"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Let me have my fantasy, please.

People are ruining my Christmas music and I want them to stop. One of the songs I like to hear during this season is "Baby It's Cold Outside." In particular, I love to hear Dean Martin croon it. So seductive.



Or is that just me? (P.S. I grew up watching his variety show, so every time I hear this, I picture him by the piano, surrounded by the Golddiggers.)

This year, I'm hearing yammering. Yammering about how this song is about drugging a girl ("Say, what's in this drink?") and forcing her to do things against her wishes ("The answer is no").

I am a firm believer that no means no. I may even be one of those radical folks who think that it doesn't matter what a woman is wearing or not wearing, she does not "deserve" it. The analogy I like to use is that if you wandered around in a crowd with a $100-bill hanging out of your pocket, it is still robbery if someone grabs it away from you. Argue all you want about whether it's wise to let that money hang out there, but it's still a crime.

Still, I don't think Dino is slipping anything into that girl's drink and coercing her to do anything. I think he is wooing.

Why? Well, first off, this is how the song first appeared, in an Esther Williams movie called Neptune's Daughter:



Aren't Red Skelton and Betty Garrett just adorable? It's cute. It's playful. She has not slipped anything into his drink. By-the-by, this movie was made in 1949, a time in which people believed that alcohol was quite strong enough and nothing more needed to be added to loosen one's inhibitions.

Second, the song was actually written by a husband and wife in 1944 and was performed at their parties until the hubster sold the rights to MGM. (Boy, was his wife mad. She considered it "her" song.) In the 40s, it was still customary for a woman to resist a gentleman's charms in order to be regarded as a "good" girl.

Seriously and sadly, have we changed that much? Even with the sexual liberation movement of the 60-70s, a woman who wants to have sex often and with whomever pleases her at the moment is still slut-shamed. A man is not. Do we even have a word for a man that is as humiliating as "slut"?

"Baby It's Cold Outside" is a song about two people who want to spend the night together. The man is doing his best to flirt and woo and convince the woman that she is desirable. The woman is obeying the social norm by resisting in a coy manner, all the while finding an excuse to stay for "half a drink more."

So, please-oh-please, folks. Consider the period the piece was written in, think of these two singers as the husband and wife that sang it at parties, and let me have my moment with Dino. He's so dreamy, I would stay for more than half of that drink.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holidays with Norman

I wrote this short Christmas story a few years ago. Someday I shall tinker with it, but in the meantime, enjoy.

* * * * *

Norman Rockwell is visiting again. I never get any notice, not that I need one. He always arrives on the first Sunday in December. I sit down in front of my mirror to put on my makeup, and there he is, peeking around my shoulder.

He looks a lot like he did in that famous portrait, holding his pipe firmly in his down-turned mouth, the glare from his glasses hiding his eyes. His neck looks more like chicken skin every year, although I don’t know why.

After all, he’s a hallucination. He shouldn’t age, should he?

“Time to get the Christmas tree, Abby,” he tells me.

Yes, Mr. Rockwell.

“Oughta be fun,” he says. “Oughta be quite an adventure.”

Oh, yeah, Mr. Rockwell, it’s quite the holiday escapade.

Every year I have the same fantasy about getting the Christmas tree. I see my husband, Keith and our son, Jake, ahead of me, walking through the Choose-And-Cut lot, pointing to trees and smiling. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground, and we’re in our down jackets, bright scarves around our necks to keep the wind from whipping down our shirts.

Keith turns back to me and smiles. “Jake thinks this one looks like his teacher.”

I look at the small, wide evergreen and laugh.

Later, after we’ve put the tree in our living room, I make popcorn and hot cocoa while Keith and Jake get the ornaments out of their boxes. We spend the evening putting up lights, and hanging stars. Christmas music is playing, and we are filling the room with joyous conversation, talking about nothing in particular.

That’s the fantasy, the dream that Norman Rockwell always comes to feed.

“It’ll be just like one of my paintings,” he says.

“Just like,” I tell him. “Except that it doesn’t snow in southern California, we won’t need jackets and scarves in seventy degree weather, and – oh, yeah – Keith and Jake don’t look like any of the people in your paintings.”

