Tell Me a Story

My husband Gary is a man of many stories. He’s served in the Army, worked as a teacher, a school administrator, a firefighter, and as a business manager at a university. He’s traveled extensively, and never met a person he didn’t enjoy talking to. Thus he has collected many anecdotes which he enjoys recounting. He often doesn’t recall the exact details, but it never stops him from telling the tale. Not so long ago, we watched an old movie that prompted him to tell me a story about an incident that happened years before I knew him.

Gary was on a plane seated next to a woman who “used to be really famous,” he said. Because he is almost completely devoid of interest in popular culture or bygone celebrities, he didn’t recognize her. She introduced herself and explained that she was flying to Michigan to be honored at an event, and that she had retired and made only limited public appearances. They chatted, and at the end of the flight she gave him her autograph. He tucked it in his pocket, forgot about it, and at some point lost it or threw it away. He had remembered the story because the female lead in the movie we were watching, Loretta Young, was the woman he’d met on the plane. 

Impressed, because I’m a fan of old movies, I grabbed his arm and said, “You sat next to Loretta Young?!”

He hesitated for just a fraction of a second before saying yes. But it was long enough for me to flash on other confidently told Gary stories that have a fact-based core, but often dubious supporting details. Upon repeated questioning he gradually acknowledged that it might not have been Loretta Young, it may not have been on a flight to Michigan, but it was definitely someone famous. That I believe. But whether it was Loretta Young, Loretta Lynn, or Coretta Scott King, is lost to the ages.

I’m not sure why this page from Gary’s Book of True (Mostly) Stories popped into my head today. Maybe because of two conversations I recently had with two different friends, during which I learned some previously unknown things about each of them. I’ve had a number of good, in-depth conversations with both women in the past. But somehow the tragic story in the case of one friend–her mother’s loss of multiple family members in a tornado, and in the case of my other friend, the happy story of her interviewing a favorite writer of mine, Robert Parker, had never come up before.

That in turn reminded me of something my first editor told me. I was whining about an assignment to do a feature story on an elderly woman’s doll collection. It wasn’t exactly the cutting-edge journalism I’d signed on for. But I’ve never forgotten what my boss said in response. “Everybody has a story. If you listen well, you’ll find it.”

This week I’m going to listen for a new story. I hope you do, too.

Lost in Facebook

Where’s Fim?

Growing up in a family with seven children and two adults, the phone was always ringing for someone. My sisters and I fought over phone time, often interrupting each other’s really important phone calls with demands that the phone be relinquished for our really, really important phone calls. We sparred verbally, and on occasion physically, as we struggled to claim what we perceived as our fair share of phone time.

Not so my brothers. Neither of them were on the phone often, and never for the long, intense conversations that my sisters and I engaged in with our friends. My youngest brother had an almost pathological dislike of talking on the phone, and would go to great lengths to avoid answering it. If forced to pick up an incoming call, he would just hang up the phone if the caller failed to make her need clear within the first five seconds. As he got older, he became more at ease with communication technology, but for a long time he refused to make the switch from flip phone to smart phone, and he resolutely refused to engage in the next communication wave, social media.

So, when one of my sisters mentioned that a friend had said our youngest brother—let’s call him Fim—was on Facebook, we were all astonished. My sister Barb—her real name, Barb has no privacy concerns—and I immediately went online to verify, but were unable to find his profile. We checked to make sure we’d gotten the story straight, and were assured that his profile had definitely been spotted on Facebook.

We searched again and again came up empty. This time, Barb messaged a good friend of Fim’s, thinking that he, if anyone, would know if Fim really was part of the Facebook Nation, but had contrived somehow to stay invisible to his older sisters.

Her message was worded thus: “Hey, we can’t find Fim on Facebook. Do you know where he is?” It seemed innocuous enough. But remember that old game “Telephone,” wherein one person whispers a message to the person next to her, and that person passes it on to the next and on and on until the circle is complete? The last person to receive the message then repeats it out loud for the group. Usually, it’s become such a mishmash of original content and misunderstanding, that it seems like an entirely different message.

Well, with lighting speed Barb’s original query traveled throughout the universe of Fim’s friends, both on and off Facebook. The final version of the message was that Fim was missing, and his family didn’t know where he was. As a result, both Barb and Fim received responses from concerned friends inquiring and theorizing about Fim’s fate. In addition, Fim, who had no idea any of this was happening, was flummoxed to find his phone blowing up with voicemail and text messages from friends asking if he was all right.

