Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Last words: a short short story

My dad and I never went fishing. He would never hurt a living thing for fun, only to improve it. So when he died, and the nursing home director told me my father's last words were "Tell Frank we'll go fishing soon," I was skeptical. I got a different story from the old man in the next bed, when I collected Dad’s things. The roommate gripped my wrist and said my dad’s last words were, "Naked, hairless, moonface kid, pissing himself. Thanks." One of them had to be wrong. Or both.

My name is Frank, in fact, so the director's version looked sentimental, a wish to revisit a quiet time, a small boat. But as I said, Dad never took me fishing. There wouldn’t have been any point. Even with his dogged optimism that he could better anything by his own design, I doubt he thought fish could be improved.

Almost everything else, though, could be improved. Flowcharts, specs,  the layout of a car’s dashboard. The "girls" he supervised at the phone company-- they could be improved, some of them. The grocery cashier without regard for the relative density and material strength of the bagged goods. His children, who barreled through his evenings like the bulls running at Pamplona. He just wanted to have a cup of coffee at a clean table. Why were these animals running around? Couldn't they sit at their own table, with a quiet drink, like him? You could say from an engineer’s point of view, the definition of a child is someone who needs improvement.

Maybe my dad was thinking of his own childhood when he spoke his last words. He had a younger brother named Frank; they could have gone fishing together. Still, I didn’t put much stock in the director’s report. My dad didn’t like Frank. It didn’t add up.

On the other hand, if the roommate was telling the truth, my dad used his last moment to serve up an angry spitball, set off by an unlikely garnish of gratitude.

Naked, hairless, moonface kid, pissing himself. Thanks.

Who was the naked, hairless, moonface kid? A boss who dismissed his ideas? The orderly who gave him a rough bath that morning? A circus freak who scared him sleepless as a child? It couldn’t have been a happy face to meet, as he dangled from the crumbling edge of consciousness.

Last night I lay in bed and imagined those words glowing on the dark slate of the ceiling, in a clean sans-serif type. The words were like haiku. They were a haiku, if you repeated the last word six times.

Naked, hairless, moon
Face kid, pissing himself. Thanks.
Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks.

Not a good haiku. But it met the specs.

I lay awake, puzzling, unpuzzling. My breath came and went, noticed and unnoticed, as it does. My dad used to breathe continuously, and he didn’t anymore. You can’t die on an in-breath. You have to close the circuit.

Then I saw it: the logic in the yelp, the flash given up by a bulb burning out. I got it. He did say those words, standing on the brink of life; he said them to someone who beckoned him forward. Someone who designed him and made him the person he was. Someone who asked him, "Do you know what you were? Do you know who you are? Do you have anything to say?"

Naked, hairless, moonface kid, pissing himself. Thanks.

Question and answer, problem and plan, inhale and exhale. Circuit closed.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Me and Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette just wrote an article about how his life changed when he realized the Beatles weren't magical supermen after all. It's excellent. 

In a strange (?) coincidence I wrote a piece for this blog a couple years ago about how my life changed when I realized the Beatles weren't magical supermen after all.


I think Penn's language has more punch than mine, but my piece might be more informative.

Here is Penn's well-written article.
Here is mine.

And here's what all the fuss is about:

Friday, May 16, 2014


Lately I have had fun writing very short stories-- sometimes called flash fiction, sometimes called short shorts. There's no official definition of how short something has to be to be flash fiction, but "under 150 words" or "under 350 words" are limits often mentioned.

This is a story I submitted to a contest sponsored by Ropewalk Press earlier this year. The winning short short was published as an edition of illustrated postcards. I did not win the contest, but I was one of four finalists.  Maybe someday I will be published on a postcard.  "Published on a Postcard" sounds like a rueful memoir, doesn't it?  I would mail my postcard publication to my friends with postage stamps from the 30s and 40s.

What she knew

She practiced sadness her whole life. As a kid, she wouldn’t play in the rain because of the worms, flooded and drowned. She wrote poems about birds unable to smile. She shouldered sadness, proud and tall, the queen of her own small country.
Now her boyfriend and her new roommate explained kindly, in simple words, they wanted her to move out of the apartment they shared. They said, “We’re happy together. You understand, right?” She wasn’t surprised.
What did surprise her was the ease, the pink contented glow that carried her sailing through the end stage: packing, settling bills. Happiness ends, she knew. When their happiness runs aground, they will stand agape and outraged, crying for someone to save them. But I have my sadness, she thought, and I always will. I can eat my sad heart and I will never go hungry.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writing on the right side of the brain

The classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards) offers essentially one piece of instruction for would-be artists: Use your pencil to set down on a piece of paper what you can see about an object, not what you know about that object.

