Black Swan and Rattlesnake

Held captive in the doldrums Friday evening (by Justice Scalia and the Texas Legislature), I told David I needed to see Black Swan to make me feel better.

I knew even as I said it that my wish was ultra-self-contradictory, sort of oxymoronic with the emphasis on moron.

Anyone who’s seen the publicity knows Black Swan wasn’t made for the Hallmark channel. Two friends had warned me about it. One said that two days after viewing, she still had that feeling some movies send you away with. The other said the movie is graphic. I said graphic what? and she said graphic everything.

By Saturday morning, having regained my normally sunny outlook, I worried that the intensity of an anti-Mary Poppins might bring on Black Mood.

But I chanced it.

So as not to spoil anything, I’ll skip to the review: Black Swan is very very very very very good.

Aside from the fact that I remember when Barbara Hershey was a teenager, I felt better coming out of the theater than I had going in.

But I have not shaken the spell. There’s so much to remember, to ponder.

I was pondering when I reached into the kitchen cabinet for a can of tuna and found a rattlesnake.

The hiss was unmistakable. I jumped backward against the electric range, heart pounding, setting the oven racks a- shuddering.

When strike didn’t follow hiss, I stepped closer but saw nothing resembling Crotalus atrox.

What I did see, right in front, was a can of Pam cooking spray, the one I knocked off the shelf a couple of days ago. The cap shattered when it hit the floor, and the can is now hatless.

Obviously, when I reached over the Pam to get to the tuna–heaven forfend I should simply clear a path–my arm pressed down on the exposed nozzle. The spray made a hissing noise, as sprays do.

If I’d spent a peaceful day at home, I’d have thought, That was the Pam.

But I’d just seen Black Swan, so I thought, SNAKE!

Note: There are no snakes in that movie.

But a lot of doors open.

Perhaps that’s the secret to suspense well done. Once under its spell, the viewer, or the reader, glides along on a mixture of experience and anticipation. A closed door becomes menacing. A suggestion of horror is harrowing. The most successful effects stay with us. Fifty years later, a shower curtain still gives bathers pause.

It does me, anyway.

I’m not saying that Black Swan resembles Psycho in any way. They’re entirely different.

I’m sorry Edgar Allan Poe isn’t around today. The man who limited his poems to approximately a hundred lines and his fiction to pieces that could be read in one sitting might be interested in the unity of effect that can be achieved on film.

Black Swan is stunning. It drew me into the illusion and still won’t let me go.


Last night I began a post about the proposed cuts to library funding now before the Texas Legislature. A 99% reduction to state funding to school libraries. Elimination of state funding for public library TexShare databases. Elimination of funding for K-12 data bases. Elimination of state funding for direct aid to public libraries.

I was around when the Legislature–headed by a pro-library Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock–put a chunk of money into school libraries. K-12 databases. A state-wide union catalog. A system of public school interlibrary loan. Later came the Loan Star Libraries program–the first time funds flowed directly from the State of Texas to individual public libraries. That money paid for summer reading programs, new books and media, conference registrations…Now it’s all on the table…Cities, counties, school districts are facing deep cuts of their own…Many won’t be able to pick up the increased costs…There’s talk of $25 million a year for ten years for a  Formula 1 racetrack…

By paragraph five, I’d written myself into a tizzy. I saved and rummaged through the files for something without emotional significance.

I found the lie, lay, lay lecture. I wrote it for fun, as an offering to my paralegal study group. I posted it.

Tonight I began a post about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s statement that the U. S. Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis or gender or sexual orientation. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, applied to former slaves, and so the word person as it is used there does not refer to women. The first clause reads as follows:

1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

As I wrote about the logical conclusion that the Constitution does not prohibit depriving women of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, and that it doesn’t prohibit denying women the equal protection of the laws…And wondering whether the Justice would, if push came to shove, follow the precedent set in 1971, when a unanimous Court held that the 14th Amendment does apply to women…I became a little testy. A little cross. A little agitated.

