The dark specter of Barbecue Man returns

grill-931878_1280The first time I moved out of my parents’ house I moved in with a couple of equally ill-equipped girls I’d known since elementary school in the dismal trailer they were renting in what I now see was a really lovely (quiet, well-kept) trailer park one zipcode from where we were all raised. None of us could balance a checkbook, cook, or hold a job for more than a few months at time time, so it was a failed experiment from the get-go.

(There’s a whole book in that wild, fun, desperate, grotesque, coming-of-age summer, but there’s half a dozen other projects already in the queue and I might need a lawyer before I can publish it.)

We had contact with only one neighbor in the trailer park because most everyone kept to themselves. (I told you it was a lovely place.) Our neighbor to the north was a large man who barbecued three meals a day. Breakfast: barbecue. Lunch: barbecue. Dinner: barbecue. We didn’t actually talk to the guy so we never knew if he was a barbecue connoisseur or if maybe his stove and/or microwave were broken and this was his sole means of cooking.

Barbecue Man, as we cleverly called him, had a wife, Mrs. Barbecue Man, whose face we never saw because the only times she stepped outside it was to position herself in a plastic lounge chair with one of those folding aluminum sun reflectors hiding her face. (This remains the only time in my life I have seen one of those things IRL.)

Barbecue Man had two means of communicating with us: 1) Screaming “Fucking lesbians!” out his window if we made too much noise during the day and 2) calling the park manager at 10:00 pm exactly if we were still making too much noise at 10:00 pm exactly. (And, of course, we gathered around a clock and ramped up the noise-making until it was at a fever pitch at 9:59 pm, at which point we could see his silhouette lumbering to the phone, and we promptly ceased all audible activity at 10:00 pm precisely – even going so far at one point as to flip our own breaker after a particularly high-energy bout of lightswitch flipping and screaming with three stereo systems pegged to 10.) The second method, too, was followed by a cry of “Fucking lesbians!”

(I hope he knows not a one of us was even a little bit upset by being referred to as a lesbian, and also that he was wrong to assume that three single girls with two cats and a parrot were lesbians just because we never had any boys over.)

That was 16 years ago now.

A few days ago I was listening to the clatter and bang and hiss and cussing of the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls next door firing up his barbecue for a late breakfast when it dawned on me (after 10 years living next to that asshole) this is the only other person I have ever encountered who barbecues breakfast. While the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls doesn’t barbecue every meal every day he does barbecue about half of all meals and, again, is the only other person I have ever seen barbecue breakfast when there is not a power outage.

I ran out to where Matt was welding and asked him. What if. WHAT IF?!?!?!

“It’s possible,” said Matt.

I explained about the wife with the reflectors and how she bore no resemblance (based on body shape and pitch of voice) to the wife the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls had when we moved in next door to him out here ten years ago.

“He’s on his fourth wife,” said Matt.

It’s not impossible. It is in fact, totally possible. What if, guys? WHAT IF. We’re not looking at a whole book here, of course, but this bizarre coincidence could at least make up one short story chapter in a book I have on a back burner.

Though geographically large, this county I have lived in my whole life is not densely populated and is, figuratively, a very small world. Matt and I were friends for years before discovering that our mothers had been friends in their childhood in their tiny hometown, that my mother had dated his uncle in their teens, that our mothers’ first husbands had owned a business together, that his best friend was the guy I complained about from my first job. A friend of ours at the restaurant where we met logged with Matt’s grandfather, machined with my grandfather, and trimmed and tied the crown roasts of beef that my mother used to order for Christmas dinner. I could go on for hours; everyone knows everyone somehow.

