Thursday, October 30, 2014

Spider in the Elevator! Die Spinne im Aufzug!

Boo! What would you do if confronted with a monster spider in an elevator? Here's an amusing video from Germany. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Employing "Setting" in Creative Writing: Emptying the House

Fiction is often based on personal experience. The following story is purely fictional even though I've drawn on some personal recollections to create the two major characters and setting for this story. The goal of this particular creative writing assignment was to employ setting as an integral part of the story. 

Emptying the House

His parents were dead. The place that he had once called home was also dead. The worn carpets and dated 1960s decor added to the sense of decay. As Ben scanned the tidy living room with its faded floral sofa and matching love seat, he noticed the sheet-metal sunflowers that he had made in high school shop class so many years before. They adorned the mantelpiece, a place of honor, his mother had once said. That's something to keep, he thought, as he took stock of what items to discard. 

Ben wandered into the dining room where the sunlight dappled through the bay windows, illuminating the old piano where the family had once gathered. The sheet music was still out. What had his mother been playing, he wondered, as his eyes caught sight of Edelweiss and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, two of his childhood favorites and both oddly wistful. Suddenly, an image of his mother playing the piano, while he and his sister sang along, flickered across his mind adding to his melancholy. He felt sad. 

The house seemed alien. The paramedics and police had left the downstairs relatively undisturbed. Of course, the forensic people had added to the chaos in the master bedroom where the events had taken place. But once the investigation was complete, Ben and his sister removed the yellow barricade tape, stripped the bed clean, and scoured the floors, removing any traces of death's aftermath.  

“It's a beautiful old house, and it's in a nice neighborhood. It does need work, and some buyers might want to tear it down. These days, a lot of people want modern and energy-efficient,” the real agent said as he surveyed the wrap-around porch and tree-lined street.

Yes, thought Ben. Houses, like people, also outlive their usefulness. 

“Unfortunately, murder-suicide does have an impact on the price. Naturally, the facts will need to be disclosed. State law requires it,” the agent said offhandedly. “But don't worry, you'll get near the asking price.”  

Real estate had taken off, reflected Ben. And when you considered the other investments, he and his sister would get a tidy sum.  

Ben felt relieved. A burden had been lifted. No more worrying. No more heated discussions with his mother about putting dad in a nursing home.

“I promised your father that I would never put him in one of those warehouses,” Ben's mother had repeated like a mantra whenever he broached the subject. Even when his father became abusive and lost all sense of propriety, his mother stuck to her guns. 

His mother's health wasn't good either. She had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's.

At first, his father's care had been minimal, but gradually, the burden increased as the disease progressed. His mother stopped going to her bridge club meetings, no longer met the girls for coffee, and stopped doing the shopping, a task left to Ben and his sister. 

Even when he and his sister had suggested a housekeeper, his mother steadfastly refused. “A stranger in my house. No sir, not for me,” she said. 

You could see the strain weaken her little by little. She'd lost weight and no longer took pride in her appearance. She'd had once said, half jokingly, that she'd never leave the house without her make-up. One night, 10 years ago, she'd actually applied her make-up before allowing herself to be transported to the emergency room. As dad's condition got worse, she'd hardly brushed her hair, let alone put on make-up.

It was his sister who had called it in, describing how she had found them. Both lying on the bed. Dad smothered by a pillow, and mom overdosed on sleeping pills and tranquilizers – that according to the autopsy report. There had been no letter. No indication of what had triggered the event.

The investigation had gone smoothly: statements from him and his sister, medical histories reviewed, and finally a pamphlet from the Hemlock Society found in mom's night table. A simple case of euthanasia and suicide. 

As Ben lifted a picture of his parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary from an end table, he reflected how easy it had all been. Only the causal attitude displayed by his sister had surprised him as she took the pillow and suffocated dad. Even as dad struggled, there was no hesitancy, no emotion.

When it was over, she merely said, “My part's done. Now, your turn to take care of the old lady.” 

