Noon on a Saturday

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On a Saturday, after a rough week, I need to do something to feel better. I make myself a Denver omelet: eggs, ham, bell pepper, lots of cheddar. It’s so good that I make blueberry pancakes as an encore. In the home stretch of flipping cakes, I get a text from Mike, who happens to be visiting Austin:

Hey we are going out to South Congress I guess!?!? If you want to meet us there 🙂

What times and whereabouts? I ask.

We are there now!

Well, snap.

Mike is a legendary old friend. I can’t pass this up. Today I was supposed to…oh well. I toss the day’s schedule aside, eat pancakes while I dress, and head out on my bicycle, already breathless.

South Congress is the Austin strip, a tourist magnet. It’s lined with funky, punky shops and restaurants; places you have to stand in line to get into. It’s also on top of a hill, with about ten thousand more hills between me and it.

I discover this the hard way.

Halfway there, I’m struggling to haul my bike and full stomach uphill on the narrow shoulder, my stomach complaining that this had better be worth it and legs saying it probably isn’t and we should stop now.  Fortunately, the next turn puts me on a road with a posh two-way bike lane that shoots into the perpetual carnival that is South Congress. I fall in with tourists and students drawn by the dynamic food offerings and kinky shops sporting local wares.

Mike and friends find me loitering outside a pizza joint comprised of two different buildings and a food truck, people queued at every door and window, and we wander away and into a store whose name implies wearable industrial creativity. In a burst of enthusiasm I buy a bright green shirt with a dinosaur that says ‘The Saurus knows all the words.’ I am not a writer if I don’t get this shirt.

After we stand bewildered outside the store holding paper bags of clothes and oddities, wondering where to eat, we head away from the center of South Congress to Torchy’s Tacos. I’m still full from my epic breakfast and opt for just sparkling water, nibbling at Mike’s nachos but really wanting just water to sip.

We sit all together outside in a fenced-in gravel yard and eat tacos and discuss little-known aspects of Torchy’s menu with a waiter who looks faintly like Jeremy (and is from Wisconsin, in fact). He tells us goodbye, because it’s the end of his shift and he’s going home, which happens to be next door. It’s like eating at someone’s house instead of a restaurant. Most of us in the group are from Reno, or lived there at some point, so we have things in common.  We talk and talk about the familiar, surrounded by foreign things, the conversation stopping only while our mouths are full.

I’m glad to be here, hills notwithstanding.

Cute, Short and Romantic — A New Story for Y’all

On A Crowded Floor Cover 1.2-01

You may be aware, if you’ve been following my posts the last few months, that I’m into set dancing. Earlier in the summer this story of mine appeared in the Ireland-based magazine Set Dancing News. It’s called On a Crowded Floor and it’s about a young man who’s trying to court an Italian girl who doesn’t speak English. You can get it now on Amazon Kindle for just 0.99. It’s amusing, romantic, and since it’s just over 3000 words it won’t keep you up all night.

Enjoy!

A Life within a Life

There is a rhythm to the creative process.
I couldn’t tell you what it is because I still don’t know.
It changes, shifts, like a living thing. Going in some direction I didn’t expect. Most days I’m lucky to be on its heels.
What I do know is practice and study. That’s how I go on producing, almost invisibly, in the midst of living life. Writing line after line in a coffee shop, between poetry scribblers and newspaper readers, blenders churning, milk steaming in the background. Taking words that capture my attention and writing them down: “Yes, after an hour of keeping your hand moving, you will have several pages filled with words; but ultimately, you can’t fool yourself…somewhere along you have to break through.”
I start a routine and it works for about a week, five days, before my schedule shifts and changes yet again but that doesn’t matter.  After that week I know more than ever where I’m headed.  Breakthroughs happen regardless of change if you keep flexible, keep pushing forward however you may. Writing, creating—it’s not a conveyor belt. It’s a life within a life.
It works inside of and despite everything. This is neat because study, crafting—ideas—happen all the time. While you experience one thing you’re turning it over and learning how it fits into what you’re creating at the moment. It’s important to know this, and also to still work and produce steadily, on any schedule.
Writing is both flexible and inflexible.

Barefoot, with a Sword

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I’m not one for princesses, unless they come bearing swords. Swords mean action, they mean danger and needing one’s wits, courage to survive. A princess with a sword—that’s my kind of story.
So I knew I would like Child of Light. It’s a video game story I stay up late to play out a little longer, immersed in the watercolor-style animation. A slow-motion beauty overcasting dangerous landscape. Little conversations, people talking in rhymes, all of the characters so quirky and lovely.
I play games as I read stories, as I experience movies: like it’s me. I’m Aurora, a barefoot girl wearing a paper crown, waking up in a damp, strangely beautiful Otherworld. Immediately I obtain a too-large-for-me sword and a companion who I assume is a firefly. I run over tree roots as big as tables and leap gaps in stone platforms, fighting monsters, trying to find my way back home to my father, the king.
I’m in the story until my mind numbs and my eyes are closing. I put the adventure on hold and go to bed. The soundtrack, even more endearing to me as it’s written by someone called Couer d’Pirate, plays on dimly in my less-impressive dreams, plays on through the next day’s writing, through my workday, making me secretly happy. I have an adventure on hold, right now, in the background. Soon I’ll be back in it.