In other words, I’d written myself into another tizzy.

But I don’t have another ready-made piece suitable for posting. So I’m telling the truth about the process.

I learned a long time ago not to write when angry, irritated, agitated, tizzied. The result is never worth reading. The meaning comes through, but so do several other things, none of them impressive.

A critic–I think it was Ellen Moers, but since I read the comment in 1982, I can’t say for sure–compared Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte in the following way:

Austen is detached. She doesn’t betray her emotions in her fiction. She doesn’t intrude into her characters’ points of view.

Bronte doesn’t contain herself so well. When Jane Eyre, for example, speaks about the differences in the lives of men and women, the voice veers off–suddenly it’s Charlotte Bronte’s voice we hear, not Jane’s, and it’s Charlotte’s anger. And the anger poses a distraction.

Again, it’s been thirty years since I read that assessment, but I think it’s true. And I think the principle applies to other types of writing as well.

Anger addles the brain. Thought is uncontrolled, words pour out uncontrolled. It sounds high-minded and righteously indignant when it’s really over-wrought and poorly reasoned and sometimes downright silly.

The tizzy-laden paragraphs above are longer than I intended. I got started and wouldn’t stop. At least one of them should have a violin playing in the background.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with me.

If you care to read more about the library situation, links to articles appear below. Be sure to read the one from the Guardian.

And did you see the one about the community in England that checked out every single book in the library to protest impending cuts? Amazing.

Times are hard, and we can’t have everything we want. But surely libraries are as important as racetracks and pro football.

And no matter what anyone says, I think women are persons.

Would I Lie?







Verb: to lie (to recline)—takes no object
Anne lies on her bed every afternoon.
Anne lay on her bed for an hour yesterday.
Anne has lain on her bed every afternoon since her trial began.
Anne had lain on her bed for just minutes before Henry’s henchmen arrived.
When the clock strikes three, Anne will have lain on her bed for the last time.
Anne is not lying on her bed any longer. She was forever lying there. She lay abed too long. Now she’s lying elsewhere.

Verb: to lay (to put or place something)—requires an object
Anne lays her head on her pillow every afternoon.
Anne laid her head on the block.
We’re too late; the executioner has already laid Anne’s head in the basket.
Henry had laid a trap for Anne before she realized what he was up to.
Henry will have laid traps for several people before he expires.
Henry can’t help it. He’s been laying traps all his life. As we speak, he’s out laying one for poor Jane Seymour.

Verb: to lay (chickens and eggs)–takes an object, but object may be understood
The hen lays an egg every day.
The hen lays, and the farmer reaps the profit.
The hen laid an egg a day for a whole month.
The hen has laid an egg a day for as long as I can remember.
The hen had laid an egg a day before we started feeding her laying mash, and then she upped her production.
The hen will have laid 30,000 eggs before she retires to Aruba.

The hen lies on the chopping block as Father sharpens the ax.
The hen lay on the chopping block for about two seconds before wriggling free.
The hen has never willingly lain on the chopping block.
The hen was lying on the chopping block when the rooster swooped in with a last-minute reprieve from the governor.

Today the hen lays down her life so Colonel Sanders may eat.
The hen laid her head on the block yesterday, and the result was delicious.
A hen has laid her head on the block every day for a year; as a result, we’re short of eggs.

If you ever see an old dog laying on the porch, call me immediately. I want to see the dog eggs.

Pact and Peoria

There was a young girl from Peoria
Whose name was Regina Victoria.
Said she with a sigh,
“It is certain that I
Should reside at the Waldorf-Astoria.”

I’ve made a pact: I will write for at least forty-five minutes each morning before going on-line to check e-mail.

When I start with e-mail, a message leads to a blog to a website to a who-knows-where, and before I know it, I’m surfing.

Surfing and writing aren’t the same thing.

