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Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 7 Seriously Right-Wing Noir

In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.   

This time, the time of my seventh offering in my limited series of film observations, I thought I would sharply swerve into the far-right lane and dabble in what I have frivolously and unimaginatively decided to call right-wing noir. Seriously right-wing noir. There may be no such animal but there are films that do proffer a political tone, that attempt to inform, or, possibly, to confuse those wallowing in the centre of political thought:  One of these choice exposés is the Gordon Douglas directed 1951 film, I Was A Communist For the FBI (which subsequently generated a radio series) and a second is a John Wayne Movie that may not quite fit the noir mould but has its own duke-it-out charm, or harm, the Edward Ludwig helmed 1952 effort, Big Jim McLain. As you can tell by the years of release, both films landed smack dab in the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy, his second wave House Un-American Activities Committee assault on Communism, his interrogation/bashing of such Hollywood luminaries as Orson Welles and Lucille Ball, as well as writers, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett. By 1954, America had temporarily come to its senses and the Senate censured McCarthy by a vote of 67-22 for “conduct contrary to Senatorial tradition.”

It is hard to imagine that same level of accountability happening in today’s political divide.

That last sentence by the way is a poor attempt at humor.

I will also include a few thoughts on a third film, 1949’s The Red Menace. It fits more securely into the noir genre than Big Jim McLain, but because I succumbed to the temptation to have a little fun with John Wayne (whose movies I totally admire and enjoy regardless of what his political inclinations might have been), a third film with more noirish credibility seemed appropriate.

Seriously Right-Wing Noir: I Was a Communist for the FBI

As this film begins, we are up to our belly button in the narrative. The FBI is tracking a communist agitator, Gerhardt Heisler, as he travels around the country proselytizing, organizing. His next destination: Pittsburgh.

The main protagonist in I Was A Communist for the FBI, a title incidentally which pretty much gives away the theme, has already immersed himself in his duplicitous mission as the movie begins. He is in deep undercover mode. Based on a series of Saturday Evening Post interviews with Matt Cvetic, the film attempts to replicate Cvetic’s immersion into Pittsburgh’s Communist underground. By the time we meet Cvevic, stolidly portrayed by Frank Lovejoy, often a supporting actor who seemed to revel in playing hard-ass characters, he had been at his task awhile. Matt Cvevic is a pariah within his own large family. At one point early on we are witness to a family gathering and the awful strain that Cvevic’s assumed political leanings have placed on his family.

There are compensations for Cvevic. Or, at least, for his Lovejoyian doppelganger. One is his dalliance with Dorothy Hart, an actress with not a particularly lengthy film pedigree but who managed a range of interesting roles including Howard Duff’s girlfriend, Ruth Morrison in one of the great noirs, The Naked City, and her final role as the tenth movie Jane to Lex Barker’s lean interpretation of Tarzan in the 1952 jungle delight, Tarzan’s Savage Fury.

In I was a Communist for the FBI, her character is somewhat deceitful, a communist version of a femme fatale. She does it quite well.

Hollywood had little appeal to the “luminous” Ms. Hart. She is quoted as follows: “Acting wasn’t enough. I felt some of the movies were mediocre. I wanted to do something important with my life, so I began working with the American Association for the United Nations. It was very, very fulfilling. I’ll never regret having given up Hollywood for it. “

Dorothy Hart and Frank Lovejoy

There were other fine cinematic moments for Lovejoy during his career. He supported Bogart in Nick Rays brilliant 1950 mystery drama, In a Lonely Place, and a couple of years later, starred in a tidy little thriller noir, The Hitch-hiker, a film directed by Ida Lupino.

Seriously Right-Wing Noir: Big Jim McLain

As noted above, Big Jim McLain is not really a film noir. More a bit of a hybrid. However, purist definitions aside, it is a black and white film, which counts for something although there are a number of excellent noir filmed in color.

Events in BJM mostly happen in the daytime in Hawaii. The bad guys are “commies” and HUAC investigators, Big Jim (John Wayne), and his sidekick, Mal Baxter, (played by James Arness, who, I should note, appeared with Wayne in a handful of other films (Island in the Sky, Hondo, and The Sea Chase) before becoming his definitive character, Marshall Matt Dillon, in the long running television series, Gunsmoke,) are deployed to Honolulu to seek them out.

Big Jim and Mel Arrive in Honolulu

  

While engaged in that worthy activity, Big Jim get romantically entangled with the fetching Nancy Olson who is employed by a suspected Communist medical practitioner. In some respects this romantic entanglement occupies a significant portion of the film. Wayne and Olson appear to be having a rare old time throughout, ostensibly making a movie but also makin’ whoopee.

John Wayne and Nancy Olson

      

Of course, there are some exquisite noirish moments in Big Jim McLain, and if they challenge the popular definitions, who’s to complain.

A Flashy Summary Hot Off the Presses

One set piece is quite entertaining. As Big Jim seeks out a communist, he encounters Veda Ann Borg, his quarry’s landlady. Borg almost always was consigned to play delightful and brassy types. She outdoes herself in this film and provides some of the film’s best moments. Politically, she was somewhat to the left of the Duke, as was Nancy Olson (both women were democrats), but clearly Borg was having fun in this film.

Veda Ann Borg and the Duke

     

During their investigation, Big Jim goes to the famous leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai to interview a reformed communist, Mrs. Namaka, played by actress Soo Yong.

Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement

She sees her career as a nurse serving the leper colony as penance for her years as a red. This scene includes a beautiful baby, born to leper parents. Mrs. Namaka explains that infants are taken away at birth (though the parents are allowed to see their child through glass), Some months later, the children, all the newborns, are sent away to be adopted.

 Soo Yong

                                                                                            

There are other absorbing minutes in the film, not the least of which is the appearance of one of the major communist party members, an elegant if sinister fellow played by Alan Napier who years later would gain more fame as Alfred, butler to Adam West, aka Bruce Wayne aka secretly TV’s Batman.

Alan Napier

        

As is my habit, I will leave the conclusion of the film to the viewer. But don’t be surprised if these nefarious commies have up their sleeves an epidemic that they want to spread. And also don’t be surprised if the producers pull out as many patriotic stops as possible as the movie winds up.

I will mention an odd fact that, for a more successful worldwide distribution, the producers changed the films name from Big Jim McLean to…wait for it…Marijuana.

Marijuana-aka Big Jim McLain

 

Seriously Right-Wing Noir: The Red Menace

The Red Menace was a quickly made programmer. It aligned nicely, if a tad excessively, with the post-war resurgence of HUAA. It starts in a bleak noirish manner, a couple in a car speeding through the night,

Hanna Axmann-Rezzori and Robert Rockwell

pausing for gas, afraid that the world they are fleeing is about to squash them…and then the voice-over and we go back in time, a Veteran of WW 2, the male half of the fleeing duo, complaining to a Government agency that a real estate scam has cleaned him out.

From there, the pace quickens. He gets targeted, taken to a communist bar (yeah, I know, but there it was) and then somewhat seduced by a fervent, young, and literate communist beauty played by Barbra Fuller.

The Vet, played by Robert Rockwell, is probably best known as Mr. Boynton, Eve Arden’s fellow teacher in the classic comedy series, Our Miss Brooks.

Robert Rockwell

There are a few quite interesting sub-narratives in the film. One of the characters, Sam, is black and seems to be the key propagandist. He is a  friend of a communist poet, who dies.  Sam’s loyalty to the party changes after the death of his friend.  Draft headline for the Toilers, the Communist’s news organ,  starts out as “Decadent psycho poet a suicide.” and becomes, “Dead Poet a Hero.”

