Happy Samhain!

Got cow bones? If you don’t, you won’t  be able to completely celebrate Samhain in the Gaelic way. If you do have cow bones, this is an ideal time to put them on Craig’s List.

Much of today’s Halloween celebration is passed down from the Samhain tradition, which was celebrated to mark the end of harvest and the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. The celebration begins at sunset on October 31 and continues through November 1.

Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) was marked in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The name is a combination of sam, old Irish for summer, and huin, Gaelic for end. It also is the movement into the dark half of the year, a belief that has its  origin with Celtic culture. It was also the Celtic new year.

The scary part is that it was a festival of the dead, when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Some contact with the dead was positive, but some spirits were malevolent and returned on Samhain to do haunting or damage property. Fairies also were said to steal away humans at Samhain. The use of masks and costumes, was supposed to ward off any evil  spirits that were loose on Samhain.

The most common Samhain custom was to build a bonfire on top of a hill. There was also a purification ritual involving walking between two bonfires. Cow bones were traditionally thrown into the Samhain bonfires. I’m not sure why, but cattle represented wealth.

In Scotland the celebrants would build a ring of stones around the fire, one stone for each person, and run around the ring in the morning “exulting.” I’m not quite sure what was involved in exulting, but it sounds like fun. After the exultation, if anyone’s stone had shifted, it was believed that person would not live out the year. Party on.

In Ireland, running through the smoke from the bonfire was thought to have protective influence.

Halloween is the Christian version of Samhain. When the Roman Catholic Church was trying to banish paganism, the church simply absorbed and renamed holidays like Samain. Instead, as decreed by Pope Boniface IV over a thousand years ago, the name was changed to All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Day was established on November 1. This is the one “eve” that is bigger than the actual holiday. While New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve are mostly precursors to the real holiday, Halloween has become a much more popular holiday than the day it’s eve to.

According to the Celtic Oracle, this is how you celebrate Samhain:

-Light a bonfire symbolizing cleansing and new beginnings.

-Play games with apples, such as apple bobbing in water.

-Leave an offering of food outside your door at night with lighted candles. This custom eventually led to the trick or treat tradition.

The Look Challenge

Madison Woods from Madison-Woods.com, tagged me in something called the “Look Challenge”. It sounded like fun and since  I’m always looking for ways to be a better writer, I decided to accept. The idea is that the word look  is often overused by writers and this exercise will make you aware of how often you rely on it.

Here are the rules:

  • ~ Search your manuscript for the word “look,” and then copy the surrounding paragraphs into a post.
  • ~ Give a little background on the scene if you’d like.
  • ~ Tag 5 other writers who’re working on, or who’ve completed a manuscript.

I found only one look (actually looking) in the manuscript of my latest short story, which is titled One Foot In The Grave. It’s about an old man who’s dying and sets out on a revenge mission. Here is a two pargraph selection from early in the story:

The parking lot was bordered with sugar maples turning the colors of the sunset, and the truck waited under one of them, pumpkin orange leaves littering the bedliner. He climbed stiffly into the cab and turned the key, left in the ignition, and the truck cranked over slowly and finally fired up with a roar, belching blue smoke that wisped across the asphalt. He backed out carefully and pulled into traffic and drove a few blocks to Mr. Burger. Usually his choice was the small combo, Jr. burger, small drink, and small fries, but today his order was different. A big bacon cheeseburger, large fries and a small bucket of Coke. The white bag the girl at the window handed him was heavy, with growing grease spots soaking through the paper. He pulled the truck into a space at the edge of the lot where sparrows hopped around looking for crumbs. He’d eaten about half the burger and a few fries when nausea and dizziness welled up and he took the food and shoved it back in the bag.

He drove the highway out of town, past strip malls and convenience stores, past hip-roofed new housing additions, past the city limits and then the dwellings began to thin out. Cities were a lot like tumors, growing, metastisizing, unchecked by anything. A few more miles and he turned down the dirt road, and the truck bounced and rattled through potholes, rocks clattering against the underside. Blackbirds strung on the wire like beads. Golden rod and purple aster roadside. A doe ran across the road in front of him and he hit the brakes and sure enough two half-grown fawns followed their mother out and froze in the middle of the road and stared at him. He pulled the truck to a stop and stared back until they broke and ran. He drove on, past mostly single-wides and double-wides until he came to the old farm house where he’d lived for forty years.