To illustrate: if I asked you in conversation to describe a Radio flyer red wagon, you might mention at some point that the part you sit in is shaped like an open box, and another part is wheels, which are circles. But if you wanted to draw that wagon settled in the tall grass of your back yard, boxes and circles wouldn’t come into play.

From your seat on the back steps, the little red wagon doesn’t look like a squared-off shallow box; it has the skewed angles of a parallogram. You know there are four wheels, but you may see only two or three. Your brain knows those wheels are circles. But you see ovals, and only partial ovals. Your drawing will look more “real” if you forget about what the wagon is like “in reality” and draw only what you see.

What can a writer learn from that? Let me put out a few ideas.
  1. The observing voice of a piece, whether it is a character or a narrator, doesn’t have to include every detail in the scene. Back to the drawing analogy: not every spot of rust, not every dinged bit of red metal has to go into my drawing of a Radio Flyer for you to say, “Oh, I had a wagon like that.” Depending on what details I include, I might intend for you to think of the exciting candy-apple shine of the wagon under the tree on Christmas morning. Or maybe I’m hoping you’ll feel a regretful pang, that your little red wagon is rusting in a basement far away. So: not every observable detail, just the ones that matter to the story.

  2. Fiction is mainly about people, what people do and say and feel and believe. To write fiction, you have to care enough about people to look at them closely. You don’t have to like them, or approve of them, but you do have to consider them with the same patient gaze you’d give to the red wagon on the grass as you sketched.

    I personally believe that the more closely you observe people, the more you do like them-- or at least you can regard their messiness with some compassion. Not every writer believes that. Tolstoy is with me on this, but I think Flaubert went the other way.
  3. This means that idealists (like me) may not be the best natural storytellers. If I write a novel that shows people as I wish they were – or wish they had been– that may not interest people who live in the real world, i.e., everyone else.

  4. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about utopia, or write satire, or write fan fiction about Jabba the Hutt’s singing ABBA at karaoke. But it does mean that the details you set down on paper have to add up to something people recognize. As economically as possible. Flair is always welcome. A keen eye that sees something in the world and matches it to words that fit just right is golden. It doesn’t matter whether the reader says “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” or “I never thought if that way before, but hmmm.”

The job of the writer doesn’t start with choosing words, thinking about words. It starts when you care about people in the world, take the time to look closely, and absorb the heart of the scene. That's where you find the words, lift those details up and make them shine.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Welcome, Spring. Thank you, Eccentric Chai.

When I was a kid, we had a lot of books in the house full of enchanting language, fascinating and way over my head like a balloon caught in a tree. Poems by Sir Walter Scott and Elizabeth Bishop. The Little Prince. Even my mom's piano book of folk songs fascinated me, with its colorful words and strange dilemmas. 

In that spirit, I wrote a children's book. It's for children like me, who like the feeling of words just out of their grasp --  tickling their souls with light.

In my imagination this book is illustrated. Please imagine the most wonderful pictures you can think up to go with the words on the page.

Eccentric Chai, a nifty blog about creativity, selected this piece for honorable mention in their contest for Children's Picture Book Writing. Thanks, Lina!

Welcome, Spring

I’m watching for Spring to come. I’m watching for the moment when Winter gives way.
How will I know when Spring is here?

Will it be like when a baby is born, trumpeted with noise, and mess -- when everything tells us that we are all changed by this new arrival?
Or will it be like the moment a person like you becomes my friend? Something deep arrives between us. We see each other more clearly now.
Will Spring arrive in a moment of green?

Or could I see that Spring arrives before the green -- when snow relaxes into water, when the wind no longer pushes us down into our coats, when the seeds that the birds look for on the ground sink into the mud.

I’m watching for Spring. I am watching, for one moment, then watching still. I’m ready to welcome Spring in whatever costume she decides to wear.
Spring may come back as a queen, in purple crocus regal robes, forsythia bracelets, a crown of sky blue.
Spring may come back like a mud-brown turtle venturing to the pond’s edge, or like tattered leaves edging up from the melting snow, or like the skittering of ice sliding off the roof.
Spring may surprise me with her splendor. She may tiptoe into view. I’m watching closely, as quietly as breathing.
How will I know when Spring is here? I will wait and I will see.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Forever Love, a new song

A couple of years ago, I wrote song lyrics on the theme of lifelong love and set them to a traditional Irish tune, Citi na gCumman. I asked two terrific musicians, Shannon Lambert-Ryan and Robert Messore to record the song for my parents,  in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary and their 80th birthdays.

