Monthly Archives: November 2017

Puzzling


This kid, who cannot go for two minutes without shouting for his mom or dad, who cannot even be in a room without an adult for more than the space of a few hastily-snatched breaths of child-free air, has sat for the last twenty minutes contentedly working on this puzzle while humming Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

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I don’t know how it works. I’ve never understood the appeal of puzzles nor had the patience to attempt them. But I’m not going to argue with it.

In the time it took me to post this, he’s moved from Rudolph to “Believer” by the Imagine Dragons. (I guess it’s just Imagine Dragons but somehow The Imagine Dragons sounds fancier. What kind of dragon? An Imagine Dragon.)

 

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Metaphor Monday: The Stray


My runs lately have me in more rural areas than I’m used to.

I’m still deep in the suburbs, mind you, but the suburbs here are a little more “trees and dirt roads” and a little less “convenience store on every corner.” Zoom out a little bit from my house on the old Google Maps and you quickly find yourself in a sea of green: sprawling forests and rolling hills all around.

So I have a lot of encounters with wildlife, especially when I’m hoofing it before the sun is up (which is almost always). Usually it’s squirrels and rabbits — I could basically feed my family bunny meat indefinitely if I had a hankerin’ — but I’ve seen more than a few deer, too, and there are almost certainly coyotes out here. Which is why I carry a big stick with me when I’m pounding the pavement these days: I don’t want to be caught defenseless if I come up against a crazed or frightened critter out there. (Sure, my dog is usually with me, but something tells me she’d be even more useless than I in an unarmed tussle with local wildlife.)

I should have started carrying that stick a week earlier, though.

I’m out for a pretty routine jaunt, not even a mile from the house, when I hear the unmistakable sound of padding footsteps and panting breath. I look toward the trees, and sure enough, here comes a sizable shape out of the dark, beelining right for me and my dog.

If I were hooked up to an FMRI, my head would light up like a christmas tree. Every fight-or-flight response I have goes off all at once. I can’t quite make out the shape of the thing. It’s coming on too quick to be just checking us out, but too slowly to be on the attack.

I start doing math. I don’t hear anything but its feet, so it’s not collared. Which means it may or may not be domesticated. Home is over a half mile away; no chance I can outrun the thing if it decides to chase. Nothing around me that I can even see, let alone grab, to use as a weapon. I’m on that stretch of no-man’s-land where there’s not even a streetlight in sight to help me see by, just the soft, useless glow of the stars. Meanwhile, my idiot dog is losing her mind at the approach of another animal: tugging at the leash, dodging this way and that in an attempt to sniff the intruder’s butt, or whatever dogs think about.

I’m stranded and screwed, in short, if this thing turns out to be hostile. I shout at the thing — sometimes that’ll scare a stray away — but no avail. It’s close enough now that I can see it’s a big, dark dog, a little bit bigger than my golden retriever.

I should detour to say that my warm feelings toward dogs are tenuous — generally I like them but I’m wary as hell about them, because once I saw a neighbor of mine reach down to pet a friendly-looking stray and it latched onto her arm and started thrashing around like it was tearing the throat out of a deer. Not an image you forget, as much as I love my dumb mutt.

Anyway.

It pulls up just short of my dog — I’ve slowed to a brisk walk, to avoid my own dog tripping me — and begins sniffing at her. My dog sniffs back. I yank her away and shout at the dog again to get lost. I stomp in the thing’s direction. It backs up a few steps but keeps pacing us, trotting along in the grass while we stick to the pavement.

Last thing I want is for something bizarre to happen, so I turn it around and walk back home. The dog falls right in with us, haunting us every step of the way, sometimes a little in front, sometimes a little behind — I try to feint it off down a side street here and there, but it always wanders back.

I get home. Stray dog follows us up onto the porch. I open the door; it tries to follow us inside. I slam the door to keep it out, go to put my dog in her crate because she’s well and truly losing her mind by now. I go back upstairs — the dog has opened the door and pushed into my foyer. In my mind, this thing is Cujo. I shout at it and shove it back outdoors with sweeping feet, then close and lock the door. It sits there staring at me through the side window, its breath fogging the glass. Thank goodness that’s over, I think, and begin the slow process of decelerating my heartbeat and preparing to go to work.

WHAM. The house veritably shakes, I drop my glass of water. SCRATCHSCRATCHSCRATCH WHAM.