I’m forwarding this challenge to Denton Gay, K.D. McCrite, Lea Milford, brainsnorts (Rich), and Susan Wenzel. Have fun with it!

Table for Two – Flash Fiction for 10/26/12

If you would like to come out and play with Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and the Friday Fictioneers, click here and follow the instructions.

Photo copyright Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

I made my choice and closed the menu. Amy frowned. Decisions, even small ones, were agonizing for her. The waitress brought water and asked if we were ready to order.

“Give us a minute.”

I knew how it would go. Amy would vacillate and fidget and end up ordering a salad, dressing on the side. The waitress watched us, waiting for Amy to look up.

From the back, the local news on the radio. A woman dead in a fall from a canyon trail. I looked out the window toward the mountains. Decisions had always been a snap for me.

Voices From Another Room – A Ghost Story

I awake to the murmur of voices from another room, the babble of words falling together, white noise like the ocean on a distant beach. I lay for a moment thinking the voices are the remainder of a waking dream, but as I rise to consciousness the susurrus is clearly audible, rolling in from the glowing center of the house.

Alarm stiffens me and I clutch at the covers. I live alone, a solitary life, and the voices can only be intruders, bent on what I cannot imagine. A hard afternoon glare assaults the windows. I look at the clock. I have somehow slept through to the early afternoon, knocked out by last night’s whiskey and sleeping pills, safe and comatose to the world until this rude intrusion.

If only I had my phone, I could call someone, the police, a friend, and seek out help, but the phone is in the same direction as the voices, trapping me in my bed. I am doomed. I listen intently now, straining to hear conversation, but the talk is too distant, too subdued, as if the voices are aware that I am sleeping and are trying not to wake me. I hear soft movements as they walk around, perhaps sizing up the worth of my possessions, perhaps sealing my fate, perhaps bent on mayhem..

Is there some event I am hosting that I have taken leave of? Have my guests assembled without me and are carrying on knowing my predilection to reverse night and day? Could I be the victim of some kind of practical joke? Have my friends convened for an intervention and are waiting to confront me about my lack of a life? They all seem like unlikely explanations as my mind churns, trying to rationally propose an explanation for what I am hearing.

And what I am hearing sounds more like a cocktail party than a crime in progress. I hear friendly, warm tones, lilting laughter, gentle guffaws, the clink of ice cubes against glass. Another question arises and troubles me. Why have my guests not checked on me? Why have they not roused me? Why am I not included in the festivities in my own house? Again I return to the central question: What the hell is going on?

Curiosity is a powerful force. I rise, still stiff from sleep, naked as a newborn, and ease across the room and peek around the edge of the door. Looking down the hallway, the first person I see is my ex-wife talking animatedly with a man I do not recognize. Though I have not seen my ex in more than twenty years, it clearly is she, older, frumpier, a different hair style, but there she is. The man she is talking to turns in profile and after a few seconds I recognize my best friend from my college days. Two younger women, giggling as they cross the room together toward the kitchen, pass out of view. I have no idea who they are.

A sense of outrage begins to well up. These people, whatever they are doing, are uninvited, unwanted, unwelcome. Plain and simple they are trespassers, breakers and enterers. Whoever they are, they have no right to be socializing on my turf. How rude. I decide to confront the situation head on. I quickly pull on a velour sweatsuit and take a quick glance in the mirror to be sure I am presentable. Reassured by my comely good looks, I move boldly toward the living room.

There is no reaction when I enter the room, no heads turn, conversation continues apace. In fact, it is I who is taken aback. There are even more people than I imagined and their coldness in ignoring me seems creepy and odd. I stand rigidly and take census: My old drug dealer, my therapist, several former girlfriends, an army buddy, a pizza delivery boy, and an old woman I slowly recognize as my childhood nanny. But most of the assembled are unknown to me, strangers, though they seem to possess a troubling air of familiarity.

