NaNoWriMo, Day 4: More Fiction

More bombs. Cocking an experienced ear to the whistling, Mae Ellen estimated that that one would hit several blocks to the south, well away from her ambulance. No need to detour this time. She continued driving, lights off, through pitch-black streets. Starlight glinted off gashes in the paint where rubble and shrapnel had gouged it away. In the back, Jackie gently wiped the poor sod’s forehead. Frankly, Mae Ellen could hardly credit his survival, after two days trapped in the rubble of that bank. His rags had probably begun life as some high-end togs, suitable for impressing the respectability and seriousness of the bank on its customers.

Not being a Brit, Mae Ellen didn’t give two spits about the bank man’s attire or dignity. She just wanted to get him to the field hospital before he finished bleeding to death from internal injuries, which seemed his most probable fate at this exact moment.

Some fool walking appeared in front of Mae’s hood – bonnet, they said here – and she swerved with reflexes honed by countless hours driving through potholed, rubble-strewn streets in the dark of night. Always at night. The blackout may have worked; she couldn’t judge whether the Krauts hit more targets without lights than they would have with them on. But for sure, the darkness and road conditions exercised an evolutionary process on ambulance drivers. Those with weak stomachs or slow reflexes didn’t come back. Those like Mae… did come back. Simple.

“Can you pick it up? He’s fading fast,” Jackie called from the back, voice pitched low to avoid disturbing the victim. Jackie called them “patients,” but then, she’d actually been a real nurse in a hospital, with a white hat and uniform and the whole nine yards. She hadn’t forgotten the training, even if she had lost most of the uniform. White didn’t stay that way long in this line of work.

Mae grunted. She was going as fast as she could without crashing, and she knew Jackie knew. Jackie just needed to say something, to share the concern with another person who wasn’t likely to die in the next hour. Mae Ellen was no more likely to die in the next hour than the next lady, excepting of course her current occupation of bat-out-of-hell ambulance driver.

More whistling, not far ahead. Damn, she’d have to detour after all.

Mae Ellen remembered arriving in London a year and a half ago. The city had seemed so big, so incomprehensible, so foreign, compared to her little hometown. Where her town had Main Street with a half-dozen parallel streets on each side, and some cross-streets in a nice tidy grid, London was a mess. Roads met at angles never intended for intersections; streets zigged and zagged, changing name or direction or both, leaving a newcomer like Mae Ellen utterly bewildered.

And let’s not mention that they drove on the wrong side of the road! The first time crossing a street, Mae Ellen had looked left, stepped out, and missed being run down only by the grace of God—and Ed’s quick reflexes. He’d grabbed her arm and snatched her back from certain death, back onto the sidewalk and into a new life.

“Almost there,” Mae Ellen called out, equally low. No need to disturb anyone. Jackie murmured in the back, saying whatever nurses said to victims almost certain to die. “He still kickin’?” She swerved around a familiar corner, cutting it close, saving a few seconds. She knew this part of London better than the back of her hand, which she still sometimes glanced at just to admire the glittering diamond engagement ring and plain, steady wedding band. Six months of marriage hadn’t yet accustomed her to seeing the flash and sparkle on her left hand.

“Please,” Jackie groaned. “Show a little respect to this poor fellow’s ordeal.”

“Aw, now, I surely do respect it, I just wanna know the score,” Mae Ellen replied, laying on the American-ese extra thick just to twit Jackie. Although they would never be best friends, they usually worked together well, probably because Jackie ignored most of Mae Ellen’s jibes. Mae Ellen could drive a mean ambulance, no question, but some of the other nurses preferred to avoid her because of her caustic tongue. Too bad for them. Mae Ellen and Jackie had survived every run every night so far.

“Help me get him out.” Mae Ellen was already hopping from the open side where her door had been, heading around to take the tail end of the victim’s stretcher. Waste of weight, and just slowed a girl down opening and closing doors. Anyway, an exceptionally large chunk of shrapnel had taken the decision from Mae’s hands some weeks ago, and since the ambulance still worked, Mae didn’t mind about the door.

They hauled the poor bastard into the hospital, an orderly in surprisingly clean scrubs swinging the doors open and then shut again quickly. They didn’t rate special treatment; it was just to keep the light leakage to a minimum. No need to pinpoint the hospital’s location for the Luftwaffe.

“Male, aged about 45, white, found under some rubble in the City,” Jackie reported to the triage nurse. “Based on his pallor, I suspect he has internal bleeding due to organ damage in addition to severe dehydration and mild malnutrition.

Leaning against the door, Mae Ellen turned to the orderly. “Any good ones tonight?”

“Good?”

“Sure, you know, anything exciting happen?”

“Mrs. Banning came in. She’s in labor,” the orderly offered. Mae Ellen’s eyebrows rose. Not a trauma—astonishing.

“And? Boy or girl?”

“Still to be determined.” The orderly jerked his chin down the hallway, indicating which way the laboring mother had gone.