Surfing involves the muscles of one index finger.

Writing involves the muscles of the brain.

Surfing results in a little burst of dopamine at every click.

Writing drains the dopamine right out of you.

I’ve never heard of anyone having surfer’s block or surfer’s anxiety.

You see where this is going.

Pacts normally involve at least two people. Mine, however, involves only me. Consequently, after two days, it’s already getting loose at the seams.

This morning, for instance, before I could open the file wherein lives my budding novel, I remembered McGill Rhyming Dictionary. I downloaded the program–free!–several weeks ago but never installed it.

Why I thought of it today, I have no idea. Just lucky, I guess.

Anyway, I found where it was hidden and installed it. Then I decided to take a peek and see what it looked like.

It looked pretty good, so I decided to see how it works. I clicked all the little icons and admired all the little bells and whistles–it has a hyperbolic thesaurus, plus Wikipedia, plus Wikisomethingelse, plus both proper and common nouns, plus context, plus rime schemes, plus syllable count, plus line numbers…

So I decided to try it out.

At the end of forty-five minutes, I had written three limericks. One of them is at the top of this page.

I’m not going to share the other two. They are perfectly nice, respectable verses. But I do have a reputation to uphold.

I e-mailed them to some friends as evidence of my industry. One suggested a new project: Kathy’s Limerick Blog.

I hate to say it, but I’m tempted. Some people write a haiku a day. I could write a limerick a day.

Two more lines than a haiku. More syllables. The added pressure of rime. But the extra work would be balanced by the fact that when writing a limerick, I know when I’m finished.

Haiku are different. Airy, elusive. I can have the arithmetic exactly right but still feel that something needs fixing.

That’s not a good feeling.

I don’t know yet about the new blog. It would be smart to forget it.

Because limericks are as addictive as e-mail.

I’d just end up needing a new pact.

Sores on the tops of the horses

Writing about his college years, James Thurber tells the story of Haskins, an agriculture student who takes up journalism, “possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work.”

Haskins is assigned the animal husbandry beat, which comprises cows, sheep, and over two hundred horses.

Unfortunately, he is shy and doesn’t know how to use a typewriter. He writes slowly, and his stories are dull.

One day Haskins’ editor assigns him to bring in news from the horse pavilion. Haskins later comes back saying he has a story.

The editor, hoping for something more interesting than he’s been getting, says, “Well, start it off snappily.”

A couple of hours later, Haskins turns in a paper that starts with the following sentence:

“Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

That’s the other reason I’m not a journalist: When it comes to writing leads, I’m several steps behind Haskins.

Under most circumstances,  I wouldn’t care. I don’t make my living working for a newspaper.

But a lead sentence corresponds in at least one way to the first line of a short story or novel. They both catch the reader’s attention, draw him into the text, make him want to read on.

And there’s this novel I’m working on. And this short story…

And, like Haskins, I’ve heard from some of my critique partners that my first lines leave something to be desired.

After some thought and a brief cooling-off period, I’ve forgiven them and admitted they might be right.

The sad thing is that before my abject humiliation, I never paid much attention to first lines. The sadder thing is that I can quote so many.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken near the elbow.

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

All children, except one, grow up.

Well, I have broken the toilet.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.

And so on. With all those lines suspended in my brain, you’d think I’d have caught onto why I remember them. And why they’re important.

Here’s the way it works.

A bookstore browser sees a book on the shelf. If the writer is lucky, it sits face out. He takes the volume down, looks at the front cover, the back cover, the first paragraph…and then either buys it or walks away.

And the whole process happens in under ten seconds.

The first line of a novel can make the difference between a sale and a return. Between another advance and a canceled contract.

There’s a lot riding on Scarlett O’Hara not being beautiful. And our not knowing Huck Finn. And what happened when the lights went off.

How does one get to be that good?

The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall, I guess.

Practice. Practice.


And blog blog blog.

