The Characters in Your Life

Your life is full of people. Make your stories sing by including character sketches of the people you love and the people who make your life more challenging. Use strong visual words in your writing to provide a lasting mental image of the person you are writing about. How does that person make you feel? The descriptions of the person you love and admire, or the person who drives you crazy, come alive in the reader’s mind with careful use of adjectives and words that evoke feelings. Will the reader come away from your story with a better connection with you and the person who you vividly describe?  I wrote an essay about my brother Larry, not only describing him, but also with insights into the challenge of being his sister!

He was the kid sitting on the floor reading Encyclopedia Britannica when all the other 10-year-old boys were out playing ball. He told me he liked the Q volume because it was more likely to have weird stuff to learn compared to, say, the B volume which was way too conventional for him.  He was my big brother Larry, eccentric and wildly weird. I was 3 years younger and looked up to him as he taught me that normal was not something to be aspired to.

Gerbil Pythagorus was kept out of reach of Shakespeare.

Larry liked to carry Pythagoras around in his pocket. Pythagoras was his gerbil and I liked to see him run up to Larry’s shoulder and around the frizzy hair that grew up and out instead of down. Larry told me he had some black blood, that somehow even though I was the palest white with Swedish ancestry, he was proud of his African heritage. The mystery was solved as my dad snorted when I asked why my brother was African and I was Swedish, but Larry pointed to his mass of bushy hair as if that was sure proof. Pythagoras skirted around in the brown frizzy bush and showed up on his opposite shoulder. He lived in a cage that hung from the rafters in the basement which Larry rigged up to keep Pythagoras safe from our black cat Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s unrealized dream.

Of course I had to have a pet too and finally convinced mom to let me buy a small white mouse and named him Algernon. Larry teased me when I shuddered at the naked pink tail as it slithered through my fingers, but Algernon became my wee buddy and I too walked around with him poking his whiskers out of my pockets. Algernon’s cage was kept in my room which was strictly off limits from the stalker Shakespeare. At night I would fall asleep either to bells that chimed the hour and softly melodic hymns from the church up on the hill, or to the incessant rhythm of Algernon’s treadmill.

When I was in junior high I stressed out about what to do for a project for the science fair. Of course I asked Larry to help, hoping his intelligence would trump his weirdness as he helped me select a topic. I was eager to start when he suggested that I try to train Algernon to do tricks. He extolled the traits of Algernon and told me that white mice were bred to be lab animals, so surely they must be pretty smart. Was I dumb enough to think the mice were doing experiments instead of being experimented upon? I listened to my big brother and we made our plans. Poor Algernon hid in my pocket nibbling a carrot while we discussed his fate.

Larry helped me build a small box from scraps of wood in the basement. It had a 2” piece of net across the center which made it look like a mouse sized tennis court. I was going to train Algernon to jump over the net. I thought I could just put a treat on the other side and when I said “Jump” he would see the food and hop on over there. That seemed harmless enough, but Larry said that was too easy. “Algernon won’t hear the word “Jump” and hop over the net, your idea will never work”.  He said, “To be scientific we have to be more sophisticated than that! This is a science fair Algernon is going to after all!”

So he lined the bottom of the box with copper screening and got some wire and a switch. I was getting a bit nervous watching him. His mouth twitched a little like it did when he made me a Dagwood sandwich and snugged sardines up to my pickles and then topped it off with an Oreo and mustard. He then hooked the wire up to a black box. “What’s that?” I asked, wondering how this project had gotten away from me. He said it was a transformer. The new plan was to put Algernon in the box on top of the shiny copper screen and then while I said, “Jump” Larry would flip the switch and allow a jolt of electricity to snake down the wire to the screen and shock my wee buddy. Larry said that would help Algernon learn what “Jump” means and he would leap over the net and get his treat. The plan was to train the mouse and then eventually be able to remove the screen once he learned his lesson.

What was I thinking? It was MY project, MY mouse and I didn’t want to shock him! Where was PETA when I needed them?!  But PETA wouldn’t come along until 1980, way too late for poor Algernon.

