Tag Archives: social misfit

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?

 

What if no one likes it?

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Three days from right now will be half a day into the first day of the 2017 Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. I am not ready.

Early this year I decided, “If I finish my first draft in time to book the early bird special, I can go.” Then I decided, “I’m going to book because I can’t miss this opportunity and I want to grab the early bird special, but I have to finish the first draft before the con.”

Two months ago this looked totally achievable. Now? Let’s just say that to meet that goal I have to write approximated 25,000 words in two days and … Honey, that ain’t gonna happen.

Even if I hadn’t spent yesterday and today in a complete funk, it wouldn’t have happened.

The main reason I’m going to the conference is to pitch this book, and in fact the whole planned series. I’m set up to pitch to 21 (TWENTY-ONE!!!) agents and editors, 14 of whom are specifically looking for this kind of fiction. And I know very well that none of them is going to ask for a full manuscript right off the bat. If I am lucky they may ask for a written proposal. If I am very lucky they may ask for a sample chapter or three.

But.

What the fuck is wrong with me, that I have this … this thing that I want to do more than anything else in the world, that I’ve wanted to do all my life, that I know I can do, and I have this patient and supportive guy in my corner, and I have a laptop that works and a desk to put it on and a view from my desk that inspires, and if I need a change of scenery I have coffee shops or a library to go to or a car to sit in next to the river or at the top of a mountain…

And I now even have meds that make my brain work better, so that when I sit down to write the words just roll out of my fingers and onto the screen…

Bad evil men pointing at stressed woman sitting in a boxAnd I still have whole days in which fear sticks its hand in my chest and squeeeeeezes. Fear of what, you ask? Damfino. Failure, mainly. Rejection too. Mainly I’m just scared of sucking.

What if it’s no good? Actually … that’s not really what’s worrying me. That’s not arrogance; it’s plain good sense – if I didn’t think I could write, and specifically that I could write this book, I’d be doing something easier and more fun, like gardening or training my dog. It’s not great literature and it needs some hefty pummeling by both me and beta readers, but it’s a fun little story about something that should appeal to quite a wide readership base.

What if I’m no good? What if these agents and editors look at me – my overdue-for-a-cut-and-color hair, my caftans and flat sandals, my foreignness and fatness – and simply don’t believe someone like me can have anything of interest to say to people like them? What if I accidentally say something wildly inappropriate and they think I’m too weird to work with? What if they listen to my pitch about an alphabet series – 26 books, two per year – and think, “Yeah, right, it’s taken you over half a century to produce half a first draft of A is for Aussie and you want us to believe you can do 25 more full books in 13 years? You’re old, bitch – you probably won’t even live that long!”

What if I get to the con, and pitch to all these agents and editors, and none of them likes it? Sometime in the past 36 hours I asked the Hubbit this question. He said, “Well, you know it’s tough to break into writing. So if that happens we’ll simply self-publish.”

We.

Such a huge, magnificent word. I thought about it for a moment, after he said it, and thanked him. And then I crawled back into my funk.

So now it’s Monday evening. I have two days to prepare. But it’s okay – I have a plan.

  • Tonight I will pack my suitcase. Packing tonight will mean I won’t have to fly out of here on Thursday morning, running late and with insufficient underwear.
  • Tomorrow and Wednesday I will write my two-minute pitch and written proposal, and edit the crap out of the first three chapters, and I will print copies. I’m not sure how many copies … but some.
  • magic bookThursday I will attend a training session on How To Pitch Your Novel.
  • Friday I will deploy all the best words and enchant the shit out of those people (Yes, they are people, not demonic or heavenly powers.)
  • Saturday I will do whatever’s on the schedule that I can’t care about right now, and I will not obsessively replay whatever insane thing blurted out of my mouth during my most promising pitch session on Friday.
  • Sunday I will unroll that “we” like a magic carpet, and come back home.

And then we’ll see.

So how is your book going? And will you be at the con? Let’s meet for coffee!

Alternative retirement planning

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Once upon a time I wrote a personal finance column for a South African daily newspaper. The column was called “Smart Money”, and every week I used it to yatter on humorously about stocks, bonds, money markets and such esoteric entities. It was fun. I got invited to insurance company shindigs and had lunch with movers and shakers like the head of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and they would ask my opinion about the economy, and listen with interest as I repeated whatever I could remember from the last shindig or lunch I’d attended.

