Friday, July 26, 2013

Firefly Nights (In the Category of Mean What You Say) [#52Weeks]

I heard my first summer cicada the other day. The other-worldly whirring like a didgeridoo has always captivated me – a harbinger of even hotter days to come as summer peaks. It signals, too, the drawing to a close of firefly nights, the magical evenings when ephemeral Lampyridae, the firefly or lightning bug (depending on your geographical linguistics), recently emerged from its larval stage, flits through the night air looking for a good time. On firefly nights my husband and I sit out back on our deck; a comfortable silence fills the space between us as we watch. This rainy summer has been great for the fireflies, lovers of humidity. They sparkle across the breadth of the field behind our house, intermittently light up the large white pines, our green privacy wall, like summer’s own Christmas trees. The cats, my husband, and I watch, equally mesmerized, as they buzz over our heads, just out of reach, tantalizing blinks. I resist the urge to get a jar and punch holes in the lid.

I loved catching fireflies as a child, growing up in Virginia Beach. The night air was thick with them in my back yard then, just as now. On the first summer firefly night, as the sun set, Dad would get a hammer and nail; Mom would find him two repurposed mayonnaise jars. He would place the lid upside down on the work bench, position the nail on the metal surface and rap it smartly once or twice. The lid hopped as the nail penetrated. Each lid only needed a few holes, then my sister and I would each take a jar and add a small branch, perhaps some leaves, and sweet-smelling white flowers from the Waxleaf Ligustrum hedge that the bugs seemed to love.

We had different techniques for catching fireflies, each providing varying degrees of success. I preferred to catch them in mid air, scooping them into the jar from behind and slamming the lid before they could fly back out. My sister, older and braver, was not afraid to catch them with her bare hands, cupping them gently until she could unscrew the lid and coerce the insect to go in rather than take flight. Both methods worked well with the first bug. Subsequent bugs required that the lid be removed from the jar, which afforded the first bug a chance to escape. We were up to the challenge, and when the call of, “Bedtime, girls!” finally came, we took a moment to count our catch before we ran inside. Then, sleepy after a warm bath, tucked in, and back tickled, I would fall asleep watching the flicker of my stars in a jar.

Mornings transformed my celestial beings back into bugs. If they still lived, I usually returned them outside to the Waxleaf Ligustrum so they could enjoy the flower nectar. Often, the short-lived beetles would be curled up on the bottom of the jar, dead. Then clueless about the life span of an adult firefly (which I now know may be as long as three months, but typically only lasts two or three days) I blamed myself for their demise. I vowed to do better, picked fresher branches, and punched more air holes. Eventually I quit keeping them in jars altogether, allowing myself to be satisfied merely to catch them bare-handed (finally brave enough), cup them between my hands, and peer through my fingers at the light show. It tickled when they crawled across my palms, causing me to release them so I could scratch.

The fireflies started slowly this year, in June, as usual, but at first, the flickers were few and far between. They have gained momentum in the passing weeks. I have no way to count the now numerous flashes per minute. It’s spectacular, and made all the more so by the knowledge that it won’t last much longer. I’ve been listening for the sound of crickets to join the usual night noises, and they did a few evenings ago, so the summer’s getting on. The blinking seems more frantic lately, perhaps the result of insect mid-life crises.

As adults, fireflies focus on one thing and one thing only: procreation. They don’t waste time and energy on housing. Unlike other insects, they don’t build a nest or spin a web. Many of them don’t bother to eat, so no need to hunt or gather food. Their luminescence sends two messages, one for fellow fireflies and the other for would-be predators. To the fireflies, the message is: I’m here, baby. Let’s get it on. But the same light signals to predators: I taste like crap and I might poison you if you eat me. Neither message is subtle; nuance escapes the firefly entirely. Given only an average of 48 to 72 hours to enjoy adulthood, fireflies have sorted out what really matters to them, and I envy their surety. Heaven knows the adulthood of Homo sapiens is vastly more complex.

