A Different Path

I find myself at a loss for words, today -at least, for creative ones. Often when writing, I get some sort of inspirational idea. I think it over in my head, turning it round mentally like a monkey examining a shiny bauble.

I can’t just write shiny bauble, though. I need to express how the lights play within its miniature depths; how the fragile, intricate primate fingers clasp and turn the ball. Its head cocks to the right, then left, then right. Golden-green eyes stay focused, mirroring the reflected lights from its hands.

But, today is different.

I began the day in an industrial mood. Excited at the prospect of gem-hunting, I picked up my monkey and headed into the jungle. He cuddled excitedly against my shirt, chittering.

“So sorry, Miss,” a guide intercepted us. “This is the path you must go today.” He directed me back to the city, to reality.

The jungle flora gave way to recently-planted elderberry and yew, swaying amidst fresh-turned earth and wood chip mulch. Indigenous village huts became a one-level, stucco and brick building. It had a courtyard, the sort built only to stare at.

Alzheimer’s Facility, the sign read.

They let me in, said my ape was cute. He, in turn, burrowed his head shyly into my shoulder. He doesn’t usually say much to strangers.

After signing in, I entered somewhere scarier than any dark-jungle adventure, lonelier than any abandoned temple, more depressing than imagination -for, here at the end of our redirected path, lay the truest reality of all:

Death.

Though, not merely death. Here in the halls of failing minds; the shells of people shuffle, so terribly slowly, eventually to Death.

The nurses have thoughtfully detailed the lives of residents on little plaques outside their doors. “Bob was the middle of nine children,” “Doris was an active community member, volunteering anytime a helping hand was needed,” “Marie used to love visiting every grandchild on his birthday, recording the day with an ancient video camera nearly half her weight…”

It doesn’t matter anymore. There’s no one there.

Slippered residents wander, lost, examining a world completely incomprehensible to them. Maybe they have family, like me and my monkey. I came, embraced a seated woman, said, “Hi, Grandma. How are you?”

Her familiar face turned my way, completely void of recognition. Her light blue eyes, the ones she passed onto my father, looked emptily beyond me. She said nothing. She’s forgotten how to speak.

“Heh-wo,” my small helper chirped, trying to peer cutely up at her. She looked down at him, and sweetly smiled.

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Recurring Story: Sixteen

Despite finishing her simple assignment in a reasonable amount of time, Wil was not able to progress much through her coded note.

She looked for repeated symbols, but there were few. She tried an obvious opening address like her first message, but could not see one. Also, the different lines, dots, and half-squares were bunched together in orders that made word spacing too difficult to find. If written in plain English, themessagewouldappearalltogether.

Wil grunted an exasperated sound, then quickly blushed and sunk farther behind her monitor at the curious looks she received in return. She had burned through the small fuel curiosity and novelty had provided. In frustration, she crumpled the paper into her pocket.

The final bell sound played, and the class awoke to chatter, smiles, and the hustle and rustle of materials gathered and chairs returned.

The teenage mass rolled toward the door, then down the halls to other waves of young persons. They all moved toward lockers or toward friends, to eddy in conversations of tide pool depths.

Wil retrieved her backpack and school things without the bother of popularity at all, eyeing the empty chatterers a tad enviously as she usually did. She turned to shut the locker door after putting everything into her pack. Then, Wil jumped and gave a small shout of surprise.

There was another paper in the dust of the locker floor, though she was certain it had not been there when she first withdrew the contents. As usual, it was a torn piece of notepaper. Wil reached in and picked it up.

The writings on this paper matched the printed examples of the lines and line-dots code of her computer work: two X’s and two box grids, each with and without dots, were drawn …with letters! Someone had just dropped her the key to the code!

Wil looked round suspiciously, but her chance had clearly fled. She kicked at the thin carpet floor in frustration. “Zut alors!” She exclaimed, borrowing one of Mrs. T.’s expressions.

“Well,” she thought, “At least now I can crack the dumb thing. Maybe the person’s name is on this one.” She doubted it.

Hefting her backpack onto her shoulders, Wil hurried down the hall and outside. She headed to the usual carpool pickup area.

She saw her neighbor whom she rode with, but the middle-aged woman wasn’t sitting in her usual hunched position over her phone as the engine idled. True, she still hadn’t left the driver’s seat. But, Mrs. Crandall was actively and agitatedly looking at and around departing bodies of students for Wil.
This was never a good sign. Wil increased her pace as worry slowly creased her face.