I consider just ordering them all out, clearing the room, but in the end I cannot resist trying to fathom the common cause that has brought them together. I make myself a strong drink and begin wandering around to the knots of standing attendees, eavesdropping on the conversations. They continue to ignore me as if I do not exist.

My ex is holding forth in one of the larger groups. I sidle up and listen.

“. . . and then I found out about the sluts he was bringing into our bed and even for that I was able to forgive him, but when I found out about my sister . . .” She stops, sentence unfinished, gulps and  shakes her head. I slip away and approach another group.

“.He always complained that the pizzas were cold, but I think he was just trying to get out of tipping, which he never did, not even once.”

My old drug dealer nods in knowing agreement.

“Same thing he did to me, only worse. Claimed my coke was too stepped on. He stiffed me for thousands. ”

As I circulate I quickly realize that I am the subject of all the talk.

“He gave me herpes.”

“He told his parents I molested him and I ended up in jail for six months. Of course no one would hire me as a nanny after that. It ruined my life.”

“He stole my granny’s ruby ring.”

“The son of a bitch wrecked my Jag.”

“I’m pretty sure he poisoned my cat.”

“My mom killed herself after he dumped her on her birthday.”

“He forced me to have an abortion.”

“I found out he was the father. My marriage never recovered from that.”

Alarmed, I retreat to my bedroom to reassess things. There I take big slugs from my drink and think, what can I do? My standard behavior would be to deny everything, but I don’t think this will work against the mass of accusations against me. I squirm, seeking a way out. Maybe I am hallucinating, I think, and none of this is real. It certainly has an surreal quality to it  Even worse, maybe I’m dead and I’ve just witnessed my own wake. That would explain why I don’t seem to be a part of things given that I am not a ghost and not even visible. The whiskey and sleeping pills have finally killed me.

In the end, I find a very obvious way out, the bedroom window. I pull up the blinds, throw open the sash, push out the screen and hop out onto the lawn. I get in my car and drive away, problem solved. I have no particular place to go, so I drive around the streets, wondering how long I will have to wander before returning home. After an hour of cruising, I am bored and irritated at being forced from my home by a bunch of petulant whiners.

As I am driving by the pizza place, an idea hits me, a chance to put in a little complaint of my own. I park, go in and ask for the manager. I go off on the delivery boy, making up vicious allegations, claiming he has cursed, stolen, kicked my dog, propositioned my wife. A talented liar, I wax creative and the manager, unlike my accusers at home, listens. Apparently I am not dead, but alive and kicking.

The manager asks for the name of the delivery person and I do not know it but I describe the little peon to him and he nods his head in recognition.

“He was one of my best drivers,” he begins. “Sadly, he died in a car crash on his way home from work just a few days ago.” The manager turns on his heel and leaves me standing there agape.

Thoughts whirl inside my head. Stunned I walk back out to the parking lot and sit in the car a while thinking. There is a pay phone outside the pizza place. I drop in some coins and dial the number of my old dealer, a number I still know by heart. His live-in answers and she confirms his death, by speedball overdose, six months earlier. I dial up my mother and learn that my nanny passed over in a nursing home years ago and, she adds, did I know my therapist had very recently committed suicide?

I do not believe in ghosts, I tell myself as I drive home, seeking by my will alone to exorcise them from my house. I park and climb back in the window and for a moment I hear nothing and I think it is over, all a bad episode that has passed. But then I hear them again, grumbling softly, distant voices like the sound of thunder from a far off approaching storm. I climb back into bed and pull the covers up over my head.

Sticker Shock

I can tell I’m getting older because I’m constantly shocked at how much things cost. A few years ago, I noted that just about everything was about ten times what it was when I was  growing up. Now everything has crept up to about twelve to fifteen times as much.

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, candy bars cost a nickel, and so did Cokes, and ice cream cones and comic books were a dime. A chili dog was fourteen cents. Gas was thirty cents a gallon. Paperback books cost thirty-five cents.

When I was in junior  high in the early sixties, I had a paper  route. My profit on a daily paper was a penny and half, but I really made out big on Sunday because I made four and a half cents on every paper. I had about forty customers. I could make a little over five dollars a week if nobody stiffed me on their paper bill.