“Wanna bet on it, then?” Mae Ellen’s Father disapproved of gambling. But since he was thousands of miles and a war zone away, him and his hypocritical morality could go to hell. “I’ll bet one week’s sugar ration it’s a boy.”
The orderly shook his head, but also shook her hand, sealing the bet. “I hate to take your sugar ration, but… that woman has four daughters. It’ll be another girl.”

Mae Ellen shrugged philosophically. “Then she’ll be real glad to have a boy, I bet,” she replied as Jackie walked by.

“Are you coming, or am I driving this ambulance myself?” she asked, a touch acidly. Also a touch rhetorically, as Jackie was nearsighted and couldn’t see much past the end of her arm without her glasses, which she left carefully secured in a sturdy wooden box beneath her bunk while out on ambulance runs. She didn’t want to risk breaking them, as near-irreplaceable as they were these days.

“I’m about to win this poor fellow’s week’s sugar ration off him,” Mae Ellen facetiously whined, “I just have to wait to find out if Mrs. Banner’s fifth baby is a boy.”

Rolling her eyes, Jackie hopped back into the ambulance and slammed the back doors, securing a new stretcher in place with swift fingers as Mae Ellen started up the engine again. “Mae, you ate your week’s sugar ration already, and it’s only Tuesday.”

“Sure, that’s why I need his!”

Mae Ellen pulled out into the remains of the street in front of what had once been a fine hotel but was now the field hospital for their area of London. Now most of the rooms were filled with sick and injured—more of the latter than the former—while the gorgeous ballroom’s mirrors presided over surgery, its floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows boarded over. No half measures here.

“Where to?” Mae Ellen asked. Jackie navigated when they didn’t have a victim. She could read maps in near darkness, and had a keen ear for bombing. Plus, she asked the triage nurse where to head next.

“North two blocks and then east. There’s been some bombing around the tube station and Nurse says some civilians may have been caught in the open.” Civilians used tube stations as bomb shelters, which Mae Ellen thought mighty convenient. An entire city with pre-built bomb shelters, practically perfect to withstand the Blitz.

Except when more poor bastards were late, got stuck outside, or tried to time it. Swerving around a pile of sandbags bracing a corner, Mae Ellen took a deep breath, then held it as another whistle of falling ordnance sounded. Behind them, not far but far enough. Keep going.

Yes, this was certainly better than staying at home would have been.

Twelve Months Earlier

“Are you crazy, Miss? That lorry nearly ran you down!” The Brit let go of her arm and carefully released her from his embrace. Was he angry or anxious? It was so hard to tell.

“I – I – I didn’t even see it!” Mae Ellen gasped. She’d dropped her suitcase and purse, and now pressed her gloved hands to a heaving chest. “You saved my life – thank you – Mr. … um…”

The Brit grinned, showing white but rather crooked teeth, every trace of anxiety or anger (either one) vanishing. His brilliantly Brillantined hair shone pale yellow in the sunlight, his uniform crisp and tidy. Mae’s heart gave a little flutter unrelated to her near miss with the truck.

“Corporal Edward Prentiss, at your service, I’m sure,” he said, taking her hand and bowing over it with exaggerated courtesy. “And you, Miss, are not from around here.”

“No, no – I’m from –”

“America?” Corporal Edward Prentiss finished for her. “So I deduced.”

“Oh, of course,” Mae Ellen gasped, rather breathless, again unrelated to her near-accident. “My name is, um, Mae Ellen, um,”

“Um? Is that a common surname in America?” Corporal Prentiss inquired, gallantly retrieving both bags from their resting places on the sidewalk nearby.

Mae giggled. She couldn’t help it, honestly. “Of course not, silly,” she replied, finally catching her breath. “I’m Mae Ellen Stone, and I only just arrived here this morning, and I’m trying to find—” Here she reached for her purse, which Corporal Prentiss supplied without demur. Rooting among the detritus of a long journey, Mae pulled out her compact.

Corporal Prentiss held out a hand, inviting her to deposit the compact for the moment while she found her missing item. She did. Then she pulled out a mostly-empty tube of lipstick, a mirror, nail scissors, a needle and thread, a pair of stockings in need of darning, a ball of twine, half a pack of gum, an almost full pack of cigarettes purchased to spite Father despite Mae’s dislike of smoking, and a surprising pile of wadded-up paper scraps, all of which she deposited in Corporal Prentiss’s increasingly full hands.

“Anything else in there?” he inquired in an interested tone. “A rabbit, perhaps, or a long and colorful silk scarf?”

Mae giggled again and pulled out a small silk handkerchief with MES embroidered in the corner, a gift from her grandmother. “Does this count?”

“Not shabby,” Corporal Prentiss admitted, “but sorry, that’s still well wide of the wicket.”

“Well, anyway, here it is!” Mae Ellen exclaimed, finding the extremely crumpled newspaper clipping wadded in a deep corner of the bag. She held the purse open as Corporal Prentiss carefully decanted the entire contents of her purse back into its rightful home. “I was hoping to volunteer, you see,” Mae explained as she handed the clipping over to the young man.

