Tag Archives: personal history

“Failure is Always an Option”

I watch “Mythbusters.” Maybe not as avidly as my brother, but there are a few episodes I’ve seen more than a few times. Jamie and Adam often say they learn at least as much from things they do that don’t work, as from things that do work. Adam even wears a shirt sometimes with the quote in the title printed across the front. That same expression applies to live in general, I think, and maybe especially to those hard lessons a lot of us have to repeat frequently throughout our lives. You can probably come up with a list of those for yourself without much trouble.

They generally fall into two main categories, don’t they? Lessons from “the outside,” from other people or the environment; and lessons from inside, when you listen to those nasty voices in your head, or when you have a disordered internal system. For now, I’m going to stick to the lessons from inside – the ones that make you feel like your own worst enemy, or like you’re at war with your own body. The kinds of battles it seems like so many people around you think you should be able to win in one blow and get on with your life (and stop making them feel guilty for whatever reason they feel guilty). After all, it’s all in your head, right? That’s what “everyone” says, right? So you should just be able to make it stop, right?

As if. Why do people even continue to believe that, you wonder, with all the evidence from medical and psychological studies saying that we each have a unique recipe for the biochemical soup that keeps us cooking along.

Since I’m most intimately familiar with chronic pain conditions, I’ll start with that as an example. Whatever the cause of the pain, there must be some set of chemicals – in the cells of the body as well as the brain – that act together to (sometimes) continue producing those pain signals long after the initial “injury” is healed. There’s (finally) an entire medical specialty devoted to studying and treating all types of pain, and I’m sure they understand a lot more about it than I do. I can only talk about my own experience with any degree of knowledge.

To begin with, I’ve been plagued with back pain since I was a teenager. Scoliosis tends to show up during puberty (or not “show up” – mine was so slight as to be superficially imperceptible). Yet I complained of back pain and numbness in parts of my back – and was told simply, “stand up straight.” Which didn’t make anything all better.

Of course, the generation I grew up in was only a hair’s breadth removed from the notion that a child with a “defect,” like scoliosis, was a direct reflection on the quality of the parents, or the parenting, and I think my mother would have been horrified by such a diagnosis if it had come in my youth. She would have blamed herself – for not being able to make me stand up straight enough to prevent it, most likely. As it was, she felt bad that we didn’t find out about it sooner, but by then, she realized it was neither her fault nor mine.

These days, I use a variety of pain-modification and pain-management techniques, all of which have had some pain-relieving effects, none of which has made the pain stay away for good. Whether it’s a brain chemical that causes me to “want” my back to continue to hurt, or some other set of substances that eventually counteracts all the treatments I throw at it, or just that I’m that sensitive to my own body doesn’t really matter. Apparently it’s not something I can get conscious control over, and switch off. One way or another, I have to find a way to live with this pain, just like people who battle addictions have to find a way to live with always having those cravings – even when they don’t give in to them.

I have a friend who is at risk for diabetes because of her family history. When she eats sugary foods, she has a hard time stopping. I think she hopes that if she stays away from the sugar, she’ll eventually just not even want it any more. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. I think her family members who became diabetic did so because they didn’t work as hard as she does to control the cravings. Somewhere in her personal, unique physiology, is a sugar junkie gene, or the equivalent, and it’s always going to make her want that second piece of cake, or that fourth piece of fudge, as soon as she eats the first one. But I don’t think occasionally forgetting and having that first piece, or even two, makes her a bad person. (And you need to stop beating yourself up about it!)

We all have to be able to forgive ourselves when we make these mistakes, or “fall off the wagon,” or when something doesn’t work (or doesn’t keep working). And then we need to get up and try again. Because failure is always an option. Giving up isn’t.

This Adventure with my Back

I’ll soon know whether there will probably be more back surgery in my future. My appointment with the VA neurosurgeon is this week. Chances are, being a surgeon, he’ll be all for doing surgery. On the other hand, neurosurgeons tend to be on the conservative side when it comes to treating back problems. I think they know they’ll always have work, whether they operate on one more person today or not. That and they probably figure that sooner or later, they’ll get you under the knife – that is if your back looks like mine.

I’ve read some personal experience stories by people who have similar back conditions, some of whom believe having surgery was the worst decision they ever made, and others calling surgery a life-saver. It comes down to individual differences, sometimes the abilities of the surgeon, too, but, from what I read, you kind of get out of it what you put into it. If you do the work prescribed by the surgeon and the physical therapists, and give the process enough time, you’ll have a better outcome than if you sit around in shock because all your pain didn’t miraculously vanish the moment you came out from anesthesia.