I stop feathering the light brown pencil across my blonde eyebrow and look at the photo propped against the mirror. Keith and Jake are in the scene, holding strings of catfish, smiling.

Keith’s skin is as dark as Hershey’s kisses, his full lips and broad nose identifying his African roots. His body is compact and muscular, his arms strong and sinewy.

“Did you even paint any black people, Mr. Rockwell?” I ask the ghost still peering over my shoulder.

He seems offended. “Of course I did, young lady. There was that little girl on her way to school.”

“Oh, yeah, the one about desegregation.”

“And how about the little kids and the moving van?”

I look down and rub the black mascara wand into my pale eyelashes. “The black family moving into the all white neighborhood, right?”

“And the little boy in the dining car?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Norman, the black guy was a waiter. You never painted pictures of black people just being people, having families, going to the doctor. For that matter, you never painted Hispanics or Asians or anyone of color, except that ‘We are the World’ piece you did-what was it called?”

“You mean The Golden Rule.” He shrugs, but his expression remains the same. “That was my world.”

I put my makeup back in the drawer and stand up, shaking the specter away.

“Your world was so white, it was practically clear.”

I look at the photo once more. If Norman Rockwell would not have painted Keith catching fish, he most certainly would not have painted our son, Jake.

Jake is the color of latte, with his father’s broad nose and mahogany eyes, and my slender lips. His hair is not as wiry as Keith’s, but my natural wave has contributed to its tight curls. At fifteen, he is whippet-thin, with lean muscles and an expanding ribcage from running cross country five days a week.

I check myself in the mirror. My red t-shirt needs to be tugged down over the top of my jeans. The color brings out the ruddiness of my Celtic skin, so I brush at my cheeks, wiping off some of the blusher I had applied. The scent of white ginger lotion engulfs me, and I wonder if I should switch to something warmer for the holidays, something spicier.

Keith is in the family room, watching a football game. He sits forward on the chair, his shoes on the floor in front of him.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” I say.

He nods, engrossed in the play. My husband loves to watch sports; I love to watch him.

I wander down the hall to Jake’s room. He is dressed in his holiday finery: a black AC/DC t-shirt and threadbare corduroy pants that I am not allowed to toss out. His room, however, looks like it has been tossed. Clean and dirty clothes mingle on the floor, along with video games, old homework papers, and the extra large drink he got at Carl’s Jr. last night. The room has that unmistakable smell of boy/man, musk and body odor and old socks.

Jake looks up from his place on the floor, sprawled out, playing a riff on his guitar.

“Get your shoes on,” I tell him. “Dad’s almost ready to go.”

The truth is, I don’t know whether he’s ready to go or not. When Keith watches a sporting event, he is consumed by it. He does not make us stay home until it is over, but he will not leave the TV until some crucial play has been performed.

I never know what that play is.

My husband’s casual manner of getting from the house to the car vexes me, no matter where we are going. I cannot learn his rhythm. When he goes out to the garage, I follow and get into the car, thinking that we are on our way. We are not. Keith will have at least two more trips into the house to get something he forgot, then stop at the refrigerator to pick up a cold soda for the road.

I’ll be waiting in the car, trying to keep my hands from reaching up and yanking my hair out by the roots.

Today, I go out and open the garage door, then putter around, trying to waste time. Jake comes out just as I’ve found the coupon for five dollars off a Christmas tree. About ten minutes after that, Keith shows up. He immediately goes back in for his Angels baseball cap, comes out and looks for the tarp to place on the car roof so the tree doesn’t scratch the paint, opens the car door, shuts the car door, goes to the refrigerator and removes a bottle of water, opens the car door one more time, and finally gets in.

We’re ready.

“Where are we going?” he asks as he backs the car out of the garage.

“Well, we can go around the corner to the Fantasyland lot, or down the street they have one of those Uncle Ernie Tree lots, or there’s the Pincher Choose and Cut.”

Keith stops the car in the driveway and looks at me. “Where are we going?”

I must make the decision. “I have a coupon for Pincher’s. Let’s go there.”

