Thursday, November 28, 2013

Reasons to Be Thankful (In the Category of Say What You Mean) #52Weeks

Tuesday, November 26: I'm sitting in a hospital waiting room right now. It seems like a strange place to begin a post about thankfulness. Or maybe not? I'm here by choice and not by mandate. I'm thankful for that. There were more of us here earlier, each of us hauling identical plastic bags filled with the belongings of the person for whom we are here. As the afternoon has gotten on, though, the ranks have thinned. Lucky bastards having outpatient surgery have wheeled by me, looks of supreme relief on their faces. I envy them, but I'm sure I've got nothing on how my husband will feel later, when he comes to with a shiny new hip that he'll need to learn how to use.

***

Thursday, November 28: It's not how we expected to spend Thanksgiving Day this year, here at home, the two of us. There's no turkey in the oven. We weren't sure we would be home, you see. Who knew that these days, they can saw out your yucky old hip and put a shiny new one in, get you walking on it within hours and then send you home the next day? I'm thankful for that fact. Otherwise, I'd be sitting in the hospital again today, not in a waiting room, but in an actual room, with a view of a roof and some vents. A "private" room where everyone knocks first, but they come in anyway.

For one month of this year, February to March, we actually expected to be in Chattanooga, Tennessee today, having a traditional turkey dinner with complete strangers and my father, who had become like family to these people. The idea that his daughters should meet his Chattanooga family (as he called them) made him very happy. Sis and I planned to bring the husbands along for this visit to Tennessee. We wanted them to see the aquarium in Chattanooga. In addition to the usual coral reef tank, the Tennessee Aquarium has one of the largest fresh water aquariums in North America (follow a drop of rain from the top of the Smokey Mountains to the Tennessee River). A second building houses a shark tank, columns of jellyfish, and penguins. There's a butterfly atrium on the roof.

And I wanted my husband to see the The Passage, a Cherokee memorial there at the river's edge. It's powerful, a tribute to Ross' Landing, the launching point for the Trail of Tears. Both of his Cherokee grandmothers managed to stay in Tennessee. His father's mother married a white man. He is not sure how his mother's mother managed to avoid the march to Oklahoma. I knew The Passage would speak to him. The Aniyunwiya, as they call themselves, believe they came from the Pleiades; they whisper to their own.

***

In March, a hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee called me. Dad had fallen and couldn't get up. That shit really happens. I don't chuckle at those commercials anymore. I got there in time, if you call five minutes "in time." Sis was still in the air. But I think she knew before she landed that Dad was gone. Just like that.

We didn't have time or the heart either in that trip or the next one a week later for Dad's memorial service. But we made it down to the banks of the Tennessee River, to Ross' landing.


***


After the shock wore off and we realized our Thanksgiving was again open, we considered several options for the holiday of food, football and family, but then Smitty kitty was diagnosed with cardio myopathy. The genetic heart defect requires him to take diuretics every 12 hours or die. We promised him in June if he survived being boarded during our trip to the Rolling Stones concert in Philly, we would never leave him again. He survived then and survives today, amazing all of us, including his cardiologists at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Vet Medicine. It's a reason to be thankful. We decided to stay home.

I planned to cook a turkey today, and green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, crescent rolls, and pumpkin whoopie pies.  By all rights, I should be on my feet right now, in the kitchen, making an enormous mess that smells delicious nonetheless. Few things make me happier. Back in September I invited friends, and the dinner party was on. I began to look forward to November. Around that same time, we learned that my husband's worsening hip and back pain would require hip replacement surgery. 

A month later, we learned the surgery date: November 26, a Tuesday.  Not just any Tuesday, though, the one before Thanksgiving. Facing the real possibility that the surgery would require two days in the hospital, I uninvited my Thanksgiving day guests. I ended up cooking a turkey the Saturday before the surgery so I would have leftovers to eat. It was nice, although not the same. But it's a reason to be thankful.

We're home today. That is a very big reason to be thankful. But we are both exhausted after two long and stressful days. Today is about learning to navigate the house with a walker and pull up socks with a reacher. Tomorrow we'll sort out bathing and shaving. Hopefully, we will get to see a friend or two before the holiday weekend ends; I'll be thankful for that.

But today, I write. Few things make me happier, and it's nice to be home and to have the time, because I have just under 10,000 words to go to finish the #NaNoWriMo challenge. I may yet pull it off. It's a reason to be thankful.

#52Weeks


Monday, November 18, 2013

Slippery Slope (In the Category of Be Where You Are.) #52Weeks

Things get away from us. We lose track of time, friends, old photos — it happens to everyone. But nothing slips away more quickly than a #NaNoWriMo word count goal. Not even brave Odysseus, when confronted with Charybdis, felt such a swift sucking sensation. It's not just a feeling of drowning, though; it's more physical than that. I have become Sisyphus; my deceitfulness is my belief that I had time to write 50,000 words in 30 days, and the slippery slope of my daily failure is no less a burden than the boulder he pushes up the mountain only to have it roll back down, only in my case, the rock gets bigger every day.

Just how bad is it, you ask? I’ve put it into pictures for you. I’m saving my words for the novel. For as insurmountable as my goal now seems, I’m still not giving up, because that is the only sure way to fail. Most days, the routine starts the same. I put at the bottom of the novel the number of words I need to achieve that day in order to stay on track. I use this as a motivator. So far, though, it’s more goading than helpful. Especially when compared to the actual word count.
The Beginning of Day 11: the Goal is 18,337 words; I have 13,910.
By the end of Day 13 I had 17,013 of the 21,671 words needed.
At the beginning of Day 15 I had 18,116 words, but I needed 25,005 to reach the halfway point.
Today, at the start of Day 18, I have 23,697 words written of the 30,006 I will need before the day ends if I have any hope for the tee shirt, but I haven't even made the halfway point, so it's probably not happening.

