Monday, July 30, 2012

Desiree -- by KittyCat

School starts soon, and I keep thinking about a little girl who came by last spring with her mother.

From a neighbor’s tree, I saw the woman first, and since she carried stuff in a folder, I figured her for a sales person. I had to join them. I love it when smooth talkers try to corner Mom with their pitches.

Since the neighbor had moved his pickup I'd used to reach a high branch, getting out of the tree was trickier than sneaking up on a mockingbird’s nest. And about that dangerous. By the time I reached our porch, I’d missed introductions. Real friendly, Mom offered the woman a chair while talking. “... a real sweetheart, attended there before she moved to Dallas. Do you know her?”

“Our church has grown so, one can’t possibly know everyone.” said the woman.

Right off, I was thinking this is gonna be good. The visitor had real nice fingernails—even and painted smooth. Dressed expensive, too, she looked like an older version of the all-fixed-up gals on Fox News. But she smiled from the teeth out, and I could can tell by her voice she was gonna talk down to Mom, maybe cuz about then the mailman handed Mom the Methodist newspaper.

I decide to keep score. Lady one, Mom zip. Course that wasn’t completely fair—I could tell by her face Mom didn’t know they were playing the one-up game. 

A girl got out of the car and came up on the porch.

“My daughter, Desiree,” said the lady. “Say hello to Mrs. Simpson, Darling.”

By then I was sitting in my chair, and Desiree came toward me. Mom said I wasn’t the cuddly type, and could scratch.

“And they do shed, Dear,” the lady said.

I could tell the little girl was sad, so I wudda let her pat me, but she backed away. I guess Mom could tell Desiree was sad, too, cuz she paid special attention to her. Asked if the kid would like a soda—nixed by her mother as bad for teeth, and when offered ice water, the mother said they carried bottled water in a cooler.

The woman turned to business: an invitation to hear a speaker at their church. To Mom’s polite refusals, the woman threw out digs kinda saying a real Christian wouldn’t want to miss out on her offer. Free. Limited seating. She didn’t tell about the arm twisting to buy a book, a CD, and that after expecting a twenty in a collection plate.

Meanwhile, Desiree sitting in the chair by mine poked at a fancy phone. I could see tears come to her eyes, and she ran out to the grass looking at the phone like she saw a monster.

Using high-sounding words, the lady told Mom how much better Desiree is than other kids, so she didn’t get invited to a big birthday party. What? I was really surprised to hear how smart she is, cuz every time Mom asked Desiree something, her mother answered.

In a minute the woman was back to her church rattling—she scored at least 5 in the one-up game by now, and Mom acted like she didn’t notice. As if still listening, Mom got scissors and a plastic bag from her yard-stuff drawer, and dipped a paper towel in my water bowl. I followed as she stepped off the porch to the flower garden, cut two of her favorite irises, and took them over to Desiree. “Thank you for visiting us today,” Mom said.

The lady took the “leave” cue. “Tell her thank you Desiree,” she said just as the kid was about to.

“Perhaps...” Mom got the woman’s attention while Desiree ran ahead to the car, “... if Desiree were allowed to speak for herself more often, her social side might have a chance to grow."

Touchdown! As the lady walked away from us, I rubbed Mom’s leg in approval.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ten Reasons to Read Your Newspaper

Our local paper, now owned by a conglomerate, is not the paper I enjoyed with a cup of coffee, in a sliver of “me time” years ago after work. After. That’s right. The Amarillo Globe published a morning and afternoon paper back then. And it was family owned. Greater than a typical mom—and-pop business, it was, nevertheless, a family enterprise where numbers of second-generation Whittenburgs cut their working teeth.

I no longer subscribe to the Amarillo Globe-News, but it’s not because it did away with the book section as we knew it when Mary Kate Tripp edited it. I simply refuse to step off my porch in sleepwear, and delivery people refuse to throw the paper past the edge of our driveway. The solution: we share a subscription with a neighbor.