It’s hard to keep a live tree from becoming a fireman’s nightmare in southern California. An artificial tree would be so much safer and easier, but I love the fresh smell of pine, and the feeling of energy that a live tree gives a room. Going to a “choose and cut” tree lot at least ensures that our tree is completely fresh, and hasn’t been sitting, waterless, at various truck stops on its way from Oregon.

Our tires crunch along the gravel path as Keith winds the car up the hill and into a parking spot. There are rows of Monterey pines here, all tenderly nurtured and shaped into cones, canvases upon which glass ornaments and tinsel will be displayed. Young boys in oversized t-shirts and baggy jeans wait by the wooden stand to the right, saws by their sides. The stand sells fruit and vegetables in the summer, pumpkins for Halloween, and trees for Christmas. The owners have decorated it for the holiday, hiding the painted pictures of tomatoes and corn with garland.

I want to leap from the car and scamper to the trees, but I restrain myself. That is not my family’s speed. I get out slowly and stretch as if we’ve traveled for an hour instead of ten minutes. Slowly, casually, my husband and son emerge and stand by me. They wait for my lead.

I gesture to the right. “Looks like there are some nice trees up there.”

We begin to walk into the forest.

It is sunny, but not hot, and the breeze coming through the evergreens makes it almost Christmas-y. The smell of the trees is rich here. My fantasy returns, briefly, until I see the gap between my family members. Head down, Keith is trudging up the hill. Jake is wandering aimlessly, looking at nothing, his ears stuffed with music from his Ipod.

I stop at a tree, and gauge its height and heft. It seems to be about seven feet tall, well-rounded and full, except for one side, which is sparse. We place our tree in a corner of the living room, so this is not a problem; no one will see the ugly side.

“How about this one?” I ask my crew.

“It’s fine,” Keith replies. “Let’s get it.”

I need a consensus. “Jake, what do you think?”

For a fifteen-year old boy who has opinions on everything from my cooking to world politics, he is strangely noncommittal. “S’okay,” he says with a shrug.

Not quite satisfied, I walk on and stop at another tree, slightly taller and fuller.

“What about this?”

My two lovely men give me the same answers. We do this for two more trees. At the last tree, I look up and see Mr. Rockwell again, peeking from around the evergreens.

“Isn’t this fun?” he asks.

If he wasn’t a hallucination, I’d throw something at him. Yea, Norman, it’s swell.

“Let’s get this one,” I say.

Keith nods and Jake shrugs, indicating a quorum.

I tear off the bottom half of the tag and tell them, “We need to go get the little lumberjack.”

They both stand and look at me.

I guess “we” means me, so I turn and walk toward the stand. A scruffy young man leans against the counter, joking with the young Hispanic girl as she collects money from a young couple. He is in typical tree-cutter garb: a short-sleeved t-shirt over a long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, and boots that Frankenstein might have worn, all in faded, earthy colors.

Handing him the tag, I gesture up the hill, and see Keith walking down toward the car. The next ten minutes are spent carpeting the roof of the SUV with the tarp and securing the tree onto the car with twine.

Every time I see a Christmas tree on a car I am reminded of the time my brother and I took my ’67 Mustang to get the family tree. It was a particularly cold winter in Illinois, where we lived, so cold that when you breathed in, the hairs in your nose stuck together. We couldn’t get the tree in the car trunk, so we put it in the backseat, opening the windows so both ends could stick out.

We never even thought of tying it to the roof.

Keith pulls into our driveway and the real fun begins – getting the tree onto the stand, and into the house. Everyone has their assigned tasks. I move the rocking chair from the corner, and place a large trash bag on the carpet, then a towel, then a sheet, in the vain hopes of keeping the carpet dry. Keith removes the tree from the roof and brings it to the front porch, where he cleans the lowest limbs away. I join him, to hold the tree while he tightens the stand around the trunk.

“Hmph t llm,” he tells me.

At least, that’s what it sounds like.

“What?”

Translation: Get a microphone.

“Hold. It. To. The. Left.”

Translation: Get a hearing aid.

We get it into the stand, then I open the front doors and Keith carries it to the corner. He maneuvers it a little more, making certain that it’s straight, while I get the fishing line.