As of this blog post, here’s where I am in relationship to where I should be.
It's a straight slope to reach the goal. Alas, for me, the gap is widening.
I started out strong. Those first two days looked promising, but by Day 4 I was flagging. The word count doesn’t sit still, you see. It’s a moving target that leaps by 1,667 words every day. This chart shows just how far off pace I truly am.
A more accurate visualization of just how far off track I am. The green line shows the number of words I am short in relationship to where I should be.
I have not yet written the first word today, and I am more than 4,600 words away from where I need to be before bed tonight if I want the tee shirt. I want the tee shirt.

I’ll give #NaNoWriMo this: Despite the feeling I am sliding down a long steep hill with a boulder rolling after me, I’m writing every single day these days. Every. Single. Day. With the #52Weeks challenge I haven’t necessarily needed to go to that level. So if all I ever hoped to accomplish was a writer’s habit, I have already won.


#52Weeks

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Have Been Nominated! (In the Category of Want What You Have) #52Weeks

My husband very sweetly tweeted a link to my blog to one of his Tweeps who also happens to blog, and she nominated me for a Liebster Award. I had never heard of the Liebster Award before, so I Googled it. The Liebster Award is by bloggers for bloggers to recognize bloggers who have not yet crossed the threshold of readership that allows our blogs to be turned into major Hollywood motion pictures starring Meryl Streep. (Admit it, we all secretly want that to happen.) It’s a self-perpetuating award. Before this post is over, I will have nominated a few bloggers myself (I think they’ll meet the less-than-1000-readers criteria), but even if they see this as more of a chain letter than a fun game to play, at the very least, Ms. Waters handed me a perfect topic for this week’s #52Weeks blog post, which is a true gift.

There are rules to the Liebster Awards, you see. And the first rule is:

1. Write a blog post about the Liebster Award.


So that’s this week’s what-should-I-blog-about drama sorted out without much effort on my part. It morphs nicely into the second and third rules:

2. Thank the person that nominated you.


3. Post a link to their blog on your blog.


So thanks KJ Waters! I’m adding your blog, Blondie In The Water, to my list of blogs to follow. The rules continue:

4. Display the award on your blog and include it in your post and/or display it using a widget.


Okay, that’s not a problem. The Liebster Award looks like this:


At this point, were I the person writing the rules, I would move rule number 9 here, because otherwise this ongoing list of rules makes no sense. You see, rule 9 is:

9. List the rules in your post.


It makes more sense to get that rule in early. It allows one to then work on the next two rules, which give this award a chain-lettery feel. (I’m not original in this observation – other bloggers have mentioned this in their requisite Liebster Award blog posts.)

5. Answer the 11 questions about yourself provided by the person who nominated you,


and rule 6,

6. Give 11 random facts about yourself,


My nominator’s questions were pretty good ones. Truthfully, I am stumped by number 3. It’s not that I don’t regularly make a fool of myself, it’s just that some time ago I quit giving a crap what other people thought of me. Since then, I don’t get embarrassed anywhere near as easily. It’s a good head space to be in.


QUESTIONS I HAD TO ANSWER (Rule 5)


1. Give us a snapshot of your favorite beach or pool memory.
Magens Bay State Park, St. Thomas, USVI – This beach should have been jam packed with people.
We honeymooned on St. Thomas a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks. While we remained steadfast that our trip would not be cancelled due to a cowardly act of terrorism, apparently not everyone felt the same way. St. Thomas was nearly devoid of tourists. In our 600+ room resort, only 67 people were registered. The service was spectacular. So was Magens Bay StatePark, voted one of the world’s most beautiful beaches by the knowledgeable folks at National Geographic. We went on a Friday, which locals assured us was usually the busiest day. For us, the beach was empty of all but two or three families and the nice bikini-clad girl who brought us beers from the snack bar and had plenty of time to chat with us (we were her only customers). My photo album from that trip is filled with pictures of empty beaches, empty pools, an empty shopping district. It was amazing. We’re afraid to go back, because we will never have the island to ourselves quite like we did that year.

2. What is your favorite genre to read for pleasure? A quick review of my book collection confirms that I read more science fiction and fantasy than any other type of genre (unless you count cookbooks – I have a fair few of those as well). I was ever an escapist as a child. Narnia, Middle Earth, Xanth, Robert Heinlein’s recognizable parallel universe – I lived in these places. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series enthralled me as an adult. Now my biggest regret is never having gotten my Hogwarts acceptance letter. I can literally make myself sad about it every September 1.
Me, engrossed in the last few pages of the last Harry Potter novel -- an intense and emotional day.

3. I would love to know about one of your most embarrassing moments. I'll share mine if you're brave enough to share yours. I'll even give you two …Oh gosh, there have been so many.

4. Who is your favorite celebrity and why? Here’s another question with too many answers. I respect a number of celebrities for a wide variety of reasons. If I had to pick a single favorite right now, it would be Tom Hanks, because I think he is gifted and he is known for his kindness.

5. What is your favorite place on the planet? Why? My favorite place on the planet, to date, is the New River Valley here in Virginia. I live in Christiansburg, work in Blacksburg, and as I commute my whopping seven miles to work each day, views of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains surround me. I live in one of the prettiest places on earth; you cannot tell me otherwise.
Home.
6. Tell us about your next book idea. If you don't have one or aren't ready to share it, make something up and give us a wink so we know it’s a fake. I’ve taken the #NaNoWriMo challenge this year (and am so far losing it spectacularly). The novel is a space-fantasy-adventure-quest-spy-thriller called “Unspoken.” Santiago Fillup is on an intergalactic spy mission to track down the Words of Power before they are found by the sworn enemies of his home planet. Will the emerald Jewell help or hinder him? Only time will tell...

7. What is your favorite social media site and why? (twitter, facebook, pinterest, instagram ...) I could answer Twitter or Facebook with equal sincerity. I started on Facebook first, honoring a New Year’s Resolution to reconnect with people I had lost touch with, and it worked in spades. I started using Twitter about a year later for work, but I’m hooked, and I have actually met a few really wonderful people...some of whom are local. We do lunch and brunch and happy hours, and it’s been great to take a virtual tool and use it to make friends in real life.


