if I felt like it.

My motivation came in part from this post on Kay Kenyon's blog, arguing that good writing is really telling a story. There are a lot of stories in Calhoun, Missouri. If I ever write that novel, it will be titled "Some of this is true."

The story I want to tell, though, is about a child who didn't grow like everyone else. Think about this for a moment ... what would you do if you knew you were going to live for four lifetimes? This is Sylvie's story. (I wrote the first page months ago and I thought I would finish it for my very own national novel writing month.)

Gram is Dead

It was precisely because she was not the rebellious type that Mamie had run off with a gypsy. Gram herself had been a strong woman, but somehow that blood never made it into her daughter. Mamie had always been scared of her own shadow, going along with whatever the loudest,pushiest person in the room told her, whether she agreed with it or not. So, it was no real surprise when the gypsy insisted that she come with him when the band left town that she packed her meager possessions and went right along.

Fifteen years went by, years of traveling from town to town, doing as the gypsy bid her, before Mamie came through again, bringing her children, a girl of fifteen, a boy of ten and a toddler. Her mother welcomed her without much comment, hugged the children, and sat up evenings rocking and talking, catching up on their now separate lives. She hadn't bothered to remonstrate Mamie. She was what she was, and no amount of lectures, well-meaning as they might be, would turn a rabbit into a wolverine. A few weeks later, the gypsy came back for Mamie and she left, as she had before, in the middle of the night, taking two of the children with her.

The next morning, the grandmother had been sitting in her rocking chair, stirring her tea with a cinnamon stick, while she waited for the toddler to awake. Sylvie was sure now that wherever she went, the smell of cinnamon that filled the cottage would always remind her of her childhood.

“Well,” Gram had said dryly, “your mother seems to have forgotten something.”

She had been a bit taken aback when the child did not carry on or cry, did not even seem surprised, really. “She didn't forget me. She left me here on purpose.”

It had started to rain and a chill was settling over the small cottage. The grandmother walked slowly over to where the logs were laid in the fireplace, sprinkled something from her right hand and the wood burst into cheery flames.
“Hmm. Did your mother ever tell you that I'm a witch ?”
“No. Did she ever tell you that I'm thirteen years old?”

The grandmother had looked at the child in front of her, black hair carelessly cut short and ragged, head not reaching the table top, chubby legs far above the floor. She put on her spectacles and looked again. She fiddled with her gold medallion of the Divine Princess that she always wore around her neck, although that might as well as been a nervous habit as any magic. Then, she had taken a small blue bottle out of her pocket, shook it, looked inside and put it back again. Finally, she said “You're not a dwarf. You're not lyin'. There isn't any spell on you, and yet you're not getting' any older.”

“I'm getting' older,” the tiny girl had insisted, in a baby voice, “if'n I wasn't I'd still be an infant. I'm just not gettin' older as fast as everybody else.”

That morning, the whole story tumbled out, while Gram drank numerous cups of tea and Sylvie ate enough bread smothered in butter and jam for her grandmother to mutter, “I can see it's not lack of eatin' that's stoppin' your growth.”

No one noticed a gypsy child at all, and even if they had, with the band traveling from town to town, if anyone had remembered there had been a baby with this crew three years ago, they'd just think this baby was a new one. That made a lot more sense than thinking it was the same baby that refused to grow older at a respectable rate. No one did remember, though, because no one cared about a gypsy child. As for the gypsies themselves, they were outcasts and a child who was lame in one leg or blind was not only accepted but welcome. Such a one could be set out to beg by the temple and more than earn her keep. After a time, even the gypsies' tolerance had worn thin. A small child who looked like a small child was of no particular use. When Cyndee, who had been born just a year before her had a child herself, the whispering became a little louder. Sylvie suspected that Cyndee had started it to throw the attention from herself. Even for the gypsies having a baby at fourteen was a bit off. It was not nearly as off, though, as having a 'baby' around who was nearly the same age as the mother.