Games like these are a substitute for finding a portal to another world.

You can’t Reason with Cats

It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday and a cat is crying on piteously on my porch.
I have lived with cats long enough to recognize the sound of terror versus hunger, versus general surliness. This is fear, the kind that wells up when you realize you’re lost outside and can’t get back home and there’s nowhere to hide.
I’m not very much awake and the cat on the porch is begging to come in, squeaking out her confusion and helplessness, so I shut my cats in the bedroom and invite her in. She acts like she belongs here, crying in relief and skittering into the bathroom. I go ahead and close the door, shutting her in there. She’s huge, orange and white, with long hair drooping from her tail and draping over her body like a shaggy blanket. She’s clean, without scars or scratches, and her teeth (which I can see clearly every time she opens her mouth to squeak out little cat sobs), are nice and clean. She’s not interested in being comforted, but neither is she losing her mind and trying to escape after realizing she’s now contained in my bathroom. So clearly not feral. Someone will be missing her in the morning.

Porch Cat

The animal shelter can check for a microchip to identify her owner, but it doesn’t open for 4-1/2 hours. I tuck towels against the doors to keep her from snagging my heel or spooking my own cats with her snakelike white paws searching under the gaps. Quinn stands guard in the hall long after I turn out the lights and return to bed, just in case the stranger tries to escape. When she doesn’t escape and eventually stops crying, he trots over to the bed and curls up beside me. Clearly he thinks that’s that and we can go back to our normal lives now.
Three hours later I wake and slip into the bathroom. Porch Cat is sleeping on the floor beside the toilet. She stretches and rubs against my legs as I brush my teeth, letting me know she was lonely. Since we’re being warm and friendly I scratch her ears lightly and she pushes her face into my hand. After a few moments of this congeniality, she hops onto the counter making gurgling, chirping noises I take for curious vocalizing—until she growls and slaps my hand away.
Stop. Touching me.
So…not warm and friendly, then.
I have three friends in Austin, and one of them kindly agrees to shuttle us over to the animal shelter (making the trip by bicycle is an ordeal I don’t want to attempt). I leave her alone and get to work making a carrier large enough to hold her. It’s a cardboard apple crate left over from moving that says ‘fragile – crockpot’ on the top. I line the box with a small blanket and venture back into the bathroom.
Porch Cat huffs at me. She wishes I would knock before entering. I try to coax her into the box, first with my bare hands and then donning thick work gloves and Jeremy’s long-sleeve winter biking shirt. She is now positive I’m going to murder her. She becomes an amporphic mass of white fur, golden eyes and lighting-fast claws. She evades my grasp, squeezing impossibly into the crevice between the toilet and the wall. She must be cramped, yet manages to ignore physics and her bone structure, clawing at me from whichever direction I approach.
We agree to take a break. I sit back against the door while she eyes me with one pupil visible over the lid of her toilet fortress. I question my first assumption that she is not feral. I slow blink at her, and after a moment she blinks back. Not feral, just scared. Scared of the human with huge hands who trapped her in this tiny room and keeps grabbing at her.
I can sympathize. I explain the situation to her: I mean no harm, I’m only trying to help her get home. She blinks at me some more.
Feeling better after our heart-to-heart, I approach again but she refuses to participate in any more peaceful exercises. She enters some fourth dimensinon of space, practically disappearing into the wall. She is taking no chances and states her position firmly. Meanwhile, Quinn sits outside the bathroom door, wondering loudly what’s going on and why can’t he come in too.
Fortunately I know where my towel is.
Porch Cat is unprepared for towels, which pop her out of the fourth dimension. She zips up onto the counter, where a towel dropped over her from above ends the struggle. I set her, towel and all, into the box and close the lid. She protests this treatment, shooting claws through every airhole simultaneously. I pointlessly apologize for helping her like this and tape the box shut while she calls me bad names through the airholes.
Once I return from the animal shelter where Porch Cat (who was microchipped) waits for her owner to take her safe home, Quinn meets me at the door, most irritated. I’ve been unfaithful, he claims. I left the house with a strange cat, and he’s always petitioning to go outside and why should a stranger get to go outside and that’s not fair.
I explain the situation and cuddle him and he calms down. But he spends the rest of the week staring at me accusingly. Finally I earn his forgiveness with a tuna offering, and life returns to normal. You can’t explain to a cat, but you can solve most problems with tuna.
Or failing that, with a towel.