8. Name one thing on your bucket list and tell us about it. I was born at the Rota Naval Air Station in Rota, Spain, but my family only stayed there until I was about 18 months old, so I have very little memory of the place of my birth. I want to go back to Rota one day, hopefully with my mom and my sister (my father has passed away) and see the town with adult eyes, and make memories I can keep this time.
I was born in this hospital.

9. In your opinion, what is your most redeeming quality? Something that makes up for the hot mess we all hide from everyone. If it isn’t the cookies I bake and give away, then it must be the fact that you will always know where you stand with me. I am a big believer in Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say. I won’t lie to you or about you. If you are mean or intolerant, I will not waste my time with you. If there is anything I can say or do to help you, I will do my best to give it to you.
Last year's gingerbread cookies.


10. What is the last book you read for pleasure. Thumbs up or down? The last book I read for pleasure that I have actually finished was Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), and I loved it. Rowling is (in my opinion) a master of characterization...even wizards are really believable coming from her imagination. Her first foray into murder mysteries is just as wonderful. In case you are curious, I am currently reading both Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris and The Mistress of Art and Death by Ariana Franklin, and I am enjoying both very much.

11. What is the furthest you've been away from home. Was it for work, on vacation or other? Distance-wise, Portland, OR is the furthest place from home to which I have traveled. The happy occasion was my cousin Jay’s wedding. The entire family got together for this, including cousins from California who I had not seen for decades. Sadly, it was the last time I saw my Aunt Nancy alive (though not the last time we spoke). If I had known it was my last chance to get a Nancy hug, I would never have let go of her.
My family at Jay & Jamie's wedding. Aunt Nancy is the first woman on the left.

11 RANDOM FACTS ABOUT ME (Rule 6)

1. My favorite color is teal.

2. I have never read the novel, Moby Dick, and I intend to die being able to say that. (Don’t hate on me. I may have been Melville in a past life.)

3. I do Tarot Card readings for my friends. Some friends no longer let me read for them (but damn it, it is NOT my fault that her mom was diagnosed after she pulled the Lightning Struck Tower). But I don’t identify as a witch or a psychic, and I would never take money for it.

4. I love baking cookies just about more than anything.

5. My cats get away with ANYTHING at my house. One is old, one is young, both are dying, and if they want to “take tea” on the kitchen counter, so be it. I promise I always clean thoroughly before I bake cookies (or cook anything, for that matter).
You tell Smitty he can't sit there. I don't want to bother him.

6. I believe in love at first sight. My husband taught me that it is real.

7. I think ALL fast food should be taxed as heavily as cigarettes or alcohol. The stuff is just as deadly. I die a little inside whenever I hear of parents rewarding their kids with a trip to McDonald’s. It’s punishment, that “food.”

8. I used to know how to knit, crochet, and tat lace. I can no longer do any of these things. I’d love to meet someone who can re-teach me how to use my grandmother’s tatting shuttles.

9. I have a collection of magic wands, none of which actually function.

10. I talk to the moon whenever I see her. Of all the bodies in the heavens, she enthralls me the most.

11. I regularly cook with hot sauce made from ghost chilies. Be careful if I tell you something “might be a little spicy.”


This brings us to rule 7,

7. Nominate 5-11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have less than 1000 followers.

This rule is not as straight forward as it seems. I had trouble finding out the number of followers on the blogs I read most often, so I am not completely sure they all meet the 1,000-followers-or-less requirement. Hopefully they do, but in any case, here’s who I nominate for a Liebster Award:

  1. Phil S. Phorward: http://philthepill.wordpress.com/. This person motivated me to start blogging regularly. I will always appreciate him for that. Phil is a fellow #52Weeks challenge taker and a very talented writer.
  2. Dan Wiedlich: http://danwaidelich.wordpress.com/. Dan is also a fellow #52Weeks challenge taker. Dan has the soul of a poet. I wish he posted more; I love his writing, but he works full time, he’s in graduate school, and he probably insists on things like eating and sleeping.
  3. Andrea Badgley: http://andreabadgley.com/ I love this blog. Andrea is an amazing writer, and her feedback on my writings has been really helpful.
  4. Kristian Yelverton: https://kayteawhy.wordpress.com/. Here’s another blogger who I wish had time to post more frequently. Funny stuff. She, too, is a fellow #52Weeks challenge taker.
  5. Jessy Irwin: http://jessysaurusrex.com/ Yet another fellow #52Weeks challenge taker, Jessy is a technical genius, best I can tell. She gets to check out cool things like Google Glass and hacking classes at DefCon, which she then blogs about.

I’m not sure any of them will have the time to play along with the Liebster Awards, and I will respect that, but just in case they want to play along, I must now follow rule 8, which is:

8. Create a new list of questions for the nominated bloggers to answer.


11 QUESTIONS FROM ME TO YOU

  1. What is your favorite food/beverage pairing?
  2. Tell me about the first story/blog/poem etc. that you ever wrote.
  3. Do you think your birth order has impacted your personality? If so, in what ways?
  4. Do you believe in astrology? Why or why not?
  5. Star Trek or Star Trek Next Generation? Discuss. (If your answer is Voyager or Deep Snooze Nine, skip this question.)
  6. Who is funnier in your opinion, Bill Murray or Tom Hanks? Why?
  7. If you could change one thing about your physical appearance, what would it be and why?
  8. Name a work of literature or art that inspired you.
  9. Finish this sentence: My favorite thing about Halloween is...
  10. What do you think we can do better to end hunger around the world?
  11. Name the celebrity that you dislike the most. Why?

Now I only need to take care of rule 10:

10. Inform the bloggers you’ve nominated them for the Liebster Award. Remember to give them a link to your post so that they can learn about it,


and I can get back to the #NaNoWriMo novel writing challenge. By the end of today I will need to have written 18,337 words to stay on pace to win the tee-shirt. At last count, I only had 13,427 written; as I said earlier – I’m losing spectacularly. But hey! At least I won the Liebster Award!