All business about surgery aside, living with a painful, but “invisible” condition is a drag. There’s no percentage in trying to put on a good show or keep up with the activity levels of everyone around you. You end up three times as exhausted as a normal person doing the same thing. And everyone expects you to maintain the pace indefinitely. Or they get annoyed that you’re dropping your end of the load, without realizing or caring just how long ago you may have needed to put that load down for good. I’ve concluded that it’s just better to let everyone down right from the start and grow a thick enough skin (or shell) to deal with the invective about not pulling your weight.

So much for not indulging in a whine festival.

Pain management becomes your most important daily activity or you just get overwhelmed. I walk. I had been doing some exercises to strengthen my leg and core muscles, and for a while, those helped. But I’d still get stiff after only short periods of sitting or standing. I started taking the Puppy to a local park with a one mile walking path so I could know for sure that I was walking at least that one mile. After a few trips, we’d walk almost all the way around, then turn around and go back, to make it nearly two miles. I did it that way to avoid walking past the car. I knew Ramses would want to get in the car – he wants to get in every car we pass – and that not getting in the car, but walking away from it again when I was getting tired would make me even more tired. So I fooled us both.

But now that it’s started to get warm (read scalding hot) here, and that park doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m., I’ve found another park with a nice walking path and plenty of shade where I can go much earlier in the mornings. I kind of have to guess about distance, but I think I’m still doing close to two miles. And I’ve started going every morning. I’ve had to shuffle my schedule a little bit, but have decided that this is a priority. For one thing, the Puppy is somewhat better behaved after he’s had some exercise and fresh air. I say “somewhat” because nothing can change the fact that he’s a Basenji, and consistently well behaved is just not what they do.

The difference in how I feel after I get back from that walk is noticeable. When I get out of the shower I take when I get home, I don’t feel any pain anywhere. I want to jump up and down – which would not be wise, but still. The pain-free window doesn’t last, of course, but I don’t stiffen up as quickly, even if I sit at the computer for a while. Sometimes I keep writing longer than I should, but considering how often I can’t finish a piece because I start feeling so broken that I can’t think of what I’m trying to say, I have to try to find some balance.

I’m not losing sleep, yet, over the outcome of this appointment with the neurosurgeon. I may not wait long to make a decision about whether to have surgery or not, but I do intend to wait until I know the outcome of my VA disability claim before I schedule anything. Once I have that in place, if I have surgery, I’ll have some income to carry me through my recovery if I end up missing several weeks of work. It’s the waiting that’s so annoying. I’ve been waiting since January for this neurosurgeon appointment, and I’ve been waiting since last June for my disability claim to be processed. I’m ready for everything to be resolved, questions answered, and some kind of path forward in front of me.

I was a teenage leper.

Growing up as I did with a Catholic grade school education, I heard a lot of stories about lepers. It seemed like they were everywhere. As unlikely as this probably was, there always seemed to be a bunch of them hanging around wherever Jesus might be taking a walk (so that he could heal them, I assume). Be that as it may, the idea of “the leper” – someone so horrifically disfigured by a disease that was seen as a curse that no one wanted to let that person anywhere near – was the lesson that I actually internalized. And when I was in high school, I was that leper. Or so I thought.

I was cursed (or blessed, depending on who you asked, or the prevailing style) with naturally curly hair. Unruly stuff. Silky, fine-textured and unwilling to conform to any alternate configurations – I suspect unless I applied some really strong chemicals, which I never did. As it grew it expanded out from my head at the same time it encroached more and more into my face and eyes, and would still do so today if I let it. (Most of it grows forward from the back of my head.) But I struggled with it, since long hair was in then. My hair was the stone around my neck. I figured everyone (especially those blessed with long, smooth, shiny tresses) had to hate me. Like it was contagious, or something? What was I thinking?

I was a teenager. Obviously, my brain was malfunctioning, as teenage brains are wont. I stumbled through my high school years avoiding interactions with all but a few of my classmates, positive of their censure. Dummy. I’m so glad I’m several decades older and wiser now. If I felt like a leper for having curly hair, what horrors might the “cool kids” be dreaming up to make themselves feel inadequate? Duh. Although I’m sure there were those among them who were completely confident of their coolness, I’d bet there weren’t as many as I’m sure I thought at the time.

