Author Archives: Belladonna Took

About Belladonna Took

Into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, at constant risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic. A wife, a mom, a daughter and sister, kind of a grandma. Until recently a full-time dog rescuer, now more concerned with rescuing myself. User of dog hair as accessory, decor and garnish. Technical writer, strategic thinker, occasional entrepreneur. Voiceless poet and storyteller. Born again Christ-follower and former missionary schoolteacher chewing on some uncomfortable questions. Ignorer of rules, challenger of assumptions, believer in miracles. Skeptical libertarian, equal opportunity despiser of politicians and assholes. Gonnabe gardener, wannabe beekeeper, Monsanto-hating tree-hugger. Morbidly obese chocaholic, with a horse I don't ride because I might break him, and if not he would probably break me.

Kill day

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We usually do it in late fall, after the flies are gone but before we start feeding hay.  It felt weird to do it on Labor Day, wrong to rob them of the last weeks of summer. But at a time of year when our pasture should be lush it is looking tired. That’s why I scheduled kill day early – supposedly next week Monday, but Shane the kill guy and I got our wires crossed and he came today.

Today we killed the first cattle that we’d raised from birth on this land. I know, gruesome … but it kinda feels like a milestone.

We used to buy steers from auction and from private sellers, buying in spring and pasturing them until fall of the following year. But I didn’t like them being taken from their mothers so young, and also we kept buying duds – not every time, of course, but often enough a steer failed to grow as expected, which meant less income from meat, which meant less money for hay through the following winter. So I started niggling at the Hubbit about making our own baby beefs, and he rolled his eyes in that resigned sort of way and bought our first heifer.

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Tshepo became more friendly after she learned about treats.

Her previous owner told us she used to keep her on a halter, tied up to graze in different areas of the yard, so we thought she’d be easy. We were wrong. She turned out to be a bloody-minded baggage, who took one look at our nice big pastures – bigger than a backyard, anyway – before she stuck her tail in the air and refused to have anything to do with us. Undaunted, we added another cow and her heifer. I named them Tumelo, Tshepo and Lerato – which are Sepedi words meaning Faith, Hope and Love.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a sentimental idiot. I don’t name the steers. They are food, and you don’t name food. The first steers we brought home we named Mac and Arby, but that was a joke. Also, naming them after hamburger chains was the Hubbit’s sweetly subtle way of reminding me that they were beef, not pets. He seemed to find it necessary to make a point of this. I’m not sure why … Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I couldn’t bear the way my nannies looked at me after we murdered their kids, and eventually insisted we deliver the whole lot of them to a goat rescue 300 miles away. But that was then, and goats are smarter than steers. In any case, I don’t name the meat.

Of course some of them have names when they arrive. When that happens, I have to respect it. Like the little guy who liked to stay quietly by himself in a corner of the field – obviously he was Ferdinand; I didn’t just name him after some book character. And the goofy one with a sickle moon on his forehead was Moonboy, as clearly as if he’d been wearing a name tag.

Okay, there were also last year’s calves, Kitty and Obie – but Kitty was the first calf to be actually born here, so obviously she had to have a name by way of acknowledging the event, and the Hubbit named Obie; I had nothing to do with that. And … okay, fine, this spring’s steers are named Pi and Eezee, but there are good reasons for that.

Usually I don’t name the meat.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get back to telling you about today. It started fairly leisurely. I yawned and stretched and thought about getting out of bed, and at about 7.15 I noticed that Shane had left me a voice mail yesterday evening, to say he’d be here between 7.00 and 7.30AM. It sounded like the kind of message he always leaves the day before he comes … not the week before.

I called him. “Shane?” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m running late, I’m on my way!” He sounded stressed. As for me, I went straight from “Ho hum tra-la-la” to “Fuckadoodledoo!” and rushed off in search of the Hubbit.

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Lerato, expressing an opinion.