#52Weeks

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

An Expectation of Failure (In the category of Mean What You Say.) #52Weeks


What was I thinking? As loyal readers of this blog, you know the weekly struggle I experience to meet my #52Weeks commitment. You’ve heard whispers of how all the time I now spend writing might be annoying my patient and loving spouse just a teensy bit. (The #Hokies have helped recently – I can spend my Saturdays writing while ignoring whatever football game we happen to be losing – and I find it a better, saner use of my time.) You’d think it would be enough for me to just try to meet this goal, this #52Weeks.

You would, apparently, be wrong.

#NaNoWriMo: it’s a fun hashtag. It’s fun to say, I like how it looks when it’s written out. I’ve signed up for it, and now I have every expectation of failure, a position I don’t normally tolerate, but what the hell? You only live once. National Novel Writing Month or #NaNoWriMo challenges writers (276,921 of us signed up this year) to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Not just any words -- 50,000 iterations of “All work and no play make Kim a dull girl,” won’t cut it. The words have to form a novel. Not a good novel, mind you. I will not be editing for conciseness this time around. No siree. I’m still proofing for spelling and grammar errors. I’m hardwired for that sort of thing. But brevity? The search for the perfect word to replace six? The subtle nuances that can be contrived with a simple phrase here, a character’s shrug there? Nope. Not this time. This time it's all about word count -- 1,667 words per day to be exact.

I asked my friend, @PhilthePill, if I could skip my #52Weeks posts for November to do #NaNoWriMo. He got me into this weekly blogging business, and he knows the rules better than I (primarily, I believe, because he is making them up as he goes). I know I didn’t have to ask him, and certainly, I am under no obligation to do what Phil says – I was merely testing his instincts for generosity.

Phil said no.

He suggested, instead, that I blog about the #NaNoWriMo experience. He also recommended I quit my day job, and he may have a point (although I really do not have that option). My first lesson this November is that employed people don’t actually have enough time in each day to write 1,667 words plus another 1,000 or so words for a weekly blog post. Not if they also want to eat, sleep, and bathe with any regularity. I’d need a time turner to get all this done, and Harry and Hermione smashed the lot of them when they broke into the Department of Mysteries.

On October 30, two days before #NaNoWriMo began, I made an outline of my new novel. I pinned down the finer details by asking various Tweeps questions: what’s your favorite genre, your favorite flavor, your favorite place to vacation, something you find disgusting, your preferred jewelry, your preferred weapon, the name you wish your parents had given you, your favorite color? I used their answers to develop my characters, my setting, and my plot line. In a satisfyingly short period of time, I had an outline and an opening paragraph. The words came easily, bolstering me with false confidence. I can do this, I thought. I can write a novel in a month.

Today is Day Five and I’m already more than 2,000 words behind pace. I’m not giving up – not this easily – but it’s getting away from me much more quickly than I expected.

Beyond accepting that I will most likely fail the #NaNoWriMo challenge, I have already learned other things about myself. For starters, fiction, novel writing – that’s my thing. I love it, every bit of it. I get a heady sense of control when I’m creating a new universe. Everything obeys Kim’s Laws of Nature. Screw Newton. I knew this about me, but #NaNoWriMo has reinforced that truth. I like all types of writing, but I love writing fiction, even wordy, verbose, anything-but-concise fiction.

I’ve also discovered I don’t like to write sex scenes, which I think is weird because I really like sex. But writing about it makes me uncomfortable. I’m attempting to work through that quickly as the very next scene I need to write is, in fact, a sex scene. The sex scene must happen. It’s imperative to the plotline that our hero (Santiago Fillup) has sex with the green alien very early on in the story. He’s going to end up regretting it, but it has to happen. I probably won’t linger overlong on any details about the moment, but I will try to avoid clich├ęs. Does the reader really need to know about the nipples, the interesting crook in the...? I’ll have to answer these questions, and soon, because I will never get on with the rest of the story until this part of it comes together.

This blog post is now about 858 words, no 859, 860 words long...it will have to be enough. I need to get back to the novel. In case you are curious (and have oodles of free time to read my writing) Chapter 1 is below.

#52Weeks

UNSPOKEN: A NOVEL BY KIM NORRIS #NANOWRIMO

Chapter 1

“This court has found you guilty of murder. You shall now be sentenced.”

Santiago Fillup tried to keep his face impassive, but his heart beat violently in his chest. He scanned the rainbow of faces that stared down at him. The courtroom was more like a bowl with stadium seating from floor to ceiling. At one end, behind the tall bench, the judge scowled down, his blue lips curled in a sneer. Santiago felt momentarily mesmerized by the small strand of spittle that formed at the corners of the judge’s lips as he spoke. The green ooze contrasted brilliantly against the cobalt lips.

Obfus Catians came in every shade imaginable, but the majority was born blue, green, or purple. Red, yellow, or orange Obfus Catians, referred to as “Blushies,” were less common and had a lower social status. Santiago had only been on Obfus Cate 10 a short time, but he knew from past visits to avoid the Blushies as they all had serious chips on their shoulders which they tended to take out on “Aliens,” their name for anyone not from Obfus Cate 10. Santiago had nearly been killed by two Blushies his first night on the planet as he made his way through the seamier side of town. He’d be dead right now if it hadn’t been for Jewell.

Jewell. That green bitch had set him up, and he had never seen it coming. There was no question about it: he’d also be a free man right now, if it hadn’t been for Jewell.

“Given the heinous nature of the crime, the cowardly use of poison as the murder weapon, and the fact that you are an Alien, this court hereby sentences you to death. You shall be executed tomorrow night. Court is adjourned!” The judged banged a double ended gavel with enough enthusiasm that the drip of spittle flung itself from his lips and splattered inches away from Santiago.

Santiago stood dumbfounded as two armed guards grabbed his shackled arms and hauled him out of the courtroom. The death sentenced hadn’t shocked him – Obfus Catians were notorious for executing Aliens for even the most minor of offenses. But tomorrow night? Even by fast-track standards, that brief amount of time was unheard of. He’d never sort out an escape plan by then.

For the first time in his career as an intergalactic spy, Santiago felt worried. Very worried.

