Monday, January 31, 2005


"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and wiser and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extentions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of earth."

--Henry Beston, The Outermost House

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

EPA relaxing standards

On Friday, while inaugural revelers were still shaking off their hangovers and tending to their square-dance-induced blisters, the Bush EPA officially unveiled a deal whereby factory farms can get more than two years of immunity from the Clean Air Act if they join a voluntary program to simply measure their emissions. The feds, who say they need the emissions data in order to develop a good enforcement program, tout their collaborative plan as far better than slapping factory farms with lawsuits one by one.
Environmentalists say the strategy stinks as bad as the huge piles of manure that are emitting toxic gases at factory farms around the country.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Arts

Where would we be without them? Where indeed! Here is Maragaret Atwood's answer:

“The arts – as we have come to term them – are not a frill. They are at the heart of the matter. A society without the arts would have broken its mirror and cut out its heart. It would no longer be what we now recognize as human.”

I stole this from Katie Weekley's blog (Thanks Katie!) because I couldn't resist spreading the sentiment. It also speaks to me in terms of my fears for America under the current administration. Arts endowment has not been high on W's agenda and one gets the idea that he would just as soon eliminate all those pesky anti-war poets and such, bent on making their unpatriotic noise and clamor. As a nation we seem to not be so interested in introspection or of holding up a mirror to our society, unless perhaps it is the ever-flattering mirror of Snow White's evil stepmother.

Mirror, mirror on the wall...


The sun is out in upstate New York--a rare occurrence this time of year. With all the snow we've had, it's a bit dazzling following so many days of bleakness. And I'm feeling rather shell-shocked, actually, stepping out into all that glittery brightness. But despite the last few months of sadness and uncertainty, as well as the services still before us, it feels like a new day of hope, of an end to the suffering. So I am throwing myself back into the details of daily life and making the choice to keep moving forward.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Calvin Pratt 1925-2005

For those of you who have been going through this with me, I just wanted to let you know that my father-in-law passed peacefully this evening, around five o'clock. Thank you for your kindness and concern.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hardening off

It's a gardening term that is used to describe the period of time during which tender indoor-grown plants are slowly acclimated to the harsher (windier, colder, sunnier) conditions they will face when they are transplanted into the great outdoors.

It's also a term that occurred to me today when thinking about how I am raising my children. If you asked my children, I'm sure they would tell you the ways in which their lives have been difficult: the many moves of a military family, a divorce, a new family to adjust to, and a cranky, often distracted mother who believes in the value of chores, discipline, telling the truth, and keeping your word.

But the truth of the matter is, my children's lives have been easy when measured against children in the rest of the world. They have never known real hunger, never been homeless or unwanted or unloved.

And yet, I don't shield them from the realities of life. We have had many discussions on many, varied topics--politics, abortion, gay marriage, women's rights, to name a few. They know I will never shy away from a question or give them a non-answer like, "I'll tell you when you're older." I don't believe in that. In fact, sometimes they have to stop me from giving Too Much Information ("T.M.I., Mom, T.M.I.!"), so strongly do I believe in being open and truthful with them. Granted, the answers vary according to age. The youngest can't begin to fathom the things I might tell the oldest, and so I answer accordingly.

Recently, though, I've been thinking about this attitude of mine. Reassessing, if you will. Mostly from an innocent comment made by a friend who suggested that children shouldn't have to be exposed to hospitals and sickness and death. That seems to be the prevailing feeling in America: Let them be children a little longer.

Here is where my gardener's knowledge kicks in. (Yes, I am far too prone to attributing the traits of the natural world to humans--a sort of reverse anthropomorphism, if you will, but bear with me.) Even the healthiest hothouse plant needs time to adjust to the natural world. Too much sun too suddenly will burn its tender leaves. Too much wind will flatten its fragile stems. Too much cold, too soon, will cause it to shrivel and suffer.

So it is for a child, raised in an idyllic cocoon, who is suddenly launched into the world alone. So, like the attentive gardener, nurturing and strengthening his prize plants, I am hardening off my children. Last week I took the children to the nursing home to visit my husband's ailing father. Before we got there we talked about what they would see and smell and hear: legless people in wheelchairs, people aimlessly wandering the halls, people talking to themselves or crying out, and a smell unlike any other smell. But we also told them that they had no reason to be afraid, that these were all just people, people who had lived long lives, had children and grandchildren, and even though they looked different on the outside, inside they were all just people. And we warned them that Grandpa would look very different from what they remembered, that he might moan or cough, but that it was okay, that he was still Grandpa underneath and he could hear them and if they talked to him or touched him, it would make him very happy.

