Wednesday Wonders: Mutt and Jeff

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“Look at Mutt and Jeff!” I showed my teenager a picture of our cat and his brother.

“Who?” He gave me a look that immediately reminded me that I speak an older version of English.

I knew tucked in the back of my brain that my parents and grandparents used to say ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and that the phrase had to do with a cartoon from long ago.

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(By http://www.ioffer.com, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25851730)

A quick Internet search pulled up the cartoon by Bud Fisher, first published in 1907.  It apparently ran until 1983, so no wonder Mutt and Jeff made it into our language.

When I used it for my cat and kid, I meant two goofballs, but it can also mean two people of wildly different sizes or ‘tinhorns’–people who pretend to have money in order to look important like gamblers shaking their dice in a tin cup.

Comics strips like Peanuts and Baby Blues still make me laugh and one of my colleagues even pastes new ones to our copy machine. But todays strips may not have the power they once did to influence our language in the early part of the 20th century.

At least now my son knows about Mutt and Jeff, so he can use it the next time he sees a goofy pair.

From the look on his face, I bet he won’t.

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Wednesday Wonders: Finding Story in Dory

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Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen Finding Dory and still want to be surprised, don’t read this. 

I recently told my English class that I have two sons. One is 17 and the other is 6. This means, I told them, that I have been watching kid movies since 1999.

Many of the films numbed my senses. All the the Buddies flicks, for example, and most of the sweet Little Foot movies delighted my sons.

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While I see their value in cuteness and love to see my kids smile, the story lines make me want to bang my head against a sharp object, especially after the boys have seen them 20 or 30 times.

Sequels, I find, cause more trouble than most when it comes to head banging.

So the other night, when I was at my mother’s and we rented Finding Dory I expected to sit it out until about 7:00 pm and then tell my son we really needed to go.

An hour later, I still sat on the big blue couch, not wanting to move. The story had me completely hooked. I liked it even better than the original Finding Nemo. (I suppose I never got over the death of the poor mother at the beginning, and Marlin irritated me with his fussiness.)

We’ve since bought the Finding Dory DVD (because we have an outdated system), and I noticed a few things about the story as a writer.

I adored the main character.

I connected with Degeneres as Dory in the first movie, but this version opened with Dory as an adorable baby fish wandering the ocean looking for her parents. Her ‘short term memory loss’ kept her from even remembering Jenny and Charlie.

My sympathy for those great big eyes stabbed me clear through and made me root for that fish from the opening scenes.

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The story ties into the original movie

It felt as if the story writers had PLANNED a sequel. Maybe they did. Although the hero’s journey of Dory held up all on it’s own, learning why Dory could speak whale and why she sang ‘just keep swimming’ added bonus layers of complexity.

The old characters shifted position in importance

The movie successfully shifted from a story about Marlin and Nemo to the story of Dory with the clown fish as supporting characters.

The new characters made the movie fabulous

Hank the Septopus, Dory’s parents, Becky the loon, the two recuperating whales, and the rock possessive sea lions pulled me into the action even more.

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Finally, I noticed a technique that works with any good story. All the details moved the story forward. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t give much thought to the adorable otters. The second time through  I saw that they came on scene just before Kid Zone and Poker’s Cove. This set them up to later stop traffic for Dory when she rescued Marlin and Nemo from the transport truck.

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The writer Andrew Stanton, also known as the voice of Crush the turtle, engaged a mom with over 17 years worth of kid movie experience. I liked it so much I even saw his name in the credits after Sia sings a gorgeous rendition of ‘Unforgettable.’

Not bad, Mr. Stanton and crew. Not bad at all.

Slogging through Grief

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These publications meant much to me over the years as both a writer and a reader. If ALIVE NOW or WEAVINGS touched your own life or if you have ideas about what a spiritual publication might look like, please take the time to follow Beth’s instructions below.

All the Wonders

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Yesterday I sent the last issue of Alive Now to the production department. Its publication date is March/April 2017. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been proofreading, getting final sign-offs, sending corrections to the designer. Each task has brought me one step closer to the end of this publication that has been like a dear friend and mentor to me.

I’m grieving, heart-sick. In this one year, I’ve closed two beloved publications: Weavings and Alive Now. These two resources have been a part of my life for over 30 years. It’s like losing best friends. Alive Now was the place of my first published writing. In the Alive Now office under the care of Mary Ruth Coffman, I fell in love with words, with editing, with the spiritual life. Mary Ruth, John Mogabgab (editor of Weavings), and many others mentored and guided me on this path, setting…

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Wednesday Wonders on a Thursday: Two Books With True Endings

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If you want to find a good read, go to a writing conference. 

Writers, I have learned, are jittery about their own books. As often as not, we struggle to tell you what our books are about or why we fell in love with our own stories enough to spend days, months, and years writing them. But as soon as someone starts talking about books we love written by OTHER people, the conversation around the dinner table wakes up.

I keep a notebook or the Evernote app close by at writing events, so when the book lists start flying, I can write down all the titles and then later find my best reads of the year. Sometimes, these books are old treasures that I missed like Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice.