Idiomatic Confusions

Nathaniel Bataniel, what’s your deal?
Did someone walk over your grave?
Are you feeling blue, down in the dumps,
Or did you simply have a close shave?

No, I haven’t been playing poker.
I’m not dead, so I have no grave.
I’m not blue, or visiting garbage,
And, my beard shows that I have not shaved.


Nathaniel Bataniel, don’t be sore.
Don’t give me the cold shoulder now.
I just wondered what was up with you;
I thought you would not have a cow.

I feel only confusion, not pain.
I’m wearing a sweater right now.
You can see both my feet on the ground,
And no human can birth a cow.


Nathaniel Bataniel, lighten up.
This is driving me up the wall.
No one’s so literally down to Earth;
I see that with no crystal ball.

I can’t lessen weight or complexion.
Cars don’t usually drive on walls.
Of course I’m right here on this planet!
And why would you need crystal balls?


I can’t talk about winning a fight,
Or men making and breaking molds.
I can see clearly that I should leave;
That silence is worth more than gold.

There goes Nathaniel, who can’t be beat.
When they made him, they broke the mold.
Despite claims that it’s all clear as mud,
He knew speech has a cost of gold.

Writing Prompt: Badlands

Write a short story and it must contain the following words somewhere: downtown, graveyard, passenger, decoder, suave, badlands.

Photo

It was a typical late afternoon for K. Jones: dusty, dry, barren. Even when she wasn’t standing as she was then –hands folded across her chest surveying the badlands– K. never shook the feeling of orange. Bits and pieces of windblown world caught at the edges of her tied handkerchief and protective sunglasses. She’d find them in every crevice of her equipment later.

*Jones* her left hip crackled. *Jones, Bwishda gurb donet!*

Quickly unfolding from her stoic stance, K. grabbed at the radio hanging to her side. She deftly activated its decoder switch in time to translate the end of the garbled message to “…Station 5 at Sundown, over.” She waited for the message to repeat, and was rewarded with silence. K. rolled her eyes. How difficult did her team find simple tasks, exactly? –Tasks like following certain protocol so a person had time to grab her radio and get the whole message, for example?

K. brought the mouthpiece near her face, squeezed her thick gloves over Respond, and enunciated, “Jones here.” She waited the required five seconds before continuing, “Repeat full command, over.”

Static. Then, she heard an impatient, “Smith here.” Roughly three seconds followed, if K. counted generously. “Assigned rounds completed. Will meet at Station 5 at Sundown, over.”

The setting sun pierced through a cloudbreak and caught K.’s glasses at an annoying angle. She squinted, repositioned. Shading her eyes, she peered off toward the general direction of the station referenced. It was either past the butte, down the dirt path, and near a distant mountain; or she was experiencing miragelike imagery.

Shifting the radio from one bundled hand to another, she applied the Respond button once again. “Jones here.” Five seconds. “Request transport en route. Will wait at Camp Point One near butte, over.”

K. used her right boot to shift adobe-colored sand over the top of her left boot as she waited for an answer. “Smith here.” K. mentally counted to two before Smith immediately continued, “Will meet as requested. Watch your back. Over and out.”

Though no one could see her expressions, K. smiled a wry, experienced look. She wasn’t novice enough to laugh aloud at Smith’s suggestions, however. Confident and skilled she might be, but anything could change on the swirling sunset landscape of these uninhabited zones. –Of these usually uninhabited zones, K. mentally amended.

She glanced right, left, behind, up, down, forward. She carefully deactivated the decoder option on the radio and returned it, swinging, to the side of her ocher pant leg. Following protocol, she checked the readings on her instruments. They were set to alert her if any anomaly appeared. As such, K. would have to remember to tone her tracker down a bit once she reached Camp One. She didn’t want to impulsively vaporize her ride just because of nerves.

She hefted straps, instruments, and packs from one sore area to another and began walking. Fingers of moving sand sank in a circular divot around each of her carefully-placed footfalls. The oranged sky outlined her bulky frame as airborne copper dust pushed and pulled at her tired body. She was regretting the rash, confident decision she’d made to patrol on foot.

A shape suddenly shadowed the glaring natural light and K. automatically reacted. In less than a second, laden as she was, she’d assumed a fighting crouch facing the unknown risk from the West. She breathed heavily beneath the kerchief, fogging her vision with each exhalation.