Ben's part had been uncomplicated. A glass of wine with dinner, and then a cocktail of sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and Dramamine (to prevent vomiting) mixed into mom's hot chocolate. She drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Ben was shaking after he had placed the bodies into position. It had been his sister's idea. He had merely acquiesced. He felt remorse, even regret, and his sister saw it in his eyes.   

“It's over,” she said, gently, but perhaps coldly. “You know as well as I do that they could have gone on like this for years, making our lives miserable and spending all the money. Too late for worries.”

As Ben returned the photo to the end table, his reverie was broken. His sister, who had been upstairs, returned to the living room.

“Nothing worth taking upstairs. It's now up to the realtors,” she said brusquely, then adding, “All this work has made me hungry. I wonder if there's any pie in the fridge.” 

A chill ran down Ben's spine as he remembered his sister saying the exact same thing after removing the pillow from dad's lifeless face. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What Cats Think About People

Cats are interesting creatures, and recent research suggests they view their caregivers more like other cats than as parental figures. It also turns out that cats may be motivated by selfish desire instead of love when they snuggle next to you.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Little Things

This week's creative writing assignment was to use dialogue as a way to create characterization about a person who had an impact on your life, preferably not a family member.

The Little Things
I hesitated before handing Mr. Gatley my transfer slip. But I had to tell him. I was transferring from his Advanced Science class to Beginning Typing. 

“Typing and Advanced Science meet at the same time,” I said apologetically. “I wish I could take your class too.”

“I'll be sorry to see you go. You have a real talent for science,” he replied as he signed the transfer slip.

I had debated what to do. I really liked Mr. Gatley, and I had learned a lot in his 8th grade science class, but typing was a skill that seemed useful and so grown-up, especially to a kid of 14 getting ready for High School.

I would have liked some advice on the subject, but Mr. Gatley was obviously biased and my parents merely said, “It's your decision. You'll do the right thing.” I had even gone to my guidance counselor for help. After a moment's thought, he suggested, “Why don't you take Metal Shop? It only has 7 students.” So I went with my own theory. 

The typing teacher, Mrs. Walberg, radiated order and precision from her tasteful earth-toned business suits to her cutting-edge 1973 Shag hairdo. The classroom had 25 silver manual typewriters, and there was a big scroll-down poster of a keyboard perched at the front of the class for the students to see as they practiced their exercises.

Each day we focused on a particular keyboard key, and by the end of the first week, I had learned the rudiments of typing, though I could only type five letters. But in Mrs. Walberg's class learning the physical skill of typing was only the first step toward becoming a good typist. We also learned how to structure letters whether personal or business and how to correctly address correspondence. 

Each week we had a test to measure our typing speed and error rate. I sat next to Diana Leeper, a girl whose fingers just flew over the keys. By mid-term, she was typing 100 words a minute with only one or two errors. The best I could manage was 40 words a minute, not the best in the class, but certainly not the worst. That distinction went to Danny Mahood, a boy who gave new meaning the term all thumbs.

As the term progressed, I looked with awe at the students in Mr. Gatley's Advanced Science class. They were working on their science fair projects, taking field trips, and studying the ecology of the city's water shed preserve. I felt jealous as I struggled with my typical typing assignments, such as how to book a hotel reservation and how to make an inquiry to a tourist office. The typing class was certainly practical, but it definitely lacked the intellectual pizazz of Advanced Science. 

One day, as I contemplated the usefulness of the skill of typing a letter to request a theater program listing, Mrs. Walberg told us a story about the importance of detail and the niceties of proper correspondence. She said the story had nothing to do with typing but was worth mentioning.  

“When I was at college,” she began, “I worked as typist in the secretarial pool at the Allstate Insurance Company. I often worked late just to make sure my work was free of errors and obvious typing corrections.

“I can't tell you how many times I had to re-type an entire page just to correct a single mistake. These were the days before liquid paper and I was a perfectionist,” she said, shaking her head ruefully. 