On one hand, the level of engagement and concern from friends could be seen as gratifying. On the other, to a person like Fim, who uses the phone for talking and texting as sparingly as if he were being charged $5 per word,  the result was extremely unsettling.

When we finally got hold of Fim ourselves, we learned that he had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to set up a Facebook Page for a business he was launching. However, instead of a flood of interest in his products, he received a number of messages from former girlfriends, some of whom were single and interested in reconnecting. Which was rather awkward, given that Fim’s significant other, with whom he was and is very happily partnered, was handling his Facebook business page. Thus, he had some ‘splainin’ to do.

His deep-seated wariness about modern communication having been validated, he took the Facebook page down immediately, which, in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, ultimately resulted in him playing the leading role in his own version of Where’s Waldo.

I don’t think we’ll see Fim on Twitter any time soon. It wouldn’t even surprise me if he reverted to his flip phone. But his Facebook misadventure is a permanent and welcome addition to the collection of family stories that never grow old–except, perhaps, to the person they’re about.

Note: this post first appeared December 2017, and is back by popular demand (for which I don’t set a high bar, one request is enough. 😉

A Secret Order

Behind the scenes

My name is Susan, and I have a very messy desk.

I’m hoping that out there is a chorus of people shouting “Hi, Susan,” in recognition, solidarity and non-judgment. Though I’m sure some looking at the actual, real-life photo of my desk that accompanies this blog will be recoiling in horror and disbelief.

I’m a washout in the clean desk brigade. Before anyone calls the health department based on the above picture of my desk, I’d like to say that my appalling ability to allow clutter to build up around me does not extend everywhere in my environment. My used dishes are put in the dishwasher (mostly), my floors are dusted (periodically) and my bathroom is clean and clutter free. Though full disclosure requires that I admit a significant part of that is due to my very tidy husband, who never met a piece of paper he didn’t want to throw away.

The inability to maintain workspace order is a lifelong condition which has followed me from messy lift-top desks in grade school to overflowing desks in college and continued on to extremely cluttered work stations in my various places of employment. The situation became even worse when I was given my own office with a door I could close when the desk was no longer in condition for public viewing.

When I’m working, whether on a fifth grade book report, a grad school thesis, or a mystery novel, silently, unknowingly, unintentionally I begin piling up detritus, until my desk appears as it does now, in the throes of writing the sixth book in the Leah Nash Mysteries series. At this point my work area includes, as the sharp-eyed among you can see:

  • An oversize mug for water
  • A reference book for the writing software I use, sitting on my printer
  • Colored markers (underneath which is the charger for my Fitbit)
  • A small notebook
  • A camera
  • An open file drawer
  • A cup full of pencils
  • A small cactus
  • A file stand filled with folders I want quick access to
  • A family photo
  • An empty can of sparkling water
  • A stapler
  • A stack of notebooks, reference books and reading books
  • Lots of sticky notes
  • Reading glasses
  • A discarded sweater
  • A pile of yet more papers

However, there comes a point in each messy desk growth cycle when the scales tip, and my  need to hold that thought, capture that phrase or write that chapter is outweighed by my need to find my cell phone, locate a hastily scrawled message, or retrieve a lost earring. At that juncture, I regroup and declutter by tossing, filing, discarding and/or returning to their proper places all the leavings I’ve deposited, and reclaim my workspace, restoring it to a place of order instead of chaos.

I always intend for it to stay that way, but it never does.

I have finally come to accept that something there is [in me] that doesn’t love a clean desk, and sets about festooning it with notebooks, pens, books, manila folders and piles of paper and doesn’t stop until it once again resembles a hoarder’s paradise.  But I take some solace in Carl Jung’s observation, “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

However, to all those who shut every drawer they open, re-file every document they review, discard every used item in its proper receptacle, and sit down to a well-organized workspace every day—I salute you. But I am not one of you, nor will I ever be.

Note: This post first appeared four years ago. I’ve updated the photo, the list of items on my desk, and the reference to the book I’m working on, but sadly, nothing else has changed.

You’ve been warned …

When writing, I go to my office and close the door. When seriously writing, I put a do not disturb sign on the door handle. When I am on a get-5,000-words-done-or-else deadline, I do both, and add in a firm warning to my husband Gary to forget I exist until I exit my office.

