Icy confessions



Few people know that I am a reformed serial killer.



While posing as a mild-mannered wife and mother, I regularly tortured and murdered plants, then buried the evidence. I can’t blame any childhood trauma. My mother had a green thumb, not gangrenous green, but more of a pale, pale sea green. I believe it was on her right hand. I never saw her harm a plant.



I regularly checked my thumbs when I was growing up, wondering if one of them would turn green. It never happened. In spite of that, I was drawn to plants. In my free time I wandered into adult garden shops and stalked plants. Most of the patrons, like my mother, had green thumbs. Invariably I wore gloves. In the winter I used the excuse of the cold; in the summer, I lied and said I suffered from scabies. I always chose a healthy, green plant. After I brought it home, I would whisper promises to it of a happy, fruitful life in my care. I always tried to make it comfortable before I killed it. I couldn’t help myself.



A few years ago, one of my daughters got a potted orchid plant as a gift. The uninitiated call it a Moth orchid; scientists, who use Latin like a secret handshake, call it Phalaenopsis; and orchid growers often shorten that to Phal (rhymes with “pal” but with an “f” sound).



When my daughter got her own apartment, she left the plant in my care. Somehow it has survived, and not only survived but thrived. All I ever do is give it three ice cubes a week. Yes, ice cubes. On orchids.



Does that make me sound like a cold person? If you are an orchid grower/lover you may be ready to throw potting soil at me. But please don’t get your roots all in a tangle. In spite of what you might think, I am not torturing the plant. Last year after it bloomed for several months, I repotted it, and this year it bloomed again. The plant loves me; it’s my Phal pal. Trust me, it is cool with the ice cubes.


If you go to forums for orchid lovers you will discover that by raising my “deformed overcloned” orchid I am on my way to misinforming 50,000 imaginary readers that using ice cubes on orchids is acceptable behavior. Why? Because I am a blooming idiot, a pawn of orchid sellers, a dupe of Martha Stewart, and a person likely to give boiling water to my imaginary dog and cat. I dug through several forums searching in vain for any mention that I was also a troll, the highest form of disparagement on most forums, but didn’t unearth a single mention.



Real orchid growers don’t think much of people like me, as you can see from the comments below. (Note: No spellings were harmed in the replanting of these comments.)



I would never ever in a million years water them with ice. Although I can see this as a great way to get people to buy them and then subsequently kill them so they buy more.


Now that I’ve done some research it seems like the whole ice idea is a crock and actually harmful for my phal.


Yes, that is the single worst piece of cultural advice I’ve ever heard, and unfortunately it is well entrenched ‘common wisdom’. I think it is Martha Stewart’s fault, and she should be locked up again if only for that.


Thank goodness that this absurd advice is not seen on tags here in Europe. They write other idiot things, but not that bad.


…these phals will look like deformed overcloned throw-aways. I am always rather disgusted when I see them. I’m not even tempted to buy.


My answer is always ” Tell me… is there any ice dropping from the skys in the jungle where they grow?!


…the double unfortunate thing is that is does work for a few people in certain circumstances ( esp here in hot FL ) and they tell 50,000 other people who believe them…


You wouldn’t give your dog or cat boiling water would you? Then don’t give your tropical plants ice!


I don’t hold hard feelings against these people. Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat or boil a dog, there is more than one way to raise an orchid. Ice works for me and mine.


Since I started caring for the orchid, my husband has bought several plants for me. All are doing well. And in the early morning light, when I squench my eyes, and right before I glance away, my right thumb looks pale, pale green. I feel like I’ve turned over a new leaf.

Why I type


My laptop has a keypad lock that opens up a vault. Inside there is a labyrinth of rooms; and in those rooms: stories, poems, and word-hoards.


I type to get inside.


Some people know which keys to press. They spend their years alone and learn the secret sequence. Their fingers type until the doors crack open; then they step inside. When they return, their arms are full of stories. Others tap, tap, tap so lightly and open doors to poems.