The children were amazing. My youngest introduced himself to the legless man in the neighboring bed and the two of them ended up having quite a conversation and sharing a package of chocolate doughnut holes. All of the children spoke to Grandpa (no questions, only statements) and touched him in very tender ways, rubbing his feet or touching his hands. While we were there his blood pressure returned almost to normal and he slept peacefully without coughing, for the first time in days. It was obvious to everyone, especially the kids, how much they had helped. And when it was time to leave, every single one of them was reluctant to go and wanted to know when they could come back. I can't think of a better affirmation than that.


Here is an excellent review (from Pedestal Magazine) of Terri Brown-Davidson's Marie, Marie Hold on Tight

Monday, January 17, 2005


Okay, snow.

You can stop now.

We have over a foot of snow on the ground at this writing, and it's still falling. Collectively, we, as a family, have shoveled four times since yesterday and we're due for another any minute.

I know what those of you safely in the south are saying. "Why shovel? Why not just let it pile up and enjoy it?" Well, for those of you not in/from the snowbelt (I'm a southern girl myself, but learning fast), you can't just not shovel. Well, technically you can, but you'd better lay in supplies beforehand and cancel all activities until the spring thaw (read: late May). Up here, snow doesn't just go away in a few days. It accumulates.

And, if you don't own a snowblower, you have to shovel the driveway every three inches or so. Why? Well, think of the simple math: one inch of snow pushed one inch makes two inches of snow. My driveway is roughly twelve feet wide.

So I start by pushing a path all the way down the middle of the driveway.

"Pushing?" you say.

Yes, pushing. In the north, there is no logic such that, "A snowshovel is a snowshovel is a snowshovel." It is not. First there is the snow-pusher, which looks very much like the front end of a snowplow attached to a long handle. It does just what you would expect.

Then, after a path is cleared down the middle, I proceed--using the snow-pusher--to push snow to either side of the driveway. Over a five-foot span, three inches of snow becomes 180 inches. You physically can't push much more snow than that by hand. You can't. Not even Ah-nold could. Enter the snow-scooper. Its large, flat-edged scoop is employed for lifting the massive piles--made with the snow-pusher--and throwing them, scoop-by-scoop as far from the driveway as you can.

Then you stand back and admire your clean-scraped handiwork.

"Ahh," you think. "Snow!" It is beautiful. And you have conquered it yet again. You are happy.

And then, while your back is turned to the street, the snowplow passes. I don't know about snowplows in other parts of the world, but the Western New York snowplow is an amazing, efficient machine. It can push/throw massive amounts of snow, at great rates of speed, for miles, only to then casually toss a short-ton of it into each open driveway, roughly six feet in.

And after the snowplow passes, and you have lowered your shaking fists, you find you have a retaining wall of snow at the end of your spotless driveway. Don't even bother trying to utilize the snow-pusher for the snowplow pile. That snow is roughly the weight and consistency of ice cream. So, imagine, if you will, repeatedly lifting your large, ergonomically designed snow-scooper shovel with five gallons of ice cream at its end. Further imagine that you cannot merely drop your five gallons of ice cream off to one side. No, for off to one side is where you've thrown the rest of the driveway snow, on top of what was already there, for a height of roughly two feet.

So you must scoop your five gallons of ice cream, lift it--at the end of a long handle, thereby increasing the sensation of weight and strain--two feet off the ground, and sling it away from your body. Bear in mind that your ice cream is going to be slightly melted from road salts, and that it will often stick to the shovel, thereby requiring the extra-vigorous fling, the chiropractor-calling fling.

I should add that at the start of winter, this all comes as welcome exercise. The snow piles are still small, shoveling makes you feel vigorous and slightly macho, the sun occasionally shines, and a modicum of melting may even yet occur. But by mid-January, the reality of the task sets in, the walls of snow rise, and you come to feel a certain kinship to the prisoner-of-war. A kinship with that poor ragged fellow given the task of moving a massive rock pile from one side of the yard to another, and then back again.

Oh, that poor, poor fellow.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Lake Effect

It's here! The television said we are getting an inch an hour, but I just shoveled four inches, and by the time I was done, I turned around and there was another inch behind me.

