National Novel Writing Month begs editing

I wish I had a dollar for every person who has told me I should write a novel. It would mean I wouldn’t need to write one because I would have enough money to retire comfortably now. But I don’t think they really mean I should write a novel, for a novel is a fictional work and I traffic heavily in non-fictional reality. Write a novel? Heck, I lack the will to even read one.
Once upon a time, I read works of fiction. As a middle schooler, it was books such as The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time and Heidi. As a teen, I absorbed some of the classics, from authors as far flung as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Aldous Huxley and John Steinbeck. But once I became an adult and economically responsible for myself and others, I put down the fiction and actively sought non-fiction. Figured I needed all the information I could get my hands on to improve my chances of survival.
Several people have urged a return to fiction, explaining they think I could benefit from at least an occasional literary “escape” from reality. I must really seem like I need it, because even my pastor weighed in on the issue and gave me a couple works of fiction he thought I would appreciate. Instead, I put yet another daily devotional on my stack of morning reading, the time when I am most fresh and more likely to retain what I read.
Escape? Isn’t that making fiction into a drug of sorts? What’s next, prescription reading? “Read two chapters and call me in the morning.” I’m not into distorting reality, let alone circumventing it. I kind of appreciate it, even when it’s harsh.
Alas, there is to be no escape for me into a literary leisure. I feel disinclined toward that luxury. Give me a good biography or an insightful dissertation on a faith-related topic and I will read and journal volumes on it. No matter how authentically written a novel might be, it just doesn’t ring true for me. I have encountered too many bad novels that were ill-advisedly written and never should have made book. I don’t want to join the ranks of the rank.
This is the long way to say that if I cannot even bring myself to read a novel, I shouldn’t be writing one. My characters would be thinly-veiled variations on real people I know, or have known, which would likely land me a lawsuit, which I can ill afford at this time. Plus, I don’t think I have a good novel inside of me.
Two Christmas breaks ago, I wrote a full-length play, “The Winston Circle.” Finishing it in four days nearly finished me. It also further reinforced I am NOT a writer of fiction. I had to put myself in my characters’ shoes and look through their eyes until I was cross-eyed, to determine what they might do next. That was exhausting and more work than I wanted to put into anything.
But if I were an aspiring novelist, November would be the month to come forward, name it and claim it, during “National Novel Writing Month.” All kinds of writing classes and competitions are held annually. “NaNoWriMo,” as it is abbreviated, caters to novelist wannabees by supplying technical assistance, writing forums and even cash prizes, all of which are in support of liberating and refining the fiction writer within.
Along those lines, I keep getting emails from an annoying self-publishing company known as Author House, offering to help me birth the book its editors absolutely know I have within me, for roughly twice as much money as I have spent purchasing other people’s books during my lifetime. Right now, publishing packages are half off, or slightly less of a rip-off.
Problem is, absent an imaginative story that begs telling, I have nothing of length to say. I have no novel in me, only relatively short, albeit snappy, commentaries that bubble up to the surface. They’re mostly on what’s wrong with me, you and the rest of the world. Nothing novel about that, just the unvarnished, non-bookworthy truth. Why pay when life gives it for free?