When these came out in the 1990s, I was busy with other life experiences like my time in Germany, so I missed Karen Cushman’s tales of the Middle Ages. I am grateful my writing friends paid attention back then.

Both of these middle grade works of historical fiction pulled me into the time period. I could tell that Catherine Called Birdy was Cushman’s first tale. The plot wandered a little in the weeds of history while The Midwife’s Apprentice felt tighter with a story line that wove through in a way that CCB sometimes did not. I see why it won the Newbery Medal.

But CCB, the Newbery Honor book, spoke to me this last week. In it, a girl struggled against her limiting circumstances and the arranged marriage awaiting her. I wanted her to be able to run away on a crusade, become a script-writing monk like her older brother, or even to be able to marry Perkins the goat herder.

Maybe as a young teen, I believed these as possible happy endings for a young lady like Catherine.

As a grown up, I recognize those as impossible options for a young woman living in the feudal society of the time.

In any case, I loved how Cushman brought Catherine to a realistic but hopeful resolution at the end. The character found peace and a way to stay true to herself by the end in spite of the oppressive rules of her society.

Many thanks once more to my writing friends for the joy of two good books, one after the other.

May you find your own selves in the midst of whatever lifts you up or holds you in place-

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P.S. The biggest trouble with posting late comes when the next week swings around and you’ve already missed it. Getting behind on a weekly post is like waiting until the next night to do the dishes. It gets so much easier to let the pots and plates slide the night after when you’ve done the washing up before cooking and then face more washing up.

All of that is to say that I’ll get my wonders back on Wednesdays next week. Honest.

Wednesday Wonders on Friday: Hamburg and the Historic American Election

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In the early 1990s, I traveled to Germany and became desperately homesick. I had decided I wanted to really learn German and went on a work visa to Hamburg, far away from the American military bases. I lived with a German friend in her apartment and found a job serving banquets in a nearby hotel. My German improved quickly because I had dropped myself into the deep end of the language swimming pool.

I was miserable. 

I was the kind of homesick where I would go to McDonald’s (which I do not like) and sip cups of coffee because McDonald’s felt a little like home.

I was the kind of homesick where I went for long walks and searched for the American Cultural Center or a German class on the seedy immigrant side of the city or anything to distract me from my loneliness. Eventually, I got a job teaching English, so I had two part time jobs, but they didn’t keep me occupied enough.

I slept 12 hours a day and cried whenever I called my mother or wrote long letters home.

(This was before the Internet world. Going abroad created a distance that I struggle to imagine now.)

I was the kind of homesick that bordered on depression.

One day, as I walked around the Binnenalster, a small lake in the older part of Hamburg, I came across Benetton. Wandering inside the clothing store, I overheard an American speaking to a customer. This woman, I thought, was even better than McDonald’s! I felt crazy introducing myself to Jamie, the American Benneton saleswoman. But I did it, and we became friends.

Sometimes, I learned, when you live overseas, you make friends out of this kind of desperation and you put up with each other because you have no one else to connect with from your homeland. Hanging out gives you a shadow of what you need in companionship. Both of you know if you were at home you would never make friends with one another. It’s a relationship born of limited options.

Jamie was not this kind of friend. Jamie and I spent hours talking, walking, and rowing on the canals that weave in and around the northern German city. We talked of what it was like to live so far from home, of her Italian boss who refused to speak German, of the negative comments she overheard Germans say about Jews and how that felt to her as a Jewish woman. We drank coffee American style–by the potful instead of in small teacups. I told her of my crushing loneliness, and she understood.

For a few hours, I felt the homesickness slip away and the dark fog around my mind lift. I loved every minute of that time with her.

Then she had to go to work, or I had to go back home.

After my time with a good friend, my isolation intensified to a level I could no longer bear. It was as if I got a glimpse through a curtain into a happier life. That glimpse made it impossible to return to my sad existence.

At times, I even regretted meeting Jamie.

I had planned to stay in Germany for at least a year. I left after three months.

I write now about Germany and Jamie because I have struggled this week to name my feeling about coming so close to having a woman for president–to have her win the popular vote but not the electoral vote that matters. Many of the people I work with are happy about this outcome, and it is often all I can do not to cry. (That would be weak and womanly, I know. So, at the risk of becoming wooden, I don’t.)

When I was young, people told me that a woman could be president. That things had changed. I believed them. Geraldine Ferraro become a vice presidential nominee, after all. (I began to suspect something was up when everyone made a big deal out of that.)

Over the years, I gradually saw how impossible it would be for a woman to reach that level of leadership in this country. I saw how women struggled to lead even locally. I put the idea of presidency out of my mind and went on with my life, like you do.

For a few months this year, I let myself believe that things could change. That a woman could lead our nation. I researched and soul-searched to be sure I felt she was qualified and a person of integrity before I moved to her side. I know others disagree with me on this. Some of those others are people I respect, but I believed in her abilities.

Last Tuesday night, I knew the woman candidate would not step into the oval office. I knew that a man who repeatedly and without apology disrespects women will instead have that honor.

It is as though I just came back to the empty apartment after two hours of talking to Jamie. It’s worse than never hoping at all. Infinitely worse.