After I was old enough to drive, I got a job in the summers as an ice cream man. We had two classes of products, the basic cheap ones like popsicles, ice cream bars and fudgesicles went for six cents and I made a penny profit, and the deluxe items like ice cream sandwiches, drumsticks and sundaes were twelve cents and I made two cents. On a good day, working ten to twelve hours, I could sell maybe seventy dollars worth of ice cream and make fourteen dollars profit, less what I spent on lunch and what ice cream treats I ate.

In high school, I usually ate lunch at McDonald’s. My standard lunch was two hamburgers at fifteen cents each, fries for twelve cents and a Coke for a dime. State sales tax was two percent. Total lunch cost, fifty-three cents.

Those prices sound almost unbelievable now, but wages also were low. My dad was a floor sander and finisher. He charged nine cents a square foot to finish new hardwood floors and that included two coats of finish. It took two days to sand and finish a house, and he charged about ninety dollars. Of course he had to buy all the materials to do the job out of that. The same work today would probably cost about two dollars a square foot.

My first job, other than helping my dad sand floors, was in 1964 working at a Woolworth’s in the evening sweeping and moping the place clean and taking out the trash. I made a dollar and a quarter an hour. There was a girl who worked in the soda fountain I liked. When she quit, on her last day, I decided to impress her by leaving a big tip. I left her a silver dollar. She still turned me down when I asked her out.

My first car cost $75. It was a 1952 black Ford sedan. My dad went with me to the bank and co-signed a loan for $125, borrowing extra so I’d have money to get auto insurance. My next car was nicer, a 1958 Chevy that was only five years old when I bought it for $500. I drove it for two years, wrecked it twice, and traded it in for $500 on a new 1965 red Triumph Spitfire convertible. After my trade-in, I owed $1,100 and was driving a brand new sports car.

I remember when I was in college in 1965 I was working part-time at a city library making eighty dollars a month. I got paid once a month. One month I foolishly ran though nearly all my pay with about ten days left. I only had a few dollars to make it to the first of the next month, so I went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of cans of Campbell’s soups, which at the time cost about fifteen cents a can, and a box of saltines. I’d set a can on the radiator in my dorm room to heat it up some, and then mix it up with hot tap water. I made it through the rest of the month on a solid diet of soup and crackers.

Once in the early seventies, after I’d bombed out of college, a guy I was working with was quitting and moving out of town and he asked me to come over and help him load up. I went over on a Saturday and worked several hours getting him packed up. At the end of the day, he offered to sale me his 1958 VW bug and a metal jon boat. All I had to my name was  sixty dollars. I bought the car and boat for sixty dollars. The VW was dead, but after I put some gas in it, and gave it a jump, it started and ran. Wish I still had it. The boat I later sold at a yard sale for fifty dollars.

In the seventies, cable TV became available. It cost seven dollars a month at the start. Now we spent well over a hundred a month on cable and lots of nights we can’t find  anything to watch. I was married and had two kids by then, and we were renting a two-bedroom house for eighty-one dollars a month.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, weirdly, things don’t go up, they go way down. Instead of inflating, they deflate.

In 1984, I hungered for one of the new VCRs. I ended up spending about $1,500 for a Sony Betamax. I see VCRs at yard  sales all the time now for five dollars, and nobody wants them  The same thing happened with CD players and then DVD players.

In the early 90s, I longed to have my own home computer and spent about $1,600 on an Apple Mac Classic with a tiny black and white screen and a printer.

Microwave ovens cost about six to eight hundred dollars when they first came out. Now they’re a tenth of that.

My brother had a digital camera before I did. He bought a Sony Mavica for seven or eight hundred. You can buy a digital camera now for thirty dollars that’s far better than the Mavica.

Inflation isn’t gong away. I have a three and a half month old grandson named Kade. I can easily imagine Kade earning two thousand dollars a day when he grows up, and driving a car that costs a half million. He’ll live in a modest three million dollar house and spend five hundred dollars going out to dinner with his family. And when he gets old, he’ll probably be writing about how cheap things were when he was growing up.