Sleeping always trumps entertainment

I am a good sleeper. Granted I don’t require a lot of sleep and the advanced sleep phase disorder I am saddled with has me two to three hours off-kilter with everyone else in my time zone. When it’s time to go sleep, I get straight to business.
Anyone who has made the mistake of trying to hold a phone conversation with me after 8 PM knows it won’t likely end well, especially if I answered the call from my nightstand phone. If I have already retired that early, beware! It’s one of those nights when I absolutely can’t stay awake. No matter what. That’s just the way it is.
In 2011, I took a certification course through Allegiance Health in Jackson to become a polysomnography technician: someone who monitors sleep study patients. I didn’t sleep through any of the program. Surprised? Don’t be. It started early morning and ended mid-afternoon over a two-week period. I learned a lot about sleep patterns, CPAP machines and other sleep disturbance interventions.
I thoroughly enjoyed the class and scored high on the final exam. Only as I started seeking sleep study jobs did I fully-recognized the not-so-small issue that I would have to do daytime hour sleep studies on night-owls (that just aren’t done), as there was no way I would be able to stay awake from 11 PM-7 AM to monitor those who had signed up and were wired up for a night sleep study.
Ironically, I would have slept more soundly than the patients I was monitoring. The fact that did not register with me far earlier in the process still amazes me. I got the cart so far ahead of the horse it’s a wonder I could even move forward.
There was also the secondary issue of God refusing to bless the sudden career change I chose to implement. He wasn’t about to allow me to abandon my daytime work of speaking the truth to resistant people in creative ways that helps prompt positive lifestyle change. It was yet another scenario where I was capable, but not called. Still, I was bummed I had invested a bunch of time and money in the training. Plus, I was truly interested in the topic.
Guess I should have slept on the idea. Why not? I sleep on and through everything else. Two weekends ago, “Jersey Boys,” a musical about the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was playing at Kalamazoo’s Miller Auditorium. I thought about going, but couldn’t justify the price. Then Tibbits Opera House made it more affordable for patrons to attend the show. But fortunately, reality set in as I was calling the ticket hotline.
I knew perfectly well that as soon as they lowered the auditorium house lights, I’d be snoozing before the singers started crooning. Unwilling to give up the thought of seeing the musical, I checked for weekend matinees. Again, reality reared its ugly head and forced me to admit to myself that I was just as likely to sleep through at least the second half of a matinee, as past practice had me groggily missing at least two-thirds of a Saturday afternoon production of “Wicked” in Toledo.
As long as I’m getting honest, I must reveal that I’ve slept through “Phantom of the Opera” at MSU’s Wharton Center, as well as “Will Rogers Follies” at the Fisher Theater in Birmingham. I snored through “Our Town” at Jackson Community College and drool on myself annually during multiple tale tellers at “Storyfest,” also in Jackson.
As a teen, I slept through two school trips to the opera, a “Lover Boy” concert at Wings Stadium and “REO Speedwagon” at a county fair. Obviously, I was warming up for eventual sleeping through a Harry Connick, Jr. concert at Miller. It doesn’t matter how much tickets cost, putting me in a darkened room in a comfortable chair is, in polysomnography lingo, “good sleep hygiene.” Out I go.
The only concert for which I remained fully awake was an 8 PM Bela Fleck show a year ago at Kalamazoo’s Chenery Auditorium. His banjo and other stringed-instrument musicianship was so superb I didn’t even blink. But usually I stink and let sleep trump entertainment.

Halloween haunted by costumes past

FAST FOOD HATS - Part of my kids' letting go of the Halloween trick-or-treating tradition was a transitional year where they wore only partial costumes.

FAST FOOD HATS – Part of my kids’ letting go of the Halloween trick-or-treating tradition was a transitional year where they wore only partial costumes.