Here’s the thing: we have a routine – more of a ritual, really – for kill day. A few days ahead of time we split our small herd. The doomed go into one pasture and get special treats, not because they need to put on weight but … just because. Meanwhile, the others get used to being without them. On kill day, before Shane arrives, the Hubbit puts the horses into their stalls, while I stay in bed with a pillow over my face and one ear exposed, tensely listening for rifle shots. After a while I phone the Hubbit and he tells me everything’s okay, it all went according to plan, yes they are dead, no they didn’t suffer, yes the others are fine. Then I can get up and get on with the day. But I wait until they no longer have faces before I go outside to thank Shane personally, and admire the marbling in the meat. (I like Shane. He never has to shoot twice.)

Well, there was no time for any rituals today. There wasn’t even any time for me to get used to the fact that I’d condemned my favorite cow to the freezer. There definitely wasn’t time to feed her treats. That made a crappy situation even crappier. Sometimes I hate being a grownup!

For a while the Hubbit had been quietly insisting that three cows plus their progeny plus two horses was too much for our pasture to carry, and I’d been loudly declaiming, “But we can’t live without Hope!” (Tshepo, aka Hope, was the smallest cow, so least likely to produce a large calf and most likely to get into trouble if trying to birth a large calf.) Well, last week I accepted that he was right, which is something that happens more often than he likes to admit (me accepting, I mean; the silly fellow thinks he’s always right, hahaha). But it made me sad because I’d become fond of her, and she was supposed to grow old with us. Her independence, her bossy way of marching over to see what I wanted if I went into the pasture, her enthusiasm for treats … they reminded me of me.

Well, anyway … At about 7.30, Shane’s white truck rumbled down the dirt road and through our gate. All the cattle in our neighbors’ pastures clustered in groups behind their fences and watched. Our girls and their two little boys were relaxing together at the far end of their pasture, but they got up and thundered alongside the fence, keeping pace with the truck. I don’t know why they do that. I’ll swear they know what he’s there for, but they act like it’s a holiday every time.

I was already up; it was too late to stay in bed so I hid behind my computer. Through the window I watched the horses galloping up and down their pasture, snorting and stamping, their tails like banners. After a while,  I went outside to say hi to Shane. The carcasses, clothed only in thick jackets of fat, looked enormous. The heads, skinned and staring blindly, lay in a heap to one side. The Hubbit and his friend Cool Dude were busy sorting various inside bits according to whether they were for human or canine consumption. Between the dogs and various friends, very little is wasted.

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Men at work. I’m glad I get to hide away!

After Shane was done and had left to deliver the beefs to the butcher, Cool Dude brought a wheelbarrow heaped with innards up to the workshop. It always startles me how hot meat is even several hours after killing. We loaded it into big plastic bags and put it inside a chest freezer to cool, because warm meat is rubbery, making it difficult to cut and also disgusting. Later the Hubbit backed his truck up to the shop door, and while he and CD cut the almost-chilled meat into manageable lumps, I slapped away swarms of flies and stuffed it into Ziploc bags, which went into the dog meat freezer.

So that was my Labor Day, and I know it probably sounds completely horrible to you, but I liked it. Not the killing, and not the betrayal – I don’t really think cows feel betrayed, but I feel as though I betray them. The price of their contented existence is their lives, which is better than most farm animals get, but undeniably a one-sided deal. At the same time, eliminating anthropomorphism from the equation, I like that, having chosen to eat meat, I can also choose to ensure that the creatures who provide it experience lush pasture and sunshine, companionship, peace … and, at the end, the grace of a single bullet while grass is still sweet on their tongue.

How about you? Do you eat meat? Do you care what kind of life it lived before it became meat? Would you eat it if you knew its name?

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Totality missed my backyard, but the eclipse was kinda magical anyway

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I’m a sucker for things astronomical. That’s why it made perfect sense for me to drive for nine or 10 hours to a friend’s home in the middle of Oregon, and endure a party with a bunch of strangers (lovely people, I’m sure, but I don’t do parties and I was dreading it), and sleep in a tent despite vowing never to do such a thing again the last time I did it, and then spend a day hanging around because I didn’t want to drive back in traffic, and then the next day drive back home in traffic because I wouldn’t be the only one waiting until the day after the eclipse to hit the highway … in order to spend a little over two minutes experiencing totality. That was the plan. At the last minute I had to cancel, thereby maintaining an unbroken record of celestial events that don’t quite live up to expectations.