One December morning, when Jake was a toddler and Keith was away on business, the tree fell over. Instead of getting ready for work, I spent half an hour putting the tree upright and cleaning the glass shards from the carpet. Ever since then, we’ve tied the tree to a nail in the wall, using fishing line. It may not be attractive, but I’ll bet OSHA approves.

Jake’s job used to be to stay out of our way while we got the tree positioned. Now, his task is to stand in the driveway, waiting for his dad to give him permission to drive the car into the garage. At fifteen, this is his weekly thrill. I watch Keith walk from the porch, give Jake a serious look, and then smile as he tosses the keys. Our son leaps into the car and roars the engine to life, then creeps into the garage, attempting to place the SUV in the perfect space between the shelves and my minivan. He backs up and retries this two or three times, either because he’s a perfectionist or because he wants the extra driving time.

Keith retires to his football game, a bag of tortilla chips and salsa with him. His work is done.

It’s now tree trimming time, so I begin my ritual. First, I select a bottle of wine, a deep cabernet. I open the hutch and remove a wine glass. Norman is staring back at me.

“Hot chocolate?” he asks.

“More like hot toddy,” I tell him.

I see him frown a little, and wonder if the artist was a teetotaler.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Rockwell, I can drink and decorate.”

Jake’s voice startles me. “Who are you talking to, Mom?”

“Just myself, honey. Want to help me hang ornaments on the tree?”

He scowls a little. “Not really.”

I pour a glass of deep red elixir as my son wanders out of the room. Soon I hear his guitar wailing softly. I plug a Christmas CD in the stereo and turn it on. Eartha Kitt purrs to her Santa Baby while I get to work.

The ornaments are still in their boxes. I take them out, one by one and set them on the dining room table. After they are all out, I begin. There is a process, a rhythm, that must be followed.

I pick up a small, muslin mitten, grey with age, its edges cut with pinking shears. There is a green tree outline painted on one side and my name painted on the other. This ornament was made for me when I was six, by Mrs. Miller. Pete Miller was my boyfriend in 1st grade. I look at my name and remember Pete’s mom. She was a great cook, but not highly educated; the “y” in “Abby” is backwards.

The first ornament I owned must be the first one on the tree. Then the first ornament Keith and I bought together, then Jake’s first baby ornament. After that, the ornaments from friends and family who have passed, and then those who are still with us, and so on.

Norman reappears as I hang a handmade porcelain angel in the upper branches.

“This isn’t right,” he says. “Where’s the family? Where’s the popcorn?”

It’s okay, Mr. Rockwell, tree trimming is just not my family’s thing.

I am about halfway through it all, the wine and the trimming, when Jake comes back into the room.

“Need help, Mom?”

“Sure. Grab an ornament and find a limb.”

When he was younger, all my son wanted to do was sort the ornaments according to size, color and shape. The only year he wanted to hang ornaments, he hung them all on the same branch. I tried to let it alone, but after the bough touched the ground, I had to re-position them.

This time, I promise myself I will not re-hang anything he puts on the tree, although I secretly pray that he will spread them around a little.

“Jingle Bell Rock” starts playing, and we sing along. We are getting to the end of the ornaments, the boxes of gold balls that were bought on sale and have no meaning. Our work goes faster, as we fill all of the unadorned nooks on the tree. At last, we look back at the table. It is empty, just like my wine glass.

Jake extends his long, muscled arms and engulfs me.

“You’re the best mom,” he says. “What’s for dinner?”

“Leftovers,” I reply. “Still think I’m the best?”

He laughs and wanders into the kitchen. I hear him foraging in the refrigerator.

After our dinner of re-heated minestrone and salad, I pour one more glass of wine and sit on the couch in the living room. I’ve turned the lights out, so that only the Christmas tree is lit. The colored bulbs sparkle in the darkness. I can hear the football game on TV, the crowd roaring from our family room. Otherwise, all is silent.

Keith sits down beside me, wine glass in his hand. We watch the tree together.

“Pretty, huh?” I ask.

He nods. “I’ll put the outside lights on tomorrow.”