The guards unshackled Santiago and pushed him into the capsule that would take him back to his cell. The clear pod barely fit Santiago. At six feet, one inch, 185 pounds he was a head taller and several inches wider than the average Obfus Catian, and the comfort of Aliens meant little to them. He scrunched into the seat and grabbed the holdbar with both hands. One of the guards waved a hand over the control panel and the capsule door snapped shut. The pod dropped with a sickening jolt through the floor, then accelerated sideways. As he traveled down the tube, lights flickered, each one marking a stop on the line. His capsule continued to the Maximum Security section of the prison before coming to a sudden stop in bright light. Moments later, two new armed guards escorted him back to his cell.

Though he had only been in prison a few days (the trial had gone blazingly fast as well), he felt relieved to return to the tiny cell. The bed was too small, and the mesh covered window looked out only onto the wall of the next cell block, but they had at least put him in a solitary cell. It seemed the Obfus Catians preferred to execute their Alien prisoners using the proper means rather than just putting him in with the general prison population, comprised mainly of Blushies, and letting them stick him with a shiv. The bed was too short for his frame, but it was comfortable by prison standards. (Santiago had been in prison before, hell even the death sentence wasn’t completely novel, but tomorrow night?) Meals appeared in a portal situated near the door to the cell. The food tasted synthesized, though. He doubted the prison had an actual kitchen in it somewhere.

He lay down on the bed with his hands behind his head and stared up at the gray ceiling, the same strange substance that made up the rest of the cell. It gleamed like metal, but it felt more like silicone. He could push a dent into the material easily with one finger, but the dent sprang back out to smoothness as soon as he took his finger away. The first couple of days, out of sheer boredom, he tried to injure himself by throwing his body against the wall, but the surface felt soft, like a padded room in one of the nut-huts on his home planet of Sequest.

Santiago considered his situation. The window, should he breach it, lead to nowhere. The food portal made regular checks by the guards completely unnecessary, so no hope of overpowering one, and the cell afforded no possible way to injure himself, which was the only other means he could think of to get the guards to come to his cell at all. He was in a jam but good. How the hell had it gotten to this point?

***

The mission began routinely enough. NatSecChief had called him into a meeting, the usual briefing about the mission, but when members of the Supreme Council joined them, Santiago began to suspect this mission would be anything but routine. After introductions all around (the Defense Minister was so much shorter than he appeared on the holo) NatSecChief got straight to the point.

“We don’t know what you are looking for, who has it, or where it is, but we need you to find it first.”

“Find what?”

“That’s just it, we aren’t sure.”

“Then how the hell,” Santiago began, sitting up and looking around the room, “do you expect me to find it?”

The Defense Minister cleared his throat and sat up straighter himself, which did little to elevate him to Santiago’s eye level. “I assume,” he said, looking at Santiago, “that you have the highest level of security clearance?”

“I believe so,” Santiago replied jovially, “unless you’ve come up with a level higher than Super Secret.”

“We have not.” The Defense Minister’s tone made it clear he had no sense of humor regarding matters of security clearance. “I must stress to you that the information I am about to share with you is highly classified. If we did have clearance level above Super Secret, this mission would be classified as such. No one, I mean no one outside of this room can know of this mission.”

The Defense Minister's tone irked Santiago. “I’ve been handling this agency’s Super Secret missions for longer than you’ve been the Defense Minister.” (This was true in that the Defense Minister had been elected only two years ago. Santiago was in his fifth year as an agent.) “I understand protocol, Mr. Minister.”

“Very well then.” The Defense Minister turned to his right and addressed the younger man sitting beside him. “Mr. Wyzish has already been introduced. He runs our Super Secret Surveillance Operation. I’ll turn the meeting over to him for now.”

Mr. Wyzish, a portly man of medium build with startling orange hair, stood as he spoke. “As part of our ongoing national surveillance program, we monitor all communications going off-planet. Not the content per se, but the comings and goings. Meta data, nothing concrete, but it’s great for uncovering trends…”

The Defense Minister interrupted, “I don’t think we need a full brief on security protocols, Mr. Wyzish.”

The younger man flushed a bit. “Yes of course, Minister. So, using this meta data, we discovered a thread of communications that, on further review, appear to be very troubling. The messages go from Sequest all the way to the planet Obfus Cate 10, which you may or may not know is clear on the other side of the galaxy. While the recipient here on Sequest was unknown to us before this, the sender on Obfus Cate 10 is a known agent who works for GarPol. As you are all aware, GarPol has sworn to obliterate Sequest and all of its citizens if given the chance.”

Santiago tried but failed to cover the derisive snort. Everyone turned to look at him. The Defense Minister wore a particularly nasty scowl. “Well it’s GarPol, isn’t it? I mean they’ve been threatening to obliterate us since we landed on their planet.”

“It appears they may have found a means to do it. Or at the very least, they are actively seeking a means. Based on what we have intercepted, we believe the GarPolese are searching for the Words of Power.”

“The what?” Santiago had never heard of them, at least not outside of a fairy tale.

“The Words of Power,” Wyzish repeated. According to legend, at the dawn of the galaxy, Saints who formed the universe spoke the Words of Power to create all of the heavens and planets we know today. The Saints then recorded the Words by some means about which we do not know the exact nature and hid them in a temple. It is said that if the Words of Power are again spoken, the heavens and planets will be created anew. Or put another way, creation as we know it would be destroyed and something else would emerge.”

“Several moons ago, we intercepted three separate messages, all originating from the same point on Sequest and terminating at the same point on GarPol. We activated a local agent on Obfus Cate 10 to track down the recipient.  Last night we received a message confirming our suspicions that GarPol was involved. More troubling, though, is the intelligence we received about the Words of Power themselves. Our agent on Obfus Cate 10 believes they know someone who knows the actual location of the Words of Power. And they’re pretty sure this someone has already given this information to the GarPol agent. Our enemies may actually be very close to achieving their ultimate goals.”

“What a load of vacashit!” Santiago laughed out loud. “It’s a legend. It doesn’t actually exist. This is a ploy. GarPol may be up to something, but laying hands on a fairy tale isn’t it.”