Fun, but also scary. I was constantly aware that, at any moment, I could lose my conversational balance and plummet like a sheep out of a tree.

My friends and family thought this was the funniest thing of all the absurd things I’d ever done. In fact, the only time I ever generated more whoops of appalled laughter was a few years later, after I’d moved to the US, when I got a job driving a school bus. According to the people who claim to love me, the only thing I do worse than manage money is drive.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and pondering how much easier it is to give great advice than to follow it. Take my “Smart Money” column, for example. I knew I was entirely unqualified to advise people where to invest, or to forecast economic trends. But I figured out pretty damn quick that many of my readers were people who had accumulated money by being good at whatever they did, but were as clueless as I about how to make their money grow. They were widget-makers and dream-sellers, not investors. So instead of competing with those much cleverer columnists who pontificated knowledgeably about this or that investment opportunity, I kept just one step ahead of my readers by hearing terminology I didn’t understand, getting boffins to explain it to me, and passing along what I’d learned at a rate of about 750 words a week.

Unfortunately none of this knowledge actually stuck, in the sense of me personally doing anything with it. As a result I’m now hurtling inexorably toward 60 – 70 – 80 sans safety net or parachute. The Hubbit is a fair bit older than I am, so when he retired we chose the larger-pension-for-the-rest-of-his-life option, rather than the very much smaller-pension-until-whichever-of-us-lives-longer-snuffs-it option. Not to be ghoulish about it, I’m expecting a decade or so of widowhood (preferably later rather than sooner). I’ve always assumed I’d be the merry sort of widow – like this one:

Seniorin mit Hund am Laptop, auf Wiese liegend

Okay, so she’s not merry, exactly. Poking around Adobe’s stock photos I found lots of beaming bints with gray hair, kicking up their heels or frolicking on the beach. But this is my kind of happy. Dog, laptop, solitude, trees. That’s plenty merry enough for me.

Not like this one…

Homeless elderly woman sleeping rough in a park

If I’m ever homeless, I hope I at least have a dog.

Only … a question that lately has been coming to mind with disconcerting frequency is, “How?”

I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with all the old farts you went to school or varsity with, way back in the Pleistocene … and they all seem so darn stable. Settled. Secure. A nice house in the suburbs, a holiday cottage here, an overseas trip there. How did they do it?

I seem to have lived my life just outside the masquerade ball. I can hear music and tantalizing scraps of conversations, I can smell food and perfume, I watch the dancers flirt from behind their masks and fans. I think I was invited but … ehhh … my mask makes my nose sweat. If I tried to dance I’d be like a sheep in a tree – baa-aa-aah, two, three, plummet.

Abandoning that strangely mixed metaphor and getting back to my point (I think I have one; I must just keep circling until I close in on it) … it’s clearly too late for me to spend my adult life preparing for old age.

For a while, until a couple months ago, I thought I’d get a job. After all, I’ve spent a lot of years doing a bunch of interesting things – not just journalism and tech writing; I’ve also started and run several businesses, a mission school and a dog rescue, some of which turned out well and taught me all sorts of useful skills. So now that I’m willing to let some plutocrat chain me to a desk for 40 hours a week in return for health insurance and enough money to pay down our mortgage, wouldn’t you think prospective employers would stare in awe at my résumé and exclaim, “Wow – you’re clearly a flexible, innovative problem-solver! We need you on our team right now!

We-e-ell, no. As it happened, their response tended to be more along the lines of “Seriously? WTF is this?” And, even more worrisome, every time someone turned me down I felt quite dizzy with relief that I’d evaded having to sit down at the same desk at the same time surrounded by the same people every day, regardless of whether or not I wanted to.

I’ve pondered getting back into freelance technical writing, but the problem with that is, you have to market yourself. Back in South Africa when I partnered with my bestie, Twiglet, she slapped on face paint, donned a pantsuit with a nice brooch and high heels, and topped it off with an elegant hairstyle, and clients had no difficulty at all taking her seriously. I, on the other hand, with my swirling caftans and my hair falling out of a bun? Not so easy to sell to go-getting executive types. Plus I hate it.

