Going Batty

It happened again. I was with a group of writers, this time at a cabin by a lake, and a bat appeared.

A few years ago, I was in Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather. My generative writers’ group arranged to have a retreat there. We stayed in the Cather home that is now a “bed and bring-your-own-breakfast.” People can stay there and bring in their own food to prepare. The rooms are all named for Willa Cather’s books and I was lucky enough to draw the bedroom that was Willa’s room. It was all very exciting and interesting.

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Me in Willa Cather’s bedroom

The retreat was going well. We were enjoying the camaraderie and writing prompts as planned.

Most of our retreats include “Bedtime Stories.” At the end of the day on Saturday, we gather in our jammies and read stories we’ve written. No critiquing, just listening to the stories. It’s great fun.

So, as we prepared for the stories, one of the writers went upstairs to get her laptop. The rest of us waited in the parlor. A blood-curdling scream echoed through the wall. One of the writers got up to see what was wrong. Soon she was screaming, too. A bat was in the house. It had trapped the writers on the stairs. It flitted back and forth in the hallway. One writer, a farm wife, tried to herd the bat outside, but it kept flying back and forth. The screams sounded like the doppler effect. You could tell the location of the bat by the intensity of the scream. It was an adventure and the full story is on this site. (I mistakenly created it as a permanent story on the main page. Click on the title at the top of the main page.)

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The Cather Home in Red Cloud, Nebraska

The recent bat encounter occurred July 10th at 2am. I was with writers, a different group than before. We stayed at a cabin by a lake. Our hostess had warned us that a bat had been sighted the night before but we all opted to come anyway. At dinner, we talked about the bat and made a plan. Since bats are considered endangered, we couldn’t kill it. We would catch and release.Those of us who are less squeamish would capture it, if and when it showed up.

Most of us slept in the loft where four beds were set up, two on each side of a bathroom. The beds were out in the open. The most fearful person got to sleep downstairs in the enclosed bedroom. I lay awake, reading until around 1:30 a.m. I had just drifted off, when I heard a scratching sound. I perked up and listened. The shrill cry of the bat came next and before I could react, it was on my head. I said in a calm, but somewhat loud voice, “The bat is back.” Another gal came over to my bed with a towel, but the bat had disappeared. We couldn’t find it anywhere. So, she returned to her bed and I laid back down in mine. About two minutes later, it was back. Again, I said, “It’s here.” She returned with the towel and we looked for it. It flitted back and forth under my bed and then we lost it. Cathy raised the bed ruffle and there it was, clinging to the material. She threw the towel over it and it stopped moving. Apparently, it thought it was safe with the towel hiding it. Cathy picked up the towel-wrapped bat and took it to the front door, releasing it into the night air.

I thought my head felt strange. I touched my scalp. It was damp. Did the bat bite me and cause bleeding? I went into the bathroom to look, but it wasn’t bleeding. I thought the bat had peed on me. So, I washed my head as best I could. I went back to bed and started thinking about my death. How long did I have before I would show signs of rabies?

I googled “Medical care for bat bites.” I read “Seek medical attention as soon as possible.” What did that mean? Could I wait until tomorrow or did I need to go somewhere now? I called hospital in the nearby small town and they were no help. They told me to call Poison Control. “No, the bat bit me. I didn’t eat the bat.” But they insisted I called Poison Control because “they had all the protocols”and could tell me what to do.

As a nurse, I knew better, but I called anyway. Poison Control sounded irritated over the phone. “Why are you calling us?” So, I was back to square one. I googled “rabies” again, this time asking “when do symptoms occur?” The answer: most of the time 2-4 months after exposure. Maybe I had some time. I wasn’t seeing angels yet. Then I saw the disclaimer. “however in some cases, symptoms begin 2-4 DAYS after exposure. Great. I was going to have to cut the weekend short.