As for the gypsy man himself – his name was Toff, not that Sylvie or Gram cared to remember it – he'd started  to push and shout at Mamie about her 'crazy child' and how it was all her fault that the band was talking about throwing them out. One day when he was more drunk than usual he had threatened that if she didn't do something about 'her freak child', he would. That was the day they had set out for the small cottage in Missop, waiting until after he had drunk himself safely into a stupor, of course.

When she had finished this story, Sylvie had half-expected that Gram would call her a freak, push her and tell her she could not stay here and that she had enough to do taking care of herself. It's what everyone else had been doing these past several years. Instead, the old woman had simply pulled another cinnamon stick out of her apron pocket, and stirred her tea for a while in quiet reflection. Finally, pushing herself away from the table she stood and said,
“You're here with me and here you'll stay. I can teach you a bit about being a witch because a bit is all I know. I wanted to be a proper witch myself, you know, but it didn't work out. I met that man o' mine and witch isn't a living for a married woman and mother, so I gave it up. We'll tell the neighbors you're two. I'm not out much except for going to temple and all the people there are old and most o' them half-blind. In a few years, when people might start to wondering, we'll find you a place as an apprentice far north o' here. Does that sound fair to you? Well, there it is then. “

It was then that Sylvie had fallen in love with her Gram and decided she would do anything not to let the old woman down. Of course, over the years, as does any child, she had broken that promise many times, starting with the day that Shorty had called her a freak and she had punched him so hard she broke his nose. That was the day she and Gram had taken the trip to her first apprenticeship, at the hunting lodge in the northern woods. It was not, as Gram explained, a punishment for hitting Shorty, who certainly had it coming, but a sign that soon even adults would notice the child who wasn't getting older. In a small town, 'different' is never good, and there was reason that Gram had kept her knowledge of witchcraft secret. While burning witches was no longer within the law, that didn't mean it never happened, especially this far from the capital where laws were made.

Even though she was signed on as a cook's helper, Sylvie had learned much in that first apprenticeship, how to set a trap, skin a rabbit (though it made her sick to her stomach), stitch up a dog hurt in the hunt, throw a knife, and, of course, cook. It was a good choice of a place for a girl who did not want to be noticed. There were no neighbors, the guests were lords with their lady friends their wives pretended not to know about. No one was going to pay attention to a girl in the kitchen, especially since the 'older' girls all came and went, often going with a child from one of the lords in their bellies.

It was there, too, that she first killed a man. A band of outlaws had come to the lodge seeking easy loot, lined up all of the lords and taken their pick of the gold and jewels. Then they started in on the kitchen girls. Sylvie had slipped out the back door but a rogue had broken away from his fellows and followed her. She was nigh on to twenty but looked to be, at most, a smallish seven-year-old. When the outlaw climbed up the tree after her, she had thrown her knife as hard as she could. His death was more luck than anything else. He was coming up, the knife was going down and the two met in the middle, it piercing his eye. Automatically, he let go with both hands and reached to pull the blade from his eye socket. The fall did the rest.

It took her three weeks to find her way home through the woods, always remembering that the sun set in the west. If the sun was going down on her left, home was in front of her. It was rather convenient that everyone believed her killed by the outlaws, more convenient than explaining how the daughter Mamie birthed twenty years past was still a small child.

When Sylvie came home from the lodge, Gram had bustled her off with a new name and a new master, east this time, to another apprenticeship, this time with a real witch.

The girl knew it was nearing time to leave when she would catch the witch watching her speculatively out of the corner of her eye. She knew the day had come when her mistress had asked curiously, “You know, child, I don't believe your grandmother ever told me, how old are you exactly?”

Sylvie had mumbled some excuse about how she wasn't sure exactly, they never were much for celebrating birthdays not having parents around and all. Her answer clearly did not satisfy the witch. Before the mistress had time to ask more, Sylvie announced she had received a letter from home saying her grandmother needed her to come home, producing as proof the letter she had written weeks earlier in preparation for this moment.