It will be a while before we can know, though, if this guy is indeed that guy. There (thankfully) aren’t many unfortunate moments in which the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls heaves himself over to the fence to attempt to bond with Matt using unchecked negativity and racism (Dude assumes that anyone who looks a little like him must share all his disgusting sentiments and he is perpetually shocked that we don’t want to deport the Mexicans across the street, that we don’t want to evict people who can’t afford to keep up their houses to his standards, that we didn’t want to assassinate Obama, that we don’t regret getting married, and that, no, we really weren’t joking about not being Christian.) and he hasn’t tried to talk to me since that time he jeered at me in a singsongy voice “Does Matt know you’re using his tools?” and I snarled back “They’re my fucking tools.”

But rest assured, readers, the next time I see them engaged in verbal combat I will text Matt urgently to find a way to ask if the asshole ever lived in Marysville next to some obnoxious teenage lesbians.

— Amanda

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The life and times of Lonely Chicken

Our latest batch of chickens came home from the feed store as tiny, screeching fluffballs four short years ago. For a year or two we had five chickens: one Rhode Island Red (named “Brownie” because I am a brilliant writer of fiction and clever at avoiding tropes and clichés) and four absolutely identical Barred Rocks (or, hickory shirt chickens, as we like to call them), with no names at all.

I don’t remember what killed Brownie but it may have been old age: she predated the Hickory Shirt Gang by several years. This horribly hot and dry summer two of the girls were hit by something weather-related and distasteful that I’m not going to cop to because it makes me feel like a bad chicken-owner-person. A month or two after that another hickory shirt chicken got an impacted or sour crop (not her first – she was prone to this and didn’t seem to get enough grit if I force fed it to her). I did what I had done previously to make her better, but this time she didn’t pull through.

So that left us with just one chicken. She seemed happy enough and in good health, but we called her Lonely Chicken nonetheless.

The folks across the street, who I will call los Vecinos for the purposes of the blog , got chicks this spring which rapidly grew into a vigorous flock of three Rhode Island Red hens and two roosters (a Barred Rock and what I think is a Black Sex Link). They free range during the day and happily stomp about on the two adjoining properties that los Vecinos are rehabbing. But in the fall, now fully grown, they started to expand their territory to include my front yard and another neighbor’s front yard. When the roosters peeked through my fence and saw Lonely Chicken they went apeshit. And Lonely Chicken began to pace frantically.

Curious to see what would happen, I opened both the gate and the door to Lonely Chicken’s run. What happened at first was the the neighbor chickens fled in horror and Lonely Chicken wouldn’t cross her threshold. I did it again the next day and Lonely Chicken eventually left her run, but she stayed within a three foot radius of the entrance to her run. I expected her to gradually widen her horizons – but I didn’t take roosters into consideration. Both of them stopped by early on the third morning to “romance” her, and she followed them out into our front yard. By the next day she was hanging out with the whole flock over at Casa Vecino.

She started a daily pattern of going out with one of the roosters (we call him Romeo) in  the morning and splitting the rest of her day between one-on-one time with Romeo and foraging with the girls. If I am late in letting Lonely Chicken loose, Romeo lets me know.

He also did away with his competition.

A few days later los Vecinos told Matt that the roosters had had a real fight and Romeo had been the victor.

Not long after that came the night that Lonely Chicken didn’t come home. I went out just after dark to close the door to her run, but she wasn’t in her coop.

She stayed over two nights but then got the hang of the whole “it gets dark earlier every night” thing and she has been very good about at least being on our property at nightfall. When I go out to shut her in she is always either on her perch in her coop or right beside the front porch, waiting for me to show her the way home in the dark.

I still intend to get more chicks in the spring, because I want more eggs, but in the meantime it’s nice to know that Lonely Chicken isn’t lonely any more.

— Amanda

P.S. Hickory shirts are what the local loggers wear. They are thick (almost as thick as canvas) and striped with very fine little black and white stripes, the same material I think was once used to make locomotive engineer caps.

Let me tell you about dogs, man.

The Corgi in question. As usual, deaf to my pleas for her to look at me.

The Corgi in question. As usual, deaf to my pleas for her to look at me.

Are you having a bad day? Well, this post may make you cry but it will make you feel better, too.

