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Drafting a 6 word story

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 24, 2018 by Mike

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference offered attendees a chance to have a little fun this past weekend (besides sitting in on some pretty great sessions on the craft) with a six word story contest. Based on the apocryphal Hemingway legend, the Mayborn asked for us to tweet our entries with the hashtag #maybornbabyshoes attached; the winner would receive free registration to next year’s Mayborn Conference.

My entry took second place. Here it is:

6 word entry

If you have a Twitter account, you can check out all the entries by searching for the #maybornbabyshoes tag. If you’re curious about which story won, comment and I’ll tell you, but for now I’ll let you decide which ones you like best.

Also thought some of you might be interested in seeing the process of how I created my story. Here’s a pic of the work:

drafting pic

I began with a throwaway “hold my beer” joke, but didn’t submit that one as I figured humor would be plentiful in this contest and thus cheap. I was correct. The first real step to my eventual entry was a thought about a leash hanging by a door, worn but stiff from lack of use. A bit morbid, sure, but I wanted to affect the judges in some way.

I moved away from the leash image fairly quickly as I thought an empty collar would strike a richer chord with readers, but was still looking at a home setting. BRP was sitting next to me and I pointed to the bracketed line in the middle of the page telling him I needed to get that idea down to the six word limit. He nodded and then went back to listening to the session. I was pretty much gauging his reaction to the line, attempting to confirm that the idea had merit.

The next couple lines narrowed it down to six words but I thought both could be explained by something other than the pet’s death, or more importantly a death that might not allow for the dignity I wanted to give to the animal. This led to the movement of the setting from the home to the veterinarian’s office. Also, I had named the pet to give the pet a personality. You might notice I never specified the pet as a dog or cat – I purposely left it open after doing away with the leash idea.

The last couple lines toward the bottom were attempts to avoid the passive tense (and the “only Finn’s collar…” line seemed overly dramatic and bit nonsensical). I wanted to have some image of action and that’s about the time I decided I’d get the vet involved, which also helped drive home, in my mind, the lifetime of memories the owner and pet had along with the relationship they had with their vet.

The two attempts on the lower right side of the page show me getting close to the finished product, but the second I felt could’ve been interpreted in a few ways. It was when I struck on the word “afterward” that really nailed it down for me – any pet owner who has given their companion a dignified death would understand what had just occurred.

So there it is – about 40 minutes of work for 6 words. Six words I felt told a pretty involved story that we as pet owners suffer through yet celebrate because we love and know love.

Also, writing is rewriting. Because your first draft is crap.

 

 

My attempt to annoy everyone regarding the Confederate flag controversy…

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2015 by Mike

The sheer number of Facebook posts on my feed concerning the Confederate flag should probably dissuade me from adding to the clutter, but it’s been hard to squelch the thoughts turning around in my head so I’m going to go ahead and put some of them down.

Warning: opinions ahead.

Those defending the flag mention “heritage” and honoring those soldiers who fought bravely for the South in the Civil War, who acted on their principles and apparently never out of any actual desire to see the continued subjugation of the African race (“most Southerners didn’t even own slaves” – as if that’s a defense for not seeing anything wrong with the others who did). They also mention the fact that the flag wasn’t THE flag of the Confederacy – “it was only a battle flag” – and thus doesn’t REALLY signify the hatred, bigotry and intimidation that many in this country seem to think it does. I’m not really sure what argument is being made with this one, to be honest – the flag represented men who were fighting to support the South’s desire to maintain slavery (sure, and state’s rights), who were killing Northerners who, yes, were probably just as racist, but who were fighting for the morally defensible side.  Sorry, the side fighting against slavery trumps everything else.