Bosley Crowther’s review from 1949 accurately describes a great deal of the characters in the story:

“There is Mollie O’Flaherty, for instance, a “party girl” in more ways than one,

                      

Barbra Fuller

who believes in Marxist doctrine because of her impoverished youth. She is in love with Henry Solomon, a revolutionary poet and intellectual. There is Sam Wright, a Negro student who works for The Toilers, the party newspaper, whose notion is that communism will improve conditions for his race. There is also Nina Petrovka, a sad-eyed European refugee who got into the party because her father was a Communist. All of them soon are disillusioned by the intolerance and brutality that they see in the operations of the party and their leaders and, in one way or another, they break out. The most effective demonstration of charges against the Communists that the film provides is the disclosure of how the party allegedly abuses and intimidates those members who endeavour to break away. And for this, at least, the picture has a certain validity. But its credibility is diminished by the fustian representation of the leadership, played with villainous expressions by Lester Luther and

              

Betty Lou Gerson

Betty Lou Gerson. In the roles of the discontented members, Robert Rockwell as the ex-GI and Hanne Axman as the refugee are moderate, and Duke Williams is effective as the Negro boy, but the rest are specious and over-zealous. And they all speak much more than they act, for the script is a complex of speeches with dramatic action virtually nil. “

Betty Lou Gerson, incidentally, is most well known as the voice of Cruella de Vil, the villainess in Disney’s The One Hundred and One Dalmations.

The Red Menace ends quaintly in a small Texas town (a town incidentally which when googled, appears to not exist…if it ever did.)

The hero, Bill and the heroine, Nina, stop over in Talbot and throw themselves on the mercy of Law Enforcement and Government and heroine. They encounter the folksiest sheriff you’d ever want to meet. He asks them to tell him their story and to take their time because, “You know there’s lots of things we ain’t got here in Talbot but time ain’t one of them.” We have a “thing” where I live called the Slow Islands Movement. The imaginary town of Talbot, Texas, would fit right in.

Some Final Thoughts:

Film is an excellent vehicle to educate. It is also most certainly an excellent vehicle to entertain. It is also, sadly, sometimes a weapon. These three films in my view manage, in varying degrees, to serve to educate, to almost succeed in entertaining, and absolutely could, in the wrong hands, or the wrong eyes, whose ever hands or eyes those might be, but I am thinking of the easily led and manipulated, that these films might become weapons of, shall we say, mass hallucination.  But I guess that is one of the functions of film, to hallucinate us, treat us to others ways of being…

About the Author

Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia.  He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards.  In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

During the pandemic, his poetry appeared in four poetry anthologies.

He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including a local monthly column, In 200 Words or Less, a prequel to his first novel, Drawn Towards the Sun, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.

For more information, check his twitter, @billmelaterplea, and his occasionally updated website/blog   www.engleson.ca

Bill Engleson peering into the mirror of his life, reflecting on all that has occurred.

Saddle Up Saloon; Howdy Reena Saxena!

“Hey Kid. Where ya been?”

“Been aroun’ the world an’ back Pal!”

“Sure hope ya got someone ta take the stage this week.”

“Yep, sure did! Here she is now. Howdy Reena Saxena! Welcome ta the Saddle Up Saloon.”

“Hello Kid. Hello Pal. Thank you for having me.”

“Whoa, Kid, Reena Saxena? She’s been writin’ aroun’ here fer a long time!”

“That’s right, Pal. I entered Carrot Ranch sometime in 2016. Poetry comes naturally to me, but I always thought I couldn’t write fiction. The non-fiction heads that you see on the menu of my blog are the ones I started with, but did not make much headway in gaining views or followers.

Then, the creative bug struck and I started pouring out whatever came to mind, in response to writing prompts. It helped to refine my writing skills and learn new formats. I discovered that I could easily write 100-300 word stories, if not a novel. These are slices of life, rather than a journey from beginning to end.”

“Well we’re sure glad ya tried yer hand at flash fiction, Reena. We’ve always enjoyed yer stories here at the Ranch.”

“Thank you, Kid. The Carrot Ranch is interesting, because I have to stop one word short of 100. Of late, I find that I start writing, and then find that the word count is exactly 99 as needed. Universal energy flows my way. I don’t change anything after that, though there may be flaws in the storyline or flow.”

“Ha! I know of a few folks that’ve got honed inta the 99 word count. D’ya ever go back ta them stories an’ do somethin’ dif’rent with ‘em? Or d’ya use the 99 word restrictions in yer other writin’?”

“Stories change every time one hears or reads it, and change again when the reader changes. The stories I write here have come from somewhere in my neural pathways, which keep changing. Yes, I’ve used part of the stories in social media posts to make an impact.

My work of fiction “When Time Stopped” starts with a flash I wrote here on WordPress. The story is carried ahead into metaphysical realms.

 I usually go with a 100 word limit, not 99. Those pieces, if tagged correctly, are easily searchable on the internet.”

“Ya got a fav’rite genre?”

“As far as genres that I write in, I’m still on a journey. I am a former banker, coach, image consultant, writer, artist, feminist and all of that finds a way into my blogs and books. Each subject demands a different style.

I started blogging with quotes from the masters, and links to scholarly articles. I received feedback that I need to relax, and make the style more conversational and engaging. Quora happened on the way, and I was chosen Quora Top Writer in 2018. Writing fiction and poetry on WordPress helped me improvise writing on other platforms. This is a learning ground to practise skills. 

Of late, I’m doing the scripts for online learning videos, which need a lot of storytelling and storyboarding. I’ll be immodest enough to say that I’ve come a long way.

My books that you’ll find on Amazon are fiction, poetry and banking.”

“Wow, yer mighty versatile, Reena.

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/HnrQ_BzpInM_vFmBWGkD4JDjoIBADFC9B17RYZcG1yEwEXxYThOoKRlCxk51tfmWw8XKcgVLefLDE8VtJcoKN_ARM6wsJ0nr9DgrX3w68-Khz7qDBaUb5yYC0xDdQrzUmPh7HGI

The ebooks on my site MoneyGoalz are all the psychological side of personal finance.

I discovered I’m a writer at the core, and I choose creative writing, videos or finance as a platform to express the inner demons.

I’m sure I’ll manage to write a novel some day 🙂 There are so many stories inside me, which need to be sewed up in a garment, rather than a patchwork quilt.”

“Wouldn’t be at all s’prised ta see ya publish novels. Yer a woman on fire!”

“Actually, that’s another project! I am one of five Fiery Females  who started the blog SacredCircleforWomen.

Feminism is at the core of my being. I’ve shunned stereotypes all my life, and fought battles to be treated as an individual with a right to make a choice.

I found myself in a group of women from different countries and diverse backgrounds. We meet online once in a week, and found that feminism binds us all in a common thread. 

We bring to the table a pool of talent on coaching, writing, hypnotherapy, finance, digital marketing and content writing. We are on a constant look out for women who are willing to speak, write to share their journeys and insights. It can be any aspect of a woman’s existence and mindset. Feminism is a very small part of the package.

Women reading this are invited to blog, share videos on our platform or be interviewed.”

“Well, thank ya very much fer thet invite an fer sharin’ more ‘bout yersef.”

“Yep, thanks fer comin’ by Reena!”

“Thank you. Follow me on 

https://sacredcircleforwomen.wordpress.com/

https://www.reenasaxena-author.com/

I keep lurking around here on https://reinventionsreena.wordpress.com/, and that is how most of you know me.

“Well thanks agin fer lettin’ us git ta know ya better.”