Now, thanks to the internet, and FaceBook, I know a lot of my classmates a lot better than I ever would have imagined. And they’re a cool bunch. But now I know I’m cool, too. Who’d’ve thought that? I have written about this before , and it just so happens that some of us are getting together again this weekend for a pre-Christmas party and maybe a little reunion planning. And maybe some of us will swap “I was a teenage leper” stories. It could happen.

Judy and Puppy

Now I prefer to copy the hair-style of my dog



A Monumental, Colossal Error in Judgment

Yes, it’s probably redundant to use monumental and colossal together, which just shows how much emphasis I want to place on the sheer enormity of the stupid I walked into. I took a class last spring semester, and I enjoyed it. It was a mediation class, part of the overall legal assistant education program at the junior college where I work as a testing center administrator (part-time). I somehow got it into my head that maybe I should just go ahead and take the rest of the required courses to become a legal assistant and basically start a new career. I didn’t actually need the math class I took during the first summer session for the program, but I wanted to take it to prove something to myself, and I did.

Then I took an introductory psychology course, which is a requirement, and I really enjoyed that class, too. Plus I was loving the grades I was making — A in Mediation, B in Math Analysis, and A in Psych. I was feeling invincible. Then fall semester started, and I was signed up for Intro to Law, Intro to the Court System, and Family Law, all on line classes. Oh, my stars and garters. I am not loving these classes. In fact, I already dropped two of them. I have to take my first exam for Intro to Law tomorrow morning, and even though I have a pretty good grasp of the material, I really should be doing a better job of studying than I am by sitting here making up stuff to put on my blog.

What brought it even more home to me that I was trying to cram a square peg (me) into a round hole (anything but science) was when I went to visit my friend who works for the department I got my Bachelor’s Degree from at the local university. She also teaches a biology class at the junior college where I work — where I once worked as a part-time biology instructor myself. The reason I left had a lot to do with lack of preparation on my part, and some to do with issues involved with caring for my ninety-something year-old father. All that aside, I’ve never really lost the desire to teach again, and I’m thinking of asking the department head if I might be able to have another shot at it. Because it’s obvious I have no future in the legal profession.

The Ongoing Automotive Adventures of Sally the Subaru

I have written elsewhere about my cars and the adventures I’ve had with some of them. 

But the fun hasn’t stopped yet.

Yesterday I was on my way to a local event when my alternator went out as I was crossing an intersection. I’ve had my share of hairy situations in cars. I would just as soon do without those, thank you very much. I was able to coast into the parking lot of a large service station and into a parking space on the little momentum I had left. I tried to start it again. No juice. I couldn’t even get my handy electric windows rolled up. Good thing we’re in an exceptional drought. Nothing likely to get wet.

I called my brother. He’d been out running errands, so might still be in town somewhere. Fortunately, he wasn’t far away. But it was Game Day for the local university football team, and a home game. Traffic was already waxing horrible. My brother suggested I go inside the service station store and get something to drink – it would probably take him a while to get through the traffic to get back to where I was.

It’s not like the alternator going out was completely unexpected. The car had recently started making a “new” noise and my brother had said he thought it was coming from the alternator. He said it might be about to go out in a matter of days or weeks, or it could run like that – making that noise – for months. It was weeks.

Well, so my plans for the morning were shot, as well as for most of the afternoon. When my brother picked me up, we first tried to get the car running again so I could try to drive it home. Didn’t happen. The next option was to go get a new alternator and bring it back and replace it in the parking lot. Thankfully, Subaru, knowing things like alternators tend to crap out on a regular basis, put parts like that in easily accessible locations on their engines. It only took a couple of different sized wrenches to get the old one off and the new one on, and without skinned-up knuckles to show for it.

And that should be the whole story, right? We got the car started, I drove it home. It will probably continue to run – albeit in fits and starts – for another 100,000 miles (it only has 194,000 on it now). But there’s more to this car, of course, so there’s more to the story. Along about the time I wrote the original “Karma” story, I’d been having issues with the tail-lights – namely that they weren’t working. That’s kind of a big deal when one works until 9:30 at night.