But then we humans spend far more time in our adult stage (assuming we caved in to societal pressures and grew up at all). With the realities of our fragility kept firmly at bay by one delusion or another, we convince ourselves we have time to make choices about housing and hunting and gathering, those necessities of life, and how we attain them. Time to contemplate the wisdom or folly of procreation and choose according to a sensibility not driven by instinct and impulse. Time even to move beyond the crass requirements of survival and create something, follow a flash of inspiration which takes flight, allowing us to generate more than copies of ourselves: poetry, music, art, even blogs.

Under a waning Thunder Moon, on a firefly night, a memory from many moons ago of stars in a jar and the sweetness of summer wakens a muse, and a promise is made, later. Conversation gives way to a chorus of crickets and contemplation. Glimmers punctuate each moment, each humid breath.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Peering Through Three Windows: Suburb Stories (In the category of Want What You Have.) #52Weeks

Peering Through Three Windows: Suburb Stories
(This is fiction for grownups by Kim Norris.)

*************  (1) *************

Jerry couldn’t concentrate. The yap-yap-yapping from two doors down drilled into his eardrums in sharp jabs. One day he would figure out how to kill those damn dogs, the noisy little dust mops.  He ought to call the humane society on the lady who owned them. She left them out day and night, in all weather. They barked at everything – the wind, joggers, mail carriers, other barking dogs. They barked until they should be hoarse, until he was mad with the sound of it.

The stupid fucking dogs hadn’t lived on the block when he moved in…was it really seven years ago? He could concentrate in those days, sitting at the desk in the corner beside the open windows. On one side, his desk looked out into the back yard, and the field beyond, a respite of green in the asphalt of Suburbia. He liked to write there, watching the busy bird feeder and the butterflies that amassed along the border of Echinacea.

The view was private in this corner of his house. If he turned his head to the right, he could see out the side window into the bedroom window of his next door neighbor, but mostly he stared straight ahead out at the flowers and the field. It relaxed him; outlines for his novels would practically write themselves; romantic heroines leapt out of his imagination and onto the computer monitor. Moody, handsome heroes brooded in the background, awaiting their moment of seduction. Barking dogs now thwarted his creative muse.

He earned a good living as Belinda Lovewright, writing the pulp love stories that filled the shelves of airport bookstores worldwide. In the peace of Suburbia, he cranked out eleven novels a year, easily meeting his greedy publisher’s deadlines. He had his own formula – he called it his recipe – for writing romance novels. The core ingredients never varied: two beautiful people, one rich, one poor; love at first sight, unexpected, unlooked for; at least one jealous ex; at least one dangerous rival. But like the choice between chocolate chips or M & M’s in the cookie dough, the flavor came in mixing up new ways to be rich, poor, beautiful, and moody. Inventing his character’s names gave him the most satisfaction. He challenged himself to devise porn-star names without eliciting an objection from his publisher. His personal best to date was Felch Fritzling, a passionate Bavarian prince who falls for a beautiful but sassy barista while visiting Seattle, Washington.

Jerry had never been to Seattle, but nonetheless, Latte of Love, and all its hyperbole had been a big seller for Belinda Lovewright. He bought a BMW for his mother with the first royalty check, paying cash on the barrelhead. Lately, though, since the beasts moved in two doors down, his muse had gone silent, driven away by the barking dogs, like a cat who hides behind the couch, safe but inaccessible. He needed the first ten chapters of the new novel by the end of the week. Thank God insomnia had returned earlier in the week – he had gotten a good start in the dead of night, staring out into the velvet black, the night noises unsullied by the damn dogs. Janet Justice, newly barred attorney, and Dirk Dreadson, recently arrested son of a mob boss have fallen in love, she’s even in chains in his basement, in the good way, but his jealous ex-girlfriend is at the door, she still has her own key to his place, and her gun is loaded…

Jerry went to bed at that point, finally tired enough, figuring the chapter would write itself in the morning. But now, the shrill piercing staccato yips of Floppy and Fluffy left him impotent to finish it.