The next morning, I left, driving 70 miles back to Omaha on 4 hours of sleep. I’m not sure how I managed to stay awake, but I did. I went to the Methodist ER and they were wonderful. I had a rabies shot in my right arm, and several gamma globulin shots (to boost immunity). Two in each thigh and one in my left arm. The worst part was the tiny ones in my scalp. Also, there was a small bite I hadn’t noticed in my left thumb, so they injected around that 5 times. It wasn’t as bad as I thought I might be, but I don’t care to ever do that again. I have to have another booster. I had my first booster that Wednesday and then another today. One to go!

The shots are no longer given in the abdomen. That stopped in the 1980’s, thank goodness. People reported they were pretty bad. The ones I got weren’t too bad.

I have decided that, if I’m with a group of writers in an older house or at a cabin, I’m taking a “bat kit” with me that will include a box to put the bat in. (Don’t release the bat. Save it so it can be tested.) We’re pretty sure my bat was rabid because of the moisture on my hair that I thought was pee. The doctor said it was more likely saliva. Also, the bat had been very erratic, like it had an injury. The person who saw it the night before thought it had hit the ceiling fan and broke a wing. But the doctor said it could’ve been acting that way because it was sick. So, always keep the bat after you capture it. Put it in a box or plastic container. Otherwise it’s shot time!BAT

My bat kit will include:

  • gloves. Don’t pick up a bat with your bare hands. Thick gloves should be worn.
  • netting to cover my head in bed in case the bat comes near
  • a butterfly net for capture. Or an old t-shirt. (The Humane Society says not to use a towel because the bat’s wings and claws can get caught in the small loops of fabric)
  • a container to put the bat in like a small cardboard box or food container (without the food!) The Humane Society also recommends a piece of cardboard that might work as a temporary lid or scoop to get the bat in the box.

When my generative group found out about this encounter with the bat, one said, “You know what the common denominator is here, don’t you, Sue.” I said it was hanging out with writers. Their reply, “No. It’s you!”

In my most guttural voice, “I’m Bat Mom!”
Batman and Robin

 

 

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Story Ideas and Techniques

Where do you get ideas for stories? Many of mine come from observations I’ve made and experiences I’ve had. Once in awhile something will just pop into my head. When I am on a “roll” and things are moving along,  it’s so exciting to me. I lose all track of time. Does that happen to you?

I recently wrote a short story (and I think it’s a work in progress) and ideas came so quickly, I couldn’t keep up. My fingers were flying across the keyboard. I couldn’t keep up with the thoughts in my brain.

I am grateful for my education in journalism in the 1970’s at UNL. As a student, I learned to type and think. It was much different than the leisurely handwritten thoughts that I was used to. I had to sit at the typewriter and, in rapid fire, put down my thoughts. It was daunting. But now I have difficulty putting pen to paper because my hand is slower than my brain when I write.

I have discovered that I like to write mystical stories. I’m a reader of mysteries, thrillers and spy novels so this has come as a surprise to me. My latest short story is called “Dream Catcher” and it’s about a museum curator who has the uncanny ability to sense things “other worldly.” I got the idea while looking at the dream catcher that hangs in my bedroom window.

Dream catchers started with the Native American of the Great Plains, the Lakota and Sioux. They believed the air is filled with both good and bad dreams. Dream catchers were hung in the tepees and on the babies’ cradle boards for protection.

According to legend, good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person. Bad dreams are caught in the web where they die in the light of dawn.

Traditionally, the frame was made of willow hoops and animal sinew or cordage made from plants. The circular shape represented the sun and moon (and time) as each day moves across the sky.

Now, soft leather cord or synthetic materials are used. The hoop is likely wooden or plastic. They are often decorated with feathers and beads. Mine has an arrowhead in the center.IMG_3865

I have several dream catchers in various forms. I’m not sure when my “collection” started. Like many of my collections, it was inadvertent. I received some from the St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota after making a donation. I continue to receive them now and then, even if I don’t send a donation. I bought the one I have in my bedroom while vacationing in Colorado Springs. I also bought a dreIMG_3868am catcher necklace on another trip to Colorado. I’ve had one of my dream catchers so long, I don’t recall when or where it came from. It is made of leather and is very simple but beautiful with pinkish webbing. It’s one of my favorites.

http://www.dream-catchers.org/category/history/

In my story, the protagonist, Frank de Salle, is a museum curator who was born with microtia. The character is loosely based on my brilliant younger brother who is deaf. My character’s name is Frank de Salle, named for the patron saint of deaf persons, St. Francis de Salle.