I made a chart to track our data and on the first day I gently put Algernon on the screen, said “Jump!” and Larry threw the switch. Algernon’s whiskers twitched, his tail twitched and went straight up in the air. His nose quivered and caught wind of the cheese over the net and he jumped and nibbled the cheese. Did it work?

We tried it again, twitch, quiver, jump. Twitch, quiver, jump. I put my finger on the screen one time when Larry let ‘er rip and felt a burning tingle go up my hand. But Algernon was a trooper and really loved cheese. Plop as he landed on the screen, “Jump!”, zap, twitch, quiver, jump!  I got a red ribbon at the science fair and aside from being a bit plumper; Algernon seemed none the worse for wear.

But day after day Algernon got more sluggish. I no longer heard his treadmill at night and I noticed a funny rash forming around his tail. It was spreading and his sleek white fur was falling off around the rash. Shakespeare needed a vaccination so I took Algernon along to the vet. We sat on the bench waiting our turn, the sleek black cat and the white mouse, together awaiting their fate. I was given a white powder for Algernon’s rear end. My mouse had diaper rash. Or so the vet thought.

I dangled Algernon by his tail and shook on the powder, but it didn’t seem to help. Algernon was getting worse and worse. His whiskers didn’t seek treats and he no longer poked his head up in his cage wanting to ride in my pocket. I was sad and wondered if that copper wire had shocked my poor pet to an early death.

My granddad came to visit and I heard my dad and Larry talking to him about what we had done to Algernon. Granddad decided the most merciful thing would be to put Algernon out of his misery. He gently took my innocent Algernon, stroked his back with a gnarly finger and put him in his pocket. “I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry”. So I wiped my eyes and went to my room trusting my Granddad to do the right thing. But Larry followed him out the back door and watched my Granddad clobber Algernon with a shovel, smash him good, and bury him out under the bushes along the edge of our yard.

Algernon was a true lab mouse, smart as his little mouse brain allowed, and sacrificed for the advancement of science. Larry wasn’t supposed to tell me what happened out in the backyard that sad day, but years later he let the mouse, er, cat out of the bag and told me the whole story.  Algernon was replaced by a gerbil named Aristotle. Aristotle was never subjected to such shocking treatment and lived to the ripe old age of 2. During his allotted years on earth I treated him gently. But every once in awhile I would go to the bushes in the backyard and take flowers for Algernon.

Larry currently lives in the mountains of southern Arizona and is still eccentric. He definitely made my childhood more interesting!






A horse is a horse of course of course

We all have dreams and things we hope to do someday. I added my girlhood dream of horses to my bucket list. I want to learn how to ride a horse! Write down your dreams, if you’re not making those dreams come true, just writing about them can help you sort out if they’re realistic or will remain forever a treasured part of your inner world.

A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.  ~Pam Brown

I wrote an essay about my latest effort to bring a dream out of my psyche and into my real world. It’s been so much fun, both writing about it and actually riding a horse! IMG_0104

1000 pounds. 1000 pounds is ½ a ton!  A horse weighs 1000 lbs or more. When I was a little girl I had a dream. I wanted to fly with the wind on the back of my own beloved horse. But when I was 8 years old, the fact that horses weigh 1000 lbs meant little to me. I loved horses and read lots of horse books.  I read My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty and Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Brighty happened to be a burro, but he was a close cousin of the horse, so that was good enough.  

The books  fueled my dream and even now 50 years later that dream hasn’t faded. I decided to broach the subject with my husband. It’s never too late, right? And it’s on my bucket list!

So back in December I jokingly told my husband Kim that I wanted a horse for Christmas. I am a city girl and knew that wouldn’t happen, but maybe just a few horseback riding lessons? Kim just gave me his, Oh Golly, What next? look and the matter was dropped.