A sudden waft of coffee from the nearly empty carafe distracted him. He poured the last of it into his mug and turned off the hot plate. Maybe the caffeine was affecting his concentration as well, but for a moment, all was quiet. He sipped as he re-read the last few sentences, and contemplated how to describe the look on everyone’s face when Magdalena bursts in on the lovers. A sharp peal of thunder startled him, and he just managed to avoid the splash of hot coffee. Two doors down, the dogs began to bark.

*************  (2) *************

He was writing again. He was always writing, at all hours of the day or night. Gloria longed to go next door, ring the bell, and ask to read the words. She knew it had to be dirty sex novels; he always masturbated at least once before turning off the monitor and lumbering out of the room. Lately, it had been more frequent. She’d watched him for hours last night, and she was surprised he was up this early, considering…

She started at the thunder, banging the binoculars against her bifocals, then cursed as the dogs next door started barking again. “Fuckers,” she muttered as she adjusted her view. She knew it was wrong to watch him, that it was weird. She knew that acting like this didn’t jibe with what everyone believed about her , but something always drew her back to the bedroom window that looked into his study. When he first moved in seven years ago, she couldn’t read the monitor at all; the old rounded screen deflected her view. He had upgraded to a flat monitor recently, and while her retiree eyes still couldn’t make out any words, she could clearly see paragraphs forming along the white column.

Widowhood had made her a peeping tom. It started accidentally; she was putting sweaters in the cedar chest and pulling the tee-shirts out, a wardrobe season change as sure as spring following winter. Married Gloria would never have noticed how clearly she could see into the window of his study, especially at night. But as her sense of isolation took over, she spent more and more time in the dark, watching through the binoculars that she had given her husband for his last birthday. It closed the distance between her and the man next door. She liked to pretend they were in the same room, she sitting next to him as he wrote, maybe helping him with his need…she was so damn lonely since Bud died. And a woman could only read so many Belinda Lovewright novels…there was only one real way to console a widow.

A second peal of thunder made her yelp. She dropped the binoculars hastily as her neighbor whipped his head around at the sound. She smiled with what she hoped was a modicum of dignity and walked away from the window, out of the bedroom and through the glass door in the living room. Gray cumulus clouds towered over the field behind her house. The wind gusted, bending the white pines that separated her fence line from the writer’s. She kept her shape for her age – she couldn’t be that much older, but she’d never have the courage to ask him. The wind picked up as the first rain drops fell. The barking next door became more frantic. Tears started down her cheeks, the rain already wiping them away.

 *************  (3) *************

Gail sat on the floor, knees under her chin, arms around her legs, and stared through the dirty window panes of the sunroom. A second peal of thunder rolled across the sky and rain began to fall, streaking the dusty glass. If it rained hard enough, she could avoid having to clean them. She could see the dogs barking and pawing at the door, desperate to come in out of the storm. Especially Fluffy, who feared any loud noise (except her own incessant barking). Grateful for the sound proof glass, she adjusted her position to hide the dogs from her view. She couldn’t handle it right now, their neediness or their noise.

The nosey neighbor lady was standing on her deck in the rain. Gail watched as the woman looked up into the storm and shook her fist. Then she turned and went inside. Gail understood her motion completely, that defiant gesture of contempt. Maybe the neighbor believed in a heaven up there, and a god that might give a shit if she flipped him the bird. Gail wasn’t falling for that bullshit again. God was fiction, like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. She had never believed in a vengeful god. (Who the fuck would pray to that?) Lately, the concept of any god made no sense at all. The All Loving All Powerful did not let good men die, or little girls. In the past four months since they moved to this house, she had buried one of each.