Frank and his sister, Christine, a reporter, travel to the Pine Ridge reservation where they attend a powwow. Things happen as they journey onward to the Black Hills and into Wyoming to see Devil’s Tower. All culminates when Frank returns home and is visited by a ghostly figure one night.

Excerpt from “The Dream Catcher”

Frank de Salle was born with a missing ear.   He could speak but he knew he didn’t articulate very well. Strangers treated him as though he was retarded. He sensed it was because of his slurred speech and very loud nasal voice. But he held advanced degrees in both anthropology and history.

 He worked at the college museum as a curator where he set up traveling exhibits,  cataloged museum pieces, and conducted research on artifacts. He worked alone and lived alone and he was fine with that.

His modest two-bedroom home sat ten blocks from campus. He had a drivers’ license but preferred to walk. Pedestrians didn’t cut in front of one another or flip each other off as they hurried down the sidewalk. A nod or smile made it a much more genial mode of getting from point A to point B. Oh, he’d drive in the winter sometimes but leave early in the morning before there was much traffic.

When he spoke, he could hear his words echo in his head and thought they sounded fine, even though strangers looked at him in an odd way. “Don’t yell so loud,” Christine would say, but then he couldn’t hear his words. His speech therapist explained that, with his hearing aid on, he could hear about as well as someone underwater in a swimming pool might hear, whatever that was.

Sometimes he’d feel a vibration before hearing a sound through his hearing aid. Doctors told him that his other senses were heightened. He overcompensated because of his deafness. An oncoming car felt like he was holding an electric razor with the sensation passing through his entire body. He liked vibrations, his connection to the world.

Want to read more? Let me know. Leave a comment below. 

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“Everything the Power does, it does in a circle.” Lakota Proverb

“A man’s life is a circle from childhood to childhood, and thus it is in everything where the power moves.” Black Elk

 

Writing Class

An opportunity presented itself to me this winter. I found out about a program at the local university called the “Senior Passport.”

I hate to admit that I celebrated my “Medicare Birthday” this year but being 65 has given me some new opportunities. I signed up to audit a class on writing short stories. It has been a wonderful experience.

Each Monday, we meet and discuss short stories and present short stories we have written since the previous class. The professor packs the classes full of information and activities. Fortunately, we are a small group so there is time to get most of it in.

Each week, one of the students presents a short story to the class. The story I chose was “Train” by Alice Munro. With the stories, we discuss the author’s background, the story plot and twists, the characters and the setting.

Then we critique short stories we have written. This is my favorite part. It is fun to read what other people have written and to offer suggestions to one another. The other students are all fairly young but they offer many good suggestions on how I can improve my stories and in turn, I offer my opinions on their stories.

Writing in a group has a way of bringing people together, of bonding with one another. Being the “old lady” of the class, when we first met, the others were more interested in looking at their i-Phones than chatting during break. But as we began to share our stories, we talked to each other more. We got to know one another through our writing.

When I presented my story about growing up in small town America in the 1950’s, many of the other students came up to me afterwards with comments. One young man asked me about Roger Maris. He lived in Fargo, SD, for awhile and told me about a museum dedicated to Roger Maris in that town. We talked about the excerpt from my story (below) and shared some laughs.

Leaving their dogs to roam the streets, they’d head to the theater four blocks away.  Once inside, they bounced on the padded flip-down seats and waited for the lights to dim. “I hope they show Bugs Bunny today.” Gloria grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bag.