“Do you ever worry that we don’t really do things family-style? I mean, I decorate the tree, you put up the outside lights… it’s not very team-oriented.” I can’t help but add, “We’re not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting.”

Keith shrugs. “It’s just the way we work. Everybody does what they are good at.”

He leans over and kisses my temple. His lips are soft and warm.

“Besides-” He sweeps his hand toward the tree. “This is prettier than anything Norman Rockwell ever painted.”

Suddenly he stands up. “Halftime’s over.” He returns to the family room, leaving me alone.

I watch the lights flicker. Norman’s shadow is dancing around the tree.

This is my world, Mr. Rockwell.

THE END

Monday, December 1, 2014

On the first day of Christmas

Or Hanukkah. Or Kwanzaa. Or any other holiday in December, really, even Festivus for the rest of us. This month I'm joining in with a group of authors to offer ebooks at a substantial savings. Why? Because:

1. Many people who don't have a Kindle or other kind of reading tablet will probably be getting one this year from their loved ones who think they need a new electronic toy. These electronic toys will need to be filled with ebooks.

2. Many people already have a Kindle or other kind of device with a Kindle App on it and their loved ones like to stuff their stockings with ebooks.

3. Many people just like to buy for themselves because, well, you can never have too many books - either ebooks or tree-books.

So I'm one of the Twelve-Count-Em-Twelve authors over at Books on the Vine. Each day, one of us will be featured, but you can buy our books at any time.

Go here to see all the books - http://booksonthevine.com/

Today's featured author is the fabulous and prolific Jacqueline Diamond, who is offering THE FORGETFUL LADY for your reading pleasure. You can read all about her on the Latest News - http://booksonthevine.com/latest-news/

Don't know how to give an ebook as a gift? Just read this - http://booksonthevine.com/how-to-give-an-ebook-as-a-gift/

AND - If you stick around for the 12 days of fun, there is a contest at the end. You could win an Amazon gift card! Check this out - http://booksonthevine.com/win-prizes/

Now that there are no excuses, get ready, get set, and SHOP!

Friday, November 28, 2014

I'm all a-sparkle

I believe I met August McLaughlin on Facebook and immediately thought she was equal parts charming and driven. (Imagine my surprise when, after months of stalking her through her FB posts, she said she'd been stalking me the same way!)  I followed her exploits with great interest - here was a woman who didn't just want to change HER world, she wanted the change THE world.

I'm a sucker for that kind of thinking. When she invited me to be a part of #SparkleFriday, I couldn't resist.

"Let's make Black Friday shine! In lieu of a conventional housewarming party, we're having an act-of-kindness celebration.

Between now and 11/28, conduct an act of kindness. Then on the 28th, share a description and/or a photo on Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter using the hashtag #SparkleFriday. (Writers, feel free to post yours on your blog!)"


Here I am, sparkling.


She gave us about a month to do our good deeds. I thought, well, I should be able to do something nice for someone within 30 days. I signed up and went on with my life, and started to notice things.

The first thing that caught my attention was at the ranch. One of the things I do regularly is put away equipment, sweep out the feed room, refill the fly spray bottle, and generally do what might be considered ranch-style housekeeping. I don't have to do any of these things. They're not in my jurisdiction - most of them are my horse trainer's tasks. But I see how busy she is working horses, so I do it for her to make her life a little easier.

Then there was Bouchercon. One of the members of the OC Sisters in Crime is legally blind. She wanted to go to the mystery convention, but needed a ride. I live in Placentia, the convention was in Long Beach, and she lives in Fountain Valley. Figuring it was half-way between the two points, I volunteered to take her. I could have seen if someone else in the area could do it, could have stayed silent when she spoke of wanting to go, could have done things a lot of different ways that didn't inconvenience me. But I like her company and didn't mind the detour to her house and wanted her to be able to go.

Two weeks ago, one of my horseback riding students spoke with me about a project for school. She has to do 10 hours of volunteer service before the end of January. She is interested in a career with horses, and wanted to know if she could do volunteer work at the ranch. I said yes, even though it meant we would have to coordinate our schedules and I might have to extend my hours a little in order to supervise her. But I want to encourage anyone who wants to work with horses, and she is such a nice girl that I like helping her.

