“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What’s on your bucket list?”

Two questions to bookend a life. Both ask, what are your aspirations. I wanted a pony when I was five years old. By the time I was fifty-five I had the ability to earn enough money to support a horse, had the knowledge to take good care of one if I had it, and knew how to ride. When I was a pre-teen, I wanted to be a mad scientist. In my twenties I got jobs working in laboratories. Maybe not a mad scientist, but perhaps a disgruntled one. When I was in high school, I had the idea I might like to write. Throughout my life I’ve written a lot of technical and business documents, but my first novel wasn’t published until I was in my sixties.

At some point, I got the insane idea that it would be really great to hike the Triple Crown of backpacking–the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. I’ve never once in my life done an overnight backpacking trip. I’ve owned a Kelty Tioga backpack for decades and used it along with a Eurail pass to travel all over Europe, but that was another time and another aspiration. I’ve seen the movie and read the book Wild multiple times, listened to hiking podcasts, dreamed a lot. But my knees don’t think this long distance hiking with a heavy pack is a good idea. The days when I could even consider these treks is past. In fact, my sleeping in tent days seem to be over. And yet….

When I was in California on family business, my husband and I took a break one afternoon and drove an hour and a half up into the mountains. There, for the first, and maybe the only time, I got to set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail. I “hiked” about one hundred yards down and back along a trail that begins at the the U.S. border with Mexico and ends just over the border into Canada. To hike its 2650 mile length usually takes a through hiker many months. I’ll never do that, but I consider the aspiration to walk on that trail satisfied. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I set foot on it.

Not all aspirations, hopes, dreams will be fully realized, and sometimes it takes decades to accomplish even a part of a goal. But that doesn’t mean it has to be abandoned. Or that the whole trail needs to be hiked. I suppose over my lifetime I’ve come to be happy with adjusted expectations. And my bucket list keeps growing. Some items have been scratched off as complete, some removed as no longer important to me. It would be kind of nice to learn to juggle and to weld, but those aren’t really high on my list any more.

I think that I may yet set foot on the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trails–not to hike their length, but to see them, walk a bit. My new aspiration is to earn the Jackson County Parks Department’s badge for hiking all the zone trails. That is doable, I think. And what do I want to be when I grow up? Well, I’m still working on that one.

Image: Me on the PCT. By Jonathan Hutchins

The Late Winter Optimist

Once again I have succumbed to the siren song of the winter seed catalog. In spite of my optimistic post of the past, I really was teetering on the edge of full surrender to a life free of the agony of gardening. But that little bomb that came in the mail, in the bleakest time of the year for a Midwestern gardener, sucked me in. I perused. I made selections. I inventoried my existing stash of seeds. I ordered new seeds. I counted back from the days for the last projected frost, days to germination, best days to plant by the moon according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. I have a three page blueprint for the layout of the garden beds with an eye to companion planting. I’ve evaluated my fences and acquired new posts to keep them upright. Of course, the weather, beasts, weeds, and all will conspire against me. I imagine the chipmunks in their underground bunkers laying plans for their spring assault. There must be some kind of twelve step program to help people like me, the gardening addicted. And yet, the leek seeds all germinated, spreading their tiny contagion of optimism.

Even in the deepest darkest throes of winter, there is room for optimism. There has to be. Otherwise we’d give up, shrivel up, and…well, you know. Recently a family emergency called me out of state. My cat sitter, who spoils the kids so mercilessly that when I come home I get the, “Who are you and what have you done with Aunt Laurie?” treatment, watered my little starter seedlings. Not only have the leeks survived, but they are thriving. I made it home just in time to plant the other seeds on schedule: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and my eternal overachievers, the cucumbers. They may or may not come up in seven to fourteen days.

More dead-of-winter hopefulness has reared its lovely head: a publisher has expressed interest in The Gingerbread House.  Add to that the news from an editing client that his book has been accepted by a publisher, and things are looking pretty good. But to keep me grounded in reality, a flash fiction piece got rejected. Review, possibly rewrite, submit somewhere else.

I have discovered that sitting on a plane for several hours contributes to my optimism. I managed to do a first draft of a short story that has been tickling the back of my mind, and got down pages of notes on the various novels that have need of my attention. In fact, most of this blog post is the product of flying through the air in a metal tube. Perhaps if I become a world traveler I’ll get a lot more written.