So the fruit of my recent ponderings is as follows.

First, the masquerade ball is almost over. The dancers are getting tired; some have already left. I didn’t want to go when it was in full swing; why would I go now at the draggy tail-end of the party? Baa-aa-aah-plummet – and then what?

Second, I kinda like what the Hubbit and I have managed to pull together in our small corner of the planet. It’s shabby and untidy and a tad heavy on the dog hair, but I’d rather spruce it up (or not) than replace it.

ants and grasshopper

Third, in nearly sixty years of rarely worrying about tomorrow, this grasshopper has never gone hungry. I guess God likes the sound of my fiddling; at any rate, He’s provided for me this far, and I continue to do my grasshopper best to please Him. (I understand the moral of the fable; I’ve just never liked it. Those ants are a miserable, self-righteous, mean-spirited bunch – why would anyone want to be like them?)

So I have decided: enough with the worrying and pondering. Definitely don’t start with the wishing and regretting. I’m grabbing whatever time I have left and doing what I love.

In other words, work on my book continues, y’all! It’s called “A is for Affenpinscher”, and it’s the first in a series of 26, which is enough to keep me busy for a while. This first one is going slower than I like because I’m having to take time to walk in circles and get acquainted with the various characters, and then make notes so I don’t get them mixed up. But it’s moving along quite nicely; I’m having fun with it and look forward to putting it out there.

Speaking of which, two months from today is the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. The cost of attending is wince-worthy, but it provides an opportunity to meet with 22 – yes, twenty-two, that’s two hands plus two thumbs up – editors and agents, all a-tremble with their eagerness to sign up fresh talent.

In two months I can finish writing the first book in the series, map out the second, and maybe overhaul a completely different manuscript (a YA fantasy) that I set aside years ago when I realized it needed … oh well, I’ll spare you the details, but I have to do a shitload of research in the form of gaming, which scares me a bit because what if I get addicted?

So, anyway, that’s my retirement plan. If you think it’s a little nuts, you’re probably right. On the other hand, look what I found in my fortune cookie tonight!

Fortune cookie

It’s a sign, right?

If you’re a gamer, which game would you recommend for fantasy, quests and magic? And, regardless of whether or not you’re a gamer, how do you plan to spend your declining years?

Made up

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When my mother puts on make-up, she says she is putting on her face. I usually find it easier just to go with whatever face I happen to wake up in, but sometimes that doesn’t feel quite … enough.

So when I was packing for the road trip Himself and I are currently enjoying, I crammed my supply of face paint into a small bag and shoved it into my suitcase. Day 2 found us rolling into Reno just barely in time for the start of the Hubbit’s 50th school reunion festivities. Getting there was good – a leisurely two days with an overnight stop at a comfortable Best Western. And while Nevada appears to be mainly a whole helluva lot of not a whole helluva lot, it has a certain stark visual appeal.

Arriving was a whole other matter. Tell this South African girl she’s staying at a “resort”, and she expects to see trees, grass, some chalets scattered around a rustic but luxurious lodge, a pool, maybe a miniature golf course – you get the idea. Quite apart from the fact that it hadn’t occurred to me that we were going to a casino (yeah, I know, call me stupid) the word “resort” had me expecting some sort of desert oasis. The reality of a high rise city center hotel, with a crowded lobby that was all marble and mirrors leading to bleak little rooms failed to enchant.

This is how we do casino resorts in South Africa

This is how we do casino resorts in South Africa.

As for the casino, it was creepy and depressing. A (presumably fake but I think full scale) mine headgear loomed in the gloomy arch of the domed ceiling. Arrayed around it were machines lit in lurid colors, silently waiting to swallow your money – and, with it, your hopes and dreams – but the alleys between the machines were dark. The hotel surrounding the gambling area was loud with voices and piped music, but the casino seemed clouded in a dull hush. It used to be fun to play the fruit machines – you carried your money in a paper cup and fumbled it out to push it into the coin slot, and after a while your arm would ache from pulling the lever, but you kept pulling because the sound of money clattering into the catch tray when you won was so seductive you had to keep trying for more, until you were left with nothing but the stink of money on your hands, and an empty cup, and sleepy daydreams of what might have been if you’d stopped just 15 minutes sooner. But now it’s all done with smart cards and buttons. Bells don’t ring, lights don’t flash, and winnings don’t clatter. I don’t know why anyone would bother.