I run to the front door. The dog is almost hurling itself against the door trying to get in. It starts barking. My own dog starts barking in response. I feel sweat beading on my forehead, and it’s nothing to do with my interrupted workout. It’s five in the morning. Do I call animal control? 911? I can’t ignore it; this thing is about to wake the house, to say nothing of the panic attack I’m about to have.

I run downstairs. Grab the broom. Back upstairs where the critter is furiously scratching at the door. Take a deep breath — open the door.

Its muzzle flashes in through the gap in the door and I whack it good with the butt of the broom. It yelps and skitters backwards, leaps down the steps to the sidewalk, and turns to stare at me. I follow it, waving the broom for good measure. It takes the hint and crosses the street.

Then we go to work, and I try not to think about the dog for the rest of the day.

I come to learn later that the dog then went and harassed my neighbor across the street a bit later, when the sun was up. She (being the sort of person who has the time and, dare I say it, the good heart required for such things) collared the dog and took it over to a veterinarian and checked it for a chip. The dog belonged to a house on the other side of our neighborhood. She drove over to return the dog — and found the house vacant. She asked around the neighbors of that house; they had moved away about a week ago. Sure, that’s their dog. Guess they didn’t take it with them.

Further, what I couldn’t see in the dark of the morning is that the dog did have a collar. It didn’t make any noise because the collar was too tight and it had actually grafted itself to the poor creature’s skin in some places.

So a neglected animal saw me out with my dog, followed me thinking I’d be a fair source of attention and, possibly, care, and I smacked it in the nose for its trouble.

I have my own moral indigestion over what happened (my neighbor has now taken the poor thing in, which is a little balm to my conscience), but this really demonstrates to me the power of prejudice. I saw this animal in a certain light (or lack of light), made a few snap decisions, and was unable to distance myself from the perceptions that followed. As soon as the fear started boiling in my bloodstream, the capacity to think and make a rational decision went right out the window. It wasn’t a helpless, harmless stray looking for a home; it was Cujo trying to force its way into the house.

As it turns out, it first approached my neighbor by — you guessed it! — jumping into her vehicle as she was loading up her kids to take them to school. (Imagining it gives me the shivers. I probably would have done a lot worse than bop it in the nose, at that point.) The difference? It was daylight by then. She could see the dog clearly, get a sense of its demeanor. She’s taken it in, now, and is giving it a measure of care it may never have known in its life.

Long story, that, so the writer’s tie-in will be short.

Ideas can come out of nowhere, and it’s not easy to see them clearly at first. Maybe they follow you around at the edge of thinking for weeks, months, years without ever coming into the light. And maybe you hesitate to engage, because it’s impossible to tell if these ideas are the good kind that will love you and bring you your slippers and turn into bestsellers or if they’re the bad kind that will bite you and leave you bleeding and on the waiting list at the ER for a series of rabies injections. (Did I mix up my metaphors there? Or am I writing the wrong kinds of stories? You decide!) But if you’ve got an idea sitting there on your porch, staring you down through the windows, chucking itself against the door, demanding to be acknowledged? That just might be an idea worth entertaining.

All the same, I’m carrying my stick when I go out running by moonlight from now on. After all, if I had known I could defend myself if things went south, I might not have turned the pitiful little abandoned dog into a bloodthirsty monster in my mind.


Metaphor Monday: Frost


If you don’t like the weather in Atlanta, just wait five minutes, amirite?

Man, another post about the weather. It’s almost like I’m turning into one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types, even though I hate those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. (Who am I kidding — I am one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. At least three times a week, I call my wife out to the back porch to the tune of “honey, check out this sunset!” She indulges me not quite half the time, which is enough to keep it happening.)

We wake up this morning to a blanket of frost laid over everything: grass, bushes, roofs, everything. The kind of crystalline coating that’s second only to a pristine blanket of pure white snow — and given how often we get that in Atlanta, we’ll take it. Of course, that frost is lovely to look at it, but it’ll put you on your behind as you’re coming down the stairs as likely as not. Not to mention the damage it can do to your garden, if that’s the kind of thing you care about.

Point is, it settles in and sort of puts the whole world to sleep — lets you know that winter’s coming. Makes you want to hunker down and sleep an extra hour. Just wait it out. Which I would do, if I only had a brain. Of course, I don’t, so as soon as the opportunity allows, I’m up with gloves and hat on going for a run, with the lawns still slick and my breath fogging the air all around me.

It’s my second-favorite kind of run, behind only those cool upper-50s, lower-60s mornings we get down here to kick off spring and wrap up the fall.