Unfortunately, I may be headed back out of state in the near future. Probably all of the plants will die while I’m gone. I don’t care. I’m hopeful now. And that’s a good place to start.

Image: Optimistic leeks. By Marilyn Evans

Algorithms, Censorship, and You

Have you been the victim of a static algorithm? You might be entitled to compensation. Well, no, probably not.

I’m a member of a Facebook group where people express candid opinions. Recently one of the active members had a post removed by FB because, it said, its algorithm identified inappropriate language (we think it was because of a four letter word associated with fornication and other fun activities). Now, this group has adult members who in the real world use some pretty salty language, and we would be shocked, shocked, I tell you (I said, clutching my pearls) if everyone suddenly went Church Lady on us. The algorithm apparently has set parameters for what is fine to post and what is not without taking into consideration the person using it, the group, or the situation. This is not AI as far as I can tell, because Artificial Intelligence learns and might in time figure out that this group likes its colorful language.

So, here it is–the problem of censorship in its infant phase, telling you what is and isn’t acceptable in a private group. Mind you, I totally agree with the unacceptability of hate speech, bullying, denigration, and all the other stuff that is not acceptable in just about every circumstance. But, I sort of wonder how these authors would promote their books on Facebook or other sites that make determinations about the use of certain words. And to top all that off, that same word shows up elsewhere on FB. Why one place and not the other?

As I have said many times, I don’t believe in censorship (except every copy of Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster should be burned), but if we must censor, shouldn’t it be from a set of agreed upon standards? Shouldn’t it be consistent, fair, take into consideration context? But that is harder than it might seem. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to describe his test for obscenity. He responded: “I know it when I see it.” He probably didn’t. We have been struggling with defining limits on speech and other forms of expression for a very long time.

We as a society have agreed to remove some words from use because of their charged past. Recently I was watching the television series about Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U. S. Marshall west of the Mississippi, based on a biographical book series by Sidney Thompson. When a White woman, the former owner of Bass and his wife, offers to take them back into servitude and to be kind enough to keep their children from being “field n*****s”, it was profoundly shocking to hear the “N word” spoken. When Jennie slaps her and throws her out of her home, I was cheering along with everybody else, I’m pretty sure. Words do have power, and words can hurt. But knowing when to use those words can be important. I’m sure the actress who had to utter that word struggled to keep from flinching, but the power of that ugliness was necessary because it conveyed the ugliness of the time.

I think most Americans believe we are free and open minded. Yet a tiny handful of people have been challenging and succeeding in getting a huge number of books banned. Minority opinions have overridden the majority and demanded removal of access to literature often about other minorities, underrepresented people who struggle to have their voices heard.  It seems like a kind of madness for one tiny group to silence another tiny group when most of us want to hear what they have to say so we can judge for ourselves from a position of knowledge and exposure to different ideas and points of view.

High schools and middle schools have become a hot bed of censorship.  We appear to be so terrified of offending and controversy that we silence needed dialogs. The students of Jackson-Reed High School were denied the opportunity to host a  Palestinian cultural event, and the same school pushed back on teachers covering Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” and “Night” by Elie Wiese which both deal with the Holocaust.  The thing is, if Vladimir Putin is determined that the Ukrainian country and culture have no right to exist,  and Benjamin Netanyahu thinks 25,000 dead Palestinians are not enough, perhaps children should be taught and adults reminded what genocide looks like.

So back to our algorithm. Who decided f*** is not okay for Facebook posts in a members only group? Why is it okay in some places and not others? Where is the contingency, the consideration for who and why it is used? Can we challenge it? (Apparently, these decisions can be challenged.) Or should we just let someone else decide what we can and can not say? To that I say, f*** no.*

*This is not a members only blog and anyone can find and read it, so I will in this instance self edit. However, if you would care to hear my vast array of colorful nouns, adjectives, epithets, and verbs, feel free to contact me, and the horse I rode in on.

Image: Me and the horse I rode in on. By Jonathan Hutchins.