It was only a landform. Her heartbeat slowed in much less time than it had accelerated.

In fact, she knew this rock. It was a sort of gateway to an area they’d nicknamed The Graveyard. Beyond the tall Stele lay a carefully silent sort of valley decorated with small, oddly-placed stones. When K. and her team had first encountered the area, outlining its features by swinging desert-dusted beams, they’d all been struck by a creepy cemetery familiarity.

Cutting through The Graveyard also shaved five minutes off her trek to the rendezvous butte. K. looked at its shady entrance, then glanced toward the area she could go in order to intentionally not walk through there. Up a scrambling red-rock slope and down through a very wide, open area of squat, wide rocks they’d named Downtown ran her longer option.

The sun seemed to sink more quickly. Graveyard it was.
Readjusting straps once again to cover for the unaccountable fluttering in her stomach, K. stalked determinedly into the tiny valley.

Red-yellow motes magically suspended among the headstone dirt and stoneforms K. suddenly remembered. The whole valley reminded her of an old toy her grandfather had let her play with decades ago. Whenever she had shaken the glass ball in a pudgy hand, swirling white pieces had danced and then floated slowly back down upon a small, smiling child on a sled.

The badlands were no winterscape, however. K. felt she was tiptoeing through the polar opposite of a cheerful, safe sledding holiday. The dead, hot air was oddly still in The Graveyard, but still omnipresent. The particles may have been suspended in this sudden wind shelter, but they never disappeared either.

K. felt a small pulse from her chest-mounted sensor. Her heartbeat increased once again as natural terror primed her body for action. That sensor could only activate when it sensed movement of a living thing –other than her and her team members. K. increased her pace, sweeping her view around and attempting to keep her back to the randomly-placed rocks.

The pulse grew stronger as she neared the center of The Graveyard. K. tried desperately to see what was triggering it. She peered from one shadow to another in the dimming evening red-orange that barely penetrated her current location. Her mind constantly tricked her in the unfamiliar crowd of stones and sweeping sands. Imagination aside, everything appeared empty.

She continued her slow, hyper-sensitive, circular tread to the opposite side of The Graveyard. The pulse grew faint, and died. If nighttime and her ride were not so imminent, K. would be required to search until the source had been found. Fortunately, she thought, the rules clearly stated that no parties were to be on The Badlands after sundown. She could thank P. Brown for that, if he had still been around to thank.

K. stalked up the sandy incline exit, trying to keep everywhere in sight –especially the area she’d just left. She still saw no movement. Another sensor, one near her wrist, began to vibrate instead. Looking up, she saw the butte just ahead and to the right. Her wrist sensor indicated that a vehicle was nearby, hopefully the one carrying J. Smith.

Despite the landscape and unnatural gravity, K. increased her pace. She came out into the buffeting wind and tinted sunlight once again. The sun really was dropping quickly, as it always did when teetering on the edge of night. She could hear an offroad motor rumbling, even over the overpowering shrillness of moving air.

The pulse on her chest began again, very faintly. Stumbling in surprise, K. turned back to The Graveyard. No, she told herself and her trained senses. No, she did not see light in that vale. And yet, something that was not orange, not the setting sun, and not just a rock was moving. In fact, it was moving nearer. Quickly.

Like dreams where she tried to run and felt instead like she was slogging through mud, K. tried desperately to sprint the few hundred feet to where she knew Smith was waiting. Sunset sand particles flew from her muted, skittering footsteps. Her view was again fogged and unfogged with her heavy breathing. The jeeplike transport was there around the bend; Smith turned her direction.

He stood suddenly; yelled in surprise. She knew better than to look behind, but real or imagined noises pursuing told her she wasn’t going to make it to that passenger seat.

She looked up at Smith again, noting his suave, steady figure. He was the only one she knew who didn’t resemble a rambling, bloated marshmallow in his desert suit. Tiredly, she saw he had raised something. She was nearly to the rear tire when she realized he held their one allowable defense since Command had limited firearms to lower ranks two years previously.

K. heard the small *fzzzz* noise of the tiny laser pistol and watched, distantly, from some other place, as it floated over her left shoulder and made contact with something directly behind her.

“Aiiieargghhhhhgggggguuggh!” Something inhuman reacted.

