A Short Story Challenge

Hey everyone,

Sorry I haven’t been all that profilic with the blog posts so far this year.

This cold winter has been sapping my creative juices, and energy in general.

I’ve quietly been chipping away at my to-do list from January. I’ve made progress on a couple of things. But I think I need to pick up the pace a bit.

I also think I need to take up a personal challenge I put by the wayside …

I’m going to take another crack at trying to read more fiction.

Yes, I know, I know, I’ve said that before. And I have been trying. (I just finished Zadie Smith’s NW a couple of days ago, in fact.)

But I think I need to change it up a bit.

I keep telling myself I should read more short stories and novellas if I can find them. I think I tried this last year, with friends making a couple of interesting contributions.

But I’m going to give it a bit more effort this year.

I’ve made a couple lists, complete with a couple of links I can refer to, and have made a couple of library requests.

While generally I stick to contemporary fiction, I’m also going to try and throw a few older works in the mix.

And if time allows, I’ll post from time to time about the ones I do read.

So, away I go! And if you have any recommendations for short story collections OR novellas, please leave them in the comments below.

2015: Nice Things, Please.

So. 2014.

For a lot of people I know – and even those I don’t – it was a good year.

Did I have any good moments? Yes, some nice ones. But I can’t say it was a good year.

My father died in February, and one of my cousins was murdered in late November. So Christmas Day was a quiet, low-key one with my mother and brother, trying our best to enjoy ourselves, but knowing we were just going through the motions, with watery eyes here, and a sob there.

To be frank, I’ve felt as if I spent most of this year forcing myself to put my best face forward in the name of moving on, despite really wanting to just withdraw and hide.

So yeah, I’m more than happy that the new year is here.

If I could, I’d start 2015 by retreating from the world for a few days to take a breather, reflect, then start again. But currently, I only have one, and — as I write this – it’s more than half over.

Life without my dad around … sucks. And although that sting of loss will continue to subside with time, it won’t ever fully go away.

But it has to go on. And I’d like to do my best to resume moving forward.

I want to feel happy this year, without it feeling forced.

For the first time in months, I’d really like to have some nice things.

Not necessarily shiny, sparkly material things in my possession (although once in a while, that would be nice). I mean, I’d like to find that spark and power within to start accomplishing or completing things I’ve either put off, or have never done, and to see results.

I would like to do things that, on occasion, even surprise myself (in the best way possible).

Here are the things I’d like to try to do:

Make a list of goals and start getting them done. Not all of them will be lofty. Some will be as simple as finally hanging up that wall clock or getting a learner’s permit. Others might involve me getting off my backside and learning something new. But my hope is that whatever I include on that list, that I complete at least one per month. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll knock another one or two off the list. This may work. Or it may fizzle. We’ll see how this goes.

For goodness’ sakes, start writing regularly. Late last fall, I took a brief  introduction to creative writing workshop. It was the one thing I can recall doing this year that wasn’t part of my daily routine, or done out of obligation. It was good being around people who were all at different stages in their writing, getting exercises that forced me to start using my brain again. But since then, I keep staring at the forest-green journal on my coffee, telling myself to write whatever latest thing had been happening … but doing nothing. In a recent conversation with my mom, she recalled a conversation she’d had with my younger brother, in which she referred to me as a “writer – even though she’s not really doing any of that for her job.” How can I be a writer, when I’m not doing any writing? I need to try reversing that.

Find work (or projects outside of work) that are fun and spark some sort of creativity. Every year, I say this. But from where I stand right now, I don’t know what’ll happen to me, professionally. I don’t know whether I’ll find another position within my place of employment, or if I’ll make the leap and do something completely different. But separate from all that, it would be nice to do something where I can learn how to express myself in a different way, and have a ball doing it.

Get back to travelling. Whether it’s a car ride out of the city, a flight state-side to visit family or abroad to somewhere I’ve never been, I need more changes of scenery this year. Last year, I didn’t have the finances, I didn’t want to go far and leave my mom alone, and I just didn’t have it in me to pick up and travel. But I think spending so much time so close to home has left me a bit restless. I’m sure it does a number on one’s emotional well-being.