Any combination lets you in that first door: an antechamber full of prose and verse. In that dim light all words glitter, enough to make you think they’re gold. I’ve been a fool and dragged more than a few out in the light and found them only brass.


Farther in, the light grows faint and you wander in a maze where every door is locked. No one can guarantee the doors will yield.  You walk by faith, not sight. I’ve stumbled into doors, heard the murmurs of the words, but failed to get inside.


I’m baffled by the combinations.


At night I dream of permutations and wake up full of simple faith. Stories and poems wait in that many-chambered place. So day after day, I type and hope that I can open doors. I want to find those words I’ve heard so much about.

History and the Will Cuppy cure


Today’s Special is a guest post by Courtenay Bluebird


History did not always bore me.  To put my stomach off history for an entire decade, the following three synchronous events had to coalesce:  three required undergraduate history credits; an unusually hot summer; and a professor who specialized in reading for four hours straight from a textbook that was written in a soda-flat monotone.


Et voilà!  I despised history as a solo subject for many years.  That aversion could be quite problematic when you’re a journalist and an MFA candidate.


If plain history were mixed with a little bit of, say, literary theory, I was fine.  I could stand the flat taste of historical fact if you mixed in the sociology of clothing.


Postmodern theory (Thanks a lot art school MFA!) leans heavily on the ideas of multiple histories  (history is a story; a story is a flawed construct) and historicism (no history is absolute; history is a combination of different disciplines).  Both of these items also sat well on my stomach, as they were light on the history and heavy on the theory.


History as a standalone subject, though, induced an intellectual queasiness in me that I tried to keep to myself.  When an entire subject area makes you dyspeptic and you are trying to teach college students to be open minded— you have a real problem.


I didn’t know how to fix my history issue.  I didn’t even know how to try to fix it.  Worse, even, I didn’t care to repair my history problem.


Do you know who healed my rift with history?


Oh, you’ll never guess, so let me tell you.


My mail carrier, a bibliophile of intense and diverse tastes, introduced me to a catalogue filled with drool-worthy books—  Bas Bleu.  (Bas Bleu is the French term for a bluestocking, a 19th century word for an aristocratic, educated lady.  The catalogue’s motto is “Champion for the small little book….” Don’t you love it already? )


My pip of a mail carrier introduced me to Bas Bleu and Bas Bleu gave me a formal posthumous introduction to Will Cuppy, a once popular and fascinating writer who specialized in humor and facts.


Facts.  Historical facts.  In fact, merely considering reading history made my stomach twitch.  I thumbed-down the page and waited for the sensation to pass.  It took three weeks.


After a little dithering, I ordered Cuppy’s back-in-print The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  I fell in love with history for history’s sake again.  Not historicism.  Not history as a by-product of other interests.  Hardcore, unrepentant history.


Will Cuppy gave me back my own birthright— a curiosity about what happened where, to whom, and how the pattern of history repeats, indefinitely, like a crazy quilt made by your colorblind aunt.


Cuppy’s intense abilities come down to one incredibly difficult literary trick.


He could take any subject— world civilization, natural sciences, home economics — and with an astonishing sleight-of-hand— reduce it to its essential elements and make it pithy.  His writing style leans into this brevity, but do not be deceived— the research behind his tight sentences could, and did, take years at a stretch.


Most of his books were out of print for a few decades with the exception of Decline.  Like many writers I love, Cuppy went through a brief period after his death where people forgot how wonderful he was, where editors forgot how Cuppy gave their readers the gift of knowledge with ease, where literary reviewers forgot that writers could convey history without that self-congratulatory grandiosity that causes emotional vertigo in the average reader.


After reading Cuppy, no bland recitation of facts and figures could possibly evoke the great forces that make lives and countries collide and collude.  Cuppy, Bas Bleu, and my mail carrier, gave history back to me so sweetly and simply that really I can hardly believe my luck.  I never thought I’d love history again.