A great read? Well, maybe not. Worth reading? Definitely, and I’ll back up my assertion with ten reasons.
1.       Stay informed. It’s a fast way to keep up with the community—from what’s for lunch at school to the latest business and social events news. Unlike being fed what a television station wants me to know, and suffering through a dozen commercials before I get the story a tickler promised me, I can scan headlines to choose stories I want. If reading is interrupted, it’s easy to go back to the place I left off—much easier than finding the correct button on a cluttered remote.
2.       Gain word power. It’s the best place I can think of to build your vocabulary. If you find an unfamiliar word, simply clip it with context. You’d feel guilty doing that to a library book, wouldn’t you? Put the clipping in a file. You can look it up later.
3.       Writing lessons. You may not call yourself a writer, but most of us must write sometimes. Journalists write tight—that newspaper column represents dollars. The only writers allowed excess words are those who pay for the privilege in advertisements. If you want to improve your writing, read and learn.
4.       Exposure to a variety of writing styles. If you hope to sell your writing someday, the newspaper is a good place to explore writing style, and hone your own. For example, compare pieces written by Karen Smith Welch, Lee Wolverton and David Horsley. How are their writing styles different from each other?
5.       Be healthy. Speaking of David Horsley, he’d never call it that, but he writes a wellness column. He finds healthy humor in just about everything. Read his column, and laugh. It’s good for you.
6.       Be healthier. Need a smile every day? Read the comics.
7.       Get published. Do you have strong opinions? Express them in letters to the editor. Yours could appear in print.
8.       Find writing topics. The Globe-News makes a handy source for writers stumped for a topic. Simply pick an article and put a spin on it. The journalist who wrote the article that grabbed you might even be willing to share unused research with you, especially if you’re a student. 
9.       Learn what’s on sale. A recent Fiesta Foods ad featured milk for $2.00 a gallon, and another promoted jalapenos for 50 cents a pound—nice fat ones easy to stuff with cream cheese. So-o-o good.
10.   Save with coupons. Using a coupon, I paid just over $4.00 for the dry cleaning of my Easter suit. What I saved could pay for a day’s paper.

I have more reasons to read our local newspaper, but that’s the promised ten. Once read, however, passed on to the neighbor who additionally cuts it up for words, coupons, and even columns to save, the paper is good to catch vegetable parings. You knew that. Did you know this?—you can recycle parings and paper in your compost pile, and use it next year to dress your kitchen garden. There. Didn’t I tell you David Horsley’s words are good for your health? 

Monday, July 23, 2012

What Do You Know? -- by KittyCat

Bet you didn’t know this: humans got holes in their heads. I’m not just talking spaces between ears that maybe is a joke (I tried to check Dad’s ear the other day, but he pushed me away). These are real big spaces. So if we cats have smaller heads, it’s not cuz we got teensy brains, it’s cuz we don’t got those big spaces in our heads.

The spaces are called sinusses. I found out about it by hearing Mom tell Dad stuff after she went to the doctor.

A bunch of what she said confused me, though, and my tabby friend, Snookie, is still on vacation, so she can’t tell me about things I don’t know. Like, one thing I don’t get is the doctor had pictures made of inside Mom’s head. Well, how do you take pictures of empty spaces? Boy, Dad could have fun with that one, if Mom felt good enough to at least give him that look. Anyhow Mom’s weren't empty, and the doctor said they were a cute (a cute what I'm wondering, since ... well, like I said Snookie isn't here to explain things).  

Being a cute is good, right? But it sounds like a human maybe likes cute on the outside, but not inside, cuz Mom’s taking pills to get rid of the cute stuff. 

She didn't do much this weekend. So I didn't do much, either. I spent most my time just being with Mom, cuz folks get better faster when they have someone special like me to keep them company. I’ll bet you already know that and have a nice cat or little dog in your family. But if you didn't know it, well, you do now, and there’s a special friend waiting at the animal shelter to get adopted by someone real nice like you.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Friendship and Stuff -- by KittyCat

I’m confused.

First, my tabby friend, Snook says I spelled it wrong: soshell—it means really nice and friendly. OK, so I’ll spell it her way, but lots of times I don’t know when to believe her, cuz Snook’s favorite topic is talking about what she does better than me. I think when she runs out of real stuff, she makes things up just to bug me.