If asked, Pal & Kid will deny that they spill from the pen of D. Avery. They claim to be free ranging characters who live and work at Carrot Ranch and now serve up something more or less fresh every Monday at the Saddle Up Saloon. If you or your characters are interested in saddling up to take the stage as a saloon guest, contact them via shiftnshake@dslayton.com.

Goodbye, Hello Again, and Farewell

The pandemic hit us all very hard! Regardless of where one lives, the size of their household, or their employment status, COVID-19 took its toll. 

As an elementary schoolteacher, every year I teach my students that we are a family. Out at recess, and in the classroom, we must have one another’s back. That means that as we learn and give things a try, we never ridicule each other. Rather, we are brought together to encourage and inspire. 

We began March of 2020, as we had been doing all along. We gave a lot of high-fives and hugs every single day. Then, we had to stop all potential contact—no hand holding, no hugging, no sharing of supplies or recess equipment. If someone dropped something, we could no longer help them pick it up. It went against everything I taught. Eventually, I had to separate 22 desks and close my classroom library, reading room, and without much notice, my entire classroom. 

Anna’s classroom calendar noting the date class was last held in-person prior to the pandemic.

I recall being told to pack up enough supplies to teach students for two weeks in March of 2020, so I packed a month’s worth just in case. With that, I was able to outlast most other grades, but by Easter, I was scanning work around the clock, just like my colleagues, to ensure our students received the curriculum we promised to cover. I was a puddle of tears by most evenings. 

Not only were the demands of my job doing me in, but so too, were the bigger fears like worrying about the health of my parents, family, and loved ones. The local, national, and global news were frightening, but felt necessary to watch to maintain awareness of what was going on out there…in the big, scary world. 

An introvert, I was okay with staying tucked inside my home with my immediate family, but I worried about my large extended family. Throughout the course of the year, my family became the statistics we watched on the news. Pandemic job loss hit us hard. Educators were appreciated for a moment, then scrutinized again by summer’s end. Some of us got COVID-19 and some of us survived, but forever changed. Then, there were the beloved ones who died alone due to pandemic safety protocols in hospitals. Every day things seemed to change and fast. 

Just a few weeks ago, I stood in my school’s parking lot collecting the academic supplies I had given to concerned parents back in August. After over a year of the pandemic, parents are more aware of how to safely bring their children to both meet me in-person and simultaneously say goodbye to me as their teacher. As with every year, I took many end-of-the year pictures with my students, but this time, we were placed many feet apart and our eyes had to show the smiles we had under our masks. I taught and created a virtual family with students that I never got to be in the same classroom with.

Over the weekend, my family and I ventured out in public to celebrate a milestone anniversary for my parents. I saw my children hug their grandparents for the first time in over a year, and the tears the hugs brought to my mother’s eyes. Our extended family finally reunited as we reminisced about our shared pasts. There was real laughter, all together, in the same place at the same time. It was not virtual and there was no delay. Slowly, the return to our loved ones is coming back. 

Anna as a baby in her godmother’s arms.

Just as our family prepares to welcome one another with open arms, we prepare for a final farewell for my last paternal aunt, my godmother. She died over a year ago, at the height of the pandemic. As a registered nurse, she lived her life caring for others. In the end, she left Earth without our family being able to gather, say goodbye, and celebrate her life. I was so distraught when she passed, not only because she was my beautiful godmother, but because I couldn’t be with my cousins as they mourned. 

There are things the pandemic stole from us: time, health, education, trips, holidays, but most of all it took family and loved ones from us. Although my godmother did not die from COVID-19, the pandemic made it impossible for my family to do what we do best, come together to lean on one another, love, and laugh! The familiarity of belonging to a specific group—a family, means everything. While distanced, we worked vigilantly to survive so that we could be together again. 

I have said since the beginning of the pandemic, that this was put upon us to teach us something. I believe we needed to slow down and take in the blessings we have around us. We’ve become an intolerable and impatient society. I see it coming up in the next generation of children. As this is written, there are cars honking and the sounds of revved engines because someone is probably driving too slow for another’s liking. I still hold out hope that our planet will come together as the greatest family of all…the family of mankind where all are accepted and respected.  

Here’s to families everywhere. The ones given and the ones chosen. Treasure them. Protect them. Love them. Hug them and laugh with them often because what we know for sure is that time together is uncertain. 


Photo Credit: J.Rodriguez

Anna Rodriguez is a wife, mother, and writer. She is completing her first contemporary novel set in California’s Central Valley. Family and friendships are important themes for Anna’s work because of the influences they have had on her life. When Anna is not writing or hanging out with her family, she can be found reading or searching for music to add to her eclectic playlist. She will complete her MFA in Creative Writing in the next few weeks. 

Twitter: @solwithinanna

July 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

I was not the local celebrity riding the circuit on a tour bus. The twenty Vietnam vets and four of their wives were. Of course, we all thought the big star of the day’s road trip was the 90-year-old Korean veteran with his son along for escort. Our trip leader and bus driver represented the post 9/11 era and I was odd duck in between the Gulf War and Vietnam. A wife, not a soldier.

If ever I think I can’t do this, I look at the women before me. I call the Vietnam-era wives the long-haulers. They’ve been through stuff that would make Rambo quake in his combat boots. Every last one of them deserves a medal of honor. Even the ones who tap out.

But I’m not writing woes today.

Our trip to White Pine was about healing and respect with dignity. We all boarded the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center tour bus in Houghton and drove to White Pine 90 minutes away. The Vet Center in Houghton is across the lift bridge from where I live in Hancock. A ten minute drive from my home on Roberts Street.

White Pine, like most towns on the map in “copper country,” is a former company town built around a mine, one of the last to operate in our area. The place looks like something out of a dystopian novel after post-industrial decline, and yet, it is where we went. In a former mine administrative building or warehouse or large equipment depot, is an unlikely operation. Three men create and maintain replicas of the Vietnam Memorial known as The Wall. In an obscure corner of Upper Michigan, a region often left off of contemporary maps or mislabeled as Canada, a small organization houses The Moving Wall and its collected memorabilia.

Considering that the half-sized replica has toured all fifty states since before I graduated high school, I was surprised to find out how close such a solemn piece of history and healing is to my home. When our Vet Center arranged the tour, I signed on to go. When I lost Vet Center services, I asked to be included nonetheless. Then my services were reinstated. Point is, bears couldn’t keep me away.

And we did see a huge black bear but that was at lunch after our tour.

Most of my favorite Vietnam vets came for the ride. They came to seek what only each of them sought privately. They came out of curiosity. They came to support one another. The wives came to understand. They have carried a massive burden for forty-something years or more and they wanted to glimpse who they were in all of this. Dignity. Yes, we could agree that no matter the pain and folly, we all wanted to feel a sense of human dignity faced with participation in a great indignity that still reverberates throughout the world.

Vietnam vets rebelled. Vilified, gaslighted, and discarded, these soldiers started motorcycle gangs, turned to addictions, and demanded recognition for PTSD and moral injury. It’s hard to reconcile the men with canes, limps, and walkers disembarking our bus to the bad boys of their younger years. Yet, inside the warehouse of The Moving Wall, posters, photos, and bumper stickers on the wall capture the essence of their experiences. I watched as our group sucked breath at the enlarged photos that took them back to the place they try to forget.

Home changed while you were away.

The industry of the place didn’t keep them in dark thoughts, though. They expressed curiosity for the home-grown process to recreate plates of names through screen-printing and endless rubbing with a wet chemical compound. I hung out with one of my Ojibwe writers, and our most recent widower. I listened. We swapped jokes. I chose to ignore the sexist pin-ups. They pointed to familiar objects, told me childhood stories, but none spoke of Vietnam. All watched as the process enfolded.