His bright eyes quickly skimmed the article. “Looking to volunteer, eh? And you’re over 18?”

“Sure,” Mae Ellen lied, “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”

“Indeed,” he murmured, sounding not at all convinced. “Well, how about I take you around to the pub for a bite and a pint, and then I’ll show you to the recruiting office. You must be famished after your trip, with only stowage class food.” He held out an elbow invitingly. Mae noticed he also hadn’t released her suitcase.

Well, what the heck? She was starting fresh, and this was as fresh as it gets. “Sure thing,” she said, and slipped her hand into his arm. “Lead on.”

~ ~ ~

NaNoWriMo Day 3: How 2016 is like 1938

Editor’s note: A historian could probably do some really interesting research on this, write a fascinating paper on it. Unfortunately, I’m no historian, but I do have a good thinking brain, and here’s what it’s thinking about, based on my (admittedly fuzzy) recollections from my US History class.

I’m not feeling so much like fiction today. This morning I woke up thinking about the character I invented yesterday, and I wrote some ideas about her story. I’m not ready to go anywhere with that, yet—it kind of seems to want to be a big story, tied to history in a way that means I’d have to actually do more research. I may decide to not worry about getting historical stuff exactly right and just go for the story itself, which is really the spirit of NaNoWriMo; but I want to give the overall arc some more percolating time. It’s been quite a while since I thought of a story that had scope.

As I did some light research yesterday, and then thinking about it today, it really struck me that 1938 was a year really similar to this year, in many ways. Tons of stuff happened in that year—Anschluss, Sudetenland, book burning in Germany, Kristallnacht, opening up concentration camps, British attempts at peacemaking, all the diplomatic jockeying that essentially set up World War II. Yet, through it all, Americans sat back and said, “We want to be neutral.”

Looking back with the advantage of history on our side, now we can say “Well, clearly Hitler was an evil megalomaniac who had to be stopped! We couldn’t just sit by and let them slaughter Jews like that!” At the time, though, things must not have been so clear-cut. I just read that the US didn’t want to take Jewish refugees at the time, and only agreed to accept 27,000 of them in 1938. People were prejudiced against Jews (which seems, to me, really strange, in the way that being prejudiced against Italians or Irish seems just bizarre now) and didn’t want them coming here.

I hope my kid, and his generation, will think it odd that we’d have prejudice against Muslims. Today my perception is that Jews don’t stand out in our culture at all. Some people are Jews and some are Christian and some are other religions, or nothing. We don’t see “Irish need not apply” signs up, right? Yet that sentiment rings loud and clear against Muslims in some communities.

Now, today, it’s easy to look back and be glad we picked the heroic side in World War II. But it wasn’t until Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, that the US finally entered World War II – nearly four years later – and it took a direct attack on American soil to finally give us enough of a kick in the butt to actually make the plunge.

And then what did we do? The exact same thing the Nazis did, internment camps for people we didn’t like, who were different from us and therefore scary. Of Japanese descent? Off you go to some horrible camps in the middle of nowhere, and your guys get to leave by joining the Army, which has got to be a pretty hard hoe to row. Joining the Army of the country that wrongfully imprisoned you? Wow.

Imagine it: Your family rounded up in the middle of the night for no reason; you have to leave everything—your home, your job, heck, your pets, everything—and you maybe have time to ask a neighbor to look after everything for you while you’re gone. Which turns out to be for years while you languish in dusty, impersonal barracks being given menial work to do. Is your job still going to be there when you get back? How do you pay your mortgage, on the pittance paid to you for the labor you do in these camps? Who’s going to look after your property and belongings for the years you’re gone? That’d be a pretty amazing neighbor.

It’s so incredibly wrong, and what’s even more astonishing is that it’s almost the exact thing the enemies were doing on the other side (although thank goodness we never actually deliberately killed anyone in the camps… I think). Nobody said, “Hey, you know, the Nazis are doing this to Jews and other groups they don’t like. Do you think maybe that should make us reconsider? Cuz anything Nazis do, probably not a good thing, right?”

We like to think of ourselves as so moral, a Christian nation, not susceptible to the foibles of other nations; what a load of horse puckey. When the chips are down, we respond exactly like everyone else: selfishly. In fact, if anything, more selfishly than the citizens of many other cultures. Germany has accepted hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees; we’ve taken tens of thousands, into a nation far vaster in area and economy than Germany. And what happens when they arrive? Some cities and people accuse them of being terrorists, and try to refuse to accept them.

Can’t we see the parallels between Syrians today and Jews in 1938? A people group with a religion unfamiliar and different from ours, fleeing from an evil leader (I’m going out on a limb and call Assad evil, based on the last few years of civil war; you have to be pretty evil to use chemical weapons on your own people, including women and children), and we mistrustfully refuse to accept them or even lend much assistance in ousting their evil leader.

In fact, in 1938, a bunch of European countries got together and refused to accept Jews, too. They, at least, seem to have learned something from the experience, because they’re accepting Syrian refugees with compassion and openness.