Thought I knew what social means, but now am confused about that, too. A man, Mr. President, was on TV one day—just smiling and talking to folks, real friendly like. A guy visiting us said something about Mr. President being the socialest. That’s gotta mean more social than anyone else, but the guy frowned, like that wasn’t such a good thing. “Anymore and he’d be red” said this guy.   

Well, I didn’t see Mr. President getting all red faced, and why should he? Nobody said anything to make him look stupid. In fact he was the only one talking. Red? Maybe the guy can’t see color so good. I’ve heard TV people say Mr. President is black. Mom says he’s half black and that makes him half white, and what does it matter anyhow?

Dad doesn’t say much—you can’t tell for sure if he agrees or disagrees with people. Mom’s different. She said “red” was a little strong, but Mr. President did lean to the left. Maybe I missed it, but he stood up straight when I looked. I’ve never seen him leaning left, but he does look real funny getting off his airplane. He holds his hands just like dogs do their paws when they’re begging.

Mom said Mr. President is begging—for votes, but he won’t get many from her friends, cuz Mr. President is turning lazy people into freeloaders.

About the first thing Snook ever said to me was that I was a freeloader. “And I’m proud of it,” I said, knowing she was jealous cuz I moved in. “And if I’m one, then you’re one, too,” I said. She tried to tell me how her getting adopted by Aunt Pen was different than my moving in here, but I drowned her out by saying “freeloader” over and over. She jumped at me, so I went to the door to escape outside.

Snook can’t go outside much because this doctor had a big student loan to pay off, so he talked Aunt Pen into letting him take Snook’s front paws’ claws. I can’t see why anyone would buy them. What good’s a claw without a paw?

Snook’s on vacation with Aunt Pen. I guess I do know what social is, cuz I miss her. We argue a lot, but sometimes we just sit or snooze in the same room, and like it cuz we’re more than social (if that's how you spell it)—we’re best friends.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Paddle Your Own Canoe

The blog I planned this week had to do with taking responsibility for ourselves. The crux of it: the suffocating effect our excuses have on our goals, and even on our self-identity. In the draft, assuming everyone knew what it meant, I used the expression "paddle your own canoe." I was wrong. I'll probably scratch the draft, because its message is essentially the same as Sarah Bolton's poem. If you've never read it, be prepared to be inspired. If you are familiar with it, enjoy Ms. Bolton's wise and lyrical advice again.  -- Bernice W. Simpson

by Sarah Bolton

Voyager upon life's sea,
To yourself be true,
And where'er your lot may be
Paddle your own canoe.
Never, though the winds may rave,
Falter nor look back;
But upon the darkest wave
Leave a shinning track.

Nobly dare the wildest storm,
Stem the hardest gale;
Brave of heart and strong of arm,
You will never fail.
When the world is cold and dark,
Keep an aim in view,
And toward the beacon mark
Paddle your own canoe.

Every wave that bears you on
To the silent shore,
From its sunny source has gone
To return no more.
Then let not an hour's delay
Cheat you of your due;
But, while it is called today,
Paddle your own canoe.

If your birth denied you wealth,
loftly state and power;
Honest fame and hardy health
Are a better dower.
But if these will not suffice,
Golden gain pursue;
And, to win the glittering prize,
Paddle your own canoe.

Would you wrest the wreath of fame
From the hand of fate?
Would you write a deathless name
With the good and the great?
Would you bless your fellow-men?
Heart and soul inbue
With the holy task, and thenPaddle your own canoe.

Would you crush the tyrant wrong,
In the world's free fight?
With a spirit brave and strong,
Battle for the right;
And to break the chains that bind
The many to the few,
To enfranchise slavish mind--
Paddle your own canoe,

Nothing great is lightly won;
Nothing won is lost;
Every good deed is nobly done,
Will repay the cost.
Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will do;
But if you succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cats Rule? -- by KittyCat

Dad didn’t work yesterday. So what, you ask? Well, Mom hogged the office nearly all day, that’s what. By afternoon, I could see I wasn’t getting the computer, so I went outside.

Nice and quiet-like, I was under Dad’s pickup waiting for some birds to show up. Guess who shows up instead? You guessed it—Mom. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing with a bucket of water, but with her moving around the yard, I knew the birds weren’t gonna gather on our grass.