That’s when I spotted an old photo that looked familiar.

A group of soldiers in uniform posed for a photo. When you know combat soldiers, you understand the body language. This is not a before ‘Nam photo. It oozes attitude and hides pain. You can tell it’s post-service. Behind the men, peeking over a shoulder and resting her hand as if to comfort and protect, is a woman who could have been my best friend. Kate wore her hair like that in the mid-seventies. Not only was she support for her Vietnam veteran, but she supported his friends, too. It wasn’t her, but it could have been any of my Vietnam-era Warrior Sisters.

It’s a rare photo that catches an invisible role. I’m captivated. It could be me. It is every veteran spouse.

We are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

I move on and catch one of my Warrior Sisters drawn to the photo. She stands before it a long time. I watch the screen-printing and glance back to my friend. Finally, she raises her phone. She snaps a shot of the same photo I saved, too. I catch up with her in the “saloon” to sign the guest book. It’s set up like an in-country bar with posters, jukebox, and memorabilia. She startles and says, “This is back in time. I wonder if the jukebox works.”

Next, my writer friend walks in and startles. “They got the lights right,” he says. I look up and notice the lights are covered with a fabric I don’t recognize.

Another Warrior Sister walks in and says, “Oh, my.”

I sit with them. Then I startle. I spot a poster for a rodeo where four generations of my family rode, including me. Although I didn’t ride bulls like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did in Salinas. I also see a burlap sack with a bull head and the message, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” No kidding, that is the first piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me when I was but a teen, writing for the local newspaper. We left the time capsule, comforted to find the sun shining, the year 2021.

Goats might have been licked here.

We lingered only because it’s slow, boarding a bus with bad knees, back surgeries, and bullet holes. Our rucksacks shared. We share the pain. We share the jokes. We share touches and hugs from behind. We head to lunch and break bread while the biggest black bear we’ve ever seen munches outside (they feed bears at the Konteka). We ask the waitress if the bowling alley is open. She explains the difficulties of COVID rules, like having to wipe down the balls afterward. <Insert Warrior Sister dirty joke here.> We howl with laughter, making the men blush (that’s how we get back at ’em for the pin-ups).

The bus ride home feels too short. Our spirits are high, our bellies full, and we are all connected, everyone of us in this small group on a VA bus. I share my search for a Finnish Tree Wizard. I get ideas where to find one. The 90-year-old roles his eyes. He’s a Finn. We hug and laugh at the Vet Center parking lot. One of the vets shares eggs with us “gals.” They’re from his pet chickens. He won’t accept money for them. I make a mental note to send him some books I think he’d like to read.

We slip into obscurity, no longer on the celeb VA bus. Until we share the next bear sighting.

Not a place to eat outside. You’d lose a hamburger.

July 1, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about “the old photograph.” What is captivating about it? Where did it come from? How does it incite a story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 6, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

The Old Photograph by Charli Mills

She found him in the 1979 yearbook. The bottom row. The old photo wasn’t vintage. Some would argue it was modern. He played football. Four years. He sat shirtless, his blonde hair long, wavy. The football team had fathers who’d served in Korea, grandfathers in WWII. A few had older brothers, younger uncles, or cousins who’d served in ‘Nam. The ones no one spoke of, or to. The dispersed ones. She thought the photograph ancient because he looked so young. So guiltless. So pre-Grenada. Head hits, concussive blasts, and one knee-shattering jump. He never wore his hair long again.

🥕🥕🥕

Lockdown literature: humour and mental ill-health

My 99-word story for the recent flash fiction collection, a new way to office, is about as social worker’s unease about office humour. Was it derogatory? Disrespectful of the clients? Or was it an essential part of the professionals’ toolkit, a barricade against burnout for those dealing daily with distress?

I cheated when I turned in my story. I used a character and situation from my new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. The topic drew me because, like my character, I’m currently preoccupied with the role of humour in the book itself.

Humour and delusion

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is about a brother and sister, separated for fifty years, and the ardent young social worker who seeks to reunite them. What has kept them apart for decades? Will they reconnect?

My novel is set in a long-stay psychiatric hospital and a seventy-year-old patient is the star. Matty perceives the world differently to those around her: Ghyllside is a country estate, the nurses are servants, her fellow patients are houseguests and the psychiatrists are journalists researching stories about a society heiress.

I didn’t intend to write a comical novel. In fact, I cringed when Matty turned out to be funny. Mental disturbance is no laughing matter. People given a psychiatric diagnosis are too often the butt of jokes. Yet I couldn’t find any other way around it if Iwanted Matty to be both good company and authentically mentally ill.

Humour and dementia

Until reminded in a recent interview (see above), I’d forgotten I had a model for Matty in Emma Healey’s beautiful debut, Elizabeth Is Missing. Eighty-one-year-old Maud is a decade older than Matty, and is diagnosed with dementia rather than schizophrenia, but both characters contain a similar blend of poignancy, humour and tragedy.

Dementia renders the ordinary unfamiliar. Names of people and everyday objects are forgotten; life becomes a mystery to be solved. This aspect of the condition is beautifully played out in the novel as Maud attempts to resolve the dual mysteries of the sudden absence of her good friend, Elizabeth, as well as the disappearance of her elder sister in her 1940s childhood. If you haven’t read Elizabeth Is Missing, I urge you to give it a try.

I’m reassured to imagine the ghost of Maud lodged within my laptop in the years I toiled on Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Of course, there were other influences, but none with the same kind of humour. But I’ve read a couple in the space between turning in my manuscript and publication. If you didn’t think mental ill-health could be both funny and serious, get hold of these and think again.

Humour and depression

As the world prepares to see out 2008 with a party, forty-year-old New York writer, Bunny, is clinically depressed. If she wasn’t, it would be a fine excuse to opt out of dinner with her husband and two other couples at a pretentious restaurant, followed by a party hosted by people she hates. But one of the paradoxes of depression is that those who are prone to it often aren’t very good at taking care of themselves, and they’re especially bad at taking care of themselves when they need it most. So despite her husband’s best efforts to dissuade her, despite not having had the energy to wash for a week, Bunny is determined to go. And where does that determination take her? Seeing in the New Year on a psychiatric ward.

It’s hard to write honestly about depression without sucking the reader into the mire; Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum must be the best fictional representation I’ve read.

Humour and hearing voices

Tom doesn’t expect life to be easy; it’s more important to follow true path. Single, jobless and reliant on benefits, he prioritises abstinence, spreading kindness, and devotion to his god. For twenty years he’s trod the tightrope between sanity and madness, with those who police the boundary as much a hindrance as a help. When the novel opens, Tom is under pressure from both his sister and his care coordinator to participate in a drug trial, for a substance initially developed to treat athlete’s foot. His psychiatrist refuses to prescribe the only medication Tom deems effective but, in the British mental health system, the patient’s assessment of his own well-being is often overruled.

Jasper Gibson was inspired to research and write The Octopus Man after the death of a family member who had a schizophrenia diagnosis. In my work as a clinical psychologist, I met many people like Tom. They also had a love-hate relationship with voices that would both protect and persecute. They felt a similar ambivalence about their dependence on a service system that defined their cherished beliefs as insane. They experienced the daily humiliation of underperforming, and being patronised by care staff who were younger, and/or less intelligent, than them.

But this is a novel, not a case study. It’s a beautifully written and absorbing story, narrated by an unusual character who is as lyrical communing with nature as he is conversing with his personal god. I strongly recommend it for its compassion and humour, and, most of all, and in every sense, for the voice.