Face-time with more/different people. I love being around folks — meeting for dinner, drinks, movies, going to social gatherings. But there are some faces I don’t get to see as often as I’d like to. If time and schedules allow, I’m going to try to rectify that.

Once in a while, take a time out. I’m sure there will be moments where I’ll be obsessed with getting things done, or perhaps overwhelmed by something. But I need to occasionally take a breather.

Keep on with my adventures in novice genealogy. I’ll happily continue with my genealogy search, providing the Internet and my relatives are willing to provide help in some way. It would be nice to get some sort of closure regarding what happened to my great-aunt Ellen. But any other historical tidbits? Yes, please.

It’s a brand-new year. I could be writing you at this time next year, in a better place, in a new job, and finally finding fulfillment. Or I could be sitting in the exact same place, about to press send on the exact same thing.

Anything can happen.

In the meantime: Happy New Year. Whether this year presents multiple blessings or multiple challenges, I hope you’ve got the strength, patience, and positive state of mind to navigate whatever lies before you.

Good luck!

My Father, The First.

I can’t believe it’s almost mid-May.

The weather here in town is finally getting warmer, and the air is – for the time being – a bit fresher.

We’ve just celebrated Mother’s Day.

A month from now, it will be Father’s Day.

But this one will be different. And it’s the reason it’s taken me so long to write this.

**************************************

Mid-February. Valentine’s Day, to be precise.

I’ve been at work for perhaps an hour, at most. I’ve just left my desk to get my morning snack, when I look at my phone and notice my younger brother has called.

He pretty much never calls me.

I don’t automatically think anything is amiss. I just assume maybe he needs some sort of favour.

I dial, and my brother picks up. All he says is “Hi.” But his voice sounds … strange. I can’t tell if the line is strained, or if it’s him.

But the next voice I hear is my mother’s.

My dad isn’t doing well. He’s in the emergency room at the hospital.

My mom explains he was at a self-service car wash, when his heart stopped. He fell and hit his head. A fellow customer found him – on cold, wet, soapy concrete – and started performing CPR until an ambulance arrived.

I hear myself say, “Oh, no.” But it sounds … like it’s someone else doing the talking? It sounds much too calm for it to be me.

But as soon as I’m able, I’ve left work and am on my way to a hospital in the north-east end of town.

*********************************************

I’ve heard it said by other people, that your father is the first man who will ever love you.

In his quiet, awkward way, I can’t dispute that he has.

He was the one who would come home from work, and whose voice would soothe me, after I’d been crying in my playpen for most of the afternoon (and driving my mom nuts).

He was so good to my brother and me. When it wasn’t our caregiver, he’d look after us in the evenings, when our mom was at work. I especially looked forward to the summer, when he would take us on bike rides around our community.

I recall him helping me with my first big science project in second grade. Although, it was painfully obvious that there was no way an 8-year-old could accurate reconstruct electric transmission towers, nor properly explain the concept of electricity, without a lot of adult input.

He took us everywhere – to skating lessons, softball practice, piano lessons, anywhere we needed to be dropped off.

He bought us pets. Helped us with multiplication tables. Taught us to drive (he was an excellent driver, but a terribly impatient teacher). And, on the odd occasion when we were frustrated with school, he’d listen and help us talk things through.

He helped me move back and forth between home and school in Ottawa during university.

He helped me move into my current apartment.

And he continued to help me, whenever I needed it.

Dad was never the kind of person with whom you’d had long conversations. At least, not with me. I try to call my parents’ house every other day or so. Sometimes my mom wasn’t there, and I’d say hi to Dad. A good conversation was one that lasted more than 90 seconds.

Whenever I’d go to visit, he would drive me home. He never said he wouldn’t.

The last time I saw him was at the end of January – just days after my 37th birthday.

As a birthday present – as he felt he had to get me something for my birthday – he got me a WaxVac Ear Cleaner (“as seen on TV”). Truth be told, I was annoyed. But I knew that he meant well. He always did.

**************************************

I arrive at the hospital, where my brother is camped out in the waiting room with various other people.