It wasn’t burned out bulbs or a bad fuse. My brother improvised a “patch” of sorts across a couple of fuses that made the lights work again. Excellent. Except when a few days later I couldn’t start my car. It started from a jump okay, so I went to work. It was winter then, and that night it got down to about 20 degrees with a wind chill down around 5. My car wouldn’t start. I got out, quickly propped up the hood, and got my mile-long jumper cables out of the back. I stood by my car, holding my jumper cables, and watched EVERY other car in the parking lot drive past me. Somebody could have stopped to help. Somebody could have paused, rolled down their window, and ASKED if I needed help. Apparently, I looked so self-sufficient, standing there with my jumper cables, that they ALL assumed I didn’t need any help. Like I’m going to jump-start my car without another car. (Obviously, this still pisses me off just a teensy bit.)

I had to call my brother, then wait the twenty minutes it takes to get from home to the junior college campus where I work. Fortunately, I was able to go back inside a building to wait where I wouldn’t freeze my ass, and everything attached to it, off.

After I finally got home, I took The Puppy out for a pre-bedtime potty break, and noticed that my parking lights were on. I thought, “what the hell?” Indeed. I don’t know if it’s true of all Subarus, but the two that I’ve had have had light switches connected to the ignition switch. If the key is turned off, the lights are off, even if the switch is on. I couldn’t remember leaving the key in the ignition switch when I got out. I pointed it out to my brother, who came up with the solution I’m using to this day. Whenever I park my car, I disconnect one of the battery cables. When I get ready to get back in and drive, I hook the cable back up. For short stops, like to put gas in it, I don’t need to disconnect the cable, but for anything longer than five or ten minutes, I do. Just to be on the safe side. It’s a pain in the ass. Good thing we’re in an exceptional drought. I’ve gotten slightly damp a couple of times having to stand in a brief shower while I tinker around under the hood of my car. How inconvenient it would be if we were actually getting rain on a normal basis.*

And that’s not all. I began to notice other oddities about the lights. Since I drive after dark, it’s hard not to have these things called to my attention. When I turn right, my dome light flashes on and off. The first time it happened, I thought I was seeing lightening in my rear view mirror. Then one night I was actually looking at the mirror when it happened and saw the light come on. Now sometimes one or another of the “door ajar” lights also flashes when I turn right. Another night as I was driving home, when I flipped on my high beams, the seat-belt light started flashing. It stopped when I dimmed my lights, and didn’t start again when I turned them back up, but – bizarre. My brother thinks we need to hire an exorcist. He may have a point.

*Being facetious, here. Obviously, I’d rather get soaked or have to wait a while before I go anywhere rather than have the horrible conditions we’re in this year continue another day.


From the Land of Not-Quite

I live not-quite in a not-quite city, and it seems to suit me. All my life I’ve been not-quite sure who or what I wanted to be, so I have not-quite “arrived.” I was not-quite part of any group in school, and not-quite a great student – not-quite a rebel and not-quite an angel. Sometimes I feel like I’m not-quite even here. It’s a little like being almost a ghost – I sometimes feel like I can observe while unobserved, like the proverbial fly on the wall. But not-quite.

With people from all sides encouraging us all to “follow your passion,” and “do what you love,” I have not-quite been there or done that. And my problem seems to be that I’m not-quite sure which passion to follow – science or art, writing or painting, growing roses or building web sites. Let’s not forget reading. If I could kick back with a good book all day and make a living at it… heaven.

This past weekend I met someone you might call a guru of authentic living. Patti Digh is a writer/blogger that my friend, Tresha, has been following on line for some time. Tresha sent Patti some of her artwork, and one piece was published in one of Patti’s books – Four Word Self Help. Tresha gave me a copy of the book. Sunday, Patti Digh was going to be at a bookstore in Houston to chat and autograph her books, so Tresha asked me if I wanted to go.

Now Houston is not-quite on my list of favorite places to drive in my car on a warm day. My car is apparently going through menopause, and is prone to hot flashes – especially after I’ve been driving a while. So Tresha and I had to find a place where we could meet where I could leave my car – well away from the torture chamber that is the Houston freeway system. Did I mention that the air conditioner in my car doesn’t work? Yeah, that, too.

Anyway it’s a lot more fun to drive/ride into Houston with someone else, so we met in beautiful downtown Brenham, about an hour from where I live and two from Tresha’s home. And they have a handy public parking lot smack in the middle of the historic district – we sometimes meet there on a Saturday to eat lunch at “Must Be Heaven” and visit the funky little downtown shops.