But here is my heart on the sleeve of my t-shirt— I adore history.  And here I am, late at night, relishing that soon I will lie down on my bed in a small pool of light to read an exquisite history of Sri Lanka.   I’ve read it six times before.  I’ll read it six times again.  It’s true— history repeats itself, cover to cover and back again.


Would you like to know more about Will Cuppy?  A well-written overview can be found on Wikipedia here!  In fact, Cuppy is so quotable, he has his on Wiki Quote page over here.


Want some more great news?  His writing is so popular again, according to the lovely Yearstricken, that my favorite Cuppy book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is on backorder at Amazon.  Bas Bleu is still my go-to for new reprints of beloved favorites.  I highly recommend that you bebop to their website here.


And, finally, do you want to read my favorite history of modern Sri Lanka, in brief?  It’s gorgeous.  Michael Ondaatje’s  Running in the Family is so fine I give it as gift to new writers all the time.


 Courtenay Bluebird is a professional writer and   photographer, and a sort-of artist.  As she is currently writing about herself in the third person, she would like to tell you this is the first time she has shown her drawings to any sort of public.

As a writer, she has penned features and columns for major newspapers and magazines.   Her poetry, essays, and fiction have been published in a variety of respected journals.  As a photographer, she has hung four two-person shows.
Bluebird Blvd. is her first real grown-up blog.  And she’s awfully happy to be a guest writer on Year-Struck today.



For a short stretch of time, we lived in South Carolina where we rented a house with a fig tree in the back yard. It stood close to the house, near the kitchen window, so when I washed the dishes I could see the birds eat my dessert for me. My neighbor taught me to how to preserve figs and watermelon rind, but I preferred figs fresh. Just like the birds.


Seeing those pretty little thieves sitting in the fig tree got me interested in birding. I got my husband a nice pair of binoculars, so we could spy on the birds when we took the children to the park.


I was never a serious birder. No matter how many times I looked at those bird identification books, I couldn’t match the pictures with the feathered creatures in the trees. Plus, the birds tended to be too fluttery for me to identify the small crescent-shaped marking on the belly of the males that appears on cloudless days between 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. during the nesting period. The woods are full them, the guidebooks promised, and they’re hard to miss. But miss them, I did.


Mostly I just pointed the binoculars in the direction of the trees, waited for something with wings to fly by. After it landed, I watched it. I recognized a few birds by sight – the cardinal, the blue jay, the tanager, and the redheaded woodpecker. Otherwise, I identified the birds by their colors. I see a gray bird with a white necklace! Oh, look, there’s a brownish bird with spots wearing yellow eye shadow! Occasionally, I let my husband use the binoculars, since I bought them for him. But I didn’t like to let him use them too long; someone needed to watch the children.


I would like to take up birding. My husband, however, shows no enthusiasm for the idea, even though he likes birds and maintains the bird feeder in the back yard. Perhaps if I bought another pair of binoculars, he would like the idea better.


So I’ve taken up a bit of bird watching on the Internet. A few months ago, I was walking through the blog forest, looking for something with wings, when I found myself on Bluebird Blvd. I discovered that a bluebird of sorts lived there; one gifted with a beautiful voice. Sometimes she sings a song so happy the trees bud; sometimes she trills a poem or tweets until you laugh; but she always makes you glad you stopped to listen.


Tomorrow, Courtenay from Bluebird Blvd. will fly over to my blog and sing a song of words for you. I’m so pleased. Come back tomorrow and I guarantee you’ll be pleased, too.





For my mother and two older sisters, moving into motherhood was like moving into a new neighborhood. They picked out houses they liked, ones that came with a husband and children, set up the furniture, and settled down to get to know the neighbors. All three of them moved into that neighborhood before they turned 20.

I thought that one day I would move in there, too. Whenever I wanted to. Every woman I knew did; and there seemed to be a house for everyone.