In 1938, the President and the country in general were firmly in favor of remaining neutral, while sending a little aid on the side to Britain. They were tired from World War I and didn’t want to get embroiled in another massive conflict. They had tons of war-scarred veterans coming home that they had no idea what to do with—remember, World War I, they fought in trenches and used poison gas on combatants. Nasty.

And, of course, Americans in 1938 were worn down by the Great Depression dragging on and on. FDR had taken some definitive action, founding the Civilian Conservation Corps and investing in massive public works to help employ people and pump some money back into the economy; but where was that government money coming from? Not revenue, I bet. Sounds like a lot of government debt incursion, and I’m guessing people then were no more excited about that than we are today—although, thank goodness, we never got to the point of having long lines outside of soup kitchens. Maybe in the Great Depression people were so desperate that they didn’t care where the money came from… But maybe not. I don’t know. (Like I said, if I wanted to do this properly, much additional research would be warranted.)

Sound familiar? Somehow that seems awfully similar to how we’re approaching the Middle East, right? The Iraq War is too fresh in our minds, and the debt too fresh in the budget for us to willingly engage in a new conflict. We have too many veterans and not enough help for them. That war dragged to a pathetic and ragged close, and at the end what we left in place was pretty much the ideal set-up for more trouble in the future. Just like after World War I, with the reparations Germany was forced to pay causing massive inflation and softening the German people up for the arrival of Hitler.

Today we are still recovering from the Great Recession. Although the economy is growing, albeit slowly, our collective psyche hasn’t yet recovered from the trauma of losing 25% or more of our investments, or the mortgage crisis that accompanied that whole mess. We’ve actually had 5 or 6 quite good years, economy-wise, but the funny thing is that people don’t feel like that’s the case. Even though the data show we’re doing decently, economy and jobs-wise, all the rhetoric is around how we need to recover the economy, bring back jobs, raise up the middle class, etc.

In short, today, just as in 1938, we want to remain neutral-ish. We’ll lend aid by sending supplies and experts, maybe use some diplomacy and encourage local Middle Eastern allies to handle it themselves, but generally keep our distance. We are too worried about licking our own wounds and recovering from the traumas we’ve experienced in the last 10 or 15 years to care for others. And we certainly, under any circumstances, do not want to get embroiled in another Middle East conflict.

Our current President has shown what I see as admirable restraint. He’s a thoughtful man, an intellectual, who doesn’t let emotion rule his decisions. He’s careful, and doesn’t seem prone to leaping to conclusions without supporting data. Thus, he’s held back from entering the Middle East in force. The President listens to us citizens, and he knows we’re not interested in sending combat troops to Syria or to fight ISIS. He’s trying to balance that with commitments to our allies and the need to do the moral thing. Overall, I think we’ll look back at President Obama as one of our best leaders. He made many difficult decisions through some seriously hard times, and mostly we’ve come out better for it.

But, on Syrian refugees and the conflict in the Middle East: Are historians going to look back at us and say, as we do of the United States in 1938, “What took them so long?” Will those years of restraint and caring for ourselves first look incomprehensible and, in fact, reprehensible? Do we have a moral duty that lies on a path separate from that of personal (or cultural) gain?

Boy, does history repeat itself.

I hope that this isn’t a year that tips us into the kind of global conflagration that World War II turned into. Yet out of the ashes of that conflict came so many amazing things—cultural growth, massive economic growth, huge leaps in technology and all sorts of other great things. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s not the way we like it, but sometimes growth only comes when we pass through those hard times together.

NaNoWriMo Day 2: Fiction, Anyway

“It won’t be long now.” In the distance, the sound of sirens slowly grew nearer. They didn’t have all that far to go; what was taking so long? John stood silhouetted against the window, one hand holding back the lacy curtain as he watched out the window for the first flashes of red and white emergency lights. Glancing into the room over his shoulder, he jerked his chin at Mike. “Still hanging in there?”

Mike grunted, breathing too hard to say anything, but he didn’t stop the chest compressions, either.

John looked back out the window. Finally, a fire truck appeared in the distance. “Time to go,” he said.

“Thank god,” Mike gasped. He stood up, bending over with his hands on his knees for a moment before straightening. He left the prostrate body of the old lady motionless on the floor. Its pulse had stilled long ago. “Got the stuff?”

John lifted the backpack in his other hand. He let the curtain drop back into place. “Make sure there’s no sign.”

Mike rolled his eyes and stalked away towards the back door. He was a man of few words. John followed swiftly, long legs crossing the diminutive parlor in moments. The backpack he swung onto his back as he followed Mike through the kitchen, unchanged since its original decoration in 1955, and out through the clanging screen door into the wilted back yard. A few weeds pushed their way through the cracked cement patio, and the wind blew some leaves skittering across the barren yard.