The Empty Table

My favorite Christmas movie is the 1951 film Scrooge (as it was called in England, but A Christmas Carol in the U.S.) starring the wonderful Alistair Sim. And my favorite scene, and I am not alone in this, is when Scrooge steps into the room adjacent to his bedchamber. and sees the entire room decked with greenery and a huge man dressed in a fur-trimmed robe, the Ghost of Christmas Present, enthroned upon “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.” That is how Dickens describes him in the original 1843 story. A fire roars in the fireplace, and further light comes from the torch the Ghost holds that is shaped not unlike a cornucopia. This is the feast that is Christmas. And who does not try in some way to keep the feast, whatever winter holiday you celebrate?

Feasting is integral to our winter holidays, and in fact, to most celebrating of any sort. Yet in the United States, according to a November 29, 2023, report from the U. S. Department of Agriculture, in 2022, 12.8 percent of U.S. households were food insecure at least some time during the year, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for all their members. That translates to about 44 million people, 13 million of whom are children. And why, in the richest country in the world would that be?

I just finished reading Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of Evicted. In the book, Desmond re-examines the debate about how and why poverty exists in America. The good news is, poverty can be defeated. The bad news is, the U.S. isn’t doing it–at least not very well, not as well as other developed nations. The Washington Post tells me 15 states with Republican governors have refused U.S. government funding for summer food programs for children who depend on school lunches the rest of the year to feed them. The reasons vary from, why do this when there is an obesity problem in the U.S. to “I don’t believe in welfare”. Meanwhile, children go hungry.

It has been argued that famine is not the result of lack of food but of the lack of distribution. In fact, the first food aid programs in 1939 were to help farmers during the Great Depression who could not sell their excess harvests and to get the food that would otherwise go to waste to people who were malnourished or even starving.

In my house, I have this strange idea that no one, man nor beast, should be hungry. We feed the birds, plant things that provide forage and nectar, compost our food scraps that help keep the opossum fat, donate to Harvesters, and worry over whether the little spider that lives behind the trash can in the bathroom has enough tiny bugs in the winter to get by. We take food to neighbors and gratefully receive it from them in return. Food is love, to be shared. It is also the most basic of human  necessities. Droughts and floods destroy crops but not in every part of the world all at once. Those disasters can be mitigated by people of good will who recognize the need and find a way to help.

The use of food as a weapon of war, or as political leverage is beyond the bounds of human decency. People in Gaza and Ukraine should not starve.  People in poor neighborhoods, urban or rural, should not go without. There is plenty of food, if only we share it, find ways to distribute it, make it available through food assistance, community gardens, donations.

Scrooge, in the end, finds his heart and learns to share the bounty of Christmas all the year. Our winter feasting may end when we decided to get back on that diet and lose a few pounds, but sharing our feast throughout the year with those who are hungry should never end.

Image: No food. By Marilyn Evans

Write What You Know and Other Bad Advice

Most books, web sites, and instructors that are trying to teach you about  writing have some tired old saws that they trot out  and are certain, and think  you should be too, that they are the gospel for writers. Baloney, say I. Here are some of my quibbles with conventional wisdom.

Write what you know. The problem is, this implies you should write only  what you have personally experienced. Agatha Christie, as far as I have been able to discern, never killed anyone. But she knew about village life so Miss Marple has all the right moves. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t personally know any elves, orcs, or dragons, but he knew a lot about ordinary folk facing extraordinary times from his experiences during World War I, and he had a deep and wide knowledge of European languages and mythologies all of which informed his writing. He did write what he knew, but in ways unrecognizable from his own personal experiences. Early on, Dick Francis wrote about the horse racing world that he knew so well, but he and his wife loved researching new and interesting worlds, and these filled his later works. I have written before about the importance of research. So the questions is, what do you know? You know what you’ve experienced yourself, what you’ve learned from many sources, what you can imagine, dream, create. But if you’re going to write something you don’t necessarily know personally, you can ground that in what you do know–family relations, small town or city life, love, unhappiness, all the rest of human experience. That grounding will make it real. And it never hurts to find a reviewer who has experience with your topic, if you can find one. But if you created the world you are writing in, you are the expert. Use your expertise to know and write about that world.

Another morsel of universal truth,  get a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and adhere to it religiously. Hogwash. The book was published in 1935 by Oliver Strunk and E. B. White who was at the time a student in Professor Strunk’s class at Cornell. That’s the E. B. White of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Problem is, writing has changed a lot since the 1930’s. There is actually a 4th edition published in 1999, and it may have been sufficiently updated to make it more relevant to today’s styles, but the best place to find guidance for how to write is from the publishers you are trying to get to publish your work. They will often cite on their submission page a reference for their preferred style. By all means, get a copy of Elements and read it, but know what you’re getting into. Be aware that times change and so do writing styles and the rules of engagement.