We all went snow-hiking as a family today, found a cool lean-to, and had a winter cookout. Cold, but fun. My hands are still aching from having been so very cold. It was nice to do something cheery.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Feeling Fidgetty

With things so touch-and-go for my father-in-law, we've had a lot of trouble focusing around here. Each time the phone rings, my stomach drops. There's a sort of unsettledness that you feel when someone you love is slowly dying. Aside from the obvious emotional upheaval, there's a constant sense of unfinished business, of things left undone that should be done, of waiting to grieve. So I'm feeling (to borrow the word that my father-in-law kept using when asked how he was feeling) fidgetty. (Fortunately morphine has been administered for days now and now he is resting comfortably.)

To fight my own fidgets and yet keep the work coming (they don't offer morphine to the family), I've decided to write continually on a group of stories, one sentence at a time, advancing each one incrementally. I know a little bit about what I want them to be (they've been kicking around in my head for a while) and I'm not sure if this will be for another collection, or what, but at least it's helping to counteract my fidgets and giving me lots of things to focus on other than the dying.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Summer in January

I live roughly in the angle formed by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in Western New York. But, okay, when I really want sympathy, I tell people that I live near Buffalo, city of infamy, when it comes to winter.

But today it's almost 65 degrees outside, a new record. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the scent of newly exposed wet ground is in the air. It feels, for all the world, like spring. (Sigh.) I would that it were so, but it's a cruel trick. Tomorrow is forecasted to be 20 degrees and snowy.

Part of me wants to go out in this glorious weather and enjoy it to the fullest. The other part of me doesn't care to be tempted into happiness by that which is merely fleeting. Maybe that's my nature, always looking ahead, preparing for what's yet to come.

I am reminded of the times when my military husband was deployed and he would find a way to return home for a weekend. Deliriously happy at the sight of him, I would nonetheless begin immediately to fight the melancholy knowledge that he would be gone again in a matter of hours. At times, parting after so brief a visit was painful enough to make me wish he hadn't come at all. Better to be consistently lonely than to have this roller coaster of joy and sadness, or so my thinking went.

In time, I learned that if I were to enjoy his visits I had to force myself to live in the moment--each and every moment, the here and now, without thinking too far ahead. It's a good lesson for someone like me: a plotter, a planner. I need to be reminded that tomorrow is never assured, but today is here, right before me, here to be savored.

Time to go sit in the sun.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Million Writers Award

The deadline to nominate an on-line story (of more than 1,000 words) for the Million Writers Award is February 1st. If you are interested in nominating a story, but don't know where to begin, here are a few suggestions:

The Story of Her Breasts

Flood, 1978


Toggling the Switch

Second Encounter

Yerba Buena

One Way Or the Other

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

She's in the news again

Andrea Yates.

What to make of this woman?

A mother who methodically drowns her own children. Horrible. Inconceivable. She must be a terrible person. And yet for some reason, I can't reconcile that, can't quite get there in my mind. I want to hate her, but I just end up feeling confused. She has lost everything, everything a mother lives for. Five children, drowned at her own hand. Five children whom she nursed and clothed and fed and nurtured for so many years. I keep reiterating these things because her final act of mothering is so inconceivable. She must have loved them. So, how, then? And why?

Well, raising children is damn hard work. And I have three, not five. And I don't homeschool them. And mine are out of diapers, and were spaced two or more years apart. The fact is, when I think about her trying to keep everything together, with this smugly smiling, god-fearing husband who refuses to acknowlede anything but her many blessings, well, I have to say, I can almost go there. I adore my children. I can't imagine life without them. They delight and inspire me in so many ways--they are incredible individuals. And yet, there were times--when my husband was deployed, when we were stationed far from home, with no help, no family, and children 24 hours a day--well, let's just say I wasn't sure which ones of us would make it to adulthood.

I want so desperately to blame someone and move on, smug in my ability to categorize this, to "that-type-of-woman" this. And yet I can't. And when I try to place the blame squarely on her shoulders, I keep coming back to other questions, such as: Where was her husband when she was having post-partum depression and attempting suicide? Why did he continue to think it would be best to homeschool five children, to keep giving this troubled woman more and more children, rapid-fire? Where is his accountability? And what of the doctors, the medical professionals who treated her for her ailments? And what about religion? I'm talking about the sort of no-name, slightly off-kilter evangelical born-again religion that she and her husband practiced. A religion that tells a woman to be subservient, to be the longsuffering helpmeet, to put everyone's needs before her own, that preaches happiness and contentment in every aspect of motherhood, that it is a woman's godly duty, that she is blessed if she bears a multitude of children, that obedience, above all, is to be practiced.

Obedience is the cornerstone of such narrow religions. So much so that Andrea Yates told her attorney she wanted it clarified: Contrary to the news reports, her eldest son, Noah, did not have to be chased around the house when she was ready to drown him. She wanted it known that he came when she called.