Which – if any – of these novels takes your fancy? Can you recommend any that portray mental ill-health authentically and with humour?

Anne Goodwin is a clinical psychologist turned author who writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. She is the author of three novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill. Anne posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal.

Saddle Up Saloon; Elusive Exclusive

“Uh, Kid? What’s goin’ on here?”

“What d’ya mean Pal? Ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on here.”

“Thet’s what I mean. They ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on here! Don’tcha know it’s Monday? An’ not a first Monday where we git treated to Chel Owen’s poetry promptin’, an’ not a third Monday where we git challenged by Colleen Chesebro ta write double ennead. It’s yer Monday, Kid. So whut’s goin’ on?”

“They’s been a hold up, Pal.”

“A hold up? This ain’t the wild west, Kid.”

“Well my intended guest is held up by work an’ sech. So she’s on hold.”

“How could ya let this happen, Kid? Ain’tcha got all kindsa folks lined up well in advance?”

“Nope, not at all. Been busy with odd jobs m’sef an’ jist kinda dropped the rope. It ain’t so easy lassoin’ folks, ya know.”

“Tell ya what Kid. I got a ‘sclusive ever’one’ll be innerested in. I’ll tell ya ‘bout when I met a famous personal’ty, one thet goes by many names.”

“Ya mean Shorty? Thinkin’ we’ve featured Perfesser Mills enough already.”

“No Kid, not Shorty— Bigfoot!”

“Well, Shorty’s got petite feet, but she leaves a big imprint; an’ it’s certainly hard ta follow in her footsteps.”

“Tellin’ ya, it ain’t Shorty, Kid! Now shush. I know you call ‘em Bigfoot. In the Pacific northwest they’s Sasquatch; Skunk Ape in the southeast. In the Himalayas they goes by Yeti, or Abominable Snowman.”

“Yowie Pal!”

“Yep, it is excitin’.  Purty innerestin’, this giant hominid creature thet’s found all over the world.”

“’Zactly, Pal. Australia mebbe has one too, called the Yowie.”

“Could be Kid, or a cousin a sorts. Bigfoot has kin ever’where; the Yeren a China, an’ the smaller Almas in Mongolia; the Orang Pendek from Sumatra; in Scotland they goes by Big Gray Man of Ben Macdhui; shepherds in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan speak a the Barmanou; closer ta our north American home is the Mapinguari down in South America. No matter the name or location, they’s all big an’ hairy an’ shy. An’ Wendigo legends outta Canada say the creature is of a supernatural type.”

“Come on Pal, ya mean ta tell me ya had yersef a innerview with a BigFoot, or whatever name folks call ‘im by?”

“Yep, believe it or not. An’ the first thing BF would want ya ta know is their pronouns are they, their, them. They git aggravated always bein’ referred ta as ‘he’. They is more an’ one of ‘em ya know.”

“An ya want us ta believe ya spoke with one.”

“They didn’t speak like ya might think. Was more like tele-pathy.”

“Tele— ? There an app fer that? Soun’s like phoney-baloney.”

“I’m gonna give ya an app upside the head if’n ya don’t shush. Jist sayin’ BF spoke without speakin’.”

“Like a character in a writer’s head?”

“Mebbe. See, it was a long time ago, afore I was even a character in a writer’s head. Shorty’d jist started up Carrot Ranch. Back then she didn’t even know I was already ridin’ the range.”

“Did she know ‘bout Bigfoot?”

“Not then. But they knew about her. An’ they come here ta the space she made ‘cause it felt safe an comfterble fer ‘em. They git tired a always bein’ hounded an’ speculated on, but they felt calm an’ relaxed at the Ranch. An’ they’s veggie-tarian so all the carrots an’ recipes was a plus.”

“How come no one else’s ever seen ‘em?”

“Who says they ain’t? Anyways. Way back when Shorty was first goin’ fer it here there were still some go-fer holes, an’ sure ‘nough, ma hoss stepped in one. Hurt it’s leg real bad. Don’t need ta tell you what a predicament we was in. Thet hoss was in pain an’ it’s eyes was big an’ rollin’ in its head when all a sudden he got calm, so I looked aroun’ an’ here come Bigfoot, but if the hoss was calm, well, okay. An’ thet BF laid hands on thet hoss’ leg an’ then lifted thet hoss up an’ he was as good as new.”

“Amazing!”

“Yep. Well, after thet, me an BF hung out fer a while, ‘cause aint either one of us’d ever had much company. We shared what we knew ‘bout Shorty’s plans fer this new Carrot Ranch place an’ we both decided we’d hang out in the backgroun’ an’ keep an’ eye on things. We vowed we’d be aroun’ ta step up if ever we was needed.

Turns out I was needed when a certain greenhorn prone ta trouble popped onta the page. Shorty counts on me ta keep thet one from doin’ too much damage at the Ranch.”

“Hey…”

“Thet’s right Kid, I got saddled with keepin’ an eye on ya. But Bigfoot an’ I vowed ta hep keep the Ranch safe.”

“Hmmph. Well, what does Bigfoot do?”

“Seen any trolls, Kid?”

“No…”

“Salesmen or shysters?”

“Well…”

“Other then one’s ya dragged in yersef?”

“No.”

“Bigfoot feels safe here, an’ Bigfoot heps keep the rest of us safe here.”

“But I ain’t seen ‘im… ‘em.”

“Then ya ain’t got eyes ta see. They’s here. An’ they’s thankful ta all the ranchers an their stories, makes ‘em smile. An’ they’re thankful ta Shorty.”

“Shorty’s seen ‘em?”

“Oh, Shorty knows Bigfoot.”

“Pal, that is uncanny!”

Folks, this Saddle Up Saloon episode is so lame we might need Bigfoot ta lay hands an’ git it ta walk away. Or mebbe you kin salvage it by sharin’ yer own Bigfoot sightin’ or drop a Bigfoot flash in the comments. What d’ya call Bigfoot where yer from?

“I’ve seen ol’ ‘Squatch.”

“Frankie!”

“Lemme tell ya. ‘Member when I first showed up? In one a Shorty’s flashes? She had me an’ Burt deliverin’ mail in a snow storm. Burt was blinder’n I was in that blowin’ snow. Only path out there that night was tele-pathy. Burt was drawn ta that warm dry cave.”

“Bigfoot was in there?”

“Yep, Kid. Saved us that night.”

“Hmmph. S’prised they didn’t lay hands an’ restore yer eye.”

“Could’ve but saw I had a u-nique way a seein’ life. An’ guess what else ‘Squatch was tendin’ in that cave a theirs? Unicorns!”

Pal’s sources, other than direct experience:

https://exemplore.com/cryptids/Names-for-Bigfoot-Around-the-World

https://bigfootly.com/2019/10/29/exploring-the-many-names-of-bigfoot/

If asked, Pal & Kid will deny that they spill from the pen of D. Avery. They claim to be free ranging characters who live and work at Carrot Ranch and now serve up something more or less fresh every Monday at the Saddle Up Saloon. If you or your characters are interested in saddling up to take the stage as a saloon guest, contact them via shiftnshake@dslayton.com.

June 24: Flash Fiction Challenge

I’m talking to my peonies, and cooing to my budding delphinium, bent over, tugging sorrel from the potager garden. A man in a Jeep pulls up and starts talking to me about flowers. Not unusual for Roberts Street. It’s a friendly neighborhood half-way up Quincy Hill. I beam, happy when others notice the plants — antidepressants. Who can succumb to dark thoughts when a peony opens to you? Then he asks if I heard about the tanker.