No head hopping. This is the idea that you have to tell the story from one person’s point of view for any given scene. It is not bad advice because it’s less confusing for the reader, but honestly if you are careful, you can tell us what more than one person is thinking in a scene if that is required to tell your story. Jane Austen was able to pull this off, but if you’re not as good a writer as she is, you might avoid, if you can, jumping from one point of view to another within a scene. Still, if it works for the story you are trying to tell, give it a shot.

A million times you will be told: show, don’t tell. Have the action tell the story, not someone telling you what happened. It’s usually good advice, but sometimes you gotta tell folks what is going on and showing them is too darned complicated. But you can tell using clever devices, like Holmes explaining things to Watson. The trusty sidekick or the Everyman who has to have things explained to him (and to us, the readers) is a common device for telling what’s going on. Yes, telling, not showing.

We’ve already discussed Don’t Kill the Dog. But sometimes you have to. You just better have a really good reason. But, you are told, kill your darlings. Killing your darlings is when you have to get rid of some part or character or line in your work that just doesn’t fit or is jarringly out of place. It might have worked at one time, or maybe you worked really hard on it and you’re really proud of it, but it sticks out like a sore thumb and detracts from the rest of the story. The thing is, you don’t necessarily have to kill your dearest. You might just need to rehome her. Write a story where she fits in, where she makes the story work around her. Or give her a makeover so she fits in as she should in your existing story. In the end, it might be that she simply won’t cooperate. Then, by all means, murder her.

There are a lot of other writing rules that might not necessarily be bad advise, but you really should think about them and challenge them if that is essential to your creative process. My point is, advice is not law. If your way of telling the story requires you to ignore, bend, break, mutilate, or otherwise commit outrage on the rules of writing, by all means, give it a try. If it’s bad or your editor becomes apoplectic, you can reconsider and rewrite. But pushing the boundaries can lead to new and innovative  creations. You have my permission to push the boundaries. But maybe not your publishers’. They, for good or evil, have the last say.

Keeping Heart

I had a good time at Reroll Tavern last Sunday for a novelists night. M.S. Chambers and I were the guest authors, and there were readings of works in progress by some of the attendees. I must say, these folks were impressive. I sincerely hope they continue writing and share their talent with the rest of us when they finish their works. I want to read the final products.

After my talk, one gentleman asked how do you keep from getting discouraged. My response was that I had a husband, two cats, a horse, and a garden. Also, I sew a lot. But he really deserved a better answer than that. Here is something that I hope will address his question.

If you submit, you will very likely get rejected–a lot. There are probably millions of submissions to various places every day. The chances of everything you write getting accepted the first time is minuscule.  Plan for that. The story goes that Stephen King had a spike where he impaled every rejection he got. It was really, really deep in rejections early in his writing life. His wife, Tabitha, famously retrieved Carrie from the trash can. You will reject things, editors will  reject things. There are reasons for this. It helps to know what those are.

You may reject something because you think it isn’t good enough or you’re sick of it or you think it’s too much trouble to fix. That’s giving up. Don’t do it. Set it aside, sure, but come back to it and make it right. Then submit it.

Editors reject things for a lot of reasons. Some you have control over. Some you don’t. If the story or book is wrong for that magazine, anthology, publisher, you’ll get rejected. Prevent that by knowing what the magazine or publisher wants before you waste their time and yours. They will clearly tell you on their website or their call for submissions what they are looking for, even sometimes what they will reject outright and what will be a hard sell. The happy accident happens when you have written a story that you like a lot and for no particular reason, then you see a call for submissions that is an exact fit. This happened with my short story, “Heart and Minds”.

Sometimes the work just isn’t good enough. You can rethink, rewrite, rework it until it is. Sometimes the market has changed. If you’re not keeping track, you may get left behind. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has changed so much in its 74 years that my husband, who subscribed for decades, no longer reads it. He’s gone elsewhere. You can too.