So it had gone for the past thirty years, from one apprenticeship to another, from one town to another. For a time she had even visited her brother and then her sister, both had married and settled down in a town with their in-laws, raising families of their own. She had helped care for their children, who looked to be no younger than Sylvie herself.  Then, two years ago she really had received a letter saying Gram needed her at home. Without a second's hesitation, she had gone.

Apprenticed to a witch, a midwife and a healer, she had learned a great deal about cures for sickness, but, sadly, there is no cure for old age. Sylvie was wise enough to resign herself to making the old woman as comfortable as possible. She cooked meals that smelled delicious, even when Gram could not eat them. She made endless pots of tea, stirred with cinnamon sticks. She helped the old woman hobble slowly to the temple, leaning on her granddaughter on one side and her cane on the other.

Gram had introduced her as “Sylvie”, the daughter of the grandchild who had been left behind years before. No one questioned the story. After all, who would believe that this was the same child who had been a toddler back when today's selectmen and masters were not yet born?

On the day that Gram had breathed her last, Sylvie dressed her for burial, called at the temple and sent notice to  the few elderly churchgoers, friends and neighbors who her grandmother had not outlived. She walked back from the temple with an even more elderly neighbor than Gram leaning on her arm. The two old women had often took hobbled back and forth to temple together. Now, the neighbor was left alone, awaiting her own soon-to-be fate. The entire walk she asked the girl about her family, her “mother” that had been left with the grandmother years before. Sylvie answered easily, telling about the farm, the husband, the other children. The old woman was satisfied, it had all the details and the ring of truth, which it should because it was all true, except for one tiny lie. The woman in the story was Sylvie's older sister. It was a much more believable story than the truth, that the youngster from long ago was this same child walking beside the old woman now.

When they reached the house, the neighbor paused and said, “Here I am getting' on in my dotage. Your grandmother gave me these things when she first took ill. I was to give them to you if you didn't make it back in time. You were so taken up with carin' for her when you came back, and she was so sick, we both clear forgot, and here I am almost forgettin' again. Wear this for protection. Don't ever take it off. And, this, I believe it is a letter to where you should be goin' next.”

With that surprising pronouncement, she had dropped a chain with the gold medallion of the Divine Princess into the girl's right hand, shoved a letter in her left, turned and shuffled into her own dusty cottage, shutting  the door tightly behind her.

Gram had not been in her grave two days when the magistrate strode importantly down the dusty street and knocked at the small white cottage. Even though she was sore with grief, Sylvie greeted him as politely as she knew Gram would have wanted.

“I'm sorry if you've come to speak to my grandmother, sir, but she has gone to heaven with the Divine Princess, not so many hours passed.”

“Uh-hum. Yes, of course I know that. Not much escapes my attention in this town, you should know. I am, after all, the magistrate. It is about precisely regarding this matter that I have come calling.”


“Well, you are but a child and obviously cannot live her alone.”

“Beggin' your pardon, sir, but I've been here takin' care of my Gram just fine. So, I appreciate your thoughtfulness but - “

The magistrate waved his hand, interrupting her, “It is just not proper for a child to live alone. The town, that is, I, will administer this dwelling, collecting fair rent as the town sees fit, and you will be apprenticed in a proper place -”

“Thank you just the same, but I'd rather not.”

At this challenge to his authority, the magistrate frowned in what he thought was his most intimidating manner, the same frown he gave to defendants just before pronouncing them guilty. Not only did the girl not quail before his authority, she didn't even seem to notice.

“Uh-hum, well, you see, being a minor this is not up to your discretion - “

This time the girl seemed to actually pay attention to him,

“You mean that you would take the cottage that was left by my Gram, take the money that was earned, keep it for yourself, have me work for little or no pay and then maybe some day, I would receive some gold when I am old enough or married to some lout of a blacksmith? Thank you for your concern, but all the same, I'd rather not.”