But as I’m out, something jumps out at me that I’ve never really paid attention to before:

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The frost is receding, but not without a fight. The sun is burning it off everywhere it falls, but like a starved jackal hovering over a fresh spot of roadkill, the frost sits heavy in the receding shadows of the trees.

Tenacious. Fleeting, but tenacious.

Kinda like that frost that can settle into the writer’s bones if the day doesn’t get off to the right start. Freezes you out, makes you slip. You can’t quite get started, so you put it off … but then life catches up. Work. Kids. The daily emergency.

And just like that frost clinging to the shadows and pretending that the day won’t come, that funk will settle into your head and throw you off for the whole day. The fact is that for those of us who maybe haven’t quite “made it” yet (whatever your personal metric for “made it” may be), or for those of us who struggle to fit the time into the day to make the words come, the resolve to write can be horribly fragile. A single slip anywhere can derail the whole day, put you behind your word count, and generally make you feel like a failure.

But.

The fact is that, like so many other things in life, the frost is fleeting. The setback that puts you off for five minutes, or fifteen, or even an hour, isn’t as big as it looks. The trees on my morning run couldn’t hide the frost for long, and the little derailments can’t wreck your day if you don’t let them.

The frost can’t abide the sunlight, and neither can the demons and devils that try to stop you. Keep chasing the light.


Metaphor Monday: Imaginary Floods


Metaphor Monday is back on Monday — the planets must be in alignment!

Our washing machine crapped out this weekend.

Well, it seemed like it had crapped out.

One way or another, it looked like it had crapped out, and it gave us a scare for a good hour or so.

It was Sunday, and Sundays are laundry days in our house. So, after the morning shopping run was done and the kids were down for quiet time (they don’t take naps anymore, but we’ve convinced them — mostly — that quiet time is a thing, and thank goodness for it), we took some laundry downstairs, cranked up the machine, and sat back to relax for an episode of Stranger Things. (Sidenote: Now that Stranger Things is over again, what do I do with my life??)

About an hour later, I realized that the washer was still running. Not only was it still running, but there was still water running through the supply lines. You know, that low rush in the walls that’s completely inaudible until it happens when it shouldn’t? Having experienced three pipe blow-outs in our old house, this is a sound that immediately gives me the cold sweats.

So the water is hissing away in the walls, and in the quiet after the episode, suddenly, I hear it. Sweat breaks out all over. I run downstairs expecting to find the entire basement under a couple inches of standing water — but, no. Weird, but welcome. I look at the washer. The dial hasn’t advanced from where I started it an hour ago. Weird. I open the lid. Water is pouring into the machine. Weirder still. I turn off the machine. Water stops. Turn it back on. Water pours. At this rate, it should have flooded long ago, but it hasn’t. I turn the dial to the end of the cycle. The machine spins up, leaves the clothes damp as expected, and all is still.

I start the machine again. It’s an older unit and has some gremlins (occasionally shuts off for no discernible reason, and every few months, like a 99% trained housecat, will leave a gross little puddle in the laundry room), so maybe it just needed a good solid reboot. No dice. The water runs and runs and the cycle won’t advance.

What I’ve learned in my near-decade (help!) of home ownership is that when appliances or plumbing break down, the solution is either really simple or really expensive with not much middle ground, with a decided tendency towards really expensive. So the cold sweat breaks out again. (I was still sweaty. You’re welcome.) I do what any savvy, 21st-century thirty-something homeowner would do and fire up youtube. Within minutes I have twenty browser tabs open describing how to open up my washing machine, how to rewire it, how to drain it, how to rebuild it out of toothpicks, and a third round of cold sweat is starting up (by now I should really have changed my shirt, which wouldn’t be a problem, except that my shirts are in the laundry that is not getting washed). It’s all very involved, very detailed, very time-consuming, and very daunting.

I dive in anyway, take the cover off the machine and expose a nest of wires and motors and dials and tubes. Not much of it looks like what I saw in the videos or the diagrams, which isn’t that big a deal but it starts the panic. I was looking at the wrong video; maybe I’ve got the wrong problem. Maybe this is way out of my league. Maybe I’m making things worse by even tinkering with the machine.

The Howler Monkey of Doubt starts in. You don’t know what you’re doing. Give up. Suck it up and get ready to pay a repair technician. Also, forget about getting laundry done tonight, and start panicking over what your kids are going to wear to school tomorrow. And what you’re going to wear, for that matter. How many days can you last? How much is it gonna cost to get it fixed?  Do you even have a single pair of clean underwear right now? All I want to do is lay down in bed, pull the covers up over my eyelids, and sleep until the problem fixes itself, which is to say, for EVER.