“About a year in, my manager took notice of my conscientious work, and suggested that I apply for the company scholarship. At the time, I was barely making ends meet and a scholarship could make a big difference. Unfortunately, I had also heard from reliable people that the scholarship was normally reserved for men with corporate ambitions. Whereas, I was a woman who didn't want a career at Allstate. I wanted to be a teacher.

“With a nudge from my manager, I applied. Eventually, I had an interview with the scholarship committee. I was very frank and told them that I wanted to be a teacher and not a businesswoman.

 “After the interview, I sent a perfectly typed thank you note to each of the committee members, which I always did after a job interview,” she said as she scanned across the room to drive this point home. She then drifted back to her story. 

“I didn't think I had a chance at the scholarship. But then, a few weeks later, to my amazement, I was notified that I had won it! Why me? It was a complete mystery. You know, a lot of things happen that way. We never understand why things happen the way they do. 

“Several years later, while I was attending a local Rotary Club event, I happened to run into a member of the scholarship committee. I reminded him of the scholarship and told him how much it meant to me.

“He said he remember me quite clearly. I wasn't the typical candidate they normally awarded scholarships to. In fact, there were other candidates with more experience and stronger credentials than I had had. But when the committee members received my polished thank you note, they decided to award the scholarship to me. You see, no other candidate had taken the time to say thank you. That little courtesy and small attention to detail won me the scholarship and allowed me to finish college.”

Mrs. Walberg's story impressed, if not inspired, me. I had learned a valuable lesson on how the little things in life can sometimes have an enormous impact. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creative Writing: The Traveler

This week's creative writing assignment was to write about an event that changed the way you think. The Traveler is a story based on an experience I had in the early 1980s. 

The Traveler

It was Easter week and most of my friends had already left for Spain, Greece or North Africa. I was living in London, at the time, completing my Master's degree. I wondered if I could find a cheap last minute deal to somewhere exciting. I had an urgency to see the world while I was still young, before responsibility and comfort made me home-bound or limited me to packaged tours.  

A cheap air ticket obtained from a bucket shop near Piccadilly led me to Austria. I had just left Vienna, a lifeless city full of anonymity. I was now traveling alone on a river boat drifting down the not-so-blue Danube. Walking along the deck, I watched the people sunning themselves along the river banks and swimming in the murky water. They were having fun. I felt lonely. I'd been to a disco the night before with some other young travelers, but they were strangers.

It was warm, even hot, for the middle of April. As I looked at the bow, I noticed an old woman basking in the sun, enjoying the warmth. Then I realized how pleasant the sun felt on my skin.  

I glanced again at the old lady. She was looking across the river at the fields of wild flowers. The meadows were full of yellows, reds, oranges and violets. I hadn't realized that spring was in full swing. Occasionally, a faint breeze would catch her nose and she would inhale deeply filling her lungs with the smell of the freshly mowed grass and cultivated fields. I took a deep breath too.

I ambled inside the boat to get a coffee. It was true what they said, Viennese coffee was good. And not just in the cafes and the restaurants; good coffee could be found at train stations, youth hostels, and even sidewalk vending machines. Sitting near a window, I slowly drank the coffee thinking how few places there were in the world where one could get a first-rate cup of coffee. 

The woman I had noticed earlier now sat directly across from me. She appeared to be in her late 70s or early 80s. She was tall, matronly, and tanned. Her elegantly coiffured gray hair and single strand of pearls conveyed tasteful, quiet dignity. She wore a matching tweed skirt and jacket, sensible black shoes, and carried a practical brown day pack.

As she thumbed through the pages of an old book, I tried to inconspicuously see the title. She glanced up with a sly smile that said 'gotcha.'

“This is my old Baedeker Guide. Vienna hasn't changed much since I was a girl. The streets are all the same.”  

“How long has it been since you were in Vienna?” I asked.

“Well over 50 years. I was a governess here,” she said, switching smoothly to English, now that she had heard my German.