Last week, my trainer and I were at Corner Bakery for lunch. I got my cup and went to the drink area to get iced tea. A young girl stood with her two water cups, sort of in line and sort of not. When the person at the machine moved away, the girl stepped back and looked at me. I motioned for her to go first. She seemed surprised. I suppose I could have gone ahead of her, but she was there before me and was being so patient. What did I have to lose by being nice to her, except a little time?

This week, I was in the grocery store, buying food for Thanksgiving dinner. It's taken me years, but I've finally discovered a recipe for sweet potatoes that is yummy. It calls for fresh yams, not canned, so I was in the produce section, picking out a few with the right size. A woman stopped by the area and began to ask me about them. How do I cook them? What's the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? I explained about the difference and told her about the recipe. It took several minutes, because one question led to another. I was kind of on a schedule. Had lots of stuff left to do, and was under no obligation to educate a stranger. But she was asking for help and I had information that would help her. Why wouldn't I share it?
So it would seem that I conduct acts of kindness quite often. I just don't notice them. As a matter of fact, I may be a serial kindness-performer. I didn't take photos of any of these events, probably because I was too busy doing them.

What I do want to do is thank August for making me realize that, even on days when I am ranting at traffic or crowds, or railing at the sheer stupidity of sections of the human race, underneath it all I am capable of being a nice person. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that we can choose to be good - and that it's really not that hard.
 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Revelations

The first time I was on Garrett Miller's Rated G Radio show, someone called in and asked where I got the character of Benny Needles. She was certain there had to be a person in my life that I modeled Benny after.

For those of you who don't know Benny, he was meant to be a one-time client of Peri's - a needy little man with no filters on his brain, who was obsessed with Dean Martin. Readers loved him so much, he became part of the regular cast and has appeared in all the books. In the third book, THE HOT MESS, it was acknowledged that Benny has Asperger's.

My answer on the program was that I've known many Bennys in my life. Sometimes they are young children that I am teaching at the ranch. I've even met an adult Benny at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The man was obsessed with a particular movie studio from the 30s or 40s, and knew all of the films, actors, etc.

Part of me was fascinated by him. Part of me wanted him to move along so I could actually sell some books.

Over the past week, I've spent four days at Bouchercon in Long Beach, and three days at the California Special District Leadership Conference. This means:

1. For seven days, I have been meeting both friends and strangers and giving them "my best Gayle."
2. For seven days, I have heard more people talking than I normally hear in a month.

By the sixth day, I started to notice something: my ears were full. All the voices, all the words, began to blend into a cacophony with no meaning. By the seventh day, my ears were hypersensitive. The man next to me was sucking on a mint. I could hear the hard candy knock against his teeth. On the other side, the man behind me was actually eating his mints. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I wanted to stab both of them with my pen.

I started to think about my hearing. I've always had a problem with certain sounds. Music can get too loud, but there's one click on the volume that will send me to homicidal territory.

My darling husband likes to listen to ESPN Sports Radio while he drives. Or really any station that is broadcasting a game of some sort. These shows are always on AM radio, which has a distinctive timbre. It seems that the speaker on the passenger side is always louder than the driver's side, so I spend every car ride being assaulted by talking heads.

By the time we arrive, I leap from the car, feeling like my ears have just been scraped raw by an industrial rasp.

While I'm sharing, let's also talk about the worst sound ever: people eating. Crunching noises, slurpy noises, smacky noises, they all make me want to run screaming from the room (possibly to retrieve a weapon). There are times when I can't even stand to hear myself eat.

I try REALLY hard to not react to these sounds. They may be assaults to my ears, but only to MY ears. No one is trying to annoy me. Well, that they'll admit. But it's hard. I find my fingers drifting to my ears to stop the noise. I scoot my chair away. I run my finger across the tines of my fork and let my mind wander...

Today I realized something: I may have all my filters in place, but on the inside, I am Benny Needles. There's a reason he seems so real to my readers. I know him intimately.

Proud Member of ALA!

I support fair and equitable library access to ebooks and so should you.