Take the Perseids. No, first, take the showers of shooting stars that light up the nights over the South African bushveld. I know about these because my grandparents had a farm in the Northern Transvaal, and every year we visited them and all the adults would sit around after dinner, staring at the sky and going ooh while I sulked and wondered what the heck they were going on about. By the time someone figured out I needed glasses, the old folks had sold the farm.

Okay, so now you can take the Perseids … and do what you want with them. I’m not going to talk about them in this post – I meant to, but I just realized I already did so here, and I have nothing to say about this year’s shower because it was rendered invisible by the smoke sent our way courtesy of forest fires in Alberta, Canada. Turns out I’ve also already discussed comets and harvest moons (speaking of which, the next supermoon is on December 3. Wheeeee! I’ve put it in my planner! I will pack a picnic supper and drag the Hubbit out for a romantic drive in the country!) – so … moving on to the most recent celestial event…

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I could find a picture of the moon or meteors or the Milky Way, but I’d rather stay close to the earth for now. Here’s a picture of sunset over the Columbia, from our veranda. Just another amazing thing the sun can do.

… the Great American Eclipse of 2017. It happened, and I was there.

It started here at 9.09AM. I was busy with an urgent email so I didn’t watch the beginning, but my desk faces a large window overlooking our pastures, and beyond them the Columbia. While I was working I watched the world slowly go dim.

I got the urgent out of the way and focused on the important. I found my magic eclipse glasses and grabbed a sleeping bag and scurried out to the backyard. The light was still bright enough that I thought the sun must be only half covered, but when I lay down and looked up I saw there was only a narrow crescent of sun showing.

The air was chilly, and it was very quiet. I switched my view back and forth between the shrinking sliver of sun and the world around me. The light was strange … not gloomy the way it gets when there are fires and the sun glares through smoke like an angry red eye and the horizon squeezes up too close. It was like normal light, but there was too little of it. It felt alien. I thought that might be what sunlight is like on Mars.

When the eclipse peaked at 10.24AM, the sun was about 98% covered.

I had an almost irresistible urge to sing “How great thou art”, but I did resist because I couldn’t remember the words, and there was no way I was about to take my eyes off the heavens to look them up on my cell phone.

No matter how carefully I watched I couldn’t see the movement of the moon across the sun. I couldn’t see the crescent growing, only that it had become bigger, apparently without going through any process of change.

The Hubbit came wandering up from wherever he’d been puttering around doing farmerly things, and complained that the eclipse had been a non-event because insufficiently dark. I could have got up after that, and got on with the this and that of daily life, and occasionally glanced through windows to see the light return.

But I wanted to watch the bright come back. I lay on my sleeping bag spread out on the grass as the crescent embiggened and the air warmed. I heard birds discussing the return of day. In the veggie garden Mr. Roo crowed, and he and his girls began a conversation about the grapes just ripening in their arbor. I became toasty, then uncomfortably hot. The heat roused the flies and they became annoying, and still I watched. The crescent became fat, became Miss Pacman, became an imperfect disc with one rough edge. And then I missed the actual moment of parturition because I got sweat in my eye. Maybe some things aren’t meant to be seen.

Marmeee waving to train - Hover Park

If you need to see a picture of the eclipse, go find your own. I was looking through my photo album for something of a heavenly nature to illustrate this post, and I found this one of the Marmeee waving at a freight train. Because that’s who she was – someone who waved at trains just because she liked them, and never mind whether anyone waved back.

Later on Facebook I saw a cellphone video a friend had posted some miles south of here, just inside the path of totality. You can’t see anything on the video but a glaring dot, but you can hear the voices of other watchers. They murmur and chat for a few minutes, and then the dot dims suddenly. There are whoops and hollers, and someone nearby – it may have been my friend – says, “Holy crap! Wow! It doesn’t show on video – too bad… oh wow…”

That really pissed me off.

Seriously? What did I miss? What happened while I was looking in the other direction? What?

I’m going to have to stay off Facebook for at least two days to avoid being tormented by all the brags and pictures.