It didn’t matter, really. After staring out over the yard, a guy gets tired. I thought about getting out from under the pickup and go to my chair on the porch, or get up on the pickup and watch Mom. But my head got too heavy to hold up, and my eyelids dropped shut. Now and again when she’d open and close a car door, I’d half open my eyes, then fall back to sleep. 

Suddenly cold water zapped me, and Mom was screaming, “Oh, poor KittyCat, Mommy’s so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”

I scrambled to Dad who had come out to sit on the porch.

“He’s OK,” Dad said, pulling a cat treat from his pocket. “He’s barely wet.”

What people call “barely wet” is what cats call “water torture.” Rinsing her car, Mom had aimed the water hose at a headlight. Water bounced from it like a tornado’s downpour to where I was sleeping under Dad’s pickup.

We all went in after a bit, and I headed for the office chair. Guess what? Mom gets Monster out and starts sucking up stuff off the office floor. It wudda ate me if I hadn’t been in the chair. When she turned Monster off to move a file box, I moved, too—right outta the office.

On Aunt Pen’s refrigerator is a computer picture a friend made for her. It’s supposed to be Snookie wearing a crown (a diamond tiara, says Snook the snob). I think it’s a tabby picture lifted from a flea collar ad. Anyhow, above it in big fancy letters is “Cats Rule.” And they do, says Snook.

Oh Yeah? Wish someone would tell Mom.

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson

A Sense of Place

In her introduction to a collection of short stories, you can almost feel Geraldine Brooks retch at the word kitchen when connected to a story's setting. Shortly after reading Ms. Brooks’ essay, I picked up a novel that began with a conversation at a kitchen table. But vicariously looking over a map with the characters, I knew the scene would change momentarily, and it did.

Readers need settings they can identify with, to feel anchored. How can you, the reader, share a character’s shoes when in a setting so vague you can’t feel your feet? Conversely, how do you, the writer, insert setting details—especially in settings unfamiliar to your readers?

You know what not to do: plop specifics on the page almost as an FYI, or provide details akin to an amateur play’s badly painted cardboard backdrop. But how do you get it right? If a formula exists please let me know, but until you find it, you’ll profit by following the old standard: observe, study, practice.

How to Study Settings

Read. Mark scenes you encounter. Go back later and copy them. Your analysis of a hundred or so by a variety of authors will be like lotion on dry skin. Smooth.

To help you start, here are scenes from my collection. Selected randomly, it includes one scene set in the kitchen.