So Christmas came and lo and behold, Kim actually gave me a horse! He even found one that is exactly the color I had always wanted as a little girl. A bay, dark brown with black mane and tail. But alas, it was a plastic horse model. Ha, funny guy. But he did give me a few lessons at a local stable.

I roped a friend into joining me for lessons and the first day I looked at the horse I was going to ride. I looked up. His name is Laddie… and he…weighs… over 1000 lbs. He’s a big boy. I asked the instructor if she ever had old folks learn to ride and she assured me she’s had people even in their 70s come for riding lessons. The first thing we did is groom the horses. I was told about the different brushes and what they’re used for and I must admit, as I brushed that horse along his neck and across his back in broad sweeps, I fell just a little bit in love. His eyes are soulful, the ears perked forward in delight and the velvety lips nuzzled my shoulder. The instructor said that he would love for me to talk to him so he could get to know me. I talked in a low soothing voice, sweet nothings. He snorted. Just the response I’m used to.

After the grooming we got a lesson on how to bridle the horses and heave the saddles over their backs and buckle the cinches.  Okay. So now this ol gray lady was supposed to get up on the back of this 1000 lb beast? Whose idea was this? Up close and personal… Laddie was tall. Did I mention he weighs 1000 lbs? Of course I had done some reading about horseback riding lessons and many of the websites related how dangerous horseback riding could be. I needed a helmet. I needed hard toed boots in case my feet got stepped on. If I fell off I needed to learn to roll away from those stomping hoofs. I told this to my husband and he asked, “Can’t you just do something without reading about it and learning stuff you’d be better off not knowing?”

So I gave Laddie a gentle pat on the side of his head, and hoped he was patient and kind. I looked up to his back and breathed a sigh of relief when the instructor brought over a step stool. I tried to forget that usually it was needed for all the 4’ tall kids who took riding lessons. I stepped up, put my foot in the stirrup and swung my leg over. She told me how to hold the reins and position my legs and I nudged him gently with my foot. Finally the horse took off at a walk and I practiced turning with leg pressure and a gentle tug on the reins in the direction I wanted to go.

Laddie stopped. Just stood there. He pawed the ground and gave a little whinny as if to say, “This lady has no clue!”  I chirruped my tongue and gently nudged his sides. No go. The instructor was watching my friend ride her horse around the arena and looked over at Laddie and I at full stop and said I was confusing the horse.  Excuse me? I was confusing the horse? I thought he was confusing me. He was supposed to ‘go’! She came over and started jiggling my foot in the stirrup. “Relax your feet! You’re all tense, the horse can sense that and is trained to stop when the rider is confused.” I guessed it was likely that the horse was just confused about why this heavy lady was on his back when he’s used to an 80 lb slip of a girl.

Laddie and I finally got our communication sorted out and off we went. When it was time to dismount the instructor said to swing my foot well over his rump. If I bumped the rump it may startle him and he’d take off with me half off and half on.  Oh gosh, really?  I managed to get my leg up and over, behind me, try it sometime, and just barely brushed his back.  Back on the ground again. After another lesson I was able to get that sweet boy to trot. My feet were relaxed, no one was confused, and off we went. The gentle motion and tiny bit of speed, seeing the muscles of Laddie’s withers flex and ripple, hearing the staccato of hoofbeats, and knowing that I was in control of a 1000 lb beast, now that’s a rush!

Wedding Day Glitch

You know you have a good story to tell and there are so many ways to tell it. A story unfolds differently on paper than it does orally. Maybe 2015 will be your year to save your stories in writing. When my daughter Andrea got married 9 years ago she found a gorgeous wedding dress. But there is a story about getting that dress to fit properly. If I told it orally to a friend it might sound thus, “Andrea’s dress felt too tight on her wedding day and she told me she couldn’t wear it! Her friends helped her relax and solved the problem.” When told on paper the story grew and I was able to include many sensory details and a touch of humor:

Too tight, breathe!