There are two more eclipses in 2019 – a total eclipse across South America in July, and an annular eclipse in December that crosses India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Guam (if it’s still there). The Girl Child was all gung ho to meet me in the Andes, but since both happen in winter it’ll have to be the one near the equator.

If I don’t make that one, a more conveniently located total eclipse will scoot up from Mexico to Maine during April 2024. It’s already promising to be bigger and better than today’s.

I hope we’re still here.

Do you have an eclipse experience to share? And is it just me, or is there something in your life that gets you all wound up, so that your friends just look pitying – and if so how well do you do at fully enjoying it?

 

Skunked

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The problem with skunk spray is, once you have the smell of it in your nose, everything smells skunked.

Yeah … not so much about flowers.

Take this morning. Around 3.00AM Argos woke me by blowing in my ear. Usually he just stands next to my bed and s.t.a.r.e.s at me while breathing softly on my hand. He’s trained me well; even though I fully expect to sleep through the apocalypse, I faithfully stagger out of bed and let him out to do his thing while I bumble around in the dark until I find someplace appropriate to sit down and do mine. Then I let him back in and we go back to bed and the night continues as usual.

This morning, apparently, the need to go out was urgent, hence the ear treatment. And this time Flurry, the Hubbit’s English setter, went too. A few minutes later I was in mid-bumble when the Smell wafted through the house. No wonder they’d been in a hurry to get out. We had a visitor.

I said something profane (I’m trying not to say fuck in here because it’s tacky and unimaginative, so just apply the profanity of your choice – it’ll work fine) and rushed to open the door. Argos and Flurry rushed into the house and rushed around in circles, Argos shaking his head vigorously. I said another profanity (or maybe it was the same one) and grabbed him, and got some kind of oily substance all over my hand. I kicked him outside and grabbed Flurry. By now my nose was well and truly skunked and I had no idea whether or not she’d been sprayed. I didn’t feel any goop; however, full disclosure, it’s possible that some of the goop on my hand was transferred to her. Or maybe not. I still didn’t have my contact lenses in at that stage, and between skunk spray and three o’clock in the morning my senses may have been blunted.

This is my first actual encounter with a skunk, and I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. However, I’d heard that tomato juice came into play when one was dealing with a skunked dog. We do have some tomato juice, but what was one to do with it? Pour it over the dog? Throw the can at the skunk? Add vodka and swallow?

Sometimes life demands a bloody Mary.

I woke the Hubbit, because this is what I do in moments of crisis. I didn’t like waking him, mind you – not because it bothers me to disturb his beauty sleep (which doesn’t work, by the way) but because I’m not speaking to him at the moment, owing to the fact that even the best of Hubbits is sometimes an asshole. That’s all I’m going to say about that; I provide the information purely for context – which in this case is that I was sufficiently discombobulated to swallow my pride and ask for help.

The Hubbit started rambling about hydrogen peroxide, so I went off to look for some. More context: about six weeks ago when I was frantically trying to finish my novel before the PNWA writers’ conference I realized that it was imperative that I reorganize all the pharmaceutical, toiletry and random shit supplies in the bathroom, so I emptied about half of them into boxes, which I dumped in the tub. I then realized that I was procrastinating, and went back to the book. So looking for hydrogen peroxide involved tipping out boxes and scrabbling through crap in the tub, while using profanities.

I found an old bottle that had about a half inch of very old (in other words no longer functional) hydrogen peroxide. While searching, it occurred to me that maybe I needed to empty the tub in order to wash Argos, and I was halfway through doing that when it occurred to me that one might not want skunk residue in one’s personal bathroom. So I went to ask the Hubbit, who was still rambling about hydrogen peroxide and was pissy about being interrupted. I explained for the second or third time that we didn’t have any profane hydrogen peroxide and what about tomato juice? He got more pissy and said the tomato juice thing was an old wive’s tail, and started reading from an internet source on his phone that explained scientifically how hydrogen peroxide worked and why tomato juice didn’t.

I headed out into the dark and windy predawn to find hydrogen peroxide. The Hubbit, ever helpful, texted me directions for how to use it when I had it, and went back to bed. I found some hydrogen peroxide at the little gas station store a few miles from our home, and bought up their entire stock. This is a country store; the assistant didn’t even blink … and as I was leaving, with a completely straight face, she wished me a lovely day.