Because my concern isn’t just for novels and money and fame. I’d also like the gentle readers who land on To write… to linger longer than the first sentence.


And please discount the business about money and fame. Unless you’re Tom Clancy or Stephen King, those aren’t really part of the package. But they sound good, so I throw them in.


Sorry about that linger longer. Against some things there is no defense.

Recycled: Burnt Toast

my own picture, to be added to cookware and ba...
Image via Wikipedia

The following post originally appeared on Whiskertips. For those unfortunate enough to have missed it the first time, I repeat it here.


I burn toast.

It’s hereditary. My mother burned toast. My grandmother burned toast.

In fact, once when my grandmother was making cornbread dressing for Christmas dinner, she burned the toast three consecutive times.

My father, who had been watching the procedure, drawled, “Mrs. Barrow, you’re a failure.”

While I was remembering that bit of family lore, I burned the toast.

My husband came to see what the yelling was about. I pointed at the cinders and said, “That was the end of the loaf, so we’ll just have to eat it.”

More tactful than my father, he turned around, but not before I glimpsed the corner of his mouth twitch. He has learned to expect charred bread.

He’s learned to expect a few other things as well.

I lock my keys inside my car. If I’m preoccupied enough, I lock the extra set of keys and the cell phone in with them.

I try to make four quarts of soup in a two-quart saucepan.

I hoard both fat clothes and skinny clothes for the time when they might once again, someday, fit.

That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s good for a start.

I used to ask myself why I keep doing those things.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering, “So what?”

I have a good working relationship with the roadside assistance folks: I send money and they send assistance. I’ve met some nice people this way. One locksmith, in fact, said I’d just made his day by not blaming him for being locked out.

When the soup fixings reach the brim, I get out a larger vessel and arrange a transfer. Then I add one more pot to the dishwasher.

Some years that gray wool suit fits and some years it doesn’t, but it’s in excellent condition, and there’s always hope.

And it’s not as if I don’t have a few talents.

Soup is a challenge, but I can pack the truck of a car so that every suitcase, garment bag, and Christmas present fits without spilling over into the back seat.

I can get pills down cats.

My booktalks make sixth-grade boys scramble to check out books I’ve recommended.

I make good ice cream.

Surely these things count in my favor.

The day of the latest conflagration, I found–serendipitously–the blog Burnt Toast, whose author points out that, while regular toast is boring, burnt toast has “flavor and character.”

I like that. After all, without burnt toast, I wouldn’t have the memory of my father teasing his mother-in-law, a story redolent of the flavor and character of my family.

So in the coming year, I resolve to say, “So what?” to the small stuff.

I’ll try to keep my keys in hand, but when I don’t, I’ll take that opportunity to make someone’s day.

I’ll donate some slacks to the Salvation Army, but I’ll keep the gray suit.

I’ll be grateful for soup that expands beyond the bounds of my expectations.

In short, I’ll embrace burnt toast, relishing the flavor and character it brings.


The Tale of Kerwin, Part III

I realized only yesterday that I left the story of Kerwin‘s ostracism unfinished. When I left off, I had just–whoops!–Mary had just walked into the front room of the library and found Kerwin sitting beside the door, where she had left him over a half-hour before.

He looked a little pale.

Mary felt a little surprised.

She had escorted the rest of his class out the library’s back door, as she did every week, and had forgotten Kerwin wasn’t with them. His teacher was no doubt wondering where he was.

“Kerwin, what are you doing there?” she said.

“You told me not to move.”


He was correct. That’s what Mary had said. It hadn’t occurred to her that he would take the instruction so literally.

“All right, Kerwin, go on back to class.”

Color returning to his cheeks, he jumped from the chair and shot out the door.

Mary packed up and walked back to the high school library, where she officed.

The end.

I regret the story ends so anticlimactically. For literary purposes, I wish it had a dramatic ending.