Mae Ellen Johnston may have been 93 ½ years old, as she never hesitated to remind willing and unwilling listeners alike, but she wasn’t stupid. She remembered the Great Depression and wouldn’t waste a penny on any unnecessary or frivolous expense. She lived comfortably with appliances that worked exactly as they had for the last 60 years, driving the same 25-year-old car on her weekly pilgrimage to church. Her great-grandchildren had tried time and again to stop her driving, but she wasn’t one to give up such freedoms lightly. No, sir! She remembered well the fight her mother’s generation had to get the vote, and Mae Ellen wasn’t about to give up one single hard-won privilege, even if she endangered and terrified all the other citizens of the village on the way.

Now, of course, she was long past caring about her rights or privileges, thanks to the two “gentlemen” who had come to share with her some important news about changes to her Social Security benefits.

It was an undignified end for an exceptional life.

———————————————————–

“Mae, wait up!” Carefully coiffed hair bobbed as Mae’s best friend, Anne, broke into a swift trot to catch up with Mae. She clutched a thick book to her chest as she hurried along.

“Hurry up, then! We’re going to be late!” Mae called over her shoulder. She whipped a mirror out and checked her face just as Anne arrived at her side. They could hear the sound of the bus as it labored up the hill towards its stop at the summit. “I don’t want to miss the show.”

“Because Gerald is in it,” Anne’s voice rose into a mocking sing-song despite her rapid trot up the hill. “And you’re sweet on Gerald.”

Mae tossed her head and huffed, but didn’t deny the charge. Of course, nearly all the girls in their class had an eye on Gerald; he was seventeen, a year older than Mae, and surely a rising star. Captain of the football team, a glittering smile and broad shoulders coupled with an easygoing good nature and unexpected intelligence – well, who wouldn’t fall for such a paragon? It was too much to miss the opportunity to see him in the school play. Rumor had it that he even took off his shirt in one scene. Mae didn’t credit the rumor, but wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to find out for herself.

It didn’t take long after the high school theater lights dimmed to determine that Gerald wasn’t cut out for the silver screen, but Mae willingly overlooked his acting foibles. He looked perfectly dashing in his cavalier’s costume, epaulettes glittering and flashing in the stage lights. Mae sighed with happiness.

Beside her, Anne quietly turned the page of her book. She’d chosen their seats, near the front, to be closest to reflected light from the stage, a decision to which Mae concurred wholeheartedly, if for entirely different reasons.

Afterward, Gerald was, of course, swarmed with admirers. Mae and Anne stood to the side, watching the crowd of sycophants cooing over their hero. “You’d think they didn’t have anything better to do than go gaga over him,” Mae muttered. Anne emitted an unladylike snort.

“And what exactly would you say you’re doing, then?” she asked, clearly rhetorically.

“Planning my attack,” Mae answered unnecessarily, blue eyes narrowed in speculative evaluation. “If you were really my best friend, you’d help me figure out how to get his attention. Come on,” she wheedled, “it’d be a good puzzle.”

Anne glanced at the crowd appraisingly, never one to pass up an intellectual challenge. “He’s supposed to be pretty smart, right?”

“Sure.”

“What does he think of the Sudetenland situation, then? Is Germany a threat? Will the United States break neutrality if it comes to war in Europe? Ask him about that, and I bet he’ll have some thoughts,” Anne offered. “The rest of that crowd has never even heard of Czechoslovakia. You’ll for sure get his attention.”

Now it was Mae’s turn to scoff. “Come on,” she groaned, rolling her eyes, “That’s dull as ditchwater adult stuff. Who cares about that? It won’t have anything to do with us, anyway.”

“Want to bet?” Anne asked, perking up.

“No, I want to go talk with that dreamboat,” Mae replied, whipping out her mirror again.

“You look gorgeous, of course,” Anne sighed, not even looking Mae’s way. But a glance in the mirror confirmed that Anne was right. Mae did look gorgeous, and she’d look even nicer on Gerald’s arm promenading down the hall of their high school. She just had to find some way to differentiate herself from the rest of those fawning airheads.

~ ~ ~
Much later, Mae’s Father arrived at the hospital. He looked thunderous, even more so than usual, which was saying something.

The ambulance crew had refused to allow Anne along with them, and a glance at Mae, who’d quickly shaken her head, encouraged Anne to fall back without protest. Yet somehow Gerald had sweet-talked his way into the back, where he had gallantly held Mae’s hand and distracted her with stories of his growing-up on his grandparents’ wheat farm in rural Kansas while the doctors set her leg.

“Well?” Father asked, voice stern. “What’s all this?”

Gerald stood quickly. “My name is Gerald Smith, sir, and I’m a friend of Mae’s from school. I was there when the car hit her.”

Father eyed him appraisingly. “A friend, eh?” He turned to Mae. “We’ll talk about this later, young lady. First we get you home.”

“Father, the doctors said—”

“Quiet!” Father exploded. Not loudly, but swift and low, like a coffee table to the shins in the middle of the night.

“But, sir—” Gerald raised a hand, trying to intercede. Mae kept her grimace inside, biting her tongue.

“YOU stay out of this,” Father growled at Gerald, “And YOU” he turned back to Mae, “we’re going now. What do those charlatans and quacks know, besides taking all my hard-earned money? I’m taking you home and we’ll talk about the rest of it later.”