So, I have anxiety problems. Not like I used to. I used to be on a heap of meds and full-blown panic attacks with hyperventilation were a weekly occurrence. But I extricated myself (rather painfully, of course) from the situation (a hellaciously bad job) that was exacerbating my natural tendency to FREAK THE FUCK OUT 24/7 and I’ve gotten to a point where my life looks outwardly boring as hell but is, for me, delightfully low in panic-inducing scenarios. I have thus far been able to remain medication-free. (Though I try to remind myself that mental health fluctuates and there is a very real possibility that I will be back on meds again some day – and, furthermore, that regardless of what American society would have me believe there is no shame in being medicated for mental health.)

ANYWAY.

Being away for so long now from the onslaught of daily insecurity, discomfort, shame, lies, and backstabbing that was my job for 5-1/2 years has lowered my resistance to horrifying situations. Things that were once a part of my life (like being reasonably certain I was going to be fired, killed, or commit murder in the next five seconds) and which I was once numb to are now just as horrifying as they possibly could be (and probably more so since my flawed brain chemistry is super duper melodramatic and blows everything out of proportion).

So I was riding with Matt to a logging site a few months ago and we were in the dump truck and hauling the equipment trailer empty because we were going to pick up the skidder and move it to another job. This job was on a wicked steep driveway that winds its way up the side of a hill after a 90 degree turn off of a busy highway. This meant that we had to come almost to a complete stop to make the turn onto the driveway, thus losing all our momentum, and with the empty trailer acting as a giant anchor we spun out in one spot on the gravel driveway (just barely clear of the highway) at a 15 degree grade with a neighbor standing on the side of the driveway screaming at us and a busy highway behind us should we fail to move forward or continue spinning our increasingly hot wheels.

This scenario, while only mildly irritating to my husband, who literally laughs in the face of death, was too much for me. My brain collapsed on itself and I became an insensible freakshow of snot and tears and high-pitched noises. I was shaking so hard that it is likely I was the reason the truck finally caught traction and lurched forward.

I don’t remember most of the rest of the trip to the top of the hill. I don’t remember how long I sat in the cab, deaf to the concerned inquiries of the very nice people we were logging for. This was one of the worst panic attacks of my life – and that is saying something. At the bottom of the driveway I legitimately thought I was going to die and that made me panic, and that display of panic humiliated me which only upset me more. It was a downward spiral. An unending mental toilet flush.

Then Matt had a lightbulb moment. He opened the door of the dump truck, picked up the homeowner’s angry little Corgi, and tossed her onto the seat with me. This dog, who had until that day shown nothing but disdain for me and my staunch refusal to be herded by her piercing and unstoppable bark, was suddenly more concerned for me than anyone has ever been for any other being on earth. My welfare instantly became her #1 priority in life. She leaped into my lap and wedged her torpedo-shaped body under my clutching, jumping arms, and did her doggy best to hug me.

After a few minutes of unprecedented affection from this normally aloof dog I was all but cured. I stopped shaking, I stopped crying, and I was able to drunkenly clamber down onto the ground. I reached up to get the dog and she didn’t hesitate – she actually jumped into my open arms, totally certain that I would catch her.

She continued to astound all present by remaining by my side all day as I sat on the stoop of the horse barn and read my book. She hardly even barked and she refused to be called away when her owners tried to give her her lunch.

So, yeah. Dogs, man. I fucking love dogs.

— Amanda

The seven plagues of western Washington

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These plagues signal not the end times but merely marketh the turning of the wheel of the year in this kingdom between the Cascades and the Pacific. Mark ye well!