Eventually, my mom appears, and explains to me what she knows. She wasn’t with him when it happened. She was at home, waiting for him to return with the car so she could go grocery shopping. When she hadn’t, she’d gotten annoyed and left him a voice mail on his cell phone, asking where he was.

The next phone call she got was from an emergency room doctor.

Shortly after that, the doorbell rang, and she came face-to-face with two police officers, who came to identify my dad, and took her to the hospital in their cruiser.

She takes me to see him, but warns me beforehand there are a lot of tubes and the like surrounding my dad.

And she’s not kidding.

Tubes. Machines. At least one IV drip. And my dad. Motionless.

As hours progress, they change his sedation when he starts moving around. They do a scan to see if there’s any sort of brain damage (he hit the back of his head when he collapsed). They eventually move him into intensive care, put him on a cooling pad when he spikes a fever.

The next 72 hours are worrying. Heart-wrenching. We all have our moments where we break down and cry. Family and friends stop by to keep us company. But we try to remain cautiously, quietly, optimistic. We keep watch for a sign – any sign – he’s going to improve.

But despite all the various drips keeping him medicated, hydrated and fed, he doesn’t get better. He doesn’t even squeeze anybody’s hand when they talk to him. All he starts to do is bloat from all the fluid.

So we have to meet with a doctor, to decide whether to keep going a bit longer or let him go.

Just after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, February 18th, we request to the staff to start removing tubes, but to keep him sedated.

We want to give him a dressing gown and socks to put on him – my mom says if he could see himself, he would be a bit mortified and want to look a bit more dignified. And especially have his feet covered – he wore socks most of the time and didn’t like people touching his feet. I don’t recall if we got very far with either request. Maybe the socks.

My brother is taking it really hard, so he spends a lot of time in the cafeteria or the chapel. But my mother sits to father’s right, and me to his left, each holding a bloated, motionless hand, getting up every once in a while. When we’re not looking at him or each other, we’re glancing at the machines monitoring his breathing and heartbeat.

Late afternoon/early evening, the nurse on duty swabs out his mouth and cleans him up a bit. You can hear the noisiness of his breathing as he attempts to inhale and exhale with all that mucus.

And then – sometime between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m. – he breathes. Stops. Takes another delayed breath. Then just … stops.

This feels like I’ve just witnessed someone else’s dad pass away. Not mine.

I know exactly what’s happened. But it doesn’t fully register for another seven or eight minutes.

**************************************

It’s been almost three months.

The raw wound of grief is presently scabbed-over, intermittently throbbing at its source.

Some days, I’m fine, and go about my business. Some moments, all it takes is a thought. A flashback from the hospital, or from the visitation before the funeral. And then the lump forms in my throat, my eyes start to water, or my nostrils start to sting.

And now when I look in the mirror, I’ll see my missing family member in my face, for the rest of my ife.

Even when I laugh at someone’s jokes or try acting like myself, I obviously won’t feel like myself, and don’t expect to for a long time. The melancholy is holding on and lingering.

I’m a bit frustrated at all the things I’m trying to learn how to do, because when my dad was here, he would insist on doing it for me. He’d never show me how. He’d just do it.

I look at my mom and worry. I worry when she gets upset. Even more when she tells me she’s had another sleepless night, and has tried a number of remedies, with zero result. Wonder how much time she has left with us. Wonder how much time I have left.

I know this happens to everyone. I knew it was going to happen one day. Prior to all this, I’d only recently found myself wondering, how much longer will he get to stick around? A couple more years? Five more?

I honestly can’t explain why. I wasn’t wishing him ill will. But the thought was there.

I just didn’t think I’d get the answer so soon.

My dad was a lot of things. Quiet. Gruff. Generous in time and spirit. A complainer. For all his good qualities, he had his foibles and failings.

But he had a huge role in making me the person that I am. For that, I’m thankful to him. For everything.

And right now, I’m missing him terribly.

The Author Who Went AWOL

Dear writers and proofreaders who happen to read this:

I’ve got a strange story to tell, and wouldn’t mind some advice. Apologies in advance if this comes across a bit rant-y – I’ll try to keep it to a minimum and stick to the essentials.