But back to Patti Digh and why she’s in a piece about the “Land of Not-Quite.” I get the feeling she used to live here, too. Her 37 Days blog explains what happened in her life to cause her to want to leave the land of not-quite behind. She has since published books of collections of some of her blog entries along with contributions from some of her readers (like Tresha’s artwork). Her trip to Houston was part of a book tour for her latest book, What I Wish for You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life.

She greets everyone like an old friend, and so obviously is enjoying her life now, it’s hard not to wish for exactly the same thing. Except that nobody’s life is exactly like anybody else’s. None of us have exactly the same dreams or the same experiences in life that may have led us to live apart from those dreams. Let me tell you, not-quite achieving a dream is a hell of a place to be. Suppressing dreams to the point of losing all track of them is like some kind of psychic amputation, complete with phantom limb pain.

I’m struggling to reclaim my dreams, beginning with sorting through the dim storage areas in my mind to find which ones were the most precious and can still make me happy, and how I can rebuild the support structures to hold them up while I learn just how much I’m still capable of doing. For instance, the dream I shoved farthest back in the attic is a horse. I never got over my teenage crush on horses. I discovered that I’m not a natural-born rider, but I never got to spend enough time on horse-back to get good at it. On the other hand, I did get pretty good at falling off. The current condition of my back and various joints makes horse-back riding look like a bad idea.

And I’ve fallen in love with mules. They appeal to the basenji-lover in me. Mules are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for (as are basenjis), disinclined to follow orders that don’t make sense to them (ditto for basenjis), disinclined to let every little thing send them into a panic (as some horses are prone to do), and every bit as attractive. I could devote a whole blog to photos of mules and stories about them – if only I could get to the mules. When I went to the Texas Shootout last May, I felt like I’d found a little corner of heaven, but this year the event has been canceled due to the bad economy and high gas prices. I was planning to spend more than just the final day at the event, force myself to talk to more people, and hopefully get invited to a nearby farm to visit and take more pictures. Not going to happen.

I can’t travel far, especially in the warmer months, because of my menopausal car. It’s not as major a hardship for me as it could be for some people, because I’m quite happy to stay home and keep the Puppy company… and read. If I could make a living reading, that would be another dream come true. It might not be possible to get wealthy from it, but I’m working on learning to write great book reviews so that at least I may be able to get all my books free (and pre-publication) at some future date. I’ve already had several published at Story Circle Book Reviews. I don’t get paid, but I’ve already gotten a couple of free books.

For my third dream (and if I was talking to a magic genie, this would be my third wish), I would love to have a great big rose garden in my back yard. I have ideal conditions – a bald prairie where the roses could all get tons of direct sunlight and great air circulation. I would only grow roses that had won awards for fragrance, like Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Mister Lincoln, and that I could get enough blooms from to take some to sell at the weekly farmers market in Bryan. I would make little cards to go with the bouquets with the name and history of the rose, because I think that’s the best way to enjoy roses – knowing their personal histories.

So there it is. My recipe for a happy life. It may yet come about. I feel I may be moving from not-quite to almost.

Spring Cleaning

Not a concept I’m particularly fond of. When I “clean” things, I end up not knowing anymore where anything is. On top of which, there are no drains in the floors in my house; the walls and carpets would most likely not take to being hosed down. My brother often offers me the use of his pressure washer, whenever I mention that the Puppy needs a bath. A pressure washer is just about what I’d want to use to do my spring cleaning with. I got spoiled when I was working at the zoo.

For a short time when I was fresh out of the Houston Community College’s Animal Medical Technology training program, I worked at the Houston Zoo in their newish (this was 1974) Gorilla Habitat. I had spent several weeks the previous summer working in various departments at the zoo as part of my “on-the-job-training” portion of the course. Then I managed to land an “assistant” keeper position working with the gorillas. Very cool.

Once a week, while the two young gorillas, Vanilla and Je-Je (yay-yay), were out in their exhibit entertaining the public – or hurling excrement at them – I was in their sleeping quarters with the pressure washer sanitizing everything. It was a whiz-bang of a machine, with adjustable pressure settings, selections for hot or cold water, and soap and rinse settings. This is what I really want to use on my house. I just don’t understand why houses – at least the bathrooms – can’t be built with the ability to just be hosed down and scrubbed. Geez. Oh, well.

Now that I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about those gorillas, I wonder what would have happened if I had kept that job. Not much point speculating – I had a lot more growing up to do before I could handle doing work I loved, in a place I loved, with people who drove me crazy. I expected I would eventually find a place where I would love all three of those things. Silly me. That job put me onto a quest for something I would be chasing after for another 30 years.