If she had ever been a dog person, the animals might have been a comfort. Ray loved them, Allie even more so. But Gail fed them, let them out, let them in, groomed them, saw to their vaccinations, cleaned up the dog shit, and the piss. She had been thrilled for Ray and Allie to take Floppy and Fluffy with them to Clarks Pond that day. Ray and Allie could ride their trail bikes, the dogs could run behind. The state park was pet friendly. Gail could use the time to steam clean the carpets again. Or read a book…she had just received the latest Belinda Lovewright romance through her book club…her guilty pleasure, especially in a hot bubble bath. She had barely finished drying off when the state police rang the doorbell.

Ray had pulled out onto the highway…the truck driver’s brakes had failed. Seatbelts had done nothing to stop the roof caving in as the car rolled…only the damn dogs had survived…

The rain stopped briefly, then resumed in a torrent. Sheets of water pounded the glass on all sides, deafening her. Slowly, she crawled across the floor, pried open the door, and fell back as two wet, scared animals bolted past her and into the house. They huddled together on the tiled kitchen floor quivering with each roll of thunder. Gail pulled herself to her feet, and followed the animals into the house. They shook themselves dry as she approached with a bath towel, then jumped up on her legs, eyes shining with gratitude, eager to please.

Continue to Chapters 4-6.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Market Day (In the Category of Be Where You Are.) [#52Weeks]

I love many things about the town of Blacksburg, Virginia.  I've been around here since 1984. I live in Christiansburg these days, five miles away, but I work in Blacksburg. I play in Blacksburg. On Market Day, I shop in Blacksburg. The Blacksburg Farmers Market is one of my favorite things about the town. It hasn't been around nearly as long as I have, but they've done it right. It's a keeper. We finally made it down there today, our first visit since last fall when pumpkins and chrysanthemums and the last of the tomatoes filled the stalls. 

They've expanded into the courtyard area behind the permanent structure that they built a few years back. This has made room for tables in front of the food vendors to allow dining al fresco. We like to do that here in Blacksburg. We usually have pretty decent weather. (Been raining all the time lately, but Mountain Lake is refilling -- as the Universe intends.) It's drizzly today (downpours due later, I hear), so the market had some elbow room, some breathing space, some leeway to stop suddenly, bend over, and pet the friendly dogs whose owners bring them on Market Day to socialize.

I like the quality of light on drizzly days, so I took some pictures. Walk through the market with me. It's Market Day. 

The aroma of food cooking leads you straight down this path.
...and music while you dine...

Here's what we scored for tonight's dinner...
For an appetizer, we'll enjoy Red Pepper Hummus with fresh Mountain Brown Bread
The elephant garlic seller gave me tips on when to harvest the garlic that "volunteered" in my kitchen herb garden this spring. His product will be nice in my fresh pesto entree. (Regular garlic is shown for scale.)
Fresh Giles County blueberries and Patrick County peaches with a drizzle of local honey will make a fine dessert tonight.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Ordinary Mage (In the Category of Want What You Have) [#52Weeks]

Burn me if you must, but I confess, I have always wished to be a witch.

My first day of second grade a boy named Matt called me WitchiePoo. I retaliated with, "Oh yeah? Well, you're a warlock!" The teacher pulled me aside immediately.

"Do you know what that means?"  I registered her troubled expression, but at that age, it pleased me to show what I knew, so I happily answered, "A warlock is a boy witch."

The teacher looked taken aback. (I would see that look often as my education progressed.) "Well, yes," she said. "That's correct. But it's not a nice thing to call someone."

"It isn't," I asked? The teacher looked taken aback again and chivied me to my seat.

Summer months, when I was allowed to stay up later than usual, I would collect clover under a full moon. And rose thorns, rolls of crape myrtle bark -- I kept them in repurposed baby food jars, stored in the back corner of my bedroom closet. Should I ever come across a book of spells, surely these ingredients would be key.

I read every story I could find about witches, the good, the bad and the ugly ones with warts on their nose, preparing to roast children. The active-enzyme lemon-freshened junior high school witch by Edmund Wallace Hildick became a blueprint for my own transformation into someone with magical powers, but my lack of progress frustrated me. I turned to Frazier's the Golden Bough,  referenced often as a source for magical knowledge, but as a How-To guide, it failed to deliver.