Back home, I set myself up in the only outside place that wasn’t in the throes of a gale – the far side of our workshop. I mixed up the solution as directed and applied it generously to Argos, who explained that he didn’t like that and would prefer me to stop, while yanking my arm out of its socket. The instructions said to let it stand for ten minutes, so I waited for fifteen then dragged him out into the gale and profanely hosed him off. I stuck my nose up close … relief; he no longer smelled skunky.

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I can’t help it … I love this dog so dang much, I’ll forgive him anything!

We went back inside and … oh my word. Gahhh!

Flurry was on the bed, cuddling with her daddy, and – now that my nose had had a chance to recuperate – it was clear that while she didn’t get a direct hit, she definitely qualified as collateral damage. Well, she’s the Hubbit’s dog; he can deal with it. I don’t care any more. My home will forever more smell of skunk, but it doesn’t matter; my nose is now permanently disabled, which means I never again have to invite uninteresting people to dinner. (Interesting people, aka my kind, take the occasional whiff of skunkiness in stride.)

I’m going back to bed. You please have a lovely day on my behalf

Have you, or anyone near and/or dear to you, ever been skunked? Did the smell ever go away or did you happily adapt to life as a social pariah?

A man and a dog, on the road home

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I picked up a hitchhiker on my way home from the writer’s conference a week ago.

The way it happened was, I left the highway to buy gas, and on my way back to the highway I saw a dog lying just off the on-ramp. As my foot shifted to the brake I saw that someone was already there, so I thought, “Okay, not my problem.”

Bubba on the onramp

A dog, a backpack, and a highway.

I was halfway up the ramp before I heard that still, small voice that speaks to all of us, if only we listen. “Go back,” it said.

“What? I can’t reverse down an on-ramp!” I argued indignantly, but I was already braking. I know that voice. I don’t always like what it says, but I’ve learned to pay attention. I reversed down the on-ramp, and I didn’t hit anyone or go off the road or get fined.

When I was close to the dog, I stopped and honked my horn. The man kneeling next to it looked up, and jogged over to my car. In my rear view mirror I saw the dog raise its head, and then move to a more upright position. I realized it wasn’t hurt – it had just been sleeping … but I was there and the man was leaning to peer through my side window so I rolled it down.

“Is that dog with you?” I asked him. “Is it okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and smiled. I glanced at my rear-view mirror. The dog – it looked like a pit bull – was watching us. It looked healthy, well-fed. I looked back at the man. He was dark, and had gray hair in a long braid down his back, and wore a red bandanna. Even with him outside the car I could tell he needed a shower, yet he looked … well, not clean, exactly, but put together, as though he’d taken some trouble. The air billowing in through the open window was hot and heavy, and I turned up the fan on my air conditioner.

That voice wasn’t saying anything. It didn’t need to; I knew what I had to do. I sighed. “You need a ride?” I asked.

His face split in a huge grin. “Yes ma’am!” he replied. “Are you going near Ellensburg?” I was going 100 miles beyond Ellensburg – further than he’d hoped to get that day. We stashed his backpack in the trunk, and the dog, Bubba, jumped into the back seat and settled down with a sigh.

He introduced himself – I’ll call him Cajun. I’ll pick up hitchhikers when the voice says it’s okay, but I don’t feel obligated to entertain them, so I told him I was in the middle of listening to the final book in the “Wayward Pines” trilogy and didn’t want to stop. I brought him up to speed on the story and we listened together, but every now and again he’d drop a comment, and I’d switch off the CD and we’d chat. That’s how I heard his story – in bits and pieces interspersed with the bloody destruction of the last humans on earth – until I decided his story was more interesting than the book.

He told me he was part Cajun, part Mexican, part African, and two parts Native American. He’s been a mechanic for Boeing and a Marine, and a street preacher to the poor. Now, he does construction work and roofing, and picks up odd jobs here and there when he needs to. He’s a musician and songwriter and has supported himself and Bubba more than once by playing on sidewalks and street corners. At the moment his guitar is in Idaho, but he played me one of his songs that he’d recorded on his tablet. The recording wasn’t good, and I really wished it was. That song sounded worth hearing.