It’s what led me to join the Air Force – looking for that ticket out of the nest that came with educational funding. Oh, and did I do some growing up then…

I remember one miserable weekend while I was in Basic Training in San Antonio when I had landed myself in a place called “Med-Hold.” I had gotten a blister on my foot that got infected and required medical intervention – on a Friday. I was put on a marching waiver, and immediately told to walk to the other side of the base and report to this “Med-Hold” place, in shower shoes (we called them flip-flops, but they were not the ones with the little piece that goes between the toes). Yeah, really. This was supposed to be so that my condition could be monitored all weekend – something that apparently could not be trusted to my own training instructors. Or it was just the Air Force playing its little mind games – trying to see how much horsedoo we could take before we snapped.

I’d been there most of Friday afternoon, in one of the older dorms, with no air-conditioning, in August (and did I mention this was in San Antonio?), getting to know some of the other unfortunates that I would be spending the weekend with, when I was summoned to the dorm entrance. There stood my assistant training instructor with a bundle of my belongings, and what looked like a letter. She said she had only just found out I’d been sent over here straight from sick call, so she had told a couple of my bunk mates to gather up some things I’d need for an overnight – like my toothbrush – and since I’d received a letter at mail call, she brought that, too. She gave me a searching look – probably looking for chinks in the wall – and asked, “you gonna be okay?” At least I think I remember her saying something like that.

I nodded. I was actually a little choked up. Somebody remembered me? And she brought my mail! I took everything inside to my temporary bunk and sat down and opened my letter. It was from my dad. He had seen an article in the paper and thought I would like it, so he clipped it out and sent it to me with a short note. I unfolded the clipping and started blubbering. There was a photo of Je-Je with Vanilla and part of the exhibit in the background. I couldn’t even read the article for a few minutes. All the other girls gathered around solicitously to see what horrible thing had befallen me. I just held up the news photo and said, “my babies. These are my babies. I used to take care of them.” A few of them got out their looks of disbelief. And that still didn’t explain why I was crying. It was no big deal. The story was about how Je-Je had gone off his food, and they had discovered he had a broken tooth that had become abscessed. The zoo had called in a human dentist to do a root canal and install some kind of crown. It made the news.

All the weeks I had already spent away from home without a single quiver of homesickness, only to be brought low by a story about a job I could never go back to. The human mind is a bizarre place. The memory of that weekend, and of opening that letter, still has the power to make me weepy. Je-Je and Vanilla are long gone, and I think their habitat was torn down and replaced with something else, but I’ll always have those few months when I got nose to nose with a couple of gorillas every day.

Sometimes spring cleaning unearths things – right when we need them most.


Spring Break

Now that I’m back working in an academic setting, the words “spring break” are more than just an abstract concept, or a memory of something I used to do. I’ve had a lot of jobs, and some of the ones I enjoyed most were on university campuses, for more reasons than just the breaks in the school year.

This spring break really took me back in time, though, to one year when I was a student at the local university. At the beginning of the week I went to a local bookstore and bought a copy of every book by Anne McCaffrey that I didn’t already own. I spent the rest of the week with my backside planted in my recliner and my nose buried in one book after another. All day, non-stop, until I finished the last one. I ended up with a magnificent headache, but I didn’t care. I’d been transported to a different part of the universe every day, without having to buy a ticket or pay for gasoline. This year I got a couple of new books to read, although my taste in fiction has changed somewhat, and I read a lot more non-fiction. And I have to get up out of my chair more often to keep my creaky old joints from taking a set.

Something else that’s new is that now I also like to write about the books I read, not so much like the book reports I wrote back in grade school, but more like some of the reviews that I’ve read that have made me decide I wanted to read something new. Writing about them also helps me remember some of the details of the story better — did I mention my creaky old brain, yet?

I thought I’d sit down and make a list of some of my favorite authors through the years — most of whom have been women, not surprisingly. Here are a few:

  • Marguerite Henry – who wrote Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, and other books about horses.
  • Dorothy Lyons – wrote Silver Birch, Midnight Moon, Golden Sovereign (also about horses).
  • Jim Kjelgaard (not a woman) – when I ran out of horse stories, I read about dogs, like Big Red, Irish Red, Outlaw Red. (Wait, is there a pattern emerging here?)