By Kristy Smith
Early last October I told my daughter and son, then in seventh and eighth grades, respectively, I thought they were getting too old to go out trick-or-treating. Perhaps they should consider hanging up for good their Halloween costumes. You would have thought I suggested the Pope switch religious denominations or Frank Hull paint his barn maize and blue.
“We’re not too old!” they protested vehemently. So I relented. But as October 31 neared, they were making no effort to acquire costumes, even when I offered to take them or make them. The previous year’s garb was out of the question due to rapid adolescent growth and neither of them gobbled up the idea of wearing my obnoxious, over-sized turkey getup.
I repeatedly brought up the subject of costumes until they told me to shut up. Puzzled and wounded, I mentally cancelled our participation in Halloween and planned not to have plans. Let it go. However, when I arrived home from work around 5:30 PM on October 31, they were ready for me to hit the candy trail with them. What?!
“You guys don’t even have costumes,” I said. “In the eyes of the public, that makes you not trick-or-treaters, but candy extortionists. You might just as well whack the candy-passer-outers over the head with a pumpkin and when they pass out, steal all of their candy at one time and save yourselves some hassle.”
They briefly considered it. Although feeling entitled, they were too lazy to undertake anything that athletic, even on a sugar high. So they settled upon donning all-black clothing and topping their heads with fast food: Connor a hotdog hat and Kate a hamburger bonnet. I appreciated the inspired choice of items I’d picked up at Salvation Army for less than the price of the real things.
We joined together and made the usual haul. Since I thought it was their last year, I felt especially generous. I actually let them ring doorbells and plead for sweets the length of an entire village block, on both sides of the street! Usually we candy-beg only at the homes family and friends. It was a high note on which to retire after a dozen productive candy crop seasons.
Earlier in the fall, I’d suggested we donate to the local thrift store several years’ collection of outgrown costumes. That had met with violent protest. No way! What kind of mother would do that sort of thing?! They shamed me for even thinking it. So I left everything hanging for another year.
At an online post-Halloween sale, I acquired a couple of costume heads for myself, should there be a Halloween gathering sometime in my future. Two pairs of butt cheeks with faces – one wearing a graduation cap and the other a stupid expression: smart butt and dumb butt, or some words close to that. I smiled at the politically-incorrect fun I’d have wearing them.
Early this month, I asked my kids about this year’s Halloween plans. Now 13, Kate said she didn’t want to dress up, but rather go trick-or-treating in town, as herself, with a group of friends. Similarly, Connor, 14, voiced an interest in going to a friend’s house where there’d be other guys eating candy and “reking some noobs.” That translates to going online, finding inexperienced gamers and soundly beating them. However, it all was a moot point, as October 31 falls on their weekend to stay at their dad’s house in another town. I can’t play a role in it.
As if I weren’t depressed enough, I went to the attic later that day to swap out seasonal clothing. Wouldn’t you know, the rack of my children’s Halloween costumes stared me straight in the face; some quietly cute, others in stereotype surround sound: cowgirl, skeleton, pizza slice, military man, gypsy, Centurion, baton twirler, mad scientist, geisha, ninja, Indian and Dorothy, down to the ruby slippers.
I tearfully and carefully tucked them into a big donation bag, except the ninja suit Connor had insisted on wearing annually his first three years of school. He can share it and the story with his own kids someday. Good-bye, Yellow Brick Road of childhood. We’ve officially departed Kansas.

To be perfectly honest, speech patterns baffle

Chalk it up to being an English teacher’s daughter, but I notice diction, also known as word choice. It’s an involuntary, hard-wired thing. I cannot un-notice it. Unfortunately, it’s as distracting as it is fascinating. My several years’ participation in Toastmasters International only intensified the problem by getting me listening even more closely to what people were saying and how they said it. While I think the phrase was to him the same kind of vocalized pause, “ah,” “um” and “actually” are to other people, it’s the kind of thing that makes the listener pause and start wondering things to him/herself.
For instance, I used to work with someone who prefaced most sentences with the phrase, “To be perfectly honest . . . “ To be perfectly honest, it was flat-out annoying.
“Hmm. If he has to go out of his way to point out to me that he’s being truthful right now about this topic, does that mean he wasn’t honest all the previous times he didn’t stop and point out he was being perfectly honest?”
You’ve also got to wonder why a person throws in the adverb “perfectly.” Is it some kind of backdated, backdoor disclaimer for all the times he/she was imperfect with honesty, meaning untruthful. Hmm.
Fortunately, there are ways to test honesty. Some involve extensive personality surveying, while others simple observation. Some people must have extra-sensory abilities along those lines. Take for instance, the store clerk who makes a huge production of asking me for ID when I go to write a check. Then, barely even glancing at my driver’s license, asks, “Is all the information on this correct?”
Despite the truthful answer, there is only one right answer to that question, my friends: a quick “yes!” But sometimes I feel compelled to mess with the clerk. When I am writing a check and am asked for identification that matches the information on the check. I test the clerk’s level of reality by hitting myself in the forehead and saying, “Shoot, I knew there was something else I forgot to take when I was stealing this checkbook from that little old lady.” Typically, they laugh and don’t re-ask for my ID, a dereliction of duty.
Most of us are hypocrites at heart, failing miserably when it comes to practicing what we preach, even if we claim to be non-religious. The oft-repeated line, “There are no atheists in foxholes” always makes me smile. Along the same lines as the oxymoron “situational ethics,” there must also be situational atheism, you know, being as much or as little of an atheist as one’s circumstances warrant.
A situational atheist is the foxhole guy who denies God’s existence until he fully notices the depth of the hole he has dug for himself and suddenly becomes willing to appeal to Someone Divine to rescue him. Situational atheists are also reputed to call out God’s name in response to moments of both extreme pain and pleasure, which makes absolutely no sense. Sometimes, situational atheism can be heard from the same people who feel the need to prove both their truthfulness. It comes out like this, “What I am about to say is God’s honest truth.” Why bring Him into it if he doesn’t count outside of it?”
To recap . . . you, the card-carrying atheist, is now swearing in the name of the God you don’t believe in that you are GOING TO BE truthful?! That’s wrong in so many ways that it pretty much discredits whatever content may follow. Might as well just go ahead and tack “Scout’s Honor” onto the end of your already incredibly ambivalent honesty statement, although the closest tie you’ve had to scouting is buying Girl Scout cookies and Boy Scout popcorn during the annual sales.
With this kind of stuff forever clogging my mental pipeline, I barely have time to work on another of my most important skills: making up new words. For instance, a friend commented during a recent phone conversation that a certain person had enjoyed a firm family foundation during her childhood. I instantly commented that I received an infirm LOSTation from my upbringing.
Honestly or not, keep your sense of humor and faith.