K. reached the side of the transport. Smith dropped his gun to drag her panting form onto the seat, then immediately sat and gunned the engine. They shot forward in the dying twilight, scattering badland sand and rock sharply outward from the squealing tires.

Bracing herself unsteadily against the jouncing framework, K. realized she’d made it. Still breathing heavily, she turned to the dark outline of her teammate. He stared ahead, his face determined.

“Thank you, Jim,” she said, though first names were against protocol. Rules were irrelevant now.

Compression, Tension, and Stress

Egg Mallet

As a young adult, I anticipated the job interview question: How do you handle stressful situations?

It concerned me so much that I’d think over what an interviewer would say as I dragged a screaming child off his brother or blearily and mentally blocked off life in the closet once my husband got home.

I thought that we need to withstand ever-increasing pressure whilst smiling.

In truth, we are a construction like a bridge. Or, a rubber band. Or, sometimes the three eggs with pieces of carton on top you’re using as an object lesson. You and your audience pile books on excitedly till finally –crack!

We have computers and mathematical software to know exactly how much weight a bridge can support before structural failure. After many years of living with ourselves, we have a similar mental gauge. However, guilt and comparison and self-judgment glare at us to keep piling on.

Stop before structural failure. I’m not judging. Given that most people laugh empathetically when you relay an everyday story, I know that everyone goes through it and honestly doesn’t mind if you stop.

It’s easier than piecing eggshells back together.

If You Give the Kids an Order

If you tell your children to get dressed, you will probably find them half- and wholly-naked and playing with toys. If you tell them to pick up the toys, they will realize their brother is downstairs racing his cars on the floors. They will throw their toys over the railing and join him.

Once you threaten to put all playthings underfoot in the garbage, the children will most likely announce they are hungry. Right. Then.

When you suggest breakfast, the only capable one will think it’s a good time to make crêpes.

When he is elbow-deep in flour, egg, and milk; his brother will dump out a board game and the toilet-training boy will get The Look. The children will also need syrup, fruit, sugar, meat, cheese, and utensils set on the table with their plates.

It’s just a good thing they didn’t get dressed yet, or their clothes would have gotten sticky from the crêpes.

Recurring Story: Fifteen

Keyboarding, Internet, and You! Wil read at the top of the whiteboard. It was the upbeat subtitle of a series of life skills classes in the Preparing All Students for the Future course. Besides improving morale with bright, plastic colors; her school also sought to show it gave all attendees necessary skills like cooking, computers, woodworking, and sewing.

Wil was currently sitting in KIY! (or KillYou, as the teenagers called it), barely feeling the lecture to be necessary or engaging. Like most of her generation, computers did not intimidate her in the least. Also like most, she thought keyboarding an archaic practice reserved for those too dumb to use the auto-fill and spell-checker. KillYou earned its nickname because the class killed you with boredom.

Preparing herself for a brain nap, Wil slid around in her seat behind her computer. She nearly slid right out again when she looked down to see what was printed on the handout the teacher’s aide had just given each person. The page was titled Cyphers and Codes, with a cheesy cartoon Sherlock Holmes peering through his magnifying glass at said title. Below the title, however, were several examples of codes -including one using lines and dots!

Wil tried to calm her pulse and breathing, then looked around. She was certain she’d see her note-writer. The coincidence was too strong.

No one looked remotely suspicious, however, nor interested in anything in general. This was their last class, was always boring, and the teacher, Mrs. Camp, was difficult to see and hear.

In fact, Mrs. C. was currently lecturing. She was quite short and petite, and quite soft-spoken. She wore her eyeglasses on a chain round her neck, on her face, or set upon her graying hair. She’d just stood up to outline the assignment, though that was hard to tell since the top of her head could just be seen over the top of Wil’s monitor.

Wil realized that she’d missed most of the instructions, in her surprise and subsequent peering round at everyone. Fortunately, Mrs. C. was aware of her height deficiencies and usually wrote their assignment on the paper or the white board up front.

Their riveting task would be to recreate this paper on the computer, using their word processing program and the images already saved in Cyphers and Codes on the shared drive D:/.

Many in the class, Wil included, let out various noises of disinterest as they slowly logged into their student accounts. They wearily copied the text and inserted pictures.

Wil still felt on high alert, so she took a few minutes of moving through automatic gestures to finally realize she knew how to decipher her note now. The lines were part of an X or a box, and corresponded to writing the alphabet in X or box shapes, some with and some without dots. Then, a code writer wrote the shape the letter was in for the code.