One month before I turned 30, I finally said, “I do.” For the first year of my married life, I used a form of birth control because I thought I was in control of having babies.

Yesterday I wrote about the shame I felt because I couldn’t get pregnant. I felt like a failure. My husband tried to talk me out of both of those emotions; so did a counselor. It didn’t make sense to be so overwrought. My mind grasped that, but my emotions had their own reasons; on the surface, they seemed illogical, but they weren’t.

Underneath the shame and sense of failure, I had a deeper wound. One I couldn’t talk about or explain because I didn’t have words for it. I rummaged around in my heart and found something I couldn’t identify. I didn’t have enough light to see properly and when I tried to drag it out. I couldn’t: it was too big and all the edges seemed too sharp for me to grasp.

In the third year of my struggles, my husband and I went to visit my oldest sister and her family in Georgia. Mother lived with them at the time. I have no recollection of what we did or said that first day. We were never close the way some mothers and daughters are. I found fault with almost everything she did and had little patience with her. She, on the other hand, was always kind and did her best to please me. I found that especially irritating. I knew nothing of her pain, nor cared to know, but that day I must have seen truth flicker for just a moment in her glance or in her words. It was just the amount of light I needed.

That second day I told my mother I wanted to talk to her alone. We went into her bedroom and sat on the bed. I didn’t know yet what I would say because I still couldn’t articulate what I felt. When I opened my mouth, these words came out, “You never wanted me, did you?”

She gasped for air and broke down crying. We held each other for several minutes before she could speak.

“You were such a hard baby,” she said. “I didn’t want to get pregnant again so quickly, but your father was thrilled that were going to have another child. Of all my children, you were the smallest, but I had the hardest time with you. It was like you didn’t want to be born. And then you cried all the time, and I never felt like I could comfort you. Even though I loved you, it seemed like you didn’t want me.”

I don’t remember how long we cried; somehow the words and tears washed away years of hurt. It sounds impossible, even to me, but it’s true. From that day, our relationship radically changed.

Our lives are full of mystery. My mother carried shame and grief for a child she had; I carried mine for the child I never had. She needed me to say the words that could not tell herself; I needed to say the words so I could heal myself. My hard words released both of us that day. Sometimes words can do that.





You stand before a vast, empty country, the land taut and pinned to the horizon. You measure your journey in months, believing the mirages, imagining fruit-laden trees. Before you, emptiness; behind you, the bones of your hope, bleached white by the unblinking sun. Blistered by grief, you drink shame; it burns your throat.


Your womb refuses life; it is the tomb of lost children. A dozen die each year. You see their blood and weep.


Reason tells you that giving birth is not a measure of your worth. You are still a woman. You listen politely, go home and drown yourself in tears. You curse the moon.


At the store, you wander the aisles, fill your basket high with food; some hungers can be filled. A woman, great with child, walks by, smiles at you, as if the two of you shared a secret. You leave the basket; someone will come by later and empty it. You must leave quickly, before the wailing starts, before you rock yourself to silence.


You do not know the secret.


After the silence, you rage, scorch earth and heaven with your anger. You tend the fire of hatred and burn yourself.


In the times before this, when your body kissed your lover, you shut the door to time. Now you line the walls with calendars, watch the clock, measure love by numbers, as if there were a recipe for life.


You give yourself to doctors, learn the humiliation of need, fail, and try until you are tired of dying like this.


One night after some years have passed, you hear the soft whimper of a child, and rise to hold her in your arms. Standing before the window, you see the full moon and smile. You never learned the secret, and yet your arms are full, too.


Another woman, in a different place, rises from her sleep and stands beneath the moon. Her hands search beneath her breasts and feel the emptiness beneath her heart, where a child once slept. That child sleeps now in the arms of the barren woman.


On dark nights when the moon empties itself of light, you think of the woman who shared her secret. You weep for the moon and the woman. You, too, know something of emptiness.