Grouch Day a time to celebrate curmudgeons

If you got a greeting card in this week’s mail, I hope it was because either your birthday or your anniversary falls on October 15. If not, someone might be trying to tell you something, for according to Chase’s Calendar of Events, that date is “National Grouch Day,” because “all grouches deserve a day to be recognized.”

So if you received a card, display it as a badge of honor because someone thinks you stand out among grouches. However, true to grouch form, instead of thanking the sender you will instead complain about the card (i.e. it’s too big, small, expensive, cheap, etc.), as well as the ever-increasing price of stamps, and that American Greetings is always coming up with ridiculous, un-American holidays designed to part consumers with their money.

But secretly, you will be pleased you actually received mail that wasn’t bills. Of course, that will send you off onto another tangent about the evil of bills and that you work too hard for your money to have to surrender all of it to inflation. You will blame inflation on your least favorite political party and/or politician and launch into an even more negative discourse about how the country is going to Hell in a handbasket because those who are supposedly in charge don’t know crap from Crayola.

And just who is the leader of the Crayola Republic right now? That maniac of a statesman who got drunk enough on power one night to start killing off his own supporters, creating chaos and a mass exodus across Crayola borders into other countries. Yup, and there go our leaders trying to offer them asylum. What a bunch of baloney!

The topic of asylums and baloney brings to your mind the recent corrections department scandal where the State of Michigan had to switch food service contractors because prisoners found maggots in their chow. Why, a little extra protein never hurt anyone! Those inmates should have thought about that before they went out and committed all those crimes, victimizing law-abiding, tax-paying citizens like you and me. If you were in charge, you’d start serving rice every meal so nobody would be the wiser. Don’t ask, don’t tell works well on the road to Hell.

No wonder you were remembered on National Grouch Day. All you do is complain, except for the time you stop to grumble, mutter under your breath and polish your grudges. That makes a lot of sense, as per the American Heritage Dictionary, “grouch” can be traced back to the Middle English word “grucchen,” which stems further back from the word “grudge.”

It shouldn’t surprise that grouches are so caustic. They eat resentment for breakfast, score-keep for dinner and practice strife for life. Anyone who has attempted to love a grouch knows exactly what I mean. You cannot get them to reconsider their cynicism, distrust and generalized pessimism. They unconsciously believe their preventive, pre-emptive protesting (worrying and predicting the worst will happen) somehow keeps it from happening.