His regular-people life fell apart around 2001. The Man kicked him in the ass, so he gave The Man the finger, acquired a backpack, and hit the road. Since then he’s lived on the streets and wandered the highways of the USA, trusting God to provide, which He does mainly through the kindness of strangers. A few years ago he picked up a job in Sedona, Arizona, and within a few weeks he’d saved enough to rent a home. That job was followed by a couple of others. Life was good. He celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2015 by visiting the local animal shelter, where he found Bubba, and since then they’ve been inseparable.

But things fell apart in Sedona too, and soon Cajun and Bubba were back on the road. I was puzzled that he gave up on a place where it seemed he’d been content. This is not a lazy or stupid or unskilled man. He likes a cold beer at each end of a hot day, but he seemed sober to me. I asked him what had happened and he didn’t want to go into detail, but he said, “I don’t define my work as who I am. My purpose is to live in poverty and share God’s love with the discarded people in this earth.”

He has a grown daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. He had planned to connect with her when he passed through Seattle a couple days before I met him, but something went wrong and a payment he was counting on was delayed. He didn’t want to face her with empty pockets so he canceled, and now Seattle was behind him and she was pissed.

“You think she’d have cared that you were broke?” I asked.

“I wanted to at least take her to lunch,” he replied.

“You’re an idiot,” I informed him. “You should go back, or at least apologize.” (I am so good at telling other people how to run their lives!) I don’t know that he cared much what I thought – why should he? – but a bit later he was texting with her. He didn’t want to go back, though – he was focused on his next destination.

Dream home

When Cajun is surfing the net, imagining his dream home, this is the kind of picture he’s likely to save.

Before Seattle, on their way up the west coast, he and Bubba got a ride with a long-haul trucker, who told him all about the trucking life. So he was on his way to Salt Lake City, where he’s signed up for a training course with a trucking company. Not too far down the road he reckons he’ll be able to buy his own truck – apparently trucking companies contract with drivers and help them do that. He was excited at the prospect of having a real home, but one that wouldn’t involve staying put in the same place.

“Do you think of yourself as homeless?” I asked. I was trying to puzzle him out. He’d told me he could not “live the American life”. Some of the things he says sound as though he’s on the road by choice – a hobo rather than homeless. He says he has no regrets. But then he’ll say something else that aches with hurts and disappointments, both suffered and dealt out, and I wonder what he’d change, if he could.

“I can’t afford a home,” he said, and he sounded sad.

“So you’re not like Reacher – just choosing to live on your own terms?” I asked.

“Jack Reacher? Like in the movie?” He laughed. He liked that idea. He said he personally didn’t want a home, but he thought Bubba would like one, and that’s what mattered most.

Just east of the Cascades he asked for a restroom break, so I pulled over in Cle Elum. While he was taking care of himself and Bubba, I texted the Hubbit to let him know I might be bringing someone home for dinner. The way things work with the Hubbit and me is, we each make our own plans and the other accommodates, but each of us has veto power. So I waited an hour or so, until we were near the Tri-Cities, before I said, “Okay, you have three options. I can take the next exit and drop you in town – there’s a McDonald’s, Walmart, etc. Or I can take the exit after that one and drop you there; there’s nothing there but you say you do better getting rides from country people. Or you can come on home with me, and tomorrow morning I’ll drop you at the truck stop.”

His eyes lit up, then he looked worried. “But won’t your husband mind?” he asked.

“I texted him hours ago and he hasn’t said no. And he’s used to me picking up strays,” I said. Plus, if the Hubbit won’t remember to keep his phone with him and check for texts from his loving wife who is driving along a lonely highway through the barren wastes of Eastern Washington, that’s on him, right? “You’ll be welcome, so it’s up to you. It looks as though you could use a shower and a washing machine,” I added, ever tactful.

So he came home, and the dogs weren’t assholes when I introduced them to Bubba, and the Hubbit was surprised but welcoming. Well, resigned, anyway – and once Cajun had showered and dinner was on the table, the Hubbit discovered for himself that the company was good, as promised.

Cajun's feet

Cajun prefers his tent to a bedroom indoors.