Wil also realized that her mysterious person (or, persons!) could have attended this computer class the day before, with the A Schedule session. Then, the person would have learned about codes and started writing her secret messages.

These thoughts were comforting, as she worked to finish the mundane assignment and looked forward to starting on her note. She was so intent now, though, that she didn’t even notice the sneaky, sly look of appraisal from a quiet pair of eyes two seats over and one row back.

A Muse, The Blues, Some Clues -AKA How to Write Poetry

Lo! What light, what cackling sun
Burns your eyes?
It laughs as you run;
Jumping, grasping, to
Catch the poem…

If you thought that was bad, you were right. I literally wrote that without any thought, direction, or meter. I took about fifteen seconds.

Don’t get me wrong -sometimes people like that crap. Sometimes the Crap Off the Cuff really isn’t bad. However, poetry is just like any other crafted item: the more practice you have at your skill, the better anything you make will be.
Translation: those who are experts can write a decent impromptu poem, and the stuff they worked longer on is even better.

So, *ahem.* Let’s stop mucking about and finally jump into A Few Steps for Writing Poetry:

1. Don’t.
Seriously, there are already a lot of good poets out there who have already written your idea in a better way. Thanks to Google, you can probably find it.
There are also a lot of terrible poets who have murdered your idea and now it’s bleeding by the side of the road begging people to stop clicking that they Like it.

2. Still determined? Good! You’ve passed the first test: that of true motivation for verse. I feel that motivation, a muse, hangover, emotional distress, late-night deadlines -whatever your name is for it- are vital to writing a poem.
Even if you don’t have a clear subject or good structure, the sheer determination to express what you feel will squeeze something out.

3. Actual Guidelines
So… there is this type of meter I poked fun at initially. It’s called free verse. Let me tell you, from my extremely limited experience, that freely versing can be a BAD idea. It’s the commando version of creative writing, and needs a brave, strong, experienced writer to handle it.
My recommendation, therefore, is to follow a meter. No, you don’t have to go full-out iambic pentameter. Only do so if you wish to be counting on your fingers and looking up rhymes for “depressed” all evening.
A good start is to come up with a few lines in your mind, then count the syllables (and pattern of stress/non-stress) and roughly follow that for the remaining lines.

4. Stress and Non-stress
Really quickly: this is where we put the emphasis on our words when we speak. I threw it in here because I mentioned it in the previous step, and you might be scratching your head over it.
Sometimes, I write a poem and there is one line that is really bugging me. Usually, it’s because I followed my syllable count, but did not follow normal speech rules of emphasis.
Because of that, the syllable count is actually off. Readers (including you) will do a mental glottal stop to be able to stress the words where we are accustomed to.

5. To Rhyme, or Not Some Thyme?
This one is up to you. I mostly rhyme for mine, every other line.
The length of each line and how often you rhyme (every single ending word, halfway through, every other, or randomly) will determine whether your poem feels like a poem, Dr. Seuss, or a rap song.
Keep in mind that even Seuss mixed things up a bit. One of my favorite stanzas in The Cat in the Hat is:

So, as fast as I could,
I went after my net.
And I said, “With my net
I can get them I bet.
I bet, with my net,
I can get those Things yet!”

Try it; it’s fun to read through.

6. Word Choice
Let’s say you want to emote about love and loss of said love. You are going to make us all feel something different than affection if you literally use the word “love” more than about three times. Sometimes, my limit is even one.
This is where your friend, Mr. Thesaurus, comes in. I mentioned this in my How to Not Suck at Writing rant as well, because it’s really important.
Let’s say you’re not that into synonyms. Too much woooorrrrkkk.
You will sound way more mysterious and intelligent if you do it. Like, “I loved and lost and lost my love” could become “Adored, then absent; Carelessly cherished.”

7. More Word Choice
Poetry is all about obscurity. Even when it’s a straightforward tale of a path diverging in the forest, everyone still says the poem is about something deeper.
So, use your new thesaural friend to obfuscate your terms, or make the simple description of your plush tiger on the shelf sound like it represents your childhood memories of being abandoned.

8. Practice and Preparedness
This goes for anything, but especially creative writing.
Read other poets, and copy their style. Keep a notebook to jot down random lines that come to you on the train. Try, try, try again. Everything you read and write will give you experience.

Now, go! Make the world a poetic place.