The positive Pollyannas out there may be perspiring over the fact there is no special day in place to recognize those who have to put up year ‘round with a grousing grouch. But there is a day when they get to vent their considerable accumulated disgust: October 12 is “International Moment of Frustration Scream Day.”

What does that entail? According to Chase’s editors, “To share any or all of our frustrations, all citizens of the world will go outdoors at 12 hundred hours Greenwich time and scream for 30 seconds. We will all feel better or Earth will go off its orbit.”

No doubt, but is 30 seconds realistically enough cathartic time to spend in a collective, blood-curdling chorus? I have had to deal with a considerable number of situations and people to which/whom I would need to individually dedicate at least 100 times that amount of scream time. Thirty seconds wouldn’t do it.

It would help if we all made a bigger deal over October 19, which is “Evaluate Your Life Day,” in order to “encourage everyone to check and see if they’re really headed where they want to be.” Hopefully, not toward Grouchville.

Hard work develops and displays character

I’ve had the privilege this year of spending some time riding the family tomato rig, aka the Pik-Rite commercial tomato harvester with Odenburg sorter. It’s a huge, noisy machine that picks tons of tomatoes in little time. But effective as it is, the real bragging rights go to the human sorters of tomatoes aboard it.

UN-OUTSOURCED SORTING - Tomato sorting is one of those character-building jobs that can't be outsourced because nobody wants to do it. So it falls back on family.

UN-OUTSOURCED SORTING – Tomato sorting is one of those character-building jobs that can’t be outsourced because nobody wants to do it. So it falls back on family.

“How hard could it be,” you may be asking yourself. “My grandma grows tomatoes” or “Who couldn’t sort through produce? I do it all the time, myself, when I grocery shop.” But for how many hours and tons straight do you sort at the store? Until your back no longer allows you to stand straight and you can’t see straight?

Usually B & V Farms, our family operation, doesn’t ask me to help with the tomato harvest because I have proven to be out-of-sorts when it comes to sorting tomatoes. I zone in and out and despite being a skilled piano player and fast typist, lack the necessary hand-eye coordination and quickness required for the job. My carelessness and cluelessness along those lines are also why I don’t smoke cigarettes: I would be too dangerous.

However, when faced with not having all the rig spots filled (vacancies put additional pressure on the already-over-worked, albeit talented tomato sorters), they invite me to inhabit that “better than nothing” role, the sports equivalent of “we just need a uniformed body to avoid forfeit.” So I show up wearing crappy jeans and a sexy bandana for the legitimate workers to mock.

After overcoming motion sickness from the lurching movement of the machine, I settle into a clumsy routine. I non-stop scan the wide, tomato-laden Odenburg (affectionately referred to as “Odie”) conveyor belt for too green, rotten and otherwise compromised tomatoes to chuck, simultaneously resisting the urge to upchuck. I also watch for the various forms of vegetation, dirt clods, rocks, sticks, rodents, amphibians and litter that gets caught in the mix.

I know this sounds glamorous, but we wear Latex gloves to make it less gross. Within minutes, though, we’re so dusty and slimy that “gross” ceases to register. Besides, everything happens so fast and furious that there’s no time to get disgusted, even if you are so inclined. Gotta keep moving to keep up with the unrelenting pace of the harvest, which doesn’t give two hoots BOUT how you feel.

At the end of your work shift, you feel that really good, “just got wrung through the wringer” kind of tired, mostly because although every job at times feels overwhelming, overwhelm constitutes the tomato sorter’s job description. Perpetually in the thick of things, the only thing you can keep on top of is your thoughts.

Mine alternate between berating myself for being pokey and encouraging myself not to feel overwhelmed: wise words I have no time to internalize. From the corner of my eyes, I watch the other members of the tomato crew frantically sort around me and note how much faster they seem. Hands whizzing back and forth, occasionally darting into someone else’s sorting space in a determined effort not to let something disgusting elude their grip and get in with the good tomatoes.

Watching my children hustle is heartwarming. Reared on video games, they receive through tomato sorting a real-life application that requires their otherwise useless snap-judgment skills and quick finger action. Actually, this physically and mentally demanding job requires a lot from a person. And over time, it has the potential to be character-building. That got me thinking.