You see, Gary, unlike me, is not a procrastinator. He is a man of action–for him, to think is to do. He is also equal parts persistent and persuasive. So, unless I’ve steeled myself against the unstoppable force that is Gary, I can find myself typing away at my computer one minute, and the next I’m in the backyard helping to move a pile of stones.

On a recent day when I was struggling with a plot point and really, really needed uninterrupted writing time, Gary had plans to do some internet research. You might think that was a happy coinciding of activities. I would be busy, and he would be busy, and neither would interrupt the other. However, Gary is to computers as I am to arts and crafts. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And when something goes wrong, he wants it fixed. Now.

Knowing this, I suggested he wait until I had finished writing for the day, and then I would be at his disposal. Soon, I was immersed in my plot, writing my lead character out of a tricky situation. After a while, I dimly heard sounds of frustration coming from downstairs, but I kept on working. Then I heard footsteps coming toward my office, and Gary speaking loudly into his phone, “I tried that. It won’t work. The warning won’t go away. The screen is stuck!” 

I opened the door. He handed me the phone, saying, “It’s Apple Support.  This guy keeps telling me to click something, but I can’t find it. There’s a warning on the screen. I didn’t do anything. He needs to talk to you.”

I took the phone, but having just been wrenched from a cemetery in Himmel, Wisconsin, I needed a minute to reorient to the real world of computer problems. But the man on the other end of the phone plunged right into instructions to click here, enter this, check that. It wasn’t until he said, “So now, I take control of your computer,” that my writing-induced brain fog lifted.

“Wait a minute, tell me again what the problem is.”

“Your system is operating illegally. You did not pay the renewal fee for firewall protection. I will need to fix your computer and …”

That sounded very like a scam. When I pressed him further, he hung up. Then I did some research and discovered it is indeed a scam, and a fairly common one. You can fall into it if you inadvertently click a phony link on a search results page. A message will pop up on your screen that says something like “Apple Support Alert,” in alarmingly large and bold letters. The message warns of dire things that will happen if you don’t call the fake support number immediately.

If you try to close the window to clear your screen, you can’t. The screen is locked. So, lots of people, Gary included, call the number, and that’s when the scammer on the end of the line says he can help, but he needs your credit card number to pay for the repairs. If he gains access to your machine, he may also drop malware into your system that can harvest other personal data. I had our favorite IT expert (who makes house calls!) check out Gary’s computer just to be safe, but it was clean, and we hadn’t given out any credit card information.

If you run into the scam (and it’s all over the internet) never call the support number, just force quit your machine, and you should be fine. This public service announcement is brought to you by  Gary and Susan, who have each learned an important lesson.  

Gary now knows how to recognize a scam and force quit his computer. Susan now knows to take Gary’s laptop and put it in her file drawer while she’s working.

If it talks like a duck …

Quite often we have a gathering of ducks on the lawn in our backyard. Once they make their ungainly trek up from the edge of the river, they settle themselves in small clusters on the grass. They seem equally content on both sunny and cloudy days to sleep, groom themselves, and get up for an occasional waddle across the lawn or a periodic reentry into the water.

It’s quite peaceful to watch them blissing out in the sun, and nice to think of them each pursuing their separate needs—sleep, food, feather fluffing—while remaining part of a companionable group.

But inevitably one of the group will begin posturing, quacking, and making menacing head-lowering moves at a fellow mallard, for no obvious reason. Sometimes, the surprised duck under attack will take a stand and quack back, darting into the aggressor’s space, but he rarely gets any help from the crowd. 

Instead, the other ducks either stay neutral or they join the bully duck in chasing the hapless victim away. The alpha duck then beats his wings in the air and struts back to his place on the grass, while the neutrals return to grooming and sleeping. Until the next bully picks on a new victim.

I’m thinking of that today because I’ve been spending a bit more time on social media than I usually do, and I’ve noticed how often a seemingly innocuous or well-intentioned post or Tweet is met by the human equivalent of a madly quacking flock of ducks. If the poster attempts to explain the comment, or parry the thrust, it only intensifies the incensed quacking. Eventually the poster retreats to the margins to lick his or her wounds. It’s disheartening to see.

I get that we’re never going to always agree about everything, or even ever agree about some things. But we’re never going to get anywhere randomly squawking at others like deranged ducks, which seems to be the state of much of our online discourse these days.