“I took care of three children. I was visiting one of them. He's a successful businessman like his father. I've managed to kept in touch with the children all these years, even though I live in Switzerland.”

An image of Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music flickered through my mind. 

“Are you going to Melk?” I asked.

“Yes, I want to see the Abbey again.”

“I want to see it too. I've heard it's something.” 

 “It is! This is just a day trip to Melk for me, and then I walk back to Krems and take a train to Vienna. It should take me 3-4 days.” 

“Wow, that's quite a walk,” I said, wondering if she could really walk all that way. It was nearly 40 miles. 

“Oh, it's not so bad this time of year. There are plenty of guest houses along the way, and I have plenty of water. I live on a farm, and I'm used to walking a lot.”

“How's the trip been so far?” I inquired.

“Wonderful, it brings back a lot of memories.”

She told me of her life in Vienna before the war, and how she'd returned to Switzerland to marry and raise a family. During her married life she rarely traveled. There was simply too much to do the farm. Yet, she never forgot Vienna and the joy of traveling. And now that her children were grown and her husband was gone, she had no responsibilities. She was free again.

“Last year, my children paid for a trip to Brazil. I saw the Amazon and the rainforest. That was exciting. And a few years before that, I went to the Grand Canyon and took a helicopter ride through it. Have you been there?”

“No, I haven't. I hope to go one day.”

“I can tell that will, and you'll see the world too. You have the wanderlust, just like me,” she asserted. 

We chatted for the next half hour or so. She told me stories of navigating the markets of Istanbul, getting lost in Cairo, and watching the sunsets over the Mediterranean. 

The lines on her face betrayed her age. Yet, she radiated an enthusiastic youthful spirit. A spirit, I was beginning to lose. 

“Do you travel alone?” I asked.

“Yes, but you know, I always meet interesting people like you. I'm never lonely.”

“I don't like traveling alone,” I said. “I miss the company of another person. Someone to share the experience.”

“Yes, sharing the experience adds a dimension. But whether you watch a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean by yourself or with another person, it's still the same sunset. It's not any different. It's still beautiful. In fact, you sometimes appreciate a thing more when you're alone. It involves all your senses.”

As we approached Melk, the famous yellow Abbey stood majestically on a hill, its reflection glistening atop the rippling Danube. I noticed the puffy white clouds set against the light blue sky and a flock of swans nestled in the tall reeds near the shore. The Danube really did look blue like in the song. We disembarked, and I said goodbye to the woman. She wished me luck and started on her long walk. I looked around and no longer felt alone. I realized that beauty could be appreciated on its own terms. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"The Pulps" A Look at Pulp Fiction Covers

The Portland Public Library is currently exhibiting a fascinating collection of original pulp art paintings and the magazine covers they became. "The Pulps" features paintings of Tarzan, the Shadow, Doc Savage, and many other famous pulp magazines characters.

During the 1920-30s, pulp fiction was at its peak, eventually expressing itself as film noir in the 1940s. It dealt with themes of adventure, crime, mystery, science fiction, and horror. It was often printed on rough, low quality paper made from cheap wood pulp. For a Depression-era public, this 'lowbrow' fiction was affordable, easy to read, and disposable. It was aimed at a white male audience who could dream of being just like the hunky heroes in the stories, men with bulging muscles and matinee idol looks. These daredevils saved the world from evil and were often rewarded with the love of a sensual woman. And because these covers often titillated with sexual innuendo, they were sometimes even banned.

Today, these 'racy' images are mild compared to the imagery on prime-time TV. What remains is the art, and the art is mesmerizing. In fact, these vivid paintings make me want to read the stories contained in the magazines, even though I know it's only pulp.   

"The Pulps" is free and runs through December 26, 2014. It's worth a visit if you are in downtown Portland. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Parking Lot

This fall, I'm taking a creative writing course at my local University. This week's assignment was to describe an event where stress is the central theme. Here's my story. I'm quite happy with the result.