“We'll see about that - , “ said the magistrate,  reaching for her, but the look in the girl's eyes gave him pause.

“Don't touch me.”

He pulled his hand back, “Well, we'll see about that.”

“Indeed, we shall.”

Offended, the magistrate turned on his heel and stalked from the clean but humble cottage. Immediately, Sylvie began to stuff her few belongings into a pack, set to leave as her mother had those many years before. At least she would be exiting through the door instead of the bedroom window. On the other hand, her mother had someone she was leaving with, even if she didn't know where she was going. Sylvie had neither, but she was damned if at forty-four years old she was going to be apprenticed to the village baker.

“Well, there it is then,” she muttered to herself as, for the last time, the cottage door slammed behind her.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mom Shows the Way Out

Darlene lived at the end of our block. She dressed like Daisy Hazzard, but wasn't one-tenth as good-looking. She made up for her big nose, tiny breasts and straggly hair with skimpy shorts, going bra-less under a tank top and a willingness to "give it up" for any boy who didn't talk about it too much afterward. Her family being in the group everyone in town called "white trash", her mother didn't even blink an eye when Darlene dropped out of high school and started applying herself seriously to drinking and whoring.

The third time she was in jail over the weekend for some minor offense - I think this one was public drunkenness - a fight broke out. In the end, a young woman was dead, beaten and stomped to death for some trivial reason no one could recall. Darlene was sentenced to a year in prison and faded from view.

Priscilla and Cathy came from two other "white trash" families that lived up the street from Darlene. We all walked home from school together. It might be exaggerating it to say we were friends. We lived in the same direction and a group of girls was less likely than one walking home alone to have grown men in cars slow down and offer them a ride or a group of black kids from the other side of the tracks try to pick a fight. Yes, there really were railroad tracks running through town and yes, the whites really did live on one side and the blacks on the other. Unless you were really white trash, then you lived on the black side.

Cathy and I attended St. Anselm's School together right up through the eighth grade. She wasn't any more attractive than Darlene but could she ever sing. Cathy had the voice of an angel and with some encouragement and luck she could have run off to Hollywood and become a superstar. Of course, her family was having none of that.  She married right after high school. He was a boy two years older, who worked in the factory. They had four kids in half a dozen years and she stayed home, cleaned house, cooked meals and got fat. It was a very respectable marriage for Calhoun, Missouri. Unfortunately, after ten years, her husband was killed in an accident at the factory. Perhaps a big city lawyer could have gotten her a multi-million dollar settlement. Maybe not, though. It was rumored that the accident was at least partially his fault and, since he was dumber than a stump, I could believe it. There wasn't any big city lawyer anyway, so all Cathy got was a widow's pension and a letter approved by  the factory's legal department saying how sorry they all were.

There is an almost irresistible temptation when someone escapes a place like Calhoun and becomes successful to rewrite history and claim that person was special even as a child. Steven Hawking was brilliant. Serena Williams was a great tennis player. Ask anyone now and they'll tell you that I shone like a star next to Darlene, Cathy and Priscilla, that I was brighter, better-looking and more likable. That is why I escaped and they did not. I can't speak for the others but I can definitely state in my case that almost all those stories told about me are lies.

I was an unrewarding child. Possibly, I was cute as a baby, nearly everyone is. Definitely, as a child, I was not particularly attractive. I was short and stocky and neither I nor anyone else ever made an effort to "fix me up". My hair was often uncombed, my clothes ill-fitting. Maybe I could have made up for it by being an obedient child, eager to please, but I was the opposite of all that. Other adults, my mother and teachers included, were inferior, ignorant, uneducated, undeserving of respect, or so my father always said.