And I’m not excluding myself from the problem. While I’m not prone to joining flocks or herds or social media mobs—as a committed introvert, I rarely join anything—I can be quite insistent on promoting my own point of view, both “in real life” and on social media. Which in turn means that I can also be quite resistant to ideas that conflict with it—and sometimes loudly enough to drown out information that doesn’t support my position.

Certainly staying off social media is an option—though it comes with the cost of less, or even losing, contact with people not in my immediate circle. Sticking only to “safe topics” is another, but sometimes we have to speak out. After all, there is that whole the-only-thing-necessary-for-the-triumph-of-evil-is-that-good-men-do-nothing thing to consider.

Instead, I think I’ll try making an effort to refrain from throwing stones in my particular glass house—and to avoid the online feeds of (and the real-life contact) with—people who substitute personal invective for persuasive evidence. If I falter, and an exchange of views has devolved to the point where I’m about say, “You are a moron,” I will substitute “Quack, quack,” spoken at a very low volume, as a reminder to myself to step away from the crazy. Wish me luck.

All in Good Time, My Pretty

I’ve been watching the cardinals outside my window–don’t tell anyone, they think I’ve been working on book 6 in the Leah Nash series. 😉 It’s made me wonder if I’ll see a repeat of what happened a few summers ago …  
IMG_2551_optWhen I was a kid, I’d sometimes go with my father to visit his favorite aunt, Florence. Though lively of mind and loving of heart, her body had begun to fail her and she spent her days in a wheelchair. She was often seated in front of a large window from which she could see the birds that came to feeders in her yard. She’d tell me little stories about their antics and how much pleasure it gave her to watch them. I’d smile politely and murmur something about how that must be fun, but inside I was thinking If watching birds ever becomes my idea of fun, shoot me.

But now, many years later, though I’ve not yet achieved her advanced age—nor her kind heart—I have discovered my inner Aunt Florence. A wide variety of birds visit the feeders in our yard every day, and as I’m prone to staring out my office window when I should be writing, I see many of them. One in particular caught my eye this summer and I’ve been on a journey of sorts with him.

I first noticed an odd-looking bird in the yard about a month ago. With its small, dark head and reddish feathers, it looked a little like a tiny red-bodied vulture. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I Googled to try and identify it. To my surprise, my exotic bird turned out to be a cardinal

I know what the judgmental among you are thinking: Really, Susan? You didn’t know what a cardinal was? Because that’s exactly what I’d be thinking, were I reading someone else’s story of a mystery bird that was actually one that most grade schoolers could readily identify.

In my defense, I present exhibit A. IMG_3031_opt

Now, seriously, would you recognize him? I did some further research to learn what caused his “hair” loss, and what his future might hold. His bald head, I discovered, could be due to head mites, which cause incessant scratching and subsequent loss of feathers. Or he could be one of the relatively rare birds who experience complete loss of head feathers during molting season. If the cause was head mites, the prognosis wasn’t great for full recovery of his crowning glory. If his baldness was just his normal molting pattern, he should recover quite well.

I found myself looking out the window more often than usual to catch a glimpse of the bird, to see how he was faring. He  seemed to come only in the early morning and evening when there were few others of his kin around—almost as though he were embarrassed by his looks. As one who has suffered more than her fair share of bad hair days, I empathized. As the days and weeks went on, his appearance didn’t change. I showed his photo to family or friends and if they laughed at his odd appearance, I felt quite protective of my feather-challenged friend.

When a pert female cardinal with a very perky crest of her own gave him short shrift one day at the feeder, I was downright indignant. Didn’t he deserve love, a family, respect from his fellow birds, no matter what he looked like? I did additional online research to see if there was something I could do, some kind of special feed, maybe, that might speed his feather regrowth.

It appeared there was nothing to be done but wait and see, which as a recovering rescuer, I find exceedingly hard to do. I want to fix every problem I find, whether mine or anyone else’s–regardless of whether they want them fixed or not. Then, about a week ago, I caught a glimpse of him that showed me he was clearly on the road to regrowth. IMG_3198_opt

Finally, today, he posed quite jauntily at the feeder and it appears he’s well on his way to a full crest again. Reminding me that sometimes all you can do is wait, and sometimes, that’s all you need to do. A valuable lesson for cardinals, and for people, too.IMG_3204_opt

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