So. In March 2011 (some of you might have read this), a woman I knew from university – and with whom I keep sporadic contact – contacted me out of the blue, asking if I could proofread her thesis. Which I did.

A few weeks later (in April), when we met in person (she wanted to thank me), she asked if I would help her out by proofreading a manuscript for her first novel.  She was going to self-publish, and was looking into particulars like cover art and even an ISDN number.

To me, she seemed excited. Heck, I was a little excited for her.

As someone with my own interest in literary fiction, I thought it might be a good exercise to try. So, I took a week to decide and told her I’d do it.

We discussed details such as a payment rate (which she asked me about), and what precisely she needed me to do (read for grammatical and structural mistakes, not for tone or character profile).

I didn’t actually receive the manuscript until roughly one year later – in late April, 2012. She asked me to wait for her to re-read and revise it until she felt she had a decent-enough version ready for proofreading.

Due to my own busy schedule, I didn’t start my part of it until late May, and completed proofreading at the end of July.

In all honesty … her book wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. But I absolutely commend her for writing this while working and going to school.

After letting her know I was done, we exchanged a few e-mails about meeting to discuss her work, before I went away on vacation in September. The meeting never happened, as our schedules just didn’t seem to align.

When I returned from vacation, I sent a message to her (in early October 2012) to see if she wanted to meet. She had family obligations and three papers to write for school, so she suggested after Thanksgiving. Post-holiday, she reached out to me, and this time, it was I who had prior engagements I couldn’t re-schedule.

I contacted her a couple of days later. She was working on another paper, and proposed perhaps meeting the following week.

I didn’t hear from her for six weeks.

I didn’t press the matter, as I figured she had schoolwork to complete. So I e-mailed in November with my phone number. I believe I also tried phoning her a couple of times.

Then I sent her another message in February 2013, with my schedule, to give her options for meeting up.

Then again in April.

And once more – with feeling – at the beginning of August.

Three days later, she responded.

She said she was moving soon (she promised to send her new address) and that her e-mail address had been infected with a virus. She added she did use Facebook to keep in touch for certain people, and finally apologized if I had been trying to reach her.

So I wrote her back and included both my snail-mail and e-mail addresses.

That has been the last time I’ve heard from her. No address has emerged. No new e-mail address has surfaced.

I sent her one Facebook message apiece in October and November.

This past Wednesday, I was checking Facebook and noticed she was online. (She’d commented on a friend’s Facebook status.) So I simply sent her a couple lines, wishing her well, to see if she would write back.

She hasn’t.

Meanwhile, her manuscript – the one I received in April 2012 and completed proofreading in July of that year – is sitting on one of my end tables, collecting dust.

I completely understand that trying to write while navigating life’s responsibilities – work, school, family – isn’t easy. For first-time authors, it can take years to get that labour of love in the hands of a publisher, and into print. I know colleagues and friends who have gone through this, or are going through this right now.

But … and perhaps this is a dumb thought … wouldn’t someone who’s talked of all these plans of being a published author (by whatever means), want his or her work back so he or she can get it published?

I’ve wondered whether it’s about the money and she’s trying to figure out how not to pay me. But judging from her Facebook profile (which, again, could be portraying a false sense of reality), she’s not in the poorhouse. And it’s odd that someone who offered to pay me for this task would then want not to hold up her end of the bargain, or negotiate if she somehow found the rate too high.

I’ve pondered whether – despite telling me she was prepared for whatever criticism I had for her work – she actually doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.

It could very well be that she’s very busy. But I don’t buy that, either. If she’s the type of highly effective human being who can write book manuscripts (she’s got more than one, apparently) while working, going to school and being present for social events – even travelling! Again, Facebook has shown me this – surely she can reach me if she wants.

Of course, I could reading waaaaay too much into this. But I find it bizarre.

Despite our agreement (which is in writing) this isn’t about the money. Yes, she should honour the agreement. But I work full-time, so I can pay my bills. And I simply saw this as a fun favour. So I’m willing to cut my losses.