No, I haven’t. I’m a late morning riser. I heard neighbors gathered in the street when I woke, but they do that when someone’s sanding a dresser outside or two-dog owners cross paths on a walk. He tells me he saw it happen and I sense he’s troubled, needing to share his story. I stop fussing over stray blades of tall grass poking out of my lavender bush.

He tells me the tanker uncoupled from the truck. He watched it unfold in slow motion the way traumatic events imprint our memories. The cab didn’t flip, only the tanker it hauled. It flipped and split open. He ran. “The trail’s closed,” he tells me. I wonder if he drove up the trail a block away. I look. It doesn’t appear closed. I ask if he’s okay, now concerned he might be in shock. I don’t know about the accident. I must have been sleeping. He starts talking about the flowers again.

“Where can you go,” I ask. “You know, to unwind?”

“South Range.” He nods as if he’s made up his mind, pops the clutch, and turns his Jeep around.

My next door neighbor, the Master Gardener who clucks at my flowers as if I have unruly kindergartners running about my place, stops at my garden. He never mentions the magenta peonies or coral poppies. He’s a tomato and bush beans man. He asks if I’ve heard about the tanker. The man in the Jeep stalls, restarts the engine, and slowly pulls away. I say, “He said he saw it.”

My neighbor nods. “He works at the tire shop.”

The tire shop is located at Santori’s Corner, the grand sweeping grade that curves ninety degrees to continue up Quincy Hill. It’s a treacherous corner, especially in winter where I have to turn on Ethel to reach Roberts Street. Two years ago, a scrap metal truck took out the power pole at the tire shop, and back in the ’90s a logging truck slammed into the original Santori house. Historically, the grade was a railroad, or so I understand. The option to the curve is straight up streets to rival those in San Francisco.

I listen to a second-hand story about the shop owner. He watched the truck come up the hill, take the corner, tip the tanker, split open, and release a deluge of gasoline. He shouted to his employees, “Run!” Explains why the man I talked flowers with told me he ran. We are all lucky nothing sparked. We are all unlucky that gas spilled into our sewer drainage, dumping into the Portage Canal. It’s in the news and the accident scene photos are half a block from my home and near our Hancock Fire Station. We are the edge of the evacuation zone. Lucky to live uphill from Santori’s Corner.

Fast-forward to noon.

I’m driving up the Keweenaw Peninsula. Roads around my home are closed and it’s tricky getting out of my neighborhood. I make it to Calumet where I pick up two pizzas from Jim’s and head to a birthday party for a friend in heaven. I’m not going to heaven. I’m going to the cemetery outside the near-ghost-town of Ahmeek. All the old copper-mining towns on the peninsula are diminished versions of their original size. I pull into the cemetery and find the quiet corner by the old pine tree and see my good friend B. sitting on the her wooden bench. Other Warrior Sisters surround the grave with lawn chairs. Another pulls in behind me with cake from Roy’s.

If you’ve never picnicked in a graveyard, I highly recommend it. Victorian cemeteries were designed to be places to stroll and refresh the living among the dead. This is no Victorian park, but the edge of forest and expanse of gravestones, gardens, and American flags (placed for fallen soldiers) offers a peaceful setting. The expected thunderstorms fizzled, and a spilled gasoline tanker didn’t block our travels.

B. and R. lent me their stories. They are characters in my novel, representations of what it’s like to face Agent Orange as a couple. B. is wearing her red, white, blue and orange shirt with the rhinestone pin R. gave her before he left for Vietnam. R. suffered before realizing he needed to help the suffering of other Vietnam Vets. Yet, he still has no gravestone nearly a year later. Seems the VA is backlogged or something.

We don’t focus on the pain. We pour shots of blackberry brandy (his favorite) and toast his birthday. We eat pizza and sing over candles on his cake. We thumb through the bag of photos B. has and remember R. with stories. We share our recent stories, our frustrations, our encouragements to each other. Four hours pass and we pour coffee on his grave and say goodbye. Again.

Rewind to last Sunday.

Mause sprints off-leash at the Ottawa Sportsman Club. It’s the happy place for my WW (wounded warrior). He set up targets to shoot at 600 yards. No one is here. It’s the middle of nowhere and after four years, I still can’t follow all the twists and turns that lead to this gun range. He calms like we’re in some zen yoga class.

***shout-out to Ruchira Khanna, Author and Reiki Master: he’s been calm ever since she did distance Reiki for him last Monday. Thank you for thinking about him in our situation.***

Then Mause stops. I watch her point a bird and I laugh. Oh, I think, Mause is about to get her life-long wish to chase a robin. It flies and she chases. Instead of flying off, I realize the bird is a killdeer and it circles the big swath of gravel for a pistol range under construction. I point out the chase and my WW panics. He thinks she’ll get run over. We are in the middle-of-nowhere and it’s not Christmas so reindeer are unlikely. Besides, it’s a killdeer and that mama bird will not leave the vicinity of her nest. Mause flies over gravel and keeps pace with a bird.

It’s magnificent! It’s magical. This moment.

Pointer and killdeer, race, uniting earth and sky in a single track. My joy bubbles. My WW cries out my name. “Charli, help me!” The stab of sadness hits my heart. I want nothing more than to help him but I no longer know how to keep us both above water. Despite the drowning sensation of the last year, nothing can prick my joy. I’m fixated on the impossible union unfolding before me. If a dog could fly, Mause is near take-off.

Then the bird shifts course and darts high above my head. I see her ploy. Mause runs into my waiting arms. Captured, she stops. I appear the hero for the day though it was just the magic of the moment. Mause and her flutterby. We retreat to the truck where she listens for the cry of the bird, ignoring the gunfire. I recognize she will be the bird dog he hopes for. Not even squirrels can deter her fixation with things that fly.

Rewind to last Saturday.

By 9:30 pm, the band playing Finnish dancing songs wraps up. They tell us the solstice bonfire is lit. I do not dance with men, women or ghosts. I’m here to track a Tree Wizard. My ears are open to ghost stories, of course but people are celebrating and silly. I catch a tale about young women stripping naked before a well of water to gaze in the reflection to see the faces of their future husbands. I eavesdrop on my elderly Italian friend and watch out for her steps. She’s a hoot, and asks me if I’m always so smiley. I think she, our other friend who is also a Warrior Sister, and I are the only non-blondes present. We are witnessing deep Finnish culture. Their pagan roots run as deep in their devout Apostolic faith.

I’m convinced the snare drummer is the Tree Wizard.

Maybe I am chasing ghosts. Somehow, I can’t forget the haunting dress that hangs in the ghost-house-cum-goat-barn on my daughter’s property. Story goes, the woman who lived there ended her days in a mental hospital. My daughter and her husband estimate the era of her kitchen and abandoned belongings to be between the 1920-30s. Maybe the dress is 1940s. No one living remembers. My SIL had found the last name Hiltunen on an old document. Was that her last name? Married or maiden? Women are hard to track, their past possessed by men.

By sheer chance, I learned about a Tree Wizard who works the local rock shop between Calumet and Ahmeek. His last name is Hiltunen. My imagination ignites. An abandoned house, an insane women, a local Finn who dares to be pagan among a conservative Christian community. In the article — okay, they call him a Forest Wizard — this exchange with the writer fits what is unfolding in my story center:

Hiltunen is a backwoods healer, a Finnish shaman, a forest wizard.

He said he can heal people’s ailments. He said he sees the dead. He said the woods up here are alive with ghosts.