The Parking Lot

Stepping out of the mall, the glare of the sun momentarily blinded her. She fumbled in her purse looking for the pair of old Ray-Ban's she habitually carried with her. “Damn,” she thought. They weren't in the purse. “I'll have to hunt those down again.”

As she squinted and surveyed the sea of glistening cars in the parking lot, she suddenly couldn't remember where she'd parked the car. Her mind was blank. Everything looked unfamiliar. 

It was only yesterday that she had talked with her son about her forgetfulness.” He'd reassured her that such things happened to everyone.  It's not unusual to forget to pay a utility bill or miss a doctor's appointment. She was worrying needlessly. Perhaps, he was right. She was a worrier—always had been. 

“Well, I guess I'll start looking down this aisle.” As she continued on the hot asphalt between the rows of cars, nothing sparked in her mind. No sign of her red Toyota. Turing the aisle, a hot gust of wind blew across her face, and the contrast with the cool of the air-conditioned mall sent a shiver down her spine. She paced down the row, scanning both sides. Nothing here. All the rows looked the same.

She began to wonder. Had she parked the car on this side of the mall or was it at the north end? 

She was getting nervous. She had a meeting at the Senior Center at 1:30, and it was already half past 12. She needed to be there. This was a special meeting set for Friday, not the usual Monday. Was today Friday? 

“Calm down. Be logical.” The car had to be near the Macy's entrance. Wasn't that where she always parked it. As she retraced her steps to the entrance, she glanced at her shopping bag. The label read Kohl's. “Kohl's!” She never shopped there. The quality wasn't good. She opened the bag and eyed a black pair of slacks. Had she really bought these?

Then she remembered the remote control. Her car keys had a fob with a red security button. All she had to do was press the button and the car horn would start to honk. She would walk up and down the aisles pressing the button until she heard her car. 

She glanced at her watch. 1:15. She felt thirsty, hot, and her feet started to hurt. Where was that damn car? Anxiety gave way to fear. What would she do? She didn't have a cell phone to call her son; and anyway, he was hundreds of miles away. What could he do? She could seek out mall security; maybe they could help. They must have plenty of experience with this sort thing. She wanted to cry or scream in frustration, but what would that accomplish. She started down the next row.  

There was her car. She got in and sat. She was flooded with relief, but cried a little too.

Her mind drifted to her friend Hazel. She'd visited Hazel in the nursing home, tied to her wheelchair, eyes fixed in a perpetual blank stare. Hazel was gone, only her body remained. She wanted the image to disappear. 

She drove to the Senior Center, only 20 minutes late.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Adventures in Growing Pears

 “There Are Only Ten Minutes in the Life of a Pear When it is Perfect to Eat.”                                                                                                                                                 Ralph Waldo Emerson

Growing and harvesting pears is trickier than I ever imagined. Last year, thanks to our neighborhood squirrels, who stripped our tree bare, we had a grand total of three (delicious!) pears. Learning from last year's disaster, we installed a dollar's worth of air duct pipe around the trunk of the tree, keeping our furry friends from climbing up and absconding with this year's bounty. This little device made all the difference in the world. Today, we harvested 36 pears! Our gain; the squirrels loss. 

But when to harvest? According to pear experts on the web, pears should be picked when slightly immature and still hard. To tell when a pear is ready for plucking, you should 'tilt' the pear to a horizontal position from their usual vertical hanging position. If the pear is ready to be picked, it will easily detach.

Following these directions, I climbed the ladder, gently took hold of a pear and rotated it as described. To my utter surprise and delight, the pear just snapped off! I did this with each pear. The three pears that did not detach, I left for another day. 

Now, that's not the end of the story. Unlike apples, which are ready to eat from the day they are picked, pears need to go through a series of changes before they are edible. According to my reading, once pears are picked, they need to be cooled to about 30 degrees F for about one to two weeks. (I'm hoping our refrigerator will work for this process.) Without a chilling process, a mature picked pear may never ripen. After chilling, pears will then ripen at room temperature in about 5 to 7 days.