Bus Trip – Flash Fiction for 10/19/12

The light was red and I was stopped in front of the bus depot behind a line of cars. I looked over and there were a group of people lined up to get on the bus. On impulse I picked up my phone and took a grabshot. When I looked at the photo later, I was reminded of the times I’d put someone on the bus, or met the bus, or gotten on or off the bus myself. There was always emotion attached to those comings and goings. I wondered what the stories were of the people in the photo.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Madison Woods for starting this group, maintaining it so diligently, updating the technology and for providing guidance and support to new members. The Friday Fictioneers has come to mean a ridiculous amount to me, and to many others I’m sure. Thanks, Madison, for bringing us all together and leading us in this creative endeavor. You have the heart of a warrior princess. I also want to thank Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for stepping up and accepting the leadership role when someone was needed to carry on this fun, creative, weekly tradition.

In line waiting to get on the bus, my earthly possessions clutched in my hands. A fine day, the sun shining, the sky cornflower blue, cottony clouds curtaining the horizon. In my pocket, the letter from the father I never knew, who abandoned his family when I was a baby. I see him always as a young husband smiling in a wedding photo. In two days, I will visit him in the hospital where he lays dying. My feelings swirl, confusion, curiosity, resentment, loyalty to my poor dead mother. At his bedside, I will ask my burning, haunting question. Why?

If you would like to come out and play with Madison Woods and the Friday Fictioneers, click here and follow the instructions.

The Textbook Scam

Years ago, I was on the campus of the University of Arkansas and I saw a young woman wearing a t-shirt from my alma mater, a relatively small regional university in Oklahoma. So I went up to her and struck up a conversation. Her story said a lot about the state of higher education.

She’d gotten her B.A. degree in three years. She’d commuted 120 miles round-trip to her classes. She’d posted a straight A record.

But the most interesting thing she told me was that she’d never purchased one textbook during her undergraduate years. But, now that she’d been accepted to the law school at the U of A, she said she was going to begin buying texts.

Her story reinforced something I already believed, that the textbook system for college students is a scam, a way to exploit students. The main exploiters are the textbook publishers, the colleges and universities, and college teachers.

While the rest of the publishing industry is rapidly moving toward e-books, and printed books are losing more and more market share, publishers and colleges stubbornly refuse to give up milking the cash cow of textbooks. Drive by any campus and what do you see? Students hunched over under the weight of backpacks loaded down with heavy and expensive texts. And the books have risen in cost 186 percent since 1986.

Estimates vary, but the cost of college textbooks add about $1,000-$1,500 annually to the already soaring price of getting a college degree.

Who gets all that money? According to the National Association of College Stores, 64 percent goes to publishers, 22 percent to colleges, and 12 percent goes to authors, usually university professors.

The system wrings more money from students by bringing out unnecessary new editions frequently, and refusing to provide the text in much less costly digitized versions. Students are often forced  to stand in long lines at the college bookstore like sheep waiting to be sheared.

According to research groups, college students purchase 77 percent of texts listed as required. They also found that seven out of ten students have skipped buying some texts to save money.

College students have had it with the system. Last year a group of college activists launched a drive called Textbook Rebellion on 40 campuses, protesting high book prices and encouraging students to refuse to buy overpriced books.

During  my college teaching career, I taught at  three community colleges and three state universities. I believe college textbooks could be just about eliminated  entirely. Here’s how: for nearly all college courses, the information exists free on websites on the internet. All the teacher has to do is compile a list of the web addresses and provide them to students. Bingo, textbook not needed. The fact that colleges and teachers have not done this is only proof that they are leeches, bleeding money from students who are already hard pressed to find enough to cover their costs, and forced to borrow so much money to complete a college degree that they are burdened with a huge debt that takes a minimum of ten years to repay.

The truth, sad as it is, is that colleges follow the business model, and look at students as customers, and seem only to be interested in how much money they can separate from them. Instead, colleges should adopt an institutional model, which would have as its goal serving students and trying to make their educational goals as easy to achieve as possible.

It’s time for the antiquated practice of bloated, expensive college textbooks to end.