“I like Woody Woodpecker best,” Bob said.  They both made the classic “Hahaha-ha-ha” laugh of the cartoon character.

            The bouncing stopped as they heard the whirl of the reels begin. A black and white circle with a grid appeared on the screen, “Please Stand By.” They clapped their hands. A countdown flashed with numbers and they chanted, “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then the newsreel announcing “News of the Day.” Black and white pictures appeared on the big screen. Large white letters announced that Queen Elizabeth christened a ship somewhere. Roger Maris hit another home run.

            “I love Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle,” she whispered to Bob.

Another student talked to me about anorexia, a topic I breach in my story.

Flipping to the next page, she found several greeting cards. “Happy 6th Birthday” in big red letters.  A chubby cheeked girl in pink drawn holding a bunny on the front of another said, “You’re Turning Six!” One caught her eyes in particular. It was from her big sister, Barbara. She recognized the exact loops, uniform and clear, marking her signature. Always perfect. Her sister was ten years older than she and the oldest, making her the boss of the family. Whatever Barbara wanted, she got. She was talented, smart and pretty. But she was also a tyrant.

Gloria thought she probably had anorexia. Back in 1957, no one knew about anorexia nervosa. Mental illness was considered a character flaw. Barbara hid her problem from adults, but the siblings knew something was amiss.  She ate a lot of celery.

Others talked to me about my story in general and commented on what they liked about it as well as some pitfalls in my writing. It was interesting to see how the story brought us together.

Writing is a powerful tool. We are reading “Fortune Smiles” a book by Adam Johnson, a Pulitzer prize winner. His short stories are very intriguing. Our professor asked if we thought writing was just for entertainment or was there a deeper purpose? Most of us agreed that writing can change minds and promote social justice. Why else would tyrannical governments burn books if the words inside didn’t offer threat?

Books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the plight of slavery to the forefront. Dozens of books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” shed light on the law and people’s prejudices. The short stories in Johnson’s book touch on topics such as cancer/death and dying, living with a disabled wife, pedophilia, and the Cold War attitude of an East German prison warden.

The class has given further proof that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The most exhilarating feeling for me is when my writing touches a soul. I may curse the Muses and wonder why I were given this “need to write” but then, once in a while, something magical happens and people are influenced by something I’ve written.

Have you ever had that happen? Tell me about it.

 

 

I Saw It with My Own Two Eyes

In our critique group, we often run across areas in our work where we have inserted unnecessary words. “Tautology” is a new word I learned. It means “needless repetition of the same thing using different words.” Examples are “I went there personally.” “He made it with his own two hands.” “Frozen ice covered the road.” “She made predictions of the future.”

Do you see the repetition in each of those sentences? (And in my title?) Obviously, I see with my eyes and I have two of them. So a more correct title would be “I Saw It.” Boring title but at least it’s not redundant.

Crazy sign

I wonder what prompted the need for this sign? Confusion? Was one problem solved but another created?

A sign at a bank ATM reads “Enter your number one digit at a time.” Is there another way? I wonder what would happen if I pushed two buttons at once?

A library in California warns, “Beware silly signof pedestrians on foot.” I suppose pedestrians in cars could pose a different problem.

Some signs may not be tautology but are just plain funny. I saw a sign on a door in an Iowa truck stop that read, “Electrical personnel only.” Every time we stop there on our way to Chicago, I look around for the electrical people.

Once, while driving across Illinois on the toll road (I-88) and dealing with major road construction, a temporary sign sat above the “45 Minimum Speed” sign. The temp sign read “45 Maximum Speed.” My son, the driver, saw it and said, “Cruise control, don’t fail me now.”

No trespassing

Humor is often used in signs. As a teenager, I lived in a small town surrounded by ranches and large spreads. I remember one sign on a fence post read, “No hunting without permission, and DON’T ASK!” Another sign on a very narrow gravel road out in the middle of nowhere warned “No parking.”

One of my favorite signs is the one below. I can relate to it on many different levels, especially as I continue writing my novel with all its twists and turns.