You can also 'kick start' the ripening process by putting freshly harvested pears in a paper bag with an apple or ripe banana. The apple or banana will give off ethylene gas, which acts as a catalyst and speeds up the ripening process.

Well, that's a lot to take in!

We've divided our pears into several groups. We've put a few into a paper bag with an apple, a few others into a paper bag without an apple, some into the refrigerator, and a few others left to sit on the kitchen shelf. Now we wait! I promise to report back as we taste the results of our experiments over the next few weeks.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Fitbit, Part 2

Last week's creative writing assignment was 'lessons learned.' For this assignment, I've adapted one of my blog posting's. Here's my account of how I'm dealing with my competitive nature.  

The Fitbit

I've walked about 1800 steps today.

Sometimes new technology and an addictive personality don't mix. A couple of weeks ago, my Fitbit arrived. The Fitbit is a digital trainer that measures how many steps walked throughout the day in real-time. It can be worn on your wrist or attached to an article of clothing. It's a sort of modern day pedometer with extras. It provides instant feedback by awarding you step "badges" for each successive five thousand steps walked during the day. It's about the size of a quarter, and it gently nudges you to walk more and more. 

I had read an article in the New Yorker by David Sedaris about his Fitbit. He said that it had revolutionized his life. He got fitter, lost weight, and it had changed his whole outlook on physical fitness. On the down side, he did mention that it tended to be addictive. That gave me a moment's pause, but not to worry, I could handle it. It was just a pedometer, after all.   

The day it arrived, I immediately set it up and synced it to my computer creating my own Fitbit homepage, which would monitor my daily activities, the calories burned, and my exercise intensity. I had opted for the basic version, which did not include the sleep monitoring function or bar code scanner that scans food items for calories. 

I got my 5,000 step badge quickly enough, and then my 10,000 step badge by late afternoon. That was the badge that triggered my obsessiveness. I had to get that 15,000 step badge!  After dinner, I went for a walk, even though I normally read or watch TV. Sure enough, by day's end, I'd racked up 16,000 steps or 7.6 miles, and with only a half day of monitoring. What could I achieve in an entire day?

As the days followed, I discovered that I could easily cover 20,000 steps in the course of an average day without really trying. What surprised me was that the average American manages only 5,000 steps a day! It's hard to visualize how little movement that really is. Do people just wake up, get in the car, sit a work, and then return home to sit more? 

After a week with the Fitbit, I wasn't content with merely 20,000 steps a day. I had to have more. I got my 25,000 step badge without too much difficultly. I just added a little after dinner walk to Munjoy Hill from the West End. A few days later, I set my sites on the 30,000 step badge or 15 miles. That was tougher but still manageable. Was a 35,000 step badge in the near future?
Then it dawned on me. This little device was beginning to control my life. I began to worry that in a few weeks, things could really get out of hand. Would I be walking from dawn to dusk in order to obtain that elusive step badge? Either I had to re-examine my relationship with the Fitbit or reconcile myself to a life of endless walking. I opted for the former.

I still wear my Fitbit, but I only monitor my progress twice a day and have a daily goal of 20,000 steps. On the weekends, I give myself leeway to be a total couch potato or be as active as I want. I still think about getting that 35,000 step badge, and one day I might get it. But for now, I'm having fun. My new Fitbit regimen seems to work. I'm in control again, but I do have to be diligent, lest my competitive nature gets the better of me. If only there was a device that awarded badges for controlling obsessive competitive urges.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Overcoming Obstacles: Music Rapper Graf Fidi

Hans-Friedrich Baum or Graf Fidi (a pun for graffiti) is an award winning rapper who is well-known in the Berlin club scene. Fidi's reliance on a wheelchair and a right hand consisting of only one finger (remember typical rappers' fondness for the two-finger gang salute) has never stopped him from making music or performing for large audiences. Many of his songs include self-irony and a plea for handicapped accessibility.