Those carried me up through junior high school, then I got into the “gothic mystery/romance” realm with books by Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Jane Aiken Hodge.

After I read The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, I discovered a whole new fantasy world, and Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, and my all-time favorite author, C. J. Cherryh. Of course I can’t leave out Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, or Joy Chant. I even occasionally read fantasy and science fiction written by men, like Roger Zelazny, or R. A. Salvatore.

For mysteries I used to read Dorothy L. Sayers “Lord Peter Wimsey” books. Then I discovered Elizabeth Peters, Lynda S. Robinson, and Lauren Haney. These three not only have wicked story lines and fascinating characters, they take me where I most want to go — on this planet at least — Ancient Egypt. Robinson’s and Haney’s stories are actually set during ancient times — during the reigns of Tutankhamun and Hatshepsut, respectively. Peters writes about a family of archaeologists digging around the sites of ancient tombs during the years leading up to Howard Carter‘s discovery of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun. What fun! They can’t write new books fast enough for me. I just finished two of Haney’s most recent ones, have to wait until next month at least for another by Robinson to come out. I guess I’ll just have to content myself with more non-fiction in the meantime. And keep myself occupied writing blog entries with a million links to install.

Me and Cars and Karma and WTF?!

It all started with the Vega. It was late 1974 – early 1975, and my dad bought a very slightly used Chevy Vega from a young man who worked in his building and was buying a bigger car to use in his car pool. At last, I had my own car. The fact that Vegas were already starting to look like one of Chevrolet’s monumental disasters didn’t mar its shiny blue paint not one bit. One of the things I liked best about it was that I could put my Great Dane in the passenger seat (after I slid it back as far as it would go and tilted the seat back almost flat) and go driving around and get all kinds of weird looks. The dog took up the whole right side of the car, got drool all over the windshield and dashboard — fun stuff like that. I just loved that little car. And it was good to me, too, for a while.

It started getting some hoo-doo in its voo-doo during the summer of ’75, shortly before I packed up and flew off to San Antonio for Air Force Basic Training. My mom and I decided to take a “grand tour” up to Oklahoma to visit relatives before I got myself sequestered in the military life, and we took off in that Vega. Somewhere north of Dallas, on the return trip, we were cruising along — I was driving because we had decided that I was better at driving through the cities in my “fearless indestructable youth” phase (plus I had quicker reflexes than my mom on her best days), when all of a sudden the bottom dropped out of the power. The engine just stopped. We were coasting. I pulled off on the shoulder and stopped. Tried to start it again. Nothing. My mom and I gave each other the “what the hell?’ look, and then we sat there for a bit trying to work out what could have happened. It was hard not to panic, after all, we couldn’t just call someone. C’mon. Phones in cars were expensive. This was a Chevy. Not a Rolls Royce.

Eventually, the car started again, and we drove on. And it stalled again. We made it to my aunt’s house in Irving finally, and phoned the popster. He was as mystified as we were, but told us to just take our time on the way back to Houston. As long as it was starting again after it “rested” a bit, he would rather have us bring it home than take it to a repair shop in the Dallas area. And that was the beginning of the end of my love affair with the Vega. It had developed a chronic tendency to vapor-lock when traveling in hot weather. Something happened when the gasoline heated up in the gas lines in the engine compartment. It turned to vapor and the engine ran out of fuel momentarily. Always in traffic on a busy expressway. Gahh!

I had a few decent cars during the years I was in the Air Force and for a while afterwards, mainly because my first ex-husband was a car-swapping fool. Every couple of years we’d get a new, or newer, car, or truck. Then in 1984 I got the Plymouth. I should have known that another car that resembled the Vega would be equally cursed.

Also borrowed from Wikipedia

I admit the fondness for vaguely sporty looking little hatchback cars was a weakness I had. Obviously the same poor judgment I showed in choosing husbands was probably at work here. I hadn’t had the thing a full year before the clutch went out, for the first but not last time. Still, I loved driving it. I drove it back and forth from Kentucky after I moved up there in 1988. I enjoyed the freedom of finally having a car that was paid off. For a few years. Before the expensive breakdowns started occurring with increasing frequency. My second ex-husband replaced or rebuilt the carburetor several times over the span of a couple of years. Then it went through a timing belt breaking phase, and he replaced the timing belt about every six months for a couple of years. And we had to replace the catalytic converter, etc,etc,etc. But since he was an incredibly thoughtless spender, we never had money to actually replace the car with something better. I was only lucky that he was able to at least work on, if not completely fix, all the glitches it developed. But finally it reached a point where even he couldn’t track down the problem with the vacuum leaks that caused it to start stalling out every time I took my foot off the gas. I had to learn to stop by down-shifting once or twice, and then, keeping my foot on the gas while clutching with my other foot, I had to use the handbrake to come to a full stop. This was brutally stressful in traffic situations. Fortunately I was living in a rural area and working in Frankfort, Kentucky at the time, and traffic there was almost non-existent by comparison to where I live now. I can’t imagine trying to drive that heap around here in that condition.