Then I’ve seen supporters trot out pictures of the Klan carrying American flags, and asking why THAT flag isn’t subject to the same outrage. Or they point out any number of awful things committed by America under the American flag. A disingenuous argument at best, as the American flag has not been co-opted by outliers, whether they be racist organizations or just regional areas. The American flag is a national symbol – it is flown everywhere, from Maine to California and everywhere in between and represents to the majority of Americans the ideals of freedom and opportunity. The Confederate flag?  Not so much. Isolated to the Southeast, it has its roots in the “War of Northern Aggression” and enjoyed a resurgence in the South as a symbol of defiance against the Civil Rights movement. Anyone who claims that the Southern Cross doesn’t carry some pretty heavy racist baggage, then, is either misinformed at best or lying. And, really, if the best argument that can be mustered in defense of a flag is, “well, America’s done bad things, too” then it’s probably time to reconsider your stance a bit.

That being said, the current rush among retailers to ban the sale and manufacture of the flag is an empty gesture, at best. What does it accomplish? A store declaring “We’re against racism”? Pardon my french, but no shit, really? It’s the easiest thing in the world for these companies to do, and amounts to nothing more than a public relations ploy. How much will it effect Wal-Mart’s bottom-line, you think? Amazon’s? And yet that’s where our attention has been turned.

It’s a band-aid fix for something that requires major surgery.

That’s what frustrates me the most about this.  The racist killer Roof is seen in a picture holding a Confederate flag, and suddenly all the attention is placed on the damned piece of cloth. In the rush for the easy action, the simple action, the harder questions aren’t being asked, much less answered: what led Roof to hold these views? How did he decide that killing members of a church was the right course of action?  What needs to change in society that these views no longer have the ability to develop and grow?

Probably obvious, but the Confederate flag isn’t the answer to any of the above.

WB’s Suicide Squad…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2015 by Mike

…will be an unmitigated disaster. This is supposed to be The Joker:

 
Calling it now. 

Why we read Invisible Man…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 25, 2014 by Mike

12 year old boy shot by police while holding an air pistol

Unarmed man, father of 2 year old, shot by officer

Someone nudged me and I started. It was time for final words. But I had no words and I’d never been to a Brotherhood funeral and had no idea of a ritual. But they were waiting. I stood there alone; there was no microphone to support me, only the coffin before me upon the backs of its wobbly carpenter’s horses.

I looked down into their sun-swept faces, digging for the words, and feeling a futility about it all and an anger. For this they gathered by thousands. What were they waiting to hear? Why had they come? For what reason that was different from that which had made the red-cheeked boy thrill at Clifton’s falling to the earth? What did they want and what could they do? Why hadn’t they come when they could have stopped it all?

“What are you waiting for me to tell you?” I shouted suddenly, my voice strangely crisp on the windless air. “What good will it do? What if I say that this isn’t a funeral, that it’s a holiday celebration, that if you stick around the band will end up playing ‘Damit-the-Hell the Fun’s All Over’? Or do you expect to see some magic, the dead rise up and walk again? Go home, he’s as dead as he’ll ever die. That’s the end in the beginning and there’s no encore. There’ll be no miracles and there’s no one here to preach a
sermon. Go home, forget him. He’s inside this box, newly dead. Go home and don’t think about him. He’s dead and you’ve got all you can do to think about you.” I paused. They were whispering and looking upward.

“I’ve told you to go home,” I shouted, “but you keep standing there. Don’t you know it’s hot out here in the sun? So what if you wait for what little I can tell you? Can I say in twenty minutes what was building
twenty-one years and ended in twenty seconds? What are you waiting for, when all I can tell you is his name? And when I tell you, what will you know that you didn’t know already, except perhaps, his name?”

They were listening intently, and as though looking not at me, but at the pattern of my voice upon the air.

“All right, you do the listening in the sun and I’ll try to tell you in the sun. Then you go home and forget it. Forget it. His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome. And though he didn’t believe it, I think he was. His name was Clifton and his face was black and his hair was thick with tight-rolled curls — or call them naps or kinks. He’s dead, uninterested, and, except to a few young girls, it doesn’t matter . . . Have you got it? Can you see him? Think of your brother or your cousin John. His lips were thick with an upward curve at the corners. He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart. He thought about things and he felt deeply. I won’t call him noble because what’s such a word to do with one of us? His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute. His name was Clifton and for a while he lived among us and aroused a few hopes in the young manhood of man, and we who knew him loved him and he died. So why are you waiting? You’ve heard it all. Why wait for more, when all I can do is repeat it?”