In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton told the young girls not to give up hope, and I don’t want them to, either.

But right now, I wish I could call my mother and have her wire me the money for a plane ticket, so I could spend the summer hiking with my dad around Mt. Rainier.

May you find your own home again-

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Wednesday Wonders on a Friday:The Guts of Grief

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Warning: My dog died. Read on at your own risk.

Last weekend we had to say goodbye to our sweet Cosmo. It’s a sad story with a sad ending that I don’t feel like telling on the Interwebs. In fact, I’m late posting this week because I don’t feel like telling that story, but it’s the one story taking up space in my mind.

I finally came to a few thoughts on grief I do feel like sharing. These are things I’ve noticed after losing 6 dogs since I moved away from my parent’s home. (Six!! My heaven will look like a tail-wagging pack.) I’ve also lived long enough to lose a few humans.

My Observations

In the beginning, I always forget they are gone for tiny moments and then remember with a slap. 

I once read that this feels like climbing the stairs and expecting another step when there isn’t one. The moment of falling into space when I thought something was under me comes closest to that moment when I remember my dog won’t bark to greet me when I get home.

 

I always think about the lasts and the firsts.

I think about how this last summer went by without me knowing it was his last summer. I think about the last bath he endured. I think about the last night he woke me up to reposition himself on the blankets at the foot of my bed.

I think about how my mother-in-law first found him shivering on her front porch on a below-zero February day and how I went out to help my husband take him to the shelter.

I think about looking at those brown eyes that first day and deciding we should help him get over his kennel cough before taking him in. And then how we could never take him into an animal shelter after that.

I always think of the others I have lost.

New grief pulls up memories of other losses. Losing Cosmo reminds me of the other five dogs, of the people I still miss, of the cats who have come and gone. (I know Cosmo would not like me to think about cats, so I left that for the last.)

I always miss the things that annoyed me most.

I miss having to keep the baby gates in front of the bathrooms, so he wouldn’t raid the cat boxes. I miss having to step over him in the middle of the night. I miss seeing him beg at the edge of the kitchen when I make the lunches.

And the other day I was practicing ridiculously high notes on my clarinet. I worked myself up to the G above the staff and then felt hollow inside when Cosmo didn’t howl about it.

I always feel guilty after they go.

Whenever I am grieving, I think of all the walks I should have taken. I think of the times I didn’t stop to notice Cosmo or pet his head. I think of how busy I got and how I snapped at him when he got under foot while I tried to get out the door.

I even regret getting the cats who stressed him out. If I had known he was so close to the end, I would have waited, I tell myself, so he wouldn’t have had the aggravation.

Now when I hear others tell me of their own regrets, I’ve started telling people it’s normal to feel guilty. I miss the one I lost. And I am only human. No matter how much I love someone or some dog, I cannot take all those walks or avoid all irritation.

When I lose my dog, I’ve discovered, it’s normal to see what I did wrong. I still wish I could go back and fix it, but it soothes me to know this ache is a part of missing someone.

And that’s all I have for today. For now, I sit here this morning with a calico cat on my lap ready to love those I’ve got the best I can.

May you make your own way through the guts of grief when it comes your way-

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Wednesday Wonders: Falling Back

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“For this weekend, you get to call yourselves writers loud and proud instead of in a small voice at the end of a long list of other things you do.”

My writing teacher Lois Brandt said this (or something very like it) at the beginning of our Weekend on the Water retreat with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Lois wasn’t lying. All weekend long, I talked and heard about books. I talked about my books in progress, I heard from debut authors, and I listened to the faculty tell of how to write as well as what they as editors and reviewers look for when they read. I chatted with my group about their writing and heard what they had to say about mine.

It was glorious. 

Sometimes, I learned, it’s good to be stuck. Sometimes it makes me stop, look at what I’m doing, open my eyes and ears, and hear something new. Sometimes the stuck let me hear old things in a new way.

Gradually, I felt the cement blocks on my creative feet and fingers lifting.

When I got home I found a contest to submit to and the deadline is soon. After that I have my short story who sits so close to my heart I have to crack her open and send her out as soon as I can find a possible home.

And my middle grade novel. This weekend I felt my character wake up inside me as I listened to another writer give me story idea after idea from his own experiences with characters like mine.

Here is what I learned in my two full days at a former convent in Des Moines, Washington:

We do not create alone. 

Even as I sit at this keyboard, far away from everyone I met this weekend and from any of you reading, I feel all of them and you with me.

It’s crazy sappy, yet I have to say it because it’s truer than true.

May you find joy in the people who love life like you do.

And do remember the anonymous quote Kim Baker told us as we went our separate ways:

“You are a ghost driving a skeleton made of stardust on a rock flying around the sun. Fear nothing.”

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The published works of the writers I got to meet over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

 

 

 

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Last on this post, but first in my heart, Amanda Hosch. She told me her book journey from the summer of dreaming about her character to the 6 weeks of writing it in a flurry to the agent to the book deal after three years. She was so elated and bubbled over with book joy. Amanda is now one of my heroes. MABEL OPEL PEAR AND THE RULES FOR SPYING hits the stands and the websites in the fall of 2017. Hooray!!