The zipper slowly inched upwards; each quiet click as the plastic teeth engaged was a victory. “Let your breath out, tuck your tummy, arms up!” That should have been my first clue.  My daughter had dismissed each hanger down the rows of white satin and finally pulled a dress out with a gasp of pleasure. “This could be it!”  We had been looking for her wedding dress for months, in and out of shops. We finally decided to try Hope’s Bridal Boutique even though it looked like a big pink barn in an Iowa cornfield. Because it was. Cringe. The ivory satin showed off her tan bare shoulders, was trimmed with tiny pearl beads and had intricate pleats on the bodice. Lovely, elegant. She went to try it on and came out needing help with the zipper. The clerk, a young lady with more enthusiasm than expertise, finally got it zipped up but the stitching looked stretched close to bursting. “Uh, Andrea, it’s a size 6, do they have it in a size 8?”  She was twirling in front of the mirror trying to see herself from all angles. Evidently she saw everything but that zipper, those poor plastic teeth clasped in a death grip. Andrea thought it would work. The clerk, eager to make a sale said they could take let it out a bit so I pulled out my plastic.

Andrea holds her breath.

Andrea went to the fittings and never said a word besides, “All good, mom, love my dress!” The August day finally arrived, hot and sunny, her wedding day. Her best friends came in the church and hugged Andrea, their pretty dresses encased in plastic bags slung over their shoulders. I was fussing with other details so said I would come in later to see them after they put the dresses on. When I finally got down to the dressing room I hung back watching. Laura, the maid of honor was saying, “It’s okay Andrea, let your breath out, tuck your tummy in, arms up!” That was my second clue. Andrea was flustered and starting to hyperventilate. I said, “Andrea, what’s wrong, I told you a size 8 would be better!” Laura was behind Andrea frantically making motions that had to mean, “Mother of the bride…. Shut up. Now!” Finally those brave zipper teeth were clenched together and Andrea gasped, “All good, mom, love my dress!.” The girls looked lovely. The bridesmaids were swathed in classic rose piped in black and Andrea’s dress was appropriately fastened in all the right places. All was well.

They headed down to the sanctuary where the photographer was waiting for them. After a few poses Andrea was looking flushed. She started to nervously fan her face with little jerky motions of her lovely manicured fingers. Her breathing was reduced to panicky gasps. I thought I saw an exasperated look on the photographer’s face but it was fleeting. He was a seasoned professional used to dealing with nervous brides. He calmly suggested the bride take a 10 minute break. The bridesmaids hovered around her like mother hens and gently led her to a little room to the side where they could have some privacy.

I opened the door and they were all sitting in a circle holding hands, awash in a sea of rose and white satin. Andrea’s dress was spread around her, her waist rose up from the froth of beaded satin. Was she hyperventilating again? What was that she just said?  It sounded like, “I can’t wear this dress, I can’t breathe, I can’t wear this dress!” Her lovely fingers started that jerky little fanning motion again. I blurted out, “Andrea, you have to wear that dress, you’re getting married in one hour, you know how much that dress cost??” Was I sounding shrill? Laura gave me an icy look that would’ve frozen molten lava. I opened my mouth, closed my mouth, and obediently left the room in full retreat from Laura’s riveting glare.

I sat down and waited. Glancing over at the photographer I gave him an apologetic smile and caught him checking his watch. We watched the door to the little room willing it to open. When it finally swung open, the young ladies waltzed out; calm, cool and collected. Their dresses were smooth, their heads were held high. They were ready for pictures. Andrea’s dress was resplendent and she held herself with regal poise, smiling sweetly for her big day. I was amazed and delighted and watched with all the tender pride and emotion only a mother of the bride can feel. My baby girl was getting married!  

After a beautiful ceremony and yet more pictures I peeked in the little side room wondering how in the world Andrea’s too tight dress expanded to fit comfortably. There on the floor was her expensive bra, forlorn stays pointed skyward, its absence creating just the ease to make her day perfect.

Think of one of your favorite family stories and write it down! Or have someone interview you about it. You’ll have fun with the sensory details and end up with a story worth saving!