Irish Fest

On Thursday we arrive at the festival grounds early and walk around, looking at vendors and food carts before heading to the dance pavilion. The dynamic here is different than at the weekly dance nights. Blurry confusion from the surrounding festival seeps into the open tent. Spectators watch from picnic tables around the dance floor. We’re still early, and for a while it’s just us, a couple out-of-towners, and a handful of the core Milwaukee group.
Some of us get up for the ceili dancing which precedes the set dances. We do Haymaker’s Jig and then a set dance I’ve never heard of before. I try to dance lead for a blond preteen girl. We mess up a lot but she’s laughing and loving it. She mirrors my spirit, a young dancer doing what she loves and who cares if she’s doing it wrong. Not her and not me.
It grows dark outside the tent and the sky above Lake Michigan is a stripe of blue beneath a cap of night. RiRa, the first band of the weekend, takes the stage. Sets form on the dance floor before anyone knows what the first dance will be. We walk onto the floor, joining the giddy assembly, and a set forms around us. We’re runners on a starting line, ready for the call to get ready. The set is Clare Plain. RiRa plays the opening notes, putting everyone on their marks—and we’re off.
We know this set and don’t need it called, calling it quietly to ourselves through the figures. It’s the first dance we learned, a whole year ago, and we’re dancing it now at the first set of the first night of Irish Fest.
We do great.
After a few more sets, just a few to open the weekend, everyone gathers at the tables to talk with old friends, getting reacquainted, meeting new ones. People come to us and shake hands and introduce themselves. They’re from Seattle and Toledo and Chicago and Ireland and Detroit. They are a gentle, polite kind of friendly, ready to dance, ready to sit and talk, ready to enjoy themselves. We talk until the floodlights dim around the tent. The sky is all black now, the lake invisible in the dark.
After the festival closes for the night we go to a friend’s house for a late potluck. We help set out food on the L-shaped patio: quiches, pulled pork tacos, quinoa salad, melons, pretzels. We pile meat on small tortillas and carry them dripping to folding chairs set along the patio.
More people come by and introduce themselves and we talk about beginners’ dancing and contra dancing and how we learned about set dancing.
Sometime after midnight, I’m getting cold and sleepy. Remembering that I have to drive home, I tap Jeremy’s arm and he’s ready too. Our host hugs us and walks us down the neat garden path around the side of the house, past soft glowing lamps in the foliage and flocks of plastic flamingos, to the gate where we say thank you and goodbye.
“Safe home,” he says. It’s a thing they say: safe home. I like it. It’s fitting to this group.
Safe home; tomorrow we dance.

A Chair with a View

I put on bicycling capris and fill my water bottle. I consider making coffee, taking a thermos out and rolling it between my hands. It’s hot today though. For once I don’t need extra heat. I’ll make coffee when I come back; I’ll need the energy for typing up the latest draft of a short story.

I carry my bike downstairs and ride across the lawn, across a short bridge and into the street. Down the New Berlin Trail, listening to a Nerdist interview with Pauly Shore. They’re talking about how fame ruins some people. How some people never grow up, evolve, find their center.  I ride past the golf course, turn right, go under the bridge. Cross another street, ride around the pond, past kids playing on the steps going into the water. It always smells like fish right there.

Beyond the pond lies a wide open lawn.  A gaggle of geese forage there for lunch. They walk slowly with their heads down, watching the grass, occasionally stabbing their beaks in. They look like a search party seeking a lost trinket.

I rest my bike against a tree beyond them and set up my camp chair. It’s nice having mobile seating. You get to pick the spot that way. The view.  The level of separation. The clean factor. Benches and picnic tables are too close to footpaths. Too close to stares and loud talkers.  I need distance.

Chair

People usually feel closer to me than they are. The closer they are, the louder their noise, the weight of their presence. It’s fine to be in among them, but not for very long. I have to pull away and absorb the experience, or it’s lost to me. Like smelling a strong smell too long or too often. The ability to sense it diminishes.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about the restaurant atmosphere, how it provides just enough stimulation to keep you writing without your mind getting bored of all the silence.  To me, restaurants and coffee shops feel close and crowded and loud, even when they’re mostly empty.  I do have some favorites that are tolerably quiet: The Stone Creek Coffee store on Bluemound, or on 5th street across from the bus station, and (my favorite) the one in the Radio Milwaukee building with its many counters and tables and corners.  The best places, though, are parks. I take my camp chair and a water bottle and notebook and set up camp wherever seems good. Something about bringing your own chair to a public area makes people keep their distance. On a park bench you’re shared property. All kinds of people will come bother you, shout at you from the playground, sit alongside and ask you questions. But when you’re out in some spacious grassy area on your own chair, you’re in a boundary that people inherently sense and avoid. Plus you’re writing which strengthens the barrier.

After an hour or so, my thoughts and experiences stored on paper, freeing up space in my mind for new things, I pack up and ride home, back into the world, exchanging nods and smiles with people I pass.