In disguise


My body is serious about getting old. Each day it tries a little harder to sag or wrinkle, and I have to say, it’s doing a very good job. The “me” inside the body tried getting older once, tried to be suave and debonair, but it didn’t work. Say the word “suave” and I see shampoo and thighs (both are “proven to volumnize”); say the word “debonair” and I visualize air freshener: Does your home smell naïve? Try Debonair! It’s the smell of sophistication.

Not that I can’t be serious; it’s just that I can’t be serious for long periods of time.


The other day I was in the car listening to WPR (Wisconsin Public Radio) as former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold unbuckled the truth about what is happening inside the Washington Beltway. When I stopped at a light, I noticed the car in front of me had a license plate from Iowa. I forgot all about politics because I suddenly wanted to flag the man over to ask him his last name. Let it be Lott, I thought. If not, I’ve got to stop this internal rhyming and move to Iowa, change my last name to Lott, and have people call me Iowa Lott. As I turned the corner ,I saw a sign at the gas station that said, “Pay Inside.” I envisioned myself buying gas, going inside, and yapping. Then I would point to the word “Pay” on the sign and say, “I’m half-dyslexic.”


Russ was still talking sensibly when I got back, and I made it safely home without pulling anyone over or yapping inside of the gas station.


Pretending to be a grownup is a tiresome, but necessary business. If I said and did the things my fifth-grade self would like to say and do, I would be institutionalized. That’s why it’s hard to fault my body for its relentless determination to grow old. It’s the perfect disguise.



‡Spray bottle photo borrowed from http://www.mt-packaging.com/and slightly altered by yearstricken, who loves a company with a sense of humor. They sell packaging, like empty cans to put your spray in, and their name is MT.

A writing life


I’ve been writing all my life.


At first I merely drooled my poems on my mother’s shoulder. She never understood. I wrote on cloth day after day in words so rude my mother washed them all away. I scrawled runes on walls with crayons about my fear of farmer’s wives with knives and cradles that fall down, but none could parse my text.




My early days in school, I learned to wield a yellow pencil, its lead held every word I knew. My large block letters stayed between the lines, like banners on the page. The sky is big. The sky is blue. The clouds are white. I like the sky. I was Hemingway in pigtails.


Those middle years in school, I self-published a thousand reports, wrote memoirs every fall for teachers who pined for summers past, and critiqued more than a hundred books for free.


In high school, poems fell from my pen at an alarming rate. None survived the fall. They carried too much angst, unrequited love, and dark thoughts to land upon the page unscathed. I found poems and stories in a typewriter many years ago, then lost them when I moved away.



All the writing that I’ve done since, I’ve hidden in a drawer or filed away. My words have been a secret I whisper only to myself. I share them now because I’ve grown brave or old or maybe both.


I’ve been writing all my life.

Keeping memories


When I was five years old, we lived on Edith Street in El Paso, Texas. Most of the time when I walked out the door, I turned right. My best friend, Terry, lived in that direction and the road around that corner led to the convenience store where we bought candy bars, comic books, and the occasional cigarette. If I went bike riding or roller skating, I might turn left. Down the street in that direction, I would pass by two white ceramic ducks sitting in a neighbor’s yard.


The ducks sat there day after day watching me roll by until one day they got up and walked around. I remember it clear as day. It’s one of my special childhood memories that never happened. Yet the impossibility of it doesn’t stop me from remembering it.


Duck! Here comes the little dreamer.
Photo from http://www.poultryclubsa.co.za/wp-content/uploads/Duck-High-Flyer.jpg


I spent most of childhood outside; we all did back then. But on Saturday morning, we stayed inside to watch cartoons. I spent hours watching that naughty putty tat Sylvester stalk Tweety Bird, Betty Boop sing and dance, Woody Woodpecker stir up trouble, and the Road Runner escape from Wile E. Coyote. For years afterward, I had fond but vague memories of a character called Daffy Fuddlebug. Only when I dragged it into the daylight and showed it to my sister did I realize I had conflated three characters (Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny) into one.