And at her trial, Andrea Yates testified that a higher power had instructed her to drown her children. All she did was what she had been repeatedly taught. She obeyed.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Living and dying

"Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted
wrongly the first time." -Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist,
psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor (1905-1997)

Attending to the dying gives one a glimpse into the great retrospective of a life. As time winds down for my father-in-law, his life unfolds before us in a long, slow parade: cards, phone calls, pictures, visits from friends and loved ones, fond reminiscences all pass through his room to remind us how much he has accomplished in his 79 years, how many people he has touched.

Those of us attending to him find ourselves privately taking stock of our own lives and wondering at the process of our own eventual deaths. It is in our basic human make-up to have some form of empathy, especially as it relates to the suffering of others. But it is also basic human nature to study how we are different from the suffering ones--how that suffering could never be ours, how we will be immune to that particular fate.

Some, although horrified by the earthquake and tsunami images, take comfort in knowing they are not near a coastline or a faultline and so will not meet that sort of terrifying end. When my own father died from the effects of years of alcoholism, even as I grieved, I reassured myself that my death at least would not echo his. Why are we compelled to think this way? Is it the brain's own form of self-preservation? Is it a mechanism whereby we are able to manage our daily functions despite the myriad hazards that could at any moment randomly consume us? It seems cruel, on some level, to have such "at least I am safe" thoughts, but as biological creatures perhaps that is the best we are capable of instinctively. As sentient, spiritual beings, though, perhaps we can manage better. Perhaps we can find in ourselves some form of compassion, some grateful acceptance, some version of There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Friday, January 07, 2005


My college roommate had a serious David Bowie obsession. Today I've been thinking of his song "Changes." Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes.

Facing change is essential if we are to grow and strengthen in our art. That song, Changes, marked a pivotal time in Bowie's career, and became the first song of his to make the charts. He was discovering and embracing the things that made his art unique and it brought him critical and popular acclaim.

I'm currently experiencing a small writing biggie, and nothing that needs sympathy even, since I've learned by now to be patient; that these periods of doubt and struggle always precede a great growth spurt in my writing and an evolution of my "voice." I'm looking forward to that. A pivotal time. Time to embrace the changes.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Good rejections

I've been wondering lately if good rejections may have the power to paralyze a writer. Specifically, I'm referring to myself (of course) and the following lovely rejection from an editor who shall remain anonymous:

Dear Ms. Akers:

Thanks for sending your story to our magazine; sorry to be so delayed in our response. We like "Animo, Anima, Animus." It went to all our readers, even the out-of-towners, because everyone liked it so much--until the last page.

We appreciate the two different perspectives of the two very different women coming to the circus, who assess, misunderstand, and come to conclusions about each other. But there is a sense of violence (or something) unfulfilled at the end.

The discussion of this story was very interesting; I don't remember another like it. We only publish everything on which we can agree, but in your case people were saying, "Tell her we'll publish it if she changes the ending." Others: "We don't have any suggestions for the ending, and how do we know what she'll write?" "This could be wonderfully comic, tragic, etc." In brief, we think this is an excellent story. Hope you think about changing the ending. And if you do, we hope you'll send it back here.

Sincerely, etc.

This is a wonderful rejection, and an excellent glimpse into the editorial process. I'm very grateful for the time this editor took to write so much in explanation. And I'm happy to revise. But, as she said, there's no specific request as to how they wish to see it revised, no guidance. And, to make things worse, I actually like the ending I have, or at least the final sentence. I am having so much trouble re-envisioning this, and wondering, as I struggle, if it isn't the compliments, in part, that are making it so difficult? If they had said this sucks, change this, I would feel as if I have more "permission" to tear the story down and rebuild it. But here, the emphasis is on changing just the last page.

Maybe I'm creating too much conflicting mental work for myself. Maybe that's causing the paralysis. Maybe it really is just a matter of changing a few sentences--not so much the ending scene, but the language used...

I think I'll give that idea some time to percolate.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


I've decided to welcome the new year in, wholeheartedly, in a way I can't remember doing before. 2004 was an extrememly trying year, and although 2005 has already had its rough spots (most notably my father-in-law's struggle with cancer of the liver) I remain optimistic. It just feels right, so I plan to go with the feeling and will it to be right.

And, amazingly, southern girl that I am, I am welcoming today's snowfall in upstate New York. These crazy days of post-Christmas 50 degree weather have been too incongruous and unsettling to appreciate, and have made me long for some soft white flakes to shovel. Today I got my wish.