Wyzish looked peeved. “We felt that way, too, at first, but then we contacted Raj Manashakan” Wyzish nodded to the man seated across from him. “He heads the archeological department at the main campus of Sequest World University.” Wyzish nodded and sat down.

Manashakan was tall, dark, and very serious looking. The room darkened as he activated the large monitor that comprised one entire wall of the meeting room. The professor had a soft voice, and Santiago had to strain to catch his words. As he spoke, images from the Book of Saints and other reference materials about the Saints flashed across the screen.

“For many years, while most people have accepted that the legend of the Saints and their Words of Power are merely that – legend, archeologists have searched throughout the galaxy for proof of their existence. What is vacashit to some,” he nodded in Santiago’s direction, “is history to others.”

Santiago snorted again, but held his tongue. He watched as a three-dimensional star chart of the known galaxy materialized in the center of the room.

“The Sequest World University’s archeology department first began searching for concrete proof of the Words of Power many many moons ago, before the parentals of any of us here were born. Ancient legends suggested several possible locations for the Temple of Words, which was the name given to the chamber that legend says the Saints built to guard their transcript.”

Three planets in the 3-D galaxy hovering in the center of the darkened room glowed brightly. Santiago recognized his home planet, Sequest as well as the distant world of Obfus Cate 10, a planet he had been to several times before. He wondered at the identity of the agent that Wyzish had mentioned. Santiago had never before heard anyone suggest that Sequest had agents on that world. He could not recall the name of the third planet. It was located at the far edge of the galaxy; Santiago felt certain he had never been there before.

As if Manashakan could read Santiago’s thoughts, the unknown planet enlarged, overtaking the entire 3-D galaxy. As if they were parachuting from the edge of the planet’s atmosphere down into the clouds and haze, the visual effect was that of a falling very fast, through cold mist and out into bright light. As the surface of the planet came into focus, Santiago noticed that most of it was covered in water. The three dimensional map continued to zoom in on details, moving them across shimmering waves to a large city built partly on the small island of dry land and partly on the water. As the map took them on a visual tour of the city, Santiago marveled at the buildings that bobbed in the waves attached to more stable edifices by swinging bridges. At “street level” (he couldn’t think of a better term…canal level maybe?) he saw strange small flat boats moving through the canals in an orderly manner, a watery highway. Citizens on Motodisks, ridiculous flying platforms that Santiago could never get the hang of, made their way between buildings and across bridges.

“They’re strange looking,” Santiago remarked. Indeed the Motodisk riders all resembled aquatic creatures that had managed to crawl out of the ooze and develop the means to walk upright without losing the gills or the webbed hands. “What planet is that?”

“Veneto.” It’s a remote planet, and as you can see, it’s quite wet. The Venetians never developed intergalactic travel capabilities, mostly due to the lack of enough dry land to construct the needed spaceport. They had no trouble accepting visitors from other worlds when their planet was explored, however. And as with every other known inhabited planet, the legend of the Words of Power, which they call the Unspokens, is known on Veneto. Fascinating place. My wife and I honeymooned there. The Sarde en Saor is delicious.”

Santiago had not expected the scholarly man to be married, believing as he did that bookish types cared more about knowledge than noodling. Ever since he was a small child, he had preferred sex over scholarship, but then education had come easy to Santiago – he never had to study as hard as his classmates, and he graduated top of his class with ease. Santiago had no trouble meeting women; he had no trouble getting their ankles in the air. Certainly, his career choice of intergalactic spy made anything like a “normal” relationship challenging. Keeping a woman who was actually worth keeping for longer than a few moons, however, had so far proven impossible.

The 3-D representation of Veneto zoomed back out rapidly until it was once again just one of three bright spots on the galactic map. With dizzying speed, the planet of Obfus Cate 10 enlarged and they once again began zooming down through clouds towards the surface of the holographic planet. Santiago recognized the capital city as it came into focus. The port city of Clarity was as beautiful and dangerous as any on which he had landed. The natives of the planet had the exact same humanoid body as Sequestrians; the two beings were compatible in every way. Obfus Catians had a smaller build than Sequestrians, and where natives of Sequest tended to have so-called “neutral” skin and hair coloring, Obfus Catians coloring ranged the complete spectrum of the rainbow. They all bled green though, a fact of which Santiago was all too aware.

Manashakan continued, “Various legends trace the origin of the galaxy and the placement of the Unspokens to each of these three planets for various reasons, all of them thinly veiled attempts to claim the status of First Planet. But the three very disparate legends all have several common themes, the most prevalent of which is the belief that the means by which the Words of Power were transcribed and secured involves submergence.”

“Submergence?” NatSecChief and Santiago spoke at the same time.

Wyzish spoke up, “that means they are submerged,” then quickly quieted under the withering looks of everyone else in the room.

The Defense Minister looked shrewdly at Santiago. “We believe it may be necessary to dive or swim or perform some other feats under some sort of liquid in order to acquire the Unspokens. Do you see any problem with this?”

Santiago Fillup didn’t answer immediately. The sneering Defense Minister’s face briefly swam out of focus. Ten-year-old Santiago once again bobbed in the Sea of Sequest amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the airship his parentals and undersib had, only moments before, been navigating through a sudden and violent storm. As large pieces of the craft pushed the young boy under the water, tossed by the waves and the battering winds, he struggled to breathe and keep his head up. He was on the verge of relenting and allowing himself to slip below the surface of the stormy waters when a rescue craft teleported him to safety. But his family had perished…Santiago was suddenly an orphan.

Santiago’s mind snapped back to the present, and he remembered where he sat. The Defense Minister’s face came back into focus. He continued to sneer.

“None,” Santiago said forcefully. NatSecChief gave him a sidelong glance, which Santiago met with a look of defiance.

“Then we need you to leave for Obfus Cate 10 immediately. Your ship has been made ready while we have been meeting here.”

“That’s big of you. But you still haven’t told me what it is that I am supposed to find.”