They stood; they listened. They gave no sign.

“Very well, so I’ll tell you. His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home tosleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

“Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He tell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror — and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That’s the story and that’s how it ended. It’s an old story and there’s been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it’s only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren’t you tired of such stories? Aren’t you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don’t you go? It’s hot out here. There’s the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there’ll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There’s not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There’s nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

“All right, all right,” I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, it wasn’t political. Brother Jack probably wouldn’t approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

“Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!” I shouted. “Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant tobe pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

“Tod Clifton’s one with the ages. But what’s that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis, the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

“Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton. Now he’s in this box with the bolts tightened down. He’s in the box and we’re in there with him, and when I’ve told you this you can go. It’s dark in this box and it’s crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it’s far, far too expensive a dwelling. The air is bad and it’ll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room. ‘Tell them to get out of the box,’ that’s what he would say if you could hear him. ‘Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.’

“So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don’t know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don’t know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled.
So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers; go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that’s dead? So there’s only one thing left to tell and I’ve already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.”

I don’t know all the facts about either of the shootings I posted links to at the top of this post. Reading those stories, I do question what made the officers so quick to shoot, though I understand there are a lot of factors at play. But I have a 12 year old daughter, the same age as Tamir. Would a responding officer have felt as threatened had she been in Tamir’s place?

As Ellison notes through his narrator, there is a deep, abiding sentiment among the black population that police often are too quick to use lethal force. This is just one of the sentiments fueling the protests/riots in Ferguson.

But to attribute the riots/protests to ONLY Brown’s shooting is a mistake. If this were an isolated incident, I don’t think we’d see such unrest. And I don’t mean to be an apologist for the violence and criminal behavior, nor do I think that anyone should be willing to excuse it.

But what we are seeing is a symptom of how the US has failed to truly and honestly address its racial past, and how far we as a nation still have to go.

The passing of my grandmother…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 4, 2014 by Mike

…as related by my aunt, Vera Hahn:

Grandma, at the age of 98, had recently moved in to a senior living facility and by all accounts was enjoying it thoroughly. She played 42 and Bingo (I assume other residents had no chance during those 42 games, and Grandma apparently scored all kinds of snacks during Bingo) and roamed the hallways, commenting to visitors that she was one of the few not consigned to a scooter to make her way around the home. No real surprise there – Grandma was riding her stationary bike for a couple miles each morning and evening up until the day she died.

Saturday night Grandma apparently did not sleep well, and Sunday morning she decided not to go to church because she felt tired, and believing she was coming down with the flu, decided to nap. Trinity Shores (the home) called Vera that morning to let her know, and, after church, Vera went to check up on her.

Grandma complained about some indigestion and weakness, and Vera asked her if she wanted to be taken to the emergency room (if it was the flu, she needed to go). Grandma agreed, and, when Vera asked her if she wanted a wheelchair, Grandma refused, saying she could walk herself. So Vera waited (and waited) for Grandma to make it from the back of the complex to the front doors.

Arriving at the hospital, Grandma walked herself in but at some point the doctors told her she would have to be taken in a  wheelchair.  The tests began that afternoon, and they discovered a bladder infection (which could have been the culprit) but they also discovered that her blood pressure was very low.  This led to more tests, including a CT scan. Grandma patiently agreed to each test in turn.  While she waited they took her blood pressure again – it was even lower than before. The CT scan revealed a grade 5 aortic aneurysm, and the doctors decided another one with contrast was needed. The results were not good. In fact, the doctors explained that on the scale they used to evaluate the results, a “5” was considered critical. Grandma was at a “6” meaning that her aorta was leaking.

The doctor would later would tell Vera that the “indigestion” she had complained about had actually been a heart attack.