Despite everything, my mother tried to salvage her children, in her own way. She didn't dare confront my father directly. He'd beaten her down years before I came along. She took two steps to set us in the right direction. Despite my father's mocking, she went to the priest at St. Anselm's parish and asked if she could enroll her children there, rather than in Incarnate Word, where the few Catholic children in our neighborhood were supposed to attend. If anyone asked, she told them it was because she drove by St. Anselm's on her way to work so it was easier for her to drop all of us off at school. Since it was considered a shameful failure for a married woman to have to work in those days, that was usually enough to get the subject dropped.

At St. Anselm's we received the same education as the children of the grocery store owners, physicians, lawyers and other town elite. It was a college preparatory curriculum, given that children of a certain social class are expected to go to college. In Calhoun, most would end up attended the same third-rate university where my father had failed out of graduate school, but that was beside the point. By the end of eighth grade, the children at St. Anselm's were a year or two ahead of Incarnate Word kids in every subject. Of course, that was because kids barely on the white side the tracks were not very bright and had no work ethic. Everyone knew that, including all the teachers.

The second thing my mother did for each of her children was get a library card. The public library would not give a card to anyone who could not print his or her own name to sign for it. By kindergarten, when we were still in the university town, I had managed to block out M-E-L in just barely legible letters. In one of the few fibs she ever told in her life, my mother informed the librarian that it was my nickname, short for Melanie. The kindly librarian agreed it was close enough and I was issued my ticket to the world there and then. Every Saturday morning, before my father woke up, we slipped out to the library, dropped off the books from the week before and came back home with as many as we each could carry.

 The library was one of our first stops when we moved to Calhoun and the weekend routine never varied.
By fourth grade, I was through my armful of books in the middle of the week. The limit to check out was eight books at a time and with no TV, no friends and no money for movies, that was not enough entertainment to last me for a whole week, especially not in the summer.

The children of the poor are not protected like middle class children.  While more well-off families than mine would have never considered the thought of letting a nine-year-old child walk a mile each way all alone, through some of the rougher neighborhoods, when I asked my mother if I might walk to the library during the week she merely shrugged and said she couldn't see any harm in it.

 I quickly learned the least hazardous route - leave early in the morning when the tough guys were still sleeping off the night before,go the shortest distance possible to get to a "good" neighborhood and walk the rest of the way to the library at my leisure. I'd usually spend all day at the library. That way, I could read two or three books while I was there and still have eight to take home. Besides, it had air conditioning.

Mom did two things for her children; got us into a good school and introduced us to the library. For me, it was enough. It didn't keep me out of trouble, out of juvenile hall or out of the foster care system, but it did, in the end, provide an escape route from Calhoun.

When that route opened, I took it at a dead run and never looked back.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

This isn't my life

I was eight years old when I realized that I'd been dealt a bad hand in life.

When I was very young, my father was in the military. I don't know if his mental illness came and went or it was just that he came and went so we didn't see evidence of it that often. Regardless, life was good, as children's lives tend to be. My brothers and I did what kids do - played, fought, ate three meals a day and fell into bed at the end of it without a care in the world, ready to wake up and do it all over again tomorrow. On occasion, this strange man would appear, be around for a few days and then leave again. He said a few words to us, but on the whole, he took no more interest in his children than we did in him.

Nothing is permanent in the military. The three of us, (a fourth was added, nine months after one of those short visits from the stranger)  would come home from school and our mother would say, "Pack up kids. We're moving to _____."

It didn't matter what was in the blank. It wasn't like we had any choice. We even lived in a third world country for a while, with a maid, gardener,  a couple of horses and even a camel.When war broke out, we were shipped back home to the United States. To us, it was an adventure, a chance to meet new friends, explore new vacant lots, get in new trouble and run like the devil when our mother caught us at it. It wasn't until many years later that I heard my mother's perspective on it all. She hated it. She hated having servants - "strangers in the house all of the time, no privacy, never any time to herself". She hated the moving, the never being able to make friends or have nice things.

So, we stopped moving. She certainly didn't have to be bothered with servants after that, although the nice things and friends never materialized, either.