Cajun didn’t want the spare bedroom. He pitched his tent under a tree in the back yard. The next day we offered him the option of staying on for a few days, helping out a little on the farm in return for his keep, and giving himself and Bubba a rest – but he was in a hurry to continue his journey. He repacked his backpack – traded me some cheap dog food that the chickens like for the better stuff we feed our dogs, and left a small blanket and an umbrella on the washing machine. I guess when you have to carry everything you own, you don’t hang onto an umbrella during the dry season.

It turned out that the truck stop near us, that I’d planned to take him to, was on the wrong route, so we drove into Oregon, and he kept studying Google Maps on his tablet and saying, “It’s pretty soon … I think the next turn-off … Or maybe the next one.”

“I’m not taking you all the way to Salt Lake City, you know!” I groused – not because I minded so much as I was worried about running out of gas, and it was nearly the end of the month so I’d already run out of money. The truck stop was at the next turnoff after that, and he put $30 in my tank, because he may be homeless but he’s not a bum.

I texted with him while writing this story. I had to ask his permission to use photographs off his Facebook page, and I wanted to check in with him anyway. He’s in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, feeling down in the dumps. It seems people there don’t respond to a “Hungry” sign, and no one is stopping to give him a ride. He’s hoping a trucker will come by soon, because they usually stop when they see Bubba. He’s moving on, going to Laramie, Wyoming, where he reckons he has a better chance of finding work. His course is in September and it lasts a month, and he can’t have Bubba with him while he’s training, so he needs to save up for a boarding kennel.

I hope they get a ride soon. I hope they make it home.

Do you pick up hitchhikers? What about hitchhikers with dogs? And … what do you think, when you see a homeless person?

 

I have to write a bible

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Exploding head

This did not happen to me, but it was a close call.

Well, my head didn’t explode, so that’s good, but I had to skip most of the evening sessions and the whole of Sunday at the PNWA Writer’s Conference, or it might have. It was intense and I learned so much! And something about being immersed in an imaginarium of writers got my creative juices squirting so hard they darn near flooded me out of my own brain.

So, anyway, here is what I know: My book sucks. I have to go back to the beginning and start again.

On the other hand, I have learned things that will help me get it right. I will now share some of what I learned for the edification of fellow wannabe-serious-writers.

  1. Amazon is amazing. It has a bazillion (free!!!) platforms for different types of writing. Terry Persun, who gave a detailed presentation about marketing writing through Amazon, is a writer, not an Amazon employee, and by the time he was done he had me thinking “Pah! Self-publishing is clearly the way to go – I don’t even need a publisher, much less an agent!”
  2. Agents and publishers still regard self-published authors with suspicion. They acknowledge that times have changed, but by damn they’re taking a stand for traditional values!
  3. It is possible to be hungry and distracted and psyched up enough to pay $8.00 for a bottle of water and a banana. I know this because it happened to me at the hotel where the conference was held. Needless to say, I stayed a mile or two down the road at a hotel that didn’t serve bananas or bottled water at any price.
  4. It is also possible to be stuck with a bill for $27.00 for five hours of parking.
  5. Riding the bus is a relaxing and efficient way to get a mile or two down the road.
  6. Back story is key, and you have to write it down in something called a “bible”. This contains everything you know about every character – and when it comes to main characters, you’d better know everything – when they were born, where they went to school, that weird birthmark, sexual proclivities, number of earrings, favorite flower, verbal tics, wishes, fears and dreams – it all gets written down, and as the characters reveal themselves to you during the course of writing the book, you keep updating the bible. The bible also contains maps of any locale where any action happens, building plans, timelines – in other words, anything you could conceivably need to remember 50,000 words into the book.
  7. You don’t start your story with a giant dump of the main character’s entire back story. You dribble out tiny crumbs of information as you lead your reader through the forest to the witch’s house. This means that, to create believable characters, you have to do a shitload of writing that no reader will ever actually see. (How could I not know this? I did know it, but I forgot, and my first two chapters are just this giant blurghh.)
  8. Some things give away a person’s nationality even better than accent. For instance, I was oblivious to Cherry Adair’s South African accent, but when she mentioned  Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs I had a flashback to my university days, playing glassy-glassy (aka ouija) with my friends and spending hours researching my perfect mate (as outlined in Sun Signs) while ignoring the fact that I was not, as advertised, a tall, slender, green-eyed blond. Then she talked about how all her characters have lots of hot monkey sex, but it’s important for them to have a solid back story, so that the novel isn’t just a sex book, and even though I still wasn’t sure of her accent I knew she had to be South African, because Americans don’t talk about monkeys in the context of hot sex. Anyway, apparently when Ms Adair is getting to know a character, she gives them a birthday and then looks it up in her old copy of Sun Signs, and that tells her everything about the character that she needs to know. (She figures out the sex stuff on her own.)
  9. According to an agent who gave a talk on “How to Hook an Agent”, it’s not that hard to hook an agent, but if they don’t pick you it’s not because your book is no good – it’s because … something about going to a supermarket to buy a snack and even though the chocolate looks delicious you walk past it because what you really want just then is popcorn. Seriously – who would do that? I didn’t get to tell him about my book, so I don’t know whether he’s a chocolate or popcorn guy. The point is, don’t feel rejected, just keep doing your chocolate (or popcorn) thing until someone eats you.
  10. There are many different ways to write a series, but you’ll be sorry if you try to do it without a bible.