If I were writing fiction, I’d have stopped with Part II. But I wanted to make clear that everyone survived intact.

I’m sure I’m the only one involved who remembers.

Crying Towels

I’m watching MI-5. Twenty minutes left. Things are not going well, but then they never are.

This time things won’t end well either. At the top of the hour, a helpful announcer volunteered the information that one agent will not get out alive.

I think I know who it is. In fact, I know I know. Several months ago I did a little research on Wikipedia. I wanted only to find the correct spelling of Harry’s surname, but I found a complete synopsis, from the first episode to the latest.

So I know.

Normally I don’t like to have advance notice. I never begin a book with the last page. I prefer to be surprised.

But tonight I’m glad for the warning. When I know what’s coming, I can prepare.

My stack of crying towels is at hand.


And I’m going to need them.

Insigna of MI5
Image via Wikipedia

Inside the box

The WordPress poll asked, How long does it take you to write a post?

I don’t like to participate in surveys of this kind, but I do like to see the results. And unless I submitted my information, WordPress wouldn’t let me see anyone else’s.

I clicked 2 to 4 hours. So did 200 other bloggers. That puts us at not quite 15%

More than 4 hours, which I thought about clicking, garnered 55 votes, for 4%.

The majority, 455 people, or 33.9%, take 30 minutes to an hour.

Some people average 15 to 30 minutes, some less than 15. I choose to pretend they don’t exist.

It’s taken me nearly 30 minutes to get this far.

In my Saturday morning paralegal classes, I sat beside an organized person. She carried a homemade spreadsheet–the kind that spreads across a 6-foot-wide table–with everything in the syllabus plugged into cells. Readings, lectures, quizzes, tests, labs, reports, papers. Everything. Color-coded. And that wasn’t all. Everything she did was neat and tidy and perfect. Little boxes all over the place.

I carried the looseleaf notebook containing course materials (including a calendar listing all assignments) and a spiral notebook.

I envied that woman. I didn’t want her spreadsheet. I wanted to be a person who made such spreadsheets.

For our first major composition, we wrote a letter to an imaginary client. We discussed three statutes and three cases and explained how each applied, or did not apply, to the charges the client faced. In addition to including other information, we were supposed to be extremely clear, extremely polite, and extremely careful not to make any promises.

When letters were handed in, the instructor asked students to think how much time went into the production of that one four-page letter. Then she announced a break.

I turned to my organized classmate and said, “I wonder–when I calculate the time I spent working on the letter, does that count the time I spent playing solitaire while I was thinking what to say next?”

My classmate’s eyes got big and round, and she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

Well, I didn’t really think so either.

We’d been warned that flippancy does not play well in a law office. It obviously didn’t pay well in the classroom either.

Sometimes I wish I were better at thinking inside the box.

Get right to the action

There’s a bit of a flap over Downton Abbey, the British television series now being shown on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater. It’s been reported that the version shown in the U. S. was cut from eight hours to six.

The change seems to be rooted in Americans’ short attention span and desire to get right to the action.

There’s also the problem of the entail, which Americans might not understand.

Oh, well. I could be insulted by the slander regarding the attention span. One of the people who implied that, however, is an American. Also, I’ve heard the same thing about my manuscript: Hook readers with the first sentence, and get the murder in by the end of chapter three.

But I do think most Yanks watching Masterpiece have patience enough to delay gratification, and intelligence enough to figure out the provisions of the entail.

I understood most of I, Claudius. Ancient Rome was more foreign and more complex than pre-World War I England. I understood Fawlty Towers, too–even Manuel, and he was from Barcelona.

Some say the two versions of Downton Abbey differ because PBS programming isn’t interrupted by advertising. Some have said the two are essentially the same.

Whatever. When all is said and done, I’ll watch it on Netflix and decide for myself.

Until then, I’ll be grateful for the fuss. It’s given me something to write about.

Coming soon: The Entail