Some things you have no control over. Because we are all so connected by social media, television, books, movies, and in a thousand other ways, there is a zeitgeist that may inspire similar ideas in writers at the same time. When an editor gets three submissions of very similar stories, and they’ve already accepted the first one, you’ll be left in the dust, not because your story wasn’t great and a finger on the pulse of the universe, but because someone got there first.  Try somewhere else. Sometimes submissions will close because there are so many that the editors have stopped accepting new ones. When a call for submissions on a theme for an anthology rejects your specially written work, let it rest a bit, reexamine it, see if it needs some tweaking to make it less specific, and send it someplace else. This happened with “Between”, a short story I wrote for an anthology but wasn’t a good fit for that group of stories.  It has now been accepted by another anthology. Mind you, I rewrote it and submitted it several places until I found just the right fit.

You’ll notice a theme here: keep submitting. J. K. Rowling sent her first Harry Potter book to about a million publishers before it was accepted. Persevere. Somebody somewhere will want that story, if it’s well written and interesting.

When I worked in a research lab, sometimes our experiments would take years to get us to the point we could write up the results. Talk about delayed gratification. My way of dealing with that was to have hobbies that gave me instant gratification. I still have those hobbies.

You will get discouraged. Commiserate with family and friends and other authors, get back to work, if required, and keep submitting. You probably won’t get rich or famous, but you’ll have done something you (hopefully) love, and eventually, someday, you’ll see your name in print.

Image: Novelists Night at Reroll Tavern. By the manager, Russell.

Brevity, the Soul of Wit

I just found out one of my flash fiction pieces has been accepted for publication. Mind you, it’s probably going to be a really long time before it shows up, like a year and a half or so. Still, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. The publisher is Vine Leaves Press. They electronically publish a story every day–they call them 50 Give or Take, and the stories are, you guessed it, 50 words more or less.  In Novembers they publish an anthology of the stories from the past year or so. Mine apparently will show up in the 2024 anthology, but maybe not. It’s story number 1436. As of this morning they hadn’t broken 1100. I don’t mind, really. Getting published is a waiting game, decidedly not for the impatient.

I sometimes wonder why I like writing short stories and flash fiction. I suspect it’s because I’m lazy. Still, writing a good story of whatever length takes work. My novels, Beloved Lives and The Ginger Bread House (the latter currently being reviewed by a publisher), aren’t epic 100,000 word tomes. Wasting Water wasn’t even a novel.  I’m suspecting Wickham’s Daughter is going to be a lot longer just because there is so much story to tell, but it’s not my usual modus operandi. The other novels still in the doodling phase of development may or may not be longish. It’s hard to tell at this stage.

The cool thing about writing short stories and flash fiction is that you are creating a little jewel, self contained and concise. The characters don’t take a lot of side streets and get lost. They go where they need to and do what they need to do. You tell their whole story in a snapshot.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a flash piece, usually less than a thousand words, shows a moment in time, a significant event contained within a careful word count where each word matters.

During this National Write a Novel in a Month November, I’ve taken a little detour from writing my current novel to jot down a flash piece that has been stirring around in my mind for more than a year. Just because flash pieces are short doesn’t mean you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them, developing them, writing, rewriting, and visiting them again and again.  I am pretty lazy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work at writing when my muse pokes me. And she can be a real pain.

Now, back to the novel.

Image: Small things. By Marilyn Evans

Why We Bother

Halloween is nearly here, and it’s time to evaluate this year’s harvest. And possibly think about gratitude for what the past season has brought me. Or not. Spoiler alert–it wasn’t my greatest ever harvest.

Whenever I read about someone who claims to have fed his or her whole family from a four by eight garden bed, I laugh. You have to wonder what they were eating during that time. Cherry tomatoes and turnips? Zucchini? I may not have a particularly green thumb  (on occasion I’ve claimed I have a plaid thumb because my results are so wildly erratic), but I know that even with a  green house and great care, you’re not going to get a whole summer’s worth, much less a whole year of food out of one four by eight bed for even a family of three.

A hunter-gatherer, depending on the climate and vegetative coverage, needs from seven to five hundred square miles to subsist. Obviously, gardening is intended to concentrate that food so you don’t have to range over miles to get your fruit and vegetables, but four by eight feet? I doubt it. Except, perhaps if you are a zucchinitarian subsisting solely on that vegetable. It is a well know fact that zucchini exist in only two states: none or too many.