  1. The Plague of Cottonwood Fluff and Pollens of all Plants – Yea and it shall snow in the spring and the snow shall accumulate in all nooks and crannies of the known world and if thou hast allergies the pollen shall maketh thine eyes burn like coals and thine nose stream like a river and the pharmacy shall not have on stock thine preferred medication and thou shalt have to drive to Lynnwood (and also present thine ID and purchase but one box, lest thou hast plans to make meth).
  2. The Plague of Children on Summer Break – They shall scream bloody murder during thy Sunday afternoon nap, though they be unhurt and without even fright. They shall screech upon whistles and blat upon vuvuzelas long after sundown when thy rest is needed for thine workday ahead. They shall assemble in the streets of thine development and dance without fear before thine approaching vehicle. They shall take up every available computer at the library to play Birds of Anger or Village of Farm or whatever in the name of God Most Merciful they play these days when they should be doing some chores or reading a book or just staying the hell our of thine way for the love of contraception. Thou shallt pray for the return of the yellow leviathans which come in the fall to lay waste to thy hopes of reaching thine destination on time.
  3. The Plague of River Swimmers – Drive ye not near cooling bodies of water when the ambient temperature ascends above seventy degrees Fahrenheit! Avoideth the rowdy, bawdy, congregations of mostly-naked, pink-fleshed people parked with at least one wheel over the fogline, respecting no signs which sayteth unto them that there be No Parking or No Swimming or No Jumping From The Bridge at any time. Neither do they respect their turn signals or side mirrors and they shall cut thee off on a road allowing up to 35 miles per hour travel at but fifteen miles per hour for all of fifty feet before very slowly driving into another parked vehicle and setting off its alarm, which shall sound unceasingly until it exhausteth the battery and its owner cannot fetch further Animal Beer to quench his or her thirst for perpetual public drunkenness.
  4. The Plague of Road Construction – Though ye check the website and the Twitter and the news every morn before ye leave thine dwelling it shall spring upon the roads and upset thine commute without warning or reason. The asphalt of the ancients, cracked and pitted and unfit for on-road vehicles shall be spared. But the innocent roads – the smooth and blemish-free roads – shall be rent asunder and relaid without need, and, indeed, without haste. You shall stew in thine car and the asphalt smell shall give unto thee a headache and the AC in your car shall fail and your boss shall ask of thee “Why are ye so [blasphemous expletive] late and why dost thou look like the excrement of a donkey?”
  5. The Plague of Free Zucchini – In the autumn of the year it shall appear unbidden upon thine porch in plastic bags. It shall appear upon the sidewalk in cardboard boxes enscribed “FREE.” It shall even appear in thine own vehicle if thou dost not roll down thine windows at night. It shall appear in devious forms, disguised as delicious poundcakes and sweetbreads. And, at last, it shall appear in dark weeping blotches upon the pavement as the children hurl it from their bicycles and cars smash it into the oblivion from whence it came and annually doth return.
  6. The Plague of Candidate Signage – The signs, being some as small as one cubit tall and some as large as four or even five cubits tall shall erupt from the ground like terrible mushrooms and shall dot the landscape. They shall be red and white and blue and ugly and useless. They shall block thine visibility at intersections and they shall besmirch the lawns of neighbors with whom thou once felt kinship. They are the early heralds of an annual farce and yet long after the farce they persist, though there be laws requiring their removal after the people cast their votes, yet they shall remain until they are forcibly removed and strewn into the streets to deflate thine tires and, at last, to be gathered together by gangs of angry teenagers on probation and stuffed into garbage bags (which they shall pierce with their pointy bits) and they shall remain in these bags on the verges of the thoroughfares until the snow comes.
  7. The Plague of Precipitation – The rain shall fall.  And fall and fall and fall. The rain shall not cease from October to April at the very least, and likely it shall start much sooner and last much longer and the summer shall, in fact, be relegated to just a week in late July, if that.

— Amanda

Postscript: If thou hast a wish to tell me that my wordings are historically inaccurate be ye warned! I shall respond only by redirecting thee to this link!

I can finally call myself a writer

Buy me this shirt, please.

In the first grade I announced that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I started writing “books” like crazy. For the rest of my life, up to this point, I have constantly wondered at what point I would finally feel like I could call myself a writer.