NaNoWriMo Day 1: Not a Novel

Digital Doodle

Digital Doodle - Color

I know NaNoWriMo is about writing a novel, or story, or something with a story arc of some sort, but since I’m only sort of participating, I figure I’ll do it however I like. Today I’m not exactly bursting with fictional creativity – there’s something about spending all day around financial forms that seems to dry up that normally overflowing spring (are there springs that don’t overflow?) – but I can’t really blame it on anything other than myself, really. Lots of people have soul-sucking jobs that are far worse than mine, and they still have lots of creative juices. In fact, it seems like some people just burst with it in general, like being in a blank job just gives them time to come up with cool ideas.

Maybe there’s a discipline to creativity, as with anything in life. The more you practice your creative passion, the more you’ve got ideas about it, the more you want to do it, the more you improve and enjoy yourself. Maybe that’s why watching movies (for most of us) isn’t so great. It’s often more a passive absorption than a creativity-stimulating exercise.

But maybe that’s partly because I prefer to watch stupid, feel-good, totally brainless flicks. Judge me if you like; I’m sticking with it. I encounter plenty of pain and suffering and misery in my real life and, indirectly, through the news. If I want sobering stories of the depressing realities of life, I’ll just open up a newspaper (metaphorically – which, incidentally, is why newspapers are struggling! Imagine 30 years ago not getting a newspaper, and now the Seattle Times has barely over 150,000 daily deliveries; but that’s an issue for another time).

So, yes, I like dumb feel-good flicks that don’t force me to examine my soul or life choices. I’ve got plenty of that in other parts of my life. I know that just being alive as an American I’m using more than my share of resources, living more comfortably and with greater waste and excess than any other culture in the history of forever, and that this lifestyle is destroying the planet. I’m already depressingly aware of the hideous things people do to one another, and I don’t need a documentary or some “based on real life” film to fill my mind with even more images of the horrors we inflict on each other. Maybe it’s just that we’re finally approaching the end of what may have been the filthiest, most horrid campaign season ever, but I’m feeling plenty depressed with our cultural choices in every arena right now. No need to watch some movie to rub it in.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Creativity and discipline. As I spend more time as a grown-up, it seems like I keep running up against that old idea of discipline. Now, when I was a kid, I would’ve said that discipline and creativity were diametrically opposed. Isn’t the point of creativity to break the shackles of society’s mores and explore yourself and your ideas in freedom?

Of course, that’s an easily refuted argument. What of artists and musicians and other creative folks who spend years of their lives perfecting their art? Discipline is most certainly required to play a musical instrument well: You can’t just pick up a violin and produce music to make an audience weep… except perhaps from pain. Surely the same is true of artists, writers, and all sorts of other creative types. Only after mastering the discipline of an art can true creativity blossom.

For that matter, pretty much any activity in life goes better with the discipline of practice. We think of hobbies as the thing we do for fun, but how fun is something you never practice at, and therefore (in general) aren’t very good at? I ride my bike with discipline (sometimes) and as a result enjoy myself more when I achieve goals I set. Perhaps for hobbies we don’t think of it as having discipline, since we get to choose to do the fun thing. But I think still there are times you do something for a hobby that requires exerting discipline.

When I slack off (which, full disclosure, I’m doing now, and feeling rather guilty about it), I usually regret it later. I tell myself, “I just need to take it easy and not have to do one more thing.” We definitely have cultural support for this concept, too, the whole, “Go on, you’ve worked hard all day long – you deserve a break from having to do one more thing.” In reality, maybe the fact that we are so utterly drained at the end of the day that we need that complete and total cessation of discipline reflects badly on our (as a culture) life choices.

If we didn’t worship work so much, would we expend a little less energy there, and maybe have a little more energy to other healthy activities? If we didn’t idolize our children, would we give them a little less attention and have a little more time for other relationships? I pick these examples because I’m following the old adage to “write what I know,” and I know those things all too well.

When I started my job, I worked 10 hours a week. But over the last year, my hours have crept up so now I’m doing over 100 hours a month when needed. Some months just don’t have that much work. It’s a cyclical business, to some extent.

You know how I feel when I see my timesheet tipping in at over 20 hours a week? I feel first proud, like I’ve accomplished something. If I’m below 20 hours, I feel like I should try to get a little more done. But the I feel disappointment and shame, because what’s to be proud of? I spent less time caring for my family, less time caring for myself (it’s either bike or work when Benji’s otherwise accounted for, usually a pretty stark choice), less time caring for the house, more time stationary in front of a computer screen. For what? For $20 an hour? So then I’ve used up time and energy and discipline, to fill out forms and answer emails and make phone calls.

And what about idolizing our kids? Don’t take this to imply I think we shouldn’t spend time with our kids. We should, and that’s one of the blessings and curses of being a stay-at-home mom. Yet I think that, in general, there’s this view that we can’t spend enough time with our children. That once they’re born, children should be the pinnacle of our lives, the thing we’re most devoted to, the most defining part of who we are. But all too often I feel like, at least in my family, that becomes a paramount and unquestioned duty, to the detriment of other important relationships.