My father went to college on the GI bill and for a few years we lived in a neighborhood full of students.   Lots of mothers were working as secretaries to put the fathers through medical school, graduate school, law school. There was an air of superiority despite the fact that everyone was barely getting by. These were people in a top university and when they graduated they were going to go somewhere and be somebody. Everyone around us was anticipating a better life.

 Of course I was too young to even know the word "anticipating", but I can tell you this, there is a difference living in a hopeful atmosphere. It's almost as if you can breathe it in, the belief that the future will be better than today. When you are in that other world, where everyone knows that we are stuck here in an endless, hopeless, mindless repetition where tomorrow is just like today, it is just the opposite, it's as if there is not enough air in the room. I should know.

University ended. My father, who had always pretended to believe he was brilliant beyond all others, could only get accepted at a third-rate graduate school in the middle of nowhere. We moved into the house with the leaky roof and blood-stained basement. After a year or two, my father took his comprehensive exams, bragging that he hadn't bother to study for them, he was so superior to those state university students. He failed. My mother chided him that he should study for the exams and re-take them. Even at eight years old, I could tell you that would mean, if he failed again, admitting that he couldn't do it even if he tried, that maybe he wasn't better than everybody. So, he never went back to Mediocre State U.

He got a low level job at a huge corporation, mom kept working as a secretary because by now there were seven mouths to feed. That was that. Fifty years later, he died, still in Calhoun, Missouri.

We were the poorest family in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Our neighbors looked down on us because we lived in a run-down house, wore second-hand clothes, drove beat up cars and had a tribe of ill-mannered children.

Not that my parents wanted to associate with the neighbors. They were uneducated, ignorant and untraveled. My family looked down on the people looking down on us. Hence, the ill manners. If you were told on a daily basis that everyone around you was too stupid for a conversation, there was no point in trying to speak civilly to them, now was there? Not that any of us would have had any idea where to begin.

Dropped out of graduate school, low man on the totem pool at work and not on speaking terms with the neighbors, my father had no one to lord it over but us. Speech in our house was a constant stream of insults and one-upsmanship.

In normal families, a child learning stuck learning multiplication tables would ask a parent for help. That only worked if my father was not around. Otherwise, it went like this;

"Mom, what's 8 times 7?"
"Can you believe that? The kid doesn't know what 8 times 7 is. So much for intelligence being genetic."
"Bob, that's really not necessary."
"What? You think the kid knows what 'genetic' means? She doesn't even know 8 times 7. Hey, you! What's 'genetic' mean? Your mother thinks you're so smart. See, what did I tell you? She must take after your side of the family."

We had no money, no friends, no manners, in a town with nothing happening and were told every day that we were worthless. That made us exactly no different than millions of other kids growing up in America. Generations with no hopes, no dreams, no chance. I'd just finished the third grade but it was obvious that most of the people I saw every day would end up in jail, on welfare or, if they were really lucky, married to some man working at the local factory who didn't come home drunk too often.

I remember the moment exactly like it was yesterday, sitting out in the front lawn under a shade tree, trying to avoid both the heat and the people in the house. Hidden by the trunk of the tree, I could watch the whole neighborhood. There was 17-year-old Darlene, in short- shorts and tank top, "dressed like a whore", my father would say, flirting with Leo from next door, who was in my oldest brother's grade although he was three years old. Across the street, a babysitter minded the Madison boys while their father was away and their mother was "visiting" the man who lived next to them. Two doors down, Mrs. Donnelly sat on her porch, silently rocking her fourth baby in as many years.

A psychologist might say that it had its roots in all of those years of hearing my father say how much better our family was. Maybe. To my not-quite-nine-year-old self, it seemed to hit like a bolt out of the blue, the sudden insight that came into my brain and never, ever left from that point on.

"This is not going to be my life. These people were born here and they're going to die here, not ever even really imagining being anywhere, anything else. This isn't my life."