“When I was just a little boy, my grandmother said, ‘Richard, don’t tell nobody. They’ll put you in a cuckoo’s nest. But you have that power to sense things.’ “

John Carlisle, Detroit Free Press Columnist

When they introduce the snare drummer, I hear the full name of the Tree Wizard. I’m watching him now as if I spotted a man I’d dance with. I leave my friends. The drummer stands alone. I smile (you know, I’m smiley), and tell this possible mystic and relative of a woman put in the cuckoo’s nest, that I like his music. He’s talented and plays multiple instruments and with other bands I’ve listened too, or solo. Then, I ask. “Are you a tree wizard?”

He quickly says no, then yes. Turns out, he’s not the same Hiltunen who talks to ghosts and heals from the forest. But he tells me he had an aneurysm last year and ever since, he can see auras around trees. He tells me how he has to get outside every day. To witness. He thanks me for recognizing who he was. “Now I have a name for it,” he says. We both smile.

What can I say but that I’m still tracking ghosts? Why do these stories matter? They are spilling into a novel I’m currently exploring. My protagonist complains about her crazy father who thinks he’s a tree wizard. She knows he’s crazy because he’s like his grandmother who the family hauled off. She worries she might have the predisposition and studies science and serves in the Marines. I like this one who has me chasing spirits.

Writers absorb the stories in the moment. Go soak up! In this moment, you might be surprised that I’ve brought back Rainbow the Cat but somehow he wanted to more adventures.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

June 24, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a cat named Rainbow on an outdoor adventure. Rainbow is any cat of any identification. What would draw a cat outside? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 29, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Rainbow Emerges by Charli Mills

The ribbon of road opened to a clearing where several cabins squatted. Max could separate house, privy, sauna, from woodshed. The house was nominal. No matter. Max had no intention to stay with Jurmo. She wasn’t boarding with a self-proclaimed “tree wizard” or a church zealot. Max rented a distant campsite. She honked, a backwoods courtesy. A door opened and a massive Norwegian Forest Cat emerged with a crown of dried flowers. Her dad followed. “Rainbow, our princess has returned.”

Max fingered the boot blouse she wore on her wrist. Remember, you are a grown researcher and a Marine.

🥕🥕🥕

Occasional Ravings: Never mind the jabberwocky, there are worse critters out there.

From my time spent among peers, professors, and industry professionals in an MFA program, I learned the value of feedback to a writer. However, not all feedback is productive. We even discussed other MFA programs and top-level writing workshops and noted how their feedback can harm and create barriers. I’ve avoided “community” feedback sites, or contests that rely upon reader feedback because they tend to create bias and bitterness. What a writer needs to grow is productive feedback. What will improve a piece of writing? Learning to question is useful. Questions like, “Have you thought about …” or “What if…” Doug makes good points. If you’d like to discuss feedback, let me know your thoughts!

Six Crooked Highways

Recently I experimented with two mutual feedback writing sites: Scribophile and Critique Circle. My main motivation was to receive feedback from other writers without having to pay for it, which is what you have to do on most publishing and competition sites.

The principles for each are similar i.e. critique a lot of other people’s work and you get to publish a little of your work for critique. I have no problem generally with that give-and-get model and not only did I get to read some great stories but I received many encouraging and helpful crits.

The down sides from my point of view (come on, you knew where this was going) include these:

  1. Critters (i.e. people who provide critiques) are from all skill levels and experience and range from never published to published. So it’s natural that crits will vary considerably in quality and usefulness.
  2. The systems for…

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Saddle Up Saloon; Chattin’ With Norah Colvin

“Hey Kid. Kinda quiet ‘round the Saloon. Ain’tcha got anythin’ lined up?”

“Nope. But as ya kin see, Pal, there’s a few folks in jist relaxin’ an’ chattin’ over a bev’rage a choice.”

“Yeah, I see thet. Look there, is that Norah Colvin?”

“Yep. Says she’s waitin’ on a buddy a hers.”

“Reckon thet buddy is here. Why it’s—”

“D. Avery? Them two’s buddies? What a they have in common?”

“Well, they both know their way ‘roun’ the Ranch.”

“Reckon, but Norah Colvin’s respectable an’ all, an’ our writer’s so…”

“Jist serve ‘em both Kid an’ leave ‘em be.”

******************************************************************************

Hello Norah! I’m so glad we have a place where we can finally hang out together.  But it seems Kid is wondering that we’re buddies.

Hello D.

Buddies! I like that. Buddies is not a term commonly used in Australia, so I think this is the first time I’ve ever been called someone’s buddy. I like its informality. At schools, sometimes they now have a ‘buddy bench’ where children can wait for a buddy to rescue them if they have no one to play with. I’m generally introverted so am pleased that you’ve come and rescued me from my lonely bench (bar stool). Thank you.

More than a buddy, Norah, you’ve been my mentor at Carrot Ranch, looking out for me from the beginning. Kind of like Pal does for Kid, though you’re much nicer about it. But besides Carrot Ranch and flash fiction we also have in common our educational backgrounds. I have recently retired from teaching though I’ve done a poor job of it as I am currently working in a pre-k classroom, although as a para now and not a lead teacher. Is this your age group, 4 to 5 year olds?

I’ve often considered myself a six-year-old at heart. I’ve mostly worked with 5 – 7 year olds, though have worked with some of before school age and some a little further into their primary schooling. I’m interested to hear you admit that you’ve retired, as I have been reluctant to use the R word.

“Ha! I only use the R word for convenience. “Retirement” doesn’t really seem like the right word choice, but I did not return to school this past fall and I’m not just playing hooky. I taught formally for 24 years, mostly fourth grade (9-10 year olds) and I finished as a sixth grade (11-12 year olds) math(s) teacher. But even before I was a certified teacher I spent time in pre-k and K classrooms. When a pre-school teaching friend needed help this winter I said Yes. It’s been a lot of fun working with this age group again. What do you like most about this age group?”

I have always loved supporting children as they embark upon their journey into literacy. I have always thought it a privilege to share the joy as they discover the magic of the black squiggles upon the page, whether they are reading or writing them. I love to share in their excitement as they explore and unlock the mysteries of mathematics and their delight as they realise what they can do. To see the children bubble with confidence, curiosity and creativity reawakens the six-year-old in me who was crushed by structure and conformity. There is nothing more rewarding than to see a child in love with learning.

I totally agree! My favorite sound in the classroom was always “Aha!” as a child’s perseverance paid off.

What do you love about working with pre-school children, D.?

In pre-school the work of the children is still play, and it’s in play that we learn and develop best. I love their curiosity and sense of wonder. And I love their kindness and the simple straightforward strategies they practice to solve problems. Pre-school teachers and children have it all figured out.

Norah, when I first came along the Ranch you had a recurring character named Marnie. Where did that character come from?

The Marnie stories, some of which I compiled on a Marnie page on my blog, were written in response to Charli’s flash fiction prompts. Over time, the character grew and I got to learn more about her. Although she was entirely fictional, parts of her were based upon my own shy child self and other parts upon many other children I knew, had taught or read about. It was quite a compulsion for a while to write the flash fiction responses about her, but then she faded out of view and I haven’t written anything about her for some time. The stories focused on bullying, neglect and dysfunctional families mainly.

D., you have some lovely young children who often feature in your stories — Marlie and Hope. Unlike Marnie’s dysfunctional family, both have supportive families who nurture their curiosity, creativity and carefree spirits. I see this as indicative of your warmth and nurturing heart. Would you agree?

Ha! That heart is a work in progress. I don’t know where those two came from or their families. But I like them. A lot. It’s an ideal, I suppose, but I have met kids that have blessed families like that and that get that kind of respect from their families.

Many of your flash fictions show children and teachers in school. You write amazing flashes but what I have always been impressed with is how the prompt also engenders an essay about education from you. Your passion is unflagging, Norah.