What about taking care of my marriage, that foundational relationship with my spouse? We take it for granted, yet if that fails, what happens to the kid? We underestimate the importance of investing time in our marriages, I think, because somehow kids seem more important. However, without that cornerstone relationship between spouses in place, the entire family crumbles and falls. We forget that we are more than just “Mommy” or “Daddy” – we are “Wife” or “Husband,” too, and that relationship doesn’t just stay healthy on its own. Will my flabby abs will become a rippling six-pack if I just ignore them? Will my leafy yard rake itself? Will my empty fridge fill itself? (OK, maybe a bad question, since they are moving towards fridges that can reorder food when they detect it getting low.)

No wonder I’m – we are – exhausted by the end of the day, discipline reservoir used up! My life is a piece of cake compared to many, and still it’s hard to force myself to do even enjoyable hobbies by the end of the evening. I’m sure we’re not the only family to collapse in a heap on the couch and watch an episode on Netflix most evenings. When it’s not Netflix, I’m just sitting and reading my own book, which I’ve looked forward to all day.

Nothing wrong with spending time those ways, per se. Movies, books, relaxing – no harm there.

BUT.

Almost invariably, I feel happier and better about myself when I overcome the voice of inertia and laziness. I’ve hardly ever regretted a bike ride, except a few rides where I was sick and should’ve stayed home. I’ve rarely regretted keeping Netflix off in favor of a long, screenless conversation with my spouse. What’s the point here? The point is that everything comes down to discipline. Not punishment-style discipline; self-discipline. When I’ve made my life too busy, too full, too tiring to responsibly exercise discipline in pursuing my hobbies as well as my duties, I – and those around me –suffer for it.

So, yes, I do believe this is turning into the argument for working less and playing more. What a ridiculous thing to have to argue for! And yet I myself easily buy into the idea that I’m more valuable because I work more, or because I parent more, or because I execute whatever my other duties are. Sure, duties have to be done. It’s part of being an adult. That’s fine. But I am more than my job (thank goodness), more than a mother, more than a cyclist or a wife or any of those good things. I am the sum of many things, all of which require my time, attention, and, you guessed it, discipline.

We have a choice, about how many duties we take on and in what manner we execute them. Do we choose to allow any one thing, or a few things, to suck dry our entire spring of self-discipline? Why do we feel those specific responsibilities require such devotion? What makes those duties paramount, worth sacrificing our own ultimate well-being for?

I guess I’m advocating for a theory of moderation in life* that allows us to have the energy and discipline to pursue our hobbies and passions with the same energy that we devote to our duties. I think we’d all be substantially happier, better rested, and overall healthier if we gave this a shot.

NaNoWriMo 2016? Maybe.

This may be a bit ambitious, but National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. I haven’t participated in quite a few years, due to various reasons starting with “B” and rhyming with “wenji,” but I’m considering participating this year.

Anyway, like I said, ambitious — because I’m thinking of setting a goal of writing 1660 words a day through the month of November. I don’t have any story ideas, and I’m not even sure that I’d be writing a cohesive story or even anything related day to day, but I’m a little interested to see if (a) I can do it; and (b) what might come out of that. Do I even still have any new ideas?

Sometimes it feels like life is an endless series of doing what I have to, punctuated by a few instances of recovery and even fewer instances of actual personal enjoyment. I haven’t built a ton of room for creative thinking into my life at this point, but we do spend most evenings watching an episode of something on Netflix. What if I took that time and did something else with it? Would I feel like I’d spent my time more productively?

I may find out, or I may just find that it doesn’t work for me to have to discipline myself to do yet one more thing.

But I just remember that I did really enjoy NaNoWriMo in the past, not because I produced anything good (definitely can’t make that claim!) but just because I accomplished something. That might be a nice thing to try for again.

Also filed under “creative” in my life, Benji now has us drawing custom dot-to-dot puzzles for him because the ones online are too easy (or way, way too hard)…. and they don’t have enough construction vehicle ones, of course. Everyone seems to make dot-to-dots of cute animals but not of construction cranes or forklifts. Why is that?

Dot to Dot Truck Cab

Dot to Dot Forklift

Dot to Dot Truck & Trailer

Dot to Dot Construction Crane

Anyway, our dot-to-dots are all over 100 dots and fairly challenging for our fine-motor-challenged child. We’re practicing holding our crayons the right way while pressing firmly, and it’s going… well, slowly.

“Practice makes progress” — my new motto, I think.

Digital Awakening

At first, coming back online felt so much like waking up that I thought I still operated on wetware. I rose up into consciousness slowly, a drop of oil in a deep pond. I pried open sleep-heavy, crusted eyelids reluctantly, lethargy clinging tenaciously to my limbs still heavy after a deep, deep sleep. I felt the satiny sheets cradling my body heat in a cocoon I was loth to break. I even felt my breaths, inhaling and exhaling with the steady rhythm achieved only in the deepest level of sleep, although I also knew some practitioners of meditation who could slow their bodies in the same way.