NatSecChief shifted in his chair. “Your first priority will be to make contact with our agent on Obfus Cate 10. They will take you to the person who allegedly knows how to find the Unspokens. Instructions have been programmed into your ship’s computer. You should be fully stocked with all the equipment you might need to...”

“For Saints’ sake, how do you figure that? You can’t even tell me what I’m looking for.” Santiago knew his boss hated to be interrupted, but this “mission” sounded like a complete waste of time. Everyone in the room ignored his comment. The Defense Minister smirked at him again – a look that made Santiago certain that the man knew more than he wanted to tell.

Instead of revealing anything pertinent, though, he just looked at Santiago and said, “You’ll need to adjust your appearance to fit in better on Obfus Cate 10. We can’t have you looking like a Blushie. Do you have a color preference?”

“Anything but blue,” Santiago answered.

The Defense Minister chuckled a bit and handed Santiago a bright green capsule. “Take this just before you land. It will last for only two Obfus Cate 10 moons. That moon cycle lasts a bit longer than ours though. It should be enough time to determine if the Unspokens are on Obfus Cate 10. You won’t need to worry about a disguise on Veneto, if it should even be necessary to go there. You’ll pose as a tourist.”

“Right,” said Santiago as he pocketed the pill. Then he got up and strode out the door.

His pilot’s instincts kicked in when he arrived at the spaceport. His ship, the Anna-Rae (he had named it for his mother), was parked in its own, secured area. It took two retina scans and a full body scan to gain access to the bridge. He checked the power cells and nav system before making his way aft to make sure he carried no stowaways. Equipment of all sorts had been stowed in the two large storage lockers that flanked the area of the ship reserved for passengers. Once he was satisfied that all was as it needed to be, he went back to the bridge and signaled the spaceport controllers that he was ready to depart.

He could have let the Anna-Rae do all the work of taking off, leaving orbit and navigating to the wormhole that would speed the trip across the galaxy by significant digits. She was Sequest’s most advanced piece of engineering for space travel. Every time he landed at his home spaceport, the talented NatSec engineers installed upgrades to every system: weapons, navigation, power, controls – they were all the best that the rich government of Sequest could buy. But at heart, Santiago was a pilot. He loved to fly, so he handled the controls himself. As soon as he reached the wormhole, he set the course to Obfus Cate 10 and let the ship take over so he could review the mission instructions that had been stored in the ship’s computer.

Santiago didn’t know why he expected the instructions to enlighten him any more than the briefing had, but they contained little in the way of new information. He was to make his way through Clarity, the main city on Obfus Cate 10, to a restaurant called the Slippery Slope. The Sequest agent would meet him there. They would be looking for him, so the instructions gave no description of who he was meeting. The agent would greet him with the phrase, “Deep water is cold.” He was to reply, “It’s better than boiling,” to identify himself.

“Who writes this crap?” he wondered aloud.

Even traveling through the wormhole, the trip across the galaxy would take long enough for him to get some sleep. He set an alarm, dimmed the bridge lights, and kicked back for a snooze.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Will Signing Party (In the Category of Be Where You Are.) #52Weeks

Today is my friend Anne’s birthday. She would be 69 today if she still graced the planet with her presence. I should be going to her birthday party tonight, lugging my carved Jack-O-Lanterns over to her house on Sweeney Road to place them on the front porch, candles relit. It always felt appropriate to relight the Halloween remnants of demon-scaring gourds on Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead, as November 1 is also known in some countries. Anne threw herself a birthday party every year – on November 1 – regardless of what day of the week that happened to be. Only the truest friends made it out to weeknight birthday parties. I always enjoyed the intimacy of those smaller gatherings. Anne seemed to enjoy the excess of leftover birthday cake (always from Our Daily Bread Bakery in Blacksburg, Virginia, usually carrot cake, and only deemed acceptable if decorated with witches and black cats).

Friday birthdays generally made for the liveliest birthday parties. Tonight’s would have been memorable. We could have made lewd jokes about her age – 69 is a fun number for that sort of thing. For all her southern primness and propriety, Anne had a wicked sense of humor as well as a healthy appreciation of all things carnal. She routinely insisted, “I don’t want presents,” but the potential for gag gifts would have been too much for Michael and me to resist. (Because I believe...I do believe that Michael would still be alive if Anne was still alive...I’ll save his story for another day.)

Anne had a great house for parties. Her architect (who was also her ex-husband) designed the “library” off of the living room with a removable wall – actually a large set of double French doors at the top of a couple of shallow steps. The doors could be folded out of the way, allowing the “library” to become a stage that opened out not only onto the living room but the glass wall and wrap around deck beyond. Some years she hired her musician friends to play her birthday parties; the “library” had a sliding glass door that opened out to the side yard, perfect for loading in (and out) drum kits, keyboards, microphone stands, and amplifiers. As the band played, guests would knock back bottles of beer, glasses of wine, bourbons with coke (a staple in Hokie Nation) and nibble on the spread, usually a full dinner buffet.

If Anne felt like cooking that year, I would join her a few days before her birthday to help prepare the food. If she planned to serve roast turkey, I helped with the green bean casserole. (Sliced water chestnuts, Anne’s grandmother’s secret, are an amazing addition to the classic Campbell’s Soup recipe.) When bourbon soaked roast beef was on the menu, I still helped with the green bean casserole. My favorite dish was Anne’s shrimp and rice. We would put it together the night before so the flavors could marry. We’d boil five pounds of shrimp (in Anne's Alabama drawl, 'srimp') in the shell with Sauer's Crawfish Shrimp and Crab Boil in a Bag then sit together at her kitchen table to peel them. This routinely involved fighting off the cats, especially Lillian, a gray tabby with white socks who was quite skilled at snatching shrimp out of one’s hands with a quick, deft paw. (The cat stole cheeseburgers from Wendy’s Restaurant too. It got so bad Anne would actually buy two and let Lillian eat one while she ate the other.)
Anne had a half dozen boxes of Sauer’s Crawfish, Shrimp, and Crab Boil in a Bag in her spice cabinet when she died. I took one, and it lives in my spice rack. I don’t imagine the spices are very flavorful 13 years later, but I smile whenever I see it, and I doubt I will ever throw it away.
As we peeled shrimp, two boxes of Uncle Ben’s Original Recipe Wild Rice simmered on the stove. Anne would stir occasionally while instructing me on how much extra sharp cheddar cheese to shred. When all the components were ready, we’d assemble the oversized casserole dish: boiled shrimp, cooked rice, shredded cheese, canned button mushrooms layered in that order. Then add a cup of milk, salt, pepper, paprika and dried chopped chives. Stir the lot. Cover and chill overnight. The next day, I would arrive early to help set up the buffet as Anne slid the casserole in a 350-degree oven. Bubbly, gooey, shrimpy perfection emerged eventually. With a chunk of crusty French bread and glass of white wine, it made for a magical feast.