What else? Oh – I had my first experience of meeting a blogger I follow face-to-face, so that was cool! Lynn Price of Behler Blog is an excellent resource for us wannabes, so go check her out.

And, of course, I mustn’t forget to mention the main reason I went to the con. On Saturday morning I pitched my book to three agents and two editors. The way it worked was, about an hour before the pitch session they let those who had booked for the session into a special room. (Security was tighter than it is at the airport – there was no way anyone got in without the special ticket.) I was one of the first in line (I was early for practically the whole conference!) so I got to sit in the front row of seats. Five minutes before the session started they opened the door, and every author present released their inner buffalo and stampeded for the pitch room. (Sometimes it helps to be on the wider side of chubby – I simply stuck out my elbows and didn’t let anyone pass me.)

The agents and editors were lined up in alphabetical order behind tables, about two feet apart…

A pride of lions soaking up the mid-day sun. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

They looked like this, only more lions and less grass. (Source)

… and we lined up in front of them, behind a strip of tape. A buzzer went off and the first writer in line scurried forward, sat down, and started talking really fast. Four minutes later the buzzer went off again and if they didn’t get their butt out of that chair immediately a volunteer came up and “persuaded” them, and then the next writer plopped down, while the seat was still warm. This went on for an hour and a half and then they kicked us out, and those who could still walk went and got drunk.

I’ll get the really embarrassing one out of the way first. Delegates got a list of all the editors and agents and what they were looking for, and on Friday morning there was a forum, where each editor/agent talked about what mattered to them and we wannabes frantically took notes. That’s what we used to figure out whom to pitch to. But in the middle of all this figuring out and lining up and scurrying forward to grab a warm seat and talking fast, I got a couple of the agents confused. Consequently, I sat down in front of a sweet lady who listened to the first half of my pitch and then said, “Ermmm … Is this a YA book? Because I do books for children and young adults.” I should have got up and walked away then, but instead I blinked, swallowed, and pitched her a YA book I haven’t looked at for about a decade because … lots of reasons; anyway, it is so not ready for publication. This time she didn’t interrupt me, but when I ran out of words she said, apologetically, “Ermmm … it sounds like a fantasy. I don’t do fantasy.”

So yeah, someone gave me a pity pitch.

The others went better. One agent wants to see a written proposal and 20 pages, another agent and an editor each want 50 pages, and an editor with purple hair wants the entire manuscript.

And it sucks so much!!! I feel like a con artist! Please note: this is not a request for Encouraging Words. This is real, but it’s okay. I confessed to the purple editor that the book needed a little work, and she said as long as she had it within six to eight weeks that would be okay. I’m going to assume the same is true for the others. So now all I have to do is write a novel in six weeks.

That sounds doable. No pressure. I’ll start work on the bible tomorrow.

What lifelong dreams are you getting ready to unleash? Is it scary for you too?