 “After a few years on the demonstration circuit (I have a clear, diorama-like memory of being teargassed on the steps of the Justice Department), I landed in Colorado to study with a Tibetan Buddhist lama.” – Marc Ian Barasch
“There’d be knots of people, talking and arguing, on street corners, and then, when you got closer to them, they’d kind of melt away.” –Steven Vincent Benet
“St. Pierre, a sheaf of white-and-pink plaster houses, was woven together on a hill, like a haycock.” - Stella Benson
“...and jalousied windows opened and closed their shutters like painted wings.” – Victoria Brooks
“They puttered by a village of sampans moored along the shore. These were true houseboats with flowers blooming in wooden crates on the decks.” – Victoria Brooks
“I came to where the mill hands lived in close-together little shotgun houses—three rooms in a row, like long boxes, with public wells and privies that served two or three houses each.” – Olive Ann Burns“
“Elizabeth put one foot down onto the checkerboard linoleum of the first-floor hall and hooked the heel of her other shoe on the loose rubber tread of the bottom step. Her hand grabbed the newel post at the end of the banister. The stairs were treacherous ...” Elizabeth Cullinan
“The area was lush with hemlock, fir, oak, maple, birch, and every imaginable kind of moss and fern. It was also rich in history, starting with gravestones so old that their markings were nearly indecipherable.” – Barbara Delinsky
“A spectral fog is lifting off the cemetery grass, and high up in the low atmosphere I hear the wings of geese pinging.” – Richard Ford
“The other world, however, began right in the midst of our own household, and was entirely different, had another odor, another manner of speech and made different promises and demands. In this second world were servant-girls and workmen, ghost stories and breath of scandal. There was a gaily colored flood of monstrous, tempting, terrible, enigmatical goings-on, things such as the slaughter house and prison, drunken men and scolding women, cows in birth-throes, plunging horses, tales of burglaries, murders, suicides. All these beautiful and dreadful, wild and cruel things were round about, in the next street, in the next house. Policemen and traps passed to and fro, drunken men beat their wives, crowds of young girls flowed out of factories in the evening, old women were able to bewitch you and make you ill, robbers dwelt in the wood, incendiaries were rounded up by mounted policemen—everywhere seethed and reeked this second, passionate world, everywhere, except in our rooms, where mother and father were.” – Hermann Hesse
“Anna inhaled the deep, cool mildewed smell of centuries and wondered what it would be like to live somewhere so ancient. To have a past of burnished oak refectory tables, tapestries and mullions...” – Wendy Holden
 “Behind them lay a little copse. Before them the turf, dotted with white flowers, sloped down to the brow of a cliff. Far below them, so that the sound of the breaking waves was very faint, lay the sea. Shasta had never seen it from such a height and never seen so much of it before, nor dreamed how many colors it had. On either hand the coast stretched away, headland after headland, and at the points, you could see the white foam running up the rocks but making no noise because it was so far off.” – C. S. Lewis
“Each room had a pair of narrow double doors that opened onto a miniature balcony—large enough for two small chairs and a Lilliputian table—on which guests could have black morning coffee. –Robert Ludlum“
“So he picks up the baby and leads us to his joint, and gets out some pretty fair beer, though it is needled a little, at that, and we sit around the kitchen chewing the fat in whispers. There is a crib in the kitchen, and Butch puts the baby in his crib, and it keeps on snoozing away first rate while we are talking. In fact, it is sleeping so sound that I am commencing to figure that Butch must give it some of the needled beer he is feeding us, because I am feeling a little dopey myself.” –Damon Runyon
“There was a high steady note of insects screaking. A rich odor of hay mixed with the heady smell of gasoline. Two or three times, a car rumbled by, shaking the ground.” –Mona Simpson
“Stockton, who had played a little football in high school, blocked Mrs. Barrows as she made for Mr. Martin. It took him and Fishbein together to force her out of the door and into the hall, crowded with stenographers and office boys. She was still screaming imprecations at Mr. Martin, tangled and contradictory imprecations. The hubbub finally died out down the corridor.” –James Thurber
“The vast hills in their snowy garments looked down upon the land, upon the house of Hazen Kinch. Still and silent and inscrutable.” –Ben Ames Williams
Once you’ve read the selections above, what will you do to study them? A starting point might be to examine word usage. For example, I thought traps in the selection by Hermann Hesse was a misprint for tramps. It’s not. As used by Hermann Hesse, it is a type of horse-pulled carriage. Ben Ames Williams could have written “still, and silent, and mysterious,” but inscrutable is a better word choice, isn’t it?

Certainly if you want to check on a few words, and you’re pressed for time, this blog is long enough. I’ll return to “settings” another day. In the meantime, start your collection. It’s educational, and is one collection that never needs dusting.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fleas and Friends -- by KittyCat

The house next door to us is empty, but its owner is fixing it up, so new folks can move in. I hope it’s just people, with no big dogs or a mean cat like Bicklesworth. Bicklesworth was the orange tabby who beat up on me, and I had to go to the vet. Mom hopes it’s a young family that she can invite over sometimes.

Mom says you gotta have friends of all ages if you wanna stay in touch. Mom was going crazy cleaning house one day when a twentyish gal, Mia... Monica... something like that, came by. Ha, ha. I’ll bet she left thinking her “in touch” granny friends was getting touched –in the head.

Here’s the scene:

As Mona, or whatever, comes up on the porch, Mom halfway greets her. But Mom acts more interested in the dirt she dumped from the vacuum cleaner's cup to a big piece of white paper she had spread over the porch’s table. Frowning at the stuff on the paper, Mom says, “I'm checking for black specks.”