I came late to the Harry Potter party. I turned 32 the year the first book was published, and I wasn't exactly the target market. A young lady who worked for me insisted that I read Sorcerer's Stone and lent me her copy. She herself was anxiously awaiting the release of Prisoner of Azkaban. I was hooked immediately. Here at last I had found my instructional manual. I, along with Harry, Ron and Hermione, would study magic at Hogwarts. 

I still chafe at the thought that we didn't get to attend our seventh year. I wanted to sit the N.E.W.T.s. I did well on my O.W.L.S., receiving nine pass grades out of the 12 exams. (I got a dreadful on the Care of Magical Creatures exam, which really irked me as I am staff for two kneazles pretending to be house cats.) But even without the seven full years of magical education, Ms. Rowling's books have succeeded where all others failed. I am finally the witch I always wanted to be.

Before you start stoking the bonfire, allow me to explain. I'm not a wand waver (well I am, and people duck when I do it, but nothing EVER happens). I'm an ordinary mage, a practicer of every day magic. I finally own a book of spells -- you'd call it a recipe file -- they're love potions, all. As in: You will love me if I cook this for you. The potions are transformative in other ways as well. My cookies, for example, have changed the shape of more than one waistline.

I'm best in Herbology. The inherent magic of a seed has always enthralled me. The importance of flora, of growing things, cannot be underestimated. With a seed, I can bring forth food, shelter, beauty, medicine, poison. With a few whispered words, a brew to enhance growth, and the right attention to wind and water, sunlight and moonlight, I can command a plant to emerge and flourish.  Fifty days ago I shared my thoughts on the potential that I see in a seedling. Since then, I have muttered my spells of growth and encouragement, I've applied the brew as prescribed. Wind, water and sunlight complete the spell, and like magic...
Bare dirt has become a garden.

A few shoots of lemongrass (inset) have become a stand.

The Thai pepper seedling will soon be large enough to flower.
The little tomato that began at the top of the plant is now nearly ripe at the bottom.
Even more magical though, are the seeds I didn't plant that "volunteered" to join the fun.

Not one but two garlic plants volunteered. Their long flower stalks have twisted into all sorts of shapes in their reach for the sun. They are nearly straight now, preparing to open. I planted garlic here two seasons ago, and it has magically reappeared. 
Not one but two tomato seedlings sprouted along side the serrano pepper plants I bought from the local greenhouse. I don't know what variety they are, but I look forward to finding out.
Magic, like beauty or truth, is in the eye of the beholder. I see it in my cat as he weaves a spell to blend in with the dapple of shadow and sunlight until all but invisible. Magic, as I carefully apply select potion ingredients, and the cauldron bubbles, the sauce thickens. With every seed I plant, I speak my incantation, "grow." Every seedling affirms the mastery of my craft.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Sacrifice of Edward Snowden (In the Category of Be Where You Are.) [#52Weeks]

I think it’s safe to say that things are not going exactly as Edward Snowden had hoped when he revealed that America’s top spy agency spies ... on everyone ... everywhere ... around the world. I don't understand what he hoped to accomplish when he broke the terms of his employment contract, a job he apparently accepted for the sole purpose of stealing classified information. He clearly didn’t anticipate having his passport revoked. I guess he assumed our government would be okay with him traipsing off to wherever he pleased with stolen laptops full of top secret information in his backpack. Perhaps he envisioned a multi-continent chase worthy of a Brad Thor novel where he cleverly eludes top government agents again and again, cackling gleefully at the thought of making fools out of his former employers. Perhaps he believed that public outrage over the revelation that our spies actually spy would protect him from prosecution. Maybe he believed the American people would stand up as one, carrying him on their shoulders, holding him up as a new icon of freedom – a brave voice in the fight for privacy.