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How I envision every plumbing project I ever undertake

I sit for ten minutes, doing nothing. Then I return to the problem. I refine my google searches. I think about what the real problem is. I search some more. Within about five more minutes, I’ve got a likely solution that doesn’t even require any tools. The cold sweat is back. It can’t be this simple, can it?

Actually, it can.

I lift the drain hose from its pipe. There’s a wicked gurgling, whooshing sound — I half expect water to explode out of the walls and realize my nightmares — but that’s it. The drain hose was a bit too deep in the pipe, the water level got a titch too high, and a siphon was created — whenever water was poured into the machine, the siphon pulled it right out through the drain. The machine could never get to the proper amount of water, so it could never start its cycle. But there was nothing mechanically wrong with it, so it didn’t shut itself down. Likewise, the drain was functioning properly, so it never overflowed. The very next minute, I restart the machine, watch it fill up with water — and then kick over to the wash cycle.

Problem solved.

Phew. That was a lot to tell. So what’s the metaphor?

There are two, actually. One for me and one for the machine.

Let’s start with the machine. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, as I pointed out before — just a simple user error that caused it to tall into an actually rather interesting physics loop (it’s called “siphoning,” and it works exactly like extracting gas from your car’s tank). Thing is, the user error that caused the physics problem happened several months ago and the problem never happened until now. Which means that I laid the groundwork for this little headache months ago and spent the intervening time dancing on the edge of disaster, never even knowing what might happen. Like an aneurysm in the brain, the drain pipe in the wall was just hanging there, waiting to form a seal and blow up my Sunday. Maybe the machine getting jostled as I loaded the clothes into it caused it to make that seal; maybe the spin cycle on the machine’s last run knocked it over the edge. There’s no telling, except that whatever it was could have gone wrong at any time.

If that ain’t a perfect metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Everything, all the time, is hanging by a thread, and everybody is running around with multiple pairs of scissors in their hands. Eventually, one way or another, that thread is gonna get cut, and your washing machine is gonna run for a few hours and (at best) run up your water bill or (at worst) flood your basement.

Which brings me to the human element. What I really wanted to do when the washer broke down was hide from the problem. Think about literally anything else. Hope it would work itself out, or (when that didn’t work) just hire somebody to come in and deal with it. But after taking a few minutes to get my head together and assess the problem like a person who has a brain, I was able to not only discern that the problem wasn’t all that bad, but to fix it myself with almost no strain.

Which is to say that sometimes our problems are not all we make them out to be. Sometimes that crippling writer’s block you’re suffering isn’t the end of your writing career, but just a sign that you need to not focus on that particular character in that particular chapter right this second. Just like my particular appliance issue called for a little less soldering iron and voltmeter, a little more flashlight and paper towel, sometimes the writing life is a little less throw-the-laptop-and-all-you’ve-ever-created-into-the-dumpster-and-set-it-ablaze and a little more maybe-just-go-write-a-vignette-with-talking-cats-holding-office-jobs.

In other words, just go work on something else for a while and let it open your brain up.

Now excuse me while I go draft a scene for my new series. It’s basically Milo & Otis meets The Office.


Stream-of-Consciousness: Arm Yourself


Just a friendly little reminder:

Everything is made up. Nobody knows what they’re doing. Even the experts are making it up as they go along.

Sounds good, right? That’s the mantra of the “free thinker.” Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can land you in some pretty untenable places, like for instance, denying that humans are responsible for climate change or thinking that 9/11 was an inside job. You embrace the thinking that “you can’t trust anybody” and the whole world begins to look like a conspiracy theory. Pretty soon you’re driving around in a car that looks like this:

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Which is a pretty good way to advertise to the world that they shouldn’t waste their time talking to you.

Fact is, experts are experts not because they know everything, but because they constantly question whether they know anything. An expert will admit when he’s out of his depth. And then he’ll start asking the questions that expand his depth.

Put another way, when all the fish are swimming in one direction, your first thought shouldn’t be, “I’m swimming the other way.” Your first thought should be: “why are they swimming that way?” There just might be a good reason.

Arm yourself against idiocy. Arm yourself against people that want to take advantage of you. Ask questions. Think about what you see instead of just parroting the party line.

This post brought to you by nothing in particular.

Part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday, even if it’s a day late. Everything is a day late around here lately. Maybe I’ll invent my own time zone.


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