What are some of the funny signs or statements you have seen?

one way

 

 

My Short Story

In the midst of a class at the local university on short story writing, I just finished writing about being a fat person. The story has been brewing in my head for several years.

Several years ago, a national debate began about the rise in obesity in the US. Some fat people were blaming everything from McDonald’s and other fast food places to corn syrup in processed foods to sedentary lifestyle with the onset of personal computers, video games and other devices that kept kids from going outside to play and adults from going on long evening walks.

I pondered this and came up with  list of “excuses” for being fat.

  1. My parents. “When you grow up, when you’re BIG and strong, you can do this, you will know that, you will understand.” Hypothesis: To get big and strong and therefore independent and smart, EAT!
  2. “Clean Plate Club.” As I child I often heard, “Clean your plate. There are starving children in China (Africa, Bangladesh…)” Never did figure out how my eating everything on my plate would help those children.
  3. My paper route. I rode my bicycle all around town, delivering newspapers when I was in 5th grade. You would’ve thought that would enhance muscle strength and normal weight. But two of the places I delivered papers to were the local Dairy Queen and a small cafe along the highway that made the best cinnamon rolls. Any calories burned while circling the town on my bike were more than replenished by dilly bars and warm sticky buns.
  4. The image of a girl in the 1950’s and early ’60’s. Girls didn’t sweat. Girls sat at home and embroidered. Girls didn’t do things that might mess up their dresses. Dresses were not conducive to climbing jungle gyms, running up hills or throwing baseballs. The only place acceptable for sweating was in gym class where we wore ugly one-piece short outfits and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  5. Food supply. In the Midwest, summer was great when we had fresh vegetables and some fresh fruits like cherries and apples from our trees. Otherwise, in the winter, we relied on shipments of oranges and other produce from far off places like California, Arizona and Texas. The fresh foods were expensive and not as tasty as they would be in their native states. Who wants to eat pink bland tomatoes?Much of our diet consisted of meat and potatoes. I never had a green salad until I was in my late teens.
  6. Terminology. Instead of cutting to the chase and calling it “fat,” there was a tendency when I was growing up for people to say things like “pleasingly plumb,”overweight,” and “chunky.” Even children’s clothes were labeled as “hefty.” I remember when I first identified myself as being “fat” it was liberating. People around me were shocked to hear that word, though, and it took awhile before society was ready to “tell it like it is.”
  7. News reels at the movie theater. Before the cartoon and main feature was shown, many cinemas showed MovieTone newsreels. https://youtu.be/FsPKD4tNe-Y  I remember seeing the films of the released Nazi films showing the concentration camps. As a little kid seeing (on the big screen, larger than life) the emaciated people with sunken faces, ribs sticking out, skin and bones. And the stacks of dead bodies piled high like so many haystacks, it had a profound effect on me. I never wanted to be that thin and emaciated. So, I ate more, thinking it was like a “reserve” I could store in my body in case something horrible like that happened to me.

Once I became fat, it was my identity, my defense mechanism. If someone didn’t like me because of my appearance, that was their problem, not mine. I had lots of friends and had lots of fun. My fat didn’t stop me.

As an adult, I decided I needed to lose weight for my health. I had lost two siblings and my father to heart disease. I lost 90 pounds after the birth of my second child. But then people commented on how good I looked and it bothered me. I didn’t want to hear that. My appearance was not who I was. I’m sure they thought they were complimenting me, but I saw it as a devaluation of my previous life. I also started losing friends, normal-weighted friends. One was killed in an earthquake. Another had a heart attack at age 42 while deer hunting. A tiny, active college friend had a stroke just before her 50th birthday. At that point, I decided I really have no control over the length of my life and I gained my weight back.

Now, I realize it’s more about “quality” than “quantity” of life. I have no control over when I will die, but I have control over how I will live.

My short story is called “Adolph Hitler Made Me Fat.” It will be read in class in the next week. I am anxious to hear what the other students think about it.