I’d wager good money he did NOT expect to be stuck at the Moscow Airport. It’s a limbo worse than hell, like the punishment of Tantalus. Imagine the frustration he must feel to be in a place where so many people come and go day and night, and he has no recourse to do the same. The roar of the departures and arrivals lulls him to sleep in a chair designed to prohibit one from lying down. Daily he must face the reality of nothing but airport food to eat, airport facilities to freshen up in, rows of televisions with no remotes – endless CNN and TWC, or their Russian equivalents, and no ability to change the channel. How often is it his face on the screen?

When he makes it back to the USA to stand trial for espionage, I think a halfway decent lawyer could possibly persuade a judge to let the time spent in the Moscow Airport be applied as time served. I’d have no qualms with this. I’ve been stuck at an airport before (because of weather), and it really sucks. I doubt it will make much of a dent in the life sentence he’s bound to receive, but it would be a friendly gesture. In the meantime, his choices for where to seek asylum fascinate me. Most of his early picks have been countries with notoriously bad track records for respecting human rights or privacy. (This Vanity Fair piece about Eddie’s global “hypocrisy tour” is a good read.)

I’m flummoxed, really. Our NSA may be spy-crazy, but surely Snowden’s heard about China’s position on privacy and free speech for its people? And Russia’s? He knows about Pussy Riot, doesn’t he? Average citizens of both of those countries would probably challenge Snowden’s assertion that they share with him, “...a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.” Venezuela’s looking like a promising refuge as I write this. That country’s human rights track record is also pretty abysmal, but the presidential jet is already at the Moscow Airport, which is handy. Snowden’s message to us all must be this then: It is better to sacrifice your way of life and live in exile in an oppressive totalitarian state than put up with the government tracking your phone call habits at home. Wait a minute. How’s that?

Either Snowden did this for the greater good and really thinks he can garner sympathy from Americans by cozying up to the countries, repressive or otherwise, that blatantly dislike us, or he had his own reasons for deliberately taking a job so he could steal classified information -- reasons that have nothing to do with protecting the civil liberties of America. We may never know. Mr. Snowden has sacrificed much for his principles, but he is now a man compromised. Eddie has nowhere to go and no way to get there. His credibility is shot; he has lost a chance at whatever life he dreamed for himself. He lambasts the Obama administration for, “using citizenship as a weapon,” but isn’t it interesting how he had already decided he could not be treated fairly here and fled the country before he fenced his stolen goods to the Guardian? He never gave his country the chance. As far as I’m concerned, his “extralegal penalty of exile” is self-imposed.

I can’t help feeling that Eddie Snowden’s sacrifices have been for naught. The outrage he counted on when he leaked the PRISM information has pretty much failed to materialize (well, except with our EU allies who have demanded an explanation). I’ve already given my opinion of the folks who actually believe they have privacy in this or any country, and apparently I am not alone in my attitude of “yeah, so what?” Even if the NSA and our government went on record to say they are never ever ever again going to spy on us or our allies inappropriately, I would assume otherwise.

Look, I’m not saying I like the idea of all this data mining. I actually hate like hell that my government feels it’s needed. I hate like hell that I feel it’s needed; the September 11 attacks changed me that way. I don’t know that this spying actually makes us any safer as a country, but I feel pretty confident that doing nothing is the wrong approach. Spying on our allies may seem unnecessary, but you can’t tell me they aren’t spying on us too; I won’t believe you. Nations have played the game of Spy vs. Spy for longer than America has existed. That isn’t going to change.
Spy vs. Spy was created by Antionio Prohías, who fled Cuba to the United States in 1961 after being threatened for lampooning Fidel Castro.
I’m sure Snowden will get out of the Moscow Airport eventually, but it’s likely a less odious place to be than a Russian Gulag or a Chinese labor camp. Without ever having been in either, I can’t say how the Moscow Airport stacks up against a US prison. But at least in a US prison, Snowden has a shot at being allowed to change the channel on the TV.