I just want this manuscript out of my apartment, and returned to its rightful owner – especially since I’m moving in less than two months.

A while ago, I mentioned this woman’s radio silence to a friend, who suggested that I just stop e-mailing.

Which would be fine. But there remains the unresolved issue of being in possession of a piece of work that doesn’t belong to me.

Part of me thinks about how much time this probably took to do and that I should perhaps wait a bit longer.

But another part of me wants to send her a note with a deadline, and if she doesn’t claim it, dump the manuscript in the recycling bin.

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do about it?

Or, is there another solution I’m not seeing?

An Interesting Proposal

Two Sundays ago, I logged on to Facebook late at night and noticed  a somewhat-frantic Facebook message from an old university friend.

She was in a bind and needed someone to proofread 40 pages of her master’s thesis by Wednesday afternoon. Would I be able to help, or help her find someone who could do it? She was willing to pay.

I won’t lie. I was interested. So I started racking my brain.

Truth is, I didn’t know anyone offhand. And I was off on weekdays, which would make the proofreading job completely possible.

In the end, I wrote her back. And after a few missed phone calls and delayed e-mail exchanges, I was on the case.

By this point, it was Tuesday. She said she’d e-mail it to me by 7 p.m. so I could turn it around for her by noon (!) on Wednesday.

Well, 7 p.m. actually ended up being 11:15 p.m. And I spent a good part of the night, and almost all morning, to edit it. And she got her proofread thesis a couple of minutes after noon.

Yesterday evening, we met up for (non-alcoholic) drinks and dessert, because she wanted to thank me for my help, but also to catch up on each other’s lives.

But I totally wasn’t expecting what came next.

It came out that somehow – between working and earning her degree – she’d been writing manuscripts for novels. And she wanted to get the first of them published for this fall.

Now, she wasn’t going to go the traditional route, by finding a publishing company. She thought she’d lose creative control over her book, if she did that.

She was going to self-publish. (I can only guess what you might think.)

She’d already looked into getting someone to do the cover art, and was currently looking into getting an ISDN bar code for the book. 

She just needed to find someone who was willing to proofread her manuscript.

Would I be interested in taking it on? Or, would I know someone who could do it for her?

If I took it on, it wouldn’t be a rush job like her thesis. I’d apparently get a couple of months to do it. And the manuscript would be at least a couple hundred pages.  

So here I am again, mulling it over. 

On one hand, I’d get to do something that’s kind of interesting. And the compensation for the job might be sweet. (But then, it brings up another issue of dealing with the tax-man. And this isn’t something I can do under the table, because I’m SURE it would catch up with me later.)

But on the other hand, I’m not a professional proofreader. And besides, what exactly would I be getting myself into? And – heaven forbid – what if her book wasn’t any good

I have until next week to give her an answer.

Time to start thinkin’ about it.

*Image courtesy of smyles blog.

Letters and Cards

As I may or may not have mentioned previously, I’m a bit messy when it comes to my personal things. I have a rather large, unwieldy amount of clutter.

But since I wrote this post back in October – and spurred by my brother who moved out this fall (in a fashion similar to a squatter who’s been evicted) – I’ve been fighting a slow, protracted, passive-agreessive War on Clutter.

Amid the days where I alternate between lazily staring at my junk and impulsively chucking stuff before the urge passes, I’ve set up a couple organizational projects for myself.

One has been putting photos I developed years ago (by which, I mean as far back as 1996), into albums. A lot of them now have homes, but it’s still a work in progress. 

The other has been sifting through old letters and post cards. I’ve been procrastinating about dealing with this because:

(1) the number of letters I’ve kept over the years  is HUGE – good grief! I truly had NO IDEA until I started pulling them out from drawers and out from underneath piles of other junk I have to deal with. (No, seriously – today I found a birthday card I got from my dad when I was FOURTEEN.)

(2) I’ve been having an inner struggle over the type of karma I’ll create for myself if I throw out the letters and cards people have taken the time to write me. (And part of that is also emotional attachment.)

I recently informally canvassed some of my friends on Facebook for advice and suggestions. 