Some years, Anne held her birthday party at her favorite eatery, Maxwell’s Restaurant, now defunct, but once a nice, upscale place to dine – the type of place one took prom dates and Valentines – complete with a jazz lounge at the north end of the building. (I had my wedding rehearsal dinner at Maxwell’s Restaurant in 2001. The owner, Lindsay Coleman, prepared the Bananas Foster personally.) One year in particular, it was either 1996 or 1997, Anne decided to combine her birthday party with her Will Signing Party. The idea of throwing a party to sign a will seemed crass to me at the time, but I have since learned (having thrown one of my own) that “will signing party” is the technical term for the process of sitting down with your last will and testament, two witnesses, a notary public, and a handful of blue pens to sign the document. Anne insisted though, “It’ll be fun!”

Anne arranged for Maxwell’s to put out a spread of heavy hors d’oeuvres: bacon-wrapped chicken livers, hot spinach and artichoke dip with assorted fancy crackers, piles of cheeses, grapes, strawberries and pineapple chunks, meatballs in sauce, mini croissants with chicken salad, shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon or caviar on cucumber slices, and of course, a birthday cake decorated with witches and black cats. The party would take place in the side dining room as well as the jazz lounge area, and Lindsay promised to hire an acoustic guitar player to play while we partied. Anne loaded the guest list with the usual suspects plus whomever she thought might be useful to schmooze from Virginia Tech’s faculty. (Anne taught English there as a tenured associate professor, but she aspired to a promotion to full professor.) I helped her select the style of invitations, which she always had printed at Partyrama at ridiculous expense (another defunct Blacksburg business...they were THE place to go for Madame Alexander dolls, greeting cards and party balloons).

Parties at Maxwell’s tended to bring out more formal attire. The university faculty guests (some were friends, but most fell into the schmooze category) arrived in suits and ties, cocktail dresses and too much perfume. The musicians (Anne’s passion was music, and she was extremely fond of musicians, especially younger ones), friends and students wore blue jeans and tee shirts; I found it secretly useful for telling who was who. Perhaps it was the engraved invitations, but the Will Signing Party turned out to be one of Anne’s most formal birthday parties, which annoyed me almost immediately and caused me to begin drinking too much shortly after the majority of guests had arrived. Because her lawyers would be in attendance, and Anne was as fond of lawyers as she was of musicians (for reasons I never fully fathomed), Anne had invited more than the usual number of snobby faculty types. I’m not sure who she hoped to impress with this mix, but most of the faculty had been flat out mean to her at some point or another that year, and it galled me to see her air-kissing the cheeks of people she had been calling flaming assholes only weeks before.

The highlight of the evening, in Anne’s mind, was to be the actual signing of the will. Why she thought we would all want to watch it still mystifies me. She had a special table set up in front of the small stage occupied by the acoustic guitarist in the jazz lounge. At the appointed hour, Anne announced that the will signing was about to commence. (I think the “appointed hour” was simply after Anne and the faculty guests had polished off the bacon-wrapped chicken livers…they were her favorite, and apparently most of her colleagues felt the same.) She motioned for the guitar player to quit playing. Anne, the lawyer, a second witness (I think Michael) and the notary public took their seats at the table, blue pens were passed around, and the signing commenced.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the last will and testament must be initialed by the testator on every single page and signed by the testator, two witnesses, and a notary public in order to be considered a legal and binding document. The witnesses must not only sign, but print their full legal names as well as their address. The notary public has an entirely separate form that she or he must complete, sign, and stamp, which must also be signed by all parties. My husband and I held a will signing party at our local bank branch. Each of our wills is seven pages long,but it still took an hour to complete the entire process. Not a big deal when it’s just you and the parties needed to get the job done.

Anne’s will was every bit of 30 pages long.

As the signing began, I took a seat at Anne's "usual" table, a round eight-top near the entrance, next to the window that looked out on Main Street. (Weekly Maxwell's  “tea parties” at this table with Anne routinely involved beer and dinner…and cigarettes…lots of cigarettes.)  Thirty minutes into the signing, I, now thoroughly drunk on free beer, surveyed the crowd, which was growing restless. At the very least, the silly bitch could have let us listen to music, I fumed to myself. As Anne continued to scribble AC, AC, AC on page after page, I stood and made my way toward the will signing party and the guitarist. I grinned at Anne, who had looked at me with annoyance – I was clearly upstaging her – and slipped the guitar player a twenty-dollar bill.

“She told me not to play,” he muttered.

“Screw her,” I muttered back. “Do you know Friend of the Devil by the Grateful Dead?”

He nodded and grinned. I smiled as he began to sing while strumming the familiar chords.

“Set out runnin’ but I take my time.
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”

"Very funny," Anne hissed at me as I turned back to her.

"We needed music," I said simply, and I went back to my seat.

I think if I had chosen anything other than a Grateful Dead song, she probably would have put a stop to the music just to get her way. Or maybe she could tell I was tanked enough to argue with her. She acquiesced; the crowd settled down as the music filled the room. The will signing party ended with the song, and tuxedo-shirt-and-bow tie-clad servers wheeled out the birthday cake festooned with witches and black cats. Soon after, the clock clicked past midnight. Dia de los Muertos crossed into just another Saturday morning, up too late. But the music was good, and for Anne, the night was young…

#52Weeks