  • *writes several novels about talking animals which are “borrowed” indefinitely by a teacher, and never seen again* Well, you only have to write to be a writer. Am I a writer yet?
  • *attends Young Authors Conference 4 years in a row* Am I a writer yet?
  • *submits fiction of such poor quality to literary magazines that no response is ever received* Well, rejection is part of the process. Am I a writer yet?
  • *journals religiously for 13 years, stops cold turkey, unceremoniously dumps all journals in trash five years later* Am I a writer yet?
  • *subscribes to The Writer magazine in middle school* Am I a writer yet?
  • *starts literary zine, to publish self* That’s as indie as it gets. Am I a writer yet?
  • *blogs for five years straight* I sure have output. Am I a writer yet?
  • *wins first NaNoWriMo* I finally finished a novel! Am I a writer yet?
  • *buys digital voice recorder because writing on a pad stuck to the steering wheel isn’t working anymore* Am I a writer yet?
  • *revises novel for two years* Am I a writer yet?
  • *critiquer accuses me of aping Salinger* Am I a writer yet?
  • *gets harassed by another author on Goodreads for leaving a two star review* Am I a writer yet?
  • *independently publishes novel*  Am I a writer yet?
  • *sells just five copies of book but now awash in people coming out of the woodwork to “let” me read their unfinished, five year-old, hardcopy-only manuscripts* HO BOY NOW I’M A WRITER!

— Amanda

Interesting facts omitted from my “About the Author” page

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My squeezebox.

I love humorous “About the Author” pages. For example:

“Adams lived partly in Islington, London, partly in Provence, France, but mostly in airport bookshops.” — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1997 Ballantine Books edition

“Allie Brosh lives as a recluse in her bedroom in Bend, Oregon. In 2009, she thought, ‘I know what would be a good idea! Instead of becoming a scientist, I should write and draw things on the Internet!’ This was a horrible idea for too many reasons to count, but the decision wasn’t really based on logic. (. . .) Brosh has also given herself many awards, including ‘fanciest horse drawing’ and ‘most likely to succeed.'” — Hyperbole and a Half

I considered writing a funny description of myself for Ellipsis, but since the book is not overtly humorous (though there are one or two scenes that make me snigger) I opted for a very short and rather plain listing of my name, where I live, and that this is my first published book. For Camp NaNoWriMo in July I will be making my second attempt to finish a paranormal buddy comedy book. If that one makes it to publication maybe then I will have an excuse for a tongue-in-cheek “About the Author” page.

So here are some completely true, but also amusing, facts that I did not include on the last page of Ellipsis:

  • When I eat an apple I eat the core, too. All that is left is the stem.
  • I was born on a Friday the 13th.
  • When I wrote stories as a kid (longhand) I used a wavy underline under sentences intended to be read in a sarcastic tone of voice.
  • I have a speech impediment so mild it cannot be heard, only seen. And, apparently, only by trained professionals. (You cannot even hear it when I am drunk.) If I find out that you are a speech therapist I will not speak in front of you for love nor money.
  • My digital voice recorder is named Diane. So every time I make a note, I begin with “Diane . . .”*
  • I once had a (semi-legal) pet opossum. He was pretty awesome.
  • I play the toy accordion. Not a “real” accordion, but a little 7-button children’s model. I have tried a variety of stringed and wind instruments and this is the only one for which I have any talent.

And here’s some facts about the book

  • This book was my 2013 NaNoWriMo project.
  • This book is being published now because it is the first book I have finished writing. I currently have three unfinished manuscripts on my hard drive (and backed up in the cloud), some of which predate the creation of Ellipsis by three or four years.
  • The idea for this book was sparked by reading a magnificent piece of fan fiction.
  • The original title was Zen and the Art of Grifting.

— Amanda

*If you found this fact mundane you have not watched Twin Peaks.

I’m literally OK with the new meaning of literally

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Scumbag Steve, ladies and gents.

I was watching fail videos with my husband one night (I think we started with a music video and fell down the rabbit hole of “suggested” videos) and the person behind the camera (or phone) in one of the videos brayed “Aw shit, yo, I videoed that!” to inform the failer that his nadir had been recorded for posterity.