The only option the doctors had was to fly her to a hospital with a vascular surgeon, though because of her age it was difficult to find one willing to operate. Eventually the decision was made to fly her to St. Luke’s in Houston, and the call was made to a medivac helicopter from Victoria. While they waited, Grandma laid down and every so often asked about the helicopter. My cousin Bobby sat with her and gave her a countdown until its arrival.

But when the helicopter touched down there in Port Lavaca, a dove flew into the rotor. Policy stated that the helicopter had to be grounded until a mechanic could inspect it (even though the pilot told Bobby that everything was fine – policy was policy). So they had to wait for a second helicopter to arrive from Rosenberg.

Grandma would ask quietly from time to time about when the helicopter would arrive, but there wasn’t enough time. She passed away before the second one arrived, peacefully, with Vera, her oldest child, holding her hand.

***

My grandmother had a wonderfully full life, and left this world peacefully and without pain. Vera pointed out during Grandma’s funeral that the dove was God’s doing – that God was calling her home, thus keeping her from further discomfort and the uncertainty of the surgery. It might be easy for some to dismiss that as mere coincidence, as solely a rationalizing coping mechanism.  You who are reading this may and will believe what you wish.

I believe it to be true.

Grandma on motorcycle

Grandma, age 90, with her oldest grandson, Bobby.

 

Diabetes update…

Posted in Uncategorized on May 17, 2014 by Mike

Five months after being diagnosed with diabetes, I thought I’d update anyone interested as to how I’m doing.

I guess the biggest challenge I face right now is my diet. Not in the sense that “Oh my God, I need to eat ___________!” where I crave some type of dessert or carb-laden treat, because changing my eating habits was really quite easy.  I eat salads every day for lunch (topped with grilled chicken, usually) along with fruit of various types, and dinner consists of some sort of non-fried meat alongside some vegetables and maybe a small portion of something with carbs. Breakfast is instant steel-cut oatmeal and coffee – I’d never been a breakfast person but now I don’t skip it.

No, the challenge for me is all the weight I’ve lost. I know, that doesn’t sound like much of a problem. As I wrote when I announced I had been diagnosed, five months ago I weighed 195 pounds.  Today I weigh between 175 and 180, depending on the time of day.  A lot of that loss can be attributed to the diet, I’m sure, but I’m also hitting the gym and the road regularly – meaning that if I don’t go to the gym I’m running 4 to 6 miles. I’ve found with the weight loss that my mile pace has improved considerably – go figure, right? I’m now able to run four miles easily at an 8:30 pace. Longer runs I’m not falling below 9:15. So there’s that. This combination of diet and exercise has, amazingly enough, led to the shedding of the gut I saw in pics of me taken last summer at South Padre.

Notice how tiny the Shiner Bock can is compared with the belly backdrop. Yeesh.

Notice how tiny the Shiner Bock can is compared to the belly backdrop. Yeesh.

A "selfie", as the kids call it today.

A “selfie”, as the kids call it today.

First world problems have resulted.  My pants don’t fit me – I had to buy a couple new pairs of jeans (32 inch waist) and now even they’re a bit loose. The one suit I have, which used to fit me fairly well, now looks and feels baggy. Fortunately I’m only required to wear a suit one or two times a year. I feel like I’m always hungry, too, and that leads to more expensive grocery bills because I’m eating fruit, nuts, and sausage.  I’ll get home after work, turn the grill on, and throw a link of jalapeno cheese venison sausage on and eat half of it as a snack.

I’m really struggling with how I can maintain or gain weight – sugars and carbs are right out, really (and not the type of weight I want to gain), but eating too much meat will certainly affect my cholesterol levels. I drink protein smoothies after every workout, but I’ve found the frozen berries I throw in lead to a spike in my blood sugar level, and I’m still a bit paranoid about that. Especially when I drink the smoothie after my evening workout, go to bed, and wake up to see it at 130. No smoothie, it’s in the 1-teens. Really, though, it’s usually down to less than 100 a couple hours after lunch, so I don’t know what I’m particularly  worried about.

So, how to stabilize my weight in a healthy way is the biggest question I’m facing.