The song was a big hit in the Blankenbaker household. I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't have been) that the first thing my 80-year old mother said about the song was "Do you really think your Dad and I are in the winter of our lives? I think of us as being in autumn."

This may be the secret to a long, vigorous life: don't let anyone else tell you winter has arrived.

Now, I'd like to share the song with my friends, so I put together this Youtube video. The tune is a traditional Irish one. The English words are my own, rather than a translation of the Gaelic words.

Thank you to my friends who kindly allowed me to use their portraits in the slideshow, and to my friend Pierce Campbell who supervised and mixed the original recording. Thank you most of all to Robert Killheffer, my fiercely loyal husband, who knows his love is at least half the inspiration for the song.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good knee, bad knee

For the past year I have been living with a “good knee” and a “bad knee.” The good knee, the left one, has served diligently without complaint. The bad right knee has buckled under me. The good knee left me free to have conversations while I walk upstairs. The bad knee begged for attention so I couldn't  think about anything else. The good knee has been quiet, well-behaved, and admirably flexible. The bad knee woke me every night like a cat who thinks breakfast comes before sunrise.

The bad knee has kept me from doing all kinds of things I like in the last year. No biking, no hiking. I've meditated in a chair while the cooler, hipper yogis balance on their zafus on the floor. I wore flat shoes to parties and I rode the elevator to go up just one flight. At the library where I work, when I would get down on the floor to talk to little kids, my grimaces made them hide behind their mother’s legs. 

Ten days ago I had surgery to fix the bad knee. A doctor took about twenty minutes to open up my knee, stick a camera inside, find the raggedy piece of torn cartilage, and trim it back into a neat shape with no frayed edges to flap around and make me squinch my face in pain. “Minor procedure,” the doctor said. I guess it was minor for him, since it only took twenty minutes out of his day. 

For me it’s been more like a two-week vacation on a cruise ship you really, really want to get off of. On this ship, the post-surgery cruise ship, the bed is uncomfortable, the food has no appeal, the bar is locked up and the entertainment is basic cable. I understand I’m getting better, and I can see progress day to day, but – allow me to say something breathtakingly obvious here – pain is exhausting, and pain pills make you blotto.

As an aside, how many of the Seven Dwarfs could be my avatar right now?

Sleepy – check.
Dopey – check.
Grumpy– doublecheck.
Sneezy -- I'm not Sneezy, thank goodness, but I have a strong resemblance to Sneezy's cousins from the wrong side of the tracks, Itchy and Scratchy. 
That leaves Bashful, Happy, and Doc.  I'm usually quite Bashful, really, but the pills I’m taking make me talk without constraint about anything that comes into my head. Junior high school crushes, constipation, everything. Happy hasn’t been around here much lately. either As for Doc, the opioid pain pills have been giving me kind of crazy dreams that sometimes feature my knee surgeon. But on the other hand, the surgeon really did have an uncanny resemblance to Mitt Romney, so who's to say what those nightmares are about.

This morning I woke up and realized that for the first time since the surgery I had slept all the way through the night without waking up in pain. I went to the dentist and had my teeth cleaned, and the effort neither made me sweaty nor did it make me cry. So yes, progress. I found myself thinking kindly towards my bad knee. I told it, “You’re not going to be the bad knee very much longer, are you. You are really shaping up. Thanks, I appreciate it.” 

And then – I distinctly heard the voice of my bad knee speaking up, like a voice-over in a documentary called The Knee Whisperer.

My bad knee said, “HEY! I am your right knee. I am the strong side of your body. I am the one who has been doing more of the work, carrying more of the load. I take longer steps, I push harder on the bike pedal, I go first up the stairs. I have been compensating for the left knee – and the rest of your ungrateful carcass – for years. I have been the GOOD KNEE your whole friggin' life and I deserve a little more respect and care. You better take notes on this, chickie, or we are in for a whole bunch of a painful and broken-down decades."

That took me back a little bit. My broken-down knee thought it was the good knee. Who does that remind me of? Oh, me, the good volunteer, daughter, librarian, and friend, the person who tries to fix the world’s problems between migraines. And look what happens to the ones who try to carry more than their share, so they can acquire a lovely row of gold stars next to their name. We break down. And funnily enough, the very people who are pushing us the most may not be that sympathetic when we fall. We have to be kind to ourselves first and not wait for other people to do that for us.

I said that my knee told me this. More realistically, maybe the narcotics I've been taking had something to do with it. But just because it might be opiate-induced doesn’t mean it isn't true.