“I videoed that?” I repeated, disgusted.

I stomped around glowering for days. Videoed, I kept thinking. That’s not a word. You don’t video something. It’s not a verb!

But, I realized, eventually, almost no one actually films anything anymore because virtually no one uses film. We’re all shooting digital. Film, as a verb, is now an outdated word. Video is probably correct now. I wonder, when film movie cameras were new did this happen, too? Did people object to “film” used as a verb? Did old people insist that it was “record on film”  or “shoot on film” rather than, simply, “film”?

(Incidentally, I would still like to know. My Google search for “first use of film as verb” didn’t answer my question.)

But the quandary woke me up to the truth that language evolves (and that I need to get with the program). Remember, folks, Shakespeare wrote all those plays in modern English. (Well, OK, Early Modern English, but not Old English, as some erroneously believe. You want some English you really can’t wrap your head around? Google you some Chaucer – that’s just Middle English. For some straight up nonsense please see Beowulf in its original Old English.)

So, OK, we video people doing stupid shit and put it on the internet now.  I’m cool with that. (Not so cool with the verbization of “YouTube,” though, as in “Before you light that, lemme get my phone so I can YouTube it.” I’m hoping “video” wins out over time.)

But then there’s that “literally” issue. If you aren’t aware of it you’re gonna have to Google it (a verbization I’m totally OK with, as you can see) because I don’t have the patience to get into it.

After accepting the verb version of video into my vocabulary I had to confront the changing face of “literally.” A big help in that department was the fact that so many words we use in one sense today used to have a very different – sometimes completely opposite – established meaning. For instance:

  • Awful – Formerly meant “inspiring awe.” You know, like awe-full.
  • Bully – Once meant “a fine fellow” or “a good friend.”
  • Egregious – One of my favorite words, because I’m all about the hyperbole, this word currently means “incredibly bad” but used to mean “incredibly good.”
  • Facetious – Another word I live by. But it used to mean “urbane” or “well-mannered.”
  • Garble – Formerly meant “to sort out.”

I have had in person, and witnessed in comments sections, some exceptionally heated arguments about the current changes in language in general, and “literally” in particular. Some folks latch onto what they were taught (and painstakingly memorized and were tested on) and cannot let go. I don’t remember any of my teachers telling me that the English I was learning was the be-all and end-all or that my textbook was a bible, but to hear some folks talk about how they learned it you would think that’s what teachers were really saying. I am inclined to think that these people were not actually told that language is static and that the way they were taught to use it was the One True Path of Our Lord and Savior Daniel Webster, but rather that they worked very hard to learn the rules they learned and resent them being overturned in what appears to be a careless, whimsical manner. (Also, I think it’s human nature to distrust change.)

But here’s the truth of it: dictionaries record language, they do not make it. People make language. Not some high council of elite English Majors, but the public at large. Dictionaries cannot keep up with the vernacular. Just because you can’t find my neologism or new use of an old word in your desk dictionary does not mean that I am flaunting* the English language. You may rightly accuse me of making it up as I go, but that’s part and parcel of language and you’d better make your peace with it as I have.

I have decided that I would rather be they guys printing vernacular bibles, not the butthurt asshats trying to stop them.

(But I’m still miffed that no one can ever use “irony” correctly.)

— Amanda

P.S. Bonus points to anyone who noticed my neologism, “verbization.”

P.P.S. I desperately wanted to use this Get Fuzzy strip as my image for this post but was unwilling to pay $60 for permission, so please go look at it yourself for free.

* Though Grammar Girl will tell you otherwise, I can totally use flaunt here instead of flount. Flaunt” and flount have been used interchangeably for so long that most dictionaries list “to ignore or treat with disdain” in the definition of flaunt. Flount has not been used in the vernacular for long enough that as I type this every instance of the word is being automatically underlined by my spellchecker. Flaunt now officially means both “show it off” and “show off your disregard for it”.