I did visit a local endocrinologist in late January – I wasn’t impressed: my blood test results weren’t given to me until a month and a half later, and only after I called and requested them.  My A1c was at an 8.6, which wasn’t a surprise given my elevated blood sugar levels, but I had to get that down.  I did learn, also, that I have “diabetes 1.5”, and it’s really only  a matter of time until I will need to go on insulin. But for now I’m controlling it with diet and exercise and Metformin.

I later changed general practitioners, and was told again that my diabetes is in some sort of “honeymoon” period, and that if/when I start to see a rise in my levels, I’ll need to get on insulin. I don’t plan on letting this honeymoon period end soon. The good news is that I did have another A1c done, and it’s now at 7.0, which is where my doc wants me to be, if not lower.

All in all, I guess it could be a whole lot worse. I don’t want to be on insulin, but if it comes to that it’ll be what it’ll be.

My Half-Price Books story from ILPC weekend

Posted in Novels, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 16, 2014 by Mike

A few weekends ago my newspaper staff attended the ILPC conference in Austin. It’s an opportunity for them to learn from professional journalists and award-winning newspaper advisers from across the country, as well as a chance for them to bond and celebrate the almost-over year.

And since BRP is my assistant adviser, it’s also an opportunity for us to do some book-deal hunting at the nearby Half-Price Books.

Austin’s Half-Price Book stores have a much wider selection than my local store, of course, and the particular store we visited always has a grand collection of signed novels and collectibles (BRP calls it his “mecca”).  For instance, back in its collections room it has an uncorrected proof copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (yours for $700) alongside a first edition of a Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (yours for $6000). BRP was really impressed with an early copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” while I was (and still am) desperate to find a first edition of John Williams’ Stoner (no dice…probably couldn’t afford it if I found one, though).

We also scoured the fiction section for less-rare first editions and signed copies. I picked up a first edition of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound.  Then I headed over to the end of the alphabet to check what Twain they had – I’m always looking for another copy of  A Pen Warmed Up in Hell and to check on any John Williams novels they might have (answer: none).  BRP was there in the same aisle – I moved past him and eventually came to Richard Wright, where I saw an old hard cover edition of Native Son on the shelf.  I pulled it down and noticed it didn’t have a price tag , but it did have $10 penciled in on the first page.  I took a look at the back of the title page – “first edition” was there, followed by 1940.

A nice find. Native Son is Richard Wright’s seminal work, and one that I read long, long ago.  BRP looked at the book and said if I didn’t buy it he would, so I kept it with my others.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, BRP asked to take another look at it.  I handed it over to him, and as he flipped it open on the table, he said something to the effect of “what the hell?” causing me to look back.  BRP pointed. I looked down – in the pages of the book lay a $100 bill, as crisp as the day it was minted (which was apparently in 1969). Despite being surrounded by my impressionable staff, I couldn’t keep myself from repeating “Holy shit!” a few times.   I immediately picked up the book and looked for more bills.  Nothing. I shook my fist angrily at God and…no, I didn’t – that would have been greedy.

The Benjamin in question.

The Benjamin in question.

I did find a pamphlet inserted in the book, though, that suggested the copy was a “Book-of-the-Month” Club edition. Not quite an actual FIRST EDITION (/angels singing), but, still, a nice find, indeed.  Half Price Books, from a particular point of view, PAID ME $90 to take that book off their hands.

The next day BRP and I returned to the store to check the old copy of Wright’s The Outsider that we ignored on our first trip.  Nothing.  The book stayed on the shelf.

So, now BRP is eating his liver with jealousy, and I’m sure he has his own version of how things went down that fateful day.  Ignore him – I’m the one God smiled on that day.

Sidenote: A lot of people ask me if I’m going to “pay it forward” – it’s found money and all that.  Hells, no. I’m a public school teacher – I “pay it forward” every day I go to work. The person who put the bill in the book was obviously storing it for a rainy day, and not as any part of a plan to make someone’s day 40 years later.

I spent it on a birthday gift for my wife.