So anyway, we checked in with just minutes to spare, and the Hubbit was all antsy to get upstairs to reconnect with the Good Old Days Of Yore, and I was rattled and discombobulated by finding myself in a crowded and alien world. I yanked my make-up bag (actually it’s a small linen bag that pillowcases came in and that I kept because I was sure it would come in handy some day – I don’t actually own a make-up bag) out of my suitcase, peered into the mirror, thought “Stuff it”, splashed cold water on my face, and followed Himself up to the hospitality suite.

It was full of happy old people clutching alcoholic drinks. I didn’t know anyone. Himself introduced me to Bob and reminded me that we’d met. (Poor Hubbit had no idea that Bob and I had been conspiring for weeks via email to make him feel conspicuous on his birthday, which happened to be the next day.) Bob called his wife over, and although

Apparently I don't remind anyone of Juliette Binoche.

Apparently I don’t remind anyone of Juliette Binoche.

she clearly had no idea who I was and no memory of ever having met me, she informed me that I did indeed look familiar because I reminded her of an actress, only she couldn’t remember which one. I snaffled a bottle of water and snuck away into a corner. People introduced themselves and told me where they were from and asked me where I was from, and at intervals Bob’s wife wandered past and said she was still trying to remember which actress it was, but my smile definitely reminded her of someone. Eventually everyone decided to go out to dinner together, and as we were leaving Bob’s wife found me again and apologized, because she’d realized I didn’t remind her of an actress, but rather of one of Bob’s cousins, who was a very sweet woman.

Alrighty then.

The next evening was The First Dinner (the one on Tuesday didn’t count because it was spontaneous). I blinged up a bit, peered into my makeup bag, and said “Stuff it” again. Earrings and a malachite bead necklace was as far as I felt able to go. And it was just fine, because no one was paying attention to me while Himself got royally roasted (two bottles of “viagra” – Bob’s wife told me she had to eat her way through a terrifyingly large number of M&Ms to find enough blue ones – and a gift certificate for a Happy Ending, whatever that might be – pretty much what I expected after telling one of the Hubbit’s peers to “be as juvenile as you like” in celebrating his birthday).

Last night was the Big Event. We have left Reno and are now in Vallejo, and last night’s banquet was hosted by an Admiral, no less. (The Hubbit is a Cal Maritime Academy boy.) Getting myself ready, I blinged to the max, and dumped my supply of warpaint on the sink counter.

Now to give some background to all this … My friend Wonder Woman decided, for my birthday in February, to make a woman of me, and she took me shopping for Face Stuff. Ignoring my mutters, winces and rolling eyes, she selected some kind of tinted face cream (for covering wrinkled and freckles), face powder (for covering the cream), eyebrow pencil (for revealing brows that might have vanished under a layer of cream and powder), brown eye shadow, and lipstick. And I used it faithfully every day for weeks, right up until Argos ate my lipstick and I ran out of tinted face cream.

Well, as part of preparing for this road trip, I betook myself to Walgreens and replenished my supply. I couldn’t remember what she’d bought, but how hard could it be to buy lipstick and face cream?

Yeah … maybe I need to put more work into this process… It turns out that Jergens Natural Glow is not so much a tinted moisturizer as a fake tanning lotion. I’d already covered my face before it occurred to me to read the directions. Then I hastily scrubbed it off … slathered on cold cream that I got at the Dollar Store … patted powder over that … touched up eyelids (brown), eyebrows (browner), and lipstick (brownish). I have no idea how it turned out, because I suspect that when I look in the mirror I don’t see what the rest of the world sees – and the Hubbit is no help, since he doesn’t ever comment on my appearance and, for all I know, doesn’t notice whether I look like a clown or a queen.

I dunno … I guess I’m just not that good at being a girl, y’all. On the other hand, I’m not bad at happy endings…