After the Turismo I had a couple of cheap used cars that basically fell apart within very short periods of time. When I came back to Texas on the last legs of a 1984 Jeep Cherokee, my dad graciously turned over the keys to his 1985 Chevy Cavalier. “The air conditioner doesn’t work any more, but it still runs just great!” Yeah, that’s right. No air conditioning. In Central Texas. I was overwhelmed with emotion. And it wasn’t joy. I started looking for something I could convince my dad to buy for me. It wouldn’t be easy. He had a lot of the Scott in him. Pinched pennies till they shrieked in pain. But I found something. One of my previous junker cars had been a Subaru wagon, which, along with all that was wrong with it, was actually a comfortable ride for me. It fit me. I found another one.

My current car. Lovely, isn’t it?

It was already 16 years old, but the previous owner had maintained it well and had it detailed before he traded it in. The engine compartment looked like that of a brand new car. We took it. It even matched my dad’s pickup and my brother’s work van. (It used to have a complete paint job. The photo is of it in its current sorry state.) The air conditioner worked! It had an automatic transmission, which I found much preferable to manual shifting since I started having more back pain. It ran like a Timex for the fist three or so years, and then the air conditioner started ejecting coolant almost as fast as the service shop replaced it. The original owner had retro-fitted the A/C to use the new less-environmentally-damaging coolant, fortunately, because none of it was staying in the compressor. Then I started having over-heating problems. Running — or trying to run — the air conditioner just exacerbated the over-heating issue. The repair shop replaced hoses, radiator, clamps, etc, and ran gallons of Blue Devil through the thing, with only temporary abatement of the problem. Gahhh!! I can’t go anywhere in hot weather, especially if I want to arrive relatively dry (if I arrive at all). Again, I can’t afford to replace the car, and can only afford band-aid repairs at this point. The irony is, I love to drive. I drove this wagon to North Carolina in 2005 to get The Old Guy and bring him home. I had Her Royal Highness with me, and we had a wonderful trip. Or I did. The dogs didn’t complain. I’d like nothing better than to be able to take a nice long road trip like that every year or so. I’d love to drive out to California to visit my cousin in Bishop over the Memorial Day holiday and go to Mule Days. Ah, well. At least I have a dream.

Veterans Day

As a veteran, I not only want to thank all the others who have served/are serving in the military, for whatever reason, I want to thank all the other people who have been showing their support and appreciation for all of us who’ve “been-there-done-that.” And it’s a little odd, for me, because of when I was in the service, to even think of myself as a “real” veteran. Because there was, like, nothing going on. Except the Cold War. Don’t get me wrong, because being in the military is a pain in the ass at the best of times, but I had it easy.

At the time  — I was in the Air Force from 1975 – 1979 — I think we all figured “war” was over, that future conflicts would/could/should be settled by the diplomats. I honestly came to feel that military service was a good way for a young person to leave home and learn how to be on their own and deal with their own problems as adults rather that rely on the safety net of parental intervention. The military did still provide something of a safety net, but it was far more impersonal and unsympathetic than parents. Much more likely to administer the kick in the ass when needed. But I was thinking in terms of peace-time military service, and of the military being more involved with community support, and being on hand to help out in natural disasters and such. I don’t know what to think now. Encouraging young people to join the military these days feels more like wishing for their deaths. I can’t do that. My heart is in my throat whenever I talk to someone whose child is “over there.”

I started writing a novel based on my years in the Air Force, as a way of “changing the outcome,” as it were. But I’m motivated to finish it because it’s a whole different kind of story. There are plenty of stories of battle-field heroics and between-battle antics. There are no battles in my story, but there are plenty of antics. It was a very different kind of military in those days, for that brief span when we had a sort of peace, and it makes me sad that it didn’t catch on.