Instead of holding separate job interviews, employers could invite job applicants to the farm and stick them on the Pik-Rite to sort tomatoes. Observers would learn much about individual levels of strength, speed, accuracy, teamwork, attitude, leadership and perseverance. Don’t just talk about your work ethic, show us!

We should do the same with presidential election candidates. Line up the Democrats on one side of the sorter conveyor belt and the Republicans on the other. The real work would keep them so busy there’d be no need or time to argue or create drama. And unlike with government operations, at the end of the day, there’d be end product – a load of something other than manure.

Indoor litter amounts to a form of pollution

I hate litter, whether it’s having to clean the cat litter box, dealing with stray kittens people drop off “out in the country” from an unwanted litter, or picking up fast food bags tossed into my ditch next to the kittens. Those who litter dirty the rights of those who don’t.
Iron-Eyes-CodyThe issue of American litter was first nationally addressed back in 1953, with the formation of the “Keep America Beautiful” non-profit organization. Its main focus was litter prevention, waste reduction/recycling and community greening and beautification. My focus has always been on the first two, as I stink when it comes to greenery and/or beautifying anything.
When I was in grade school, “Keep America Beautiful” introduced its 1971 anti-pollution and littering campaign with a memorable TV commercial. Buckskin-clad actor Iron Eyes Cody portrayed a silent Native-American stoically paddling a canoe down a rural waterway strewn with man-made debris, gliding into a smoggy harbor with ships and factories belching smoke, and landing on a litter-covered beach.
William Conrad’s voiceover intoned, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.” The commercial ended with a close-up of a tear running down the cheek of the silent Indian, caused by America’s careless abuse of the environment.
That commercial nearly moved me to tears, although I made fun of it regularly in the company of my friends. To that point in life, I had never been much of a “litterbug,” a word popularized by the anti-litter campaign. But afterward, I became violently opposed to littering and hated litterers. Mind you, this was even before I had a yard they could trash with kittens, empty cigarette packs and depleted energy drink cans.
I reared children who react similarly. When they see littering, they go ballistic and start listing multiple forms of torture that are too good for anyone who would leave that kind of mess for someone else to pick up. Unless that someone is their mom.
The online Oxford Dictionary defines litter as “Untidy with rubbish or a large number of objects left lying about.” Wikipedia’s litter entry shovels deeper: “Litter consists of waste products that have been disposed improperly, without consent, at an inappropriate location. … The presence of litter invites more littering.” Amen!
When I ask my children to define litter, they say it’s OUTDOOR strewn-about crap. Presumably, this is to rule out their own indoor messes that could easily fit the all-points bulletin description of “a large number of objects left lying about.”
If I had a dollar for each cellophane microwave popcorn bag wrapper left beside the microwave instead of walked eight whole feet over to the kitchen trash can for disposal, I would be able to afford a servant who could personally pop for us whenever the urge struck.
This pales in comparison to the ant-attracting (during warm weather) properties of open boxes of sugar-coated cereal and Pop-Tart wrappers found behind couches and under beds. Surely Iron Eyes Cody would have not just a tear, but murder in his eye if he spotted price tags and other packaging from new clothing hastily torn off and left wherever they might land. Cultural anthropologists might someday rightly hypothesize it as a ritualistic ingratitude ceremony.
When confronted with this slovenly disrespect for both home and vehicular environments, my children simply shrug and tell me I’m overreacting. If only I had my hands on one of the Indian’s canoe paddles at those moments!
These same children became incensed when on a road trip I tossed an apple core out the window of my (already indoor-littered by them) vehicle, into a swamp. “Mom! You can’t do that, it’s LITTERING!”
A New England littering study performed in 2010 identified 95% of American litterers as under the age of 55, with 78% of them male. Clearly, I’m not gender-prone to littering and am aging out of it. Things don’t bode as well for my son, for whom the study justifies the Pringles can he tossed back empty into the pantry: “The Devilish demographics made me do it!”
Oh yeah? Well, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

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