My folks had a huge garden and fought off deer and other critters. They managed to grow a lot of food, but what and how much varied a lot from year to year. My garden consists of three four-by-eight beds and LOTS of pots. Even when I am able to fight off the squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, opossums, raccoons,  birds, and assorted bugs, my yields can vary from so many cucumbers that I chase down people on the street and force vegetables on them, to nothing at all. One year I had so much chard that I was freezing bags of it, and the next it didn’t come up at all. This year, I only got it to grow in a planter, and it was puny at best. Also this year, I planted eggplants twice and eventually got three plants that didn’t even start blooming until late September. So far, they have produced nothing but one eggplant that is the size of a pea.  After the rabbits ate the baby sunflower plants to the ground, I replanted (with sturdy fencing) and got some nice sunflowers that the birds thought were a really nice treat, thank you very much. I have enough Hungarian wax peppers that there will be a lot of goulash in my future, but the pablanos were a complete bust. So, you may ask yourself (I certainly ask myself), why bother? The supermarket is so much easier and even, one might argue, cheaper (cue the jokes about the $50 tomato).

The answers to why bother for me are as follows. 1) After three attempts, I finally got two tomato plants to survive into productivity, one of which made a few perfect, aromatic, delicious tomatoes every week or so. Those tomatoes, carefully fenced against all manner of beasts, made a salad or sandwich taste like paradise. 2) Remember Schrödinger’s potatoes–the tops of the plants were lush and green with lots of blossoms? Were there potato tubers underneath those plants or not? Until I dug up the plants, I couldn’t know. As luck would have it, I had a nice little crop of potatoes–not enough to feed a family of three or four, but enough for a few meals. That potato patch took up just about half of one four by eight bed. 3) Two pepper plants, one a Serrano and one a Hungarian wax, have made enough peppers that I’ve used them as needed, and I’m keeping the rest in the freezer for later use. 4) I harvested enough green beans, a small handful at a time, to freeze a few and to eat as a side dish from time to time. 5) The radishes never made any radishes, but the seed pods were delicious pickled. 6) The one and only little bitty cantaloupe that made it to ripeness (produced on a prodigious vine) was aromatic and richly sweet. 7) One of the four blueberry bushes made a few berries every day, and they were lovely. And the gooseberry bushes were wonderfully generous. 8) My third planting of sage produced nice perennial plants that will last me for years, the basil plants survived after the second planting, the volunteer dill was a treat, the oregano, mint, and thyme still look great, and the bay tree came back from the brink of death. There is nothing like walking out the door and gathering herbs to bring into your kitchen. And finally 9) the cucumber plants made more than I could eat, more than I could pickle, and more than I could give away. Seems like there is always one overachiever.

I’m probably not going to save any money by growing my own food, nor am I going to feed myself and others (except maybe critters) by the sweat of my brow. But being in the garden is its own reward, and its own lesson in survival, life and death, gratitude, and why everyone needs a breeding pair of pine martens–they eat squirrels.

Image:  Cucumber that died of exhaustion. By Marilyn Evans

What Are Friends For?

For a while now, I’ve been a fan of Michael Brecht, one of the premier rat ticklers in the world. His lab in Berlin studies play and the brain, in part by tickling rats. When rats play with each other, whether it’s hide-and-seek or wrestling with lots of tickling, they make sounds that are the ratty equivalent of giggling. Play isn’t really well understood in humans or other animals though there is good research going on in the field by Brecht and others. What has been learned so far is that play is pretty important to health, happiness, and sanity. When you have friends and family you can play with, that’s a good thing at any stage of life.

One branch of my family is into board games. Another is all over jigsaw puzzles as a team sport. My immediate family liked card games, among other pursuits. I’m pretty sure I played enough games of Spades with my friends in the student union during undergraduate school to have earned a minor in it. That is at least one good reason to have friends: they are who we play with, and that makes us happy.

What else are friends good for? Dan Buettner, explorer and author, found that in the Blue Zones, the places on Earth where unusually large numbers of people live in good health into their 100’s,  having friends is a major contributor to their longevity. Friendships with people who have similar interests and goals, and sustaining those friendships often for decades can contribute to a long and happy life.

But if happiness and longevity aren’t good enough reasons to have friends, how about mutual aid? Lifting a tree off your shed after a wind storm can be pretty daunting, but friends can literally make the load lighter. Who do you call when your car breaks down? AAA, sure, but you might also call a friend. You can hire a service for practically everything these days, but it’s nice to have a friend drop you at the airport and a friendly face greet you when you come home again.  Friends help each other out, and you need never fear that you are alone in facing the world.