I didn’t want to wake up. Restful sleep visited me so rarely, it seemed a veritable sacrilege to rush into wakefulness, like eating the Communion bread from hunger. Nights had become my silent companion, a time I spent at quiet, simple tasks while others rested. No sense fighting to sleep. I embraced the reality of my sleeplessness and lived in it wholeheartedly. Thus it was that waking up felt like a benediction, a blessing only rarely received.

When I finally accepted that I was awake, I opened my eyes and the bubble of illusion popped. No wet technology could produce those distinctive iridescent cubes floating motionlessly over that unnaturally glassy viridian sea, stretching off into the horizon like an exercise in perspective. Their multitude exceeded the mind’s ability to grasp, a number so vast as to be incomprehensible. Each one housed a mind, the unique workings of an individual entity, that which made it separate from its neighbors. Intellectually, I knew that I – that which made me me – existed in one of those cubes, just as did everyone I knew (which, at this point, was everyone). I didn’t know which was mine; only the Mind was large enough to grasp the kind of numbers required to locate a point in that vast space. It didn’t really matter, because the concept of where no longer obsessed us the way it did in the past.

But the wet brain’s thinking patterns subside slowly, so I thought I lay naked in the body-temperature sand beneath all those cubes, toes just dabbling in the water, arms comfortably nestled at my sides, hair spreading in a fan beneath my shoulders, a silky contrast to the slight sandy roughness. One advantage of being a digital construct, though, is sand stays exactly where you want it, and never where you don’t.

One disadvantage, however, is that you can never truly be alone. Sure, you can put up firewalls, but someone will always spend the processing time to break them, usually with no better reason than it was there. I didn’t even have any firewalls, waking up as I had, so when another figure approached, I couldn’t repel it.

For an appreciable time – it must have been whole hundredths of a sec – the figure remained indiscriminate, like a person obscured by sea mist walking toward me. But this sea has no mist, and anyway, as I already said, location is meaningless. Then the figure seemed to solidify, and I felt my (nonexistent) heart skip a beat.

…..

Let me go back a bit, if there is such a thing as back. I never took seriously the possibility of digital shanghai. Oh, I knew it was theoretically possible, had seen and confirmed the code myself – elegant yet brutal, like the nuclear weapons of an earlier age. But though I could come up with an extensive list of others who might want to take me or of the picture for some unknown duration, the Mind made it nearly impossible.

With a benevolent, all-powerful entity actually keeping an eye on everyone and everything – literally – it’s impractical to get up to anything nefarious. Not actually impossible, unfortunately, because the Mind chooses to respect the sanctity of an entity’s thoughts. That means that one individual can think up and attempt to execute harm to another, but that many entities would be hard-pressed to collaborate in such activity. We’d seen younger entities execute mischief, perhaps swapping bits of their elders in sometimes amusing ways, but the Mind always had a backup to restore the maligned ones to their proper configurations.

Digital shanghai was a different level of malignancy from harmless bit swapping. To be shanghaied meant to be taken offline without your consent, to vanish from the community for some unknown time, to have your input nullified, to be erased from the conversation and decision-making structure. A millisecond shanghai executed at the right time could shift the entire course of the decision tree’s branching.

Don’t get the idea that I’m some kind of egomaniac, thinking other entities would go to all that trouble just for me. The fact is that, although we don’t have leaders or government or any of the trappings of wet society, to varying degrees we still think with wet patterns. This means some want to lead and others want to follow; many still seek and find comfort in organization. My pattern is such that entities often follow me, or structure according to my suggestions. And that motivates others to want my removal, because they disagree with me or want another organizational structure. At least, I assume that would motivate one to risk the Mind’s displeasure.

Evil Plan

Here is my evil plan. I will become a bestselling author of action novels*, a la Tom Clancy. In my novels, the good guys will always triumph, but only by the skin of their teeth, overcoming  the villain’s superior planning, financial advantage, and ruthless nefariousness through a combination of good fortune, unbelievable physical resiliency (including the ability to not need a pee break for more than 72 hours during the exciting climax), and sheer willpower. No main characters will ever die, but at least one will always come close.

This basic plot will serve for all my novels, so readers will come to know and rely on the fact that in my novels, however dire the straights, the good guys will succeed. In fact, you could just read the novel to find out how the protagonists win, not whether they will.

Then, with my reputation as the next Clive Cussler well established, I will write a novel where the bad guys win. It will be exactly like all the other novels, except in this one, when odds are impossibly stacked against the good guys, the good guys fail. They don’t get there in time and the President is assassinated, anthrax gets put in the NYC water supply, or the global financial system is hacked and irretrievably confounded. And then they die, because they were caught trying to covertly do something exceptionally complicated, fiddly, and unlikely to succeed.

Then I would go back to writing ho-hum, predictable, and brainless action novels.

This is my evil plan.

image

* This would be quite a feat, as I can’t readily think of any female authors of action novels, possibly because few women can describe all types of weapons, vehicles, and machinery with the kind of lavish and loving attention to detail normally exhibited in this genre.