Time has killed off those posts which for many years accompanied my flash fictions, but education has been, and still is, the focus of my life, my life’s passion and work. I am frustrated by the limitations of formal schooling and would love to see us all educated in more positive ways. I guess we are often told to ‘write what you know’ and education is what I know best. My mixed feelings about school mean that sometimes I write rather negatively about school, and other times paint education in a positive light. I can do the same about parenting. It is my attempt to show what often/sometimes is against what could be. My poem Education is perhaps expresses this idea most succinctly.

For me, working in a traditional school was always like balancing on a thin line that connected what my employer expected of me in schooling children and how I believed children should be educated. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely loved working with the children. They gave me so much joy. I was just always aware of how much more joyous and beneficial it could be.

Yeah, so much depended on the school admin. It was discouraging the more they wanted to dictate the means to the end. It saddened me to see over the years the rigid structure and conformity coming back into schools and making it more difficult to nurture the innate creativity of children. The best days were when we were free to find our own way to the ends, to develop fun and engaging activities. It was a lot of work but the kind that left you energized rather than drained.

I did my best to change things. I didn’t always just accept the status quo. Which is really surprising as I always toed the line and never liked to be in trouble at school or at home when I was growing up. I wrote a little about my journey in a long-ago post To school or not to school which linked to an article with the same title I wrote for a teacher magazine which can be read here. It lists some of the early influencers upon my educational thinking. Considering it was written almost 30 years ago, and I continued to read about education constantly since then, I could now add many more influencers to the list, some of who I’ve listed here and here. John Holt was probably one of the first who confirmed my misgivings with the ‘system’ were well-founded and the amazing, and sadly late, Ken Robinson was one of the more recent. However, children were perhaps my best teachers, my own and the children of others. Children can teach us so much if we just watch and listen and learn.

The children are our best teachers! We’re just the guides on the side, ready with the right question and materials to keep them engaged in their explorations.

Some of my retired friends, who are happy to use the R word and were once teaching colleagues of mine, ask me why I stay involved with teaching and education. They want nothing more to do with it. But I can’t let it go. Education is me and I am it. It is where I belong and where I want to be. (To innovate on a quote from ‘The Big Orange Splot’.) I am life-long learning.

I love that idea of life-long learning but know there’s so much to do and learn in a non-school setting. Teaching took all my time and energy. I’m moved back closer to family now and am more available to them. I am lucky to still have children around to play with but without having to write reports on them. Maybe that’s what Marlie and Hope do, show that the real learning happens naturally and informally. I loved working with the kids but haven’t regretted my decision to leave school. I’m enjoying each day and they are full. R is for return and rediscovery and rejuvenation.

I still stay involved, but instead of being in the classroom, I use one of my other skills — writing. I write for my eponymous blog where I post my responses to Charli’s flash fiction prompts you mentioned before. I write freelance for educational publishers and have a couple of big jobs on the go at the moment. I create teaching resources to support teachers of children in their first three years of school which I make available on my website readilearn. And … I write stories for children, some of which are published in anthologies, some are published in the Library For All collection and some, I hope/keep my fingers crossed/if I’m really lucky, will be published as picture books one day.

You will get your picture books published!

Well, I know the Saloon is open 24/7 but I have to go. I hope Pal and Kid haven’t been eavesdropping, what a boring old pair they’ll think us.

Education can be the most exciting and rewarding career going. It can also be political and polarizing. I admire you for carrying on the good fight Norah and know that your writings are another contribution to the education and welfare of children.

We’d probably both be more comfortable out playing games and kicking up our heels with a group of children. It has been great catching up with you over a drink though.

Yep! See ya Buddy!

******************************************************************************

“Told ya Pal. Norah Colvin’s decent an’ respectable, she could do better than ta buddy up with that D. Avery.”

“Jist shush Kid. But yeah, Norah’s purty amazin’. Here’s her poem:

Education is 2

Thet says it all.”

If asked, Pal & Kid will deny that they spill from the pen of D. Avery. They claim to be free ranging characters who live and work at Carrot Ranch and now serve up something more or less fresh every Monday at the Saddle Up Saloon. If you or your characters are interested in saddling up to take the stage as a saloon guest, contact them via shiftnshake@dslayton.com.

Humor in Writing

I write contemporary fiction genre with themes that revolve around the facts of life.  

Bowled but Not Out (BbNO) revolves around second chances. Often, an individual who has been let down the first time from a dysfunctional relationship will not have the courage to stand up and look out for another opportunity. Despair and discouragement will envelop her. 

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise, they’ll kill you.”

― George Bernard Shaw

That’s when I thought of sprinkling humor in my protagonist’s life, Saru, by using cricket as a metaphor throughout the novel. I have projected Saru to be confident, empathic, funny, and silly at times. She bats away the sarcasm and negativity in the stadium that is her life. 

Humor isn’t easy to define. While you know that comedy is a cognitive and emotional experience that often leads to laughter, you may not know why. 

Why is something funny?

No one knows how to answer that question definitively. Humor is personal, subjective, and biased.

Humor is often the result of surprise. An unexpected action or phrase can be a delightful treat when set up in the right way.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

― Erma Bombeck

There is a thin line that separates laughter from pain. I embraced some tips to be able to make it an entertaining read.

  1. Mold a protagonist to appear silly. I portrayed her as a die-hard Bollywood fan who would love to sing and dance around trees and even get emotionally charged if someone did a favor for her. This easy-going personality came in handy when I showcased her in a dysfunctional relationship. But then I also tried to have a character support her transition during that period and not give up. 
  2. Compare two lives. One was the protagonist who had entered a dysfunctional relationship, and the other was her co-sister happily married. This contrast helps the reader get a grip on what my protagonist is going through, and it helps generate empathy for her. 
  3. Use metaphors to define her tragedies in addition to happy moments keeps the mood light. I used the terms of cricket to do the above. 

Example: “Go and hit the ball out of the park.” Saru’s dad cheered when they reached their destination. Saru realized that she had received a beamer and was quick to duck figuratively to avoid getting hurt. Her self-pride was bruised, but she continued to glare at the maid’s audacity. 

4. Place a character reader love to hate. That prevents the plot from becoming too spicy and intense.

Example: “Just remember, Saru, the whole world will be watching you.” Mom got comfortable on the dining chair with the rotary phone on her lap.

“What a smart way to encourage your daughter, Sushma!” Her dad scorned his wife then inquired, “What are you doing?”

“I have to inform our relatives, Colonel. How will they know that our Saru is going to be on TV?”

5. Make them laugh when they least expect it. Never set the expectation that you’re about to try to be funny. It’s much easier to be funny unexpectedly. Attempting to be funny is a subtle side effect; humor is a pleasant deviation from an expectation. Then create a scenario where laughter is induced skillfully. 

Example: Saru goes for a TV interview, and things don’t go as planned. But she turns out to be everybody’s favorite towards the end. 

I usually project the mental growth of my characters as they learn from their failures. And in my Bowled but Not Out novel, I project the same. This young lady knows to groom herself to be a confident achiever and strengthen the platform for her daughter and her future. 

The use of simple language, smooth transition of the story plot, humor, relatable and straightforward characters all make this book enjoyable and a must-read by one and all.

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This post comes from Rough Writer Ruchira Khanna

A Biochemist turned writer who gathers inspiration from the society where I write about issues that stalk the mind of the man via tales of fiction.

I blog at Abracabadra which has been featured as “Top Blog” for five years. Many of my write-ups have been published on LifeHack, HubPages to name a few.

I can be found at:

https://www.facebook.com/RuchiraKhanna01

Twitter: @abracabadra01