Some said, get rid of it all. Others – who’ve kept every single letter and card given to them, and have only recently purged a bit of their own collections – said to find containers to keep them in, if I didn’t really want to get rid of them.

Other friends – who are quite resourceful and crafty – suggested reusing/recycling them in different ways, such as making little gift boxes.

So as a compromise to what I’ve been advised, I’ve started re-reading cards and letters I’ve gotten over the years and casting final judgement after.

I’ve tried to keep my current methodology very simple:

Postcards and letters from abroad: For now, I keep. No question. What I do with them could be a future project.

Cards: Hand-made ones, I definitely keep. Ones that don’t have anything more than a generic “To/from/merry Christmas/happy birthday” greeting, get chucked. 

Letters: if it doesn’t elicit a reaction or evoke a memory, OR if I no longer keep in contact with the letter’s author, I re-read it, and out it goes.

So far, it’s been helping me to deal with old letters and cards with minimal guilt.  

When I started a few nights ago, I came across a bunch of letters my mom wrote me when I first went away to school. I found one and started reading part of it to her. She actually said, “I WROTE that?” The next thing I know, I went through letter after letter, reading them aloud. It was great.

It also took me by surprise when my mom admitted to me that, after getting me settled in my new residence room and leaving the building to make the five-hour return trip home, my mom sat on the front steps of the residence and actually bawled

All these years, I’ve never thought of my mom as a crier. I can  probably count on one hand – maybe three fingers – the number of times I can recall seeing her cry.

But it gave me a new appreciation for what she went through as a mom letting go (sort of) of her first-born, and re-reading the letters again – with the proper context – gave me a fresh perspective.  

I still have a LOT of letters to go through. I’m putting off  dealing with the piles of letters from friends who constantly wrote me letters and notes.

But at least in this way I can – if only briefly – re-live the memories in those letters before deciding to keep them … or finally let them go.

I Loves Me Some Aussie Slang

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe …

Looks like words and phrases Aussies might use, are duking it out for a place in Australia’s top dictionary, according to this article I read a few days ago:

A cyberathlete might not suffer boomeritis as he or she is probably a digital native, but could be at risk of globesity, according to Australia’s top dictionary.

The Macquarie dictionary this week asked readers to vote for their favourite new word in the latest annually updated online volume, offering a total of 85 words or phrases in 17 categories.

Most of the words are not specifically Australian, but reflect global trends in fields such as technology, health and what the dictionary calls the social scene.

A cyberathlete is defined as “a professional player of computer games” while boomeritis covers a range of sports-related injuries incurred by baby boomers as they pursue physical fitness programmes into their old age.

A digital native is “a person who grows up using digital media and communications systems, and thus has complete familiarity with them,” while globesity sums up the worldwide fat phenomenon.

At risk of globesity are salad dodgers — overweight people — and slummy mummies — mothers of young children who have abandoned all care for their personal appearance, as opposed to yummy mummies.

A slummy mummy might also use a floordrobe, “a floor littered with discarded clothes, viewed ironically as a clothing storage system.”

She could also possibly, but not necessarily, have arse antlers — “a tattoo just above the buttocks, having a central section and curving extensions on each side.”

The overworked mother is unlikely, however, to suffer from tanorexia — “an obsessive desire to have tanned skin, placing the sufferer at risk of skin cancer.”

Someone who might succumb would be a practitioner of manscaping — “a grooming procedure in which hair is shaved or trimmed from a man’s body, as from the back, legs, chest, genitals, etc.”

Many of the new words have been generated by the inexorable march of new technology, with password fatigue being “a level of frustration reached by having too many different passwords to remember”.

Overcoming password fatigue, however, has its own dangers, exposing the computer slave to data smog — “electronic information as by emails, internet searches, etc., which, by its volume, impairs performance and increases stress.”

Votes for a favourite word take place over the next few weeks, with the “word of the year” being announced next month.

It should be interesting to see what wins out. I think “salad dodgers” and “slummy mummies” are tied, in my personal opinion. Brilliant!

But, I gotta be honest:

I still think the best Aussie slang phrase I’ve heard to date is budgie smugglers. Hands down … er, figuratively speaking.