A friend of mine who just had some pretty major surgery is staying with us for a couple of weeks while he gets through doctor’s appointments and recovery. I can’t imagine not being with a friend or close family member under these circumstances.  That’s what friends are for. And friends are for telling you when you really, really need to take a bath, or for warning you not to invest in that dodgy deal, or for begging you to get the heck out of that job before it kills you. Of course, friends can get nosy and can intrude too much, but wouldn’t you rather have an honest opinion from someone who really cares about you than a whole lot of polite indifference while you careen toward the edge of disaster?

So who are these friends, anyway? My cats like to play with me. Cat tickling can be a rather bloody affair, so instead we enjoy hide-and-go-eek and pounce-a-boo, though, like Calvin Ball, I’m not sure anyone really knows what the rules are. Doesn’t matter. They make us laugh in our own ways. And Mikey sits with me in companionable silence in the evenings and sometimes brings me mice for breakfast (though they really aren’t on my diet, I appreciate the effort). My best friend, of course, is my amazing husband, but there are many others. Some of my friends are holdovers from my working days, some I have worshiped with, some are neighbors. I have friends who live close by and others continents away.

And what do we owe our friends? I would say to advise without intrusion, suggest without dictating, watch each others backs, make each other’s bail, help hide the body…. Well, maybe not that last one. But certainly we need to care for and about our friends and to make them laugh, with or without the tickling.

Image: Jan, Chris and me, hanging in the desert. Photographer unknown.

Barbenheimer and Cocaine Bears

Those who follow me regularly know I love movies. I love them so much that I am fascinated by how they are made. Best thing about getting a DVD is the bonus material on “the making of”.  Though I loved everything  Dick Francis wrote, I especially loved his novel Wild Horses about the madness that is making a movie.

Since I’ve been reading about how to write screen plays, I’ve seen a whole new dimension to how a movie comes into being. The amazing Blake Snyder in his series of Save the Cat! books on writing screen plays tells what a person needs to know to get the bones of a movie into writing. Sadly, Mr. Snyder died in 2009, but his books and methods are as popular as ever.

As I’ve said in this blog before, when you have a new way of seeing things, suddenly all the world is new. I’ve begun to think about all the stories  that “would make a great screen play!” If only that were true.

I recently watched Cocaine Bear. It was every bit as terrible and wonderful,  hilarious and disgusting as you might imagine.  And, yes, I have committed Barbenheimer, not all at once like some brave souls, but about a week apart. I can’t make a stand on which one to watch first, but as it happens, I saw Oppenheimer first. It was a great movie, but only part of that had to do with the script. It was visually stunning along with sound, acting, timing, all the bits that come together to make a movie happen well when it all comes together. Barbie had a very clever script and amazing sets. I have to confess, I was slightly disappointed and can’t exactly put my finger on why–perhaps because the pacing in the middle fell apart a bit. Still, the opening sequence alone was priceless.

The tricky thing about movies is they are such a collaboration. Even with great actors, a bad director can scupper the whole thing. Bad editing, inappropriate or lifeless score and sound, lousy effects all can hurt an otherwise great movie.  Mr. Snyder points to the Tomb Raider sequel as an example of a movie that just didn’t work because we couldn’t care about the main character. Everything else can be right, but a “so what?” lead in his opinion doomed the end result. The poor performance at the box office bears him out.

I’ve begun to see patterns in movies and television shows that meet the requirements for the” beats” that must come to keep the story interesting. You might suspect that would be a problem like seeing the strings making the puppets dance across the stage.  Instead, it fascinates me. I suspect it’s going to make me a better author of books and stories in general. Mind you, I haven’t gotten very deep into trying to write screen plays yet, but that is coming. And hopefully this awareness will help me succeed.

I just finished Mr. Snyder’s second book, Save the Cat ! Goes to the Movies. In it he breaks down movies into 10 popular genres and describes the beats of 50 landmark movies showing how they achieved their greatness. It makes me want to sit down with my streaming services and soak myself in great film. Alas, I have a garden to tend, a blog to write now and again, and my own adventures in writing a screenplay. Wish me luck.

Image: Cloud, a cat not currently in need of saving. By Jonathan Hutchins