I'm thinking, Wow, Mom—you got black specks outta the sweeper's cup? Tsk, tsk. I don't know what Mila Whoever thinks, but she sure looks puzzled.

Without explaining, Mom wets the dirt with a spray bottle. No kidding! Then she blurts out, “Oh, m'gosh, there are specks—tons of them, turning red.”

I can tell the only reason Myrna, or whatever doesn't turn and run is she's got what my brown tabby friend Snookie (and Mom, too) call breeding. Once, I told Snook what I call breeding, and, well, put logic plus Snook in the same sentence and you got a whole other story.

Staring down at the paper, Mom continues. “When a wet speck turns red, you know it is extra-mint from a flea that bit an animal.” (I found out later that extra-mint is poo.) “I wish I had a microscope,” she says “so I could make slides to see the extent of the flea problem.”

Mom is serious! No fooling! And, ha, ha, just as this poor M girl takes a look to show polite interest, a flea hops up and zaps her on the forehead.

Better her than me, right? I'm shaking with silent snickers. Like, if hopping fleas aren't funny enough, both Mom and the M-lady (I could tell they were horrified) pretend not to notice.

Folding the paper over the dirt, the fleas, and their poo, Mom says, “Let's go in. I have tea, lemonade and root beer.” She drops her dirt package in the trash bin.

Mumbling something about getting kids from day care, the M gal says a few nice things, and leaves.

I hate fleas, and hate getting flea powdered, and hate to see Mom go all bonkers because of the critters. But seeing What's-her-name's expression as she fleed ... Well, it made all that 200% worth it.

It would be nice if Mom could have a new 20-something friend next door, cuz I don’t recall that Mia (was that her name?) ever came back.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Warm-up for Your Muse

Where do you get your ideas? That’s a typical interview question posed to writers. My answer on a profile form for The Writer's Quill, newsletter edited by 


Mathis Rogers in Lubbock,Texas, started like this: "Ideas surround us." And they do. If you’re stuck, it’s likely the right and left sides of your brain are not in sync.

Left: “hurry up, and start working.”

Right: “I’m not ready.”

To push it makes as much sense as to scarf down a greasy burger when you’re hungry. Like your stomach, your page may fill quickly, but with results akin to indigestion. So, don’t force it. Relax while your sleepy muse gears up. If a few minutes of deep breathing don’t work, try this activity.

 As if daydreaming, look out the window. Make a bulleted list of five to ten items you see. Use simple words. For example, Looking through a picture window at my house, I see:
  • Part of an elm tree in front of our house
  • The street
  • The neighbor's sidewalk
  • Neighbor's lawn
  • The tree in their front yard
  • Sprinkler

Copy the list. Be more observant, and look at each item you listed again. Start with and one, and add details.  For example,

  • Part of an elm tree in front of our house; colors—leaf green, silver (from sun reflection), bright leaf green, side of the trunk, textured brown tones to black
  • The street—asphalt, mottled grayish brown, concrete curb
  • The neighbor's sidewalk, swept clean, unlike ours littered with twigs dropped from our elm trees
  • Neighbor's lawn, evenly mowed, edged
  • The tree in their front yard—in afternoon light, it is dark green with dark and light sage highlights
  • Sprinkler—on, spurting fine droplets three feet in the air, misting (looks like white smoke at times) as a breeze blows them toward the sidewalk

Continue to look, moving from keen observation to relaxed gazing and back again. Explore adjectives that describe the scene, or any part of it. Do any contrasts come to mind? Have you observed any motion? If so, where? Does the picture stir any emotions in you? What are they? If you were to paint the picture, what would you add or take away? Does any part of the actual scene or picture revised in your mind inspire you to tell a story about it? If so, what characters would you add to it? Can you apply analogies to it: as peaceful as…, appearing as if…, not unlike…, and so forth.

Before you finish your exploration your muse will be fully awake and ready to help you complete the work you sat down to do.

Name the document you created. Save it in a file—perhaps “Muse Warm-ups.”  Experienced writers say such writing bits and pieces are like a quilter’s excess fabric. One day’s scrap creates the perfect accent or thematic symbol needed for a future project.  

(c) Bernice W. Simpson