Memories are the artifacts of the lives I have lived: the small child, the lost teenager, the young woman, the wife, the mother, the teacher, the dreamer. Like one civilization built atop another, each life was built upon the one before; and hidden in each layer, the memories, quite a few still intact, their dates carefully stamped on the bottom; others of uncertain date but recognizable; and many, many broken shards, some still sharp and dangerous, others soft-edged from being buried so long. I have built a museum of words and images where I keep these memories.


Sometimes I go there and wander through the quiet rooms, trying to understand the history of my life, believing it will help me live a better life today and in my future. I see that I have mistaken dreams for memories; those early ones often look alike to me. And I have mislabeled a few; the details and faces obscured by time. I leave them as they are; my misremembering is as much a part of me as my remembering. Memories are not facts; they are part of the story we tell ourselves. They may not be real in the way we define facts; but like all good stories, they are true. So I do my best to remember them; and try as I might, I cannot let go of my fond but vague memory of Daffy Fuddlebug.


The other f-word


This week I used the f-word in a conversation with my grandchild. Not the four-letter f-word; that one continues to grow weaker with each use in its tiresome march toward banality. I used the other one, the three-letter f-word, which according to my grandchild, isn’t nice.


We were poodles at the time, so we had to call our lunch “dog food.” One minute we were talking about how poodles enjoy eating worms, the grandchild’s take on our pesto pasta; and the next minute, we were discussing Santa Claus and pregnant women. If you have ever talked to a poodle, you understand that they have wide-ranging interests. When we talked about Santa, I said his belly was fat. That led to the “not nice” comment.


I agreed and said we shouldn’t call people fat. It’s fine for imaginary people, but real people come in all sizes. Some are big and some are small, I said. We shouldn’t call bigger people fat.



Satisfied that I had learned my lesson about calling people fat, the little poodle said, “We can tell big people, ‘You look fat, but you’re not fat.’”


Small children and poodles are literalists. They understand the denotation, literal meaning, of a word; but they can also understand the connotations, other words and emotions associated with a word. Fat in its literal meaning refers to the size of a person’s body; but it is stuffed with connotations. Fat is more often used as a pejorative, a sign of moral failure, and implies that a person is lazy, dull, or stupid.


We have many synonyms for fat: corpulent, obese, chubby, plump, thick-set, and pudgy, just to name a few. But “fat” appears in print earlier than all the rest. It comes from the Old English word fǽtt and shows up in writings around the late 9th century.


In every day speech, we favor words with Old English roots. According to the University of Texas website, half of the thousand most commonly used words in English come from Old English. That includes pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and all those short, direct words like fast, good, wonder, water, and “word” itself. You can’t open your mouth without one of those ancient words strolling out.


Talking about fat is delicate business because the connotations keep getting in the way. We can use words like overweight, big, and heavy to talk about body size, but “fat” will still be there. Eliminating it from our bodies is possible; eliminating it from our lexicon is near impossible.


In the U.S., about one-third of our children have more stored fat than they need. At school and on the playground they hear the three-letter f-word all of the time. Name-calling causes a lot of emotional pain and suffering, so we need to teach children not to call other people fat. But having too much fat on a body causes a lot of physical pain and suffering, so we need to feed our children real food; then they will be healthy and won’t get called names.

Snacking with the grandchild
Photo by Tom and Pat Leeson, Vancouver, Washington, USA at ahttp://www.mnh.si.edu

My grandchild and I went to the zoo after lunch. By the time we got home, we were otters, hungry ones, so we munched on carrots and tangerines, and talked about the animals we had seen.


We feed our children both information and food. We can teach them to speak nicely about others, and we can teach them to eat good food. Both are necessary, and both are nice, that is to say, in good taste.